Column: Finlay Dun told Brits of southwest Minnesota — in 1881
Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared June 9, 2007.
WORTHINGTON — A couple of months have gone by. I wanted to get back to the 1881 book Finlay Dun wrote to tell people in Britain of his travels through America in 1879. He spent a week poking around southwest Minnesota.
Some readers may recall: Dun went to a farm called Barden-Barden, northeast of Windom, a 2,000-acre farm with its own railroad siding which ended in front of the Barden farm house/mansion. At Worthington, Dun went to the first Nobles County Fair. He visited Avoca before the town was one year old, when there still were people living in tents.
I think the book is too good to leave at that.
Dun found Windom “comfortable” with a “smart park laid out with trees.” “Some of our party made a diversion in favor of grouse, prairie chicken, ducks and wild geese…”
Dun continued to Heron Lake where he found “Messrs. Thompson and Kendall” with a farm of 5,000 acres. “The flax yielded only five bushels an acre, but as the seed paid a dollar a bushel, it more than paid expenses.” Thompson and Kendall had 60 horses and 30 bullocks. Their chief crop was wheat.
Dun learned farm land in Ohio and Illinois had soared to $40 an acre. Farmers were selling eastern lands and were buying cheap land in Iowa, Minnesota and Dakota Territory. So it was that:
“One of the best farms I have seen in Minnesota is Messrs. Thompson’s and Warren’s in Rock County, two miles from Luverne … comprising 23,000 acres…
“A good house has been built, with barns, two lots of barracks capable of accommodating 70 men, stabling 200 horses …
“To break the wind … and beautify the estate, trees, mostly of cotton wood, are planted about half-a-chain apart around the roads which surround the sections. White willow hedges … are also planted.
“A cook and his mate are attached to each of the two barracks. No beer or spirits are allowed on the place. Half the wages are paid every month, the remainder at the close of the season…The men are rung up at 4:30 a.m.” …
Dun described the blue mound as “a great hill, ten miles in circumference.” The red, coarse rock scattered on the prairie reminded him of England’s Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge. From the top of the mound he reported “a magnificent view, extending thirty miles in every direction … rolling brown prairie, diversified by the silver sheen of lake and stream, and extending cultivated fields of yellow wheat and corn.”
On to Sioux Falls, where 3,000 people made their homes. Dun and his companions — Royal Commissioners — were “preceded by a band of music …
“We were conducted in carriages through the town, around the bluffs, and to the falls, remarkable for their wild red rock scenery …”
The travelers found their way to northwest Iowa. “Between Sheldon and Sioux City … karrals (corrals) are built on the hill sides into which the cattle, herded on the prairie by day, are turned at night.”
The British travelers ate, town by town, at the local hotels which Dun calls “refreshment stations.” These were the Country Kitchens and the Perkins of their time. Dun describes a typical dinner, which cost him from two shillings to three shillings:
“A good and varied repast is set forth consisting usually of fish, several sorts of butcher’s meat, and fowl, costing, of course, less than half of what they do at home … usually fairly cooked although frequently one hears the order, ‘As rare as you can …’
“Innumerable vegetables — potatoes, common and sweet, perhaps whole and mashed, corn, beans, tomatoes, etc. — are presented.
“Pastry, puddings and ice follow without stint; several descriptions of bread, wheat or corn, are offered, with tea, coffee, and abundance of good milk, a glass of which is ordered even at dinner much more frequently than wine or spirits.”
The travelers went everywhere in their private rail car furnished by the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad, “where at night twelve comfortable beds were frequently made up. Thus sumptuously provided, we had admirable opportunities of seeing the country pleasantly and rapidly.”
Dun could see opportunity. “In the State of Minnesota alone, on the 1st of January, 1879,” the U.S. government held and offered “10 million acres, unsurveyed and unoccupied.”