People call it flat, the whole region here. There are no mountains, and it takes a day's ride west to hit anything up high to breaks the horizon. But that doesn't mean there are no hills. In outline, our world here isn't without its graces, "like a woman asleep under a sheet," says Ian Frazier in Great Plains, a description that might seem sexist if it weren't so memorable.
The hills are gentle. Go west of LeMars sometime and take a right when you get to the top of the rise. Go north a half-mile maybe, and you'll find an abandoned place with a square house big enough to be an old dorm.
It was. Amazingly, it was.
Get out of the car, stand out there, and look around. You could well be on top of the world. Back east, is the Floyd River snakes around the city of LeMars, which was far smaller back in 1880 when a man named Captain Reynolds Moreton built the place you're standing, a place he called Dromore Farm, named after a castle in County Kerry, Scotland. But the big house up there--in his day it was twice as big at least--that big house is lordly even today, even though it stands silent, abandoned.
It's not difficult to understand why Captain Moreton would like to rule up there, high above town, because the sea of grass all around him may have brought back memories of the British warship he commanded for almost a decade. Once upon a time Captain Reynolds Moreton rode the high seas. In his retirement, he put a house as big as warship up on a hill and enlisted a crew of Englishmen.
If you've never heard the story, you may not believe it. But it's true. Once upon a time, Moreton, the fifth son of the second Earl of Ducie, put a telephone line in--the first in Plymouth County--from the Dromore Farm to the House of Lords, a pub in downtown LeMars, where his English crew occasionally overboard with ale. "Pups" people called them--and they called themselves; boys born an ocean away to immense, unimaginable privilege. Once upon a time there were a thousand Englishman in the region.
In 1880, the Close Brothers real estate empire, a corporation that would own most of northwest Iowa for a decade, found exactly the kind of man they needed for the grand idea they were creating. That man was Captain Moreton, a man who loved work and could preach up a storm, a regular Billy Sunday, a man of means with his own--and his wife's--aristocratic roots (think Downton Abbey), a man who wanted an American adventure.
What Captain Reynolds Moreton ran in that house behind you was something akin to a school of agriculture for young English gentlemen who, had they stayed back in England, would have been doing nothing but "aimlessly pursuing leisure," as Curtis Harnack puts it in Gentlemen on the Prairie.
About 150 years ago, if you were standing near the front door of Dromore Farm, you would be looking over an almost endless ocean of land owned by English gentry, an immense kingdom that stretched from Sioux City, north into Minnesota, six counties' worth the finest agricultural land in the world, an empire.
Back then, Moreton bought the place for a jaw-dropping 34 dollars an acre, but money was no object. He stuck 20 thousand more (something akin to a half a million today) into remodeling, creating 17 rooms, each with English-style wardrobe closets, "the dormitory," he called it. He put in a wide billiard room downstairs, a library stocked with the latest Brit periodicals. And he cooked up what he called "generous meals" of pure English fare, so wrote a visiting English journalist:
No young English gentleman could work hard on a diet of beans and bacon, such as he gets in the house of the western American farmer. So the captain keeps a generous table, and his boys are certainly a credit to his system: clear-eyed, bronzed, and muscular, in the highest health and spirits. How much more sensible and useful lives they live here than they would do if at home.The view is just as grand as it ever was. LeMars is much bigger, and as far as you can see, farms and acreages punctuate those same glorious rolling hills that once must have looked naked in the wind.
But the old house is abandoned now, windows boarded, and the barns--once there were four --are long gone. Whole Sunday Schools used to climb the hill in wagons for picnics in the grove of fruit trees Captain Reynolds Moreton planted. They too are gone.
If the rumors are sound, it won't be long until the only bit of Dromore Farm that lives will be found in yellowing pages of old books and magazines. The old house is coming down.
Way up there on the hill, the paltry remains of Dromore Farm create a sadness deeper than the artesian well Captain Moreton was once so proud of, because you can't help wondering just exactly what's the most astounding story here?--the immense kingdom once created by an English aristocracy who played polo and rugby in their spare time, or the fact that all of it, now, has just about vanished from the land, the empire the Englishmen once created and ruled.
Or is the story yet another? Maybe the real story is the one an anonymous writer told an audience here just last month at Ode, a line I heard on the radio as I left: "we are all visitors here."
Drive up sometime before that house is gone. Have a look around for yourself. It won't cost you a dime, but there's a wealth of stories from which to choose.