Who owns the 200,000+ acres of prime Iowa land that helped finance the beginnings of Iowa State University? ISU Extension and Outreach is connecting with landowners and telling their stories.
By Carole Gieseke
Ray Hansen’s a-ha! moment came during an Emerging Leaders Academy meeting.
Hansen (’83 ag ed, MS ’03), an Iowa State Extension director of value-added agriculture, was listening to an ISU history lecture by retired professor of sociology Gerald Klonglan when his ears perked up. Klonglan was explaining the process of identifying the land granted to support the young land-grant college back in the 1800s. Like so many people, Hansen didn’t fully understand where the land came from and how the profit from the sales came back to Iowa State.
“I understood the land-grant concept and mission, but I had no idea that it was 200,000-plus acres,” Hansen said. “Until I heard Gerald speak, I didn’t realize the massiveness of the land that was used in the land-grant process.”
Hansen pondered this bit of information but didn’t do anything with it for a couple of years, he said, “because I thought I was the only person that didn’t realize how big it was.” But then, during a chance meeting with an Iowa State colleague, an idea was formed to plot the original parcels of land on a map.
The Land-Grant Legacy Project was born.
Our land-grant history
Ray Hansen and his ISU Extension and Outreach colleagues now knew the scope of land involved, and they already had boots on the ground in every county in Iowa State’s Extension offices. They were eager to learn more.
But first, it’s important to understand the basic timeline of Iowa State’s beginnings, because there’s still a lot of confusion:
- March 22, 1858: Iowa’s legislature established the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm.
- June 21, 1859: Ames is chosen as the site of the new college.
- 1859: The original college farm of 648 acres is purchased from Story and Boone County landowners (note that this happened BEFORE the land-grant act).
- July 2, 1862: President Abraham Lincoln signs the Morrill Land-Grant Act, providing parcels of land to the states to create colleges that would provide instruction in agriculture and mechanic arts, based on science and open to all.
- July 3, 1862: Iowa Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood calls a special session of the legislature, saying that Iowa needs to be first in line so it can get the very best available land.
- Sept. 11, 1862: The Iowa legislature officially accepts the provisions of the Morrill Act, the first state in the nation to do so.
- September 1862 – January 1863: Peter Melendy, appointed by Gov. Kirkwood to implement the selection of the land, travels to northwest Iowa to view the available land parcels (state apportionment was based on the 1860 census).
- March 29, 1864: Iowa legislature approves the land-grant funds to the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm in Ames.
- Oct. 1, 1868: The first students arrive at the new agricultural college for “preparatory training.”
- March 17, 1869: Iowa Agricultural College is formally opened for the admission of students; the class contains 136 men and 37 women coming from 55 Iowa counties.
So, that’s the creation story in a nutshell. The part of the story that so intrigued Hansen and his colleagues is the tidbit about Peter Melendy selecting the land. This is a story that really hadn’t been told before.
Brandon Duxbury (MA ’17 history), a graduate assistant and PhD candidate in Iowa State’s Department of History, was brought on the project to research the historical aspects of the land-grant story. Like most people, Duxbury’s knowledge of the land-grant process was limited, and flawed.
“To be honest, coming into it, I had no idea,” he said. “When I heard ‘land-grant institution’ I never even asked myself what it meant. I just assumed the land that campus sits on is the land-grant. Come to find out, it’s a lot more interesting than that. There’s a lot more land involved, and it’s nowhere near the actual campus.”
He learned that Melendy – an Ohio native, cattle breeder, and future mayor of Cedar Falls – was on the original board of trustees for the college and model farm between 1858 and 1862. When Congress passed the Morrill Act, the state of Iowa already had a framework in place, so it was able to act very quickly.
Melendy’s assignment was to evaluate all the unclaimed federal land in Iowa and claim the finest 200,000-plus acres on behalf of the state. He acted fast, spending a month in Ames and Des Moines going over surveyors’ maps and notes to learn what might be the prime agricultural land with the highest values.
“Then he spent two months traveling around northwest Iowa, meeting with federal land agents, meeting with people who had local knowledge of the area, and he selected about 1,240 quarter sections of 160 acres each,” Duxbury explained. “The land he chose represented the best ground at the time, with very specific parameters: high, well-drained slope soils, access to open water, close to transportation. They wanted the first settlers to be successful so they could recruit new settlers.”
Traveling mostly on horseback, the parcels of land he chose were scattered throughout northwest Iowa in counties like Kossuth, Palo Alto, Emmet, Clay, and Ida – 27 counties in all.
Why northwest Iowa? Because much of eastern Iowa had already been settled.
“Melendy did it very fast, because that’s what the governor wanted, and the legislature was in agreement,” said Klonglan (L)(’58 rural sociology, MS ’62, PhD ’63), who is also a retired assistant dean for national programs in the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and assistant director of the Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station.
Within a few years, the land Melendy identified began producing income for the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm to fund its infrastructure, buildings, and faculty hires.
The people behind the land
Fast forward to today. While the settlers who moved onto the 160-acre parcels of land in northwest Iowa in the 1800s may or may not have known that their land payments were helping finance the ag college in Ames, today’s current landowners certainly did not know.
“I don’t think when people bought the ground it made any difference to them that it was used to fund Iowa State or that there was any personal connection at that time,” Hansen said. “They weren’t doing it because of that; they were doing it because it was cherry picked as the best ground available. They were more interested in the quality of the land.”
Duxbury went to state archives in Des Moines and to county historical societies and museums in northwest Iowa, uncovering historical documents that tell the history of the land-grant act in these small parcels of land.
“I think the most fascinating part to me is looking at the people involved within the history,” Duxbury said. “That’s what makes history interesting – people can sit down and read a couple of paragraphs on the Morrill Land-Grant Act, but when you start looking at the individuals involved, that’s what gets people connected to it.”
Once the land parcels had been confirmed and plotted on a map, ISU Extension and Outreach staffers began personally reaching out to landowners, county by county, to inform them of their connections to Iowa State’s history and, in turn, to learn more about the history of the land.
“Once we had the map, it kind of added the ‘wow’ factor,” Hansen said.
The first public unveiling of the project occurred in September 2016, when families in 13 northwest Iowa counties – who own all or part of a quarter-section of land that was first leased or sold under the terms of the Morrill Act – shared their family stories at the Iowa Land-Grant Legacy celebration at the Clay County Fair.
Bob Butcher (A)(’74 animal science) of Holstein was at that celebration, and his reaction to learning he owned land-grant land was one of the highlights of the event for Ray Hansen.
“When we go to an event and somebody totally unexpected comes up and starts looking at the map, and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s my place!’ like Bob Butcher, those are great moments, when they find out for the first time.”
What started with a red square on a map had turned into a celebration of commonality between Iowans who care for the land.
“We want to let these land-owners know about their special connection to Iowa State and land-grant history,” Cathann Kress (A)(’83 social work), then vice president for extension and outreach, said last year before leaving Iowa State for another position. “We also hope they’ll share, for our archives, their history of growing up on this land and caring for it.”
The Extension and Outreach staff, including regional directors and county staffers, have just begun to scratch the surface of what will be a long-term project that has the potential to bring communities together, engaging a whole new population of Iowans.
“I think it’s been a theme with most of the people we’ve talked to: After they get over the excitement of owning this parcel and understanding its history, they always talk about the legacy of it, with their family who’s owned it before, and what they plan to do with it in the future,” Duxbury said. “It’s like one big community, and they’re very proud of that.”
Additional reporting by ISU News Service and ISU Extension and Outreach
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.