Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sioux County history--The Gentlemen on the Prairie

William Brooks Close

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Emma Lazarus's storied sentiment is etched on a plaque inside the pedestal of that grand lady who stands in the New York harbor and therefore clings to our perceptions of how this country was settled, a nation of homeless and tempest-tossed, Europe's wretched refuse yearning to be free.

It's not inaccurate. Only one of my Dutch immigrant ancestors, a pastor/professor, arrived as a man of means, and his means were not particularly abundant. My other forebearers can certainly be numbered among the huddled masses who'd come with great faith the new land offered vastly more opportunities than the land of their birth. 

Dutch-Americans of my tribe shouldn't forget that Dominie Scholte, the godfather of the huge Pella colony in Iowa, was hardly homeless, even if many of his 800 followers were from the Netherlands' huddled masses. 

A real anomaly were the English gentry, the Gentlemen of the Prairie (a book by Curtis Harnack), who were anything but homeless. The Close brothers, who'd come to America in 1876 for a centennial regatta in Philadelphia, were Oxford's most prestigious student athletes entered in a sport that clearly offered no home for the homeless. While their showing on the river in the City of Love was nothing to write home about--the whole team caught some kind of stomach ailment--one of the crew got a blister of sorts in a place that kept him out of training.

That brother, William B. Close, an English gentleman (think Downton Abbey) happened to meet a well-heeled American businessman named Daniel Paullin, from Quincy, Illinois, one Sunday afternoon while the rest of the Oxford crew was training. The two began to talk business, Paullin explaining to the young English gentleman that great fortunes could be made in real estate because valuable land out west was being bought and sold for peanuts (okay, he probably didn't say "peanuts"). Paullin, by all appearances, had done well, had become something of a gentleman himself.

Young Mr. Close decided on a road trip Paullin created for him, a sales trip to northwestern Iowa, to here, where I'm sitting, in fact, a place where Paullin claimed fertile land was both abundant and dirt cheap, ripe for harvest in every possible way. 

What resulted from that sales trip was a Siouxland English colony made up of country gentleman who only occasionally got their hands dirty. Close was among England's most storied athletes, so when he advertised possibilities for an English colony of gentlemen in the American frontier, his words got notice. Hundreds came.

"The achievement of these gentlemen during the past two years," the local press trumpeted, "in the way of improving and developing the country, stands without a parallel in the history western civilization." That's trumpeting. "The business of the two firms embraces the investment of English capital in lands, and the improvement of the same; that is transforming the broad prairies of the peerless northwest into improved farms."

The story of these gentlemen on the prairie--told first by Sioux County historian Jacob van der Zee (The British in Iowa, 1922) and later by Curtis Harnack (Gentlemen on the Prairie, 1985)--is not to be forgotten.

Years ago, Frederick Manfred told me he wanted to write a novel about the gentlemen, so he did a little looking around and turned up the last of the Close family, a fellow, he said, who probably spent too much time with his elbows up on a bar.  At least that's where Fred met him. He told me that he'd asked this last English gentleman on the prairie what he'd done, where he'd worked, what he'd done for a living.

"Oh, I wasn't born to work," the man told him, smiled, and returned happily to what was before him.

They're gone now, the English gentlemen. They were not homeless, not members of the huddled masses, but they are part of the story of the land beneath my feet. 

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