A SMALL GIRL COMES TO NEBRASKA
By Mrs. Grace Crownover
Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson Wirt dropped into the Crownover home for an evening's visit. Always the weather gets first attention in the conversation of Nebraskans and on this particular evening it was not so good. My sister, a visitor from Illinois, remarked that she feared more hard times for the farmers and every one else hereabouts. Mrs. [Mr.s] Wirt, resenting an unfavorable attitude toward Nebraska, answered by saying, "Well, I tell my children that they have never experienced real hard times. I'm the daughter of a pioneer and I know. They have little to say when I tell about real hard times." My sister and I were eager to hear the details of pioneer life as Mrs. Wirt knew them. After the story was told we urged that she put it on paper and send it to The York Republican. "I can never do anything like that", she said. Weeks went by and nothing having been done about it, I gained her permission to present her story, that she could have done far better.
The parents of Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson Wirt were John and Mary Ann Thompson. He was born in Buffalo, N. Y., of English parents. Mrs. Thompson was a Canadian. They were married in Canada and in the course of a few years were at Council Bluffs, Ia., and were among the busy people who were building the first bridge across the Missouri river. In 1872, they were still there with a family and no home. Fire had destroyed the house in which they lived and few of the furnishings were saved . At this time an every day sight was covered wagons on ferry boats, crossing to the Nebraska side of the river. Mr. Thompson "got the fever" and "turned homesteader." He left for Nebraska the spring of '72.
When finally located he was planted on an "eighty" four miles north of Thayer. Neighbors on adjoining "eighties" were Fred Robson, Arthur Robson, Mr. Elrod, Mr. Fothergill, Mr. Goose. Mr. Hower, a Civil war veteran, homesteaded a "quarter." The section to the northwest was taken by Wm. Miller, George Zarr, Chas. Rhoades and F. W. Liedtke [Leidtke]. These soldiers built their "soddies" or dugouts in the center of the section where one well was dug and used by all.
Mr. Thompson built for himself, on a side hill, facing the east, a dugout. The roof was of pine boards, battened. Next he broke ten acres of sod. In July he returned to Iowa. Preparations were then made toward moving the family to the Nebraska home. Elizabeth was [waas] ten years of age and must have possessed the spirit of a pioneer. She recalls her interest in the moving plans and her eagerness to set out. She was chosen the companion of her father to make the trip in the covered wagon. It is easy to believe that she was helpful in keeping the extra horse and two cows in line. The journey began early in October. By the time they reached Columbus, the small girl was suffering an attack of malaria and because of her illness they remained twenty-four hours in a Columbus boarding-house. Here she was wrapped in a blanket and placed on some sort of a pallet by the cook-stove. At Osceola they spent a night at the home of Dr. Waaller. He was puzzled about the ailment. However, Elizabeth's father was versed in the ways of malaria and between them a remedy was concocted. So, on to the dugout.
Elizabeth was delighted with her new home; no homesickness, no crying. At once she became acquainted with the neighbors who owned the well. Mr. Thompson hauled water from this well, for household use, for the animals and the dozen chickens he had brought from Iowa. "Such good water", says Mrs. Wirt. " Nebraska always had that."
When the time came for the trip to Columbus to bring the rest of the family to the homestead, small Elizabeth chose to stay at home rather than be with the strange neighbors. Her father finally accepted this plan and started on the two days' trip. She was proud to have the care of the animals and chickens, so, was happily busy through the day. In the evening as she was walking on the west side of their hill she was surprised to see what seemed a huge animal with big, wild eyes and very long, upstanding ears. It was only a jack rabbit, but "I was rooted to the spot from fright", says Mrs. Wirt. "But I managed to get back to the dugout and there I stayed until the next afternoon when the covered wagon and my folks arrived."
With the arrival of Mother the dugout became the home of their dreams. When Mrs. Thompson was all set for housekeeping there was the "four-hole cook-stove" in one corner, the table in the opposite corner. In the other end of the 12x14 foot room were two beds, one above the other, for the children; another for the parents. The chairs were slices of a large cottonwood tree trunk, each set with three legs. All the furniture was the handiwork of Mr. Thompson. The room was warm in winter and comfortably cool in summer.
Mrs. Wirt remembers nothing of unpleasant weather of those pioneer days. They hurried by, as they do now, as there was work and more work for old and young, with no evenings out. During the month of October, 1872, Mr. Thompson, assisted by neighbors Goose and Fothergill, cut and stacked a supply of wild hay sufficient for the feeding of the horses and cows through the winter months. The next activity was the cutting and hauling of wood, mostly green, from the railroad land along Lincoln Creek. In the fuel harvest the children took a hand. It was their part to break [t obreak] and rick the stalks of rosen weed. This weed burned with a snap and made fine kindling.
Next a barn was built. It was half dugout, half sod. Young trees from the Platte river were used for roof poles: they were covered with hay. So, were fashioned very comfortable quarters for the livestock.
The crowning achievement of this busy season must have been the well dug by Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. It was located eight or ten feet from the dugout. Mr. Thompson fashioned a windlass with which to raise the dirt as he dug; this was operated by Mrs. Thompson. Again the children lent a hand by using shovels to move the dirt after the mother had dumped it.
Shopping was done in York. That small town seemed a long way from the Thompson homestead. The neighbors "took turns" in taking [aking] trips "to town", each doing shopping for his neighbors. It was two years before small Elizabeth had the pleasure of a trip to the faraway town.
Meat was scarce at this time. However, the Thompsons, Gooses and Fothergills were supplied in a surprising manner. The two cows were racing [wer eracing] to the watering trough when one of them fell, breaking her neck. Goose and Fothergill helped with the butchering and shared the meat. This accident meant no milk or butter through the winter. Mrs. Wirt well remembers that corn -bread without butter, milk or sugar was dry eating.
For a time there was a treat of an egg apiece, now and then. But the chickens were made to serve another purpose. Some members of the family were still suffering more or less from malaria. Mrs. Thompson ordered some patent medicine which her husband brought to her from York. With it came from the druggist, this new remedy: "Kill a chicken, save the gall. Mix flour with the gall to form six pills, to be taken one at a time, one hour apart." Mrs. Thompson gave the remedy the first trial. The result was quite satisfactory. Consequently, more chickens were killed and the family freed from malaria.
There was no [wa sno] school for the children. Cold, winter days were spent in the comfortable dugout. School books brought from Iowa were a source of entertainment and were worn to a frazzle by springtime, '73.
April brought the terrible Easter blizzard. Mrs. Wirt remembers that the rope was taken from the well windlass and used as a guiding line to the barn so that the livestock was cared for during the storm.
That spring Mr. Thompson [Thopson] sowed five acres of wheat and planted five acres of corn. Also broke sod for more corn. Elizabeth and older sister, Belle, made slits in the sod with hatchets putting in each slit, two kernels of corn. In like manner melons and pumpkins were planted. There was a splendid crop from the vines but the corn was a failure; stalks were used for fuel.
During the winter, Fred Liedtke [Leidtke] held school for Belle and Elizabeth and two others in his small house, two miles from the Thompson's. In March, Mrs. Liedtke [Leidtke] and two children came from Philadelphia, Pa. Otto Liedtke [Leidtke], now living in York, was one of these children.
Fred Liedtke [Leidtke] was elected County Judge in the fall of '74 and moved to York. Grasshoppers had taken the promising crops of that season. Mr. Thompson welcomed the opportunity to take over the planting of ten acres of trees on the Liedtke [Leidtke] homestead. He plowed, harrowed and marked the ground for setting the trees four feet apart, in rows eight feet apart. Again Belle and Lib. were brought into action; they set all the trees. Can the youngsters of today picture that?
Then corn was planted between the rows of trees. The two girls made the holes with hoes, dropping in the corn taken from a little cloth bag which was fastened to a band about their waists. The father cultivated and brought forth a feast for another horde of grasshoppers.
A second term of school was held during the winter of '74 in the home of Mr. Goose, Mr. Wiswell was the teacher. In 1875 a sod school house was built. This school was known as the Creswell school. Miss Fanny Porter was the first teacher.
The Thompsons built a sod house in 1875. A new arm-rocking chair was bought for the comfort of Mrs. Thompson. Mrs. Wirt bears in mind the picture of her mother, with the baby on her lap, enjoying the comfort of that chair.
So, life for this family was one of the ups and downs that came to all Nebraska Pioneers. The children of those days learned to take cheerfully, the bitter with the sweet and "keep a keepin' on" nevertheless.
Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson Wirt and many, many others have been examples of industry, integrity and self-reliance, the making of the desirable citizen and loyal Nebraskan.