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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Larrabee, William
(January 20, 1832–November 16, 1912)

–businessman, legislator, philanthropist, and Iowa governor—was the seventh of nine children of Adam and Hannah Gallup (Lester) Larrabee. He was born in Ledyard, Connecticut, where he received his primary education, plus elements of business training from his father. Although he only completed eighth grade, Larrabee was a lifelong learner. While still in Connecticut, he taught country school for two terms.

    In 1853, at age 21, he moved to Clayton County, Iowa. Two siblings had preceded him, including a sister who accompanied her wealthy husband to Postville to farm 1,700 acres. Larrabee taught one term in Allamakee County and then was employed on his brother-in-law's farm as foreman. He worked hard to achieve success, often putting in 20 hours a day for months at a time. His perennial advice to others seeking prosperity was to work, work, work.

    On September 12, 1861, Larrabee married Anna Matilda Appelman (1842-1931) in Clermont, Fayette County. They had seven children: Charles, Augusta, Julia, Anna, William, Frederic, and Helen. The Larrabees became one of Iowa's most influential and affluent families and contributed to the state's society, intellect, and culture by fostering an interest in education, civic duty, social reform, economic fairness, and the arts.

    Larrabee began amassing his fortune in the milling business. He invested in a Clermont flour mill in 1857 and soon bought out his partners. He operated it until the early 1870s, when corn crops gained popularity over wheat. During the Civil War, he gave free flour to needy families of soldiers. A strong supporter of the Union cause, Larrabee was rejected for military service because he had lost the sight in his right eye in a firearms accident as a teenager.

    Over the following years, Larrabee acquired and farmed land of his own, eventually becoming one of Iowa's largest landowners, with more than 200,000 acres. He regarded real estate as the safest of all investments and the best way to earn reasonable dividends. His extensive landholdings caused him trouble during his 1885 campaign for governor when the Democratic Des Moines Leader published a long list of the mortgages he held, totaling almost $250,000.

    Larrabee also engaged in banking. In 1872 he and a brother bought the controlling inter est in the First National Bank at McGregor, Iowa, and by 1885 he had connections with 13 different banks in Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota, including one at Clermont. He financed and built railroads as well, and although that was not as profitable for him, his knowledge ultimately guided railroad reform legislation in America.

    By the time he reached his early 40s, Larrabee was one of the wealthiest men in the Midwest, allowing him to travel abroad, collect art, and build Montauk, a 14-room mansion on a hill overlooking Clermont. He was an unselfish supporter of the local school and churches. Years later, in 1896, Larrabee purchased what today is the largest Kimball pipe organ of its kind in the United States and had it installed in Clermont's Union Sunday School, where his daughter Anna was the organist for more than 60 years.

    Larrabee's generosity, energy, intelligence and good business sense won him the respect of the town's citizens, making him a likely candidate for political office. Raised as a Whig, Larrabee became a Republican when the new party was formed. In 1867 he was elected to the Iowa Senate, where he served 18 years. A diligent lawmaker, he was on many committees, including chairmanship of ways and means. He had strong views concerning government and was considered a progressive Republican for his day, his progressive ideas sometimes putting him at odds with his fellow party members.

    He competed unsuccessfully for the gubernatorial nomination in 1881. In 1885 he resigned his senate seat to accept the Republican nomination for governor. He was elected by a large margin and reelected in 1887. As Iowa's 13th governor, he championed railroad regulation, public education, prohibition, woman suffrage, racial equality, and civil rights.

    Iowa Republicans chose Larrabee as their candidate in 1885 partly because of his previ ous commitment to railroad reform. The General Assembly was overwhelmingly for state control of railroads, and during his legislative terms Larrabee fought for farmer against high freight rates. As governor, his chief battle was against the railroads, and he took a firm stand in securing legislation to regulate transportation rates across Iowa. In 1893 he wrote and published The Railroad Question: A Historical and Practical Treatise on Railroads, and Remedies for Their Abuses. The book was printed in nine editions and was considered the authoritative text on the subject in Iowa and the nation.

    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. Despite the demands of his many interests, Larrabee always found time to read, stocking his home with one of the largest libraries in the state. At age 70 he used an "Edison Language Phonograph Machine" to teach himself Spanish before traveling to Cuba, so he would not be dependent on an interpreter. He was one of the first to own and use a typewriter that had both capital and lowercase letters, which proved helpful since his handwriting was nearly illegible.

    Prohibition of alcohol proved to be the most divisive issue during Larrabee's tenure as governor. His first campaign slogan was "A schoolhouse on every hill and no saloons in the valley."Pages of his inaugural address were devoted to the failure to enforce existing prohibitory laws. The reform-minded Larrabee allied himself with other causes, including the right of labor to organize, a progressive income tax, duty-free trade, municipal ownership of public utilities, use of scientific methods in agriculture, and conservation of natural resources. He recommended a trial step toward universal suffrage; advocated for state institutions for people with infirmities or disabilities and for those who were disadvantaged; and sought improvements and accountability in state government. Some historians argue that Larrabee set the stage for the progressive movement in Iowa.

    When he left the governorship, Larrabee was suggested as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, but he wanted to give more attention to his family and private interests. He retired to Montauk, but his influence on public thought continued, and he remained vigorous into his old age. He served in governmental and civic positions, including two years as chair of the first Iowa Board of Control for state prisons, hospitals, and asylums, established in 1898. He also was appointed president of the Iowa Commission of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, serving from 1902 to 1905. He supported Theodore Roosevelt when the division between progressives and conservatives split the Republican Party, and in 1912, as Larrabee lay dying, he asked to be taken to a polling place to cast his ballot.

    Larrabee died at the age of 80 and was interred in God's Acres Cemetery in Clermont, in a shared plot with his wife of 51 years.
Sources The Larrabee Papers are housed at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines and Iowa City. See also Mary Bennett, "The Larrabees of Montauk," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 85 (2004), 2–43; Johnson Brigham, Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens (1916); Rebecca Christian, "William Larrabee: Iowa's Outspoken Crusader for Reform," Iowan 32 (Winter 1983), 11–16, 52–53; Ruth A. Gallaher, "From Connecticut to Iowa," Palimpsest 22 (1941), 65–78; Michael Kramme, Governors of Iowa (2006); and J. Brooke Workman, "Governor William Larrabee and Railroad Reform," Iowa Journal of History 57 (1959), 231–66.
Contributor: Nancy Lee

Cite as: Lee, Nancy. "Larrabee, William" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017