HE first white men to come to this part of Nebraska were trappers who sought furs and the traders who established posts to buy from the trappers and Indians. This was in the first half of the eighteenth century or about 1739. Most of the trappers were Frenchmen who came from the St. Louis fur center though some, following in the footsteps of Daniel Boone, were from the mountains of Kentucky and Virginia.Jump to: Who's Who Biographies
Traders who financed the trappers would take their fur catch to St. Louis and bring back supplies to outfit the trappers for another year. It is claimed that these early trappers and traders gave the Platte river its name.
Adventurous souls including Ezekiel Williams, Robert Stuart, Etienne Provost, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Stephen Harriman Long, and Jim Bridger later may have traversed this part of the country and traveled over what is now known as the Oregon Trail, making a well defined highway before Fremont set out as a pathfinder. Then came Bonnerville and his wagons to deepen the trail in 1832.
The next people to come of whom we have an authentic record were those who went to Oregon on what has since been known as the Oregon Trail. This followed the south side of the South Platte river to a point about three miles west of Brule. With much difficulty the travelers forded the South Platte, crossed the divide and continued their western trek on the south side of the North Platte river. A number of markers in Keith County today chart the old trail.
In April, 1860, the first Pony Express was inaugurated to provide faster mail service between New York and California. Markers for the Pony Express indicate that these daring riders also traversed Keith County on the south side of the South Platte river. However, this enterprising service was destined to operate less than two years for in 1861 the Western Union Telegraph company strung a line from Omaha to San Francisco. This line ran through what was later to be known as Keith County.
When the Union Pacific railroad was built to Ogallala in 1866 the town and county began to make history in the cattle business and Ogallala will always be known as "The End of the Old Texas Trail." Trailing cattle from Texas began in 1867 and for many years Ogallala was the second largest shipping point on the railroad.
Many of the cattle trailed to Ogallala were contracted by northern men to be delivered at the ranch of the new owner and some were taken to Ogallala. Others were destined for Indian agencies in Dakota and Montana. Some Texas ranchers also owned ranches in the north and sent cattle north to be matured and fattened.
The first herds of cattle came late in June and by the middle of July there were as many as fifteen outfits camped south of the river near the town. Imagine fifteen outfits, ten to twelve men to the outfit, eight to ten horses to each man and an average of 3,500 cattle to the herd, and some idea may be obtained of the teeming life which continued in the valley for seventeen years.
It was during this period that a number of colorful characters made repeated trips from Texas and later settled in the county. Among the old cow men of the county were Dick Bean, John Bratt, Henry Haythorn, Lep Sanders and others. Texas cowboys and Texas cattle held an enviable position in the pioneering and development of Nebraska and the range states west of the one hundredth meridian. The glamor of the Texas Trail will last as long as folks will remember.
The cowboy will live forever in tradition and romance. He was a product of the times and conditions. He was not a devout man as judged by church standards yet he had a high sense of honor and was a square shooter. Like the Indian who thinks of the hereafter as a Happy Hunting Ground, the cowboy in singing of a future state does so in terms of his vocation. This is evidenced by the song known as the cowboy's hymn which was sung around every cow camp.
Three to four months were usually required to drive a herd of cattle from the Rio Grande. The trip was a strenuous one and when the cattle had been taken to the grazing ground there was the original "quick lunch," a change of mounts and all but the ones on herd made a wild dash for Ogallala on the north side of the river.
In 1872 after six years of trailing cattle from the south, Ogallala boasted of one general store, one restaurant and confectionery, one saloon and one hotel which were open the year round. In addition there was one saloon, "The Cowboys Rest," open during the cattle season.
A few drinks were first on the program, then a try at the various gambling devices and when nightfall came there was a dance in the saloon
hall to the strains of a screechy fiddle. "Shooting up the town" when the rotgut whisky began to work was a common sport an& most buildings of the town displayed bullet holes.
In the stirring days of 1875 when the present city of Ogallala was an infant town on the Union Pacific railroad, Old Boot Hill cemetery, located on a hill just northwest of the city was the burial place for settlers, transients and others who participated in the settlement of the county and the building of the little prairie town. Many are the stories told of those days when gun battles took their toll of human life and the south side of the railroad tracks echoed with gunfire as some slick gambler or horse thief met his Waterloo. In addition to those who died by violence there were also others of respectability whose remains were buried on the hill.
Among the first burials on Boot Hill were those of Mrs. Lillie Miller, wife of Bernard Miller and her infant child. Mrs. Miller's father was Rev. Mr. Savage, who resided and preached at the time at Orleans, Neb. Another early day burial on the hill was that of "Rattlesnake" Ed Whortey who was killed for nine dollars over a bet during a Monte game in a saloon. Whortey was killed by Lank Keyes whose real name was Turpin. He escaped from the Texas Rangers after killing a man, made his way to Ogallala over the cattle trails and became a tin-horn gambler and all-around bad man. The old time burials in this cemetery were generally with their boots on, thus the name "Boot Hill."
During the Oregon Trail years and the California gold rush the wagons moved slowly and for greater safety they traveled in large trains led by western scouts who knew the country. However, to protect the immigrants from the Indians the government had to establish forts with small companies of soldiers at intervals along the trail. Even after the railroad was built the Indians continued to make trouble for the road as well as the settlers. There were more horses to steal and the Indians burned the buildings of the settlers at every opportunity. Until the country was more thickly settled the railroad helped to combat the Indian menace by telegraph communication and by the swift transportation of soldiers along the line.
Back in 1873, sixty-six years ago, the citizens of the unorganized county of Keith asked that an election be held for the purpose of choosing county officers preliminary to organization. Governor Furnas ordered the election held in the residence of L. Aufdengarten, Ogallala, on Saturday, May 3. The first officers elected were E. M. Searle, James Miller and John Dowd, county commissioners; L. Aufdengarten, county clerk; Scott Keith, probate judge; Robert Law, county treasurer; A. H. Bradley, county sheriff; George VanCamp, superintendent of schools; John Gordon, surveyor. Ogallala was made the county seat.
At a meeting in July the commissioners found the assessed valuation of the county to be $516,693 and made a levy of 12.75 mills for the expense of the county including 2.5 mills for the state general fund.
Robert Law moved his house from just east of Brule to be used as a courthouse. At a meeting Sept. 13 the county clerk was instructed to buy furniture for the courthouse. On Nov. 3 the county was divided into three commissioner districts and the clerk's salary was fixed at $400 per year.
In February, 1877, Sheriff Leach resigned and J. G. Hughes was appointed to fill the vacancy. Mr. Hughes passed away many years ago but his widow, 90 years of age, still lives in Ogallala.
At this time there were but three precincts in the county, Alkali (Paxton), Ogallala and Brule. Whitetail was established in October, 1884. In July, 1885, when Perkins was still a part of Keith, the board established two new precincts, Marvin and Eckery, and in November Vail and Fairview precincts were established, making eight in all.
In 1887 Perkins County was organized, thus cutting Keith to about half its original size. In 1888 the two-story courthouse was built of brick made in the local brick yard. This building is still in good repair and provides room for the several county officers as well as a district court room.
Whenever the pioneer laid the foundation for his home, he made plans for the district school. Whether sod or frame the brave little buildings stood out to declare to the world that the conquest of the West had begun. Mrs. F. M. Richmond was among the early country district teachers of the county and among the early teachers in Ogallala are found the names of Elizabeth (Lizzie) Carroll, Carrie Leech and L. E. Brown.
Ogallala's first efforts to provide education for the youth resulted in a white frame, one-room school with ten pupils. In one year's time the enrollment had increased to fifty. In 1887 a four-room brick building was erected in west Ogallala. These bricks also were made in Ogallala.
Early in 1884 M. M. Neeves, county clerk, started to publish the Ogallala Reflector, the first paper in the county. William H. Mullane published the Keith County News from 1885-1893. The present owners of the News have made an effort to establish the identity of the various owners and editors since Mullane sold his interests but the files of the first twenty years were burned in a fire in 1905, making the work difficult. From older residents of the county we learn that the ownership probably passed successively to the following people:
M. H. Hancock, for about one year. G. F. Copper for a year or more and while he was owner I. L. Woodward did some writing for the paper. Albert Muldoon had charge for a part of the years
1896 and 1897. Anna Gray Clark was publisher from 1897 to 1906. F. P. Morgan followed from 1906 to his death and during the first two years of his ownership Fred A. Rasmussen was associated with Morgan. C. E. Nichols owned the paper for one week in January, 1914, when he purchased it from the Morgan estate. Worth M. Miller who had been employed for some time by the Morgan estate purchased the paper from Nichols and continued in the ownership until December, 1918. Nellie E. and J. S. Kroh, who had been publishing the Ogallala Tribune since July, 1916, purchased the News from Miller and consolidated the two papers under the old established name, Keith County News. For more than twenty years the Krohs were sole owners but on March 1, 1939, they sold a half interest in the business to Harold A. Smith.
Other than the railroad, the cattle business was the only industry of the county until 1884 when the last general round-up between the Platte rivers in western Nebraska was made. The cattle trail from Texas was closed in 1885. The change was caused by settlers who had begun to come to the county and who fenced the land so that cattle droves could not get through. Thus in a few years, 1883 to 1886, Keith County experienced a change which laid the foundation for diversified agriculture and the building up of numerous herds of high grade beef and dairy cattle and hogs.
Keith County is in the southwest part of the state bordering on the northeast corner of Colorado. It is twenty-four miles north and south and forty-one miles east and west, contains 629,760 acres, 250,000 of which are under cultivation at the present time. Of the latter amount 33,000 acres are irrigated from ditches and wells. More than 375,000 acres provide excellent range and pasture lands.
The two rivers, North and South Platte which run from west to east through the county, account for the many different kinds of soil, namely: bottom, second bottom, table and the so-called sandhill land in the north part. These natural conditions contribute to a greater diversification of crops than will be found in any other county of the state and are an insurance of some agricultural income every year in contrast with some other counties where the farmers depend on one crop year after year.
About one-half of Keith County's population of 8,000 reside on the 800 farms and ranches. At least 56 percent of these farms and ranches are owner operated. The principal crops are wheat, com, oats, barley, rye, alfalfa and sugar beets. Dairy products, poultry and eggs, and the feeding of hundreds of carloads of high class beef cattle on corn raised in the county also contribute materially to the income of the agriculturist.
The county has two railroads, the main double track line of the Union Pacific and the North Platte-Yoder branch of the same system. Highway No. 30, formerly designated as the Lincoln Highway, crosses the county parallel to the main line of the railroad. Highway No. 61 crosses from the south and highway No. 26 proceeds to the north and northwest junction with No. 30 at Ogallala. These main federal and state roads together with an excellent system of graded and graveled roads afford most excellent marketing facilities for the farmer and stockman.
County officers serving September, 1939, when this history was written were: Commissioners, J. L. Brown, G. G. Hartman and Arch Harris; clerk, E. A. Sudman; treasurer, Addie S. Reikat; judge, Fred M. Jump; superintendent, Ruth F. Warren; attorney, Zelma Derry; sheriff, Fred G. Taylor; assessor, John Leonard; surveyor, Cecil Fell.
Ogallala, the county seat, derived its name from the Oglala tribe of the Sioux Indians who inhabited this part of the state in early days. The village was incorporated Nov. 25, 1884, with the following trustees appointed to hold office until the next general election: H. L. Williams, C. B. Stone, M. DePriest, W. B. McCartney and L. Aufdengarten.
The first Sabbath School was organized July 2, with Rev. L. E. Brown as pastor; E. Cooper, superintendent; George Conn, secretary; Mrs. E. Cooper, treasurer. Oct. 15, 1884, a Congregational Church was organized with L. E. Brown as pastor. Services were held in the schoolhouse until the following year when the congregation built their own house of worship.
The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Ogallala was organized in 1886 with Rev. Mr. McAdams as pastor. In September, 1896, Ogallala entertained the West Nebraska Methodist Conference. The meeting was attended by more than one hundred ministers and delegates.
L. E. Brown opened the village school in a small frame building Sept. 10, 1884, with fourteen pupils. The following year there were fifty pupils enrolled when school opened.
Ogallala lodge No. 159, A. F. & A. M., was chartered June 16, 1887, and dedicated two months later. William Allison was the first worshipful master. Other elective officers were: G. W. Johnson, senior warden; E. M. Searle, junior warden; L. D. Hanna, treasurer; W. B. McCartney, secretary. The first temple of the lodge was the building purchased of M. M. Neeves. Beautiful temples on Spruce avenue now house the Masonic and Odd Fellows societies.
Ogallala as we know it today is a thriving city of 2,700 population, boasts of many social and educational advantages for the home owner and excellent trading facilities for people living in an area from twenty to forty miles distant. Present officers of the city are: C. H. Fisher, mayor; C. G. Scherwitz, Leo Martin, Malon Stumbaugh and Dr. William V. Drost, councilmen; F. J. Sibal, clerk; C. G. Schwentker, treasurer; Zelma Derry, attorney; Roy Magnes, chief of police.
Four churches, St. Luke's Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Congregationalist provide ample opportunities for those who wish to attend divine worship.
School district No. 1 of Ogallala now has three modern buildings. The enrollment in the kindergarten, primary and grades is 900 and the district employs twenty-five teachers. Directors of the district school are Dr. H. A. Vandiver, chairman of the board, A. L. Riedesel, L. J. Wittenberger, H. E. Nye, Dr. C. E. Mueller and 0. J. Peterson; secretary, Nellie E. Kroh; treasurer, C. G. Schwentker; superintendent, Harold J. West; principal, Homer C. Rector.
Two modern theaters, air conditioned and equipped with good projecting machines provide daily entertainment for those interested in new and high class pictures. In addition to the Commercial Club, Ogallala has three active service clubs, Rotary with a membership of thirty-nine, Lions with a membership of twenty-five, and the Business and Professional Women's Club with a membership of twenty.
The Ogallala postoffice is one of the second class and for the past two years has been housed in a modern federal building. Kathryn McCusker, present postmaster, is one of four women who have served the patrons since the founding of the office. Ogallala postmasters who preceded Miss McCusker were Phillip J. Lonergan, Elizabeth Carrol, Carrie Patton, Wesley Tressler, J. J. McCarthy and Nettie Jollensten.
Manufacturing activities of the city include a variety of electrical devices and instruments in one factory; a wholesale bakery; artificial ice plant; bottling works; and a butter factory. The total investment in the manufacturing plants of the city exceeds $100,000 and the output averages nearly a quarter million dollars annually.
The business and professional men, numbering at least 130, provide a variety of services and commodities ample to supply all needs of the resident population and the thousands of tourists who visit the city annually. Not the least of the advantages offered by the professional men is a fourteen bed hospital.
Paxton is a thriving village twenty miles east of the county seat. From a whistling post on the main line of the Union Pacific until the fall of 1885 the station was called Alkali. As the country became more thickly settled the community center known as Paxton made a natural growth and is at this time the second largest town in the county. Surrounded as it is by fertile farm lands, the bank, mercantile houses, newspaper, schools and churches are well supported by the sons and daughters of some of the most hardy pioneers that ever settled in any country.
Brule, third largest town in the county, is located ten miles west of the county seat and was founded in 1888 by Maj. and Mrs. I. R.. Barton. The town was named for the Brulé tribe of Sioux Indians. Located in the approximate center of much rich table and irrigated lands, it has always provided normal support for the town's social, educational and business activities.
Keystone, located on the north bank of the North Platte river in the northeast part of the county and on the branch line of the Union Pacific, is another trading point worthy of mention. Bordering on the sandhill section of the county, it has been a market principally for cattle and dairy products. Keystone has the distinction of having the only church of its kind in the world. In the pioneering days of the eighties and nineties the need for a church was felt by Catholics and Protestants. Being nearly equal in numbers and neither group feeling financially able to build its own church the Woman's Club of Keystone induced Bishop Scanlon to make an appeal to Pope Leo XIII for a dispensation to erect a house of worship that could be used by both religious sects. The request was granted and at great sacrifice the Keystone King's Daughters Church was finally erected and dedicated. There is a Catholic altar at one end and a Protestant altar at the other end of the church with reversible seats or pews. The congregations used the church on alternate Sundays. Until a few years ago when it was destroyed by fire there was a similar church in Switzerland but at the present time the one at Keystone is distinctively alone in respects outlined.
Lemoyne is another small village and trading point on the branch line of the Union Pacific running through the north third of the county. The townsite is located on land donated by Lemoyne Jacobs who settled on a ranch in 1882.
Sarben, located on the North river in one of the irrigated sections of the county, and Roscoe, located on the main Union Pacific line between Ogallala and Paxton, are excellent small trading centers. Ogallala has loading facilities for sugar beets and Paxton provides elevator facilities for marketing small grains.