The first settlers in Platte County brought only crude tools and farm implements with them to use in breaking the soil. In the early years, all plows were made by hand by the local blacksmiths since machine tooling was unknown. This imposed a great hardship on a region which was primarily agricultural, for even Nebraska industries are dependent upon the products of the soil and livestock raising, and a major portion of the state's agriculture is concentrated in the eastern part of Nebraska.
Although today the principal crops are corn, wheat, oats, rye, barley, alfalfa, soybeans, potatoes, some sugar beets and various forage crops, there was a time when nothing but thick grasses covered the land. In the period when Columbus was founded, some of this weed was taller than a man's head. It grew thick and coarse and matted, and the "blue joint" which grew along the sloughs, in certain seasons reached twelve and fifteen feet and defied the inroads of early, primitive plows.
Cultivation began along the edges of the timber where trees could be deadened and removed or cut down and later burned. Close to the timber line, the grass sod was easy to break and it was not until later years that agriculture reached out into the heavy, treeless, prairie land.
Prior to the 1870's, much of the acreage was broken by teams of oxen, for these slow, steady-moving animals proved more efficient and kept up a stable pace Horses and mules, faster in their movements, were not able to adapt themselves as well to the alternately rough and easy plowing of virgin land. Moreover, few settlers had brought horses or cattle with them across the plains and many spliced or "pooled" their teams when necessary.
In the years following the founding of Columbus, "breaking" became a business in itself. Plowing had to be done between May 20 and July 1, while the grass and brush grew most vigorously and, since corn was the leading crop, this was also the cultivating season of the year. Therefore, a farmer could not "break" and cultivate in the same season.
One or two men usually would rig up a breaking plow and team of oxen and contract with others in the neighborhood to "break" their land. Prices approximated three dollars per acre for this service for prairie land and four to five dollars for brush. The names of those prominent in agriculture from the 1850's included: John Browner, Jacob Louis, Carl Reinke, Charles Bremer, Fred Gottschalk, Jacob Ernst, Henry Lusche and J. P. Becker.
However, the first organization of an agricultural nature on record in Platte County is the Farmers Club, which met November 11, 1871, to draft a constitution and by-laws. Discussions and activities of the club were restricted to those of agricultural interests, and the first papers to be prepared by members were on stockraising, markets and fences.
Officers elected were: president, Jacob M. Troth; vice president, Guy C. Barnum; treasurer, A. J. Stevens; recording secretary, S. L. Holman; corresponding secretary, M. K. Turner; board of directors, T. A. Pinkney, J. B. Senecal, E. A. Gerrard, H. J. Hudson and N. Millet.
In 1873, from one hundred seventy-five to two hundred wagonloads of grain were coming in daily from the surrounding district, and Columbus was described as "a large area of the rarest soil cultivated far in advance of her own growth." A large elevator and four grain warehouses were built in the Platte County community that year and even these facilities were taxed to their fullest capacity in handling the season's crops.
For several years after the country was settled, the only kind of stock feeds available were prairie grass and grain. Hay was cut with a scythe until mowing machines were introduced in the middle '60's. Every influx of settlers or mass migration across the country influenced the price of hay and this spring crop was both expensive and scarce in Platte County. In 1859, when thousands were passing through the Platte Valley enroute to California, hay sold for as high as forty dollars and fifty dollars a ton. In
The History of Platte County Nebraska
the first ten or fifteen years, hay that would not bring from three to five tons per acre was not considered worth cutting.
After the sickle came the scythe and cradle in the evolution of farm equipment. Next, the mechanical mower made its appearance in Nebraska fields, followed by the revolutionary invention of the harvester by Cyrus McCormick. With the harvester, two men stood on a small platform and made bands of straw while the driver guided the machine. The sheaves were bound and thrown off on the stubble. Most of the farmers around Columbus either owned or rented a harvester within a few years after the machine was first introduced.
The real mechanical miracle, from the farmer's point of view, was the self-binder which was introduced around the turn of the century.
John B. Kyle, near Monroe, was one of the first men in Platte County to get a self-binder, and the day after it was delivered, a congregation of people from farms all over the county came to see the agent explain its use. The spectators could hardly believe that it made the bundles automatically, using twine for binding. Some of the early customs of the Nebraska farm community passed with this invention, however, for no longer would neighbors hold contests to see who was the most expert straw binder, judging the winner on the swiftness of his binding and strength of his straw bands. Later a bundle carrier was added to the self-binder to dump the sheaves in a row.
Threshing rigs were next. First powered by teams of twelve or fourteen horses, the threshing machine operated as the horses plodded about a ring, while at one side, a man handled the outpouring grain by channeling it into half-bushel baskets. The grain tally was kept, using
A scene taken at the George Anderson farm. Included are: Lewis Hulberg, John Berlin, Peter Swanson, Hans Christianson, Chris J. Christenson, Albert Swanson, J. M. Anderson, S. Casperson, and Henry Christenson.
a system of wooden pegs, as the baskets were filled and emptied into waiting baskets.
Coal-burning Avery or Reeves steam engines soon replaced the horse and "steamers" handled separators up to thirty-six and even forty inches. Then came the Oil-Bull and Titan, kerosene and gasoline burning tractors, and later, Henry Ford's Fordson tractor, followed by many other makes.
Today, most Platte County farmers own a cooperative small-grain separator and use their own all-purpose tractor. Those with larger farms of small grain acreage prefer the grain combine or header. Within a fifty-mile radius of Columbus are more than twenty-four thousand farms, averaging 204.1 acres to the farm. The average value of these farms adjacent to Columbus is $10,774 for each one over thirty acres in size. That Columbus is in the heart of a rich agricultural region is conclusively proved by the fact that 99.6 percent of the land in this fifty-mile radius is in farms, while many of the business enterprises of the town are directly connected to servicing the needs of the agricultural population.
Since the days of the pioneers, it has been the farm people who made up and controlled Platte County's way of life. Part of the great middle-western breadbasket which feeds the nation -- and in recent years, the rest of the world -- Columbus has behind it a rich legacy of experience in tilling the soil. In the beginning, and before property lines were finely drawn, cattle and horses were herded and lariated. A few fences and corrals were put up, but even hogs were frequently staked out with straps about their forelegs, and occasionally old hens were to be seen secured in the same way.
Even foreign capital was invested in the rich
A scene. Near Platte Center
A farm scene. Near Platte Center
Haymaking near Platte Center, 1905-1906.
Above pictures submitted by Albert Tessendarf.
The History of Platte County Nebraska
farmland about Columbus and records of the Becher Hockenberger & Chambers Company, realtors, in the last decade of the nineteenth century show as much as thirty thousand dollars to be received from investors in other lands. Never a get-rich-quick means of earning a livelihood, farming in Platte County was replete with the hazards of nature in general and pioneer living in particular.
"The wild onions will spoil the butter, the coyotes will eat the chickens and the grasshoppers will consume the grain," one pessimist warned a newly-arrived farmer in the Duncan community. Many a later landowner got his first orientation to farm life as a herd boy. Prior to the advent of wire fences, herd boys were an institution on every farm. Their duty was to watch the stock in the pasture and help with chores.
In the ten years after the founding of Columbus, the immigrant road constituted the market for most farmers in the region, for every settler who lived along this highway could distribute his produce from his own front door. Those who lived at a distance from the cross-country trails, such as Patrick Murray and Carl Reinke, hauled their grain to Fort Kearney, one hundred ten miles west where they sold corn, oats, beans and potatoes to the United States Army post.
Before the building of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1866, few agricultural products were exported from the Columbus area; imports consisted largely of shipments of flour. In 1868 Francis Hoffman built the steam mill which was later used as an elevator, and after 1870, there was a steady increase in wheat farming until 1876, when half a million pounds was shipped out by rail. During the sixteen year period from 1860-1876, the taxable acreage of Platte County had grown from 6,255 acres to 186,180, and the livestock from 833 head to 11,206 head.
It was in this era of scarcity of grain and demand on the part of the westward-moving caravan, that many people mowed the previous year's grass, mixed it with the new hay and sold it to travelers with hungry teams. If the feed was not disposed of by the wagon load, it would be sold by the "armful," the seller estimating how much his customer could carry and charging him accordingly.
Since a territorial law had been enacted offering inducements to settlers who would plant forest and fruit trees, the Board of Township Commissioners, meeting on April 19, 1871, held the following Columbus residents "exempted for timber planted in the several amounts to their names credited."
The list included: A. J. Arnold, four acres; G. C. Barnum, six acres; G. C. Barnum, one acre of fruit trees (this is the only record of fruit planting for the township) ; Henry Bean, ten acres; Alson Benson, one acre; John Browner, two acres; John P. Becker, four acres; G. W. Galley, one acre; Joseph Gardner, seven acres; Franz Henggler, six acres; James Jones, one acre; V. Kummer, ten acres; Jacob Louis, five acres; A. Mathias, one acre; Peter Murie, one acre; Patrick Murray, fifteen acres; P. J. Martz, three acres; John Rickly, three acres; Gunther Rosenberger, three acres; J. B. Senecal, eight acres; J. W. Witchey, six acres; J. W. Witchey, two acres; W. S. Abbott, seven acres; Chris Abbott, five acres; and Jacob Ernst, three acres.
Already agriculture was beginning to create labor demands in the county and advertisements appeared in the Columbus paper for farmhands and harness-makers. The grist mills needed operators for grinding wheat into flour. On upper Shell Creek, one of the more successful farmers in the 1876 era was Franz Henggeler, who planted small grain, goose wheat and oats on his one hundred twenty-five acres of cultivated land. "From one head of oats we counted ninety-six grains," wrote one observer admiringly, and both apple and crabapple trees grew in the Henggeler orchard. Like many successful farmers in the vicinity, this settler built his own corn mill for grinding feed and supplemented his farm products by raising cattle and hogs.
In Sherman Township, an 1878 report showed a population of three hundred and tent with 3,380 acres of cultivated land. An average of twenty-two bushels of rye was produced to each acre, in addition to sixteen and one-half bushels per acre of wheat, thirty-five bushels per acre of corn and nineteen bushels per acre of barley. Oats, potatoes and cultivated trees also grew in this section, inhabited by a predominantly German farm population.
In the early days, grain was hauled either to Fort Kearney or Omaha by ox team for marketing. Grasshopper plagues and crop failures destroyed the work of many men for the entire season. Usually a furrow was plowed around the farm for protection. Seed companies, during the early years of development, frequently furnished seed for planting and this helped to offset the losses from drouth and other hazards
which threatened agriculture, in the Platte Valley.
Regular auctions were begun in the Scott and Torpey sale barns near Columbus, where horses and mules "went under the hammer." These affairs* attracted as many as one thousand farmers from all over the state and prices varied according to the relative prosperity of the times.
Another sidelight on the history of Platte County was the huge cattle market that flourished briefly in Schuyler, sixteen miles east of Columbus, and a part of Platte County until 1869. Nebraska residents, such as Judge Dillard Fant, interested in securing a part of the cattle market which was herded northward each spring for slaughter, had personally contacted Texas drovers and ranchers, talked with members of the Texas legislature in anticipation of this trade.
With the opening of new markets in Nebraska in 1870, the Texas cattlemen with their thousands of longhorns, struck out over the Chishoim Trail in the spring of '71. Some six hundred thousand southern cattle had entered Kansas on their way to market at Schuyler and other Platte Valley points.
Although the trail had been opened from Abilene, Kansas, to Schuyler, the rapid development in the Blue Valley along the new route of the Burlington railroad meant that the Texas drovers had to pass through heavily populated territory where the animosity of settlers toward cattlemen reached the stage of active resistance. Heavily armed farmers tried to stampede the cattle and threatened to hale the drovers into court on the charge of real or supposed damage to crops. On arrival in Schuyler, many of the cowboys complained that their herds had been "fearfully maltreated" and were consequently in poor condition.
Although state officials at Lincoln were petitioned to take action to suppress this disorder, the trouble remained largely local and punitive action was impossible since the judges were sympathetic to the farm communities. On occasion, when a herd would stampede, a number of cattle would be killed before the drovers could round them up again and it was this situation which faced cattlemen when they arrived in Schuyler only to find the prices offered were approximately eight dollars less per head than they had been the previous year of 1870. Even the Indian agencies were paying less for their supplies of beef. - - -
As a result of this, many cattlemen refused to sell their herds and instead drove them westward for the winter in the hope that market conditions would improve by the following spring. To further discourage them from the Nebraska market, the worst prairie winter in history awaited these unfortunate Texans and their herds. Although on November 15, 1871, the cowboys were experiencing freak weather so warm that they could still ride in shirt sleeves, that night the temperature fell and a three-day snowstorm followed. A gale of seventy miles an hour and a seventeen-below-zero temperature killed many of the cattle and when the spring thaws came, longhorns by the thousands carpeted the plains where they had vainly sought food.
Of fifteen hundred cattle in Franklin County, six hundred were left alive; while Harlan County, with twenty-four hundred head, lost two thousand and only four hundred remained.
It was not surprising that the Texas owners of the ill-fated herds left the state disgusted and bankrupt. Although some cattlemen made an attempt to recoup their losses in part by skinning and selling the hides of their dead animals, this season marked the end of Schuyler's brief period of prominence as a cattle market, and it moved west to Ogalalla, Nebraska. Texas longhorns were reported at various points in eastern Nebraska as late as 1874, but they were always small herds of two hundred or three hundred head and the conflict between drovers and settlers continued unabated.
An interesting account is given by Charles Fletcher of a cattle-driving experience he had in the summer of 1871, when he was employed to drive longhorns from Kansas to the Sioux agency on the Missouri River. Their route lay over the Meridian and through Columbus and the advance scouts crossed the Platte River on Shinn's Ferry, although the cattle were driven, across the river and the teams drawn by oxen forded the stream, losing the wagon in the treacherous quicksand. One of the early Platte County settlers befriended the party, since all the Texans' provisions had given out, and a steer was left with the' farmer as security for the food and clothing loaned to the drovers.
Today Platte County ranks fifth in Nebraska in the number of dairy herds and more than 15,600 milch cows are raised on farms throughout the country. In addition to herds of Guernseys, Jerseys and Holsteins, beef cattle are numerous and include such breeds as Herefords and Angus.
Poultry also composes a large part of the agriculture of the region. More than 554,000
* In the first decade of 1900.
The History of Platte County Nebraska
chickens were raised in Platte County in 1945, giving it a lead over the rest of Nebraska in production of chickens. Almost one-fourth of the entire number produced in the state or 4,872,550 chickens -- were raised in the trade territory within a fifty-mile radius of Columbus. Fowl were sold to produce houses for shipment to centers in other cities; to local markets and to the large poultry processing plant of Swift & Company in Columbus. As early as 1910 this firm advertised for live poultry, offering ten cents per pound for hens or young roosters, delivered to "our house on Eleventh Street."
Although the Fifth Territorial Legislature in an act approved October 14, 1858, provided for the organization of county agricultural societies, establishing a Territorial Board of Agriculture to receive and digest reports from these bodies, the farming industry throughout the County and in the Platte Valley remained largely an individual enterprise.
In spite of the fact that the same problems of national economy and seasonal catastrophes affected the crops of the farmers, there was little effort to pool resources or to indulge in joint merchandising programs, beyond an occasional advisory note in the local press such as the following of April 19, 1876:
"The difference in transportation from farm to market . . . is but one item to the farmers in selling the raw material and the manufactured product. Whenever it is at all possible for you to do so, don't raise a single kernel of grain to go off the farm in the shape of grain. Feed it to the cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, chickens --- anything but sell it at ruinously low prices."
However, in the Grange which was organized in the '70's, and the Farmers' Alliance of the '80's, were the nucleus of the first cooperative program to be adopted in this primarily agricultural region. These organizations aimed at cooperative means of improving conditions for farmers through fewer middlemen, lower railroad rates and higher prices for produce. Organized buying and selling programs followed the forerunners of the elevators, stores, oil stations and creameries now supported by farm groups in Platte County and the rest of the state. Finally, in 1911, a cooperative law was enacted in Nebraska providing for the payment of patronage dividends for cooperative members. Also, the "one man, one vote" rule, long established by practice, was formalized in a law passed in 1920-21.
The Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union, or the Farmers Union as it is better known, entered the state May 29, 1911. Two years later its forty thousand Nebraska members affiliated with the national unit. The objective of this group was the creation of voluntary farmers' associations set up to buy and sell commodities on the best terms, all profits to be distributed pro rata.
In Platte County this group is represented by Boheet Local No. 252 of the Farmers Union, established in 1914. Charter members of the body were: Ed Lueschen, Frank Wurdeman, J. H. Lueschen, Adolph Sander, Fred Feye, Herman Inselman, Carl Hollman, Herman, Hembd, William Cattau, C. G. Luedtke, O. J. Lueschen, H. W. Sander, L. D. Hollman, Henry Wurdeman, George Wennekamp, George Michaelsen, J. P. Hunteman, Karl Harms, Ernst Wurdeman, Willie Grotelueschen, Adolph Lueschen and Emil Brauner.
During the first year Ernst Rosche, John Inselman, H. W. Koch, Paul Krause, Adam Keimig, John Hamling and Gus Hoessel affiliated with the new local and helped in the organization of the Farmers Union cooperative elevator in Creston, and the cooperative general merchandise store serving the Creston area.
During the first year the Boheet Local purchased three carloads of coal and one carload of fence posts on a cooperative basis, and ordered large quantities of merchandise through wholesale outlets. These products were later sold to members at considerably less than their retail cost.
Socially, the Platte County Local 252 has maintained an active program of picnics and school affairs. Presidents of the unit have been Ed Lueschen, George Michaelsen, J. H. Lueschen, Louis Cattau and Carl Hollman. Considered one of the strongest Farmers Union groups in the county, the Boheet Local has continued to meet at District 46 school-house in Sherman Township.
Indicative of its value to the community is the depression circumstance which saw little activity at Boheet from 1928 to 1932. In spite of this the little group was not disbanded; many of the members paid their dues faithfully and in 1932, a reorganization meeting was called and the cooperative program once more initiated for the benefit of local farmers.
Another cooperative farmer-consumer organization is the Farmers Equity Union which entered the state about 1916, and has been asso-
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