Edward B. Burling’s Early Years in Iowa, 1870-1890

Edward B. Burling (known familiarly as “Ned”) had a distinguished career as a prominent lawyer in Washington, D.C. and as we saw in a prior post was a friend of Katherine Graham, the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, whom Merl Streep played in the current film “The Post.”

Now we commence a chronological examination of Burling’s life. This first installment looks at his humble and modest early years in Iowa. [1]

Eldora, Iowa, 1870-87

Burling was born in the small, frontier village of Eldora, Iowa in 1870, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant and just five years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, and Ned grew up there in very limited circumstances.[2]

His father, Edward Burling, after his clothing store went bankrupt, apparently never did much work while Ned’s mother, Lucy Burnham Burling, worked hard to raise four children and to send all of them to college, three to Grinnell– James P. (Class, 1889), Ned (Class, 1890) and Helen (Class, 1895). [3]

Thereafter Ned did not forget Eldora. He built a house in the town for his mother in the early 20th century and afterwards returned to visit her several times a year. The surrounding countryside, he said, “is lovely to look at . . . and is the country my eyes first rested on. And that always makes a difference.”

Ned carried a life-long love for his mother and hostility towards his father, who also was named Edward. The son even said, “Meeting him [his father] was a great misfortune for my mother,” who after marrying his father was “very poor.” But having “a ne’er-do-well father,” Ned often said, meant that “he had no psychoses and no omnibrooding [sic] presence to oppress.” [1] To the surprise of this author, Ned apparently never expressed remorse over his not having reconciled with his father before the latter’s death in 1907.

Although Ned’s Burling family is regarded as a major American family whose origins in America go back to the late 17th century, Ned’s dislike of his father carried over to all his Burling ancestors, in contrast to his mother’s family, the Burnhams. As Ned said, “The Burlings, it always seemed to me, were shallow, showy, pleasant, agreeable, irresponsible. The Burnhams were the opposite in every respect, careful, prudent, earnest, intelligent, honorable, high minded.”

This personal background undoubtedly underlay Ned’s  rejecting Grinnell College President Howard Bowen’s suggestion that the Library be named after the successful lawyer alum himself who had made the  major financial contribution for the new library in 1959-60. Instead Burling insisted that it be named in honor of his mother without any mention of his father. Perhaps Ned secretly contemplated having the Library named “The Burnham Library.”

Ned claimed that his concern for his mother’s poverty inspired him at an early age to earn money and that after the age of 14 he always paid for his own board. As a teenager he got a job at an Eldora grocery store where he soon learned finance and human nature, years he later described after all of his successes in law as “the most important years of my life.”

Grinnell, Iowa, 1887-1890

It, therefore, was with great reluctance that Ned left Eldora and the promise of a job with an express company to go to another small Iowa town, Grinnell, at his mother’s insistence that he obtain a college education.[4]

Because of the inadequacies of his Eldora 8th grade education, he first had to attend the Grinnell Academy, completing in one year its secondary-school course of three years of Latin and one year of Greek.

In his subsequent desire to finish college as soon as possible in order to start making money again, Burling finished his college courses in two years, earning a B.A. in 1890. He did not “enjoy any part of the three years [at Grinnell]. I was poor, inadequately fed, with a blotched complexion, badly dressed, unattractive to the girls.”  He claimed not to have participated in any extracurricular activities, yet the college annuals list him as being a member of the Grinnell Institute (men’s literary society) and the Critical Association (classical studies group) and having the role of Oedipus Rex in a production of that play.[2] His downplaying the influence of Grinnell is belied by his later admission that he had first “found himself” at Grinnell.

The Academy and the College in those years, 1887-90, were very small. Fewer than 200 students attended the Academy; fewer than 300, the College. Only four buildings (Alumni Hall, Blair Hall, Chicago Hall and Goodnow Hall) served the students with one dormitory for women (Ladies Boarding Hall). Other women and the men had to live in private boarding houses.


The next installment of the Burling saga will move to Massachusetts and Ned’s five years at Harvard’s  College and Law School.


[1] The references for this post can be found in the blogger’s “Edward Burnham Burling: The College’s Quiet Benefactor” (April 2008), a copy of which is in Grinnell College’s Special Collections and Archives. https://www.grinnell.edu/libraries/archives  One of the sources is now online: Jane Thompson-Stahr, The Burling Books: Ancestors and Descendants of Edward and Grace Burling, Quakers 1600-2000] (Vol. I)I(2001).

[2] In 1870, the year of Burling’s birth, Eldora’s population was 1,268, and its population peak of 3,553 occurred in 1940.   The town’s official website is https://www.eldoraiowa.com.

[3] James P. Burling also was a distinguished Grinnell and Harvard graduate; he became a Congregational minister and received a Grinnell honorary D.D. in 1914. (Burling Books at 901-05.) Two of his children were also Grinnell alums– F. Temple Burling (Class, 1917) and Helen Burling Kronwall (Class, 1920)–as were two grandchildren–James P. Burling II (Class, 1952) and Nicholas B. Kronwall (Class, 1957)–and one great-grandchild–F. Temple Burling (Class, 1985). (Burling Books at 905, 1079-81, 1207-09. Yet Brother Ned apparently ignored James’ happy home life while disparaging James as unenergetic and unambitious. (Burling Books at 902.)

[4] The population of the town of Grinnell, 1897-1890, was approximately 3,000. It now has an estimated population of approximately 9,000.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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