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Chapter VIII

At all times confident of the wonderful future in store for the counties of northwestern Iowa, the Close brothers lost no reasonable opportunity to acquire as much land as possible. In March, 1880, they were reported as owning 30,000 acres ; and one month later they bought 9900 acres, the east half of Union Township in Plymouth County. (100) So many and extensive were their purchases as subsequently announced in the press, that it would be difficult to compute how much land they acquired title to: only their books could reveal the exact figures, but these no longer exist. (101)

James B. Close was reported to have "seen fit to keep the operations and inside workings of the firm private until such time as they could get everything in order and in a working condition" ; and so, it was not until interviewed by a Dubuque newspaperman in September, 1881, that he gave the first account of the firm's immense capacity for doing business. In the autumn of 1878 they bought 30,000 acres of wild land in Woodbury and Plymouth counties. In the spring of 1879 they became agents for London and other English capital in gradually increasing sums. During the year 1880 the firm bought land in Worth and Taylor counties and in northwestern Iowa the following amounts : at one time 18,280, at another 40,000, at still another 25,000, and later 14,000 acres more. (102)

What relations the Closes had with the land department of the Illinois Central Railroad can not be stated with certainty, but in the summer of 1880 it appears that E. F. Drake, land commissioner of the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad, invited them to St. Paul for a conference and entertained them and C. W. Benson at his own home for several days. This visit led to a very important contract whereby the original plans of the English firm were "enlarged to a scale of importance more fruitful in its results than any colonization scheme hitherto inaugurated in the northwest." (103) Eventually, as will be shown later, the Closes extended their holdings into counties along the Iowa-Minnesota border.

During the whole course of their operations, with a single exception, the Close firm took no steps to plan or promote towns. In the autumn of 1880 they platted near their farm in the south eastern part of Plymouth County the village of Quorn, because they expected the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad to come that way. Due to some misunderstanding, or because, as a local historian wrote later, "the company, not liking the Johnny Bull methods of inducing railways to their embryo towns, finally platted Kingsley, one mile to the east", and so the fair hopes of the village of Quorn and its projectors were forever blasted. (104)

In January, 1881, the Closes are said to have bought from Bloomington (Illinois) speculators 19,000 acres near Larchwood in Lyon County for about $90,000, and soon after they announced their intention to open an office at Rock Rapids in that county. (105) In a letter written about this time, William B. Close asserted that for the past two years Woodbury, Plymouth, and Sioux counties had been the center of their operations and that the influx of Englishmen and well-to-do settlers had exhausted the cheap land and permanently raised values in that region - hence their reason for spreading out toward the Minnesota boundary. (106) At the same time they were appointed sole agents for the sale of the lands of the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad in Sioux, Lyon, and Woodbury counties (107) - indeed, they are reported as having bought all the unsold lands of that company.

The firm of Close Brothers and Company, which in 1880 kept an office at 38 Cornhill, London, changed its name to Close, Benson and Company - C. W. Benson having become a partner in the business. In 1881 the firm offered tenants on their farms the privilege of purchase after fifteen months' development. (108) Otherwise they went right on constantly adding to their possessions. Besides maintaining an office at Le Mars, they set up another at Rock Rapids and one at Sibley in May, 1881 - James B. Close taking charge of the latter.

By this time the real estate interests of the company in northwestern Iowa and southern Minnesota had become so immense and questions of titles, transfers, leases, and sales so delicate that they engaged Major J. C. Ball to devote his entire time and attention to their affairs. Having served as manager of most of the legal business of the Close brothers at Le Mars for the past two years, Mr. Ball, with an assistant, located at Sibley in order to apply himself to the intricacies of the land situation in that region. As a "side line" to their expanding business, the firm had already purchased a complete abstract of land titles in Plymouth County. (109) So extensive were their purchases and sales for one week in May, 1881, that, allowing for possible newspaper exaggeration, it was estimated at nearly 100,000 acres. (110)

In the month of January, 1881, Close, Benson and Company of London sent word to the land commissioner of the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad that the Duke of Sutherland, Lord Stafford, and certain British railway magnates were making plans to visit the Middle West. Correspondence began and the manager of the tour was interceded with and so urgently invited to visit the Close colony that he finally promised to journey from Omaha to Chicago by way of St. Paul. Late in May the duke with his retinue passed through Le Mars without leaving the train; but at Sibley, the new county seat of Osceola County, the ducal party was met at the station by William B. Close and conducted on a sightseeing tour of the neighboring prairie for two hours: (111) one of the farms was inspected with great interest by the duke and his agricultural friends, "as the plow was then turning soil that had never yet been touched by the hand of man. (112)

The reason for this visit of English capitalists is easily explained : the Iowa Land Company, Limited, had been formed in London to undertake the land and colonization business on a very extensive scale under the tenantry system on the lands adjacent to the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad; and a large sum of money, variously estimated at from $1,125,000 to $2,500,000 had been subscribed for stock, of which nearly one-half was taken by members of the ducal party. (113) The Close brothers were made managers of this corporation which they seem to have been instrumental in forming. According to one source of information, before the title to a vast quantity of land had passed, the breaking teams of contractors were set to work in the neighborhood of Sibley; twenty-six square miles of virgin soil were turned over ; and lumber was selected for 160 houses to be erected and ready for tenants in the spring of 1882.

The Duke of Sutherland, one of the wealthiest peers of England, was reported also as having bought from sixty to seventy thousand acres in Rock and Nobles counties in Minnesota. (114) Over sixty square miles of land in Osceola County were selected for the company ; but inasmuch as the title of the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad was being disputed (115) by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, and the attorneys of all the parties interested could not agree on the subject, a check for $160,653 was paid to the First National Bank of St. Paul as trustee pending the final settlement of the question of title. Sibley became the company's headquarters. Thus, it is said, with an office in London and offices in the chief cities of the United Kingdom, with a desk in the Sioux City land offices, represented by C. W. Slayton, the Iowa Land Company listed on the stock exchange in London commanded enormous moneyed resources. A St. Paul newspaper could not withhold its congratulations in the following terms:

The St. Paul chamber of commerce delegation, who extended so warm a welcome to the Duke of Sutherland and party, may take credit for their part; the St. Paul and Omaha road, who gave a special train for the party, may take credit for its part; the land commissioner of the Sioux City road who wears the duke's scarf pin as a trophy may take credit f or his part, and good people of St. Paul may felicitate themselves and be thankful f or the enterprise, which induced this heap of British gold to a transfer from the bank coffers of London, and which will be followed by sturdy English brain and muscle to develop a very important artery of St. Paul's commerce and to further insure a future which the sanguine can scarcely conceive. (116)

The Close brothers had the task of purchasing and looking after lands for the Iowa Land Company. From this time on their operations were practically inseparable from those of their principal, although they retained. their holdings in Crawford, Plymouth, and other counties. It was anticipated that they would break 40,000 acres of wild land in 1881; and with 150,000 acres under their charge, they rivalled the gigantic farming operations of the famed Oliver Dalrymple. (117) Soon they were buying land near Canton, South Dakota. (118) About the middle of July the Iowa Land Company was reported as owning 100,000 acres in southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa: (119) farms to the number of 120 with good dwelling-houses and barns were opened to be sold or rented on favorable terms, the managers intending to secure tenants or purchasers in Illinois and Wisconsin, if the farms were not disposed of before winter. This unexpected "boom" met with a hearty reception from the Yankee pioneers of Sibley:

The land broken this season will be back-set next fall, and thus made ready for seeding in the spring. The purpose is to put up hay on all the farms opened, so that those who rent and take possession of them during the winter will have feed for horses and cattle. Those who have had dealings with Close Bros., in the way of contracts for breaking, find them to be honor able gentlemen and always ready to do what is right. And as James B. Close will have charge of the business of the Iowa Land Company, the relations of our people with it will be pleasant. Osceola county is fortunate in the establishment of this company here, as its farming operations will make Sibley as live a town as there is in Iowa, and greatly hasten the development of the magnificent resources of the surrounding country. (120)

Owing to their mammoth operations in land both for themselves and for the Iowa Land Company, the Closes were declared to have done "more to help the prosperity and growth of the great west than any of our American people, and they are deserving of success." (121) A Sioux City news paper editorial on "Our British Tax-Payers" declared:

Some idea of the magnitude of the English interests in Northwestern Iowa may be inferred from the taxes paid by Close Bros. & Co., for themselves and the investors represented by the firm, in this county, $1,400; Plymouth county, $4,000; Sioux county, $1,600; Lyon county, $5,000; and in Osceola county $1,500. In the latter county there is beside this $10,000 taxes paid by the Iowa Land Company, Limited, of which the Duke of Sutherland is the heavy man. These figures have nothing to do with the amounts paid by individual resident owners of English birth of whom there are several hundred in this county and the two next north. As these taxes average only a little more than ten cents per acre, the extent of the English land interests may be reckoned. (122)

Minnesota people were also beginning to cast longing eyes south across the boundary toward these Englishmen busily improving Iowa, and from general indications expected an expansion into Nobles County. (123) Still farther away, wide awake promoters of the Red River Valley of the North tendered the Closes special transportation to come and see "what real productive land is" and after seeing to "abandon the hog and hominy plains of Iowa for the wheat fields of Dakota. " (124)

Soon the expectations of Minnesota pioneers were rewarded when they learned that all the railroad lands in Nobles County had been sold and that the Close brothers intended to open an office in Worthington and begin the development of their holdings.(125) At the same time much remained to be done in Iowa. At Sibley they built a large brick block 128 by 80 feet. (126) In the spring of 1882 C. W. Benson, one of the partners, while on a visit to St. Paul, announced the plans of English capitalists for the construction of the Spirit Lake and Western Railroad. The Iowa Land Company, then reputed to be the largest foreign company doing business in the United States with a capitalization of $5,500,000 and stock selling on the London exchange at a premium of twenty-five per cent, was projecting the route through its Osceola and Lyon county tracts to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while some of the railroad companies were talking and doing nothing. Grade stakes were set and arrangements made in London for the rails. (127)

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100 The Iowa Liberal (Le Mars), March 17, April 14, 1880.

101 Close Brothers and Company still have an office in Chicago, although the original members have no more connection with it.

102 The Dubuque Telegraph article is given in full in The Lemars Sentinel, September 29, 1881.

103 The St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 31, 1881, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, August 4, 1881.

104 History of Woodbury and Plymouth Counties, pp. 435, 500, 509.

105 The Chicago Inter-Ocean, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, January 20, 27, March 3, 1881.

106 Macmillan's Magazine, Vol. XLIV, p. 68. Mr. Close's statement on the rise in the value of their lands early in 1881 was as follows:

 Land that we bought in:

Virgin Land

1877 in Crawford County for

$2.75 to $3.25

1878 in Woodbury and Plymouth $2.25 to $3.50

1879 in         "             "           "

$3 to $4

1880 in Plymouth and Sioux $4 to $6
is now worth
Virgin Land

Improved Land

$10 to $15

$15 to $25

$ 7 to $10

$15 to $20

$ 6 to $10

$12 to $15

$ 6 to $10

$12 to $15

107 The Lemars Sentinel, May 5, 1881. According to J. W. Probert of the present firm of Close Brothers and Company, the Closes never served as agents for railroad companies, but simply bought all the unsold land of the Sioux City and St. Paul in Iowa, English capital. being plentiful enough to enable them to make the deal. This seems to square with the report of their contract with the land department of that railway in the summer of 1880.

108 The Lemars Sentinel, February 24, 1881. A letter by Mr. Benson to the Manchester Courier, January 20, 1881, appears in The Lemars Sentinel, March 3, 1881.

109 The Lemars Sentinel, May 5, 12, 26, 1881.

110 Cedar Falls Gazette, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, June 9, 1881.

111 The Iowa Liberal (Le Mars), June 1, 1881; The Lemars Sentinel, May 26, June 2, 1881.

112 A famous correspondent of The London Times, "Bull Run" Russell, accompanied the duke's party and afterwards published a book of his travels in the United States and Canada in 1881. Quoting from his account of the visit to northwestern Iowa, the Davenport Gazette declared:

"The figures shown by Messrs. Close show good results; they are quite willing to welcome any gentleman desirous to try his fortune out West as a tenant, on conditions which they will communicate - the general principle being that the tenant and land owner should be in partnership, the returns of the occupant's farming to be divided in certain proportions between him and the owners, until the former becomes absolute proprietor of the place. They heard of persons coming from districts in Ireland, Scotland or England, who had associated together for mutual help and support. " - The Lemars Sentinel, March 30, 1882.

113 The Lemars Sentinel, August 4, 1881.

114 The Lemars Sentinel, June 2, 1881. The Duke's money, no doubt, was all in the Iowa Land Company.
     It is interesting to note that Sutherland in O'Brien County was named after the Duke who, about the time the town site was located, was a guest of the officials of the railroad company. They were sufficiently in love with His Royal Highness to name their town site after him. - Perkins's History of O'Brien County, Iowa, p. 367.

115 The titles to land in this region were for a long time the subject of litigation in the courts. According to Mr. J. W. Probert of Chicago, the Iowa Land Company bought all the land finally awarded to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul in O'Brien County. See also Perkins's History of O'Brien County, Iowa, p. 259.

116 The St. Paul Pioneer Press, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, August 4, 1881.

117 The St. Paul Pioneer Press, quoted in The, Lemars Sentinel, June 2, 1881.

118 The Lemars Sentinel, July 28, 1881.

119 The Lemars Sentinel, July 14, 1881.

120 The Sibley Gazette, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, July 28, 1881.

121 The Dubuque Telegraph, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, September 29, 1881. The Closes were said to have 500,000 acres for sale.

122 The Sioux City Journal, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, March 9, 1882.

123 The Worthington Advance, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, August 11, 1881.

124 The Fargo and Moorehead Daily Argus, August 25, 1881, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, September 1, 1881.

125 The Worthington Advance, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, December 29, 1881.

126 The Lemars Sentinel, May 31, 1883.

127 The St. Paul Pioneer Press, quoted in The Lemars Sentinel, April 13, 1882.

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