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The Times-Delphic

The life of Francis Marion Drake

Francis Marion Drake made most of his money founding railroad networks in Southern Iowa and donated what would be valued as multiple millions of dollars today to Drake University. Photo courtesy of the drake archives

Editor’s Note: The first reference to Museum Curator Leo Landis was mistakenly cut from the article when it went live. It has been fixed.

In February of 1881, in uncertain financial positions, a group of men interested in moving Oskaloosa College to Des Moines met. 

For months, they’d been discussing the move in secret, partly to avoid Oskaloosa’s outcry, but also because it was difficult to finance the move. Even in Oskaloosa, the college hadn’t been able to pay its professors, leading to three leading members departing. Another problem lurked in the background — if Oskaloosa College were to move to Des Moines, it would need a new name.

During the 1881 meeting, a proponent of the move named D.R. Lucas pulled out a telegraph he’d received and kept secret, according to Ira Anderson’s recollection in “The Beginning of Drake University.”

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The telegraph had these words: “I appreciate your consideration…If the promoters of the new university to fill that blank with my name, they are authorized to draw on me for $20,000. Signed, F. M. Drake.” 

After listening to the telegram, the supporters of the move pounded on the tables and threw books at Lucas, upset that he’d kept the telegraph a secret, and ordered him to fill the blank with Drake. Hence, Drake University had a name. 

The name “F. M. Drake,” on the telegraph would end up being Francis Marion Drake, the first Board of Trustees chair from 1881 to 1903 and co-founder of Drake University. It’s actually unclear how much he donated, as many of his donations were items such as gold watches and the Drake Observatory telescope and he helped secure the patronage of other donors. However, he was the primary donor behind many buildings on campus, such as Cole Hall and Sheslow Auditorium. 

Archives associate Benedict Chatelain believes that family and school connections to Drake University influenced Drake’s donations. Drake had been on the Board of Trustees for Oskaloosa College — the college which many faculty would divert to Drake University from. 

Drake’s sister Henrietta married George Carpenter, a founder of Drake, and was also a librarian at Drake. Their daughter, Mary Carpenter, would become a librarian and the first dean of women. 

“With that family connection and the fact that he had the means to provide that financial support, that was a big factor,” Chatelain said.  

The life of Francis Marion Drake 

Born to Harriet Jan O’Neal and John Adams Drake in 1830, Francis Marion Drake and his family moved from Illinois to Iowa in 1837 before it was a state — Iowa was admitted to the Union in 1846. 

According to Leo Landis, museum curator for the Iowa Historical Society, Illinois, and Iowa were still part of the Western frontier at the time. Living there would have been difficult, and to go further West, a person would either have to travel through land mostly inhabited by Native Americans who did not want them there or take a boat around the Southern coast. 

“Whether it was his mother Harriet or his father John, or just his own upbringing, [Drake was] a person who was not risk-averse at all,” Landis said. 

In 1852 during the California Gold Rush, Drake traveled to California, and on the way faced an attack from members of the Pawnee Nation. Two years later, Drake escorted a team of cattle to California and traveled back by ship. On the way back to Iowa, his ship sank, and he worked to rescue other survivors. 

“You’ve got [a Native American attack] going on in the first trip and then a shipwreck on the second trip as he’s trying to return back to Iowa. You think and deconstruct what it must have been like for him. He’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve survived these things. What else am I going to endure in my lifetime?’” Landis said. 

In 1861, the Civil War began. Drake, who had been working as a merchant, enlisted and slowly worked his way up in the ranks, including one field promotion to brigadier general, where he would have led about 4,000 soldiers. During the war, he was wounded twice and captured by Confederate soldiers, but a prison trade freed him. 

“His superiors had no concern about putting him in positions of authority. They felt like he had good judgment, that he demonstrated courage and was stout-hearted in battle, so you didn’t have to worry about him getting nervous,” Landis said. “He had survived a shipwreck. He had survived [an] interaction with hostile Native Americans. He had experiences that [meant] he was able to remain calm in tense situations.” 

After the war ended, Drake began working in the railroad business that would connect southern Iowans, especially farming communities to cities. He served as president of several railroad companies. It was through these railroads that Drake would earn most of his capital, having built it up from his inheritance.
“He saw the need for and had the ability and foresight to build railroads where they were needed,” Chatelain said. 

Landis said this railroad network facilitated southern Iowa’s growth. 

“[Drake University’s] legacy is certainly big, but [so is] the legacy…that he was building in southern Iowa to create this network of railroads that allowed goods to be shipped by farmers to market or farm families to get materials to their communities,” Landis said. 

 In part because of his railroad network, and in part because of his Civil War experience and the ongoing debate about the prohibition of alcohol, Drake was elected governor of Iowa in 1895. Landis said that, at the time, it would have been “hard to find somebody better [for the governorship] than Francis Marion Drake.” 

While Drake only served in the governor’s position for one year due to failing health, he is remembered for his strong opposition to capital punishment, according to Landis. 

In his 1898 biennial message as governor, Drake would address topics such as education, the orphan’s home and railroads. He concluded his talk by surrendering his office with confidence that the one who would replace him would serve Iowa well. 

“Here has been my only home from early childhood, since before the time that there was an ‘Iowa’ on the map,” Drake said. “I have seen all its growth and participated in it; its handful of people grow into millions; its vast stretch of bleak and forbidding prairie made the most productive fields on earth; and the embryo commonwealth become the 10th state in the Union in point of population, foremost in agricultural productions, and in the van of educational effort.” 

Drake passed away in 1903, leaving an additional $50,000 — worth over $1.5 million today — to Drake University in his will. The Drake archives have photographs of him, correspondence with other figures related to Drake University, two swords of his — one of which he used during the Civil War — and related family collections. 

Today, not only is Drake University named for him, but so is the Francis Marion Drake Society Dinner. In the past, Drake used to host the President’s Circle dinner that honored donors who gave $1,000 to unrestricted pools, meaning the funds could go to any part of Drake that needed them. However, the Francis Marion Drake Society Dinner, which goes back over 18 years, honors people who gave to any fund over $1,000, according to John Smith, vice president of University Advancement.

“He was the original benefactor to the University, and through his vision and generosity, the University was named in his honor,” Smith said. “We felt it was appropriate to continue that spirit of what he started as an example of, followed by our current donors in contemporary times to continue honoring both his name and letting them be celebrated as those who followed in the path that he created.” 

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  • B

    Bob ModersohnApr 4, 2024 at 8:07 am

    Who’s Landis? I could not find a first reference to that person. I seem to remember a Landis at Drake in the late 1960s but not sure. –bob

    • T

      TD WebmasterApr 9, 2024 at 10:52 am

      Hi Bob,

      We’re so sorry, the first reference was unfortunately deleted when the story was uploaded. It’s be added now. Thanks for catching that!