This is a series of stories on the "Early History of Hamilton County and Its Settlers." Each account was written by an early resident, many of whom came to the county in a covered wagon and made their first home in a sod house. These stories were first published in The Aurora News in 1939, and recently reprinted in the Aurora News-Register. We are able to put these stories on line with the permission of the editor of the Aurora News-Register
The word pioneer brings flashes of many things to my mind--little things. I think of my happy childhood, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, the log cabins here and there along the Blue River; the sod houses on the vast prairies. The log houses I remember best were occupied by Scottish people who came from Wisconsin as my parents did.
My parents, my brother Peter, then six months old, my uncles, James Rollo and Alex Salmon arrived in Nebraska in the fall of 1868, and took up land in the southern part of Hamilton County. Frank Dixon was also with them. They came, of course, in covered wagons.
I think often of those houses built of logs cut from the banks of the river and hewn off on three sides. The inside was plastered and white-washed. Much of the furniture was home made, including the little trundle bed in which my sister and I slept when small, and the cradle made of pine boards in which we were rocked as babies. Then there was the school house--a frame building with pine benches and desks, the latter carved with many initials. The old "fox and geese" ring across the road east of the school house on the prairie where we rushed at recess time was so deep that not a spear of grass appeared on it in summer vacation time. I think of the old map that hung on the south side of the school building--the cause of my saying east for west, and west for east all of my life
One of my oldest memories is of the arrival of Father Giltner. He drove into our yard in a covered wagon, with his family. It was early in the evening. I was shy and hid behind the wood pile. Later I watched them carry their beds from the wagon and make them up along the floor on the east side of the long living room. Our beds were on the west end and curtained off. Boys and men folks slept in the loft. My mother could always find room for any stranger coming to or going through the country, and she always shared whatever she had with them. I was not at this time of school age. Fannie Giltner, Father Giltner's oldest daughter, was my first school teacher. Others of my early teachers were Jennie Laurie and Margaret Gellatly. Memories of them have always occupied a wee corner of my mind. As I remember it, we usually had two months of school in the fall, then a month's vacation for the older pupils to husk corn--and then back to school again. Then I think of the old time Lyceums, held at the school house every other Friday night. The young pupils spoke "pieces", the older ones taking part in dialogues, comprising the first part of the program, and singing of course. Then a short recess, after which the men folks did try to settle all questions of state, or debate on time-old questions such as "More pleasure in pursuit than in possession.", "Iron is more valuable than gold," and "fire is more destructive than water." Other evening attractions were the sing school. The singing teacher with his tuning fork (we had no musical instruments in the first school days). The spelling bee--and in "them" days people could really spell. And oh! Those sleigh rides in the home-made "bobsleds." A wagon box on the runners filled with nice clean straw covered over with horse blankets and maybe a nice warm buffalo robe over us. Yes, we sometimes got upset in a snow drift, but that did not matter. We soon righted ourselves and sled runners and horses hooves were crunching in snow and sleigh bells merrily ringing again.
I have no childhood memories of church buildings and church bells but we had our Sabbath school every Sabbath morning at the school house, with church services once a month and later every two weeks. We loved our Sunday School. The little church organization of which my parents were charter members. Others that I recall were Mr. and Mrs. James Cameron, Mr. and Mrs. A.F. Salmon, Alex Salmon, Ellen Henderson and Archie Murdock.
I think of how much we owe to our pioneer ministers--men of talent and education who could have found places in the east but came to bring the Gospel message to the early settlers. They suffered many hardships in so doing. I think Rev. Mr. Giltner is outstanding in my memory. He often ate Sunday dinner with us after holding morning services at the school house, and then went on to another appointment. Once when he went out to leave, my mother had one of the men carry out a grain sack filled with flour and put in his buggy. I remember the tears in his eyes as he thanked her and told how many days it had been since they had any flour in the house. We had a load of wheat ground at Ceily's Mill the week previous. Other people also ran out of flour. I remember my mother telling of running out before they could go to the mill. Then they took a load and by the time they returned home they had loaned out every sack , one by one on the way home. Father Giltner always preached a five-minute session for we "wee folks". We thought that was wonderful and it made us feel important.
I think of our Sunday School picnics on the Blue river. The long tablecloths spread on the grass and loaded with good things. The children all seated first. It was their day. Then the lemonade made from the cold water of a spring. The spring was dug out beforehand and a barrel inserted over it. There were rope swings which the big boys fastened high up in the trees! In these we went sailing up in the air and sometimes over the river--a great adventure.
There was a Christmas program on Christmas Eve--a wonderful tree, and a jolly, fat Santa Claus. If an evergreen tree was not available a nice straight ash of the right size was patiently wrapped in cotton to resemble snow. Each branch was carefully wrapped and sprinkled with star dust if we had it. Strings of cranberries, paper chains and bits of hoarded tinsel were decorations. Also there were nice red apples and sacks made of bright colored mosquito netting and filled with goodies--candies, nuts, and popcorn balls. These all made quite a showing and we loved it all. Then later was the last day of school. If the weather permitted, we had a picnic, and we youngsters, again be-starched and be-ribboned, stood up with our hearts in our throats to speak our pieces.
As we grew older, there were "taffy pulls," and Halloween parties where we had our fortunes told and "bobbed for apples" and did many stunts. Then in the early fall was the county fair. We went in a lumber wagon--the whole family. Perhaps here would be a load of young people starting at break of day, taking well-filled baskets for lunch at noon and for evening. We then stayed for the fireworks. We did not always have spring seats enough, but if not, a board would do. We had laid it on the wagon bed and covered it with an old quilt or blanket. I remember we climbed to the top of a freight car and sat and viewed the fireworks. In those days they were something to be wondered at.
Again, I think of the long winter evenings around the wood stove. I liked the fragrance of the burning wood, with mother knitting. She knitted mittens and stockings for us all. The men folks, sitting there, perhaps smoothing down a hammer or an axe handle they had made from a stick of ash wood. We youngsters were busy with books and games, or popping corn. My sister and I learned to knit and piece quilts. Sometimes neighbors came in to spend the evening. I remember my mother telling of a neighbor with small children coming to spend a winter evening. The mother had placed a feather bed in the wagon, put the children on it and covered them over. They did not even know it was freezing cold.
I remember the pioneer folks talking of the Easter storm as they called a terrible blizzard. They could not get out to care for their stock for three days. Some took animals into the house to keep them from freezing. When they finally got outside at our home, the log buildings were banked with snow. They went to the roofs of the stables (the roofs were made of poles covered with straw), removed a portion of the roof and entered to water and feed the animals. This was the spring of '73. The other blizzard often mentioned that I remember, I believe was in '88. It came on while we were at school. Those who lived at any distance did not try to get home. We went to nearby homes. I went to the Stephen home with their girl. Her brother came for her on horseback. She and I sat on the horse, enveloped in a heavy blanket, and her brother led the horse.
Then there was the much talked-about grasshopper year. The grasshoppers came as a high cloud. They ate every bit of vegetation, and all the clothes that were on the line. My mother said she had one beet left in the garden. It was covered with a tin pail.
Another thing ingrained in my memory were the prairie fires. The men hastened to the fire with barrels of water and old grain sacks. Men with teams and plows, plowed fire guards. The women and children carried water and poured it around and over feed stacks and buildings. Our well was dug well. It had a windlass with two buckets. When we drew up a bucket of water the other bucket on the other end of the rope, which was empty, went down. They were wooden buckets bound with iron hoops.These were "oaken buckets", I presume. I can remember standing on my toes to drink from the bucket as someone set it on the well curb. Beside the well was a long trough made by hollowing out a log, from which the horses drank.
We bought many little notions--pins, needles, etc.--from the peddlers, mostly Syrians, who went through the country with a pack on their back. I think not only of the winter evenings but of the summer evenings in harvest time when we had extra help. It took three men to run a harvester. One drove and two stood on a platform and bound the bundles with bands they made with the grain. In the evening we sat around in the yard so as to catch any breeze there might be. We built a slow bonfire to drive away the mosquitoes. Various members of the group would sing ballads and folk songs. Among the songs my mother sang were, "Highland Mary", "Annie Laurie","Young Charlotte" and "Lost on the Lady Elgen". One of the hired men was always called upon to sing "I Met Her in the Garden Where the Prairies Grow". Those who could not sing often recited poems.