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Column: British land 'vultures' once roamed prairie

WORTHINGTON -- We are 261 years beyond 1751. That was the year Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father, told of his dislike of immigrants. The immigrants who troubled Franklin were the Germans.

B. Franklin wondered, "Why should Pennsylvania ... become a Colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?" Germans, Franklin said, are swarthy, unlike Americans, who are white and fair.

Through the passing of 261 years some Americans (by birth) always have been uneasy about immigrants. A British writer/TV producer, Peter Pagnamenta, has written a book, "Prairie Fever," which tells a story of America's unease with British immigrants, especially in the years just before and just after the founding of Worthington.

The British were being called Land Vultures. These were wealthy Englishmen who came to America to buy land. Buy land they did. It is calculated that the British land purchases were equal to a strip across America 10 miles wide extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. At last (1887) Congress passed a law forbidding foreigners from buying land in America.

A thing interesting is that some of the land which the "vultures" came to own was in Nobles County, Rock County, Pipestone County, Osceola County, Lyon County.

The land owners, in this case, were the Close Brothers of LeMars and Kingsley, Iowa, who have been a subject of columns in other times. The new book gives the brothers a fresh look.

The late Bob Burns, who owned Evergreen Farm onWorthington's north edge, said the house he lived in was a Close Brothers house. I am sure this is correct. The brothers, Frederick, William, James, sons of a London banker, came to own 500,000 acres, much of it in Iowa and some of it in southwest Minnesota. They had offices at LeMars, Sibley and Pipestone.

Some said the British were out to buy America. The Marquis of Tweeddale bought 1,750,000 acres. One British syndicate owned 2 million acres in Florida.

The Close brothers' business model was to buy land at low prices, develop farms complete with barns and houses and then to sell the farms at a profit. Occasionally, a shrewd homesteader would turn tables on the Englishmen. Homesteaders got 160 acres of government prairie lands for nothing. They had to live on their farms five years to receive their land titles. There are reports of homesteaders selling their free farms to the British investors for $30 (or more) an acre. That's $4,800, There was no need to farm any longer.

Records suggest the British landlords were no more cruel or greedy than landlords anywhere, in that time or in our time, but stories of British outrages were eagerly passed along. Rent collectors for British landlords were said to have found a widow near Primghar, a woman behind in her rent, in bed, too ill to stand on her feet. The agents lifted the bed from the farm house and put it down on the open prairie.

The English investers were buying land but their real purpose was to sell land and to chalk up a profit -- double their money, if they could. The Close brothers conducted at least one major campaign in the East to attract families to their lands in Iowa and Minnesota. At Pipestone they built a hotel to provide rooms for potential buyers from eastern states.

Many Americans thought of the British as nobility. They were not that. They were wealthy sons of British businessmen and British landowners, what Britain called the gentry, or landed aristocracy.

The gentry made life on the American prairie colorful. Some of the land owners and their frequent guests went on hunts, decked out in the red coats and regalia worn at England's fox hunts. In Plymouth County, in O'Brien County, they sometimes substituted coyotes for foxes .

They introduced horse racing to the region. They introduced polo. They built toboggan slides. They provided excitement where none existed previously.

At the beginning of 1887 Congress voted the Alien Land Bill which forbade foreign citizens from buying American lands. Some said that law saved America from immigrants.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column runs on Saturdays.