Richard Sykes was a representative for a syndicate based out of Manchester, England looking to make land investments in the northwest United States. He arrived in Dakota Territory in December of 1881 and purchased 45,000 acres from the Northern Pacific Railway for about $1 an acre in Wells, Stutsman and LaMoure counties. His goal was to sell or rent improved land to farmers for a profit.
During the first year, Sykes, his resident farm manager Walter J. Hughes and 125 hired men, plowed 3,000 acres and hauled lumber from Jamestown to construct houses and barns. Then over the next few years he advertised the ready-to-cultivate land in newspapers across the country and even in England. One advertisement listed farms from 100 to 700 acres with good buildings on every farm. Land with a house and barn sold for $8 an acre and additional prairie land at $5 an acre. His land purchase from the railroad had included only odd-numbered sections. Even-numbered sections were owned by the US Government. Thus it was possible to buy or rent land from Sykes and then obtain additional land by homesteading or purchasing an adjoining quarter.
Richard Sykes knew that the success of his farming community required access to the mills in the east through a local railhead. The nearest railroad in 1881 was sixty miles away in Jamestown. So he platted the town of Sykeston in the center of his land purchase near the Pipestem Creek. A large grain elevator was constructed and lots were opened up for sale on the Fourth of July in 1883. The lowest priced residential lots were sold for $35 and choice business lots went for $175.
But Sykes was not the only one to recognize the need for a railhead in this area. Another English investor, John Gwynne Vaughan, saw a survey conducted by the Northern Pacific and determined to sell lots on another town site somewhere within Sykes bonanza community. On one of the even-numbered sections which was public land, Vaughan platted the town of Gwynne City only one mile northwest of Sykeston. He began promoting his town to Eastern investors, describing it as the “Metropolis of Wells County.” His brochures pictured a line of steamboats moving along the Pipestem between Gwynne City and Jamestown. Fortunately for Richard Sykes, the potential competition from Gwynne City was short-lived. The post-office Vaughan had established closed by February of 1883 and Vaughan was later extradited back to England to stand trial for previous crimes committed there. That same summer, the Jamestown and Northern Railroad reached Sykeston.
The legacy Richard Sykes left behind extended beyond the town of Sykeston. He also founded the Pacific Railway towns of Alfred, Bowdon, Chaseley and Edgeley, ND. He is credited with introducing the game of rugby to the United States and he established the Sykes Theological Education Fund to encourage North Dakotans to enter the priesthood. In 1910 Richard Sykes and his family moved to California where he was laid to rest on this day, May 31, 1923.
Written by Christina Campbell
Drache, Hiram M., The Day of the Bonanza (Fargo: ND Institute for Regional Studies; 1964)
Eldredge, Mary, ed. Wells County, ND 1884-1984: A Centennial Souvenir (Harvey: Eldredge Publishing Co.; 1984)
Hudson, John C., Plains County Towns (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 1985)
Sherman, William C. and Playford V. Thorson, ed. Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History (Fargo: ND Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU; 1988)
Sykeston Centennial Book Committee, ed. The First 100: Sykeston, ND Centennial and All-School Reunion (1983)