Column: 1881 — The immigrants are coming!
On St. Patrick’s Day in Cork County, Ireland, my great-grandparents were desperate, hungry and without hope. Bishop Ireland from St. Paul, Minnesota was putting together a plan to help populate a small portion of the Midwest. It was his hope to attract farmers from Ireland to break the prairie and till the fertile soil. John Sweetman from Currie was creating a colony to accommodate these new arrivals, and it fit perfectly into Bishop Ireland’s plans.
My relatives signed up and received 80 acres of land, a mule, lumber for a house and seed for the first year of planting. Hopes ran high in 1881 as they got on the boat to come to America. Their goal and highest aspiration was this place called Currie.
Immigrants and newcomers were not always welcome. They were poor and being given more than others. They were freeloaders and hardly spoke the language. Currie was a welcoming community.
The same year, the fourth richest man in Europe had purchased a train in New York City. The Duke of Sutherland was going on a grand Victorian tour of the United States. Many very wealthy people in Europe owned perhaps a hundred acres of land in Europe, at the same time the Duke owned 1 million acres. The Duke stopped in Chicago and St. Paul, and he was met with accolades and great fanfare as the rich and famous always seem to appreciate.
When leaving St. Paul, the crowds quickly vanished since news traveled slower back then. He arrived in Worthington for a refueling stop (as researched by the Nobles County Library and Ray Crippen) and had to wait an indeterminate amount of time because of the backup of trains in the community. It seems this burgeoning community was having a hard time handling all the train traffic and his train was ... side-tracked. It was noted by the local newspaper as he enjoyed stretching a bit at the train station.
He was asked by a local reporter where he had purchased land in Minnesota. He didn’t quite know the whereabouts, but it was purported to be 60,000 of acres somewhere north of Worthington. It wasn’t known if he was being intentionally vague or that this was just another stop on his busy and fanciful journey.
The Duke went on to Sibley and Sheldon, Iowa to visit with the Close Brothers, who helped manage his lands and holdings in the U.S. His destination was Denver, Colorado. He so enjoyed the view of Estes Park that he purchased all he could see — thousands and thousands of acres of the most pristine land in the United States.
The year was 1881, and the Denver Post had the intellectual capacity to suggest to its subscribers the following; “Should those that are non-citizens be able to purchase America soil? Aren’t these the same people we fled to escape?” This question was then fully blown on to the national spotlight and became a meaningful topic of conversation. All the while, the Duke of Sutherland moved on and found some great fox hunting land in North Dakota. On a whim, he purchased a tract of land that was 20 miles by 50 miles. He then seemed to quietly fade from the America scene, never to return.
The premise of land ownership that was posed by the Denver Post is still being argued to this very day and remains unsettled. Yet history has borne that absentee landlords have a harder time maintaining and profiting from land abroad. Much of his land eventually returned to U.S. ownership.
Back in Currie, my great-grandparents were wrestling with the fact that they were not really farmers, and within a few years they ran off and left their homestead. They went and “took up” with the railroad. There was good money to be made. Much more could be made of their lives; what occurred within a generation or so was perhaps even more curious.
Within a generation (or two), this McNerney clan of ne'er-do-well farmers had produced citizens of gainful employment and professional acclaim. This immigrant family of limited means produced professionals of varied interests. Most recently, a leading graphic designer touches your life everyday. In 2016, if you looked at any General Mills product, you would have seen its 150-years celebration logo. The grandson created a company of significant merit, one of the largest archaeological companies in the Midwest — science and anthropology at its best. A son who helps fuel the heavy electrical needs of Reno, Nevada and beyond.
My grandmother married into a family of established Germans (a generation or so earlier). They begat four optometrists, an optician and an offspring who crafted speeches for congressmen and presidents at the White House while seated at Abraham Lincoln’s writing desk. Imagine flying on Air Force One with Nelson Mandela. Apartheid ... few say those words any more. Why is it forgotten? Because diplomacy works, the art of negotiation works, concessions are made, not everybody gets exactly what they want. People have worked together to establish tolerable and meaningful resolution.
It happens because of immigrants who are hungry and driven. It happens because they want to improve their lot in life.
These lowly Irish families came with very limited skills but with dreams and wild ambition. Their arrival brought a miniscule and temporary burden to this country. Their subsequent prosperity was an amazing dividend for this nation. This story is nothing more than a blink of an eye. It is a story being retold — stories of struggle, strife and success. It is the story being told of most every immigrant family over the past five generations in this nation’s history.
Each generation has the opportunity to embrace or fear these simple and yet complex stories.