COW HORSES, BLIZZARDS AND HOPPERS
By Otto B. Liedtke
In the year 1871 four men migrated from the state of Pennsylvania to York county to find homes for the future. My father was not a native of Pennsylvania, but came from Philadelphia, leaving his family there until he became settled in the West. These four men located on section No. 2 in what is now Thayer township and took up homesteads as follows: George Zarr, SW 1-4; William Miller, SE 1-4; Charles Rhoades, NW 1-4; and my father, F. W. Liedtke, NE 1-4, as a timber claim. I might add that William Miller was the father of John W. Miller of York. Each one built a sod house or a small frame building in the center of the section, each one on his own claim, of course. One well was dug in the exact center of the section to supply all four families with water. The old well is still visible and on record as the center of the section. With these little buildings all in one group it made quite a little settlement. The lumber that was used was hauled from Columbus by oxen. Early in 1873 father sent for his family. So in February of that year mother, my sister Clara and I arrived in Fairmont. We were met at the train by Robert McPherson with a team of ponies and a spring wagon. He took us to our new home, 17 miles northeast of York.
I want to relate a little incident that happened between Fairmont and York that caused much laughter from Mr. McPherson. We had just crossed a stream, which I suppose must have been the Blue, when I spied a man plowing with a yoke of oxen. I became excited and called out, "Look at the cow horses!"
Father had erected a small frame building of boards up and down and a tar paper roof. I remember one time we arrived home after a big rain and hail storm – you can imagine the condition of that roof and everything in the house nearly ruined.
Father taught school before his family arrived and one short term in this little house in 1873. There were not many pupils and some came for quite a distance. I can remember only three at this time, Marshall Keyes, Belle and Elizabeth Thompson. Elizabeth is now Mrs. Wirt of Benedict.
Neighbors used to come to our house to visit and I remember they used to raise the window a few inches and shoot prairie chickens by the dozen. Prairie chickens would come right up to our door, I suppose looking for feed.
As I remember the spring and summer of 1873 was a beautiful season. My sister Clara and I would spend the greater part of the time walking over the prairie looking for buffalo beans and flowers and listening to the song of the meadowlark. To this day I never hear a meadowlark without it stirs up old memories of that year and for that reason I suppose the meadowlark is my favorite bird.
In April, 1873, we were invited to Easter dinner at one of our neighbors. It was a beautiful, warm, sunshiny day. This neighbor's house was two rooms built of sod. The south room was covered with a sod roof and the north room had a board roof. A board roof was considered quite an improvement in those days. There was not a cloud in sight when father drove his oxen, hitched to a lumber wagon, to our neighbor's. We had not been there very long till I noticed something was wrong by the actions of my father and the neighbor. Then all at once with a terrible roar the great Easter storm of 1873 was upon us. I was too young to remember all the details but I remember the men folks tied lariat ropes around their waists and the other end to some secure place in the house and went out to try to save their stock. They brought the cow in the house and made her comfortable in one corner of the kitchen. They put us children to bed in the north room under the board roof and piled everything on us they had to keep us warm, but the snow would sift through the cracks and cover our bed. The wind seemed to be getting stronger and stronger and finally the roof began to break its moorings from the sod wall and every time the roof would raise a . few inches the snow would nearly bury us in bed. Every few minutes they would shake the snow off the covers. Father and the neighbor hurriedly secured ropes and fastened them to the roof and drove stakes in the floor, fastening the roof as best they could but not secure enough to make it snow and wind proof. Here we had to stay for three days. The settlers at that time had very little livestock and most of that perished in this storm. We found thirteen head of cattle in a ravine near our house after the snow melted. They had piled up and smothered under a huge drift of snow. I might add that these cattle were the property of Thomas Green, father of L. P. Green, a former resident of York. Thomas Green lived about three miles northwest of us in Polk county.
Later in the summer came the grasshoppers. I remember I was sent to a neighbor's house on an errand. There were a few grasshoppers in the air and I had not gone far when the sun disappeared. Looking up I saw the sky completely covered with grasshoppers. They met me head-on coming from the southwest and I was going in that direction. It was like meeting a hail storm. I put my arms up over my face and ran for home and by the time I reached there I had grasshoppers down my back, in my pockets, nose, ears and mouth. In a very short time all vegetation had disappeared. In a few minutes our garden was just a black patch of ground. I remember mother had some morning glories at the side of the house and in a very few minutes they were gone as well as the twine that was holding them up.
Father had a yoke of white oxen. They were a couple of good, sturdy old fellows but always traveled in low gear. When we would come to York we would leave home at four o'clock in the morning, and thought ourselves lucky if we arrived home at four o'clock the next morning. There were no roads or bridges. We had to ford the streams and drive in the general direction of York until we struck the trail. In returning home, which was always in the night, we always expected and generally did get lost. I remember one night we were lost. We must have been somewhere in the north half of York county. Father was somewhat near-sighted which did not help matters. He told us to keep a lookout for a light in some window but as you could drive for miles in the day time without seeing a house, a light in a window would be remarkable, but father finally spied a light so he thought and said we would drive there for directions. He drove toward that light it seemed for hours when mother discovered it was a star. My sister Clara and I became disgusted and curled up in the bottom of the wagon and went to sleep. When we wakened the sun was shining and we were home.
Father was elected county clerk of York county in the fall of 1873. So late in the fall we moved to York. Father bought a home at the northwest corner of the intersection of Eighth street and Lincoln avenue but at that time we hardly knew the names of the streets. The house still stands on the lot just west.
The year of 1874 was another grasshopper year much worse than the previous year, bringing discouragement and despair to the pioneers. There was actual suffering for the bare necessities of life. Many loaded their few belongings and left while others were unable to leave so had to stay and take it. I remember hearing the older folks say that there was several carloads of supplies enroute from the east for the grasshopper sufferers. I remember when the men of York constructed what they called grasshopper traps. They were made of sixteen foot boards and fly screen, three or four feet high and wide with ropes tied on each end and were pulled lengthwise through the grass. Yes! It worked to perfection. They would only go a few yards until they had a load. I think they destroyed them with kerosene, but the trouble was they could turn around and go over the same ground and have another load.
The first newspaper published in York in 1873 or 1874, called the Free Press, edited by Mr. Chittenden, who will be remembered by all the old pioneers of York. I suppose, on account of the unfavorable conditions caused by the grasshoppers and hard times, it soon passed out of existence.
In the year 1874 the first colony of Russians began to arrive and settled in what is now Henderson neighborhood and about this time the Russian mill was erected just south of York. I remember the second season the Russians settled here they would haul wagon loads of water melons to York. The melons were round in shape, somewhat light in color and sweet as sugar. I suppose they brought the seed from the old country. They must have constructed their wagon boxes to conform with the old country style; they sloped outward over the wheels about four feet high.
I can remember when the men of York would turn out and burn fire guards around the town. Prairie fires were numerous in those days and when one started it would travel for miles and destroy everything in its path.
York was visited in those days by many Indians. The kind that wore blankets and buckskins. The squaws carried their papooses on their backs. I have seen from 100 to 150 in camp on Beaver creek about where the park is now. I remember one time I saw a big buck stop at the Amos Bowers' home, just across from where the York theatre stands now. He pounded on the front door until Mrs. Bowers appeared and he pointed to his mouth and said, "Eat, eat." Being badly frightened she rushed to the kitchen and brought out a whole pie. The Indian snatched it out of her hand and walked away. One day a bunch of Indians congregated on the corner where Hannis' jewelry store stands now, just the same as the pale-faces do today. They soon made it known that they had a foot racer in their crowd and wanted a race. The young men of the pioneer days were the kind that let no one come to York and go away disappointed. There were several foot racers in town and one of these was Frank Graham, (colored). Frank lived in a little shack about where the Elks building is now and if there was anything that Frank hated and feared it was an Indian. The young men matched the race with Frank without consulting him. So when the bet was posted a delegation went over to get Frank. He had his doors and windows fastened but in a few minutes they pulled him from under his bed and led him to the starting point explaining to him what would happen if he lost the race. They were to run south on the west side of the square. Frank won the race by yards, and the comical part was that Frank did not stop at the outcome but kept on running south, and the last we saw of him that day was when he crossed the bridge on South Lincoln avenue. Speaking of this bridge, the first one at this location how many remember the sign posted on it? Reading as follows, "$5.00 fine for riding or driving faster than a walk across this bridge. By order of the County Board."
The first circus ever to appear in York was The New York Circus about 1875. The second was the Robbins Circus sometime later. Both were just small overland shows. York had no railroad as yet. Both the circuses pitched their tents just east and north of the postoffice where the ball ground was also located. Speaking of the ball ground let me say York had a ball club to be proud of in those days and under the same conditions I am sure they could clean up on any of these ball clubs traveling through the country today. They used no pads or gloves, none were allowed by the rules. The ball was nearly dead and would not bounce but a foot or so on the hard ground. It was red in color. The battery for York was Fisher, pitcher, and Sam Idell, catcher. Fisher (not related to our old school mate Wes Fisher) could throw the hardest ball of any man I ever saw, and Idell would stand right behind the bat and catch them bare handed. The rules in those days were, when the batter would step up to the plate the umpire would ask him what kind of a ball he wanted. The batter had his choice of three – shoulder, hip or knee ball and that is where the pitcher would have to put them to make a strike. Eight balls were required before the batter could take first base and three strikes were out the same as today.
Some time ago there appeared an article in one of our papers, written by the late Cap't. Lundeen, about the first telephone in York, but there was one long before that, even before the Captain came to York. It was a crude affair but it worked in a way. All old settlers will remember Joe Brown, who was a clerk in Reed's drug store which was located where Sid Belcher's place of business is now. This was before the old city hall was built on the same location in 1877 and later destroyed by fire. Joe Brown and another young man who was a clerk in a hardware store in a frame building where Felton's drug store once existed were the makers of this telephone. They took two tomato cans with both ends out, covered one end with buck skin, ran a twine string through the buckskin and tied a knot to keep from pulling out then placed one can in the drug store and the other in the hardware store and there was York's first telephone. It did very well by a great deal of loud talking. There was no way to call central but they made their appointment to talk at different intervals by the clock.
I remember when Warren Clough [Cluff] charged with the murder of his brother in Seward was brought to York on a change of venue. I do not remember the exact year but it was in the early 70's. He was confined in the northeast room upstairs in the old court house. The windows were barred and Lon Miller, brother of Sheriff J. P. Miller, was his constant guard. One of the guards took me to this jail room one day and Mr. Clough [Cluff] put his hand on my shoulder and asked me if I was afraid of him. I said "no" but I was nearly scared to death. Mr. Clough [Cluff] was convicted and sentenced to hang by Judge G. W. Post. The governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, of which he served 15 years and was then pardoned. He died a short time later.
In 1876 my folks returned to Philadelphia and upon returning brought me a velocipede, so I claim the distinction of having the first wheel in York. Claude Bell, now Dr. Bell of Denver, and son of the late F. O. Bell, holds second place.
The railroad to York was finished in 1877 and was called the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad in Nebraska. Locomotive No. 23 pulled the first passenger train into York with Engineer Cook in charge. I know, because Mr. Cook was related to the Dilman Hutchinson family, pioneers of York, and he would let Hugh Hutchinson and me ride in the cab while switching. I could go on indefinitely and tell of little incidents of pioneer days in York and York county, perhaps of no interest to anyone but myself, but space will not permit and I suppose the readers will say, Thank goodness.