World's first bonanza farm manager was a Yale Law School graduate who became the 'Minnesota Wheat King'
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen shares the story of Oliver Dalrymple, a man who became known as the "Minnesota Wheat King" and managed the world's first bonanza farm.
The man most responsible for creating a Bonanza Farm dream for thousands of Americans and immigrants had spent nearly a decade as a highly-successful Minnesota farm manager before embarking on the challenging and complicated adventure of managing a mega-farm.
Oliver Dalrymple was a Yale-educated attorney who invested the money he earned as a successful lawyer into purchasing agricultural land in southern Minnesota. By utilizing the most up-to-date farming methods, Dalrymple’s farms produced annual bumper crops earning him a reputation as the “Minnesota Wheat King.” He was well-prepared when given the opportunity to manage tens of thousands of acres of fertile Red River Valley farmland in 1875.
Dalrymple was born on Aug. 21, 1830, on a farm near the town of Sugar Grove in northwestern Pennsylvania to Clark and Elizabeth (Schoff) Dalrymple. Clark was a direct descendant of the Earl of Stair, a Scottish noble family. Clark and Elizabeth had nine children, eight of whom were boys, and all their sons took an interest in farming with six of the boys remaining in the Sugar Grove area. Oliver and his older brother William decided to apply their agricultural interest and expertise further west.
Oliver and his siblings attended a rural one-room school and, after completing his schooling at the age of 15, he became the teacher of the school. In 1847, Oliver met a Methodist pastor who stopped at the Dalrymple farm soliciting funding for Allegheny College, a private, liberal arts college in Meadville, Pennsylvania. To further his education, Dalrymple completed a year at Allegheny. At 18, he became the principal of the Warren Academy in Warren, Pennsylvania. Students at Warren were in the upper grades, but technically, it did not become a high school until 1882.
In 1851, Dalrymple enrolled at Yale University. After completing his undergraduate work he was accepted into the Yale School of Law. One of his fellow law students was from St. Paul and told him that there was a great demand for attorneys in Minnesota Territory (Minnesota became a state in 1858). Upon graduation in 1856, Dalrymple headed to St. Peter to become a field adjuster for land claims, work that he found tedious and boring.
In 1859, Dalrymple relocated to St. Paul and joined a law firm headed by Horace R. Bigelow, a prominent attorney from New York who began his law practice in St. Paul with his good friend Charles Eugene Flandrau. In August of 1862, the Dakota Uprising took place around New Ulm. Flandrau was commissioned as captain to raise forces to defend the settlers in that area. Five weeks later, most of the uprising had been put down. In the aftermath, a commission was formed to distribute funds to settlers for their losses. It was no surprise that Bigelow’s firm would play a major role in representing settlers' claims.
Dalrymple was assigned to the cases and, in 1864, he was sent to Washington, D.C. to negotiate the settler’s claims. However, he had a major concern that might complicate his mission. The Civil War was raging and all eligible men were subject to the draft. Dalrymple was in his early 30s and was single with no dependents. There was a provision in the Enrollment Act of 1863 that stated, “a draftee could pay a substitute to enlist in his place.” Dalrymple wrote that he was willing to pay $400 (over $7,500 today) to procure a substitute in case he was drafted, which would make him exempt from being drafted for three years.
Dalrymple spent three months in Washington negotiating the claims of New Ulm settlers. In total, his clients were awarded over $1 million. His fee was $40,000 (over $750,000 today). He used the money to purchase 2,600 acres of farmland in Dakota and Washington counties, about ten miles south of St. Paul. This significantly increased Dalrymple’s landholdings in Minnesota. He began to acquire more land in southern Minnesota, partnering with family members on some purchases.
Dalrymple relied on his education and planning discipline to ensure his farms ran like clockwork. The profits he earned from his farms allowed Dalrymple to purchase more land. By 1868, his vast holdings earned him a reputation as one of the nation's most successful wheat farmers. By 1870, the value of his properties were estimated to be $150,000 ($3.4 million today). During harvest time, Dalrymple employed 100 farmhands who stayed busy for weeks. Feeling relatively secure financially, he married Mary Stewart on March 2, 1871.
After years of bumper crops, things changed dramatically for farmers in Minnesota from 1872 to 1877 because grasshoppers annually destroyed the crops. In just a few hours, grasshoppers could eat an entire field of crops to the ground.
Hoping to protect his wealth, in 1873, Dalrymple invested in grain futures, trusting that the price of agricultural products would rise or, at least remain stable. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Largely because of less expensive transportation costs, the U.S. was flooded with cheaper grain from Europe, and prices for grain in this country tumbled. Then, the Panic of 1873 occurred and the stock market crashed. Investors sold significant investments they had in American projects, particularly the railroads.
The primary railroad affected by this was the Northern Pacific Railroad owned by Jay Cooke and Company. In September of 1873, Cooke was unable to market several million dollars of NPRR bonds. NPRR had borrowed over $1.5 million from Cooke and Company but could not pay it back. Cooke and Company declared bankruptcy on Sept. 18.
When Congress initially approved the building of the NPRR, the company was given almost 60 million acres of land grants to aid in the construction of the railroad. When the railroad went into receivership, investors were given the choice of cashing out their investments for only 15 to 20% of their value or a bond exchange. Some of the large investors who took the exchange option and traded in their bonds for large tracts of land in Dakota Territory were George Cass, Benjamin Cheney and the three Grandin brothers.
Cass and Cheney acquired 11,520 acres and the Grandin brothers acquired 28,560 acres, creating the first two bonanza farms in what would become North Dakota. None of the new large landowners were farmers, but they were familiar with Dalrymple's success in managing large farms in Minnesota. Contract arrangements were agreed upon between Dalrymple and the land owners and, in 1875, the “Era of the Bonanza Farms” officially began.
InForum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen will conclude the story of Oliver Dalrymple next week.