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David Rankin was a farming legend during his lifetime when at the height of his enterprise (1900-1910), he was actively farming approximately 24,000 acres in Missouri plus 3,500 acres in nearby Iowa. He believed in a strategy based upon raising corn to feed beef cattle and hogs – or “selling his corn on the hoof”. Rankin was called America’s “corn king”. To this point, he fed his entire corn crop and purchased much of the other corn available in the region. Saturday Evening Post, among many publications, crowned David Rankin “the biggest farmer in the United States” at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1909 it was said,“More corn (was) grown on his farm last year than in the nine states – Utah, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Rhode Island, Wyoming and Nevada combined”. During his lifetime, David Rankin was an American legend in agriculture.
Family Trail to the United States
Most Rankins in the U.S. trace their family history back to Scotland. It is believed that the D. Rankin forefathers emigrated from Scotland to North Ireland and then to the US through Philadelphia. As they sought out good cheap farm land, it is also thought, but not verified, that they moved west through Chester County and Lancaster County Pennsylvania into the Cumberland Valley. Alexander Rankin, David’s grandfather, is thought to have been born in Ireland in 1774. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were reportedly married in September 1794 in Washington County, PA and over the next several years they raised one daughter and seven sons. In keeping with movement west, this Rankin family then established itself in Jefferson County, Ohio under a land patent dated 1814. However, the drive westward continued. William, the second oldest and David Rankin’s father, was born in 1797, reportedly in Jefferson County, Ohio, but there are no records from that date so this remains unverified. Alexander Rankin died in 1822 in Sullivan County, Indiana. The 1820 and 1830 Census shows members of the Rankin family in Sullivan County, Indiana. William Rankin married Elizabeth Gross on 25 March 1824 in Sullivan County and their first son David Rankin was born in Merom, Sullivan County on 25 May 1825. In the unending search for cheap, fertile land, the Wm. Rankin family, with several relatives, continued west. Next was Parke County, Indiana where in 1831 William purchased land, then back to Sullivan County for a short while before going to Vermilion County, Illinois for the three years 1833-1835. The next move was to Henderson (formerly Warren) County, Illinois. Much of the extended family located there with the William Rankin family arriving in 1836; however, they first appeared in the Census in 1850 and 1860. William’s older brother, Joseph, bought land there in November 1840. William and Elizabeth Rankin raised nine children in Henderson County, with David being the oldest. William died on 8 March 1870 and is buried in the Walnut Grove Cemetery, Henderson County, Illinois, and Elizabeth died 8 February 1876 in Crawfordsville, Illinois where she lived with one of her children. ADD: page 1
In spite of the trail of land purchases as they moved west, the William Rankin family was rather poor and son, David, never had the opportunity of a good education. The small subscription schools on the frontier offered children a primitive schooling at best. David was ten years old in 1836 when his family arrived in Henderson County, Illinois. There were no fences, no bridges and houses were often 20 to 30 miles apart. To get there the family crossed the Illinois River at Peoria in a flat bottomed boat.ADD: page 4
David Rankin as a young adult
David first worked with his father who, in 1837, built and operated a saw mill. By 1846 and at age 21, he started working by himself breaking the prairie with a wooden mould-board plow and an oxen team he purchased on credit. The first John Deere steel plows in this area appeared in 1844 on a farm at Farmington, Illinois near Galesburg, and Rankin took note.ADD: page 11
He was also a careful observer of a Jacob Strawn, from Jacksonville, Illinois, who back as far as 1831 had accumulated 20,000 acres and operated as an early cattle feeder. Rankin was impressed but felt he could combine farming and feeding. Strawn, who operated until his death in 1865, utilized the “tenant” farmer concept under which Strawn owned the land but hired others to live and work on the farm. Later, Rankin would employ a similar strategy.
In 1847 D. Rankin drove a herd of about 50 cattle to Chicago over open prairie where they could feed as they traveled. There was no refrigeration, so packing houses only operated in the cold winter months. Rankin was acquainted with both Messrs. Swift and Armour. The latter had recently arrived in Chicago from Milwaukee. There was only one bridge across the Chicago River at this point and the prairie came to within one or two blocks of the Court House. The mayor then was “Long John” Wentworth who, as agent, sold D. Rankin 80 acres south of Biggsville, Illinois for $200.00 in 1884.ADD:page 16 Rankin always tried to embrace new technology to improve his business. During this same time period, Rankin saw the first practical reaper by McCormick and in 1848 he bought one for about $125.00.ADD:page 16 It represented a huge improvement, yet it still took two men and four horses to operate one machine. David Rankin is quoted as saying this machine helped him reduce the cost of harvesting. Rankin paid his men monthly instead of on Fridays, and he refused to provide the customary whiskey to farm labor, reflecting his stand on temperance.ADD:page 17
In 1850 David Rankin married Sarah Thompson and that marriage produced three children who lived to adulthood: Annetta “Nettie”, who married John F. Hanna, John A. Rankin who married Harriet “Hattie” Newel, and William F. Rankin who married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Marshall.ADD:page 18 There were three other children who died in infancy. Sarah died in 1878, and in early 1880, D. Rankin married a second time to Elizabeth Phillips Gowdy,ADD:page 18 the widow of Robert Gowdy (1834-1871) who died in Garnett, Anderson County, Kansas. She had five children by Gowdy: Ella, Mary, Rolly, Chester and Grace. The second Rankin marriage produced one child, Esther B. Rankin, born in 1885 and who later married Morrison B. Giffen, a fellow alumnus from Tarkio College and a 1908 Rhodes Scholar from Missouri.
The young farmer
In the fall of 1850, Rankin purchased an additional 320 acres of land in the Biggsville area in two different parcels for $200.00.ADD:page 20 He paid $50.00 of his own, borrowed $50.00 from his brother-in-law and the seller provided credit for the balance. The town of Biggsville was not formally laid out until 1855 by surveyor, Wm. McChesnery.ADD:page 890 Rankin was now a big farmer with 400 acres. From the outset he rotated crops; wheat for one or two years followed by corn which he fed to cattle. D. Rankin was innovative and the recent introductions of McCormick’s reaper and Deere’s steel plow had his attention. These devices left such an impression on the young farmer that in 1853 he conceived of combining two of his shovel plows allowing him to plow on both sides of a row. Rankin states this was the first straddle row cultivator ever made to his knowledge. This cultivator saved the work of one hired hand. This interest in labor saving farm equipment would reappear years later when Rankin founded the Midland Mfg. Co. Early on, Rankin understood that improving farm profit required increased production and reduced costs – a concept started during this period that helped make US farm production the “bread basket for the world”.
Bank credit for farm working capital was scarce, especially this far west, and what did exist was expensive. In the period between 1852 and 1861, Rankin recalls he paid interest rates between 15% and 18%, but such credit gave him the chance to buy more land.ADD:page 23 He recalls that during the panic of 1857, many banks went broke and anyone with cash could dictate the purchase price for corn. Under these circumstances, D. Rankin built a barn filled with corn cribs allowing him to buy corn in quantity at $0.08- $0.10 per bushel, hold it and later sell it in the crib for $0.80 per bushel.ADD:page 23 During this period, Rankin developed the business strategy he used for his entire life – invest profits in land and borrow money seasonally for farm operations – keep your own money in the farm land. He believed land was the best investment by far. During the Civil War period the “greenbacks” were deeply depreciated and Rankin saw a man give $260.00 in paper money for $100 in gold.
The Civil War era
The men of Biggsville, Illinois supported the Union war effort, some as volunteers and others as underwriters helping to raise recruitment. On July 20, 1862, David Rankin joined with 12 other men to personally underwrite the recruiting bonus of $25.00 per man for volunteers to enlist and serve under Captain Gastomichaels in a Company at Oquawka, Illinois. Rankin acted as treasurer for the funds collected and made the disbursements to the men. He was in his late thirties at this time.
In the 1865 post war era, Rankin purchased cattle in Chicago for $1.50 to $1.75 per hundred, and put them on the prairie near Paxton, Illinois, fed them corn and sold the fattened cattle in New York via railroad for $6.00 to $6.50 per hundred. He was trading on the growing demand for meat in the east, a market now made accessible by the railroad investors funding the expansion of roadbed into the West. True to his strategy, Rankin reinvested these profits in more land, purchasing 5,000 acres east of Paxton at $6.25 - $7.00 per acre.ADD:page 24 Similar land investment in eight sections, or 5,120 acres, was made by cousin, William A. Rankin, a Civil War officer who returned with money in his pocket. Over time and with D. Rankin’s tutelage, W. A. Rankin acquired between 11,000 and 13,000 acres on his own. The town of Rankin, Illinois was founded in 1872 on the D. Rankin land. Town history acknowledges David Rankin as the “Founder” of the town. It should follow that W. A. Rankin would be the “Godfather” of Rankin. David Rankin never lived in Vermilion County but his cousin did live there and was able to manage their mutual business interests in the area. Both men were investors in the D. and W.A. Rankin Grain Elevator business and they worked hard to bring the railroad to the area. With disbelief by neighbors, the Rankin men decided to raise broom corn on this land and instead of the forecasted failure, D. Rankin sold at $320 per ton and made $200,000 on this market. He again invested his profits in more land further west. In 1875, the Rankin cousins joined with Eugene H. Whitman to established Rankin – Whitman & Co., private bank. They had known Whitman who managed the D. and W.A. Rankin Grain Elevator business for them since 1873.ADD:page9-10
During this same period and in keeping with David Rankin’s interest in farm equipment, he purchased a Halladay windmill, the first in western Illinois. Purchased in Batavia, the Halladay model was built by the United States Wind Energy and Pump Co.ADD:page 25 Again, Rankin overcame his neighbor’s skepticism and, by these windmills, he made well water available for stock in the fields. Rankin stated that he went on to purchase hundreds of these in future years.
A Big-Time Farmer by Age 40
A trip to Europe made Rankin realize and appreciate the fine quality of his farm land. He did try to export cattle under a sale in Liverpool, but after costs he didn’t made more than a similar shipment to Chicago so he didn’t repeat that effort.ADD:page27 The entrepreneurial drive was building and David Rankin, by worth and reputation, was extending his interests. He was named the third president of the Monmouth National Bank, Monmouth, Illinois, serving from 1874-1876, but farming was David Rankin’s enterprise. He said through farming you make your wealth - by the “toil in the soil” and in his view farming was creative.ADD:page 29 By his attitude, he made it so.
His search for cheap, fertile land continued. On a trip to Texas in the mid-1870’s, Rankin was marooned by flooding at Corning, Iowa. This turned out to be the beginning of his interest in Missouri. He heard of a man in the Atchison County area , just over the state line, willing to sell very good farm land at $6.00 per acre. So in 1876, he started to make large land buys with other family members, including his brother-in-law Silas Prather, the husband of his sister, Emelina “Emma” Rankin. Prather was the first of the family to buy land and relocate to this Northwestern Missouri area arriving in 1878. Prather was followed in 1880 by D. Rankin’s two sons, John and William Rankin, but due his wife’s death and his farming operations in Illinois, David stayed in Biggsville. D. Rankin was a big farmer with an established base in Biggsville, Henderson County, Illinois, where he now owned 4,000 acres and occupied a very large and stately home 4 miles south of town. A history of Henderson County states that by 1882 David Rankin owned over 25,000 acres in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, with 20,000 acres in corn, and was feeding 500 to 600 head of cattle. The profits from Vermilion and Henderson Counties, Illinois had been parlayed into Missouri where he was buying superb farm land for $5.00 to $10.00 per acre.
Ongoing ties to Biggsville
Cattle ranching venture in Nebraska
Continuing west from Illinois to Missouri
Midland Manufacturing venture
America’s “Corn King”
Success from hard work
According to the Rankin 1899 Statement of Feeding Operations, the Missouri business broke down as follows:
|Ranch||Acreage||Foreman or Partner|
|#13||960||Rankin & New|
|#14||2,200||Rankin & Cowden|
Proceeds from sale of 9,129 cattle: $179,298
</br> Proceeds from sale of 6,732 hogs: $73,812
</br> Expense for 438,084 bushels of purchased corn: $114,010
After some careful study, it is possible to develop some analysis comparing three years of operations in this period. The Rankin farming business was extraordinary for this period in history, and David Rankin might be considered in agriculture what Ford was in automobiles – remarkable.
|No. of cattle shipped||8,803||9,801||9,129|
|No. of hogs shipped||6,060||6,200||6,732|
|Bushels of corn raised||N/A||395,900||N/A|
|Bushels of corn purchased||N/A||466,106||438,084|
|Cost of corn purchased||N/A||$98,507||$114,010|
In a special report to the New York Times dated April 27, 1902 issued from St. Joseph, Missouri, David Rankin disclosed the cost to raise cattle on high priced corn and how modest the profit involved.
|Ave. for steer purchased (1,000 lbs. @ $0.04)||$40.00|
|Feed to fatten (75 bu. @ $0.60)||$45.00|
|Shipping and selling expenses||$3.50|
|Ave. cost to market||$88.50|
|Ave. sale (1,325 lbs @ $0.0685)||$90.77|
|Net per steer||$2.27|
Rankin and the railroads
Farming - Unlimited possibilities
The end for a "Plain Farmer"
- ↑ "Extends The Largest Farm". Coshocton Standard (Coshocton, Ohio). March 17, 1905.
- ↑ Ross, Virginia (November, 1919). "Breaking Up The Biggest Farm, Part I". Stronghurst Graphic.
- ↑ Crissey, Forrest (April 12, 1910). "America’s Greatest Feeding Farm". The Saturday Evening Post.
- ↑ 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 Rankin, David (1909). David Rankin - Farmer. Tarkio, Missouri: reproduced by Garst & Thomas Hybrid Corn Co, Coon Rapids, Iowa in 1970's. pp. cover page.
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 Stewart, Cecil (Register Report, 22 September 2000). Descendants of Alexander and Elizabeth Rankin Originally from Washington County, PA. Ames, Iowa. pp. 1.
- ↑ "Sullivan County, Indiana: Alexander Rankin, Joseph Rankin". United States Federal Census. 1820 and 1830. pp. 112.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 History of Mercer and Henderson Counties, Illinois. H. H. Hill Co. 1882. pp. 1161, 1168-69.
- ↑ "Henderson County, Illinois". United States Federal Census. Schedule 1, Township 9N4W. 1850 and 1860.
- ↑ Gates, Paul Wallace (1945). Cattle Kings in the Prairies. Mississippi Valley Historical Review. pp. 383.
- ↑ 10.0 10.1 History of Rankin, Illinois, Vermilion County. pp. 3-8.
- ↑ The Iowa Homestead (Des Moines, Iowa): pp. 16(1644). September 23, 1915.
- ↑ "Biggest Farm on Earth". Mansfield News (Mansfield, Ohio). February 16, 1909.
- ↑ History of Atchison County, Missouri. pp. 922.
- ↑ The Cost of Raising Cattle
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