The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Allen, Benjamin Franklin "Frank"
(April 26, 1829–April 15, 1914)

–early Des Moines businessman—was known at the height of his career as a great and humane capitalist. He was born into a family of Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled in the Ohio Valley at the turn of the 19th century. His father, John, was a printer and part owner of a newspaper at Salem, Indiana. During the cholera epidemic of 1833, John and his wife, Jane, died within a few days of each other.

    Two of the boy's uncles were officers in the regular army and at the same time keen for private business ventures. Captain James Allen Jr., commandant at Fort Des Moines, not only chose the site for the fort but in 1843 sold the army materials to build it. Troops were stationed there to keep settlers off the land until October 11, 1845, when title to a huge tract of land would pass from the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians to the United States.

    Residents of the tiny settlement who had taken over the old fort buildings first saw Ben jamin Franklin Allen in the fall of 1848, shortly after he had served as a civilian teamster in Mexico during the Mexican War. He was an affable 19-year-old, sociable and full of ambition. His immediate task was to manage the land claims of his uncle James, who had died in 1846 at Fort Leavenworth.

    Unlike most other settlers in the area, Frank held substantial funds for investment, especially to buy land. With a partner, he ran a general store for a time, then went on to private banking as B. F. Allen & Co. Until 1857 banks were technically illegal in Iowa but were tolerated. In 1857 the state adopted a law permitting qualified banks to issue their own paper money. Allen got a charter but was disappointed in the small volume of bank notes the law allowed. In Nebraska, where he also got a charter, the law was more lenient, so he concentrated on his Nebraska currency. The new institution's office was in Omaha, but on each bank note was stamped notice that it was redeemable at face value either there or from Allen in Des Moines. Since the young banker always exchanged in specie, the notes circulated at par. That turned out to be of tremendous importance when the Panic of 1857 struck. Banks and other businesses throughout the nation, caught overextended and unable to borrow, failed. Allen came to the rescue of Des Moines firms, making loans from his stack of solid Nebraska bank notes. Further, he endorsed outstanding promissory notes of troubled companies, giving them a chance to recover and making himself a godsend to grateful creditors. The likely source of capital that made it possible for the 28-year-old with little financial experience to borrow money to redeem currency was his uncle Robert, an army quartermaster. Undoubtedly, another basis of strength was his lofty self-confidence.

   As the city's leading booster, few matters of importance to the growing city of Des Moines escaped Frank Allen's attention. He was a director or president of insurance companies, railroads, banks, the gas company, and various industrial firms, and even served a term in the state senate. He always had time, energy, and money to devote to development projects and to good works generally. He made loans on little more security than a handshake. Nothing attracted more attention than his flamboyant Second Empire house, Terrace Hill (now the governor's residence). On January 29, 1869, Allen and his wife, the former Arathusa West, threw an extravagant party that jointly warmed the house and observed their 15th wedding anniversary. (The Allens had six children, two of whom died in infancy.) Yet just four years later he bought a bank in Chicago and moved his family there. People in Des Moines thought he wanted new worlds to conquer. Actually, he was insolvent and heavily in debt and wanted use of the bank's money and thus at least temporarily to avoid prison. When the facts came out, many Des Moines people would not accept them. Neither would two Chicago criminal juries.

    Allen attempted a comeback in storekeeping in Leadville, a Colorado silver mining town, and so began a series of failures. He was dismissed from his final job–a good one with the federal forest service in California– for graft.
Sources For more on Allen, see Scherrie Goettsch and Steve Weinberg, Terrace Hill: The Story of a House and the People Who Touched It (1978); and David Wiggins, The Rise of the Allens: Two Soldiers and the Master of Terrace Hill (2002).
Contributor: David Wiggins