While researching the background for my historical western romance, Loveland, I came upon some interesting stories of the British aristocracy in America in the late 1800s. One that captured my imagination is the story of the Close Colony, a settlement in northwest Iowa around the LeMars area. This was projected as being for British gentlemen farmers who might live as landed gentry in the American mid-west. While the thought of British aristocrats living in Iowa may seem a bit incongruous to our contemporary sense of place, coming to unplowed soil on the American prairie, and owning huge tracts of land as gentlemen farmers, was not so unappealing to the second sons of noblemen who would not be inheriting their father’s wealth.
one of four brothers, instigated the idea of the Colony. A renowned Cambridge oarsmen, in 1876 William was over in Pennsylvania for a regatta when an injury took him out of the race. During his convalescence, Close had a chance encounter with an Illinois businessman, Daniel Paullin, who had made his money by buying farm land while still cheap, and selling it on at increased prices once turned. This fortuitous meeting was followed by a visit to William’s brother Fred, who was then farming in West Virginia. Fred had declined attending Cambridge in favor of training with a farmer in Scotland before heading to the states to try his luck.
In the 1870s, the area with the most promise for land speculation was northern Iowa. Despite tornadoes, grasshopper plagues and occasional ongoing problems with Native Americans, the fertile untilled prairie could offer great gains to investors. The railroads had been granted as much as 20 miles of land either side of their tracks and were selling it off cheap. The two Close brothers decided, therefore, to try their hand at farming in Iowa, buying well over 2000 acres near Denison. The first year they made a profit of over 54% which, when compared to the typical British farm making just 2 or 3%, was quite spectacular. But William, unlike Fred, was not keen on the physical side of farming and thought again of Paullin’s idea of buying the land cheaply and selling it on. Then, a further idea presented itself: why not combine the two? Why not entice young British gentlemen of means to come and train to be farmers prior to selling them the land? And so, in 1879, the Close Colony was born.
Close Brothers Ltd. with offices in London and Iowa included two further brothers: James, recently returned from West Africa, and, to a less extent, John, the eldest. Locating in LeMars, the brothers were able to buy a huge amount of land at just $2.40 an acre. Considering that those acres would be selling for $35-$40 in just a few short years, one can understand that this became the basis of the Close fortune. However, in addition to selling land, the brothers advertised and arranged for young men of good family to come and be placed with Iowa farmers to learn to farm. There was a charge for this, a higher charge for being placed directly on one of the Close’s own farms, and later, of course, the cost of the land or, at the very least, commissions to Close Bros. for obtaining the land.
Farming in Iowa would be far superior to that of Britain, where several years of bad weather combined with low returns made it an unprofitable prospect. A brochure was therefore prepared and spoke of combining Iowa farming with British society. Taverns in LeMars had English names such as the House of Lords or Windsor Castle, a Prairie Club for gentlemen was arranged, and sports such as lawn tennis, rugby and cricket, then peculiar to the British, flourished. The first golf course in Iowa was due to the colony, polo was played
—another first—and croquet was a regular pastime. Derby Day became a highlight of the social calendar just as it was back in Britain. St. George’s Episcopal Church was where the English worshipped and gave prayers for Queen Victoria. And hunting went well beyond putting food on the table.
The pupils, or “pups” as they were called, had mixed reactions to their new way of life. For the most part university-educated men, sleeping two to a bed as pups, carting manure or laboring in the fields did not come easily to them.
One young man described having to sweep up five quarts of flies from his residence despite screened windows. The wild extremes of weather in Iowa bewildered them, and the lack of female company more than annoyed them. At the same time, local Americans saw their locale as being slowly changed into an imitation of Little England, and were appalled at the apparent ignorance of the pups. Obviously, in this atmosphere, jokes were constantly played on the newcomers including one instance where a pup was sent on an errand riding a western saddle. Only thing was, the western saddle with its horn, which the young man had never seen, was on backwards and the pup got rather a pounding in the butt.
The Close Brothers tried to solve the shortage of women by approaching The Women’s Emigration Society, founded 1880, to help with the situation. Sent out as Ladies’ Companions or Lady-Helps, these young women of good birth knew that the life of a servant in someone else’s home would not last long. The Colonial Training Home offered a crash course in domestic duties since these young ladies had been brought up with their own servants and knew little of running a household. Placement was generally through clergymen and always into homes where another woman was already present. In a way, the liaisons between these British women and others that arrived, such as sisters of the pups, actually stopped assimilation between the Brits and America. In the end, the British who remained in Iowa were mostly those who had married Americans.
The Close Colony did not disappear or shut down overnight. And it certainly made a great fortune for its founders who by 1890 were moving away from the farming side of business and into banking and investments, despite having spread their land-holdings into Sibley, Iowa and Minnesota. They had long ago withdrawn from sponsoring the pup plan, mainly due to the fact that word of mouth between pups and friends at home served as better propaganda for newcomers. However, few of these men had envisaged staying on in Iowa; most had seen it as a way of making good money, starting a farm and selling it on in a few years at a profit. Farm laborers were difficult to come by because anyone who came over as such could soon afford to homestead his own land. Furthermore, there was no ‘native population’ as in Africa or India to employ. In addition, a number of events combined to begin the demise of the colony. The first was the death of Fred Close in a polo accident in 1890.
Fred had been the most ‘hands-on’ of the brothers in Iowa. 1890 was also the start of a terrible economic depression that peaked in 1893 and caused land values to drop significantly while making agriculture unprofitable. By 1895 when the Prairie Club caught fire and had to be rebuilt, the new club was forced to take Americans as well as British members.
Certain remains of the Close Colony can be seen today, most notably the St. George’s Episcopal Church which has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Photos all courtesy of the Northwest Iowa Genealogical Society.
My special thanks to Betty Winterringer and Mary Holub of the Northwest Iowa Genealogical Society for their help with research, and to Becky Plunkett and Mary Bennett of the Iowa State Historical Society for setting me in the right direction.
Sources and Further Reading:
Harnack, Curtis, Gentlemen on the Prairie, University of Iowa Press, 1985.
Woods, Lawrence M., British Gentlemen in the Wild West, The Free Press, 1989.