By Liisa Freeh
Colonel H. B. Scott, a land agent for CB&Q, communicated extensively with various businesses, institutions, and private individuals across Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Illinois in the 1880s and 1890s. Scott’s correspondence is filled with the particulars of land transactions, the details of which often extend beyond the mere exchange of figures.
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Col. H.B. Scott
One of Scott’s most diligent correspondents was R.M. Stevenson, a citizen of the town of Tarkio, Missouri and cashier at the Tarkio Valley Bank. As such, Stevenson had intimate knowledge of the personal finances of Tarkio residents – including those of Tarkio’s “corn king,” the highly-successful farmer, David Rankin. Through Scott’s communication with primarily Stevenson, but Rankin as well, a timeline unfolds for the project of “booming a town,” through railroad involvement, and complex personal negotiations between a handful of individuals.
Both Rankin and Stevenson wrote to Scott about large-scale plans for Tarkio almost as often as they wrote about specific deals or accounts. Rankin enthusiastically planned expansions for the town’s Tarkio College, as well as a waterworks, electric plant, and eventually even an opera house. Stevenson’s letters to Scott are full of regular requests for land or money to facilitate these projects – and they are also full of private discussions of residents’ finances and characters. The small college town was shaped by these conversations: new land-owners and settlers were discussed and selected across this correspondence, and public works projects moved forward as a result of the information exchanged. Railroad priorities of expanding commerce along their lines balanced – perhaps surprisingly – with personal goals. In March of 1889, Stevenson writes to Scott that “whatever gets you the most money is best” (CB&Q 7.2; Land Dept. Pvt. Land Pprs, Scott, H.B. In-Letters, March 28, 1889) – a recognition that many of his efforts in his town are for the railroad’s benefit. This effort to maximize profit for CB&Q and its agents, went hand-in-hand with “corn king” Rankin’s articulated goal to “boom the town” which he had helped establish, and in which he had invested so much of his personal fortune.
Rankin’s oft-repeated goal to “boom the town,” and the components of that project, are discussed in this letter of June 1889. It was an endeavor that represented his own interests, and those of the railroad.
As they illustrate the growth of a town along the railroad, the letters between Scott, Stevenson, and Rankin also provide insight into the sheer reach of the CB&Q’s Land Department operations. Prominent town residents like Stevenson and Rankin solicited business advice and provided land agents with day-to-day accounts of finances. Such useful and plentiful information allowed agents like Scott to help select new land buyers and residents, and choose which public projects to help fund – factors that shaped the daily lives of the town populace, and the populace itself. Correspondence of this kind effectively allowed the agent to take an active role in planning and growing the towns along the CB&Q’s lines. The relationship was guided by the interests of both town and railroad. It could be mutually beneficial – even if, at times, such detailed information empowered railroad officials to be the parties defining town interests and benefits.