Christmas Memories – Tři (Three)

For the third Spirit of Christmas Past I hope that I can be forgiven for revisiting my own happy memories of Christmases in Nebraska.  As I recollect, all the Decembers were busy with activities and all the Christmases were wonderful (at least once the anxiety of performing for our annual country school Christmas programs was over).  No doubt there were times when things went wrong – someone caught the flu or got a stomach ache from eating too much candy or got frostbitten fingers or forgot their lines in a Christmas speech or didn’t get a Red Ryder BB gun.  But I’m a big boy now, and I don’t have to remember those things if I don’t want to.

Instead I prefer to dwell on a flood of happy memories from my childhood in the snow-swept prairies outside of Clarkson.  I remember the country school Christmas programs: the men would arrange for the use of Heun Hall or erect up a little stage and curtains in the schoolhouse.  On the big night we’d perform our recitations, short skits, and sing well-known religious and secular songs.

And Santa would appear at the end to distribute gifts that we gave each other through a secret name exchange.  Santa himself would give each child a nylon mesh bag filled with an orange, hard candies, and unshelled nuts.  Then, with a wave of his hand and a Ho-Ho-Ho he’d jump into his ’54 Ford Fairlane and race off into the wintry night, leaving us and our visitors to enjoy sandwiches and cakes prepared by our mothers.

We did much of our Christmas gift shopping in Clarkson or Schuyler.  The merchants were open extra hours and dedicated large areas in their stores to Christmas toys and decorations; for a few years Bolt’s dime store in Schuyler opened the entire unused second floor of the building to offer Christmas merchandise.  Merchants wrapped up the Christmas presents for their customers using huge rolls of festive wrapping paper next to the mechanical cash register.  One December night the Schuyler merchants brought Santa Claus with a team of real reindeer and set them up for viewing on the courthouse lawn.  It was bitterly cold that night, but an experience not to be missed. 

If the local merchants couldn’t stock all the toys we hoped to select from there was always the Christmas catalog option.  Every year around Halloween the Christmas catalogs from Sears Roebuck, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward arrived in the mail, to be pored over by us kids more intently than any comic book.  We would select our desired presents, Mom would whittle down the list, fill out the order form, and drop in in the mail. Soon the mail order package would arrive, to be wrapped in festive paper and put under the tree in the week leading up to Christmas.

Lastly, there was the option to shop in the big department stores in Omaha.  When the Crossroads Mall opened up in West Omaha in 1960 it became a frequent Christmas shopping destination for my family.  We always made sure we were there at night, because the mall and parking lot were decorated with blue Christmas lights – the height of urban sophistication!  Nourished by exotic, Big City foods, e.g., pizza pie (19 cents a slice at Woolworths), hoagie sandwiches, or an Orange Julius, my family cruised the mall to buy gifts for each other.

FAR more important than the gift exchanges, of course, was the warmth and love of our extended family, with which we were blessed in abundance.  Christmas Eve at home was kicked off with a fish dinner ( ) after which we treated ourselves to candy and cookies, opened our presents, and played with our new possessions until it was time to go to Midnight Mass.  On Christmas Day the families on my Mother’s side gathered at Grandma’s house in Clarkson, where we would feast on duck and ham, the men congregate in the living room to tell stories, and the children would compare their previous evening’s hauls and generally make a lot of noise in the crowded, steamy, overheated little house.  In a festive spirit Grandpa would pull a bottle of sweet Mogen David wine from under the kitchen sink and give everyone a taste.  Even we children got two fingers of wine in a little jelly glass.  In my mind’s eye I can still see the red cellophane wreath in the window and the lighted plastic church on the kitchen shelf at Grandma’s house.

One enduring Christmas memory is a story I was once told – I didn’t experience this, but it is so charming that it has remained with me…  In the olden days a pioneer family (parents, grandparents, and children) hitched up a team of horses to the wagon, piled on a bunch of wool blankets, and headed to their country church for Midnight Mass.  After the beautiful service, filled with songs and prayers, the family bundled up again and headed back home.  The night was dark, cold, and snowy.  When the family arrived in the yard, Grandpa jumped out of the wagon, ran over to a large, old, snow-covered cherry tree, and started shaking it.  “Wake up!,” he shouted, “Our Savior is Born! Wake up!”  And then he walked into the house without saying another word.  The next spring the tree was loaded with cherries, the largest crop they ever picked.

In the last post I related the reminiscences of Fr. Jan Brož, who wrote “For the Christian family the most beautiful time of the year is Christmas. It is truly a bit of poetry in a prosaic life, not only for children but also for us old folks, scarred by life’s struggles. The greater part of our Christmas joy blossoms in reminiscences and in the joy of the children around us.  In memory a person flies back in time to his youth, to the warmth of the parental hearth, where even the least significant proofs of familial love warm, comfort, and affect him for long years….  What a price I would pay, were I able just once more to be privileged to be present at a Midnight Mass at our ancestral church and to hear those happy sounds which fill my soul with the last fading voice of the enchanting music of my youth.”

An old friend pointed out the profound truth in Fr. Brož’s poetic words, and I heartily agree.  Which brings me to my final memories – of Midnight Mass at our country church, Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Heun, Nebraska.  Our family attended that worship service every year, and wherever I’ve lived I have rarely missed a Christmas Eve Mass since.

In the weeks before Christmas, at the start of the Advent Season, the old plaster statues of sheep and shepherds and angels and Magi and the Holy Family would be taken out of storage and set up into a Manger scene (crèche) on the side altar.  It was a beautiful diorama that held endless fascination for us children.

Especially fascinating in the pre-electronic age was the statue of little shepherd boy, always set up on the left side of the manger, who graciously nodded his head when you dropped a coin into the slot in his hat.  Dad or one of my uncles always found a loose dime or two in their pocket so that we could see the “proto-animatronic” display.

Late on Christmas Eve the darkened church was lighted and Heun’s parishioners began to gather for Midnight Mass.  The following pictures of an empty church don’t do the event justice, but you can use your imagination to see the church filled with people, extra folding chairs in the aisles to accommodate a standing-room-only crowd, all dressed in heavy warm sweaters, coats, and sometimes overshoes.   The altars were beautifully decorated with poinsettias and real Christmas trees, covered with blue lights and tinsel.  These decorations never changed in all the years that I attended Heun church; for all I know they might have been used for half a century or more before my time.

Around 11:30 PM on Christmas Eve, about the time we children were beginning to nod off in the cramped pews and our warm coats, the church choir up in the loft would begin to perform their prelude music.  They sang the lovely Christmas carols that we children all knew, and traditional Czech carols that our parents and grandparents had sung all their lives.

Like Fr. Brož’s pioneer congregation in 1890, our Heun choir sang “Nesem vám Noviny” (We are Bringing You News).  With great emotion they sang the beautiful Czech hymn “O můj Drahý Ježíšku” (O my Dear Jesus) and put Czech words to Silent Night (Ticha Noc).

The musical Mass settings and well-known Christmas carols were sung with quiet reverence – as Fr. Jan Brož said “from sincere hearts.”  Then, at the end of Midnight Mass, our organist “pulled out all the stops” for the last two hymns – Joy to the World and Narodil se Kristus Pán (Christ the Lord was Born).  Even those in the packed church who wouldn’t claim to have a singing voice sang these two old carols with joyful enthusiasm.

Christmas is a time for happy memories and, for many, the repetition of old family rituals.  As I read through the written memoirs of our Czech immigrant forebears I was impressed by the continuance of many cherished customs.  Shared beliefs, songs, and foods that our ancestors enjoyed a century or more earlier, on the other side of the world, were still celebrated during my youth in rural Nebraska. 

I hope that you have your own happy Christmas memories and customs to pass on – practices that connect us with those who went before and those who will come after.  We wish you a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Posted in 1890s | 16 Comments

Christmas Memories  – Dva (Two)

For our second Spirit of Christmas Past we turn to the Christmas reminiscences of Father Jan Štepán Brož, a Catholic priest who left his native Bohemia to minister to Bohemian immigrants in 19th Century Nebraska.

Jan Štepán Brož was born in Kardašova Řečice, Bohemia on December 25, 1865. He studied in nearby Jindřichův Hradec, Bohemia, and later with his friend Jan Vranek he entered the University of Styria in Graz, Austria.  After the German element in the seminary prevailed and conditions became unpleasant, Brož and others transferred to the University in Chur, Switzerland.  Rev. Brož was ordained there in 1889, and set out for Nebraska to become a missionary priest.  Rev. Brož arrived in Chadron in 1890 where he served the Czechs, Poles, and Germans. He served several times in Fort Robinson and also met with the Indians while in Gordon, Sheridan County.  From 1890 to 1894, Rev. Broz was Rector of the Catholic church in St. Paul, Howard County, and from there he served Warsaw, Nebraska, the Czech parish in Netolice (later called Geranium and now a ghost town), and also the Polish parish Boleczyn. Once a month he traveled 40 miles with a horse-drawn buggy to visit the faithful in Ravenna, Nebraska.

Late in his life Fr. Brož wrote about his first Christmas in America, celebrating Midnight Mass on December 25, 1890 at the isolated church at Netolice, on the prairies of Central Nebraska:

For the Christian family the most beautiful time of the year is Christmas. It is truly a bit of poetry in a prosaic life, not only for children but also for us old folks, scarred by life’s struggles. The greater part of our Christmas joy blossoms in reminiscences and in the joy of the children around us.  In memory a person flies back in time to his youth, to the warmth of the parental hearth, where even the least significant proofs of familial love warm, comfort, and affect him for long years.

On Christmas Eve a person forgets the wounds that fate has dealt him, his disappointed hopes, and the clouds which at various times have darkened his soul.  He stands before the fire-lit tree and gazes damp-eyed at the paper Bethlehem with the infant, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, over whom he sees the stars and angels hovering – all this with a childlike view – and a better one at that – so that he reaches out his hand and says, “Jesus, what are you bringing me?”  A poetic dream this – but any man who doesn’t have a poetic outlook at times in his life is not human.

I am an old man and I have often seen how many people throw slime where lilies bloom.  Indeed pain grips my heart when I see a person with a sophisticated and impudent hand peel away the poetry of Christmas. Here I can only think of the “reformers” who take Jesus from our Christmas and write in their publications of the celebration of the winter solstice. [This is a reference to the anti-clerical Freethinkers who were railing against religion in the Czech newspapers of the early 1900s.]  What do they hope to accomplish?  Do they think that by their prejudice they are performing a worthwhile deed by killing off the noble stirrings of the heart?  They seem to resemble the cruel Herod who stood over the lifeless forms of the infants of Bethlehem.  They resemble raging fanatics stamping ideals into the ground.  To take away people’s ideals is worse than to steal their property.  Such spiritual banditry is a punch of the fist into the face of humanity.  Yet these “reformers” pretend to have their mouths full of words for humanity.  However, their attempts are unproductive, for the Christ-Child lives and still gives the peels of Christmas joy as in times of old.

I am reminded of my first Christmas Eve in America. It was in western Nebraska in 1890. At midday I harnessed my pony to the carriage and rode out for the distant little church on the prairie where on the previous Sunday I had announced a Midnight Christmas Mass. My heart was ill at ease and loneliness filled my soul. I was longing for home.  It was the first year of my stay in America and I did not yet feel at home here. The prairie was covered with snow, darkened here and there with fall plowing. There was no sign of life in nature except for two hawks who were gliding on the distant horizon searching for a kill. My pony had chosen an easy gait because the road was almost snowed in. I began to think back to my last Christmas Eve under our parental roof in the old country. It was a custom there that all of us brothers and sisters would gather at the home of our parents. In the evening we knelt in our holy day clothes facing a wall on which hung old pictures in blistered frames of Mary and Joseph on either side of a wooden cross. Having recited the Rosary aloud, we arose and sat at table.

For supper we had the traditional meal, which was served by historic custom: “fish soup from carp spawn, carp – both in black sauce and in blue sauce, Černý Kuba (a traditional Czech Christmas Eve dish made of dried mushrooms in barley porridge spiced with garlic), apple rolls, and mussel gravy.”  After the meal we nibbled on cookies, apples, and nuts, and usually played cards so that we would not fall asleep before Midnight Mass. There was no shortage of fish in southern Bohemia which was famous for its fisheries from which a great number of carp and pike were taken to the markets in Prague and Vienna. At any rate, the Christmas Eve meal was the same in the homes of the poor and the rich alike.

It was a custom for the Common Shepherd of the village to go trumpeting about from home to home on Christmas Eve to get gifts. He used to get many Kronen [krejcarů – Kreutzer, a small copper coin] and a variety of baking. His wife accompanied him and would put the bakery into the basket on her back, even those pieces covered with filling.  The shepherd, if he saw her sneaking a piece of bakery, would shout “Jen s tím do nůše! – Just put it into the basket!”  When we used to ask him what song he would trumpet abroad he would say, “Mám ženu Mařenu, a dceru Kačenu, sám jsem bulík! – I have a wife Mařena, and a daughter Kačena, and I myself am a little bull!”  [This was one of many pastoral, shepherd’s songs] To be sure, he always had the same old melody.

The sun was already sinking over the horizon when I arrived at the farm where I usually stayed, not far from the little chapel.  It was a pious family to which I always came with joy.  My host, a Hungarian Slovak and a “blacksmith on the prairie,” who was already waiting for me on the yard, unhitched my horse and put it in the stable. His fine Czech wife with true hospitality invited me into the room where the stove belched welcome blasts of heat.  After supper we spent the time with the children by the Christmas tree, while the closer neighbors kept coming till both rooms of the little house were full of people.  After 11 PM, after the first bell, we went to the church which was already filled to the last space, and the old “chanter” led the rosary.

Even though we didn’t have a harmonium in the church, we had singing at the Mass. Up to the Elevation the people sang “Nesem vám Novini” and afterwards “Narodil se Kristus Pán.”  It was awkward singing, but it had the privilege of coming from sincere hearts. I doubt that any one in that area today – most of the old timers are now deceased – would be able to sing those songs without notes. That charming carol “Nesem vám Novini” rings out the best only from those raised in Bohemia whose hearts are filled with memories of youth in their ancestral churches.

Many Christmas hymns in Bohemia were full of magic charm, despite their excessive popularity. There was a great variety of them for Mass.  I remember one composition which was always sung at the Offertory – “Pastýři, pastýři – Shepherds O Shepherds – rozmlouvali ve spolek: Pojme všickni až Betléma, a hlédme, zdali pravda, co praveno nám. Pastýři tam pásli stáda, zpivali-bůd; Bohu chvála-zpívali, troubili, Boha chválili – they said to one another: Let us all go to Bethlehem to seek whether what has been told us is true. The shepherds were pasturinq their flocks, they were singing – praise be to God – they were singing, they were trumpeting, they were praising God.”  To this hymn we in our parish added a verse of our own making: “Mattinu, nech tu basu stát, K Bethlemu jdi se podívat-pozoruj to moudře, povíš nám to dobře, co to znamená? – Martin, put that bass horn down! Go to Bethlehem to see – wisely observe this event and tell us well what it means.”

Martin, it happened, was our old bass horn player, by calling a rope maker, and we server boys with our bird-like, squeaky voices would urge him on with such emphasis that our priest turned from the altar to see what was the commotion.  Martin also happened to be the name of our local “jailbird” who also had the job of “Kalkanta” (he pumped the bellows at the organ) – In my boyish fancy I always imagined him to have a huge bass horn behind the organ which he would set down to hurry at a quick pace to Bethlehem.  I used to wonder how long it would take him because he was usually drunk.

The Czech Pastoral Mass, especially the Christmas Midnight Mass, made a great impression on the people, in part because at it the congregation sang popular Christmas songs, and in part because they were attuned to the holy season and its pleasant memories.  They had no music of greater value, so that the loss of these hymns would be unforgivable.  What a price I would pay, were I able just once more to be privileged to be present at a Midnight Mass at our ancestral church and to hear those happy sounds which fill my soul with the last fading voice of the enchanting music of my youth.  Alas!  They are passing away, passing away like the lost light of a falling star!

Church of St. John the Baptist in Kardašova Řečice, Bohemia

At our parish in Řečice there was sung at the Pastoral Mass a traditional order of music which was composed by a former parish priest who was a renowned musician. It was composed for a mixed group with organ and orchestra, which was made up of first and second violins, flutes, violas, basses, bassoons, clarinets (on their score was written “chirpers”), and tympani.  The first violinist was a sprightly “felčar” (surgeon); his trills were like warbling laughter, and what a tremulo!  The people were impelled to look back at him in the choir loft with wonder. Our town mayor shrilled on the flute. He was a home-grown virtuoso who gave concerts even in other areas. He liked to tell how he had performed before the renowned Croatian Bishop Štrosmayer, who wrote his praises in the mayor’s memory book. The other instruments were played by local musicians and teachers who in those days did not savor of unbelief as they do today. And how our teacher at the organ managed when he pulled the “Mixtura” stop on the organ!  That was a real storm which shook the windows and filled the soul with reverential awe! A pity! What a pity to lose those charming times of youth!

After the Mass on the prairie the lights were blown out one by one till the church was dark, and the people scattered and set out homeward.  Many had up to 10 miles to get home, but they didn’t mind the inconvenience.  After I had hitched up my horse and had gotten into the carriage, an old parishioner offered to go back with me so that I wouldn’t lose my way.  The moon and stars were out but they were not bright enough to give much light.  The road had disappeared under the snow of the plains.  But I was light-hearted as I gazed at the starry dome of the sky and longed that the star of Bethlehem would come and lead to the manger my Czech brothers, the sons of Cyril and Methodius,  Vitus and Vacláv – those poor souls who denied the light of the East when they were stupefied in the West.

The old man woke me from my dreaming and, nodding his head with approval, expressed himself: “Ach, this night was a piece of pure joy! And there were so few like it.  A person here just trudges along from morning to night in labor and cares.  Were it not for our little church, we would be worse off than our cattle.  What robbers are those people who try to destroy our religion and take away the only thing that can raise us from the mire to pure joy!  Whoever empties himself of religion empties himself of humanity, which naturally cries for Christ – He who has redeemed us and gives meaning to our lives.”

As the light of dawn began to brighten the Eastern sky, we arrived at the parish house. The old man lay down on the couch to rest, and I sat down at the table to write some crude verses which I cherish to this day as a remembrance of my first Christmas Midnight Mass in America:

Lovely Jesukin, the son of God,

You have a hard bolster, a pillow of sod.

Close your eyes, sweetly sleep;

Joy and Ruler, our souls keep.

The dove and her mate sweetly coo in awe;

A haloed cherub kisses you in the straw.

Close your eyes etc.

O’er you, Jesukin, mother is beaming,

And Joseph’s love in tears is streaming.

Close your eyes etc.

O beauty-filled child what better gift can I give

Than to preserve a clean heart purely for you.

Close your eyes etc.

To all of good will a happy and merry Christmas.  May Christ, whose nativity we celebrate, bless you!    –  Rev. Jan Šťepán Brož, Dodge, Nebraska, 1913.

In the 1890s Rev. Brož traveled around central and western Nebraska, administering the sacraments to isolated settlers.  One Czech parish he served was east of Hemingford, where he held services in the sod house of a Mr. Urbanovsky.  Mrs. Urbanovska arranged a table, decorated it with prairie flowers, and the Rev. Brož supplemented with such altar furnishings as he could bring in a valise.  Later, with Rev. Brož’s help a sod church was built, the parishioners hauling cedar and fir logs from a forest thirty miles away. The churches at Lawn and Hemingford at the time were the westernmost Czech churches in Nebraska, but neither remained as originally established.

St. Wenceslaus Czech Catholic church at Lawn, NE

From 1894 to 1914, Father Brož was pastor of Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Dodge, Nebraska. Based in Dodge, he also served the Catholics in Howells and Clarkson.  In 1901 Father Brož offered Mass for the first time in Clarkson – in the Grade School building.  He officiated at the baptisms of Charles and Jerry Brabec, the twin sons of Frank and Kristina Polodna Brabec.  Thirty eight families met with Father Brož after Mass to explore building a church of their own in Clarkson (construction commenced in 1902).    In 1911 he established in Dodge the first Catholic school where the Czech language was taught by the Bohemian branch of the Notre Dame Order.  After 20 years in Dodge, he was transferred to Schuyler to serve the Czech Catholics at St. Mary’s Church from 1914 to 1918. 

Clarkson Grade School

In addition to ministering to the immigrant homesteaders, Rev. Jan Štepán Brož wrote prose and poetry and published several books.  He was an essayist, folklorist, anthropologist, and authority on the history of Czech immigration to Nebraska.  A studious and learned priest, he did research work in anthropology.  No scholar was better informed on the subject of skeletal remains of the aborigines in Nebraska than Father Brož.  He presented papers on the anthropology of Native Americans before scientific societies to which he belonged. 

The energetic priest/scholar died in Omaha on September 2, 1919 at the tender age of 54.  As the old saying goes, the candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long.

Two of the Koledy (Czech Christmas carols) that Fr. Brož mentioned are still very popular more than a century later:  “Nesem vám Novini” –  and “Narodil se Kristus Pán”  –

I heard these lovely hymns at Midnight Mass as a child, and they are still sung where Czech Christians gather.

Acknowledgements – I thank Rev. Anthony Pluhaček, longtime pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Heun, who reprinted Fr. Brož’s Christmas memories in his parish bulletin.  Additional information about Fr. Brož came from:

Čapek, Thomas. The Czechs (Boehmians) in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.

Centennial Book Committee. 2002.  Celebrating a Century of Faith – Ss. Cyril and Methodius Parish, Clarkson, Nebraska.  1902-2002. 

Kučera, Vladimir 1974.  Czech Churches In Nebraska (České Kostely v Nebrasce). 115 p.

Varejcka, Janet. 1977.  The Czech immigrant – a process of acculturation: Schuyler, Nebraska, 1870-1920.  Master of Arts Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha.  135 p.

Posted in 1890s | 8 Comments

Christmas Memories – Jedna (One)

Today, on the Feast of St. Nicholas, I offer the first of three stories about Christmas on the Nebraska prairies. The first of Three Spirits of Christmas Past….

A Christmas on the Prairie

Emma Šindelář Studnička (1892-1985) was a descendent of one of the first families to settle in the Tabor area of Colfax County in 1869.  She related a Christmas story that was told to her by her father, Joseph B. Šindelář (1854-1931).  Her story appeared in Clarkson’s Colonial Manor News in December 1975 and was subsequently published in the Colfax County Press in January 1976:

“In my earlier years I have memories of my father, J.B. Šindelář, telling me of those long ago pioneers and especially about this certain Christmas I am writing about, when this part of the Middle West was all rugged prairie and inhabited by Indians.  

Old Country cottage of Joseph B. Šindelář in Jickovice, Bohemia

My father came to America from Czechoslovakia in 1867 with his parents, two sisters, and a younger brother.  It took nine weeks to cross the ocean as they came by a sail-driven vessel.  They traveled with the wind and would go back for a couple of days or more if the wind was in the wrong direction.

After finally reaching land they traveled to Chicago and remained there for some time.  Later, his parents, with other families, thought it would be better to go farther west and get hold of some land to make a better living.

At that time my father was 14 years old and his sister was 16. His parents knew they wouldn’t have room in their rigs so the two of them stayed in Chicago.  With four families, his parents traveled west in covered wagons drawn by oxen and arrived in Nebraska in late May.

They settled on the prairie near Maple Creek in northeast Colfax County.  The first night was spent under the wagons but early the next morning the men started to cut willows along Maple Creek for their new homes.  By winter all were settled in their warm sod houses. (Ten years later they built a church and named the community Tabor after their original town in Czechoslovakia, Kraj Tabor.)

Three years later when my father was 17 he was anxious to see his parents, to find out how they were. My grandfather had written several times of the sickness of the youngest brother and also how they would like to own a cow, but money was scarce. To help them out my father sent them $10. Grandfather wrote they bought a white cow (which later in this story was a great help).

On December 23rd, 1870 he arrived by train in Schuyler, the county seat of Colfax County. When he stepped off the train he stopped to look a long time at the vastness of the prairie which was so different from the crowded city of Chicago and the Old Country. His first night in Nebraska was spent in a rooming house, and early the next morning, on Christmas Eve Day, he set out to find someone who could give him directions to his parents’ settlement.

A Mr. Folda, who was known to help many folks, took my father as far as the Union Pacific tracks and pointed northeast. Mr. Folda told my father that his parents lived 19 miles out and so, even though it was already getting late, he set out on foot to find them. At that time of the year days are short and the winds are cold, but he had no fear because he was anxious to see his family.

There was nothing to mark the way but a few willows by the Maple Creek and as he walked he wondered how soon he would find them. Dusk was approaching and he walked many miles. His feet, he later told us, where nearly frozen and he began to think about the stories of the Indians that still inhabited the land.

All at once he spotted a white cow and he knew immediately that it was the one his father had written about buying. He patiently followed the cow, knowing that without the animal he might have walked for miles without finding home. As he stepped into the soddy his mother nearly dropped her lamp in surprise at seeing her son. His younger brother thought he was an Indian. The white cow had saved his Christmas.”

Home of Joseph Šindelář in Jickovice, Bohemia

Backstory – In 1867 Joseph B. Šindelář’s family left their home in Jickovice, Bohemia and immigrated to the United States, traveling on a sailing vessel that took many days to cross the Atlantic from Bremen to Baltimore.  After spending about 2 years in Chicago several families decided to acquire farmland in Nebraska.  They traveled by train to Omaha, where the men left their wives and children and continued on.  The men took the train to Fremont (the end of the Union Pacific line in 1869) and from there walked to West Point, looking for someone who could find land for them to settle on.  They found available land in the Tabor area of northeastern Colfax County, 3 ½ miles southeast of present day Howells.  Joseph B. Šindelář and his older sister remained behind in Chicago in order to make some money; despite having lived in America for two years his family arrived in Nebraska virtually penniless.  As recounted in the story above, Joseph B. Šindelář rejoined his family in Nebraska on Christmas Eve, 1869.  He subsequently acquired a farm and married Barbara Kašpar.  They had 7 children, the youngest of whom was Emma, the author of this story.  Joseph’s wife, Barbora Kašpar Šindelář died in 1901, and in 1902 Joseph married Barbara Stover.  In the days before the Tabor Catholic Church as built, Joseph B. led the singing at religious services in the sod houses, often using songs he had composed.  He was a Nebraska State Senator from 1908-1916. Late in his life he operated a general merchandise store in Howells.

Joseph B. Šindelář and his daughter Emma at the grave of Barbora Kašpar Šindelář

Emma Šindelář Studnička was the youngest of Joseph B.’s 7 children, and the only girl.  As a young girl she worked in her father’s merchandise store.  She married Robert Studnička, a grain and lumber dealer in Howells, in 1919.  Late in her life she wrote down her memories such as the Christmas story above.  Another story she told, printed in the Howells Centennial Book, concerned Bohemian wedding customs that had been brought to the New World: About 1898, she said, her parents were often invited to weddings in the community. There were no printed invitations at the time, and it was up to the best man to do the inviting. On horseback, wearing a large broad-brimmed hat, he carried a list of names of people he was to invite. He began by saying, “The bride and groom send greetings and would be happy to have you help celebrate their wedding.” After announcing the date, the invited family would pin a bright colored ribbon to this hat. When he was through with all the invitations, he would be decked out with a colorful circle of ribbons around his hat. It was really “something,” she said, to see him riding back back to town. Her mother kept a box of ribbons on her dresser just for these occasions.

Posted in 1890s | 7 Comments


Thanksgiving Day is upon us – our national holiday that has been celebrated in one way or another in the United States since 1619.   In 2022 many are probably wondering if there is anything left to be thankful for.  We are slowly emerging from a deadly, persistent pandemic, much of the world is hungry, in flight, or at war, we live in a deeply divided society, our global climate is going down the tubes, and your boss wants you back in the office.  The price of gas and eggs is high, and hope is low.

Lest we feel too sorry for ourselves I thought it would useful on this important holiday to reflect on some experiences of our Czech ancestors.  I’ve pieced together three stories that remind us about the challenges our Forefathers faced in America, the Land of Liberty and Freedom.  The Land of Opportunity.

1.  Tenement-House Cigarmaking

Jacob Riis was a Danish-American journalist, muckraker, and social reformer in Turn-of-the-20th-Century New York.  Through his writing and photography he exposed the terrible living and working conditions of slum dwellers in New York City.  In 1890 Jacob Riis published his book How the Other Half Lives, which included Chapter XII. The Bohemians – Tenement-House Cigarmaking ( ) .  The entire book is worth reading as an fine example of reform literature in the Progressive Era; here are excerpts from his chapter on exploited Bohemian cigarmakers living in the slums of New York City:

“… Probably more than half of all the Bohemians in this city are cigarmakers, and it is the herding of these in great numbers in the so-called tenement factories, where the cheapest grade of work is done at the lowest wages, that constitutes at once their greatest hardship and the chief grudge of other workmen against them. The manufacturer who owns, say, from three or four to a dozen or more tenements contiguous to his shop, fills them up with these people, charging them outrageous rents, and demanding often even a preliminary deposit of five dollars “key money;” deals them out tobacco by the week, and devotes the rest of his energies to the paring down of wages to within a peg or two of the point where the tenant rebels in desperation. When he does rebel, he is given the alternative of submission, or eviction with entire loss of employment. His needs determine the issue. Usually he is not in a position to hesitate long.  The shop triumphs, and fetters more galling than ever are forged for the tenant. In the opposite case, the newspapers have to record the throwing upon the street of a small army of people, with pitiful cases of destitution and family misery.

Men, women and children work together seven days in the week in these cheerless tenements to make a living for the family, from the break of day till far into the night. Often the wife is the original cigarmaker from the old home, the husband having adopted her trade here as a matter of necessity, because, knowing no word of English, he could get no other work.

…Doubtless the people are poor, in many cases very poor; but they are not uncleanly, rather the reverse; they live much better than the clothing-makers in the Tenth Ward, and in spite of their sallow look, that may be due to the all-pervading smell of tobacco, they do not appear to be less healthy than other in-door workers. I found on my tours of investigation several cases of consumption [tuberculosis], of which one at least was said by the doctor to be due to the constant inhalation of tobacco fumes. But an examination of the death records in the Health Department does not support the claim that the Bohemian cigarmakers are peculiarly prone to that disease. On the contrary, the Bohemian percentage of deaths from consumption appears quite low… The sore grievances I found were the miserable wages and the enormous rents exacted for the minimum of accommodation. And surely these stand for enough of suffering.

Take a row of houses in East Tenth Street as an instance. They contained thirty-five families of cigarmakers, with probably not half a dozen persons in the whole lot of them, outside of the children, who could speak a word of English, though many had been in the country half a lifetime. This room with two windows giving on the street, and a rear attachment without windows, called a bedroom by courtesy, is rented at $12.25 a month. In the front room man and wife work at the bench from six in the morning till nine at night. They make a team, stripping the tobacco leaves together; then he makes the filler, and she rolls the wrapper on and finishes the cigar. For a thousand they receive $3.75, and can turn out together three thousand cigars a week. The point has been reached where the rebellion comes in, and the workers in these tenements are just now on a strike, demanding $5.00 and $5.50 for their work. The manufacturer having refused, they are expecting hourly to be served with notice to quit their homes, and the going of a stranger among them excites their resentment, until his errand is explained. While we are in the house, the ultimatum of the “boss” is received. He will give $3.75 a thousand, not another cent. Our host is a man of seeming intelligence, yet he has been nine years in New York and knows neither English nor German. Three bright little children play about the floor.

“Bohemian Cigarmakers at work in their Tenement.” From Riis (2006)

His neighbor on the same floor has been here fifteen years, but shakes his head when asked if he can speak English. He answers in a few broken syllables when addressed in German. With $11.75 rent to pay for like accommodation, he has the advantage of his oldest boy’s work besides his wife’s at the bench. Three properly make a team, and these three can turn out four thousand cigars a week, at $3.75. This Bohemian has a large family; there are four children, too small to work, to be cared for. A comparison of the domestic bills of fare in Tenth and in Ludlow Streets results in the discovery that this Bohemian’s butcher’s bill for the week, with meat at twelve cents a pound as in Ludlow Street, is from two dollars and a half to three dollars.  Here is a suite of three rooms, two dark, three flights up. The ceiling is partly down in one of the rooms. “It is three months since we asked the landlord to fix it,” says the oldest son, a very intelligent lad who has learned English in the evening school. His father has not had that advantage, and has sat at his bench, deaf and dumb to the world about him except his own, for six years. He has improved his time and become an expert at his trade. Father, mother and son together, a full team, make from fifteen to sixteen dollars a week.

A man with venerable beard and keen eyes answers our questions through an interpreter, in the next house. Very few brighter faces would be met in a day’s walk among American mechanics, yet he has in nine years learned no syllable of English. German he probably does not want to learn. His story supplies the explanation, as did the stories of the others. In all that time he has been at work grubbing to earn bread. Wife and he by constant labor make three thousand cigars a week, earning $11.25 when there is no lack of material; when in winter they receive from the manufacturer tobacco for only two thousand, the rent of $10 for two rooms, practically one with a dark alcove, has nevertheless to be paid in full, and six mouths to be fed. He was a blacksmith in the old country, but cannot work at his trade here because he does not understand “Engliska.” If he could, he says, with a bright look, he could do better work than he sees done here. It would seem happiness to him to knock off at 6 o’clock instead of working, as he now often has to do, till midnight.  But how? He knows of no Bohemian blacksmith who can understand him; he should starve. Here, with his wife, he can make a living at least. “Aye,” says she, turning, from listening, to her household duties, “it would be nice for sure to have father work at his trade.” Then what a home she could make for them, and how happy they would be. Here is an unattainable ideal, indeed, of a workman in the most prosperous city in the world! There is genuine, if unspoken, pathos in the soft tap she gives her husband’s hand as she goes about her work with a half-suppressed little sigh.

… The mother of three bare-footed little children we met on the stairs was taken to the hospital the other day when she could no longer work. She will never come out alive. There is no waste in these tenements. Lives, like clothes, are worn through and out before put aside. Her place at the bench is taken already by another who divides with the head of the household his earnings of $15.50 a week. He has just come out successful of a strike that brought the pay of these tenements up to $4.50 per thousand cigars. Notice to quit had already been served on them, when the employer decided to give in, frightened by the prospective loss of rent. Asked how long he works, the man says: “from they can see till bed-time.” Bed-time proves to be eleven o’clock. Seventeen hours a day, seven days in the week, at thirteen cents an hour for the two, six cents and a half for each! Good average earnings for a tenement-house cigarmaker in summer. In winter it is at least one-fourth less. In spite of it all, the rooms are cleanly kept. From the bedroom farthest back the woman brings out a pile of moist tobacco-leaves to be stripped. They are kept there, under cover lest they dry and crack, from Friday to Friday, when an accounting is made and fresh supplies given out. The people sleep there too, but the smell, offensive to the unfamiliar nose, does not bother them. They are used to it.

In a house around the corner that is not a factory-tenement, lives now the cigarmaker I spoke of as suffering from consumption which the doctor said was due to the tobacco-fumes. Perhaps the lack of healthy exercise had as much to do with it. His case is interesting from its own stand-point. He too is one with a—for a Bohemian—large family. Six children sit at his table. By trade a shoemaker, for thirteen years he helped his wife make cigars in the manufacturer’s tenement. She was a very good hand, and until his health gave out two years ago they were able to make from $17 to $25 a week, by lengthening the day at both ends. Now that he can work no more, and the family under the doctor’s orders has moved away from the smell of tobacco, the burden of its support has fallen upon her alone, for none of the children is old enough to help. She has work in the shop at eight dollars a week, and this must go round; it is all there is. Happily, this being a tenement for revenue only, unmixed with cigars, the rent is cheaper: seven dollars for two bright rooms on the top floor. No housekeeping is attempted. A woman in Seventy-second Street supplies their meals, which the wife and mother fetches in a basket, her husband being too weak. Breakfast of coffee and hard-tack, or black bread, at twenty cents for the whole eight; a good many, the little woman says with a brave, patient smile, and there is seldom anything to spare, but—. The invalid is listening, and the sentence remains unfinished. What of dinner? One of the children brings it from the cook. Oh! it is a good dinner, meat, soup, greens and bread, all for thirty cents. It is the principal family meal. Does she come home for dinner? No; she cannot leave the shop, but gets a bite at her bench. The question: A bite of what? seems as merciless as the surgeon’s knife, and she winces under it as one shrinks from physical pain. Bread, then. But at night they all have supper together—sausage and bread. For ten cents they can eat all they want. Can they not? she says, stroking the hair of the little boy at her knee; his eyes glisten hungrily at the thought, as he nods stoutly in support of his mother. Only, she adds, the week the rent is due, they have to shorten rations to pay the landlord.

Thus the whole matter resolves itself once more into a question of education, all the more urgent because these people are poor, miserably poor almost to a man. “There is not,” said one of them, who knew thoroughly what he was speaking of, “there is not one of them all, who, if he were to sell all he was worth to-morrow, would have money enough to buy a house and lot in the country.”

To see how the Other Half lived, here is a collection of photographs from Jacob Riis’ book on tenement life:

A comparable exposé / social reform novel is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).  This one concerns the unsanitary and dangerous conditions in beef packing plants in Chicago.  It depicts working-class poverty, lack of social supports, harsh living and working conditions, and hopelessness among many workers.  As with Riis’ documentary, it is worth reading.  Many of our ancestors who stopped off in Chicago on the way to Clarkson (my own included) may have labored in these factories.

2.  Memoirs of František Břicháček Sr.

František Břicháček Sr. (1841 – 1920) led an event-filled life.  Born in South Bohemia, his father died when he was 13 years old.  He was conscripted into the Austrian army for a 10-year term, but was allowed to go home after 7 years, having contracted malaria while fighting a war in Italy.  In 1871 he and his wife and their young son immigrated to America, settling in the Heun area.  We pick up his story at Schuyler’s Union Pacific train depot:

“When we arrived in Schuyler a new care awaited us, because there were few buildings there and even fewer Czechs.  By inquiry we found Frank Folda; he sent us to Anton Langr, who took us into his home, but only for a short time.  He had a very small “shanty;” when we all moved in it was really full.  I immediately looked for some work because I had very little money for a start.

Just at that time the first bridge over the Platte River was being built.  I was there many times but I couldn’t get work.  Then I went to the [railroad] Depot; there I found work, but only as long as they couldn’t find a person who spoke English.  Then they fired me.  But right on the next day they sent for me, if I would be willing to go west to shovel snow.  I would get two dollars a day and the trip there and back for free.  I would be able to come back any time I wanted to.  I said that I couldn’t be there for more than two months.  And I went.  They took us 750 miles, way into Colorado, when I was led to think that we were going only a few miles.  And the worst was that after two months, when I wanted to go home, they didn’t want to let me go until all the snow was cleared away.  I asked them the price of a ticket, that I would pay my own way back.  They said it was 58 dollars, and I had earned only about 75 dollars.  So I had to work on.

I suffered many things there, because they had a bunch of riff-raff picked up from all the bigger towns. I had to take all kinds of things from them, because I didn’t understand the language.  I had to “make myself a teetotaler” if I was to save some money.  And that was rough.  One time they came at Midnight from town and brought several bottles of whiskey with them.  They wanted me to drink with them.  I replied that I am not allowed; it is forbidden by my doctor.  They insisted that I must.  I put the bottle to my mouth, but didn’t drink.  They insisted that I had to drink half a bottle.  One grabbed my hands behind me, another held my head, a third put the bottle to my mouth, and the fourth held a knife against my neck.  I wouldn’t drink.  They said “Drink, or I’ll slash you!”  Blood was already running down my shirt.  I tore my hands loose, knocked down the bottle, and gave myself to screaming.  The boss slept next door; he came running to see what was going on.  I had to show him like a dumb man.  He was angry with the men, and in the morning fired about four of them.  With that the matter was settled.  It is truly the hardest thing for a person when he comes to a land and does not understand the language.  I would liked to have learned English, but they only tell me something stupid, so I couldn’t learn very much.  I finally got home for nothing, but I suffered many abuses.

“Our Home.” The dugout of an early homestead family, cut into a hillside and covered with a pole roof, was far more primitive than even the more “modern” sod house.  Nebraska State Historical Society photograph C689-45.

I found my family “under the sod” at Pokornýs.  Then there awaited me another care: to buy a wagon, a cow, a plow, a stove, and the most necessary needs for a new residence.  Then I was finished with my money.  There came to us the destitution which almost everybody had.  But despite this we were healthy and happy when we saw that we had a piece of our own land.  We put up a sod house, a chicken coop, and a stable all from one material, that is, from sod.  As long as it didn’t rain, everything was fine, but when it rained and there was a great downpour – oh, that was misery!  In those days a person couldn’t borrow anything.  Nobody would wait even for the price of a bushel of wheat, nor would they wait for payment for a piece of rope for the cattle.  It was necessary for me to make rope for them from reed grass (sedge).

It was the year 1872 when we took possession of our land.  Everything would have been pleasant for us except that we began to yearn for a church.  And then there was that eternal loneliness!  We came together and consulted on how we could get a Czech priest.  We eventually got a priest; he came to us from West Point, but he was a German.  We nevertheless had joy.  He offered Mass in a little house and later in the school.  Then Father Ṥulák visited us, then Fr. Bobak, then Fr. Jan A. Blaška, Fr. Augustinský, Fr. Pold, Father Hovorka and others.  In the year 1873 we had established a cemetery and planned for the building of a church.  But everything was spoiled for us because in that year the first locusts flew in.  There weren’t too many and they flew off after three days, but they left us so much harm that the corn was destroyed.  They tormented us for six years.  Sometimes they destroyed half the crop, sometimes all.  So we had many misfortunes in building the church.  There was very little money.  Twice storms blew down the framework while the church was abuilding.  Then lightning struck the main tower. But the church was finally built in 1878.  So, with the help of God, we had a church.  We built a parish house (this was in 1884) and received a resident priest.  Then we were happier.  From that time much has changed, many older people have died, many people moved to the towns, many farms were sold, and so slowly the parish is prospering.

We had seven children, five sons and two daughters.  The first son, František, was born in Bohemia.  The rest of the sons, Vaclav, Matej, Anton, and Joseph, were born in America, as well as our daughters Anna and Maria.  They are all living and have their own farms.  Now, praise God, we are satisfied and have joy in our children.”

3.  Memories of Adella Kučera Belina

Adella Kučera Belina (1912 – 2007) lived on farms between Clarkson and Howells, in Cuming and Stanton counties.  Her daughter, Marvine Koliha, asked her to write down her memories of the 1930s and 1940s, the years of Midwestern droughts, the Great Depression, and World War II.


“We did not have a telephone.  The people that had a telephone on batteries could not afford to pay their yearly bill.  There was no corn, only in a draw or ditch where there was moisture.  We took a spring buggy and 2 horses and picked corn along the ditch.  There was no oats. The few hens did not lay eggs because of the cold.  Many times the hens froze in the henhouse due to the cold. Once a week, Millard Belina would walk to Louis Sokol’s for the mail.  There was only 1 snowplow to open the roads.  There was no gravel on the highways.  People took horses, wagons, and scoop shovels to open the roads.  Uncle and Aunt Krejci scooped snow from their place to our old driveway.  We went to Howells once a month.  I hauled eggs from Grandma Mary Belina in town.  She cooked oats and scraps from the table and fed her hens.  She put tar paper inside her shed so her hens were warm and used warm water for her hens to drink.

We dug a well by the old dam (near Krejci’s place) by hand.  We would chase the cows and horses there to drink water.  We had to pump it by hand.  In the other well, the water level dropped because there weren’t any rains.

Sugar was rationed, so only people who had a baby got syrup to put in milk.  So Wilma Krejci and Mrs. Marvin Daniels made a cake from honey or syrup before rationing.  During rationing 50 lbs or 100 lbs. sack of sugar was $50.00, and people bought it secretly.  We got it through Harry Hendrick’s brother in Omaha.  You could not buy minced ham, which came in a can, unless you had the rationing stamps.  When buying gas for the car, you had to use the rationing stamps and money besides. 

At Christmas, we did not give presents to each other as there was no money.  We gave Frankie (my brother) a small bottle of perfume (cost 10 cents).  We gave my dad an everyday shirt, my mother fabric for an apron, Grandpa (August) Belina a 1 lb. can of tobacco and Grandma 3 yards of fabric.  Cotton was rationed.  You could buy only silk and rayon material. Delaine Kander had such torn coveralls, but had to wait till Charlie sold calves and had money to buy clothes. 

Prices were so low.  Corn was 4 cents a bushel, oats was 3 cents a bushel, eggs were 9 cents a dozen, and cream 14 cents.  We milked 5 cows.  Corn grew only 3-4 feet tall.  There were no ears, so with an oats binder and horses, we cut it like oats and shocked it.  Then [the shocks] froze to the ground, and in the winter we had to take axes and chop it , throw it on hay racks and haul it home to the barn and fed it to the cows and horses.  Uncle Joe Kucera and Raymond and my dad drove a borrowed truck to Krejcis and chopped those frozen shocks of sorghum or sugar cane and hauled it for his stock. 

Ladies Sunday hats cost 50 cents, and men’s everyday shirts were 75 cents.  Rudy Bazata stood up in our wedding and bought a suit in West Point for $1.00 a week.    Frankie also bought a suit for a $1.00 a week payment.  My wedding dress cost $17.00.   Blanche Poledna was my bridesmaid and couldn’t afford to pay the $10.00 for her dress.  So my dad lent the money to him, which he later repaid.  Marie Pavel baked an angel food cake and borrowed 2 doves on a wedding ring ornament from Blanche Bazata’s wedding for the top of my cake. We had cottonwood trees on Dad’s farm.  So my dad cut them for wood to sell in town for $4.00 a wagon load.  My mother bought herself a dress for my wedding for a load of wood.  Some lady in Howells had new church-like dresses for sale.  My dad had a lot of business because he was cheaper.  Uncle Jim sold wood for $5.00 a load.  We also used the money to buy grease to fry meat in.”

Hard times, no?  If you haven’t had enough, my Clarkson history essays are filled with stories of our pioneer ancestors struggling against the odds – and usually winning.  Here are a few:

Many of us have stories like these, passed down from our own ancestors.  I heard similar tales of struggles and hardships from my parents.  Their stories were never told with bitterness, resentment, or a sense of entitlement; rather, they were passed down to us in a spirit of gratitude for how far they had come and the good lives they were able to build for themselves and their children.  Stories of hard-earned happiness.

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  – William Faulkner, excerpt from his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1950.

Our ancestors prevailed.  This Thanksgiving Day I will spend a few moments giving thanks for their perseverance.  Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Posted in 1890s | 9 Comments

The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888

Is it hot enough for you, Bunky?  It has already been a long, hot summer down here in the South. Day after day of high temperatures, coupled with relative humidity values dubbed tropical, have pushed our “feels like” temperatures into the triple digits many times. So to beat the heat I’ve been trying to think cool thoughts…. COLD thoughts….  CHILLING thoughts.  And few Nebraska stories are more chilling than those associated with the deadly Blizzard of January 12, 1888, aka the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard.

I’ve written about Nebraska snowstorms before.  The winter of 1948-49 was a bad one – , as was the winter of 1936 – and and .  But the fierce, infamous Blizzard of 1888 must be the worst, at least in terms of loss of human lives and livestock.

I presume many of us were taught about the Blizzard of 1888 in our grade school Nebraska History classes.  We heard terrifying stories about people caught in the sudden snowstorm who managed to survive… or didn’t.  The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888 claimed an estimated 235 lives in the Upper Midwest, 213 of them children — nearly half of those deaths were in Nebraska.  In the mid-20th Century, when heavy snows still occurred most winters, the event captured our imaginations.

The Storm

The early days of January 1888 were unseasonably cold in Nebraska, with snow on the ground and temperatures often falling below zero.  Around January 11, particular meteorological conditions allowed a strong cold front to race down from Northwestern Canada through Montana in a southeasterly direction.  It moved rapidly – the frigid air mass covered the 780-mile distance from northern Montana to southeastern Nebraska in 17 hours – an average speed of 45 mph. 

One of the unfortunate aspects of that fast-moving cold front is that it briefly raised the air temperatures in front of it.  Temperatures increased ahead of the storm by more than 30 degrees in some places; the temperature in Omaha was – 6 degrees F on January 11 and 24 hours later, on the morning of January 12, had risen to 28 degrees.  Similarly, the temperature climbed to 28 degrees at North Platte, fully 30 degrees warmer than the previous day.  This temperature spike gave people a false sense of balmy weather ahead.  Schoolchildren dressed lightly for school that day, and played outside during noon recess. Men were said to have worked outdoors in shirt sleeves.  Cattle were in the field.

Then the blizzard struck, seemingly in an instant, bringing with it snow, gale force winds, and plunging temperatures.  On January 12 the temperature at Valentine, Nebraska had risen to 30 degrees above zero by 6 AM and then fell to 6 degrees below zero by 2 PM that afternoon.  As the storm roared into Nebraska from the Northwest, it reached Central Nebraska by morning, and much of Eastern Nebraska at about the time that schoolchildren were being sent home for the day.  The blizzard raged for 12-18 hours, and temperatures continued to fall all day and night.  By the morning of January 13 temperatures in Nebraska were commonly 15 to 20 degrees below zero.  Some towns reported that the mercury had fallen to 34-40 degrees below zero.

Snowfall associated with the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was not especially heavy – Omaha recorded 4 inches of snow and Lincoln 7 inches.  The terrible destructiveness of the storm to both man and beast came from its high winds, extreme temperature change, and bad timing – it arrived suddenly on a Thursday afternoon at about the time that schools were being dismissed.  The icy temperatures remained in place for 10 days after the storm had passed.

There were few local newspapers in 1888 to report the Blizzard and its impacts – the Colfax County Press, Leigh World, and Howells Journal were still years away.  So I’ve collected a handful of stories told by area residents after the event.  Also, in 2013 an Omaha World Herald staff writer David Hendree compiled some amazing tales of survival and tragedy to mark the 125th anniversary of the great blizzard.


Perhaps the most famous blizzard survival story came from the town of Ord in central Nebraska.  Minnie Mae Freeman was a 19-year-old teacher at the Midvale country schoolhouse about six miles south of Ord, in an area known as Mira Valley.  When the storm struck around noon, she and her 13 students prepared to spend the night sheltered in the sod schoolhouse.  However, the howling wind blew the door off its hinges and tore the tarpaper-and-sod roof off the schoolhouse.  She was forced to move them to safety elsewhere.  She linked her pupils with twine and led them in a single file through the blinding storm to safety at a distant farmhouse.  Teacher and pupils all survived the ordeal.

Minnie Mae Freeman and her students in rural Valley County, Nebraska

“I’ve never felt such a wind,” she told a reporter from the Ord Quiz, a local newspaper, shortly after the disaster. “It blew the snow so hard that the flakes stung your face like arrows. All you could see ahead of you was a blinding, blowing sheet of snow.”

Soon after the event, the Omaha newspapers interviewed the heroic teacher:  Miss Minnie Freeman, the plucky little school teacher at Mira valley, whose heroism, care and presence of mind saved from death her 13 little pupils during the terrible storm last week, was in this city today. When pressed, she told the following story: “The storm came up very suddenly and struck the schoolhouse just about the time for closing. I knew from indications that it was going to be a regular blizzard, and told the children to all wrap up well. While I was attending to them the door blew in, and then the windows. I put my cloak on and was wondering what I was going to do. I had made up my mind that the building would not last long. Then I happened to think of a ball of twine I had taken away from a little fellow named Frankie Gibben, who was playing with it during school hours. I began tying the children together, and when I had completed this task I awaited developments. Very soon the roof of the building blew off and I said, “Come on, children” and we started.  The nearest house was three quarters of a mile away and in order to reach it we had to face the storm for about one third of the distance.  I thought at one time we should be lost, and I came near losing hope, for I was nearly exhausted. You see, I was carrying the smallest child – a little girl – and my talking to the children and urging them to keep up their spirits, tired me very much.”

Minnie Freeman, Age 19, and the song written to celebrate her heroism

It’s a marvelous story, and Minnie Freeman received well-deserved fame for her quick thinking and heroism.  She received almost 200 marriage proposals, endless gifts, and letters of praise from across the country.  A Chicago composer was moved to memorialize the story in the song “Thirteen Were Saved.”  I wouldn’t call the parlor song a toe-tapper, but if you want to try singing it I’ve provided a link to the sheet music at the end of this post (Vincent 1888). 

The Blizzard of ’88 by Jeanne Reynal. A Venetian glass mural located in the Nebraska State Capitol.

In 1967, a Venetian glass mural of The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888 by Jeanne Reynal was installed on the west wall of the north bay in the Nebraska State Capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the 1967 Centennial Celebration.

(I have said it before, but this is another example of the daunting responsibilities that rural school teachers had, not only in the 1800s but up through the disappearance of the one-room country schoolhouses in the mid-20th Century.  Often only a few years older than their students, the teachers had no one to rely on to help get themselves and their pupils through the day.  No student interns or PTA volunteers to assist.  No school nurse to take care of the sick or injured child.  No Principal’s office to which an unruly child could be banished.  No telephone to call anyone about an emergency or to receive notice of impending storms.  They were on their own, and they did an admirable job.)


Alas, not every school teacher was as lucky as Minnie Freeman.  One hundred miles to the northeast, in Plainview, Nebraska, school teacher Lois Royce found herself trapped with three of her students in her schoolhouse. By 3 PM they had run out of heating fuel. Her boarding house was less than 100 yards away, so she attempted to lead the children there. However, visibility was so poor that they became lost and the children, two nine-year-old boys and a six-year-old girl, froze to death. The teacher survived, but her feet were frostbitten and had to be amputated.

Rural Stanton County

The account of Emily Vail was related by O’Gara (1947): “I was teaching in a little frame schoolhouse perched upon the windswept prairies of Stanton County [Nebraska]. The attendance was small and so were the pupils with the exception of one girl fourteen years of age. There was nothing except an unusual mildness and calm to give warning of [an] approaching storm. Just after the opening of the afternoon session I glanced at the windows and could see nothing but a white wall. I rushed to the door and opened it. The air was so full of snow that the view was completely obscured as though a sheet had been stretched before me.”

“I was alarmed but knew I must not let the pupils know it. With some careless remark about the sudden breaking of the storm, I resumed my work.  So the afternoon passed and it became time for dismissal. Then the children became uneasy. They gathered around me, asking if I did not think it ‘an awful bad storm’. I admitted that I did and told them as calmly as possible that we would have to wait at the schoolhouse until someone came for us.  I suggested such amusements as came to my mind and they entered into the spirit of the occasion. All but one little fellow of four who wanted his mama and let it be known.”

“I had gradually disclosed to the children that we might have to stay at the schoolhouse all night, and had given them the impression that it would be a very novel and exciting experience if we did. They shared my view, until it came to the matter of substituting a few dry crusts, left in their dinner pails, for a warm supper.  However, the self-sacrifice of the older children was pathetic as they divided their meager scraps with the younger ones. It became quite dark and we had no means of lighting the room except by opening the stove door. We made the best of this situation by playing hide and seek and when they tired of this I suggested story telling. Grouped about the stove we passed the time very pleasantly. The little four year old visitor had fallen asleep and forgotten his troubles.”

“Then another problem developed. The children were thirsty and there was no water in the house. We decided to melt snow to drink, and opened the door to get the snow. When we tried to shut the door we discovered what a mistake we had made. The snow had driven in around the casing and we could not close the door. The more we tried to remove it, the more it came in and the larger the obstruction became. So we pushed the door as far shut as we could, and braced blocks of wood…to hold it. But there was a gap about four inches wide, through which the snow drifted in, thawing as it settled on the floor, forming a pool of water in the only cheerful spot in the room. About this time, we discovered that the room was filling with smoke, and found that the stovepipe was unjointed at the rear of the room. I climbed up on a table and tried to rejoin it, but had to give it up.”

“It was nearly midnight and the children were getting sleepy.  By using wraps to the best advantage I succeeded in making resting places on the seats and soon they were all sleeping peacefully.  The responsibility of keeping fires burning kept me awake but it was a weary watch with a howling blizzard outside and smoke and gloom inside. However, I was profoundly thankful for the generous cord of wood which had been stacked in one corner of the room.”

“Toward morning the storm began to subside and by four o’clock it was comparatively calm. About that time the children began to wake and discuss the night’s adventure. They were in agreement that it had been a jolly time.  Soon parents began arriving. Every family had attempted to reach the schoolhouse the night before but had been obliged to give it up. We can only guess with what fear and anxiety they had waited for the morning, not knowing where or how their children were being cared for. After all, their night had been harder than my own.”   (Miss Vail later moved to Berkeley, California)


One of the saddest stories to come out of the blizzard concerned two young girls who were lost in the storm – the Westphalen sisters.  After recess, 13-year-old Eda Westphalen and her 8-year-old sister, Matilda, left their District 30 schoolhouse for home and were caught in the blizzard.  In blinding snow and freezing temperatures, they trudged toward their house, just a mile north of the country school they attended in rural Dodge County.  Their widowed mother waited anxiously for them, but they never arrived. 

The family of Eda and Matilda Westphalen

The Fremont Herald later reported that the girls typically crossed a field to get home. It was a direct route, but that day they got lost in the howling storm and apparently walked in circles. During the storm, the sisters were believed to have stomped their feet to keep them warm.  Eda even put her own heavy clothes around Matilda.  After the blizzard, search parties spent almost four days looking for them.  Some 75 men with poles and shovels waded through snowdrifts, finally discovering the girls’ bodies about two miles east of their home.  They lay face down on the side of a hill.  They had frozen to death just a few feet from each other.

After the tragedy, Nebraska schoolchildren contributed pennies and erected a monument over the Westphalen sisters’ double grave.  The monument to the young storm victims still stands in St. John’s Ridgeley Cemetery southwest of Scribner. The stone reads: “Sacred to the memory of Eda G. and Matilda M., daughters of Peter and Catherine Westphalen, who perished in the great blizzard of Jan. 12, 1888.”


Closer to home, the Clarkson Diamond Jubilee book (1961) noted that “A teacher by the name of Lizzie Hardy taught school at District No. 48, one mile east of Clarkson. On January 12th 1888, a storm came up at about four o’clock PM. Thirty one students attended School District No. 48. Miss Hardy very wisely kept the children all night. The storm raged during the night and at times during the afternoon it was difficult to see one step ahead. A clothes line was attached to the school and led to the coal shed where the supply of coal was kept. Frank Wolf and John D. Wolf, students at the time, ventured on home and for some time caused a great deal of anxiety to Miss Hardy and her brother Elmer who lived with her. However when the storm broke at about 9:30 the next morning, worried parents of the children were very much relieved to find their children safe and sound. The Wolf brothers were also found safe at home.”


The Howells Centennial Book (1986) reported that 1888 was a big year for the village, but it started out frightfully: “January 12, 1888 found the residents of Howells enjoying the quiet and unusually warm winter temperatures.  Farmers went about their chores in shirt sleeves. Children, leaving their coats at home, were sent off to the “little red schoolhouse” taught by Miss Antonia Busch. By mid-morning, the light breeze shifted to the north, picking up speed and dropping temperatures rapidly. The violent winds swirled the initially huge snowflakes which fell, blinding man and beast unfortunate enough to have been caught in its fury.”

“Twenty four children were huddled, terror stricken, in the little schoolhouse located east of the Maple Creek on the Kovar property just east of town. As they and their teacher watched the storm develop, Albert Nagengast and George Lodes, bearing coats, caps, and blankets for the children, came to remove them to a safer refuge of the Lodes home. Their brave task was difficult. A string of tall cottonwood trees marked the boundary between the house and the school. Moving slowly and holding hands, one to the other, the two men and children made it to the house. Then the men went back to rescue Miss Busch, who was a large woman weighing 250 pounds. Finding that she was unable to walk through the growing drifts, it became necessary for the two men to drag her almost all the way from the school to the house.”

“The next morning found them safe. The storm raged on throughout the day, piling the snow into huge drifts in temperatures of 34 degrees below zero. There was no loss of life in the community, but almost half the livestock froze to death before the storm subsided the next morning.”

Rural Colfax County

Some of you may remember the name Frank A. Wellman, who was the owner of F.A. Wellman & Sons Livestock Commission in the Exchange Building at the Omaha Stockyards and a pillar of the Omaha business community.  His parents homesteaded in Colfax County, and Frank was one of the older boys in a rural school in 1888.  His experience was recounted in Wakeley (1917):  “[Frank] began his education in the country schools, walking two miles to the little schoolhouse, many times traversing that distance in the dead of winter through storms of snow or hail.  During the historic blizzard of 1888 the thermometer dropped very low, ranging many degrees below zero.  He and three other boys who also lived at a considerable distance from the school, fearing that they might freeze to death before they could reach their homes while the blizzard was raging, decided to remain in the schoolroom overnight. Most of the smaller children remained also with the three larger boys. These three boys took turns going out to the coal shed for coal to keep the fire burning until the next morning. They had to crawl on hands and knees feeling with bare hands in the snow for the grass on either side of the path to keep from losing their way.  This and various experiences, many of them of arduous nature, taught Mr. Wellman how to take care of himself and developed in him self-reliance and resourcefulness.”

Emilie Dvorak Jonas, whose parents Jakub and Frantiska Dvorak homesteaded 4 miles southwest of Wilson Church, was a schoolgirl at the time of the blizzard: ”I also remember the terrible blizzard of 1888, when we children had to stay in the school house all night. Brother Frank walked home two miles after midnight. Mother, who was in anxiety, started out in the storm for us and got half way and could not go any farther. Our neighbor found her and took her in. My father was one of the charter members who built the first Wilson Catholic church.”

Mrs. P.F. Svoboda (née Marie Roušarová) wrote extensively about her pioneer experiences on her parent’s homestead in the Shell Creek Precinct, 6 miles west and 4 miles north of Schuyler:

“The winter of 1888 will always be remembered for its famous blizzard.  I remember it very well.  The day started out mildly, a typical January thaw. We had the washing on the line. By mid-morning the wind changed to the north and started blowing furiously.  Before we could gather all the clothes the storm was in our midst. Hasty preparations were made to house the stock.  We were none too soon.  The storm lasted that day and most of the night. Morning greeted us with the snow level with the house. Regular tunnels had to be made to the different out buildings to do chores. It presented an awesome sight. Two of my sisters were compelled to stay in school overnight much to their discomfort.  While we fortunately had no loss there were many lives lost elsewhere and many herds of cattle perished further west.”


Leigh, Nebraska’s Diamond Jubilee book (1962) related a couple of stories about that great storm:

The Blizzard of 1888 will ever remain a memorable date. On that January 12, a drizzling mist in some localities, which amounted to a light snow in others, fell throughout the forenoon hours with a mild temperature prevailing. A mighty roar, the mist turned to blinding snow between 12:00 and 12:30 PM and a furious gale raged for 10 hours while the snow piled into drifts as many feet deep and the thermometer dropped to 22 degrees below zero.

Mrs. Gus Hahn and Mrs. Emma Held, with their brothers Henry and William Herling, were attending school in the Herling neighborhood 10 miles southeast of Leigh when the great blizzard struck. The school had an enrollment of 60 pupils, and 40 were at school that day. George Poole, the teacher, allowed none of the children to leave the building and when the fuel on hand had been burned, he made a rope from the children’s scarves and sent two boys to the shed for fuel, tying them together and keeping one end which he used to guide them back. The children were forced to remain in the school house all night. The food left in the dinner pails was divided and their coats were laid on the floor for beds. Parents reached the school house the next day.  Possibly from the same school, John Craig was a 7-year-old farm boy who lived nine miles southeast of Leigh.  He was in a country school when the cataclysmic cold front dropped in about 2 PM. He later wrote: “With the suddenness of a clap of thunder, the sheer front of the blizzard crashed against the schoolhouse like a tidal wave, shaking the wooden frame building and almost lifting it from its foundation.”

The most astonishing Blizzard of 1888 story came from the memoirs of Thomas Mortimer, who you may recall managed large livestock ranches north of Leigh:

“Thomas Mortimer, who managed the Omaha ranch, told that with the sudden change of the wind, the storm broke and loose boards from shed roofs, fodder, and other debris filled the air. The snow descended in blinding clouds and as the hundreds of cattle stampeded, they broke down the gates and fences as they dashed away in mad fright. Unable to see any distance, he and one of the ranch owners, a Mr. Bancroft, made an effort to seek shelter of the barn. When they brought up at the chicken house, they realized their sense of direction was lost. Within a few minutes the hurricane blew the chicken house away and they made another effort to reach the barn. This time they found themselves at the corn crib. Another try took them into a dry creek bed in the yards. Trying for the 4th time, they succeeded in reaching the barn and with much difficulty succeeded in closing the doors and windows of the structure. By following a wire fence they managed to reach the house, 600 feet away, about two hours after the storm first struck.

Some 250 head of cattle belonging to the Omaha ranch were frozen to death that night and also a large percent of the 600 head of hogs which were being fed. Hundreds of steers from other herds were also frozen and for weeks the ranchers searched for cattle which had tried to keep ahead of the storm, finding some as far away as Schuyler and Humphrey. In succeeding days, Mr. Mortimer rode to the neighboring ranches where cattle had been left for the winter. On one such trip, he had occasion to cross Butterfly Creek and he found that about 60 head of cattle were frozen in the ice.  The cattle leading the herd had evidently gone down in the stream and lodged, forming a bridge for those that followed.  Heads and hoofs of the cattle were sticking up out of the drifts when Mr. Mortimer came to the place a few days after the storm.

The intense cold which continued through January and February held the mammoth drifts intact and made it extremely difficult to locate much of the stock that was missing. The latter part of February, Mr. Mortimer and John Borland, a neighboring rancher, were out looking over the cattle, walking a part of the time on drifts as high as haystacks which still supported their weight six weeks after the Blizzard. Some distance away they noted steam rising from the haystack, and thinking it was smoke, they hastened to the spot. As they neared the place, the snowdrift gave way and Mr. Borland, who was ahead, started to fall into an opening below. He was rescued by Mr. Mortimer, however, and had he fallen, he would have been devoured by a herd of some 70 famished hogs which had been imprisoned under the snow near the stack of hay since the blizzard of six weeks before. The hogs had subsisted during the period on the hay and what moisture they could obtain from the snow. As those of their number had died, their bodies had been eaten and the huge carcasses were scattered through the subterranean passage which the animals had made beneath the haystack. The hogs were vicious and the first thing the men did was to throw them several bushels of corn. Not until their ravenous appetites were appeased was any attempt made to rescue the half-starved hogs.”

The stuff of nightmares or Hollywood movies, no?

Until next time… be cool.


Clarkson Historical Book Committee. 1961.  Clarkson Diamond Jubilee 1886-1961.  Ludi Printing Co., Wahoo, NE.

Forever Missed – Eda and Mathilda Westphalen.

Hendee, David. 2013.  125 Years Ago Today, Blizzard of 1888 Ravaged the Plains.  Omaha World Herald.   

History Daily. 2018.  Minnie Freeman: Hero of the Frontier Schoolhouse.  November 16, 2018.

Howells Centennial Book Committee. 1986.  Howells, Nebraska. The First One Hundred Years. 1887-1987. Walsworth Publishing Co., Marceline, MO.

Miss Celania. 2017.  Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.

New York Times. 2018.  Overlooked No More: Minnie Mae Freeman Penney, Nebraska’s ‘Fearless Maid’. October 3, 2018.

O’Gara, W.H. 1947. In All Its Fury: A History of the Blizzard of January 12, 1888.  J&L Lee Co.  343 p.

Reynal, Jeanne. Undated.  The Blizzard of 1888 – and Stories in Mosaic –

Rosicky, Rose. 1926. Pioneer Czechs in Colfax County.

Vincent, William, “Song of the Great Blizzard : “Thirteen were saved” : or, Nebraska’s fearless maid” (1888). Special Collections. 10.

Wakeley, Arthur C. 1917.  Omaha: The Gate City and Douglas County Nebraska. Vol. II.  The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago.

Posted in 1890s | 10 Comments

Home on the Range – Part 2.  Cattle Ranching In Stanton County

In the last story I described the cattle and sheep ranches that were clustered along the southern end of Colfax County, close to the newly built Union Pacific Railroad station in Shell Creek/Schuyler.  These large ranches prospered for several decades, but it doesn’t appear that they extended much further north than the wide, flat, Platte River Valley.  The probable reason is that at the same time the ranches were being developed much of the land in central and northern Colfax County was being bought up in 80- and 160-acre parcels by farmers – Civil War veterans, Eastern farmers, and European immigrants – who were acquiring their land from the Union Pacific Railroad or from the Federal government via the Homestead Act.  There was no room for the Colfax County ranches to expand north out of the Platte Valley.  Also, the farther north you went, the more difficult it was to ship cattle to the East; the Union Pacific Railroad had reached Schuyler in 1866, but railroad tracks were not laid through Howells, Clarkson, and Leigh for another 20 years.

In addition, Stanton County and lands to the north and west were a slower to be brought under the plow.  As you travel to the northwest in Nebraska the climate gets a bit drier and the soils sandier, such that it was harder to make a living as a dry land farmer on the usual 160-acre parcels.  Delayed settlement allowed entrepreneurs with dreams of cattle ranching to buy up large parcels of land north of Clarkson and Leigh before the later-arriving farmers could fence it in.  Initially the cattle raised on the Stanton County pastures and feedlots were driven north to the Niobrara where they were issued as beef to the Indians on the reservations.  Later, the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, which reached Clarkson in 1886 and Leigh in 1887, allowed cattle to be shipped to customers in the Eastern U.S. and Europe.

Beginning in the 1880s, a number of cattle and horse ranches of all sizes were established in Stanton County, to the north of Clarkson and Leigh – the Omaha Ranch, W.W. Young Ranch, Connor Ranch, Marshall Field Ranch, Breadwinner’s Stock Farm, Stanton Breeding Farm, Mortimer Ranch, Bilby Ranch, Wisherd Ranch, and the Carl N. Peterson Ranch, to name a few.  These ranches provided steady employment for cowboys who were tired of the Texas trail drives, as well for as the occasional Bohemian immigrant trying to find his place in the New World.  For example, Anton Odvarka, Sr., who eventually settled in Clarkson and established a Czech-language newspaper (Domaci Noviny) and a printing shop, came to Nebraska as a young man and tried his hand at a number of odd jobs, including working on a ranch north of Clarkson.  Here is an excerpt from his memoirs:

 “… My date of arrival in Omaha was June 7th, 1887.  The next day I started working for Frank Svoboda where I worked for 2 months.  Then I received a job working as a barkeeper for Anton Francl.  After 1 ½ months of employment here I decided to go to Schuyler Nebraska, the county seat of Colfax County, with a couple of my countrymen.  The only employment available here was for the railroad – construction of roadbed, etc. which at this time was being built.  My work consisted of shoveling dirt into wagons which I had found extremely hard labor.  After half a day of this labor I decided to quit and decided to walk back to Schuyler which was 24 miles away.  I received no pay for the ½ day. 

From Schuyler I hitched a ride on a wagon to what is now known as Clarkson, which at that time did not really exist yet.  There were five very small shacks located and the railroads had just started building its rightaway.  The only work available for me here was as a farm hand on the farm of Jos. Klimeš (native of Chotovice near Nové Hrady and Litomyšl). 

I remained there with the Klimeš family only a short time when I was offered a farm job on a ranch north of Clarkson.  This ranch consisted of over 2000 acres of grass land with only a small area under cultivation.  As a farm hand I must not have been very successful and the foreman had me transferred to the kitchen as an assistant to the chief cook Nancy Butler.  After the chief cook left, I became the chief of the kitchen.  Cooked all meals, baked bread, in fact did all of the necessary duties.  I fed daily 22 cowboys, foreman, and the other ranch personnel.  On the ranch beside the cattle were never fewer than 700 head of wild horses, all of which were caught wild in Arizona and New Mexico.  Here they trained, saddle broke, and prepared these wild horses for most domestic uses.  My salary as a cook was eighteen dollars monthly while the cowboys received sixteen dollars.

In November a severe cold winter broke.  The weather was extremely cold and most of the hands and personnel left.  Since work became very slack I accepted employment in a general store in Clarkson.  Since business due to the severe cold was very poor my employer told me he would be unable to pay me a salary any longer.  The wages were very small anyway.  Since I had no money and no place to go he offered to teach me how to repair shoes as he had a shoemakers outfit in the store.  He repaired shoes for the customers when the occasion occurred.  My next venture was shoe repairing.  When Spring arrived I was given as a gift a small cottage that was situated on another’s land.  Here I moved my shoe repairing equipment what there was of it and for a year I followed this trade rather successfully.  Here I married Josefka Teply (native of Svatá Kateřina u Borová near Polička).  I was offered a job as a bartender for Jos. Cibulka which paid me a better salary than I could earn repairing shoes.  After accepting this job I received an offer from Jan Rosicky, Omaha newspaper publisher (Pokrok Zapadu) to represent his newspaper as a traveling salesman.  This I most anxiously accepted as it was the first job that I felt qualified for….”

The local papers (the Stanton Register and the Clarkson Herald/Colfax County Press) ran news items about these Stanton County ranches.  Most were small – a few acres used to pasture enough cattle, sheep, and horses to be dubbed a “ranch.” But other ranches north of Clarkson and Leigh covered thousands of acres and produced thousands of cattle and other livestock.  The largest and most famous of these were the Bilby/Wisherd Ranch and the Marshall Field/Mortimer Ranch; virtually adjoining each other in southern Stanton County, they could hardly have been more different.

Approximate locations of the Marshall Field/Mortimer Ranch and Bilby/Wisherd Ranch in 1899.  Black dots show the locations of the ranch houses, barns, and other structures.

Bilby/Wisherd Ranch

The Stanton Register issue of January 26, 1922 recalled: “In the early pioneer days of Clarkson and Leigh, or about in the year 1880, there settled 7 miles northwest of the village of Clarkson, a rancher by the surname of Bilby, who was a very stern and austere character. He purchased a whole Township of land, or comprising in all, an acreage of about 43,040 acres.  Scientific farming was not carried on very extensively in his career, only the grazing and herding of tumultuous herds of cattle.  In order that he could pay satisfactory attention to all his cattle, he employed many desperate characters, such as tramps, thieves, and penitentiary boys, to assist him with the rearing and management of livestock.”

John S. Bilby

That man, John Sliker Bilby, (1832–1919) claimed to own the second largest ranch in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  His Bilby Ranch, headquartered in Quitman, Missouri, had holdings throughout the U.S. Southwest.   John S. Bilby settled in Quitman, Missouri, in 1868 and began expanding his empire using one property as collateral to borrow money for the next. Soon his properties stretched from Missouri to Oklahoma to Texas to New Mexico. At its peak the ranch was reported to comprise 200,000 acres, including 15,000 acres (23 sections) of land in Stanton County, Nebraska. 

The Los Angeles Herald reported on March 13, 1903: “John S. Bilby of Quitman is a man whose name doesn’t appear in the newspapers, but if any newspaper man was shrewd enough to get him to talk he could write an interesting story about the old man. There is hardly a doubt that he owns and controls more soil than any other individual in America. He owns at least 35,000 acres of highly valuable land in Nodaway and Atchison counties, Missouri.  He has 10,000 or 15,000 acres in Nebraska. He has a big tract, embracing 35,000 or 40,000 acres, in Arkansas. He owns land in five other states. Still he is not satisfied. Recently he has been getting control of some immense tracts In the Indian territory. The Fairfax Forum says he has leased 95,000 acres there already, and that he is determined to add 30,000 more to the sum. On a conservative estimate, he already owns or has leased 180,000 acres, and he expects to have more than 200,000 acres before he closes pending deals. There are, of course, ranch companies and syndicates which can make a bigger showing than this, but probably no one person. Mr. Bilby has lived In Nodaway county many years.  He came from New Jersey, bringing with him an apparently insatiable appetite for land. He is rough in speech, dress and manner, but no man of penetration can look into his face without perceiving that he has great shrewdness.  Although now far along toward 70 years old, he spends most of his time on horseback riding over his land. His northwest Missouri holdings are still rented “on shares.” It has been suggested to Mr. Bilby that leasing Indian lands may involve him in legal difficulties, but this only makes him laugh. He is of an exceedingly litigious disposition, and it is doubtful if there has been a time in forty years when he has not been Involved In from one to a dozen lawsuits. So keen a business man is he that he seldom loses a suit, and he seems to get as much satisfaction from winning a case as from driving a sharp bargain.—Kansas City Journal.”

In Stanton County, Bilby was able to amass over 15 sections in Ramshorn Township, just to the northwest of Clarkson.  By 1899 the Bilby Ranch had also been extended to include nearly 4 sections of land in Maple Creek Township to the east.  The Bilby ranch house and associated building were 4.5 miles north and 2 miles west of Clarkson.

Certainly an absentee landlord, Bilby entrusted the management of his ranch in Stanton County to others – men who seemed more interested in turning a profit than being good citizens of the community.  One of his ranch managers was John A. Wisherd, who with his brother Samuel O. Wisherd and other family members, later acquired the ranch from Bilby.

A later story noted that “many of the older residents of Clarkson will well remember Mr. Samuel O. Wisherd when he and his brother John managed the old Bilby ranch northwest of here. Many of our pioneers will recall the terror that reigned when the ranch was in existence. This ranch at one time contained many thousands of acres of land and involved practically all of the territory north and west of Clarkson, extending west as far as Leigh, and north nearly to Stanton. Cowboys, desperados and all kinds of rough element that existed in those days came here and made their headquarters at this ranch. Sundays were usually days of terror for the citizens of Clarkson, as the outlaws from the ranch, drunk, would come in and “shoot up” the town. Many were the skirmishes and bloody encounters between peace preserving citizens of our town and the dyed-in-wool desperados from the ranch who drifted in from all parts of the globe. Those were the real Wild West days.”

Indeed, those stories were still circulating in the usually peaceful, law-abiding village of Clarkson a century later: and

Cowboys Taking Dance Lessons

I am not aware of any respectable citizen of the Clarkson area being seriously injured or killed by these six-gun terrorists.  But the Bilby/Wisherd ranch hands didn’t hold back when settling disagreements among themselves.  For example, in 1905 the Stanton Register and the Clarkson Herald printed a series of stories about a man who had been shot in the head by one of his fellows:

“Saturday afternoon about 4:00 o’clock there was a quarrel and a shooting that may end the life of Charlie Endsley, a 16 year old boy who lives with his parents out on the Wisherd ranch. Endsley and Allie Thorpe, another young man about 18 years old, were going to Clarkson on horseback to a dance. About 1/2 mile north of the main buildings called the home ranch on the J.S. Bilby ranch, they met William Burns driving along the road in a lumber wagon. Burns is a young man of 25 years and has been married only a short time. He lives at the home ranch. When the parties met there was an exchange of words and Burns drew a revolver and fired at Endsley. The bullet struck him on the left side of the head and passing through the skull came out above the right eye just below the temple.  Endsley fell to the ground and Burns turned his gun at Thorpe and opened fire. The bullet struck Thorpe’s pony in the neck and the horse fell. Thorpe started to run and Burns took another shot at him, but missed the mark. Burns started for Stanton and gave himself up to Sheriff Dern as Sheriff King was out of town. The wounded boy was taken to the ranch and physicians called from Clarkson. The wound is a very serious one as the ball touched the brain and the doctors do not have much hope of Endsley living.  As late as Tuesday noon Endsley was conscious and cheerful, able to sit up and the chances are that he will live. There had been trouble between the parties for some time and different stories are told regarding the occurrence. We will get further particulars after the preliminary hearing of Burns occurs.” (Stanton Register, January 6, 1905).

Sadly, the press was overly optimistic about the victim’s chances of recovery from a large-caliber bullet passing through his head.  A week later the Clarkson Herald reported that “William Burns, the man who shot Chas. Endsley in the scrap at the Bilby ranch some weeks ago, has been bound over to the district court at Stanton upon the charge of shooting with intent to kill. His bond was fixed at one thousand dollars, which he was able to furnish. Endsley is not as well as he was a few days ago and his recovery is not at all certain.”  By the end of January, 1905, Charles Endsley had died from “lead poisoning”:  “Wm. Burns, the man who shot young Endsley at the Bilby ranch on the last day of the old year, and who is now in jail at Stanton charged with murder, will have his preliminary hearing on the eighth of February. Burns has engaged W.W. Young to defend him, and we understand that an attempt will be made to show that the shooting was done in self-defense“  (The Colfax County Press, January 31, 1905)

As John S. Bilby was of an “exceedingly litigious disposition,” his acquisition and disposition of the land and resolution of leases, mortgages, promissory notes, etc. were the subjects of numerous court battles – Samuel O. Wisherd suing Bilby and other plaintiffs suing both Wisherd and Bilby.  One of his disputes over the cattle operations was addressed by the United States Supreme Court in 1887 in the case of Teal v. Bilby.

Sooner or later a House of Cards will fall.  Because his extensive acquisitions were based on borrowed funds, the huge Bilby Ranch eventually collapsed.  Being overloaded with debts, John Sliker Bilby began to sell off land from his acreage in Stanton County, until finally he had disposed of about ½ of his real estate there. Then Bilby sold his remaining ranch to S.O. Wisherd and siblings, who took over its management immediately.

The breakup and sale of the ranch continued under Wisherd’s management.  By 1915, the Wisherd Ranch had been almost completely divided into units, varying from 80 acres to a half section, and sold to Bohemian farmers.  Still unable to pay off his massive debt and many mortgages, Bilby was left for a time with the only unmortgaged property he possessed—his home in Quitman, Missouri.

Bilby’s rise and untimely death on November 26, 1919 were reported by the Haileyville Herald:  “J. S. Bilby, said to be the largest individual land owner in the United States, was instantly killed at Catoosa (Oklahoma) 15 miles east of here when he stepped from behind a box car directly in front of an oncoming Frisco passenger train.  Bilby, who was 86 years old, was loading a car with hogs, and witnesses say he did not hear the approaching train, and was run down before he could step off the tracks. More than 1,000,000 acres of land were owned by Bilby in fifteen different states, while his holdings in Oklahoma alone amount to 45,000 acres, 30,000 acres of this is located in Tulsa and Wagoner counties, and 15,000 acres in Texas, much of which is near the Ranger oil field. Bilby, despite his age, was an active farmer, living on his place on the Verdigris River between Catoosa and Broken Arrow. His estate is estimated at $5,000,000. He leaves a wife, three sons and one daughter.”

Approximate locations of the Marshall Field/Mortimer Ranch and Bilby/Wisherd Ranch in 1899.  Black dots show the locations of the ranch houses, barns, and other structures.

Marshall Field/Mortimer Ranch

Panoramic View of the Marshall Field/Mortimer Ranch (enlarged photos at the end of the story)

In stark contrast to the Bilby Ranch, which was long remembered for its drunken, violent cowboys, was the large cattle ranch established by Marshall Field and later taken over by his foreman, Thomas Mortimer.  It was a disciplined organization, eventually specializing in the production of purebred Hereford cattle of international repute, and managed by a British expatriate who had learned his trade in the employ of an English noble, the Earl of Devon.  It was something of a “Downton Abbey on the Prairie.”

Marshall Field

Marshall Field was the founder of Marshall Field and Company, a high-end, Chicago-based department store (later simply called Marshall Field’s and in 2006 taken over by Macy’s).  Field amassed a great deal of money through his commercial and financial dealings, which he used to become an investor, an enemy of organized labor, and a philanthropist.  He co-founded the University of Chicago, and provided a $1 million endowment for the creation of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

One of Field’s lesser known enterprises was the establishment of a cattle ranch, initially called the Breadwinner’s Stock Farm, northwest of Leigh, Nebraska.  Marshall Field was a keen, well-connected businessman, and when Oberlin College in Ohio offered a township of land in southwestern Stanton County at foreclosure sale in 1870, his representatives bought 10 sections, paying from $3 to $4.50 per acre.  At its peak the ranch comprised 16 sections (10,000 acres) of land, mostly devoted to grazing and hay production.  The ranch house, barns, and associated structures were located in the northern end of Section 15 of Dimick Township, 6 miles north and 3 miles west of Leigh.

Marshall Field’s Ranch House, Stanton County, Nebraska

During the 1880s Marshall Field sent an architect from Chicago to design and supervise the building of a residence on his newly acquired ranch.  All the lumber for the house was shipped from Chicago. The 22-room house had 10 bedrooms, which were almost a necessity to accommodate the guests that were nearly always at the ranch. The majority of the guests, especially after specialization in the purebred bulls was begun, were prospective buyers of the ranch’s cattle. If a sale was made, the buyers would have to stay at least a week until all the vaccinations were made and precautions taken to avoid loss of any of the cattle during transportation. Transportation was via the Chicago & Northwestern railroad, though there was some cattle driving involved over nearly 10 miles from the ranch to the railroad spur at Leigh. The spur was built at the request of the ranch’s management and was used almost exclusively by the ranch.

Management of the Breadwinner’s Stock Farm changed hands in 1895 owing to a tragic accident.  The ranch manager, Ed. Dimmick, was drowned on May 30, 1895 while trying to save his superintendent and foreman, Ed. Tucker. A team of horses hitched to a scraper had slipped and gone over an embankment into 20 feet of water near a dam.  Tucker, who was mounted, rode into the water to drive the team out, but his horse also went down.  Dimmick, hearing the cries for help, tried to save Tucker, but both men were drowned. This left Field’s ranch without a manager or foreman.  Marshall Field offered the managership to Mr. Thomas A. Mortimer, an English specialist at stockbreeding who was already operating the Omaha Ranch adjacent to the Field ranch. It was that manager, Thomas Mortimer, who changed the name of the ranch to Stanton Breeding Farm and convinced Marshall Field that he should specialize in raising purebred Hereford bulls to sell for breeding purposes.

Reared on an English estate, Thomas Mortimer (August 15, 1859 – September 8, 1940) had immigrated to the United States in 1881. Mortimer’s ancestors were commoners who had leased land from the Earl of Devon for many generations.  John Mortimer, grandfather of Thomas Mortimer, was a highly regarded steward for the Earl of Devon.  Thomas Mortimer’s parents, Richard and Elizabeth Mortimer of Sidmouth, Devonshire, England, had three sons and three daughters.

Powderham Castle, estate of the Earl of Devon

Although young Mortimer’s boyhood had been spent in a boarding school, the foundation for his life’s work had nevertheless been laid early, helping care for the great herds of cattle and sheep on the estate of the Earl of Devon.  The Earl of Devon also maintained fine horses and packs of hounds for the semiannual fox hunts; there was a deer park covering several hundreds of acres. Thomas Mortimer was educated to become a veterinary surgeon but, failing to make a required grade in Latin, he was not eligible to the Royal Academy for Veterinary Surgeons.  The training, however, was a lifelong asset to Mortimer and his extensive handling of cattle.

Thomas A. Mortimer

Against the wishes of his parents, young Thomas endeavored to go to the United States to engage in the livestock business.  His father opposed his going and sought to compromise by suggesting Canada or Australia. To please his father, Thomas embarked for Montreal. Arriving there, the young man pushed on into the open country but, confronted with the deep snow and intense cold of the Canadian winter in the heavy timbered district 150 miles west of Montreal, he entrained for Chicago within a few days after his arrival in America and, shortly after, came west to Omaha.

With a feeling that he was about to experience real frontier life, 22-year-old Thomas Mortimer walked up Farnam St. in Omaha carrying a gun on his shoulder and expecting to meet an Indian on every corner.  Certainly the town was still undeveloped – Farnam Street was paved for only five blocks in 1881. The paving was made with eight-inch cedar blocks and the crevices were filled with tar.  Omaha’s first sewer was being installed on 10th street at that time.

The young man found his first job for $15 per month on a farm 10 miles from Omaha. Later he went to work at Harrison Fisher’s meat market and his salary was doubled.  During the next couple of years he found employment with some of Nebraska’s pioneer livestock companies – Squires, Stoddard & Gue, Adams & Culbertson, and Reynolds Bros. His duties involved the building of corrals, the feeding and care of cattle and, frequently, trailing large herds of sheep across the state.

In 1883 Mr. Mortimer entered into an agreement with Arthur P. Wood and George Francis Bancroft, pioneer Union Pacific Railroad builders, to lay out a cattle ranch in southwestern Stanton County to be called the Omaha Ranch.  To start his ranch, the company set Mr. Mortimer on his way across the country giving him a covered wagon, a team of horses, two men and 500 cows. Almost as soon as they left Omaha the cows started calving and it was a long hard journey to Stanton County. With the directions given to him, he thought he knew about where the ranch was to be located. Nothing had been surveyed at that time so he located on Meridian Creek where there was plenty of good water. He proceeded to build his dugout and shelter for his cattle. After living there for two years the government sent out surveyors to mark the sections correctly. Mr. Mortimer was informed that he not only had located on the wrong sections, but he had traveled too far west, into the wrong county – Madison County instead of Stanton County. So he moved to the right place and over the next decades he gained experience in the cattle game.

In a 1928 interview, Thomas Mortimer noted “In those days nothing was known of marketing cattle as yearlings.  Most cattle were marketed as 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds.  As long as a critter was growing it would have been thought foolish to sell it, and besides beef was not considered ripe until it was four or five years old.  Wages and prices paid at that time would be thought pretty low to folks of the present day. The ranch hands received $15 and $16 per month, and if a man was of top caliber he would probably get $18.00.”   We don’t know what sort of cowpunchers Mortimer hired for his ranch, but I haven’t found any lurid stories about them in the newspapers of the time.  They were probably comparatively well behaved.  My guess is that the Englishman’s hiring and firing actions were based on a strong consideration of his employees’ comportment.   Keep a Stiff Upper Lip, Keep Calm and Carry On, and all that…. 

Nebraska cowboys, 1901

In 1884 a 10-year contract with Wood and Bancroft was drawn to manage the Omaha Ranch.  In 1894 the contract was extended by one year, at which time the opportunity to manage the adjoining Breadwinner’s Stock Farm (Marshall Field’s ranch) arose.

Hereford bull

Marshall Field’s ranch covered some 10,000 acres when Thomas Mortimer assumed its management in 1895.  Mortimer made frequent trips to Chicago to discuss the business with Field, and the merchant made several trips to Stanton County, staying three or four days at a time.  When Mortimer took over the ranch ran between 4,000 and 5,000 mixed head of cattle. Through his influence Hereford bloodlines were introduced and his consequent success made him one of the sages in the cattle world. The name “Breadwinner’s Stock Farm” was changed to “Stanton Breeding Farm.”  The Stanton Breeding Farm had the distinction of having placed more purebred bulls on Nebraska ranges than any other ranch in the northeast.  On many occasions Mortimer was unable to supply the demand for Hereford sires and at such times he made buying trips into Kansas and Missouri.  By the early 1900s as high as $300,000 worth of Hereford cattle grazed the ranch lands at a time.  Many of Mortimer’s cattle were shipped by rail to Baltimore and loaded on tramp steamers bound for Liverpool to satisfy Britain’s hunger for beef.  Before those steamers would leave the harbor, the ship companies insisted that there be one man on board for every 20 head of cattle as caretakers. The largest steamers held about 600 head and the smaller ones about 350 head.

Loading Cattle on a Steamship

The quality of purebred stock produced by the Stanton Breeding farm led to an appreciation of Thomas Mortimer’s knowledge of livestock among the leading breeders of the middle West, and his services as a judge were sought for years in the show rings of the International Live Stock Exposition, Chicago, the Lewis & Clark Show, Portland, and the American Royal, Kansas City.   Thomas Mortimer served on the board of directors and helped to organize the first National Western Stock Show at Denver, Colorado on January 26, 1906.  He attended this show every year for many years, and exhibited stock from his choice herds of Hereford cattle.

1907 National Western Stock Show, Denver, Colorado


Hereford bulls at the 1907 National Western Stock Show, Denver, Colorado
Thomas and Harriet Mortimer with their children

Thomas Mortimer was married to Harriet Porter Felt on March 26, 1887. Three children, Honor, George and Mary (Mrs. Harrison Barr of Stanton) were born to them.  After the death of his first wife, Thomas Mortimer married her sister, Mrs. Mertilla McCurdy, on February 16, 1898. They had one son, Hugh of Norfolk, Nebraska. A family gathering at the ranch on August 17, 1926, honored Mr. Mortimer’s 68th birthday and was attended by his 4 children, 5 stepchildren, and 20 grandchildren. The stepsons and daughters were D.W. McCurdy of Cedar Rapids, Mrs. Norman Ochsner and Thomas McCurdy of Madison, Mrs. Walter Barr of Stanton, and Mrs. George M. Dewey of Los Angeles.

Gathering of Thomas Mortimer’s family, possibly for the celebration of his 68th birthday on August 17, 1926

Ten years after Mortimer took over management of the ranch, and just when it was starting to build its nationwide reputation for purebred cattle, Marshall Field died. The old estate of 15 sections in Stanton County was put up for sale and in 1907 Mortimer bought 2 ¼  sections of the land himself, including the 22-room ranch house and the acres on which Wood & Bancroft’s Omaha Ranch bordered the Marshall Field Ranch on the west.

In 1916 Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer built a home in Leigh and retired from the ranch.  At his retirement Thomas Mortimer sold the last remaining section of land to his sons, Honor and George Mortimer, who continued their father’s business for several years.  Enjoying a comfortable home at Leigh Mortimer retained an active interest in civic and business affairs.   He was a director of the Madison National Bank and for 20 years was President of the First National Bank of Leigh. Another of Thomas Mortimer’s hobbies was furthering the interests of the Colfax County Fair, which featured livestock exhibits. Thomas Mortimer died on September 8th, 1940 and Mrs. Mertilla Mortimer passed away March 15, 1942.

At its peak around 1895 the Marshall Field/Mortimer ranch produced 4,000 to 5,000 head of cattle per year on 10,000 acres of land.  Most of the ranch’s land was used for grazing, and the grain needed to feed the cattle in the stock pens came from area farms.  Thomas Mortimer purchased thousands of bushels of corn from nearby farmers at 9 cents a bushel.  At one time, when he had 6,600 head of cattle on feed and 30,500 sheep, there were 220,000 bushels of corn in the cribs and 100,000 bushels of corn piled out on the ground.  But the local farmers realized that they could make more money feeding their grain to their own cattle, at which point the big ranches could no longer get the amount of corn and oats they needed.

With the passing years the size of the original Marshall Field/Mortimer ranch was gradually reduced, sold off to farmers.  In 1928, Longin Soušek, a Bohemian farmer from south of Clarkson, purchased the half section containing the original Marshall Field buildings which had been occupied by Honor Mortimer and his family.  The new owner broke up the long-used pastures in order to pursue general farming.  At that point only one half section of the original Oberlin College grant still remained in the Mortimer family.  It was owned by George Mortimer, the second son who, inheriting something of his father’s love for the cattle game, had established himself as a breeder in Hereford lines.  Of course, over the years the properties changed owners – for example, the acreage with the ranch building reverted back to one of the Mortimer descendants and was farmed by them until the late 1960s.  But the era of the large cattle ranches was over.  The old buildings, including the impressive ranch house, were torn down in 1979.

The old song goes “Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends, oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends, one man likes to push a plow, the other likes to chase a cow, but that’s no reason why they can’t be friends“ (from the musical Oklahoma, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein).  As they vied for the best use of the land in the early 20th century, the Stanton County farmers eventually won out over the cattlemen.  By the 1930s, the rambunctious cowboys from the Bilby/Wisherd Ranch had moved on, and the Marshall Field/Mortimer ranch had been divided up into small tracts and sold to Bohemian and German farmers.

The experiences of Colfax and Stanton County farmers and ranchers fit neatly into the history of Nebraska.  During the first years of the settlement of northern Nebraska, great herds of Texas cattle were driven across the country to railroad sidings along the Platte River or all the way to the Niobrara River to provide beef to the Indians (but see John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks). The herds were allowed to cross the farms of the settlers, trampling the crops.  Where they had passed the ground was pressed so hard it required a re-plowing. No satisfaction was given the settlers for this destruction of their crops, and little complaint was made; the cattlemen carried arms, and were too ready to use them.

As summarized by the 1939 WPA Guide to our state, “The disappearance of the open ranges was the final step in the settlement of Nebraska.  The Indians, pioneers, and cowboys were succeeded by the dirt farmers and the latter-day cattle raisers.  Railroad branch lines were laid where bridle paths had been; log cabins and sod houses gave way to neat frame dwellings. Slow ox teams were replaced by draft horses.  The exploitation of agricultural resources had begun.”


The images and information about the Marshall Fields/Mortimer Ranch were taken from a variety of published sources, especially the online digital archives of the Stanton Register newspaper and James Reininger’s Facebook site: History of the Marshall Field Ranch, aka the Stanton County Breeding Farm. James Reininger also provided photographs and information about his ancestors, the Thomas Mortimer family. James Reininger Photography

Ramonyca Brown, who is also related to the Mortimer family, shared information and memories of her grandfather, James Hanel (1891-1984), who grew up in the Dimick Township of Stanton County near to the Bilby/Wisherd Ranch.  Sharon Steinberger shared the memoirs of her Great-Grandfather, Anton Odvarka, Sr. (1866-1929).

This story became so long that I ran out of space to speculate on the origins of the Chicken Ranch Road, a famous (among teenagers) mile-long dirt road some 3 miles north of Clarkson. Perhaps in some future post.  I don’t know whether CRR has any connection to the Bilby/Wisherd Ranch, but it would have run along the south side of that property.  Thanks to Ken Hamsa, Dan Karel, and Mark Molaček for confirming my fading memories of its location.

Finally, special thanks to Fred Baumert, who alerted me to the cornucopia of information in the online digital archives of the Stanton Register –  Both his ancestors and mine were farmers within shooting distance of the notorious Bilby/Wisherd Ranch.


Anonymous. 1912.  Compendium of History, Reminiscence and Biography of Nebraska.  Alden Publishing Co., Chicago, IL.

Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Nebraska, “Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State.  (WPA Guide)” (1939). Nebraskiana Publications 2.

Fremont Tribune. 1940.  Thomas Mortimer Dies at Leigh.  September 11, 1940.

Haileyville Herald 1919.  Largest Landowner Dies – Wealthy Man Steps In Front of On-coming Train At Catoosa.  Thursday, December 4, 1919.

Kuhle, Mrs. Chas. R. 1928.  Marshall Field Plays Important Part in the Building Up of Northeast Nebraska and the Purebred Hereford Cattle. The Stanton Register, April 5, 1928 and The Leigh World, April 13, 1928.

National Western Stock Show.  Historical photos from 1906-1915.

The Schuyler Sun. 1928.  Writer’s Interview with Thos. Mortimer of Leigh, Recalls Old Grazing Days.  July 12, 1928.

Close-Up Views of the Marshall Field/Mortimer Ranch

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s | 22 Comments

Home on the Range – Part 1. Cattle Ranching in Colfax County

The immigrant farmers who began arriving in the Clarkson area in the late 1860s saw a land of almost limitless promise.  The waist-high prairie grasses that covered the rolling hills for mile after mile were rooted in rich, deep, black loess soils.  Once broken by the plow, this land could produce far higher yields of agricultural crops than the soils of Europe and the Eastern U.S.  

Photo courtesy of Prairie Plains Resource Institute –

But the cattlemen looked at the same rich grasses and saw opportunity as well.  Endless grasslands, that once sustained an estimated 60 million American bison, were now emptying and waiting for hungry Texas Longhorn cattle.

Cattle Drive on the Chisholm Trail

From 1865 until the mid-1890s massive cattle drives brought herds of longhorns from Texas to the railroads in Kansas and Nebraska, from where they were loaded on trains and shipped to the slaughterhouses in Chicago and points east.  One of the earliest of the great routes followed the Chisholm Trail from southern Texas to railyards in Abilene, KS ( ).  But in 1869 the newly built Union Pacific Railroad made a bid for Texas cattle.  When the cattlemen got a better shipping rate from the UP they extended the Chisholm Trail to Schuyler, Nebraska.  Schuyler, which in 1870 was little more than a handful of wooden shacks and cattle pens along a railroad siding, became Nebraska’s first Cowtown.  That year over 35,000 head of cattle were loaded onto Union Pacific railroad cars in Schuyler.  The cattle bound for Schuyler had walked north from as far as South Texas, through Oklahoma, Kansas and southern Nebraska.  They tramped through Butler County, which was already well populated by settlers, before coming up against the wide Platte River.  After managing to cross the Platte (presumably it was already “a mile wide and an inch deep” in those days), they had the wide, flat, grassy river basin in which to rest and recuperate before being driven through cattle pens and chutes onto cattle cars for their train trip to the East.

Cattle Loading Chute on a Railroad Siding – Photo by Dorothea Lange

Anyone who has watched an old western movie about a trail drive (“Red River” starring John Wayne is the best one) knows what an arduous and dangerous activity it was for cow and cowboy alike.  But the impact of herds of longhorns trampling the croplands of peaceful farmers is rarely mentioned.  In his history of Butler County, Nebraska, Brown (1892) noted: 

The long debated question, “whether it is better to fence crops in and stock out, or vice versa” was solved here by severing the Gordian knot with the keen-edged sword of necessity. There being nothing to build fences with, fences were not built, and lo, it is forthwith discovered that we can do very well without them. Such few animals as are required for immediate domestic use are retained in the desired locality by means of a lariat, one extremity of which is fastened around the neck or horns of the animal, and the other to a stake which is firmly driven in the ground. But much the greater portion of the cattle are gathered in herds, from 50 to 300 or 400 in number, and placed under the control of a boy with a pony. This system of caring for stock is found to be every way superior to the costly and cumbersome affairs of pastures and lanes.

Only a few years since an occasional one of the immense Texan or Cherokee herds was driven as far east as Butler county, passing to and fro, from creek to creek, to the imminent danger and frequent destruction of the small but precious corn fields and gardens by these lank, long-horned, fierce-natured creatures.  It fell upon a certain well-remembered day in the summer of 1872, that these chivalrous, freckled -faced sons of the sunny south were put to utter rout and confusion, since which time the voice of the Texan herder has been heard in the land no more.

An intensely dismal, blinding fog had succeeded a fearful night storm, which had the effect to stampede several thousand “steers,” and disperse them over the plain and hills in every conceivable direction. The word was passed from mouth to mouth, steeds were mounted and caparisoned, and then ensued such a carnage as one might wish not soon again to see.  In short, several hundred of the aforementioned creatures were ruthlessly slain, butchered, and packed away in various receptacles, the flesh to be eaten and the hides to be sliced into lariats at some convenient season. In valley, on hill, and all over the plain they fell at the hand of the exasperated settler.

Suffice it to say, arrests, prosecutions, and threatenings followed in due course of business, but for some occult reason no one was convicted, and although the strict morality of the proceeding is questionable, it had the effect to rid the community of an abomination, both as regards the fierce, unruly nature of the cattle, and certain disagreeable propensities of the “herders.”

Schuyler’s bovine supremacy didn’t last long – after a couple of years the trail drives moved westward to railyards in Kearney, Ogallala, and Dodge City.  Although the trail drives dried up, the broad, flat Platte River Valley just north of Schuyler continued to support large herds of cattle and sheep for years afterwards.

Funk’s Sheep Ranch near Schuyler, Nebraska (from Maas et al. 2014)

For example, this 1916 photograph of Funk’s Sheep Ranch, located near Schuyler (which can be seen in the background), had many hundreds of sheep in pens.  Another sheep ranch in the area owned by A.J. Knowlin and Company had about 50,000 sheep from the 1890s until the early 1900s (Maas et al. 2014).

As related by the 1939 WPA Guide to Nebraska, the ranchers seized upon the good herding grounds and built their ranches on every available watercourse, to the exclusion of actual settlers.  The cattle, however, were no longer the rangy Texas longhorns and the immense wild herds that figured in the early roundups, but rather the more substantial beef and dairy types and smaller droves unaccustomed to the open prairie and more closely herded.  These ranches were not the “open range” style of western stories, but rather involved planting large acreages in crops and constructing of barns and stock yards to sustain large numbers of “feeder cattle.”   

Shocks of grain at the Fuller Ranch, north of Schuyler, Nebraska

The Fuller Ranch was good example of the Colfax County feeder cattle operations in the first 50 years after the founding of Schuyler.  Morris E. Fuller, a wealthy manufacturer of gasoline engines (e.g., the Fuller and Johnson Hit and Miss Engines – ), acquired 2,000 acres of undeveloped prairie north of Schuyler before 1876.  He built a mansion and several ranch buildings on the six sections of land (on the southwest side of the present-day Fullers Hill), and operated a cattle ranch until he died in 1919 (Maas et al. 2014).  His foreman, Alexander Legge, was responsible for breaking 700 acres of virgin sod to grow feedstock, building fences and barns, providing water for the livestock, purchasing and maintaining machinery, and traveling around Nebraska and nearby states to purchase feeder cattle (Ernstes et al. 2007).

Landowners in the southern portion of Grant Township, Colfax County, NE in 1917.

The 1917 plat map above shows properties owned by the M.E. Fuller family in Sections 27, 28, 33, and 34 of Grant Township. Shell Creek can be seen running across the map through these sections in a southeasterly direction, eventually joining the Platte River west of Rogers. Present day Highway 15 runs north out of Schuyler between Sections 26 and 27. Old Timers may remember how the road used to curve to the west on the northeast corner of Section 27 in order to negotiate the steepest part of Fullers Hill.

M.E. Fuller with his second wife, Ann Heritage-Fuller at their ranch house. (from Maas et al. 2014)

The death of this wealthy rancher and banker  in 1919 touched off a bitter dispute among his heirs, as reported by the Colfax County Press.  Annie Heritage had been employed as a nurse for Mr. Fuller for about 7 years.  On Sept. 14, 1916, when Mr. Fuller was 95 years old, he married Miss Heritage.  On April 5, 1917 he transferred land and bank stocks to his new wife.  Fuller’s children offered evidence that Mr. Fuller was not mentally competent to know what he was doing when he married her or transferred his bank stocks to her.  They sued to cut her out of the will.  In July 1921 the U.S. District Court found in favor of Mrs. Annie Fuller, allowing the nurse-widow to retain all of the bank stocks and personal property, valued at $50,000.

These large land holdings were whittled down over the ensuing years. The ranches were broken up and sold to smaller farmers.  The February 23, 1922 issue of the Colfax County Press reported the sale of the Fuller Ranch: “The stock sale of Wolfe and Ehrenberger held on the old Fuller ranch last Friday was one of the biggest events of its kind ever held in Colfax County.   The offering consisted of 60 head of horses and mules, 100 head of stock cattle and 100 head of brood sows, together with a great amount of farm implements. The selling began at 10 o’clock and shortly after 4 o’clock the last animal was sold.  The total of the sale reached almost $17,000.
From the standpoint of selling, the auctioneers, Hawe, Schmid and Vanderkolk, established a record, not only in rapid and good selling, but in the handling of such an immense crowd. Many estimated the attendance at 2,000 people and at not less than 500 automobiles. Mr. Wolfe had prepared generously for lunch but when the noon hour arrived and fully 2,000 people were on hand, to be fed, messengers were sent to Schuyler and all lunch eatables in the city were purchased and even with this, many were not supplied.  Mr. Wolfe regrets exceedingly that his estimate of the crowd was too low. While no exceedingly high tops were recorded for the day, the stock all sold well. A team at $375 was the top of the horses, but the offering would average well toward $150 per head for the entire lot.  Stock cows held an average of about $60 per head and brood sows were near $50 per head average.”

The cattleman-homesteader feuds of the late 1870s in west-central Nebraska were marked by wire-cutting, killing, rustling, and general lawlessness.  But the transition from ranching to farming seems to have proceeded relatively peacefully in Colfax County.  By the time that the Texas cattle drives to Schuyler were ending, much of the land in central Colfax County was already in the hands of farmers – Civil War veterans and other Easterners and increasing numbers of European immigrants, who were acquiring their land via the Homestead Act and the purchase of railroad lands.  Their plows moved steadily north and west, such that the best available land for large-scale ranching in the final years of the 19th Century was north of Clarkson, in Stanton and Madison counties.  The large land holdings in these counties (e.g., Bilby, Wisherd, and Mortimer ranches) and their rambunctious cowboys had an enduring effect on the fortunes and memories of the peaceful residents of Clarkson.  Their story will be treated in the next episode – Home on the Range – Part 2.  Cattle Ranching In Stanton County.


Brown, Charles L. 1892.  The History of Butler County.  Pages 375-305 IN: Transactions and Reports of the Nebraska State Historical Society. Volume IV.  State Journal Company, Printers, Lincoln, NE.

Cattle Drives.  Texas Almanac.

Ernstes, D.P, R.J. Hildreth, and R.D. Knutson. 2007.  Farm Foundation.  75 Years as a Catalyst to Agriculture and Rural America.  Farm Foundation, Oak Brook, IL file:///C:/Users/gfpmc/Downloads/FarmFoundation.pdf

Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Nebraska, “Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State.  (WPA Guide)” (1939). Nebraskiana Publications 2.

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s | 25 Comments

From Bohemia to Zion – The Zion Church Story

Zion Church, rural Colfax County, Nebraska

On an early autumn day in 1870, a group of weary travelers arrived in northeastern Colfax County, Nebraska on covered wagons.  Six Bohemian and Moravian families had just made an exhausting 370-mile journey on horse- and oxen-drawn wagons from Ely, Iowa to their homestead claims southeast of Clarkson.  Their 65-year old leader, Jan Novotný, looked around the featureless prairie, spread out his hands, and said: “Děti, toto je země zaslíbená” – Children, this is the Promised Land!  The eight members of the Jan Novotný family, along with the families of Josef Smatlan, Antonin Kunhart, František Zrust, Josef Dudek, and Josef Vitek, would be numbered among the founders of the Zion Evangelical Church, the first Czech Presbyterian church in Nebraska.

Journey to Nebraska

As related by Jan’s grandson, Charles J. Novotný, the immigrants’ journey from the Old World to the Promised Land near Clarkson was a difficult one.  Jan Novotný had been conscripted to serve in the Austrian army whenever needed over a 14-year period.  The thought of his sons also having to serve the Empire in endless wars, coupled with insufficient land for them all to farm, led the family to emigrate to America.  In 1856 they sold their small tract of land near Chrudim and boarded a steamship for New York City.  From there they traveled to their first home near Cedar Rapids, Iowa – 30 acres of timber land that they had to clear.  In addition to farming the cleared land, Jan worked as a hired laborer and his wife Terezie spun flax to make their own clothing.  Nevertheless, after a year of hard work they were unable to afford a milk cow or draft animals for field work.  So they decided to join up with other Czech families in the area to move on to Nebraska, where the land was “fertile and free of timber… and practically being given away.”

In 1870, 65-year-old Jan Novotný, his 45-year-old wife Terezie, and their 6 children sold their Iowa farm, rigged two covered wagons, and set out on the four-week, 370-mile journey to their new life.  Together with the other five families, there were seven wooden covered wagons in the caravan.  Along the way there were many breakdowns and accidents.  When they ferried across the Missouri River they found the streets of Omaha to be very muddy.  The wagons pulled hard and the cattle following the wagons were hard to drive.  Terezie climbed out of the wagon to help; she was barefooted and while in deep mud well-dressed men standing in the dry along the sidelines made fun of her.  They traveled along the Platte River Valley and arrived at their homestead claims on September 27, 1870.  They had entered a different world.  Frustrated by the amount of timber they had had to clear on their Iowa farm, they were now inhabiting a featureless grassland.  Owing to frequent wildfires, there were no trees within several miles of their settlements.  One of Jan’s children remembered a stand of wild plum bushes that grew on a steep bank where the fire could not reach; these woody shrubs were several miles to the northwest of their home in an area that local wits referred to as the “Clarkson Mountain” or “Bohemian Alps.”   In this land of promise, they endured numerous deprivations, including a prairie fire in the first year that destroyed much of the grass fodder for their cattle, the need to supply their stove with dried grass and weeds in the absence of wood, and plagues of locusts. But they endured and prevailed, comforted by hope and their faith in God.

It is supposed that while in Linn County, Iowa the Novotnýs worshipped with fellow Protestants at the First Bohemian and Moravian Brethren Church, founded in 1858 in the countryside west of Ely. (This congregation joined with the Presbyterian Church USA in 1958 and is now known as the First Presbyterian Church near Ely, Iowa).  The Rev. František Kun was their first ordained minister; he accepted the call on October 1, 1890 at an annual salary of $60.  He served this congregation for over 30 years, during which time he also helped found at least 10 Czech congregations and churches in Iowa and surrounding states.  By all accounts Rev. Kun was a remarkable, beloved pastor.  One resident of Linn County wrote “Their leader and minister was a man of grace, of purity of character, and rare and scholarly attainments.  His name was Frank Kun.  He was a great preacher and a great teacher.  For a time he held the chair of Greek and Latin at Western College, but as his congregation increased he devoted all of his time to his people.  His congregation was entirely of the rural class.  He loved his people and in turn was loved by them.  His congregation was one of the best Bohemian congregations in the United States; his sermons were masterpieces of art and beauty, full of religious fervor, stately dignity and depth.”

But the families who moved on to Nebraska left all this behind, settling in a land without churches or ordained ministers.  From the first, the Protestant families gathered in the home of Jan Novotný for Sunday services – the reading of Scriptures, prayers, and sometimes printed sermons.  One of the members recalled those home services: “In the days before Zion or New Zion were built, on the Sabbath we would come together around the kitchen table.  Papa would lead us in singing (often a psalm or Bohemian hymn) then Papa would read from the Holy Bible and explain its meaning or he would read from a book of sermons passed around to various families; then we would sing again, and offer our own free prayers; then we would sing again and conclude with a blessing.  Sometimes our home services included the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed, but not always.  Everyone was to read from the Bible sometime during the day.  It was a wonderful day.  Nobody worked.  Mama had even prepared the meals the day before. We just enjoyed each other and our Lord Jesus.  Yet, we all longed to hear a faithful preacher of the Gospel.”

Between 1875 and 1889 Rev. Kun came once or twice a year to preach, baptize, and observe the Lord’s Supper among the former members of his flock who had moved to Nebraska.  If he came alone on horseback he brought a Baptismal Bowl and a Communion Cup made of crystal and packed in a special saddlebag for traveling. His arrival always meant a celebration of festive meals and Divine Services.  “Sometimes worship was held in someone’s home with only a few people present.  When the weather was good and larger numbers of people came, we worshipped in a barn or open area, or in a schoolhouse.  Sometimes as many as 10 or 12 babies were baptized and sometimes we baptized an adult who had come to the Lord and to believe our evangelical faith.  We would listen to the preaching (as long as two hours sometimes) and then we would all eat a meal, visit, and the children would play.  It was a happy time with good friends and neighbors and Christian fellowship.”

A Church is Built

As the numbers of Protestant settlers increased, other homes were opened and other leaders led the services.  Most frequently mentioned were Vincent Totušek, František Fajmon, Pankrac Husak, Anton Kunhart, Josef Husak, František Štĕrba, Terezie Novotna, and Jan Petr, Sr.  There was a genuine feeling of closeness among these fellow Christians – the first dugouts, sod houses, and simple frame houses of the homesteaders were tiny.  For example, Pancrac Husak, who was a forester in Moravia, came to the treeless grasslands and bought enough wood to construct a 14’ X 16’ cabin for his family of five.  A few miles to the south, in the adjacent Midland Township, houses measured 10’ X 16’ (John Pokorny’s family of 4, which expanded to 9), 12’ X 26’ (Jan and Klara Lapaček’s family of 7), 14’ X 22’ (William Heun’s family of 9), 20’ X 28’ (John Folda’s family of 7), and a grand 24’ X 27’ (Joseph Sobota’s family of 9).  Feeling the growing pains, they began to hold their worship services in nearby schoolhouses – the Husak School (a sod schoolhouse), and Districts 14 (Koniček School), 38 (Lone Star School), and 53 (Petr School).

Homestead House of Frank Novotný

In 1875 Josef Smatlan donated two acres of land for a cemetery.  That same year, Rev. Kun’s first visit to the area included the dedication of the Zion Church Cemetery.  By the late 1880s there were over 100 members of the worship community, and the settlers began contemplating constructing a church next to the cemetery and, at some future time, a manse (parsonage) to house a permanent pastor.  Early in 1887, Joseph Novotný (one of the sons of Jan Novotný) donated land adjacent to the cemetery for a building site for a church and manse.  At a meeting held on June 26, 1887 it was decided to formally organize a congregation.  Officers and elders of the new congregation were John Petr, Sr. (President), Frank J. Novotný (Treasurer), Joseph A. Husak (Clerk), Frank Totušek (elder), and Frank Zastera (elder).  It was also decided that the congregation would be called Zion Evangelical Church (Evangelical being the term for Reformed churches in Europe), aka the Zion Bohemian-Moravian Brethren Church.

Construction of the Zion Church began almost immediately.  The building was designed by M.D. Flechor, a Czech architect, and built at a cost of $1,594.20.  A formal description of the building is taken from the National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form:  The frame church measures 48 feet by 28 feet.  It sits on a brick foundation, features a gabled roof, and has a central entrance tower which has a cast iron bell.  Zion Church is of simple design with corner pilasters and round-arched windows providing some ornamentation.  A side entrance into the church and a cellar entryway to the basement are located on the east façade of the structure.  A miniscule rose window set into the tower carries through with the curvilinear design of the window and front door hoods.

At the time of the nomination (1987) the interior of the church was in near original condition.  Tongue and groove wainscoting lines much of the chancel area, which displays a more elaborate paneling ornamented with arches set in relief.  A chancel rail is also faced with this same motif, as is the balcony balustrade.  The altar, pews, and light fixtures were all original to the structure, however the ceiling has been covered with asbestos tiles.  A center aisle leading to the chancel area separates the nave, which can be closed off from the vestibule with double doors.  A stairway in the southwest corner of the church rises to the balcony.  From the balcony, access to the belfry is gained through a door above the vestibule.  The church sits over a full basement which houses a furnace room and a large social hall.

Chancel and Altar of Zion Church
Zion Church and manse after 1893

A manse to house a pastor was constructed in 1893.  After the water well on the church property went dry the manse was moved to an area farmstead in March, 1954.

Zion Church and cemetery after 1893

Unfortunately, the members of the Evangelical community were divided over the best site of the new church building.  Some wanted it to be located next to the existing cemetery, whereas others believed it should be located in the new town of Clarkson.  In a meeting at the Koza schoolhouse on February 6, 1888 a group decided to build the New Zion Church in Clarkson.  Both church buildings were dedicated by Rev. Kun in 1889.  Jan Novotný, one of the original settlers and founders of the congregation, died at age 93 in 1888, just before the dedication.  His was the first funeral held in the new church; he was the 8th person to be buried in the Zion Cemetery.

While there was a disagreement over the proper location for the church, there was an amicable “yoking” of the two congregations through the sharing of ministers from the period 1890-1913 and again from 1971-1975.  Shared ministers were Rev. Vaclav Losa (1890-1900) Rev. Anton Paulu (missionary from Wahoo), and Rev. Anton Svoboda (1901-1913).  Rev. Losa persuaded the two congregations to join the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1898.  Zion Presbyterian Church got its own pastor, Rev. F.B. Paroulek, in the Spring of 1915.  In 1920 Rev. Joseph Havlik filled the Zion pastorate.

Rev. Vaclav Losa

Over the years there was a succession of visiting ministers, resident pastors, and shared pastors (see the timeline below and the Clarkson Centennial Book for details).  The first resident pastor was Rev. Vaclav Losa, who served the church both as a divinity student (briefly in 1890) and later as an ordained minister (1894-1900).  He was an energetic and greatly admired pastor.  Rev. Losa put all the records of pioneer births, baptisms, and memberships in order, taught Sunday school and confirmation classes, organized choirs, and baptized, married, and buried the members of his congregation.  He convinced the faithful to join the Presbyterian Church USA.  During the pastorate of Rev. Losa, people from as far as 6 miles away walked or rode wagons to join the newly organized Zion church.   A number of young people who had received catechetical and biblical instruction were received into full communion of the church, so that membership expanded greatly during his time.

Rev. Anton Svoboda

In the autumn of 1900 Rev. Losa left to take charge of mission work in Pennsylvania.  He was replaced by Rev. Anton Svoboda, who continued the work of ministering to and evangelizing the local rural population.  Numerous Christians were baptized and confirmed while he was pastor.  There was a rigorous use of the Heidelberger Katechismus to prepare young people for membership in the church and their first reception of the Lord’s Supper.  The Heidelberg Catechism was a document for teaching Calvinist Christian doctrine in the form of questions and answers to be memorized.  One of Rev. Svoboda’s confirmands remembered: “Friday night after chores Father would get out the Catechism and go over the questions and answers we were to learn.  Every Saturday morning Rev. Svoboda had catechism class.  I had to walk 4 ½ miles to the church and you mustn’t miss or Rev. Svoboda would give you a talkin’ to.  It was even worse if you didn’t know your lesson, especially when one of the elders was there – he sometimes threatened to box our ears – but I don’t remember anyone having gotten that done.  Mostly, they were kind to us and helpful.“  Another confirmand recalled: “When the great day arrived, I dressed in my new suit made by a Clarkson tailor.  Each of us wore a flower and sat in the front of the church facing the congregation and elders.  When the time came, each of us answered one question from the catechism put to us by an elder and a second question put to us by Rev. Svoboda.  We were nervous and frightened a little.  Rev. Svoboda could appear to be very stern but really, he let us know which questions were going to be asked of us.  Still my tongue got all tied up, but they forgave us.  After the examination we received the Lord’s Supper standing in a circle.  Men on one side, ladies on the other.  The men were served first.  An elder came around with the Holy Bread to eat and then Rev. Svoboda came with the Holy Cup.  We all drank from the same cup in those days.  Some of the ladies and girls didn’t like it though because the men’s whiskers sometimes got into the cup.  We all felt pretty grown up when we were done.

Zion Church congregation ca 1916

Gradual Decline

Rev. Svoboda left in 1913 and the congregation continued to be served by a succession of Czech pastors – Rev. B.A. Filipi, Rev. Frederick Paroulek, Rev. Joseph Havlik, and Rev. William Kovar.  But nonetheless, with time the congregation gradually lost its Old Country character and became acculturated to the New World.  The Evangelical Bohemian-Moravian Brethren became Presbyterians, and by the 1940s the English language had supplanted Czech in their services.  They celebrated anniversaries in 1927, 1937, 1947, and 1958.  Beginning in 1952 the pulpit was manned by ministers with English surnames, visiting ministers from nearby towns, and laymen. 

With time, the rural population around the church decreased and mobility increased, and inevitably membership in the Zion church declined.  Membership decreased from 125 in 1887 to 100 in 1894, 67 in the late 1950s, 45 in 1966, and 25 in the mid-1970s.  By the late 1960s worship services had become less frequent, and on December 28, 1975 the Zion Church held its last corporate worship service.  In 1987 the church was briefly opened again to celebrate its 100th anniversary.  The Zion Presbyterian Church met the same fate as many other rural churches in Colfax County – among them the Bethlehem Chapel and the Catholic parishes at Tabor, Dry Creek, and Wilson.

Zion Church service in 1966

Photographs of the Zion Church Centennial Celebration in 1987

Rev. William Nottage-Tacey conducts Zion Church’s centennial celebration service – 1987
Baptism of Teri Lee Pickhinke – 1987

Although the church building was no longer used, the adjoining cemetery was maintained and the faithful continue to be buried there. The Zion Church Preservation Society was formed in 1985 “to preserve and restore the church building and the church site of the former Zion Presbyterian Church and to promote the welfare and best historic interest of the former Zion Church.”  Among other things, the organization nominated the church building and cemetery for listing in the National Register of History Places, which was accomplished on January 7, 1988.

For many years the church building has sat empty, a sad witness to times gone by.  It has slowly deteriorated – the paint was peeling, the old roof leaked and animals made their homes inside.  It has been vulnerable to theft and vandalism. 

Happily, in 2019 the property was acquired by Lynette Vesely, a local woman whose ancestors once farmed nearby.  She determined that the building is structurally sound, and she and her family (Shannon Parsons, Darlene Vesely, and Shane Vesely) have begun restoration with the intention of converting it into a chapel, event space, and a Bed & Breakfast – the Bohemian Chapel and B&B, LLC –   Lynette plans to carefully restore the interior as close to its original appearance as she can, consistent with its new uses.  It will be a monumental task, but as of this writing they have put a new roof on the church, halting further deterioration.  Lord willing, someday we may once again hear the church bell chime in the belfry, see the bright and shiny interior of the Zion Church, and recall the hopes and prayers of its Believers.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 – For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…


1870 – Six families, led by Jan Novotný, leave Ely, Iowa for homesteads in Colfax County, Nebraska

1875 – Josef Smatlan donated two acres of land for a cemetery

1875 – Rev. Francis Kun began visits to former members of his congregation in Nebraska

1887 – Early in the year Joseph Novotný donated land for a building site for a church and manse

1887 – Meeting to form the Zion congregation on June 26, 1887

1887 – Construction of the Zion Evangelical Church commenced

1888 – Meeting to form the New Zion congregation in Clarkson on February 6, 1888

1889 – Zion Evangelical Church dedicated

1889 – New Zion Church constructed for $900 and dedicated by Rev. Kun

1893 – Manse (parsonage) for Zion Evangelical Church constructed

1894 – Rev. Vaclav Losa named pastor (1894-1900)

1901 – Rev. Anton Svoboda named pastor (1901-1913)

1913 – Rev. B.A. Filipi named pastor of New Zion Church in Clarkson and ministered to Zion church from 1913-1915

1915 – Rev. F.B. Paroulek named pastor (1915-1919)

1920 – Rev. Joseph Havlik named pastor (1920 – 1938).

1927 – 40th Anniversary of Zion congregation was celebrated on October 2, 1927

1937 – 50th Anniversary of the Zion congregation celebrated

1939 – Rev. William V. Kovar named pastor (1939-1945)

1946 – Rev. B.A. Filipi appointed moderator and conducted services at Zion (1946-1951)

1952 – Rev. John Patterson of Schuyler appointed moderator

1953 – Rev. Harold Wilson appointed pastor of Zion, Bethlehem Chapel, and Webster churches

1954 – Rev. Clarence Newquist appointed pastor and provided with a manse at Bethlehem Chapel

1954 – Manse was moved to an area farmstead in March

1975 – Last worship service was held on December 28, 1975

1985 – Zion Preservation Society, Inc. was formed to preserve the church building and church site

1987 – Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the founding of Zion Church

1988 – Zion Presbyterian Church and Zion Cemetery listed in the National Registry of Historic Places on January 7, 1988


Many thanks to Willard Horak, Alice Teply, and Lynette Vesely, who provided historical materials and photographs.  Lynette Vesely continues to collect historical materials for the church.  If anyone has stories or photos to share with her, please contact her at


Anonymous. New Zion Presbyterian Church – Centennial History. 1888-1988. Clarkson, Nebraska

Brewer, L.A. and B.L. Wick. 1911.  History of Linn County, Iowa.  From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time.  The Torch Press, Cedar Rapids, IA.

Clarkson Centennial Book Committee. 1987.  Clarkson Centennial Book 1886-1986.  Clarkson, Nebraska.  407 pages.

Clarkson Diamond Jubilee Book – 1886-1961.  Ludi Printing Company, Wahoo, Nebraska. 104 pages.

First Presbyterian Church near Ely, Iowa –  (photos of church in Ely)

Graves Listing (burials from 1888-1976) – Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Colfax County, Nebraska.

Howells Journal. 1927.  Presbyterians Observe Anniversary. Friday, October 7, 1927. 

Mrazek, Jaroslav. 1974.  Czech Protestants in Nebraska. In:  Czech Churches in Nebraska –  České Kostely v Nebrasce.  Vladimir Kucera (ed.)

National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Zion Presbyterian Church NeHBS #CX00-12.

Novotný, Charles J. 1961.  Among the Earliest Settlers.  Clarkson Diamond Jubilee Book. Ludi Printing Company, Wahoo, NE. 

Posted in 1890s | 14 Comments

Comenius on the Prairie

One of the modest heirlooms that has been passed down through my wife’s family is a worn, old prayer book.  It came to us from Phyllis’ grandmother, Mary Mastný Roether, who was born in 1891 on the family farm, 2.5 miles southwest of Clarkson.  Mary’s immigrant parents, John Mastný and Antonia Zrust Mastný came to Nebraska with their families in 1877 and settled in northern Colfax County.  They were God-fearing, Christian pioneers who worshipped the Lord in their homes, schoolhouses, and, after 1888, at the newly built Zion Evangelical Church out on Highway 15.  The Mastný’s farm was 4.7 miles straight west of the Zion Church.  The family traveled to Sunday services by horse and wagon, and in summers when she was a young girl Mary Mastný walked to the church every day for catechism classes.

Farm home of John Mastný Family, 2.5 miles southwest of Clarkson, Nebraska
John Mastný family, ca. 1893: Tony, Antonia (holding Mary), Anna, John Sr., and John Jr.

The children of John and Antonia Zrust Mastný: Mary in front and Anna, Tony, and John in back

John Mastný’s first wife died in 1895, leaving him to care for four small children.  She was buried at the Zion Cemetery (along with a host of other Zrusts).  In 1896 he married Antonia Empenger (in Czech, Antonia Empenkrová), also a member of the Zion Church.  Antonia Empenger had emigrated from her native Moravia to Ely, Iowa, and then to Clarkson, Nebraska.

The prayer book was passed down from Antonia Empenger Mastný to her stepdaughter Mary, and ultimately to us.  It is a cantional – a hymnbook, a collection of spiritual psalms and songs that was published in Brno, Moravia in 1881.  Antonia Empenger was born in Telecí, Moravia in 1874 and immigrated to the United States at the age of 17.  It is possible that the hardbound book was one of the few possessions she brought with her from the homeland.

John and Antonia Empenger Mastný    


Antonia’s cantional is bound with a heavy, black, leather-on-cardboard cover.  The cover is embossed with numerous decorative designs, the most prominent of which is a (onetime) gold chalice on the front cover.  The 1,000 pages of prayers, psalms, and song lyrics are printed in a combination of Czech words and an old Fraktur-like Germanic font that make it a real headache to translate.   Even without knowing its provenance, the chalice on the cover and the Czech, rather than Latin, text tips off the reader that this is a Protestant prayer book.  The chalice became the symbol of the Hussite reformers (Utraquists) who pressed for communion under both species (wine as well as bread) and religious services in the vernacular.

But the feature that really marks it as a Protestant prayer book was hidden inside the spine.  If you pull the cover away from the sewn pages, as I accidentally did, you will see a pink strip of paper glued to the binding.  Above the large letter “K” is the profile of a bearded man and the words Jan Amos Komenský.

If you were asked to name the greatest Czech in history, you could do worse than picking John Amos Comenius (or, as he was known to us, Jan Amos Komenský).   Born in Moravia in 1592, he was a philosopher, theologian, and pedagogue who was among the first to promote universal education.  Comenius introduced a number of educational concepts and innovations including pictorial textbooks written in native languages instead of Latin, teaching based on gradual development from simple to more comprehensive concepts, lifelong learning with a focus on logical thinking over dull memorization, equal opportunity for impoverished children, education for women, and universal and practical instruction.  As a consequence, our Comenius is considered the “teacher of nations,” the Father of Modern Education.

Centuries after his death the Comenius ideal of a universal education for everyone inspired Czech immigrants to establish schools in the United States.  Education was important to the Czechs, not only in the Old Country but also in America, and they dotted the countryside in their newly settled lands with simple, one-room country schoolhouses.  In both the Old Country and America, illiteracy was practically non-existent among the Czech people; among 17,662 Czechs admitted to the United States in the years 1911-1912, the rate of illiteracy was only about 1.1 percent (Varejcka, 1977).

The other area in which Comenius made his mark was religious reform.  In 1616 he was ordained into the ministry of the Moravian Brothers, and eventually became a Bishop in the Unity of the Brethren church that had its roots in the teaching of Czech reformer Jan Hus.  [Before it joined the Presbyterian Church, the Zion congregation on Highway 15 was a part of the United Brethren Church.]  Comenius wrote numerous books and treatises that expounded his religious philosophy.

In 1659, Comenius produced a new edition of the 1618 Bohemian Brethren hymnal, Kancionál, to jest kniha žalmů a písní duchovních (Cantional -That is: a book of spiritual psalms and songs) containing 606 texts and 406 tunes.  In addition to revising the psalms and hymns, his edition greatly expanded the number of hymns and added a new introduction. This edition was reissued several times, well into the nineteenth century. His texts in Czech were notable poetic compositions, but he used tunes from other sources.

It was his religious activities that got Comenius into trouble.  In addition to promoting needed reforms of religious rites and practices, he called on European monarchs to destroy the Pope and the Habsburg (Austrian) Empire.  These notions helped precipitate the devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and placed Comenius and his followers squarely in the religious battles that were fought in Bohemia.  In 1621 he lost all his property and writings and was driven into exile, ultimately dying in 1670 in the Netherlands.  A famous painting by Alphonse Mucha, The Last Days of Jan Amos Komenský in Naarden, depicts Comenius at the end of his life, slumped in a chair, facing the Western Ocean.  He and his Unity of Brethren followers were dispirited refugees; Comenius’ back was turned to the east, to his Homeland, which he would never see again.

In Komenský’s time the prairies of Nebraska were still the domain of Native Americans, and were virtually unknown to the rest of the world.  He couldn’t have foreseen that two hundred years after his death the first Czech immigrants would begin arriving in Colfax County, and some of them were clutching his hymnal as one of their most precious possessions.  So while this well-worn book may have been the humble possession of a poor Moravian immigrant, its origins are anything but humble –  the cantional that was passed down to us is one of the last editions of hymn book originally written and compiled by one of history’s greatest Czechs.  It is no exaggeration to say that Jan Amos Komenský’s progressive ideas about education have literally transformed the world and opened up limitless opportunities for everyone in democratic societies.  He would be gratified to know that his efforts to reform education and religion bore good fruit among the hopeful pioneers in the centuries after his lifetime.

Postscript: Do you wonder how the hymns in this book sounded when sung by the Zion Evangelical congregation in 1890s Colfax County?  Alas, there are no recordings of their faith-filled singing.  But a sense for how these old songs might have sounded can be gotten from the performances of the Tiburtina Ensemble, who sang from an even older cantional – the 15th Century Jistebnický kancionál.  The Jistebnice hymn book is the largest surviving compendium and the most important source of Hussite liturgy and singing in the Czech lands.  It contains Czech translations of Latin liturgy, religious hymns, songs to be sung at vespers and also Czech folk Christmas carols.

I don’t suppose that our immigrant ancestors sang as sweetly as these learned women, but I’ll wager that their piety was unsurpassed.


Varejcka, Janet. 1977.  The Czech Immigrant – a process of acculturation: Schuyler, Nebraska, 1870-1920. Master of Arts Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Wikipedia –

Posted in 1890s | 9 Comments

Five Sullivans and a Novotný

I told myself that I would quit writing war stories for a while in favor of more elevating subjects, but I recently came across an interesting tale that I wanted to get down on paper before I forgot it.

Have you ever heard the story of the Five Sullivan Brothers?  It is a well-known, tragic event from the early days of World War II that brought about important changes in military policy and inspired at least two movies.

The story, in brief, is this:  In a burst of patriotism following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, five young men from Waterloo, Iowa enlisted in the Navy with the stipulation that they would be allowed to serve together.  Although the Navy had a policy of separating siblings, it was not strictly enforced.  The five brothers were assigned to a new, light cruiser, the U.S.S. Juneau, and in late 1942 sailed to the Solomon Islands to support the invasion of Guadalcanal.  Following a fierce, nighttime naval battle their ship was sunk and all five Sullivan brothers were lost.  Because of wartime secrecy, their parents were not informed of the sinking of the Juneau and the deaths of their sons for more than 2 months.  The parents were greatly distressed because their sons’ letters stopped coming and rumors started circulating through the grapevine about the loss.  When uniformed men arrived in Waterloo to inform the parents, their father asked “Which one?”  “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.”

The tragedy inspired a wartime Hollywood movie “The Fighting Sullivans.”

The shock of a family losing all of their sons in a single incident prompted the U.S. War Department to issue Directive 1315.15 “Special Separation Policies for Survivorship” (Sole Survivor Policy) that is designed to protect members of a family from the draft or from combat duty if they have already lost family members in military service.  This War Department policy, designed to avoid a repeat of the Sullivan Brothers losses, was the inspiration for the more recent movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

What does all this have to do with Clarkson, Nebraska you ask?  One of the Sullivan brothers’ shipmates on the doomed U.S.S. Juneau was a young sailor from the Clarkson community – Frank A. Novotný.

The U.S. Navy had been decimated by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in 1942 it was still learning how to fight the mightiest navy in the world, the Imperial Japanese Navy.  As part of the campaign to take the island of Guadalcanal, they had already suffered what is considered the worst defeat in the history of the U.S. Navy – the Battle of Savo Island.  Between August and December 1942 there were seven large naval engagements in the effort to re-supply American troops on Guadalcanal and prevent the Japanese from re-taking the island.  One of the later sea battles was called the First Battle of Guadalcanal (aka Third Battle of Savo Island, Battle of the Solomons, or Battle of Friday the 13th} which took place on November 13, 1942.  It was the decisive battle because afterwards the Japanese abandoned their attempts to re-take Guadalcanal.  But the victory came at a great price.

Early in the morning of November 13, 1942 the U.S. and Japanese fleets encountered each other and began battling in darkness.  While trading fire with one Japanese destroyer, the Juneau was struck by a torpedo from another destroyer, the Amatsukaze.  The explosion broke the Juneau’s keel and knocked out most of the ship’s fire control systems and one of its two propellers.  The Juneau managed to limp away from the battle, but later that day it was torpedoed again, by the Japanese submarine I-26.  The submarine’s torpedo hit close to the spot of the original damage and exploded in an ammunition storage magazine.  The already crippled ship broke in two, and both pieces sank quickly. 

I saw the spot where the Juneau had been. The only thing visible was tremendous clouds of grey and black smoke. … The men told me that the Juneau appeared to explode instantaneously and appeared to break in two, both segments of which sunk in 20 seconds … The signalman on the bridge of the Helena was in the process of taking a message from the Juneau and had his glass trained on the signalman of that ship and reports that the signalman was blown at least 30 feet in the air.

— Declassified report from Lt. Roger O’Neil, a medical officer of the USS Juneau, from the deck of the USS San Francisco, November 1942

Site of the naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the wreck site of the U.S.S. Juneau.  Picture courtesy of The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

There was little time for the crew to abandon the ship that they had been desperately trying to keep afloat.  Of the U.S.S. Juneau’s full complement of 697 officers and enlisted men only about 110 sailors initially survived the sinking.  That over 100 men survived the catastrophic explosion and sinking is surprising; observers on other nearby ships concluded that all hands had been lost.  Efforts to search for and rescue the survivors were delayed for fear of more attacks from the Japanese, the need to maintain radio silence, and subsequent errors in reporting the ship’s last position.  As a consequence, the survivors were left to fend for themselves in open seas for 8 days before the first rescue planes spotted them.

After 8 days in the water all but 10 of the crew succumbed to injuries, exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks.  Of the five Sullivan brothers, three (Frank, Joe, and Matt) went down with the ship when it sank.  George and Al Sullivan managed to make it to a life raft, but Al died the next day.  George suffered from delirium as a result of hypernatremia and grief.  Four or five days following the attack on the USS Juneau, George quietly eased himself over the side of the raft, never to be seen again.

The fate of their shipmate Frank Novotný is not known, but the Navy records him as being killed in action on the day of the battle, November 13, 1942.  As a Fireman 1st Class, there is a good chance that he was below deck, attempting to put out fires, patch holes in the hull, and get the power and electrical systems back on line.  If so, Frank would have had less chance to escape the rapidly sinking vessel than the gunners and others on deck; he would likely have gone down with his ship.

I wish I could tell you more about Frank Novotný than the circumstances of his untimely and violent death.  Alas, I can find little information about him outside of some scant information in The Service Record Book of Men and Women of Clarkson, Nebraska and Community. My best guess is that he was the son of Josef B. Novotný (February 8, 1874 – August 27, 1955) and Mary Toman Novotný (September 8, 1882 – February 2, 1956).  They emigrated from Staatz, Austria in 1908 with their three oldest children – Josef, Marie, and Anna.  The family left Bremen on the S.S. Lützow, bound for New York City; their passenger manifest indicated that their final destination was Leigh, Nebraska.  More children, probably including Frank, were born after the family arrived in Nebraska.  The parents and at least one of their children, Stanley, are buried in the Clarkson Catholic Cemetery.  Some sources give Fireman First Class Frank A. Novotný’s address as Clarkson, others as Leigh; he may have grown up on a farm between the two villages.  In any event, Clarkson claimed this Gold Star Boy, who gave his life for his Country.

Frank A. Novotný was among the first to join the fight.  He joined the Navy one month after Pearl Harbor, traveled from the cornfields of Nebraska to the tropical South Pacific, and died in a violent sea battle that some historians say began to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.  His name, the names of the five Sullivan brothers, and the rest of their shipmates who died in naval Battle of Guadalcanal are memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.  May they rest in peace in their watery grave.

Manila American Cemetery, Philippines

[On 17 March 2018, the wreck of Juneau was located at a depth of about 13,800 ft, far to the north of the Solomon Islands – ]

Sources of Information:

Account of the sinking of the U.S.S. Juneau:

Stories about the Five Sullivan Brothers:

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