Cooper Brothers Bonanza Farmers

No early day story on Griggs County or Cooperstown would be complete without touching on the lives and activities of the Cooper Brothers. They were vigorous, energetic men, fired with optimism and enthusiasm, and, at the time they came to this area, quite wealthy. Thomas J. Cooper, the elder of the two, had spent much of his life in Colorado where he was engaged in numerous activities. He had accumulated considerable wealth when he and his younger brother became interested in bonanza farming in North Dakota. He had a home in Chicago and in later years spent much of his time there. He was the father of Charles Cooper who lived here many years.

Rollin C. was the youngest of the Cooper boys, and was born in Michigan in 1845. Accounts reveal that Rollin was a sturdy youngster, and at the age of 12 had attained almost his full stature. He hired out to a neighbor for a season's work at $8.00 per month, plus keep, which to him seemed like a king's ransom. When he received his $32.00 in a lump sum it was a great day for the boy who had never had more than fifty cents in his whole life.  The money enabled him at the age of thirteen to leave home the following year and start on his own under the sponsorship of T. J., who was then in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Spurred by the mining fever, both later left Red Wing and went to Colorado. There Rollin and another brother, Henry, instead of mining, rented a farm in one of the valleys. Weather conditions were unfavorable and they lost their crops that year. During the winter Rollin and Henry subsisted on corn meal and moldy salt bacon with an occasional potato on rare occasions. T. J. at this time was mining in the mountains without much success. After marrying in 1870, Rollin gave up the tinning business in which he was then engaged with Henry and started in the mining game. Luck was with him in this venture and he netted $10,000 on his first strike. This money enabled him to start in the cattle buying and selling business with T. J. in Kansas City. It was while thus engaged that the brothers became intensely interested in the N. P. land grant areas which were offered to the public at nominal prices.

Rollin C. Cooper came to this county on horseback in 1880 and immediately started negotiations with the railroads to complete purchases of great blocks of virgin land. North Dakota looked promising with its new and abundantly fertile soil ready to produce wheat which at that time was selling for over $1.00 per bushel. The advent of mechanization meant greater production with less labor, so the time seemed ripe to invest in this promising country and get in on the ground floor for the land boom which many felt was sure to come.

The railroads owned large blocks of land in both Griggs and Steele Counties. The Red River Land Company, incorporated by S. S. Small, J. A. and E. A. Steele, all of Minneapolis, purchased great acreages of land from the railroads as did the Coopers. Settlement of what is now known as the eastern portion of Griggs County and central and western Steele was influenced by this great land company. The Coopers were largely instrumental in effecting settlement of central Griggs County with settlers from Canada as well as from European countries. The bulk of lands purchased from the railroads averaged between $2.00 and $3.00 per acre. Poorer land sold for about $1.00 per acre. The struggle for land and the revenue from land transactions was a basis for the competition for power which sprung up between the Red River Land Company of Hope and the Coopers. The land company needed settlers with money to whom they, could sell their railroad land at a profit. Cooper needed the labor of the homesteaders for a dependable labor source. His plan was to receive his profit from the productiveness of this virgin soil. To these ends each wanted a railroad of his own to his respective holdings. Each platted and founded a town. Each had its own boarding house for the first carpenters, and each built a large hotel. Each plied the eastern states with "boom" advertising. Each wanted the county seat for convenience as well as prestige.  In the end, each got his own county but Mr. Steele eventually lost the county seat. The Red River Land Company had resources and credit in Minneapolis and New York, while the Coopers had theirs in Colorado, Chicago and also New York. In politics Mr. Steele had the help of attorneys Miller Spaulding and Mr. Cooper had Alexander McKenzie.

Although no railroad traversed the county, Cooper did not let that terminate his dream of owning a wheat-land empire on the Dakota prairie. Mule freight from Sanborn brought supplies and equipment, and in 1881 he harvested his first crop.  Cooper Brothers were established and from then on it was just a matter of expanding operations.  But three things were needed and needed badly - a railroad, a town, and a county seat. These three necessities R: C. Cooper sought to obtain in the shortest possible time. He had been named one of the county commissioners to further organize and establish county government. In this capacity he was able to cause an election to be held to name officers the county seat and it was this maneuver which swung the seat of government for the county from Hope to Cooperstown, although at that time Cooperstown was only a "paper" town. A portion of a granary standing where the H. A. Brown house now stands served as the original court house.

Once platted in 1882, Cooperstown grew as only an early day boom town could. It was a thriving little city when, on August 27, 1883, the iron horse reached Cooperstown which for the time was the end of the line. Griggs County's first railroad was constructed and operated by the Sanborn, Cooperstown and Turtle Mountain Railway Company, although it was quite generally known that the Northern Pacific was behind the operation. The Townsite Company of Cooperstown which laid out and was responsible for the early development of the pioneer city also was a backer of the railroad company. The Northern Pacific had a gentlemen's agreement with the Great Northern that they would build no branch lines north of their main lines if the Great Northern would build none south. Purchase of the line after the construction was completed did not seem to violate this agreement. The Northern Pacific continued to operate the line and eventually the tracks were extended to Jessie and Binford in Griggs, and to McHenry in Foster County.

While T. J. Cooper had heavy investments in land in this county, it was R. C. who was the active farmer. He was intensely interested in seeing the start and development of a town here primarily to enhance the value of his operations. He was a member of the Townsite Company which platted and originated the town and, while he was interested in seeing business locate here, he did not seem interested in starting any of his own. It is true that he had grain elevators but these were built primarily to handle his own grain.

Even though this account can only touch briefly on the many and varied facets of the Cooper operations it can be noted that the farming venture seemed to start off quite well but in a few short years ran into difficulties. Apparently, this bonanza farm was made up of three units: the home or headquarters ranch was located one mile west and a mile south of the outskirts of Cooperstown on what is now the Max Arndt place. Another was situated on section 7, a few miles northwest, and the third on section 5, Washburn Township, on the present Clarence Edland place.

Much of the land was farmed from the home ranch, using many teams for one operation. Early day residents recall seeing as many as thirty binders in the field. Plowing, seeding and other operations were handled in like manner. Mules furnished much of the power in those early days.


Cooper's Wheatland Empire

From early accounts it appears that Rollin and his brother, T. J., had a working agreement whereby T. J. invested in the land and Rollin in equipment. It is not known definitely how much land the Coopers owned but it is estimated that they either owned or controlled close to 20,000 acres of which 10,400 acres was acquired from the railroads.

It appears also that T. J. suffered financial losses in a plunge in the grain market along about 1885 and as a result mortgaged his land quite heavily. The "squeeze" resulting from reverses and especially the heavy loss from the early and particularly heavy freeze of 1888 dealt the Cooper interests a heavy blow.

A liquidation of the partnership of the two brothers in 1886 resulted in R. C. buying from T. J. 7,000 acres of land which carried a mortgage of $25,000. He also rented 4,400 acres on a cash rental basis and in addition purchased T. J.'s interest in the Townsite Company for $9,000. To finance operations R. C. was then forced to mortgage livestock and equipment.

The big freeze of 1888 put the squeeze on everyone including R. C. Cooper. The county bought seed for nearly everyone in Griggs. The '89 crop which was so badly needed was light, and as a result, foreclosure proceedings started on 21 1/4 sections of Cooper land which had a combined indebtedness of $87,700.00. 1890 was the year of grace and an opportunity for Cooper to redeem, but this crop, too, was light and as a result Cooper was in no position to have his land.

But he took his beating with good grace and when Quincy A. Shaw of Boston arrived to bid in the mortgage and complete the transfer Cooper treated him with such consideration and graciousness that when Shaw boarded the train for his return trip to Boston he gave Cooper free use of the land for another year. This enabled Cooper to recoup his losses and put him back in a solvent financial condition again. 1891 was a good year and Cooper's crop was so tremendous, it was reported, that 50 railroad cars were required to ship his barley crop.

While this marked the end of Coopers' bonanza farm, Cooper was left in such financial condition that he was able to buy back part of his former lands which he continued to farm until about 1916 when he started liquidating his holdings. The original Cooper farms were split up and sold to local people. The Shaw interests made no attempt to farm the land as Cooper had. They were interested only in getting their money out of the land.

Cooper's wealth, prestige and personality caused almost overnight development of this county. This was far, far faster than other territories where settlement and development was more gradual.

Rollin Cooper lived for many years in the town which bore his name, and in later years moved to Florida where in 1938 he died. His wife preceded him in death. Both are buried in the Cooperstown Cemetery. T. J. died and was buried in Colorado.

While jealousy often colored some of the appraisals of Cooper, it cannot be denied that he was a man of unusual ability and character. His humble beginning, his many financial ups and downs, his tactfulness in handling men, his foresight and aggressiveness all point to the fact that he was a man of more than average capabilities. Some will argue that Cooper's overnight development of the bonanza farm, the county and the town, later caused a stagnation which limited the town, in particular, to a city half the size of its potential. But, there are so many factors which enter into such a viewpoint that such as opinion is hardly worth consideration. In any appraisal it must be acknowledged that Cooper had the ability to leave an imprint in local history that will remain as long as there is a Cooperstown and a Griggs County.

Source:  Cooperstown Diamond Jubilee 1882-1957 Page 8

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