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  • David RankinAmerica’s Greatest Farmer
  • Jason Combs (bio)
Key Words

agriculture, cattle, farming, hogs, Missouri, ranching

A century ago Americans were familiar with stories of banking and industrial giants like Carnegie and Rockefeller, of Morgan and Vanderbilt. Many were also familiar with David Rankin’s story.1 Rankin was born in Sullivan County, Indiana, in 1825 and claimed to not have worn shoes in the summer until his late twenties because his family could not afford to have him wearing out shoes in the warmer months.2 In 1910, at the end of his life, however, Rankin—with a fortune estimated at $4,000,000—was widely known as a true American “rags to riches” success story and enjoyed notoriety on a national scale as America’s greatest farmer.3

Labeled by numerous newspaper accounts as the “richest farmer in the world” and the “Real Corn King,” Rankin’s fame took on symbolic meaning at a time when “more than one of every three Americans lived on farms, a number greater than that at any other point in our country’s history.”4 Rankin was often referred to as the “Rockefeller of Missouri” and two major newspapers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Montgomery Advertiser, called Rankin the “Napoleon of farmers.”5 The Pittsburgh Times declared that he “wears the double crown of the kingdoms of Corn and Cattle” and went so far as to compare Rankin overseeing his farming operation to a “European monarch [who] might ride out to see a battery of artillery going through field maneuvers.”6

The state of Missouri shared in Rankin’s notoriety. The Atlanta Constitution boldly stated that the “great state of Missouri has the distinction of having within her borders the most extensive farmer in the United States, if not in all the world. That person is David Rankin, of Tarkio, Mo.”7 Another publication pointed out that to “possess the largest individual corn [End Page 183] grower in the world is only one of the many great things that bring the commonwealth of Missouri to the attention of her sister states, but to convert this corn into prime beeves, which find their way to the leading markets of the world, is another way of carrying the fame of the American farmer abroad.”8 The Montgomery Advertiser wrote that the “State of Missouri has the distinction of having within her borders as a citizen the most extensive individual farmer in the United States, if not in the civilized world.”9 Upon Rankin’s death the Idaho Register noted that “Missouri lost one of its most unique citizens and the world its greatest agriculturalist.”10

Rankin’s rise to prominence corresponded to a transitional period when agriculture shifted from near subsistence conditions in the early to mid-1800s to one of commercial agriculture based on scientific findings, a business venture often compared to running a factory.11 The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established in 1862 with a focus on scientific advancements to promote the industry, then in 1887 Congress passed the Hatch Act that set up cooperative arrangements between agricultural experiment stations and the Department of Agriculture.12 The USDA, along with banks, hybrid seed dealers, implement companies, and railroads “worked on farmers at the local level with publications, demonstrations, and lectures aimed at enhancing productivity.” Those promoting agricultural modernization often employed the term “efficiency,” and the ideal is perhaps summed up best by International Harvester Company’s promotion “Every Farm a Factory.”13

Despite scientific advancements and the “bombardment of farmers” with addresses, demonstrations, and publications from agricultural colleges, governmental agencies, and institutes, many farmers “held to the ‘methods that prevailed fifty years ago.’”14 So-called book farming was often viewed with contempt.15 One Nebraska farmer shared a popular sentiment dismissing scientific agriculture by stating “if farmers had to depend on what these college boys preach they would be worse offthan they are now.”16 In an attempt to overcome resistance to new techniques, editors and publishers who were anxious to “fill the pages of their new journals and newspapers” touting agriculture as an industry were more than happy to trumpet Rankin’s success story.17...


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pp. 183-213
Launched on MUSE
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