STALWART PIONEERS FROM WISCONSIN
By Lila Collins Crounse
When news of the great unsettled land of the West began to spread through the more thickly settled parts of the East, it trickled as elsewhere into the wooded country of Dane county, Wisconsin, stirring the imagination and set the pulses bounding in the young and adventurous youths of that remote country. Among them was John Collins and four other young men, Thos. Stewart and Thos. Y. Stewart, who were cousins, W. D. Young and James Cummings. These stalwart, hardy young men soon assembled their belongs, loaded a wagon, and, on October 2, 1867, started out in search of the glamorous new land far to the West – Nebraska.
They had every thing needed – courage, hardihood, health and bounding spirits. The weather was beautiful, warm and dry, and the entire trip was a joyous experience. Since roads were but mere trails in places, they were fortunate in having fine weather. They crossed the Mississippi at Dubuque, and, after getting well into Iowa, they found the country very sparsely settled, passing only two or three houses in a half day’s travel. The settlers were very anxious to talk to the travelers but were all agreed that they had far better remain in Iowa than brave the unknown perils of Nebraska. But they could not be convinced of this.
Free homestead land in Nebraska was an alluring incentive. Besides this they knew they would see some old friends and neighbors who had come West earlier. David Henderson, with his family had come to Nebraska in '66, and in June preceding this trip Robert Waddle and James Cameron, all from the same neighborhood, had followed them. But it did not need their glowing accounts to fire their imaginations. They were young, free and adventurous. They needed no urging. On Oct. 26, 1867, these five young men reached the Jack Stone ranch, just east of where York was later located. As they neared the ranch they saw a wagon in the distance and latter learned that the driver was E. D. Copsey and his bride, Janet Henderson. They had just been married that day by Justice of the Peace Millspaugh.
At the ranch they met John Brown, a farmer from Hamilton county, who told them of some very choice homestead land on the Blue in south York county. Anxious to see their friends from Wisconsin, they lost not time in hurrying on to visit them. David Henderson had located in southwest York county on the Blue. Here they had their first sight of Indians. A band of several hundred Pawnees were camped here on their way out to a buffalo hunt. This odd and interesting experience was to be duplicated many, many times in the years that followed. Indians, buffalo, deer, elk and antelope soon grew to be as familiar to them as were the rugged hills, the sturdy oak, and tangled hazelbrush of their old Wisconsin home. Leaving Hendersons, they visited the Waddle and Cameron families and then drove back to where they picked out their homesteads from the land recommended to them by Brown.
At this time there were only three settlers near this point Jack Smith, Jerry Stanton and Fernandah McFadden, who figured largely in later development. This was the only settlement west of the Gilmore colony, ten miles east, and none existed between this and the Nim Dixon homestead ten miles west.
After picking out their land these men drove to Nebraska City to file on their claims. While here they met the contractor who was building the new capitol at Lincoln. They pre-empted their land for a year, hired out to the contractor and rode the stage to Lincoln. John Collins helped to mix the first batch of mortar that went into the capitol and later was an invited guest at the laying of the cornerstone of the beautiful new capitol.
Later, coming back to their land Thos. Stewart and John Collins remained together in their bachelor "shack." In the spring of '69 they broke up some sod and sowed 21 acres of wheat. The seed, of the Scotch Fife variety, was bought from Levi Dean, who had raised it the previous year a few miles east and the price was $1.00 per bushel. This proved to be a good year and the wheat made 25 or 26 bushels per acre. The crop was cut with a cradle and bound by hand. Although amateurs at the work the job was finished in one week. The grain was stacked and threshed later in the fall. The machine was a Chicago-Pitts horse power but a good machine for that time. It was owned by Brown & Gillispie of Milford, who threshed all the way up on one side of the Blue and, crossing over at the head of the river in Hamilton county, threshed all the way back on the other side.
Mr. Collins hauled a load of the wheat to Lincoln by oxen but there was no market and he was only able to sell four bushels to a woman who wanted it for chicken feed. The price was 25 c a bushel. The load was hauled back to Camden Mills [Cambden Mills] and left there. A receipt was given later to be redeemed in flour. Thus the load was hauled a distance of 90 miles before being disposed of. Now and then a settler would want a few bushels for seed and so the crop was disposed of.
With the coming of the railroad Fairmont was laid out in 1872. York a few years later. Yet no real market existed. Hogs sold at $1.60 per hundred, and luck indeed was one to find a market for one hog at a time. Sorghum corn was quite extensively grown in the new country. Many crude sorghum mills were to be found in the county and these ran day and night in the sorghum season. This molasses was used very freely in cooking and baking, taking the place of sugar which was very scarce and hard to get.
John Collins at the age of 90, with his wife, still live in McCool Jct. He has a vast fund of interesting reminiscences – buffalo hunts, the semi-annual migrations of the Indians, work along the Platte in connection with the Union Pacific railroad, a very vivid recollection of the great Easter storm of '73, the grasshopper raid and so on.
Mrs. Collins was Mary Jane Ong, who came with her parents from Illinois in 1868. The couple were married at her father's home, a dug-out with dirt floor and dirt roof, on May 2, 1875. They celebrated the 61st anniversary of their marriage May 2, 1936.
Mrs. Collins tells interesting tales of her pioneer life – of their great fear of Indians, of the terrible experience of being left alone during a terrific rainstorm. When they awoke in the morning their dug-out, built on a creek-bank, was entirely surrounded by water. They were rescued by a neighbor who sensing their plight, sent a man in a boat after them. They were children of 13 and 11 years.
At one time two Indians came to their home at night fall asking for shelter. They were allowed to come in and a bed was made for them on the floor in front to the fireplace. During the night they arose frequently and parched corn which they ate. The kind-hearted mother of the household gave them a crock of milk which they drank, but the combination proved to much and they became desperately ill. There was scant sleep for any one that night but the Indians, although greatly feared, did them no harm in any way. The older one, who called himself Joe-with-Whiskers, had a cruelly hurt shoulder. He had been wounded in a fight with the Sioux.