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The Nonpareil - Mar. 3, 1898
History of Merrick County
• From "the beginning" until the year 1895. •
O COMMUNITY can pass through the first, quarter century of its development without acquiring a pioneer history which is rich in associations and experience, and which grows more interesting and appreciated as the years increasingly separate it from the present. To gather up the fragments of these pioneer days and shape them into a somewhat orderly chronological whole, while it can hardly be called a necessary work for the historian, is one that fully rewards the effort. With the aid of its early settlers, its newspaper files, and the few other sources of information to which access is possible, we have endeavored to make of the articles which shall be published herein for the coming half year a comparatively complete, reliable and interesting history of the cunty in which the larger portion of our days, up to the present time, have been spent.
For our history we ask the indulgence of our readers. If mistakes appear, we shall be glad to correct them so far as we can with the material at hand. The writer makes small pretension to the ability which this work demands, and has undertaken it only because unable to resist the fascination of the field. With such explanation we submit the first chapter of our "History of Merrick County" to the readers of The Nonpareil.
"IN THE BEGINNING."
HE early history of Merrick County (which was in its earliest years identical with that of Central City) seems to center about an old cottonwood tree which, in those "desert days," stood a lonesome but welcome sight on the north bank of the Platte river. Legend such as so young a country as ours dares aspire to--hints to us that the old "Lone Tree" was the place of assembly for the red man in the days of his undisputed possession. Beneath the shadow of the old cottonwood the chief is said to have summoned his braves for consultation concerning a proposed hunt for the then plentiful bison. Or perhaps some thoughtless traveler on his way east or west had come into the red man's domain alone and without protection. Then the "Lone Tree" heard the guttural tones of the council of war, and in its solitude saw the red man creep silently nearer the unfortunate traveler and with his blood-curdling yell flash suddenly upon him and bury the tomahawk in his brain. Then followed the old tree's unwilling listening to the deeds of blood boasted of by the braves gathered beneath its boughs. Only in old age did its branches shelter peaceful pursuits and mark a resting place of the westward-moving van of civilization and settlement.
Such is the character which legend, born doubtless in the vivid imagination of some undeveloped novelist, but supported in no small degree by the facts of early history, gives to the veteran cottonwood from which our town took its first and best-known name. But passing by unauthenticated legend, the old "Lone Tree" loses little of either importance or interest as we approach the days of earliest settlement. This solitary guardian of the Platte was situated about fifty rods westward from the southeast corner of the farm now occupied by Eugene Hilton. For many years it was one of the famous landmarks on the long and weary journey to the great west of unknown extent and amazing possibilities. But few of those who had learned to love the old cottonwood could forbear carrying away a branch or piece of bark as a memento, or at least carving a name or sign upon its rough surface, and overcome at length by the weight of its friends' remembrances, and its end hastened by old age and the many fires kindled at its foot, the old "Lone Tree" fell a victim to the fury of the great storm of 1865. Pieces of its scarred body have gone from one end of the land to the other as mementoes of the long journey from east to west across the plains. For a year after its overthrow a large slab of the tree was to be seen on the platform of the newly-erected "depot" at Central City, but it, too, failed to withstand long the attack of the curiosity seeker, and disappeared entirely. Mr. Hilton informs us that the trunk and lower branches of the old tree were during its later years entirely covered with names to the height of thirty feet. Unfortunately for the interest of our history, no one ever secured a photograph or drawing of the "Lone Tree," and we are forced to content ourselves with an illustration of the spot where this veteran giant of the forest once raised his head toward the sky and cheered the lonely traveler for forty miles of his journey. Perhaps, however, the mere location of this historic character may fix a little more firmly upon the minds of our younger readers the knowledge of the object around which centers the affection of all those who helped to lay the foundation of our county's history.1
1Under date of Jan. 31, 1898, Mr. Brewer writes us as follows:
The first time I saw the old Lone Tree was on the 20th day of September, 1860. It was then a green and vigorous tree. The next time I saw it was in 1863. It was then dead and leafless. The repeated fires of the pilgrims about its roots had done the work. It stood them, gaunt and blighted, an emblem of death and desolation, for two years. It went down in the great atom of 1865. In its prime it was a glorious tree--a typical cottonwood, between three and four feet in diameter at stump, height, and twenty feet to the first limb. The branches were widespreading and the whole tree was remarkably symmetrical in its proportions. It was visible for twenty miles up or down the river. Seen from these points it appeared to stand a long distance from any other tree, but really it was only about eighty rods to other timber above on the bank of the Platte. It was a noted landmark in the old days of overland travel and was known in every town and hamlet from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
"Preceding the Union Pacific Railroad by several years," says one account2, "was the Western Stage Company, to which repeated reference is made in the whole history of the Platte river region. This road followed closely the course of the Platte, running through 3Merrick County, in fact, so close to the edge of the bank that frequent changes were necessitated by sections of the road being undermined and washed away. An interesting relic of the early days is the surveyor's establishment of the old stage road, in which he describes it as lying so many feet "south of Hartwell's barn," a straw structure of a few years permanency! Such seems to have been the lack of appreciation which our fathers had of the "lastingness" of the work upon which they were entering. The idea that the place of their settlement should one day be one of the most prosperous and fertile of all this broad land seems to have occurred to but few of the pioneers, and many of their early words and acts were marked by the same seeming lack of comprehension of the work upon which they had entered and the results for which it should in later years be responsible. Wells Brewer, writing for the Courier in 1874, says of the country which now composes Merrick County:
"Indeed, it was generally admitted, in those days, that this would never be much of a farming country, not altogether because the climate was such that farm products could not be successfully grown, but because that, beyond supplying the limited demand caused by the overland travel, there was no market and would not be one for a generation to come. Stock raising, it was thought, was the only use this vast treeless, mineless region could ever be successfully, put to. A dense population was never thought possible; only a stock ranch every eight or ten miles, with a thousand or two head of cattle, was all any of us old settlers ever expected to see."
2Western Historical Co.'s "History of Nebraska," p.1110.
3Another road, the old "Mormon trail," ran through the northern part of Merrick County and southern part of Nance County. A journey over it by a party of which the Brewer brothers were members is thus described by Mr. Wells Brewer in the Lone Tree Courier of June 25, 1874: Late in the afternoon of the 20th of May, 1859, a couple of pilgrim wagons, slowly wending their way along the old Mormon trail on the south bank of the Loup, crossed the boundary line and entered the limits of Merrick County.. . . . The old trail they were following was none of the plainest. Having been travelled but little for the past four years it was in some places beginning to be overgrown with grass. About five oclock it appeared to leave the river and strike directly for the Bluffs, and without doubt there was neither tree nor shrub nor living water for miles. Under such circumstances it was plainly folly to leave the friendly river at .this late hour. There was no timber growing along this, the south side of the river, but the driftwood along its banks afforded an abundance of fuel. It was accordingly resolved to go into camp for the night. The morning that followed was bright, cool and pleasant. The road had bidden a final farewell to the Loup, striking directly for the bluffs.. . . . To each one of the company the country they were now entering was, in truth, an unknown land. None of them ever had the slightest idea of making it a home That this country, would ever be settled and improved, and the prairie converted into farms, was to them conceivable only as the remote possibility of a distant future. For a short distance the road wound along at the base of the bluffs, as if in dread of entering,. . . . but at last nerved itself for the effort and boldly entered the bluffs, climbing at the outset a steep sandy hill. But when once fairly among the bluffs the road was tolerably good, following narrow winding valleys and occasionally crossing sandy ridges that to all appearances were entirely destitute of vegetation.
Referring to the "History of Nebraska" again, we find that "In 1858 the company established a station at Lone Tree, and erected the first building in the county. It was a small, uncouth affair, composed of unscaled cottonwood logs and sod roof,4 and has long since disappeared. At this early day weekly trips across the plains were made with four-horse coaches, 'Lone Tree Station' being one of the twenty mile stopping places." The stage coach trips through Merrick County were uneventful ones, as neither Indians nor robbers paid much attention to the route west of Columbus.5
4Mr. Hilton informs us that the building had a shingle roof.
5Although not strictly Merrick County history, we may find the description of the "mail car," which carried the mail across the Platte to Kearney, worth reading. On account of the deep water a wagon with wheels 6 and 8 feet in diameter, with tires six inches broad, with the box perched high in air, was necessary, and even this "stilted" affair was often flooded in times of high water.
The "Lone Tree" and the stage line constitute about all of the history of Merrick County previous to the coming of our first settlers, which will be discussed in our next chapter.
The cross (X) on the right indicates, approximately, the location of the old "Lone Tree. The bush beneath the cross on left of picture rises from the ruins of the old "Lone Tree Ranch." The picture was taken from road along river bank, looking east toward bend in river where it swings a little south, leaving a long stretch of wooded lowlands.
© 2000, 2001 by Ted & Carole Miller