Many thanks to Mr. Alan Beermann, Executive Director of the Nebraska Press Association and American Press Advertising service for permission to transcribe this wonderful piece of Buffalo county history for all to enjoy.
Lyle Edwin Mantor
Although Nebraska was not created a territory until May 30, 1854 the region now comprising Buffalo County was well known to fur traders and others as early as 1813. The main route of pioneer travel was along the Platte river and since that stream forms the southern boundary of the county, this section of central Nebraska was visited by nearly all the traders and explorers during the three or four decades prior to 1854.
By 1848 travel over the Oregon Trail had assumed such proportions as to cause the war department to order the removal of Fort Kearny from its site at the mouth of Table Creek on the Missouri River (now Nebraska City, Otoe County) to a location at the southernmost point of the Platte. This point was in what is now the northern part of Kearney county and immediately south of the southern boundary of Buffalo County.
Some of the travel westward followed along the north bank of the Platte river and thus passed through the present bounds of Buffalo County. The so-called Mormon Trail, from Winter Quarter, (now Florence, a part of Omaha) to the Great Salt Lake followed this route. As is always the case some of the emigrants, either because of discouragement, illness or other reason, fell out along the trail and settled at some favorable point. A number of the first settlers of Buffalo County appear to have located in this manner, although later a large percentage of them seem to have continued their journey to Utah because of the objection of their neighbors to their belief and practices.
The first editor of a newspaper in the county, Joseph Ellis Johnson, who in 1859 came to Wood River Center, now Shelton, stated in the final edition of his Huntsman's Echo, Aug. 1, 1861, that "we go from turmoil, strife and bloodshed, to seek quiet in the happy, peaceful vales of Utah."
With the location of Fort Kearny on the Platte, settlement in the immediate vicinity increased rapidly during the [eighteen] - fifties. The protection of the fort and the fertility of the soil in the Wood River and Platte Valleys attracted many substantial settlers. Poll books of Buffalo County, Territory of Nebraska, indicate there were two hundred ninety-two voters at the close of 1859 (Oct. 11). Since at that time only adult males could vote, the population of the region must have been approximately eight hundred, although there is no accurate census.
On March 14, 1855, the first territorial legislature passed "An Act to Organize Buffalo County." The boundaries commenced "at a point in the center of the Platte river, ten miles east from the mouth of Wood river (now Hall County), running thence westward up the south cannel of the Platte, to the mouth of Buffalo creek, (now Dawson County), thence north thirty miles, thence east to a point directly north of the place of beginning, thence south to the place of beginning.
During the sixties the county government became disorganized so on Dec. 1, 1869, Governor David Butler issued a proclamation calling an election to be held on Jan. 20, 1870, at which time county officers were to be chosen in accordance with the "Act for the organization of counties approved June 24, 1867, and the election laws of the state." The election was accordingly held and a full complement of county officers shown. Buffalo did not again fall into a state of disorganization and since 1870 the government of the county has regularly functioned.
Due to the Civil War and the period of adjustment immediately following, few settlers came to Buffalo County during the sixties. With the admission of Nebraska to the union on March 1, 1867, came a period of interest in the new state on the part of those seeking homes in the "west." The homestead act of 1862, and the federal land grants to the railroads, especially to the "Pacific railroad," made homesteads available by settlement or by purchase from the railroad company. The pre-emption act of 1841 was also in force and some pre-empted land at $1.25 per acre although the greater number obtained farms by the two former methods.
In 1870 Col. John Thorp of West Farmington, Ohio, conceived the idea of bringing a colony of settlers to Buffalo County. Accordingly he conducted an extensive advertising campaign during the winter of 1870-71, in which he told of the desirable features of the region using the slogan "free homes, free lands." He pointed out that soldiers could homestead 160 acres of land "within the railroad limits." A fee of $2 was charged for membership in the colony and membership was not restricted to veterans. As a result of Colonel Thorp's campaign about one hundred colonists, from nearly every state in the east and middle west, set out from Buffalo, N. Y., on April 4, 1871. Most of the number were men, only a few of whom brought their families. The group reached Gibbon switch at 2 pm., Friday, April 7. Ten days later, at the United States land office at Grand Island, 61 members of the colony filed on homesteads in the Gibbon neighborhood. Many of the residents of this community today are the descendants of these early colonists.
During the year 1871 one hundred and four other homestead and pre-emption claims were filed in Buffalo County, one (that of Joseph Boyd, Gibbon Township) having been filed in 1867, and two those of Andrew Buest and O. E. Thompson of Shelton Township) in 1870. The filings of 1871 extended for the most part, along the Union Pacific and were located in Center, Elm Creek, Gibbon, Odessa, Riverdale, Sharon, Shelton, and Valley townships. During 1872, 177 claims were filed; in 1873, 150; 1874, 143; 1875, 41; 1876, 50; 1877, 29; 1878, 268; and 1879, 209.
The Union Pacific railroad, completed across Buffalo County in 1867, did not serve the region south of the Platte river. This territory depended upon the new Burlington and Missouri River Railroad company for transportation. When the latter was chartered and given its land grant by congress a provision was made to the effect that it must provide a junction with the Union Pacific at some point east of the one hundredth meridian. Accordingly on April 11, 1871, D. N. Smith, representing the Burlington Townsite Company, Moses Sydenham and Rev. Ashbury Collins, located the junction point in Section 1, Township 8, Range 16, in Buffalo County and slightly west of the ninety-ninth meridian. The Burlington completed its junction with the Union Pacific on September 1, 1872. Three months later (Nov. 30) the town of Kearney Junction was incorporated with an estimated population of one hundred. On Oct. 12, 1873, a census was taken by J. W. Leland to see whether the necessary inhabitants could be counted so that the town might be organized as a city of the second class. The census revealed 245 inhabitants. On Dec. 3, the town of Kearney Junction was replaced legally by Kearney, a city of the second class.
On May 7; 1872, the county had voted bonds amount of $20,000 for the erection of a courthouse at Gibbon and work was begun during the summer. No sooner had construction started, however, than agitation was commenced to move the seat of government to Kearney. After an exceedingly bitter fight an election was held Oct. 13, 1874, and a majority was cast for relocation of the county seat at Kearney. Shortly thereafter Joseph Scott, county clerk, and his deputy F. G. Keens, took the county records from the Gibbon courthouse and hauled them to Kearney on a farm wagon in the night and placed them in what was known as the Chandler building. The reverberations of this county seat fight have not died out in the more than sixty-five years which have elapsed since the incident occurred.
During the seventies Buffalo County and Kearney, its county seat, grew slowly. The panic of 1873 and the depression which followed had their financial effect, but despite these difficulties the census of 1880 recorded a population of 7,431 in the county. The amount of the annual rainfall being less than that of the states to the eastward, from whence most of the settlers came, caused people to turn their attention toward irrigation. As early as 1873 a proposed canal was shown on a map of Buffalo County and two years later an attempt to construct a canal was defeated because of inability to obtain a right-of-way. In 1877 the legislature passed an act granting the right of eminent domain to irrigation projects thus making possible the construction of irrigation and power canals. During the summer of 1881 the Kearney Canal and Water Supply company was organized with a capital of $100,000 and work on the canal was begun. The original canal, sixteen miles long, was completed in 1886 and enlarged and improved in 1894.
While the Kearney canal was being built George W. Frank of Corning, Iowa, purchased the stock of the company. Mr. Frank was an energetic promoter and soon interested men of means in Kearney possibilities. During the summer of 1888 H. D Watson of Greenfield Mass., took an option to purchase one-half interest in the G W Frank Improvement Company. He then returned to New England and induced a large number of his friends and other investors to come to Kearney and look over the possibilities offered by cheap water power, a new country, and frontier enthusiasm. As a result of this visit the eastern capitalists invested more than $1,000,000 in new enterprises, chief of which was a cotton mill. To this enterprise the citizens of Kearney (1888 population, estimated at 5,000) subscribed a subsidy of $250,000 in cash and real estate, or about $50 per capita. Work on the necessary buildings was begun the following year and the great "Kearney boom" was launched. The main building of the Cotton Mill was "408x100 feet, two stories, boiler room 59x48, engine room 40x30,fan room 92x27, tower 33x27, foundation 28x28, stack 120 feet high. Floor room of buildings, 89,587 square feet, over 4,000,000 brick used and 100 cars of stone." The capacity was 15,000 spindles, required more than 400 "hands" and consumed 50,000 bales of cotton per year. The annual output of white sheetings was valued at $3,400,000. The buildings and equipment cost $400,000 and the mill was operated at a loss for nine years.
During the boom years of 1888-91 many "improvements'' were made in Kearney. A modern waterworks system, a gas plant, a sewer system, an opera house costing $140,000, a city hall and an electric street railway system with six miles of track were built. In addition to a modern electric system with 1,000 h. p. capacity, a canning factory employing 135 men was constructed. In 1891 a booklet published by the Kearney Board of Trade listed some thirty-five additional "industrial enterprises wanted."
In 1890 a company headed by F. M. Hallowell, a Kearney lawyer, was organized for the purpose of building a railroad from Kearney to the Black Hills. An election was held voting $75,000 in bonds to assist in the project. Work was begun but the road never reached the Black Hills. In 1912 it was completed to Stapleton, a distance of 102 miles. The road now is a branch of the Union Pacific.
While the central part of the county was developing other sections were also being improved. At the eastern edge of the county the town of Shelton was growing rapidly. First settled about 1860 under the name of Wood River Center, the Village of Shelton was incorporated Dec. 15, 1881. It was here that the first newspaper in Buffalo County, the Huntsman's Echo, was established in 1860 by Joseph E. Johnson. It was also at Shelton that the first term of school was taught by a licensed teacher, Miss Clara Lew, who was granted a third grade certificate by examination on June 3, 1871. The schoolhouse was a board shanty, sodded on the outside, and was located in what is still designated as school district No. 1.
The first settlement in the northern part of the county was made in Garfield township in 1874 by Erastus Smith. Mr. Smith brought with him a herd of thirty-five registered shorthorn cattle and to him goes the distinction of owning the first herd of registered cattle in the county. In 1878 Mr. Smith began keeping a daily record of temperature and rainfall at Ravenna for the U. S. department of agriculture. He kept this record until his death in 1909, a period of thirty-one years--and not once did he miss recording the temperature and rainfall.
In 1886 the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad built through Garfield township and the same year the town of Ravenna was founded. It became, and still remains a division point of that railroad. The townsite was laid out on a part of the Smith homestead. Ravenna was incorporated Oct. 12, 1886.
The next town to be incorporated in the county was Elm Creek at the western edge. With the building of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1866-67 a station was established known as Elm Creek. The first homesteads in Elm Creek Township were taken in 1871 by A. F. Fraser, B. Foot, T. J. Holt and H. Ryan. The following year fourteen additional homesteads were taken in the township and from that time on the growth was slow but steady. In 1872 the Elm Creek school district (No. 9) was organized and the first school was taught by Josephus Moore the following winter. On Jan. 11, 1887 the Village of Elm Creek was incorporated.
The first settlement in Amanda township was made in 1873 when five homesteads were taken. During the period from 1874 to 1879 fifteen additional homesteads were entered upon and in 1881 one William Craven built a sod house and began keeping a store. A postoffice was established and the place named Armada. When the Kearney and Black Hills railroad was built into the township it missed the village so Armada was moved to the railroad and given the name Miller. The name of the postoffice was accordingly changed and the village of Miller was incorporated in 1890. The first newspaper, the Miller Sun, was established by Charles M. Huston in 1891.
The north central part of Buffalo County was first settled in 1873 and 1874 when eighteen homesteads were taken in Rusco and Loup townships. By 1880 fifty-four homesteads had been filed on in these townships and ten years later the townsite of Pleasanton was surveyed and platted. The village was incorporated on Jan. 12, 1894 and has grown to a population of 300.
The village of Amherst was incorporated June 18, 1894. This vicinity had been settled during the late seventies and early eighties. Poole was incorporated on April 28, 1910, and now has more than one hundred inhabitants. The last village in the county to be incorporated was Riverdale, being so designated on May 13, 1919. The villages of Denman, Odessa, St. Michael and Watertown are unincorporated places. Each of these has a population of less than 100.
Buffalo County made its most rapid growth between 1870 and 1890. By 1890, according to the U. S. census the population had grown to be 22,162. The financial stress of the nineties caused a loss in number of people, the figure for 1900 being but 20,254. In 1910 there were 21,907 and in 1920 the number was 23,787, a growth of 8.6 percent while that for the state as a whole was almost exactly the same, 8.7 percent. From 1920 to 1930 the percentage of increase for the county was 2.3, to 24,338, while the state showed 6.3 percent increase during the period. A compilation made in 1938 by the board of supervisors indicated that the population of the county was almost static.
Early in the nineteen hundreds people in the central and western part of the state demanded better educational facilities for their boys and girls. There was no state supported institution of higher education nearer than the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and this was too far in horse and buggy days, to send the young people to school. Agitation was therefore begun for the establishment of an additional state supported teachers college or normal school as such institutions were then known, at a more central location. At that time Nebraska had but one normal, located at Peru, in the eastern edge of the state. As a result of these demands the legislature provided for the establishment of a second normal school to be located at some point west of the 98° west longitude.
The citizens of Kearney offered to donate a suitable tract of land for the school and in the spring of 1905 the new normal was located at Kearney, in Buffalo County. The school, which opened in June 1905 under the direction of Dr. A. O. Thomas as president, now is a flourishing college with a faculty of more than sixty members and an enrollment of more than eight hundred students.
During the World War Buffalo County, along the other ninety-two counties of Nebraska, made patriotic response to the demands of war. To administer the provisions of the draft law a county local exemption board consisting of County Clerk Gilbert E. Haase, Sheriff Silas Funk and Dr. J. L. Bennett was formed in May, 1917.
On June 5 the county registered 2,508 men between the ages of 21 and 31 and the first contingent of recruits left Kearney, Sept. 7 for Camp Funston, Kas., to begin training. At subsequent registrations on June 5, Aug. 24 and Sept. 21, 1918, 2,811 additional men were registered, making a total of 4,869 men, or 20 percent of the population, from the county. A total of 809 Buffalo County men is known to have served in the army, navy or marine corps during the war. Of this number Junius Boyle, Edward Brodine, Bradley Buck, Bryan Comstock, Clinton A. Copeland, Thomas Cordy, Ray H. Eaton, Alfred C. Fitch, Horatio Hendryx, Paul G. Hurt, Henry K. Kenney, Roy D. Knoble, Marvin S. Larimer, Kwan Soo Lee, Eugene McWilliams, Clarence Olsen, F. S. Palmer, David A Rhone, John W. Roberts, Greeley Robbins, Elmer L. Rose and W. H. J. Wilby--22 in all--were killed in action or died in service.
More than three million dollars in Liberty bonds was also subscribed and liberal contributions were made to the Red Cross and to the units of the United War Work Campaign. The amounts raised for these two activities totaled more than $100,000 during the war. The calling of the National Guard units into federal service left the state without military organization for law enforcement. As a result Home Guard companies were formed at Elm Creek, Gibbon, Pleasanton, Ravenna and Riverdale. None was formed at Kearney because of the presence there of the military academy cadets and a company of S. A. T. C. at the State Teachers College. Colonel Harry R. Dummond was in command of the former and Lieutenant Vickstrom of the latter.
High prices which prevailed during the war period were on the whole, favorable to the county. Wages were high, men were scarce and land prices boomed. Early in 1918 progressive farmers felt the need for expert advice to enable them to produce a maximum of foodstuffs with a minimum of labor so advocated the employment of a farm agent. The new agricultural act provided federal and state aid for the employment of such an agent and on Feb. 12 a meeting was held at the courthouse in Kearney to discuss the project. The reaction was favorable and on April 17 the board of supervisors voted the sum of $2,200 as the county's share of the necessary amount. Due to the extreme shortage of men great difficulty was experienced in securing a qualified man for the post and it was not until Dec. 5 that the appointment was made. The first county agent was P. H. Stewart, who rendered valuable service to the farmers of the county. The Buffalo County Farm Bureau is today one of the leading organizations of the county.
In common with other agricultural regions Buffalo County suffered severely during the deflation years following the war. Beginning shortly after the armistice, farm prices dropped sharply and land values collapsed. Many persons who had bought land on small equity at the peak of prices saw their entire investment wiped out in a few months. During the years from 1920 to 1927 financial matters went from bad to worse and reached a climax in May of the latter year with the failure of the City National Bank of Kearney. This bank, which had a capital of $100,000 and deposits of more than $2,500,000, directly or indirectly did much of the banking business of the region and its closing was a severe blow to the whole financial structure of Buffalo County. In rapid succession several other banks in the county failed and by 1929 central Nebraska was already in dire financial straits. The years of the 1930's have seen a noteworthy recovery and the restoration of a more normal prosperity.
The Kearney Canal, previously mentioned, could not serve any considerable proportion of the acreage of the county needing irrigation, so early in the 1920's experiments in pump irrigation were made. It was found that the land in the Platte and Wood River valleys had adequate water resources and that wells of an average of not more than 40 feet in depth would furnish adequate water for irrigation purposes at reasonable cost. As a result there are now approximately 400 farms irrigated with more than 600 wells, and the number is increasing each year. This land is in addition to the 18,000 acres under ditch irrigation. Since Buffalo County is largely agricultural and will probably always remain so, its history has been more greatly influenced by its farms than by any other factor.
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