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Merrick County
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Merrick County's 100th Year: 1858-1958


Agricultural and Industrial Development


By Donald F. Sampson

"For many days and weeks our pilgrims had been journeying over the ventureless waste of the great plain, wearied with its death-like monotony. As may readily be supposed, the wide, green valley of the Platte had to them unusual charms. The little patches of sod corn by the roadside that they occasionally passed looked so green and luxuriant, the little earth covered cabins of the settlers, few and far between though they were, looked so cozy and comfortable to them, who had passed so many months without seeing any human habitation whatever, that they were more and more persuaded that the land in which they were journeying was a goodly land, and that the parched, dreary, and irreclaimable desert was passed. So entirely were they convinced of this that at night, when they halted at the earth-covered cabin of one of the settlers, it required but little setting forth on the part of said settler of the good qualities of the soil and climate to induce them to make up their minds to halt for a season, at least, and look around. With that halt of our pilgrims to look around the die was cast; they never continued their journey." So wrote Wells Brewer, one of the first five settlers of Merrick County, and its first historian, of his return from the Pikes Peak gold rush late in 1859. Though he recognized its advantages, he could not possibly have dreamed of the extent to which it would be developed in the succeeding 100 years.

No railroads, no post office, no stores, no roads, and no inhabitants other than Indians, --only sod-bound prairie-- such was Merrick County when, in 1858, it was created by legislative enactment and "Lone Tree Station," its first building, was erected by the Western Stage Lines. But "Lone Tree Station" never did exist as the official town of the settlers. The first post office was at Shoemaker's Point, near Chapman. Until 1869, after the Union Pacific established the Original Town of Lone Tree, and those of Clarks, Silver Creek and Chapman, the only post offices were located at the homes of different settlers, these homes being known as "ranches". It would have been difficult to visualize then the post office of today, and the daily delivery of mail almost to the very door of every person in the country, both urban and rural.

The coming of the Union Pacific railroad in 1866 not only established town-sites, but also provided a more rapid means of travel and transportation for the products of this agricultural community. The early history of the struggles of the settlers for a "competing" railroad is a saga in itself. But it was not until 1887, when the Burlington Route was extended from Aurora to Greeley Center that any "competition" was established.. What a transition! -- From 4 days by horse and wagon to Omaha, then a day by train, then to 4 hours, and now an hour and forty-seven minutes-- or even less by air! A similar transformation has taken place in the handling of freight, both in speed and weight, from the days of the ox-team, the horse-drawn freighter, and even the little railroad car of eighty years ago, to the present high-speed, diesel-powered trains hauling 50 or more 40-foot cars at 50 to 60 miles per hour, or the trucks that travel up and down our highways in a never-ending stream.

There were no stores, as such, in Merrick County prior to the coming of the railroad, but practically every "ranch" along the established trail was a store of sorts. An ad, made with lamp-black on a piece of cracker-box cover tacked to a cedar post, read as follows:


FLOUR  COFFEE  SUGAR  BACON

MOLASSES  TOBACCO  CIGARS

AND WHISKEY

This little ad emphasizes the limited selection available that was characteristic of "stores" for many years. But it contained the staff of life, a little sweetening, a little meat, and proof beyond doubt that coffee-drinking, smoking and "imbibing" are not twentieth century innovations.

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The flour, the coffee, the sugar, the molasses, and possible the whiskey, were in barrels. The requirements of each customer were scooped or drained from the barrels. Not only have the past 100 years seen a tremendous development in the varieties and selections of the items offered, but the methods of packaging and handling have undergone an even greater change. Even 50 years ago the stock of canned goods in a grocery store occupied mighty little space. But there were rows of barrels, crates and boxes, all open to tempt the prospective purchaser--and maybe the flies. Cookies came in barrels, or in boxes about 12 by 12 by 12 inches. You didn't have to buy a barrel or a box; you bought by the pound. The storekeeper, who may have just finished sacking potatoes or filling the kerosene can, put the cookies in a sack for you. It was awfully handy, and not considered particularly bad manners, to do a little sampling before making any decisions. Fresh vegetables were a very rare item, and any available were usually the product of a local gardener. Frozen fruits and vegetables were, of course, not developed until such recent times that almost anyone old enough to read this will remember when they were introduced.

By contrast, the grocers' shelves today are lined with cans and small individual boxes of almost every conceivable product fit for human consumption. The meats are all in clean, refrigerated counters, the dairy and kindred products in open topped refrigerators, and fresh vegetables of every kind are neatly arranged on cooled counters. Nearly everything but fresh meats and vegetables are ready packaged and the housewife takes her cart, waits on herself, and may encounter only the check-out clerk.

Virtually every other type of retail establishment has undergone similar changes and improvements.

The early ox-teams and horses neither had nor wanted good roads. The trail was adequate, easily followed, and easy on their feet. If it rained, they could pull out of the track and travel on the sod of the centuries. But with the twentieth century came the automobile and a demand for better roads. First, the prairie roads were graded to provide better drainage and a more even surface. But a graded road could be a. pretty slippery place after a rain, and about 1922 the use of gravel was begun on some of the principal state and national highways. Gravel roads were still dusty, and experiments began about the same time with concrete roads --- 16 feet wide. By 1930, considerable stretches of state and national highways were being paved, and today we have a network of paved and graveled roads in Merrick County that leaves almost no farmstead without one past its door. As the Platte River was the guide for the early traveler, and later for the Union Pacific railroad, so it was that the Lincoln Highway, the country's principal transcontinental highway, followed the same general route and traverses the county from end to end with as many as 4,000 cars and trucks passing a given point in a 24-hour period at the peak of the tourist travel.

Although remaining predominantly agricultural, Merrick County is admirably adapted to industry, with an abundant supply of water easily obtained, low electric rates, and natural gas available in much of its area. The first industrial development was in 1872, when Merrick County, by a vote of its people, "loaned its credit to Mr. J. G. Brewer for the term of ten years upon the condition that he should construct a water power from the Platte River and erect a grist mill on Section 31, Township 13 North, Range 6, and operate the same as a public grist mill, grinding for toll, not to exceed the rate of one-sixth." This was only the forerunner of numerous flour mills that were operated in the county, but all have disappeared in the wake of the centralization of the food industries.

A number of creameries have operated in Merrick County, and Farmers Co-operative Creameries at Central City and Palmer are in operation at the present time.

Merrick County has some very fine smaller industries, such as the Grosch Irrigation Industries at Silver Creek, Lemmerman's Hatchery at Palmer, and Armour's poultry processing plant and Randy's Steaks in Central City, and will always welcome more of these sound, income-producing institutions.

The history of Merrick County's agricultural growth has been one of trials and tribulations, but of ultimate success.

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In the summer of 1863, the Platte River went dry--a sight familiar to those of us in this age. This was alarming to the early settlers, many of whom feared that some landslide in the mountains had diverted the currents of its tributaries and that its dryness might be permanent. By November, however, the water began to flow again, and their minds were eased.

The first "depression" of the early settlers occurred in 1869. The welfare of the community at that time was largely dependent upon the industry which supplied the railroad with cord-wood for its engines. Large supplies had been cut, hauled to town and stacked along the railroad when word came that the railroad had found the coal of Wyoming and announced they would not complete their contract. It was two years before the railroads were forced to pay up and times were so desperate that Mr. J. H. Berryman, who had the first and only store in Central City at that time, closed his store and went to work in the fields.

The years of 1874 and 1875 saw crops completely ruined by grasshoppers, and the area was visited by devastating hail storms in 1882 and 1884. A county-wide flood came in June of 1891, and the first severe drouth in 1893, 1894, and 1895. Other storms, floods and drouths have occurred at intervals throughout the years, but few things did more to change the agricultural face of Merrick County than the drouth and depression years of the 1930's, extending from 1934 through 1940.

The years of 1932 and 1933 had been years of abundant harvests, although prices had been on the downgrade since the stock market crash of 1929. Land had depreciated by 50% or more under its value in the 1920's. By the fall of 1933, corn was selling from 10¢ to 15¢ a bushel. Hay was $3 and $4 a ton. Many a farm had been purchased during the boom years of the 1920's and carried a mortgage against it of more than it was worth in 1933. Six percent interest payments could not be met with the proceeds of 10¢ corn, and many went into default.

Early 1934 was uneventful, but no rains came in the spring--nothing but hot, blistering winds. By summer, hay that had been sold in March at $3 per ton cost $20 to replace. Corn that had been sold the fall before at 10¢ in an attempt to pay expenses, was worth $1. Many farmers had to sell practically all of their crops in 1933 to pay expenses, but managed to keep their livestock. They had no money to buy the feed they did not raise in 1934, so the livestock became worthless.

The misery of humans and the hunger of livestock was such that probably no one who did not see it could ever believe. Men jumped at the chance to work a 10-hour day for a dollar. Evan so, Merrick County was more fortunate than some of its neighbors, particularly to the north and south, as the Platte Valley did produce some small crops and some forage. That period marked the beginning of government subsidies for the farm and they have been with us ever since.

Full grown cows sold for less than $10. Hogs were from $1.50 to $2.00 per hundredweight. One of the most sumptuous meals this writer can remember was one at which twelve hungry young people sat down to a roast pig dinner. They probably didn't succeed in eating over half the pig, which had been purchased at the Community Sale for 69¢.

As the early pioneers had overcome their hardships, so the people of Merrick County lived through the 1930's, coming out of them a wiser, albeit poorer, citizenry.

Irrigation had been talked as early as 1876, and some feeble but unsuccessful attempts had been made at ditch irrigation in the county. Areas to the west of us had been successfully using ditch irrigation for years, and some daring souls had put down irrigation pumps in Merrick County, before the drouth. However, it was not until this disastrous era, 1934 to 1940, that the people came to realize that adequate irrigation would have alleviated a great part of the distress of that period,

So it was that the farmers of Merrick County began to sink irrigation wells, at long last realizing that they had an abundant supply of underground water easily obtainable in large quantities for irrigation. Today, although small in size, Merrick County has the third largest number of wells of any county in the state.

 

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With irrigation came the leveling of the land, with great bulldozers and scoops, so that the waters could flow more uniformly and with less waste. The use of commercial fertilizers -- first nitrogen, then more balanced mixtures of nitrogen, phosphates and potash, and now even trace elements such as magnesium and zinc--has at least doubled the yields of corn, Merrick County's present basic crop. While soy beans and sugar beets have been raised sparingly in this county, both are raised successfully. Only oats, of the more basic crops, seems not to have yielded to the advances of fertilizers and improved seeds.

Irrigation has brought about a tremendous change in land values. Not only has it greatly increased values because of the assurance of a crop and consequent stability of the operators, but it has transformed areas formerly considered poor for crop production into some of the most desirable land in the county. "Poverty Ridge," a belt of land through the center of the county, was known virtually from coast to coast to be unable to withstand even the dry weather of an ordinary season and to be so undesirable that no loan company would make a loan of any kind on it. Irrigation has transformed that area into some of the most desirable land in the county, and it is now often referred to as "Prosperity Ridge."

Keeping stride with the improvements in crops and their production, Merrick County's citizenry has always been keenly interested in the improvement, raising and feeding of livestock. At about the turn of the century, the area was known as the "livestock feeding center of the world." Entire train-loads of cattle and sheep have been unloaded at a single stockyards for feeding purposes. Times and transportation have changed, but many of the county's farmers are engaged in the feeding of livestock and countless thousands are shipped annually. Beef production is an integral part of our economy and pages could be devoted to the evolution from the "long-horn" steer of yesteryear to the prize beef animal of today and the part that the citizens of this county had in its development.

An early settler, writing in 1874, said, "Indeed, it was generally admitted, in those days (1860), 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 there would be no market---Stock raising, it was thought, was the only use this vast treeless, mineless region could ever be put to. 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." He had seen what he thought was a great change in 14 years. What would he think if he could see Merrick County today? And probably no one who reads these lines is any more able to visualize the development in the next 100 years than was the early settler of the 100 years following his arrival.

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© 2001 for the NEGenWeb Project by Mary Alice Vampola, Ted & Carole Miller