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THE FARMER'S RAILROAD

BY F. B. TRACY

"WE'LL now open this meetin' with pra'r. Brother Mercer, will you lead in pra'r?"

The people arose while Mayor Mercer asked the Lord to bless the gathering.

The audience was typical of the dwellers on the "second mountain" (which was not a mountain at all, but only the second elevation from the level of the river, eighty miles away). They were uncouth people in appearance and unique in composition. Their long dog-skin overcoats, their high coon skin caps, their uncombed hair and shaggy beards, all told of their hardy, toilsome pioneer life. Fifteen years ago that now rapidly growing and rich section of Dakota lay deserted by all save the roaring blizzards, the wolves, and the deer - lay all unconscious of the majestic power in its womb to yield No. I hard wheat, which at Liverpool grades above all other wheat in the world. Those who first dared to try its worth were Manitobans, and after they had uncovered its great secret, floods of Canadians, chiefly from Ontario, followed them, until it became a New Ontario in Dakota. Despite their Scotch conservatism, they were keenly alive to all new sensations, and the freshness and oddity of this prairie life seemed to them an attribute of the United States rather than conditions pertaining to all pioneer sections in the wheat belt.

The presence of these people in that hall of the proud and new court-house at Lansing was to hear Daniel Minds give out his scheme of railroad-building. At the end of the prayer, the man who had called for it rose from his knees (he was a Methodist) and began to talk in an embarrassed, halting manner. There was something peculiarly attractive in his way of speaking. If you had passed him as he was often seen in December, walking beside his wheat wagon to keep warm on his way to market at Lansing, you would have seen little that was inviting about him. But there glistened in his eye as he stood before the people that night a winsomeness, a courage, and a hope which the dullest felt. He was tall, with a small head and eyes; his hair was reddish brown, and his slight mustache, which clustered around his mouth, was of the same color. His dress was plain and rough, but clean and well brushed. Awkwardly, apologetically, and with a strange smile, he said:

"I s'pose yuh want tuh know what I've got tuh say about this new plan to build a railroad. Well, it seems kinder funny fer me to stand up here and try tuh talk tuh yuh. Amany of yuh, I reckon, think my place is cleanin' out Moody's stable, 'z I useto do seven and eight years ago. Law me, course I can't make a speech; but I can tell yuh in a plain way what is the Lord's will regardin' this road, fer I b'lieve that the Lord hez called me tuh this work, and that's why I asked Frank Mercer tuh open the meetin' with pra'r.

"Yuh know, I guess, that we've hed purty hard times the last few years. Of course, we ain't ez bad off ez the corn States, and 'z long ez this land will raise 'z good wheat 'z it does now and 'z much of it, we'll git along. But we ain't doin' 'z well as we useto when wheat was so high. Now, I don't look fer any more dollar wheat, stiddy. I don't know why. Some say it's silver, and some say it's terif, but it seems tuh me that with all this wild land bein' plowed up and sowed in wheat, and with folks in the cities agitatin' colonization of the poor inter the country, we can't expect anything but more wheat and lower prices. And the only thing we can do is to keep down expenses, and lower what it costs to produce the wheat.

"Now one big reason why you and me hev suh little left after the crop is sold is the big slice the railroad takes of it. The Great Mogul charges us jest ez much fer haulin' our stuff tuh Duluth 'z he did ten years ago, when wheat was worth a dollar a bushel. Ten cents a bushel freight on wheat that brings only sixty cents a bushel at Duluth for the best, and a heap sight less for what's got caught by a frost, is too high, and yuh all know it is.

"And this high charge works two ways. Yuh know we complain a good deal at the way the stores stick it onto us in the way of prices; sometimes they're twict what they are in Ontario. Well, Brother Mercer showed me a freight bill the other day on some hardware, and it was awful. It explained tuh me why he had tuh charge suh much fer his goods.

"Now, you fellers know all this, and I tell yuh the only way fer tuh get relief is fer us tuh build a road ourselves up tuh Duluth. 'Twon't help us at all to git in another road here of the same kind 'z this one. They've got both roads at Gardner, and they ain't any better off. They purtend tuh fight a lot, but it's all a humbug, and I b'lieve the Great Mogul owns 'em both.

"I got our school-teacher at Hanning tuh draw a map fer me, and here it is. Yuh see, both these Dakota roads sway 'way down to the south a hundred and more miles out of their way to Duluth. Why don't they run straight? Here I've drawed a line acrost from this town of Lansing straight tub Duluth, over land where a grade would cost 'most nuthin' and a hundred miles could be saved. This road's goin' tuh be built some day. The only question is, whether we're goin' tuh build it fer our own benefit er let some Eastern fellers build it fer theirs. I say we can build that road, and I'll tell yuh how."

Daniel Minds had always been odd. In his youth he was converted, and became a camp-meeting exhorter and revivalist in his ignorant, hearty, and peculiar way; but suddenly "the power" left him, and he returned uncomplainingly to his farm drudgery, holding fast all the while to his devout faith. He first became known to Dakotans as the smart banker Moody's roustabout and stable-boy. He later filed on a homestead just across on this side of the international boundary, and, after marrying one of Alfred Aker's daughters, settled down on his quarter section. To all apnearances he was a serious, hard-working farmer, like hundreds of others who helped to enthrone King Wheat in that frozen land. He was regarded as "queer" by his neighbors; but they were all queer, and that phrase meant little.

He was thoughtful, and the long winter nights gave him opportunity for much reading. In some way his attention became fixed on the transportation problem, and it absorbed him. He brooded over it summer and winter, and it would not let him rest. Bit by bit a plan came to him, and at length he unfolded it to friends and relatives. They told him that it was wild and impracticable, but their words disturbed him in no way. Night after night he would rise from his bed, and gazing from the one window of his shack, far into the north, where the aurora is seen to play most brilliantly many times in the year, he would give himself up to planning for the success of his railroad scheme.

This meeting at Lansing was his first one, and it had attracted a great crowd. But it was a silent, undemonstrative throng to which he poured out his hopes and plans.

The road was to be called the Farmer's Railroad, and it was to be built by the farmers of the Red River Valley themselves. The grade once built, the remainder of the task would be easy. The project was to earn no profits, except to keep up repairs and equipments, and was to be wholly cooperative and owned by the people along the line. But the message was too good to be true, and the audience would not receive it. They did not rend him to pieces. Their crucifixion took another form. When he had done, he asked any who cared, to propound questions to him; but no one replied. All sat perfectly quiet, until one arose and left, and then, one by one, all the remainder followed his example, not even the mayor, who cordially liked Minds, caring to talk to him when he was most probably, in a condition of mind so downcast. Yet they were all self-convicted cowards. They believed Minds was right and that his scheme was possible, but they were afraid to say so to one another. Even in their boisterous laughter and ridicule, which floated up to Minds as they poured down into the street, they were saying to themselves, "We build the road? I believe we really can, but it sounds foolish, and I am not going to expose myself to my associates' ridicule, when it is evident that they all think Minds is crazy."

Minds sat quietly in his chair until they had all gone, and then arose, and said nothing as he helped the janitor put out the lights. As they walked down the stairs he made some remark about the weather, and with a cheery "Good-by" he went to his hitching-rack, and was soon off on his pony for home. His thoughts may have been very bitter as he rode across the trackless, treeless, fenceless, and almost houseless country from Lansing to the boundary, thirty miles away. But not at that time, nor at any other time, did anyone hear him speak bitterly or hopelessly. To his wife's anxious inquiry he said:

"We hed a big meetin', but they wouldn't say anything. I guess they didn't think much of the talk; but when they think over the railroad scheme, they'll change their minds."

Mastered and led by his daimon, he began a systematic canvass of towns along the proposed route to the river. The results were apparently the same. His fame had preceded him, and he was pictured as a harmless vision-chaser. In several of his meetings he was interrupted by jeers, but his good nature did not leave him. At Brighton, however, on the river, he met his first encouragement. Judicious and respectful questions were asked of him, and several leading citizens remained to talk with him after the meeting was over.

He had felt, for some time, a great longing to go to St. Paul, the headquarters of the Northwestern railways, and learn how those great roads were managed. This feeling grew too strong for resistance when he arrived at Brighton. But he had little money, and he could not ride his pony so far without danger of hurting it permanently. So he threw the bridle back over the pony's head, slapped the rump, and started the little animal back to the Hanning farm. Then he crossed the river, and began a 400-mile walk to St. Paul.

The Great Mogul was busy at his desk when his office boy came in and, with some hesitancy, said:

"There's a rough-looking fellow out here who wants to see you. He has been hanging around the building for several days, but he won't see anybody but you.

It was one of the Mogul's cheerful days. Prospects for the intercontinental amalgamation scheme were becoming excellent. The bank across the water had written most encouragingly, and it looked to the Mogul as if one more visit to Europe would place the two great lines in his grasp. So he said quickly:

"Oh, well, let him in."

Minds entered.

It was late spring, just before seeding, and the Northwest was a mass of mud. A portion of the mass seemed to have clung to Minds. His face was unshaven and worn, his trousers were torn, and their sides glistened with mud which had dried there. His winter cap looked heavy and wet, and his hair was disheveled and knotted.

At his desk sat the Great Mogul, tall, portly, forceful, and with the magnetic tone and air of success. Thirty years before, he had worked as a day laborer in that city. He had seized a slender chance, and had risen slowly, until his genius for railroad-building was discovered and developed. He grabbed this line and that one, and extended them first to Duluth, then to Winnipeg, and then on to the West, until by buying, seizing, leasing, building, by any means getting lines and connections, his trains reached the Pacific. Of that whole system he was the Boss, the Master. His employees were peons, slaves. Scarcely any one paid as poor wages as the Great Mogul, and for such mean pay no one expected so much work. To the high officials of the road, men distinguished for ability and strength, he was overbearing and imperious. His voice was the Jupiter Tonans of the railroad world of that region. He had bold plans for reaching way out to the Orient and securing the monopoly of the business with Japan. Little did he care for the protests of the people. It was no concern of his that his name was a household word in many parts of the Northwest, and almost always with bitterness and an oath. The fact that the success of his plan would place that region under an industrial despotism was as nothing to him compared with the glorification of his success and ambition.

This is the man behind the desk. And before him stands the Homesteader, the Dreamer, the Prairie Dog; rough, uncouth, ignorant, but supremely gifted with pure visons.

"Well, what do you want?" cried the Czar in his abrupt way.

This sharp note startled Minds, and he advanced to the desk with the same peculiar smile, and told the great man of his own railroad project, ending with the astonishing request, made with simple dignity, for transportation over the lines of the road as a courtesy extended from one railroad president to another!

The scene was ludicrous in the eyes of the Mogul, and at its consummation he roared with glee. It was his first laugh for days, and it caused consternation throughout the building. After quizzing Minds and finding that he was really intending this Utopian scheme, the Great Mogul said, "All right, I'll give you a pass;" and then he added with a chuckle, "And if you are in the same business at the end of the year, drop in and I'll renew it for you."

Minds thanked him effusively, and left the office with a radiant face. He then went directly to Duluth, which was to be the terminus of the new railroad, for there he thought he could arouse an interest in business men. But his efforts were apparently fruitless. The newspapers took him up gaily, and had much sport over the visit of "Farmer" Minds. That city had just felt the disaster of a collapsed boom, and no farmer from Dakota could enlist the support of the quaking business men.

Unwearied and undaunted, he then plunged into the country on a journey never before made by a white man. He had been told that his proposed line was impracticable, because in its route lay lakes and swamps which could not be bridged. He determined to find out for himself, and set out on foot to traverse the land between Duluth and the Red River. The thought of starvation, of dying on the prairie or in the great woods or being drowned in the lakes did not com to him. He was a dreamer, and he thought of naught save the fruition of his dreams.

It had become almost summer. The mountains lay off in the distance, the first he had ever seen; yonder to the east lay Lake Superior, while to the west stretched the rich prairie. Now he plunged into the woods, and he who had known for so many years a land where a riding whip was hard to find was almost crazed by the great pineries. Luckily he had a chart and a compass, and he held doggedly to his route. Now he entered on prairie land, but found few tilled fields after leaving the towns. How he slept in hollow logs or in the open clearings; how he floundered in bogs and swamps, and, once, almost went down in the quicksand of a creek; how he was welcomed by the trapper, the frontiersman, the lone farmer, and the Indians of the great reservation, all of whom saved him from famine - these are tales which he told very seldom, and then only to justify his faith in the divinity of his inspiration. To those who entertained him he never failed to tell of his mission, and they all knew that he was sincere, but doubted his rationality. He found to his great joy that there were no serious obstacles to his route, and that his first plan was entirely feasible so far as the survey was concerned. In three weeks he had traversed the 300 miles, and it was with a glad heart that he saw the Red River and the town of Brighton rise into view.

The cold and narrow-minded people of that region, so unresponsive at first to the appeals of the farmer railroad builder, were not proof against his earnest and steady activity in projecting his doctrines; their works could be carried by siege if not by assault, and it was not many months until Minds's many railroad meetings had aroused much friendly interest and sympathy. Duluth finally seized hold of the enterprise, some capital was provided, a company was incorporated, of which Minds was made president, at a salary of $75 per month, and Brighton was made headquarters. In every county on the proposed railroad, meetings were held and local organizations were formed. The scheme became more clearly defined, and its practical nature was seen by business men. Minds's preliminary plan was to issue shares of stock to the farmers and business men, for which they would contribute labor on the grade or money. He figured that $10 from every quarter-section of land through which the railroad passed would form a capital large enough for a basis. Further than the grading of the road he would not go at first in his public plans. He was shrewd enough to see that there would be needed some additional capital to equip the road after the grade should be completed. He had now arrived at the point in his plans where it was necessary to secure the means for the raising of this equipment fund. So he determined on a bold step which startled all his friends and set the press of the Northwest into a roar of mirth. He announced his intention of going to New York to negotiate for the capital to complete the road. This was a rich opportunity for the paragrapher and cartoonist, and they improved it to the full with fanciful sketches of, and gibes at, "Farmer Minds in Wall Street," etc. The idea was, of course, quite absurd; but all the ridicule had no effect on Minds, who set out for New York with his cheerful smile.

It was a bright morning in February when Minds reached New York. He did not pause to look at the sights, but as soon as he left the station he began to hunt for the haunts of the financiers. He soon found, to his great dismay, that the day was a holiday and no broker's office would be open. But he was especially anxious to see a Western United States senator whose real home was in New York and who was a wealthy railroad projector. So he learned the Senator's residence address and went up to the house. And this is the story Minds told to the Dakota farmers of his visit to the East:

"I rung the bell at the Senator's house, and the feller that opened the door told me that the Senator wasn't up yet (though it was after nine o'clock). He told me tuh come back at noon, but he was sure the Senator wouldn't see me that day, bein's it was a hollerday. Well, I went back at plum noon, and the Senator's wife, leastways I s'pose she was his wife, opened the door. When I asked to see the Senator, she told me that he wouldn't see me ner anybody else. I told her that wouldn't do at all, I must see him, fer I had come two thousan' miles fer that one thing. I went on tellin' her about the Farmer's Railroad in Dakota, and she kept on refusin', and I guess between us two there was considerable noise, until finally the Senator himself come out to see what was the row. He laughed when he saw me, fer some reason, and told me to come in anyway.

"But I tell yuh, he was mad enough when he found what I had come fer. 'Why,' he says, 'I'm bothered to death every day with these swindlers an' fools, and I won't let another one of 'em spoil a holiday fer me.' I told him then purty warmlike that I wasn't a swindler er a fool, but a plain Dakota farmer, and I kep' on a-talkin' that way until he said, weary-like, 'Oh, well, set down, and let's hear quick what's yer scheme.' So I got out my map and pinned it agin the wall, and begun tuh tell him the whole thing ez I hev told it tuh you, and he set there, sayin' nuthin', but blinkin' his eyes. Well, when I got all tired out and couldn't think of anything else tuh say, he begun to talk, and I wisht yuh could have heard the questions he asked me. There was the queerest things he asked about - where I lived, what kind of a house, who my wife was, how many children we had, what we had tuh how I done my farmin', who my neighbors was, and a thousand more questions jes' about as funny.

"In the evenin' he sent out fer a chum of his, and I went over the whole thing again. Then we had supper, er dinner, they called it, and it was, sure enough, dinner fer me that day, fer I'd had but one meal before that. Well, I tell yuh, it was a funny sight, me tellin' them millionaires about things out here on the prairie! Finally, after they had looked over my papers and see that I wasn't a fraud, they got off in a corner and talked a long time. Well, the upshot of it was that they agreed to give me just what I wanted, a guarantee to loan me $5,000 a mile for the road's equipment when the gradin' was done. They couldn't believe at first that the road could be built so cheap, but I had all the figgers down purty fine, and showed 'em how it could be done, and I've got their agreement in black and white right in my pocket.

"New York is a purty nice, big place, with lots of sights, and I could have spent a whole week there, seein' things; but the Farmer's Railroad didn't have the time, and I went right off to Washington to see about gettin' my bill through Congress. Yuh see, when anybody wants to build a road through an Indian reservation, he has to git a special act of Congress. Well, of course, our road runs through that reservation in northern Minnesota, and I had to git the law passed. Mebbe some of you 'member that some fellers and newspapers in this country said it would cost us $5o,ooo to git that bill passed. Well, it was put through and signed by the President in a week's time, and it didn't cost a cent, and them Congressmen wouldn't let the farmer pay for even his own meals."

On his way back home, Minds visited the Carnegie mills at Pittsburg and the Illinois Steel Works at Joliet, to see the rails turned out and to get their prices. When he arrived at Brighton, he found many circulars from Wall Street firms and other capitalists awaiting him in which they complained because he had not negotiated with them.

His campaign among the farmers now took on notes of power, inspiration, and triumph. The meetings were very large and enthusiastic, and stock was taken up with avidity. Various towns clamored for the honor of the main line. Calls came for organization meetings in Minnesota as well as in Dakota. Those who had called Minds a lunatic now showered praise upon him and entertained him lavishly. The leading men of every community became active in support of the project. Its success seemed certain.

Soon, however, nature conspired with many other circumstances in an attitude which seemed that of malevolence to defeat the scheme. First, there came a backward spring. The ice and snow remained on the ground until late in April, and in some sections until May, and then melted in a few days, causing disastrous floods which prevented seeding. Then, after seeding, cold rains fell, and much of the wheat was chilled and required replanting, which in some cases with farmers of small means was impossible, and the result was that the wheat came' up more than a month behind over the whole Red River Valley. Then there came several terrific hail-storms, which almost wholly wiped out the crops in several townships in one county and which cut a swath through many other sections. The result was that farmers failed to pay their subscriptions for stock in the railroad, and soon the news was carried over the whole Northwest that the farmers, the class to be chiefly benefited by the road, were deserting it.

Upon the top of this news came a gigantic and crushing blow to Minds at the meeting of the directors that summer at Brighton, at which his scheme for raising the money was rejected and outvoted and he himself was practically removed from the position of chief. There had been rumors during the early summer that there was in the directorate some jealousy of Minds, and it was said that the inspiration came from St. Paul, but no fear was felt by Minds or any of his nearest friends of any formidable revolt. The action of the directors must, therefore, have been a great shock to his reason and hopes; but he gave no sign. He spent most of his time at Brighton, supervising the surveys and the grading, which had already begun. At times he visited his home at Hanning and when asked about the condition of affairs, simply said with a smile, "The directors think they can raise $300,000 easier than I can raise $100,000, and all I can hope to do is to let them try and do it." His hopes were high that when the annual meeting of the road was held in January he would be restored.

Everything looked most auspicious for Minds when the directors assembled at Brighton for the annual meeting. The plan which they had adopted had proved a failure, everywhere was confidence in Minds, and the condition of the farmers was better than they had anticipated, which, with higher prices for their wheat, made the time an excellent one to revive interest in the railroad. But when the meeting began, his enemies were seen to be in full control, and he was retired from the presidency and every vestige of power was taken away from him.

Minds was silent, and for the first time dejected, after this overwhelming verdict. But he remained at Brighton for the rest of that winter, and the last heard from him was that he had reentered the evangelist field, which he had tried when a boy, and was holding great and thrilling revival meetings near Brighton, until a few days ago the newspapers contained this despatch:

"Daniel Minds, the Farmer's Railroad projector, was to-day adjudged insane, and removed to the State Hospital for the Insane. Last Monday he announced that Christ would come in six days and he had been called to warn people of the event. He is in a terrible physical condition, unable to sleep, and talks incessantly on almost every subject. Unless he gets relief soon he cannot live long."

And the Farmer's Railroad was not built.

© RailroadStories, 2001.

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