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Merrick County
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The Nonpareil - April 21, 1898


History of Merrick County

• From "the beginning" until the year 1895.






LetterHOSE familiar with the building of the great transcontinental railroad will easily recall the wonderful changes which it wrought in the country through which it passed. We of the second generation have heard our fathers tell of the coming of the "iron horse," and it is from their accounts that we must glean the information necessary for this chapter. Consequently we will offer no apology for taking almost verbatim Mr. Brewer's narrative of the coming of the railroad and what it meant to the people of our county in those days.
   "With the year 1865," says Mr. Brewer, "closed the era of pilgrims and ranches. Before another autumn the yell of the locomotive superseded the crack of the bull-whacker's whip. The slow jogging stage coach gave way to the rattling and rushing train of cars. The commerce of the plains found a different method of transportation. Horse flesh had had its day. Honest bone and sinew that consumed the corn and oats of the settler at such remunerative prices were soon compelled to stand aside. It was a change in no wise for the better to the settlers that then occupied the Platte valley. Upon the principle of the greatest good to the greatest number it was a change for the better; but it completely upset and flattened out the occupations of the then settlers of Merrick County. The majority of the settlers were utterly unable to comprehend the greatness of the change that was about to take place, and of course failed to provide for it.
   "During the winter of 1865-6 the railroad was built to a few miles west of Fremont. In the spring of 1866 the great race for the 100th meridian fairly commenced between this road and the Kansas branch. In the month of February contracts were let for getting out all the cross ties that could be obtained on the uncultivated islands of the Platte, and every preparation was made to push the work forward as rapidly as possible as soon as spring should open. The grading was let in subcontracts, so that the second hundred miles could all be done almost simultaneously. Grading parties were on early in the month of April, as soon as the frost was out of the ground. In a little less than a month the line was graded through Merrick County. Before the spring opened it began to be the talk that the company intended to lay the track at the rate of half a mile a day. Few people could believe that it would be done; but when the time came the track was put down at a rate that fully equalled that. So complete was the organization and so thoroughly was everything systematized that the rate at which the rails were put down gradually increased. On the fourth day of July, 1866, the construction train could be plainly seen from what is now Central City, and before the end of the month the road was completed through this county.
   "The building of the railroad brought a great accession to the population of the counties along its line. The majority of those who then came were honest laborers. A few, however, were desperadoes and horsethieves, some of whom were lured here by the prospect of plunder, and others had fled hitherward to escape the consequences of crimes committed elsewhere. Up to this time there had never been a lawsuit in the county; all the differences arising had been settled without violence. But the criminal record could not long remain a blank while the Union Pacific was in course of construction." Under another heading--"Merrick County's Early Criminals"--we give the record of crimes which followed the advent of the railroad.
   But the railroad was here, and evidently here to stay, and the. inhabitants of our county began to gradually shape their lives accordingly. The first movement was one which brought the, "towns" from the river to the railroad, and the gradual separation of the people into town and country life. This, however, was not accomplished instantaneously and is a subject we will leave for discussion in a later chapter.

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LetterOR this subject, as for the former one, we are indebted to a former historian, Mr. John L. Martin, who at the Centennial Celebration of 1876 embraced in his history the facts which are contained in this chapter.
   In July, 1866, when the county commissioners resolved to levy a tax of $100 to defray expenses, they made no provision whatever for schoolhouses. But in October the citizens living in the western part of the county resolved to take the educational problem into their own hands. On the 20th of that month John L. Martin, Claus Stoltenberg and Wm. Hayter were elected a "Board of Directors of District No. I."
   A log schoolhouse was erected, by subscription, and covered with willow brush and sod. It cost less than $100. In this building, Miss Ellen Abbott (afterward Mrs. Dodge) taught the first school during the succeeding winter. In April the lady received her recompense in the shape of $33 of public money. In December, 1866, Mr. Martin was appointed examiner of teachers, and the next year was elected county superintendent of public instruction. After five districts had been organized, it was discovered that the act creating the office had not been signed by the speaker of the house, and was, therefore, no law at all. It was not until April, 1869, that this individual attached his name to a bill creating the office, when it came legally into existence.
   Edward Parker was appointed to assume the duties and responsibilities of the position.

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LetterHE first crime in Merrick County of which we have any record was the theft of a pair of mules from an old man by the name of Wood, who made use of his mules and wagon as a pioneer "freight," by which supplies from Omaha were conveyed to the ranches in the neighborhood of Kearney. On his return trio one morning in May Mr. Wood was accosted by a couple of well-dressed Irishmen, who asked him if they might share the tediousness of his journey to Omaha. The prospect of company was not disagreeable to the old gentleman as he thought of the long and lonesome journey, and he gladly made room for them. The Irishmen proved most entertaining company and, as if in gratitude for his kindness took the care of his teams off his hands. They journeyed thus until they reached Brewer's Ranch. As customary, the night was spent there, Mr. Wood putting up at the house and the two Irishmen, for lack of better accommodations, bundling up in their blankets outdoors near the stable. But when Mr. Wood arose early the next morning and made his way to the barn he found both the Irishmen and his horses missing. The thought that they might have gotten loose and wandered away was soon dispelled by the discovery that a saddle and bridle were also missing from the ranch barn. Pursuit was at once began, and their track, made across cultivated ground at the very beginning, was easily followed. Four days after the loss of the mules, one of them wandered into Wood River, and, the notice of theft and description of property having been sent east and west by telegraph, was identified and held to await developments. Before long one of the Irishmen came inquiring after the stray mule, and was at once seized. Having been compelled to disclose the whereabouts of his partner, both were secured and taken to Omaha for safe keeping, as horse-stealing was still considered a capital crime by many people in Merrick County.
   The second criminal of our new county fared worse than his Irish predecessors, although his original crime was no greater. It was only a short time after Mr. Wood lost his mules that a German tramp stole a horse from the barn of Chas. Combs, the horse belonging, however, to John Kyes. The thief was tracked to the bank of the river, where it was determined that he had crossed over, it afterwards being discovered that during the crossing he nearly foundered, and having gotten across was immediately taken in charge by a traveler who was suspicious of the German's haste and early crossing, and forced to go to the ranch of J. T. Biggs. The owner of the horse, which was recognized here, was notified, and with some of the early unofficial preservers of the peace, known as "regulators," came down and took possession of both horse and man. The latter was tied to the horse's tail and thus taken across the river, after which, on account of his ugly actions, the thief was taken to the timber near the old lone tree and "strung up," although the rope broke twice during the operation.
   The third and worst crime of our early days went entirely without punishment. In January, 1868, John Vieregg, with a neighbor, Claus Gottsch, and accompanied by the latter's son and a hired boy, were camped upon the Loup for a hunting excursion. Toward evening of the first day. Messrs. Vieregg and Gottsch started out for a hunt, leaving the two boys at the camp to take care of the team. When they returned they found the two boys murdered, and the horses gone. As there was no signs of resistance, it has always been presumed that they were killed while asleep by some wandering Indian or Indians. Nothing definite concerning their death has ever come to light, and it will doubtless always remain one of the deep mysteries of our county history.

(Chapter IX concluded next week)


© 2000, 2001 by Ted & Carole Miller