Mr. Sibley was duly complimented by the members of the royal family and others present, including the ambassadors of the great powers. Mr. Collins, his colleague in the telegraph enterprise, shared in these attentions. Mr. Sibley was recorded in the official blue book of the State department of St. Petersburg as "the distinguished American," by which title he was generally known. Of this book he has a copy as a souvenir of his Russian experience. His intercourse with the Russian authorities was also facilitated by a very complimentary letter from Secretary Seward to Prince Gortchakoff. The Russian government agreed to build the line from Irkootsk to the mouth of the Amoor River. After 1,500 miles of wire had been put up, the final success of the Atlantic cable caused the abandonment of the line, at a loss of $3,000,000. This was a loss in the midst of success, for Mr. Sibley had demonstrated the feasibility of putting a telegraphic girdle round the earth. In railway enterprises the accomplishments of his energy and management have been no less signal than in the establishment of the telegraph.
One of these was the important line of the Southern Michigan and Northern Indiana Railway. His principal efforts in this direction have been in the Southern States. After the war, prompted more by the desire of restoring amicable relations than by the prospect of gain, he made large and varied investments at the South, and did much to promote renewed business activity. At Saginaw. Mich., he became a large lumber and salt manufacturer. He bought much property in Michigan, and at one time owned vast tracts in the Lake Superior region, where the most valuable mines have since been worked. While he has been interested in bank and manufacturing stocks, his larger investments have been in land. Much of his pleasure has been in reclaiming waste territory and unproductive investments, which have been abandoned by others as hopeless. The satisfying aim of his ambition incites him to difficult undertakings, that add to the wealth and happiness of the community, from which others have shrunk, or in which others have made shipwreck.
Besides his stupendous achievements in telegraph and railway extension, he is unrivaled as a farmer and seed grower, and he has placed the stamp of his genius on these occupations, in which many have been content to work in the well-worn ruts of their predecessors.
The seed business was commenced in Rochester thirty years ago. Later, Mr. Sibley undertook to supply seeds of his own importation and raising and others' growth, under a personal knowledge of their vitality and comparative value. He instituted many experiments for the improvements of plants, with reference to their seed-bearing qualities, and has built up a business as unique in its character as it is unprecedented in amount. He cultivates the largest farm in the State, occupying Howland Island, of 3,500 acres, in Cayuga County, near the Erie Canal and the New York Central Railroad, which is largely devoted to seed culture; a portion is used for cereals, and 500 head of cattle are kept. On the Fox Ridge farm, through which the New York Central Railroad passes, where many seeds and bulbs are grown, he has reclaimed a swamp of six hundred acres, making of great value what was worthless in other hands, a kind of operation which affords him much delight. His ownership embraces fourteen other farms in this State, and also large estates in Michigan and Illinois.
The seed business is conducted under the firm name of Hiram Sibley & Co., at Rochester and Chicago, where huge structures afford accommodations for the storage and handling of seeds on the most extensive scale. An efficient means for the improvement of the seeds is their cultivation in different climates. In addition to widely separated seed farms in this country, the firm has growing under its directions several thousands of acres in Canada, England, France, Germany, Holland, and Italy. Experimental grounds and greenhouses are attached to the Rochester and Chicago establishments, where a sample of every parcel of seed is tested, and experiments conducted with new varieties. One department of the business is for the sale of horticultural and agricultural implements of all kinds. A new department supplies ornamental grasses, immortelles, and similar plants used by florists for decorating and for funeral emblems. Plants for these purposes are imported from Germany, France, the Cape of Good Hope, and other countries, and dyed and colored by the best artists here.
As an illustration of their methods of business, it may be mentioned that the firm has distributed gratuitously, the past year, $5,000 in seeds and prizes for essays on gardening in the Southern States, designed to foster the interests of horticulture in that section.
The largest farm owned by Mr. Sibley, and the largest cultivated farm in the world, deserves a special description. This is the "Sullivant Farm," as formerly designated, but now known as the "Burr Oaks Farm," originally 40,000 acres, situated about 100 miles south of Chicago, on both sides of the Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific Railroad. The property passed into the hands of an assignee, and, on Mr. Sullivant's death in 1879, came into the possession of Mr. Sibley. His first step was to change the whole plan of cultivation. Convinced that so large a territory could not be worked profitably by hired labor, he divided it into small tracts, until there are now many hundreds of such farms; 146 of these are occupied by tenants working on shares, consisting of about equal proportions of Americans, Germans, Swedes, and Frenchmen. A house and a barn have been erected on each tract, and implements and agricultural machines provided. At the center, on the railway, is a four-story warehouse, having a storage capacity of 20,000 bushels, used as a depot for the seeds grown on the farm, from which they are shipped as wanted to the establishments in Chicago and Rochester. The largest elevator on the line of the railway has been built, at a cost of over $20,000; its capacity is 50,000 bushels, and it has a mill capable of shelling and loading twenty-five cars of corn a day.
Near by is a flax mill, also run by steam, for converting flax straw into stock for bagging and upholstery. Another engine is used for grinding feed. Within four years there has sprung up on the property a village containing one hundred buildings, called Sibley by the people, which is supplied with schools, churches, a newspaper, telegraph office, and the largest hotel on the route between Chicago and St. Louis. A fine station house is to be erected by the railway company.
Mr. Sibley is the president and largest stockholder of the Bank of Monroe, at Rochester, and is connected with various institutions. He has not acquired wealth simply to hoard it. The Sibley College of Mechanic Arts of Cornell University, at Ithaca, which he founded, and endowed at a cost of $100,000, has afforded a practical education to many hundreds of students. Sibley Hall, costing more than $100,000, is his contribution for a public library, and for the use of the University of Rochester for its library and cabinets; it is a magnificent fire-proof structure of brownstone trimmed with white, and enriched with appropriate statuary. Mrs. Sibley has also made large donations to the hospitals and other charitable institutions in Rochester and elsewhere. She erected, at a cost of $25,000, St. John's Episcopal Church, in North Adams, Mass., her native village. Mr. Sibley has one son and one daughter living - Hiram W. Sibley, who married the only child of Fletcher Harper, Jr., and resides in New York, and Emily Sibley Averell, who resides in Rochester. He has lost two children - Louise Sibley Atkinson and Giles B. Sibley.
A quotation from Mr. Sibley's address to the students of Sibley College, during a recent visit to Ithaca, is illustrative of his practical thought and expression, and a fitting close to this brief sketch of his practical life: "There are two most valuable possessions which no search warrant can get at, which no execution can take away, and which no reverse of fortune can destroy; they are what a man puts into his head - knowledge; and in to his hands - skill." - Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Biography.
Several correspondents in The Lancet have lauded hydrastis as a most useful drug in dyspepsia.