- Historic Sites
“all My Immense Labor For Nothing… ”
Author of a nightmare fantasy about what the twentieth century might be like, Ignatius Donnelly never saw his other radical ideas—even the good ones—come to pass
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
The moment seemed well timed. At the end of 1855 Minnesota (then three years away from statehood) claimed forty thousand souls. By the fall of 1857 that number more than tripled, and Donnelly vigorously went after his share of the influx. He edited the Emigrant Aid Journal , a glorified land promotion circular, of which the first issue appeared in December, 1856. It went cast, promising opportunity and wealth in Nininger. A German-language edition went to Pennsylvania and overseas. Donnelly organixed an Athenetim Company and planned a library to house its meetings. He started a musical society and saw to it that the Episcopal congregation was able to meet Sundays in the schoolhonsc. He sold stock in the new Nininger and St. Peter Railroad Company, and contributed $175 of his own money toward a river steamboat to be built in Cincinnati.
By early summer of 1857 there were over five hundred settlers in Niningcr—more came in with each steamer—several sawmills, two general stores, two dry goods stores, a druggist, and a hotel with a spacious lounge and eight kinds of imported wines in its cellar. (Donnelly neither smoked nor drank, hut the hotel did serve oysters, for which he always had a weakness.) Lots sold for over Sioo each, and the young promoter’s ledger reckoned his net worth at almost Sioo.ooo. Kate joined her husband in the new boom town and gave him the help and encouragement she was steadily to provide through their years together. Donnelly later wrote of her arrival: “We crossed the Mississippi into the beautiful land where we made our home. We were young, we were hopeful; we loved one another; we possessed the universe.” Kate was a remarkable woman. At twenty-two, she had been principal of the Ringgold public school in Philadelphia. But that year she sent her resignation to the board of directors, thanking them for their kindness and adding that she had “the oiler of a better situation”—the hand of lgnatius. She stood an even five feet tall, built much like her husband, and possessed an excellent singing voice. She was a practicing Catholic, sang often at St. Mary’s Church in St. Paul, but was not above singing also in the Baptist church when her services were needed to help it out of debt.
From the veranda of the big house he had built on the bluff Donnelly jokingly asked a neighbor what he should do with the rest of his life now that, at twenty-five, he was a rich man. The answer was not long in coming.
The Minnesota land boom created such demand for loan money that the local banks were taking three per cent a month interest on their ninety-day notes. At these rates, substantial amounts of eastern capital flowed into the state—to be loaned out to land developers and speculators. On August 24, the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company closed its doors—overextended, mismanaged, and insolvent. Holders of the company’s notes, caught with worthless collateral, frantically began calling in other loans to cover their shortage. Like a closely stacked row of dominoes, theloan calls and foreclosures tumbled westward. By October, Minnesota’s banks were drained dry.
Desperately short of money, Nininger issued local scrip—which was not honored. The inflow of new residents ceased. Construction stopped. By May of 1858 the Nininger and St. Peter Railroad scheme was dead, the steamboat payments defaulted on, and the Emigrant Aid Journal well past its last issue. Worst of all, the population moved stores, houses, and baggage three miles southeast to the longer-established Hastings, where the steamboats still stopped regularly. Donnelly’s large house remained alone at Nininger. With a large, unsalable acreage still on his hands, the answer for the future was pretty clear. He would engage in farming.
Ignatius Donnclly was not born to be a farmer. He sunburned quickly, particularly on his nose, and his small hands never became fully conditioned to field work. While he enjoyed the out-of-doors, neither temperament nor physique fitted him for long days behind a team of horses. As a would-be gentleman farmer, he wrote in his diary: Wheat , I love to look at the noble cereal—golden wheat—“round and plump as any grozet”—full of bread for man. It tells us of bright sunshine, cool nights, happy homes. … 2 oz. chloroform and 2 oz. Olive Oil equal parts—Liniment for neuralgia of limbs. When headache comes on take Belladonna 20 drops in ½ glass of water.
It is not surprising that he borrowed as soon as possible to pay someone else to do his field work and turned his major attention to politics. Donnelly had been a Democrat in Philadelphia until he broke with the party on the slavery issue. In Minnesota he twice campaigned hard for a seat as a Republican in the state legislature and lost both times. In 1859, at twentyeight years of age, Donnelly received the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor and conducted a grueling canvass for votes, accompanying the patrician nominee for governor, Alexander Ramsey, in the campaign stagecoach.