Governor William Larrabee

William was born in Ledyard, CT on January 20, 1832. He was one of 9 children.

  At the age of 15 or 16, he lost his right eye in a shooting accident which is why most of his later pictures are taken as a profile showing his left side. However, he never wore an eye patch since he was not ashamed or offended by his disfigurement. This injury prevented him from serving in the Civil War. Shown to the left is one of the very few pictures taken with a full frontal view of William.

William Larrabee, having received a common school education in Connecticut, and spending two months in a private academy (The Bacon Academy in Colchester, CT), received the elements of a business training from his father.

He taught country school at 19 for two terms near his home and moved to Clayton County, Iowa at the age of 21 (in 1853). He taught one term at Hardin in Allamakee County, Iowa. He then became forman of the Grand Meadow farm of his bother-in-law. Over the following years he acquired land, farmed it, and eventually became one of the largest landowners in Iowa with many farms and thousands of acres. He regarded Iowa farms as about the best and surest way to invest money to secure reasonable and certain dividends.

He was a farmer, banker, miller, educator, and politician. In 1856 he went into the milling business in Clermont (by purchasing one-third interest in a flour mill in Clermont and full interest of the Brick City Mills in 1859) and continued until 1873, when he sold his milling interests and spent three months in Europe and Palestine. This was his first real vacation. Anecdote: In December, 1856, he started on foot to Winona, Minnesota, to enter some land he had selected. It was a winter of unprecedented snow and blizzards and between Rochester and Winona the young man lost the road. He was without an overcoat and his feet were protected only by socks and cowhide boots. Toward midnight, hald numbed, drowsy and exhausted, he began to visualize his death, the possible feast of the wolves, and the finding of his skeleton. It occurred to him that people would say he had been drunk, although he had never tasted liquor, and he resolved never to ascribe accidents to drink unless he knew the facts. Fortunately his anxiety was needless. At last he saw a glimmer of light. It was from a settler's cabin and the future governor of Iowa was warmed. (Note 4)

Anecdote: A farmer who had found it impossible to pay even the interest on a note because of the ravages of chinch bugs told this story - "Mr Larrabee had bought this note and the farmer went to him, actually trembling with anxiety, expecting foreclosure. Instead, Mr Larrabee reduced the interest rate from ten to eight per cent, told the man to pay when he could and inquired whether he needed money for living expenses." (Note 4) "Banking was also one of Larrabee's financial interests. In 1872 he and his younger brother Frank bought the controlling interest in the First National Bank at McGregor, Iowa. By 1885 he had connections with thirteen different banks in Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota, including the one at Clermont." (1)

During his younger years, Larrabee worked early and late, often putting in twenty hours a day for months at a time. That was the way he achieved success, and it is the recipe he gave to young men who would succeed - work, work, work.

He was married to Anna Matilda Appelman on September 12, 1861 in Clermont, Iowa. Anecdote: A friend of Mr. Larrabee stopped at Larrabee's mill on the day of the wedding. Larrabee asked his friend what brought him to Clermont that day, his friend replied that he was there for HIS wedding. Whereupon Mr Larrabee dusted the flour from his shoulders, donned his coat, and set out on foot for the farm home of his bride, a mile out of town. Beside the front door a yellow rose bush grew, so he plucked one and presented it to his bride. She placed it in her hair and that was her wedding bouquet. (note 3)

He stocked his home with one of the largest libraries in the state and read widely with an emphsis on history and economics. His other pursuits included "fruit-growing experiments, the invention of a grain separator, and travel." (1)

He also used an "Edison Language Phonograph Machine" used to learn a foreign language. Larrabee bought it to teach himself Spanish at the age of 70. He needed to go to Cuba and didn't want to be dependent on an interpreter. (Note 3)

As a Republican, he was elected to the Iowa senate in 1867 and served as a state senator for 18 years. He was renominated by acclamation, without opposition, and re-elected in a district which began to send democrats in his place as soon as he retired. During his terms, he fought for the farmers against high freight rates.

He was elected Governor of Iowa in 1885 running on a campaign of "A schoolhouse on every hill and no saloons in the valley." In addition to supporting temperance and women's suffrage, he supported education for all - men, women, and handicapped.

"When Iowa Republicans looked for a candidate for the 1886 gubernatorial elections, they chose Larrabee because his activity in the antirailroad movement had won enough favorable notice to make him the logical choice. When the Republican State Convention assembled in Des Moines on August 26, 1885, Larrabee was voted in (703 1/2 votes) with Capt John A.T. Hull second (374 votes) and serious consideration given to Judge Josiah Given. The platform was concerned largely with tariff and temperance. The Democratic nominee was Charles Whiting. The campaign was heated with considerable mudslinging. Larrabee was characterized as a unscrupulous capitalist and Whiting was denounced as an unpatriotic Copperhead. Larrabee was not a dynamic orator, but had a businesslike and serious manner. The Des Moines Iowa State Register described his inaugural address as: '.. the message of an independent and fearless Governor and plainly that of a man who is going to use the power of his office solely for the public good.' " (1)

"His extensive land holdings caused no end of trouble later during his political career. During the latter days of Larrabee's campaign for Governor of Iowa in 1885, the Democratic Des Moines Leader published a long list of the mortgages which he held in Fayette and Clayton countines, all totaling $249,794.08. (1)"

He was elected, receiving 175,504 votes against 168,502 for Charles C. Whiting, democratic and fusion nominee. Two years later he was re-elected, receiving, 169,686 votes against 153,526 for T. J. Anderson, the democratic and fusion nominee.

The Governor's office at the (State) Capitol was first occupied by Governor Buren Sherman in 1885. The first Governor to occupy the office for a full term was Governor William Larrabee, in 1886.

A Senator who sat beside him in the Senate declared him to be "a man of the broadest comprehension and information, an extraordinarily clear reasoner, fair and conscientious in his conclusions, and of Spartan firmness in his matured judgment," and said that "he brings the practical facts and philosophy of human nature, the science and history of law, to aid in his decisions, and adheres with the earnestness of Jefferson and Sumner to the fundamental principles of the people's rights."

  After his two terms as Governor (1886 - 1890) he retired to Montauk in Clermont. After his retirement, he served in various governmental and civic positions, such as a member of the University of Iowa board of regents. During this time (in 1893) he also wrote "The Railroad Question - A Historical and Practical Treatise on Railroads, and Remedies for Their Abuses." It was printed in 9 editions and considered to be THE authoritative text on railroads. (He was one of the first people to own and use a typewriter that had both capital and lower case letters. He had to type since his handwriting was virtually unreadable.)
Governor Larrabee at his Montauk desk

When Theodore Roosevelt became president he (Larrabee) was one of five men called into a conference for advice. When the division between Progressives and Conservatives split the Republican Party, he stuck with TR (Roosevelt). When he was dying, literally, in 1912 he asked to be taken to the polling place to cast his ballot for his friend TR - the Bull Moose candidate. (Note 3)

"Larrabee held learning in the highest regard and believed in tax-supported education for all students. While he was governor, Iowa Agricultural College gave free tuition for six months to three residents from each county. At the time of his death, he was in the process of designing and building "Iowa's ideal school," which was presented as a gift to Clermont. He advocated an improved public library. One of the first lending libraries west of the Mississippi was established at the Union Sunday School in Clermont in 1877." (5)

He was a strong believer in the value of an education and an advocate of state institutions for infirm, disabled, or disadvantaged people so he sought improvements and accountablility in state government. In 1898, an Iowa Board of Control was established for state prisons, hospitals, and asylums. Larrabee became chair of the first board for 2 years. (2)

  In 1912, he and Anna presented to Clermont the huge stone school building, valued at that time at $100,000. It was designed to be "Iowa's Ideal School." Larrabee held learning in the highest regard. It served as a grade school until 1990. (3)

He was very formal and strict, but also considered to be fair. His children ate separately until they were old enough to be mannerly and add to the conversation at the table. All meals were formal.

He passed away on November 16, 1912 and is buried in God's Acre Cemetary in Clermont, Iowa in a shared plot with his wife of 51 years Anna.

(1) J. Brooke Workman from his MA thesis at the Iowa State Teachers College; Excerpted from the "Iowa Journal of History, July 1959"
(2) "Iowa Heritage Illustrated; Spring 2004
(3) "Midwest Streams, Trails & Tales" 1Q1998 Maurice Telleen page 48
(4) "The Palimpset" - March 1941 - Published by State Historical Society of Iowa
(5) "The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa"
"Progressive Men of Iowa"
Montauk historical information (State of Iowa)
Larrabee family history and lore

Interesting Links

Dedication: A story about Governor Larrabee's dedication of a brass marker for the Spirit Lake Relief Expedition

Temperance Statement: A copy of Governor Larrabee's 1886 Temperance Proclamation

Agricultural Report: Governor Larrabee's Iowa Agricultural Report of 1888

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