E-Sylum Feature Writer and
American Numismatic Biographies author Pete Smith submitted this
article on the founder of the Higgins National Bank Note Museum. Thank you!
William Robert Higgins, Jr.
The origins of Bill Higgins are a bit cloudy, but still interesting. Although various records
indicate he was adopted, the reason for the adoption is part of the mystery.
I will start the story with grandfather Hiram Higgins (1834-1906). He made a fortune as a grain
dealer in Chicago and Burlington, Iowa, before retiring to Los Angeles. When he died, he left a
complex will and trust with an estate worth about a half million dollars. He provided well for his
widow, daughter and three grandchildren. He left a token amount to his son, William Robert
Higgins (1862-1943) who had a strained relationship with his father. There were allegations of
alcohol and drug abuse. William contested the will and the claim was settled by negotiations out
William was a real estate investor with about ten thousand acres of Iowa farmland that provided
rental income. In 1897 he married Bessie Carroll (1866-1961) with an ancestry that qualified her
for the Daughters of the American Revolution and was a national officer with the D.A.R. The
marriage was childless.
As the story goes, some time around 1917, an orphan train passed through Spencer, Iowa, and
William and Bessie picked out a brother and sister. They named the boy William Robert Higgins,
Jr. and the girl Elizabeth Carroll Higgins. By the 1920 Census, they were living with the family
under those names.
The orphan train makes a good story but is probably not true. A 1915 Iowa Census lists William
Junior living with William Senior.
Hennepin County (MN) birth records show William Robert Higgins, Jr. born in Minneapolis on
April 14, 1913, with the mother's name as Carroll.
William and Bessie owned the Adams-Higgins mansion on Grand Avenue in Spencer, Iowa.
When they added children to the family in 1917, they also added a large 29 x 32 ft. playhouse
behind the home. The mansion has recently been restored.
The Adams-Higgins Mansion
William and Bessie were divorced in 1928 with Bessie claiming
cruel and inhuman treatment.
The divorce papers indicate this was his second marriage. After the divorce, the kids lived with
their mother. William married again in 1929 and was divorced again in 1933. While it may be
true that Junior came from a family of means, he was building on a shaky foundation.
William Jr. graduated from Drake University Law School in 1936 and was admitted to the bar in Iowa. In
1936, he was employed as a clerk with the Mason City office of state employment service. Published
biographies do not mention that he practiced law.
While attending Drake, Higgins met a young radio announcer at WHO radio. Ronald Reagan would be a
friend for sixty years.
In March of 1942, he joined the ANA as member 8950. In November 1945 he converted to life
membership as LM 109.
He was stationed in China and the Pacific Theater as a First Sargent during World War II. He served with
the 425th Bomber Squadron, 308 th Bomber Group. 14th Air Force under General Claire Chennault. While
in China, he collected silver dollar sized coins wherever he could find them.
He served as mayor of Okoboji, Iowa, from 1960 to 1974.
By 1973, he had formed a collection of 7000 crowns of the world. This was described as the largest
private collection of crowns in the world. He consigned his collection to Jess Peters for a series of three
auctions in 1973-74. The sales realized $1.2 million.
After 1972, he devoted himself to a collection of National Bank Notes of the 1863 to 1935 period. He
travelled around Iowa visiting banks and looking for leads on notes he was missing. Out of 301 cities in
Iowa that issued notes, he got examples of 278 of them. Promotional materials say he had 1902 red seal
notes from fifty states and Puerto Rico. (I am skeptical about Hawaii!)
On September 26-28, 1975, Jess Peters conducted the sale of the Ray Byrne and William R. Higgins, Jr.
libraries. The sale was promoted as
The Greatest Sale of Numismatic Literature ever held. That might
make the basis for a good trivia question some day.
Higgins was unmarried and without children so he formed the William R. Higgins, Jr. Foundation and
gave his collection to the people of Okoboji. Iowa, and the Higgins National Bank Note Museum.
As he formed the collection, Higgins did business through dealer John Thomas Hickman who became the
first curator of the museum. The museum with 9000 square feet of space opened in 1978. One of the
exhibits in the museum was a spider press on loan to the museum from the Bureau of Engraving and
Printing. President Ronald Reagan assisted Higgins in arranging for the loan. At the end of the Reagan
administration, the press was returned to the BEP. The museum purchased a smaller spider press that
remains on exhibit.
The museum has National Bank Notes from around the country but the emphasis is on notes from Iowa.
Other large exhibits are from neighboring states of Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South
Dakota. Higgins did not collect notes from Wisconsin to avoid competition with a friend, Horace Monty
Sherwin. Some Wisconsin notes have been added since the museum opened. The museum also has an
extensive collection of Iowa picture postcards and a reference library.
The museum has conducted summer seminars on paper money topics intermittently since 1979.
Higgins was ill in his later years and died April 5, 1991, at Spirit Lake, Iowa. He is buried at Okoboji
Cemetery. He was inducted into the Society of Paper Money Hall of Fame in 2015.
The Higgins Museum in Okoboji. Iowa, is open in the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Hours
are 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free.
I encourage readers to visit. Say hello to the current curator, George Cuhaj!
To read earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
FEATURED WEB SITE: THE HIGGINS MUSEUM OF NATIONAL BANKNOTES
VIDEO: THE HIGGINS MONEY MUSEUM
THE HIGGINS NATIONAL BANK NOTE MUSEUM
HIGGINS MUSEUM HIRES CUHAJ AS CURATOR
Wayne Homren, Editor
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