Maybe he was just sick of all the bragging. Or perhaps the stench of Chicago’s Union Stockyards — and their surrounding slaughterhouses — got to the shipping agent from Zumbrota, Minn. After all, in the 1880s, the stockyards included nearly 400 acres of cattle, hogs and sheep shipped from across the country to the largest meat-processing operation on the planet.
In all that stinky chaos, the agent from a southern Minnesota livestock shipping association grew fed up with a big braggart from St. Louis who was always boasting about his long reach.
“Shucks, we got boys bigger than you where I come from,” the Goodhue County agent finally shot back. The massive Missourian grew incredulous and a bet was hatched.
Other meat dealers wagered heavily that the St. Louis guy — the largest man they’d ever seen — could outreach anyone the Minnesota agent put up. Promising to cover all the bets, the Zumbrota meat dealer sent a telegram to his neighbor David Davidson — a Norwegian émigré who farmed in Roscoe Township, a few miles south of Wanamingo, Minn.
Send Iver on the first train, the telegram said. There’s easy money to be made in Chicago. The third of six Davidson children, 18-year-old Iver Davidson stood nearly 7-foot-2 in his stocking feet.
He outreached the St. Louis bigmouth by half a hand. Winning fistfuls of cash proved to be just the start of his good fortune that day. Circus entrepreneur Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum happened to be in Chicago and heard about the wager at the stockyards.
Barnum offered Iver an attractive contract. For the next three years, Iver Davidson — aka the Roscoe Giant — traveled across the country and the world with the Greatest Show On Earth.
The name of the cattle agent who bet on Iver has been lost to history. But the big guy’s story lives on thanks to relatives.
“His height was highly unusual at that time,” said Lance Johnson, 78, a distant relative and lawyer who splits time between Woodbury and Lutsen. Johnson’s sister, Elaine Tatham, said she isn’t sure how they’re related to the giant from Goodhue County. But she marked the pages dedicated to him in a book about the first 100 years of Zumbrota.
“My father always would talk about the fact that Iver was a relative,” she said from Olathe, Kan.
Iver Davidson was listed as single in the 1900 census — five years before his death in Goodhue County in 1905 at age 42. He had no children, but Iver’s story survives largely because of another shirttail relative.
Edwin Goplen was born in 1895, owned a hardware store in Zumbrota, served on Goodhue County’s soil and conservation district and extensively researched his family’s genealogy.
According to his research, David Davidson married Johanna Larsdatter Hastad in Norway in 1854 and emigrated to Quebec, Canada, in 1865 — traveling with their first three children. Iver was only 2 when his family made its way down the Great Lakes to Chicago.
Flat broke, they ran into some returning Civil War soldiers who spoke Norwegian. They helped David land a job at a lumber mill. He used the money to pay for the family’s move to Red Wing.
From there, they moved to Holden Township, near Kenyon, where friends and relatives from Norway had earlier settled. In 1868, when Minnesota marked its first decade as a state, the Davidsons moved into a log cabin built earlier on Section Four in Roscoe Township.
Although Iver weighed more than 300 pounds, Goplen said, he “was very nicely proportioned and was never considered fat.” Lars and Carl, his two brothers closest in age, “were not as tall as Iver but they too were very large and well proportioned men,” Goplen wrote on a genealogy website. “Because of their size and build they were commonly referred to as the Roscoe Giants.”
After winning the big bet at the stockyards, P.T. Barnum contacted David and Johanna, promising to take good care of their not-so-little boy.
“During the winter months when the circus was inactive, Iver was employed by various theaters because of his size,” Goplen said. “He spent one winter in a New York theater and all he had to do was to appear on the stage holding up a $100 bill in his hand with the promise that anyone who could reach it without jumping could have it. No one ever could reach it and thus he never gave it away.”
Although he died in his early 40s, it’s not believed that Iver Davidson suffered from gigantism or acromegaly — rare hormonal conditions of abnormal growth related to the pituitary gland in children and middle-aged adults.
“Uncle Iver did not have a pituitary disease,” another distant relative posted on a chat room at thetallestman.com — a website dedicated to giants. Although the website includes dozens of taller men, even some 8-footers, Iver has his own page.
“Some of the women in our family are at or close to six feet tall,” the Davidson relative said on the site, admitting she’s only 5-foot-5. “The tall gene is hereditary except for me.”
She said Iver and brothers Carl and Lars all died of heart attacks. The three are buried in the Zumbrota Cemetery.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.