The very first ground my wife's Van Gelder immigrant ancestors worked out here in northwest Iowa sat twenty miles or so west of us down what became Highway 10, then south over the Plymouth County line in the neighborhood of McNally, a town whose remains today are skeletal at best. No more than a month ago we drove up close, and my father-in-law, who's 97 years old, mentioned something I didn't know. "Got the land from the railroad," he said. I hadn't heard that bit of his family story before.
The U.S. of A. was so anxious to strap together this sprawling, endless country with railroads that they gave away huge portions of it to John J. Hill, Jay and George Gould, a Dutchman named Cornelius Vanderbilt, and an assortment of other Trump-types, who figured out the financing, then sent thousands of grunts out to do the dirty work.
We're talking big, big chunks of land, millions of acres, sometimes swaths 20 miles wide on both sides of the track, land that ran all the way west. Other financiers got rich on the railway barons' good fortunes, real estate people who brought up big chunks of the railroad's big chunks and peddled them out in 160-acre plots to America's huddled masses yearning to be free.
That's where the Van Gelder family comes in, families most of us who still live on this good land come from. The Van Gelder family's first American ground came from the railroad, my father-in-law told me last week. Whether or not they paid the railroad for the place, I don't know. But that it was railroad land is almost certain.
Some 19th century immigrants weren't dirt poor. Hundreds of them, Brits--hard as this is to believe--came to America with huge, bulging wallets. A few of them bought all kinds of land in big chunks from those bigger chunks owned by the railroad, then sold them to people like the Van Gelders. The biggest of the Brits was the Close Brothers, Inc., one of the biggest land agents and financiers in all of North America, whose eccentric colony of landed gentry young Brits—“pups” they were called--had its heart just down the road in LeMars, Iowa. I'm not making this up. There was big money here long before Blue Bunny, and a passle of rich kids having afternoon tea.
That's the story--it's long and detailed and very European--that Curtis Harnack tells in Gentlemen on the Prairie (Iowa State University Press, 1985). Not new at all. Harnack is gone, as are the Close Brothers and almost everything they built, including polo grounds--seriously! --just down the road. Cricket anyone?
Gentlemen on the Prairie sat fallow in my library for 30 years. The outline of the story I knew because Harnack, who was born just south of Remsen, came through northwest Iowa when his book was published and did a reading and presentation at Dordt College, then stopped off for tea and crumpets at the Schaap house afterward. My copy is signed with a nice little line of appreciation, by the by; but it took me all of those thirty years (and retirement) to open its cover.
What a story. One of the best books I've read all year.
Is that a recommendation? Sure, if you make it such.
Gentlemen on the Prairie is not for everyone. You probably have to be from here, and you probably have to care about the ground you walk on because it all happened right here. The Brits named Paullina, Larchwood, and Sutherland, as well as some towns that are no more. They built mansions and barns and raced horses born and bred in England. One of the Close Brothers famously went on a fox hunt that lasted sun up to sun down, so long they finally quit the chase, even though their blessed hounds didn't. Who knows where they ended up?
All of that right here.
Fred Manfred once told me how, when he was a kid, he finished milking one night and sat out on the back step for a while, looking over the fields west. He told himself that there had to more to the ground his father was working than a seed bed for their corn and soybeans. "What happened here anyway?" he asked himself. "What did I miss?"
Those kinds of questions led to a whole shelf of his books.
If you think there's more to the story, there probably is, and Curtis Harnack's Gentleman on the Prairie will tell you things about this ground you wouldn't believe if you didn't know it was true. Took me decades to read it, but it's a great book--if you really want to know.
If you'd like a much quicker intro to the era of the British invasion, you can get Jacob van der Zee's The British in Iowa, a University of Iowa publication in 1922, for a buck on a Kindle. Otherwise, you can pick up a pdf version free at a variety of sources on line. BTW, van der Zee was, I'm told, from Sioux County :).