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McPherson County Historic Overview
McPherson county, created by state legislation in 1887, is located in the southern portion of the Nebraska sandhills. Primarily a ranching area, the county contains grass covered dunes, lakes and marshes characteristic of the north central sandhills. The county is bordered by Thomas, Hooker, Logan, Arthur, Keigh, and Lincoln counties.
The Sand Hills region of the state is composed of hilly land of low to high sand dunes stabilized by grass cover. These dunes mantle stream-deposited, sand, gravel and sandstone. The sandhills prairie and topography are unique to Nebraska and North America. The region is drained by the Loup River system except along the northern edge which is drained by the Niobrara River, (Historic Contexts in Nebraska, NESHPO, 1989).
Prior to nineteeth-century white settlement, the Pawnee and Sioux Native American tribes claimed the land of the Sand Hills as hunting grounds. The two tribes disputed various tracts between themselves. The Pawnee claimed the drainage area of the Loup River as their hunting grounds and camped near the mouth of the river. The Sioux claimed lands east to the fork of the Platte River and north to the mouth of the White River in South Dakota as their hunting grounds. Both tribes depended on the bison, which roamed the sandhills in vast numbers as their primary source of food and raw material.
Other Native American tribes in Nebraska included the Omaha, Otoe, and Ponca, all of whom were more sedentary than the Sioux or Pawnee. Between 1854 and 1876 all territories in Nebraska claimed by Native American tribes had been acquired by the United States government either through treaty and/or coercion. The final treaty, in 1876, opened the Sand Hills region to settlement.
Settlement of Nebraska
The first Europeans to reach what would become Nebraska were Spanish soldiers in search of mythical Quivira. By the early 1700's the French had begun to move into the trans-Missouri country. In 1763 the Spanish, through the Treaty of Paris assumed possession of all land west of the Mississippi River. In 1800, the French took possession of the region under the Treaty of San Ildefonso. However, in 1803 the French under Napolean, sold this vast expanse of land to the Americans for about 4 cents an acre or fifteen million dollars. The Louisiana Purchase, as the exchange was called, included territory that would become Nebraska.
In 1803, the federal government began plans to initiate exploration of their new possession with the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Undertaken "for purposes of extending the external commerce of the United States", Congress appropriated $2,500.00 for the expedition. In the spring of 1804, members of the exploration team left the St. Louis area and by July 1804, had made their first camp near the mouth of the Little Nemaha River in what would eventually become Nebraska.
The vast area of land obtained through the Louisiana Purchase was designed by Congress in 1834 as land reserved for Native Americans. During the first half of the nineteenth-century, this region was traversed by fur trappers, missionaries, and westward bound settlers. Examples of Pre-Territorial (1804-1854) establishments in Nebraska include Fort Atkinson(1820's) on the Missouri River, and the Moses Merrill Baptist Mission (1833) near Bellvue.
Another important aspect of settlement in Nebraska during the Pre-Territorial Period(1804-1854) establishments in Nebraska include Fort Atkinson (1820's) on the Missouri River, and the Moses Merrill Baptist Mission (1833) near Belluvue.
Another important aspect of settlement in Nebraska during the Pre-Territorial Period (1804-1854), was the presence of the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails; all of which passed through the southern half of the state. These trails passed westward though the Platte River valley and were primarily used between 1841 and 1848. These trails brought many people and oppportunities for trade to the region.
Nebraska Territory was officially established in 1854, and the first legislature convened in January, 1855. During the Territorial Period (1854-1867), the majority of settlement took place in the southeast and eastern sections of the state. In this period, settlement occurred through either the provisions of the Pre-Emption Law of 1841, purchase of military bounty land warrant, or by direct purchase. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed for more liberal disbursement of public domain, and allowed settlers to acquire between 40 and 160 acres of land without the standard per acre fee if they remained on the claim for five years and met a specified level of improvments (i.e. buildings, land under cullivation). A significant amount of settlement in Nebraska occurred primarily under the impetus of the Homestead Act, or later under the provistions of the 1904 Kinkaid Act.
Nebraska became a state in 1867 with its present borders defined. In the early 1860's, the federal government began planning a trans-continental railway line for the transportation of people and goods which would unite the country. The railroad would extend through Nebraska beginning at a point near Omaha. In 1867, the route was completed when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines joined in Utah. Development of the line through Nebraska had a major impact on the settlement and growth of small towns and communities throughout the western region of the state, and the state as a whole. Inland counties, without a railroad through their borders, generally developed at a slower rate and often did not achieve the kinds of settlement and sustained populations in counties through which a line ran. In counties where the railroad extended, towns or proposed towns, prospered or failed depending on the location of a depot or siding.
While eastern, northeastern, and central regions of the state had been settled during the Settlement and Expansion Period (1867-1890), the Sand Hills region of Nebraska was only just beginning to be settled. This region, encompassing a great portion of western Nebraska north of the Platte River, was generally not suitable for the agricultural activities pursued in the rest of the state. Since the 1870's, cattlemen had free-ranged vast herds in the area. In the late 1860's and early 1870's, Texas cattlemen began to drive their herds north on the Texas Trail to feed in Nebraska. The free-range cattle companies established large ranches in the Sand Hills region and operated until conflicts with the federal government divided the land into smaller homestead parcels.
Although settlement had begun in the Sand Hills region during the Settlement and Expansion era (1867-1890), it wasn't until the Development and Growth Period in Nebraska (1890-1920) that significant permanent settlement was established. The most significant impetus for extensive settlement of the Sand Hills during this period was the passge of the Kincaid Act on June 28, 1904. Designed to encourage settlement in the Sand Hills region, the Kinkaid Act allowed homesteaders to file 640 acre claims, as opposed to the previous 160 acres. This act recognized that the arid Sand Hills region required a larger parcel of land for the application of farming and ranching practices. The Kincaid Act was responsible for the largest census figures to date (1920) for many of the Sand Hills counties. Although many Kinkaid homesteads eventually sold out to larger ranching endeavors, the act successfully disposed of the public lands in the area.
The social and economic success of the Development and Growth Period (1890-1920) came to an end with the era of the Great Depression (1929-1941). By December, 1932, agricultural prices were the lowest in state history; and the farmers' purchasing power continued to decline. Many people left the western section of the state and some towns ceased to exist. Populations declined and much commercial development came to a halt. The end of the Depression, followed by the onset of World War II (1941-1945), combined to stabilize not only the Sand Hills but the state as a whole. Economically, Nebraska benefited from the War through the arrival of new industries. Training facilities, ordnance plants and a bomber production plant were located in the state. As the War drew to a close, a new and lasting prosperity had begun in the state. Further stability has been witnessed during the Post-War Period in Nebraska, (1946-present). The agricultural prosperity that began during World War II continued on into the 1950's and 1960's. Economic development and increased agricultural technology have vaulted the region into an era of advanced irrigation and range management techniques. So while the number of farms and rural population decreased, agricultural output increased to new highs.
The Territorial Period, 1854-1867 in Nebraska brought little settlement to the region which would become McPherson County. Early settlers into the area were primarily cattlement who arrived in the mid 1870's. Large free-range ranches were established in the area by individuals who included John Bratt, William F. Cody, Colonel Frank, and Captain Luther North. Permanent Settlers arrived after the region was officially opened for settlement by the federal government in 1884. McPherson County was organized in 1890 with a Board of Commissioners appointed by the Logan County Board. Original boundaries of the county included the area that, in 1914, became Arthur County.
McPherson County's initial population in 1890, Arthur Precinct included, was 401 people. At the turn of the century the number had increased to only 517. Due to sparse resources in the sandhills and lack of a railroad line, the population of McPherson County has always remained low.
Passage of the Kinkaid Act in 1904 resulted in the great influx of settlers into McPherson County. As a result of this act, county population increased from 517 persons in 1900 to 2,470 in 1910. Prior to the Kinkaid act, claimants filling under the Homestead Act of 1862 were only allowed up to 160 acres of land; the 1904 amendment increased this limit to a full section (640 acres). By 1915, however, many successful Kinkaiders sold their holdings to a select few ranches. Sixteen years after the 1904 enactment (1920), McPherson County showed a population decrease of 778 persons. As larger ranches continued to increase, county population decreased; the 1980 population of 593 people being slightly larger thatn the initial settlement population.
Conflict for McPherson County began in July 1912 with the purchase of two jail cells at of a cost of $1,300. Residents of Arthur Precinct objected to this expense and to the location of Tryon as the county seat. Lobbyists tried unsuccessfully to move the county seat to Flats. In 1913, Arthur Precinct residents began to secede from McPherson county. This process was completed in 1914 with the county boundaries of both McPherson and Arthur Counties being established to their current status.
Development of paved highways and rural oiled roads was of considerable importance in McPherson County. From the period of Spurious Economic Growth (1920-1929) until the present, construction and upkeep of roads in the county has been an ongoing activity. Early travel in the sandhills was tenuous at best and near impossible at times. Highway #92 was proposed as early as 1927 but it was not until 1964 that the highway was completed from Stapleton to Tryon. Another important paved road is the North Platte to Tryon Highway, completed in 1930. The Mullen-Tryon Road, part of the Great Plains Highway, was completed in 1960. Despite the many access highways which traverse McPherson County, settlement has remained low resulting in the lack of rail transportation.
Mcpherson County Towns
The county seat of Tryon is the only town in McPherson County and is one of just two unincorporated county seats in Nebraska. In 1895, a few years after establishment, Tryon consisted of just two nonresidential buildings, the county courthouse which was built of sod and the commissioner's home. The sod courthouse which was approximately thirty by thirty feet. It contained a brick vault and a steel safe. In 1926, funds from a special county levy resulted in the construction of a two-story brick courthouse. While the original sod courthouse is non-extant, the former safe is now located in the current courthouse. The McPherson County Courthouse was recently been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
As previously mentioned, the Kinkaid Act was the most influential factor in the settlement of McPherson County and Tryon. With a population increase from 517 in 1900 to 2,470 in 1910, Tryon boomed. Churches, schools, and businesses were established. The Tryon State Bank was organized in 1910. Being the only financial institution in McPherson County, the bank progressed through the years. Hard times brought about by the Great Depression and the drought of the 1930's forced the bank to close for a period of five months. Another significant business established during Tryon's initial development is the former David Store, now known as the Ranch Store. Michael David arrived in Tryon in 1903 and built a general store out of sod just north of the present building. The sod building, now non-extant, was fourteen by twenty four feet with a sleeping loft for Mr. David. Needing more space, David built a one-story frame, with false-front store in 1916. Nearly 75 years later, the David Store/Ranch Store still continues to serve the community needs providing a source of food, clothing and entertainment.
Other settlements in McPherson County include Lena, Ringgold, and Flats. These three communities never experienced the success that Tryon achieved. Ringgold, with a population of fifteen, continues to operate a rural grade school. Lena and Flats consist of a few residential buildings and support no commercial businesses.
Agriculture and Ranching
McPherson County is classified in the Sand Hills Range Livestock Production region of the state. Cattle production and related agricultural practice is the major economic enterprise in the county.
Irrigation was attempted as early as 1900 with sporadic attempts at further development throughout the first half of the century. In the 1960's and 1970's center pivot irrigation was practiced in the county. Many ranchers depend on their crops grown on irrigated land to feed herds through the winter. Events such as the Great Depression, the drought of the 1930's and the recession of the 1980's has contributed to family and corporate ranches consisting of thousands of acres.
McPherson County, organized in 1890, originally included land now known as Arthur County. Settlement was slow due to lack of rail transportation in the county. The Kinkaid Act of 1904 provided the greatest influx of settlers to the region, however, harsh conditions and lack of resources in the sandhills forced most to leave. The depression and drought of the 1930's also affected county settlement. Various businesses in Tryon closed or changed hands while ranchers sold out and moved away. From an initial county population of 401 in 1890 to a peak of 2,470 in 1910, and the current 1980 census of 593, McPherson County remains one of the lowest populated regions in the state with only one person per one-and-one-half square miles. Being located in the Sand Hills region, McPherson County is an important contributer to cattle production. It also has the distinction of being the only "dry" county in Nebraska with no liquor sold within county boundaries.