Early Settlement | Organization | County Seat Troubles
Part 2: Investigation of Treasurer Van Sickle
The Agricultural Society | Progress of the County | Storms
Prosperity of the County | Schools | Public Buildings
Part 3: Kearney Junction: Troubles with Cowboys
The Murder of Milton M. Collins
Part 4: Kearney Junction (cont.): Criminal | Bank Failure
Religious | Lodges and Societies | The Press | Education
Business Interests | Buda (Kearney Station).
Part 5: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches
Part 6: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches (cont.)
Part 7: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches (cont.)
Part 8: Gibbon: Biographical Sketches
Part 9: Shelton: Biographical Sketches
List of Illustrations in Buffalo County Chapter
For some time, it had been suspected that the county treasury was becoming depleted through the mismanagement of the Treasurer, James Van Sickle. It was quite evident that the Treasurer was unlawfully using and loaning out, here and there, money belonging to the county, and that, should he at any time be called upon to produce the money belonging to the county, he would be unable to do so. But, as Mr. Van Sickle was popular, and had held the office for several years, nothing was done for some time. At last, however, in May, 1879, the Union Pacific Railroad Company refused to pay into his hands their taxes, amounting to something over $25,000.
As a result of the refusal of this company to pay this tax, a special meeting of the County Commissioners was called. The Board of Commissioners met about the last of May, 1879. The cash book and ledger of the Clerk were examined. These showed that there ought to be in the treasury $20,924, in cash, vouchers and warrants, exclusive of the school fund from the State. The Treasurer and Sheriff were then cited to appear at once and to produce their books. H. C. Andrews asked the Treasurer to state where these funds were. Treasurer Van Sickle then reported that $2,000 was in More's Bank; $2,475, in the Kearney Bank; and $160 in New York, making a total of $5,735. The remainder, $15,089.72, he reported as loaned out to parties all over the county, and for the security of this fund he claimed to have notes, mortgages and private property enough to cover the amount. He had, in a settlement with the Commissioners a few weeks previous, stated that $4,000 was deposited in More's Bank, and $9,000 in the Kearney Bank. This he now claimed had been paid in by friends from their own money and placed to his credit to prepare for that settlement, and that they a few days afterward had withdrawn it.
Opportunity was now given for any one to make a complaint, that the Commissioners might proceed to impeach Van Sickle, but no such complaint was made, as Mr. Van Sickle was generally respected, and regarded as a well meaning old gentleman, whose great fault was that he could not refuse when importuned for money by his friends. Though no complaint was made that would lead to impeachment or trial for embezzlement, through sympathy with the old gentleman, it was immediately proposed to put the office in charge of a Deputy. The Union Pacific Railway Company made a proposition to the County Commissioners and the Treasurer's bondsmen that, if they would at once investigate the affairs of the Treasurer, and appoint ex-State Auditor J. B. Weston a Deputy in the office, and give him full charge, and have Treasurer Van Sickle turn over all his real and personal property to his bondsmen to secure deficiency, they would pay their taxes. This proposition was accepted. No complaint was made, and Treasurer Van Sickle was allowed to retain the office of Treasurer till the close of the term of office for which he was elected. Mr. Weston declined to take charge of the office, and another Deputy was selected. Though no criminal complaint was then made, the Clerk was afterward ordered to commence suit against Van Sickle and his bondsmen for money due. As stated, the Treasurer was not impeached, but allowed to retain his office till the expiration of the term, which was January 1, 1880. At a term of the District Court in April, 1880, the grand jury indicted James Van Sickle for defrauding the treasury. They also indicted L. R. More, C. W. Dake and C. M. Hull for aiding and abetting the same. This man More was said to have been previously concerned in some bond transactions that were of a questionable nature. C. W. Dake was President of the collapsed Kearney Bank, particulars of which are given in the history of Kearney Junction; and C. W. Hull was Cashier of the same bank. Through skillful management on the part of the defendants, this suit was never brought to a trial. The suit brought against the Treasurer and his bondsmen for the recovery of the money due the county resulted in judgment being awarded by the District Court for the sum of $13,144.74. This suit was brought against the bondsmen of Van Sickle's last term, and they appealed from this decision to the Supreme Court, on the grounds that a portion of the defalcation took place during the Treasurer's proceeding term of office, and while other men were bondsmen; therefore that they ought not to be responsible for the entire amount. The case is still pending before the Supreme Court.
The ex-Treasurer, James Van Sickle, is now a poor man, residing at Kearney Junction. When elected to the office of Treasurer, he possessed considerable property, but, after serving. in that capacity for six years, he came out a poor man and a defaulter. The money lost was through his carelessness and mismanagement, but he is regarded by the citizens of the county as unfortunate rather than intentionally dishonest. He is kind-hearted and true to professed friends to the extent of actual weakness. He got none of the county money for himself, but simply fell into the hands of false friends, who took advantage of his kind nature to borrow money that belonged to the county, and when he needed it, they neither could not or would not repay it. and deserted him, leaving him to face the consequences alone.
So intense was the feeling growing out of this investigation that it was determined on the part of the voters to make a complete change in the officers of the county. Besides the treasury troubles, there had been many escapes from the county jail, which caused some bitter feelings toward Sheriff Anderson on the part of the citizens of the county. As a result of this change, the following officers were elected in the fall of 1879: Clerk, Emory Peck Treasurer, Joseph Black; Sheriff, S. V. Seeley; County Judge, John Barnd; School Superintendent, J. T. Mallalieu; Surveyor, H. L. Strong; Coroner F. J. Switz; Commissioners W. C. Tillson and D. I. Brown.
In 1880, S. C. Ayer and F. G. Hamer were candidates for Representative in the Legislature. After a long and spirited campaign, ably conducted on both sides, the election resulted in a victory for the former. At this time, W. C. Tillson was also re-elected Commissioner for the Second District of the county.
We next come to the election of county officers in November, 1881, when the following gentlemen, who now manage the affairs of the county, were elected: Clerk, Emory Peck; Treasurer, Joseph Scott; Sheriff, W. S. Ball; County Judge, John Barnd; School Superintendent, J. T. Mallalieu; Surveyor, Simon Murphy ; Coroner, F. J. Switz ; Commissioner, Henry Cook.
Buffalo County is Republican in politics by a majority of more than one thousand, but in the county elections little attention is given to party affiliations The men who have a majority of friends among the voters are usually elected, whether they happen to be Republicans or Democrats. Nearly all the officers elected, however, are Republicans.
The affairs of the county are moving on smoothly, the people are satisfied, and the Commissioners are doing all in their power to keep the county in good shape financially; but the old debt contracted years ago still hangs over the county. The total debt in outstanding bonds and warrants amounts to nearly $150,000.
In 1875, an agricultural society was organized, but, beyond a mere organization, nothing was done. The crops were so poor that year that no fair was held, and the society has not been kept up.
In April, 1880, another effort was made to organize an agricultural society, and the effort was successful.
In the latter part of the same month, the second meeting of the society was held, a constitution adopted, and the following officers elected: President, H. A. Lee; Vice President, Albert Bessie; Secretary, E. M. Cunningham; Treasurer, John H. Roe; and a board of nine Directors. No fair or exhibition of agricultural products was made during this year.
During February, 1881, the second annual meeting of the society was held, and the same President, Secretary and Treasurer were elected. T. J. Mahony was elected Vice President, and three Directors to fill the vacancies caused by the expiration of the terms for which three of the Directors were elected the year previous.
The first agricultural fair was held at Shelton September 27, 28 and 29, 1881. It was a complete success. Though new buildings had to be erected, there was, when the fair concluded, some money left in the treasury.
The third annual meeting was held at Kearney, during February, 1882, and the old President and Vice President were re-elected E. M. Cunningham was elected Treasurer, and C. Putnam was elected Secretary. Three Directors were also elected.
The society is in a flourishing condition, and preparations are being made to hold an agricultural and stock fair at Shelton the coming fall of 1882.
From the organization of the county in 1870, the settlement increased with rapidity from year to year. The greater portion of these settlers were of a more than ordinarily intelligent class, but were poor. Though possessing but little to start with, they were men of brains, and possessed that indomitable courage and strength of character necessary to the settlers of a new and uncultivated country, where agriculture had not yet been carried on to any great extent. The greater number of these were Americans, yet there was a liberal sprinkling from nearly every civilized nation of the globe, including Germans, Bohemians, Swedes, Irish, and even other nationalities.
As a general thing, these farmers have been successful, and now have fine farms, many of them ornamented with forest and orchard trees. They are making money--many of them becoming rich--and are happy in the knowledge that they have secured pleasant and comfortable homes, and possessed themselves of a competence much sooner than they could have done in their native State or country. But it must not be understood that all this has been accomplished without labor, without trials and hardships that would have caused those possessing less courage or strength of character to leave the country before these fine farms could be well opened up. There were many disadvantages with which they had to contend--notably, dry weather and grasshoppers--during the earlier years of settlement. The scourge of dry weather was caused by the "hot winds " that swept over these prairies from hundreds of miles to the southwest. These hot winds were terrific in their effects--so hot as to almost suffocate the living being who had to breathe them; winds that blew hard from the south for several days, and so hot that fields of grain were scorched and dried to seared and withered leaves and stalks. These winds originated from the barren plains hundreds of miles to the southwest, and passed over a vast extent of almost unbroken prairie land, which was burned over annually. The hot summer sun beat down on these burned-over prairies, the soil of which, before being broken up or plowed, was nearly impervious to water, and the rainfall, instead of penetrating the earth, ran off from the hard and dry surface as from the roof of a house. All this only served to help generate these hot winds. There was nothing in their course that would add moisture or coolness to them. For hundreds of miles they swept over the prairies, carrying desolation as they proceeded. During the first few years after the organization of Buffalo County--notably in the summer of 1874--considerable damage was done to crops from these hot winds But this is no longer the case. We have given some of the causes of these scorching winds, and will say that these causes, fast ceasing to exist, must in the future leave this county free from this scourge. The prairies to the southwest are fast being broken up for farms, and the rainfall is absorbed by the plowed soil, instead of running off. As a consequence of the opening of farms, the great prairie fires no longer sweep over the country, and these hot winds, will soon only be known in the history of the past.
In the year 1874, besides the hot winds that cut the crops short, the grasshoppers nearly destroyed the corn crop. Some time in July of that year, these ravenous insects passed over in numbers sufficient to form a perfect cloud that materially darkened the light of the sun. To one who is not familiar with the habits and the immense numbers of these grasshoppers or locusts, it would seem incredible that they could appear in such numbers or do so much damage. While many of these dense swarms passed over, yet millions of them came down, and almost entirely ruined the corn crop. The hot winds had injured this crop, and the grasshoppers coming on immediately after, it was but a few hours until the fields were stripped of every green thing. Only the bare stalks of corn were left standing, presenting the appearance of so many naked and slender poles.
Though the corn crop was ruined, the wheat crop this year was very good. The poverty of the settlers, however, and the fact that nearly all of them were new-comers, just opening up their farms, made it necessary that the most rigid economy be practiced during the winter and until another crop could be raised. Though the greatest frugality had to be observed, and many were deprived of most of the luxuries of life, we are unable to find that there were any cases of positive suffering.
Again, in the spring of 1875, the settlers went to work manfully and courageously, planting out and cultivating their crops, all the while adding to the improvements of their farms, and many new settlers came in who went to work industriously to open up farms and establish happy homes. But again this year the crops were light, and, though no hardships were experienced, the profits of farming were not very great.
In 1876, farmers worked with renewed energy, and a much larger acreage was devoted to crop-raising than ever before, but during the summer the grasshoppers again laid waste every green thing. The crop of small grain had not fully matured. Corn was still green, and myriads of these grasshoppers came down and remained for several days. Everything that came in their way was destroyed. Late fields of small grain were injured, and corn-fields were literally stripped, leaving nothing but the stubs of the stalks to mark the waving fields that but a few days before promised a yield of not less than fifty bushels to the acre. Gardens were completely destroyed, and not only all that was above ground, but the ravenous locusts would penetrate into the ground and devour with greed onions and all similar products. So numerous were they that when they settled down on a field it was literally covered. Every green stem was covered with them, while they were crowded so close together as to form one solid mass.
As a result of this devastation by grasshoppers, the winter of 1876-77 was a hard one for these brave and sturdy pioneers. It is true a light crop of wheat was raised by some, but not near enough to supply the demand. Many of the settlers were just opening up their farms, and had but few acres planted. Nearly all of the population was made up of poor men, who had spent nearly or quite all their means in opening up their farms and in the purchase of their teams and farming machinery. Thus many were left during the winter and until another crop could be raised with but little on which to subsist or feed their teams. During the winter, which was quite severe, many hardships were experienced by many, but they underwent the ordeal bravely. Yellow corn-meal was weighed out and taken care of as though it were more precious than gold dust. Many of the homesteaders were aided, very materially by friends and the Eastern public. All these hard-ships were bravely endured, and we think there was little, if any, real suffering. The following spring, they all went to work again with their half-starved teams, and a greater average than ever was planted. This crop yielded bountifully, and since that time there has been no general failure of crops from any cause.
Since the settlement of the county, there have been several heavy wind-storms, but they have generally resulted in no damage to life and property. The most severe of these was one that passed over Buffalo County on the evening of July 3, 1880. The nation's birthday coming on Sunday, celebrations were held throughout the county on Saturday, the 3rd day of July. Toward evening, a black cloud was seen in the western horizon. Slowly it rose. Blacker and blacker it appeared. Rapidly increasing in size, faster and faster it came up, until at last the storm burst with all its fury upon the central and eastern part of Buffalo County. The wind blew with violence and the rain fell in torrents. Considerable damage was done to property, and many persons were severely injured. In Kearney the storm was light compared to what it was in other portions of the county, but here the roof of the Buffalo County Bank was torn off and dropped into the street. Nearly all of the smaller buildings in the town, such as woodsheds and buildings of this description, were blown down and torn to pieces. Several dwellings were seriously damaged. A large barn was blown over. Wind-mills were blown down and torn to splinters. Chimneys and fences were blown down. Outside of the city, farmhouses and buildings were damaged. Great damage was also done to the growing fields of grain, but in the vicinity of Kearney there was no loss of life. As the storm passed eastward, the damage was greater. At Gibbon, the cupola was blown from the old court house building, then used as the Gibbon Institute building. The damage on the farms in this vicinity was great. Watson's house was blown down and his furniture scattered for a great distance, but as he and his family had not yet returned from the Fourth of July celebration they were not carried away. The crops in many places were entirely destroyed. The house of J. D. Randall was blown across the river and torn into a thousand pieces, and the furniture was scattered for nearly a mile. The family were in this house when it started, and were carried with it about sixty feet, when it separated and left them in an insensible condition scattered over the prairie. The son was the first to recover, and looked after the rest of the family till they had recovered sufficiently to seek a place of safety. Strange to say that beyond being stunned, none of this family were seriously injured. In this vicinity quite a large number of stock was killed. Though in other portions of the county the storm was severe, the damage done to crops and to buildings was but slight.
Since the grasshopper ravages of 1876, the crops of the county have averaged a good yield. The condition of the farmers of the county has continued to improve. The crop of 1881 was by far the best ever raised here, and it has now been fully demonstrated that this county is well adapted to crop-raising. The farmers have, however, discovered that the raising of wheat alone is not a very profitable industry, and they are gradually adding stock-raising on a small scale to their other pursuit of grain-raising, devoting much of their attention to the raising of hogs, cattle and sheep, thereby making a home market for a great deal of their grain.
The hot winds and grasshopper plagues are now matters of past history, and the citizens of the county now fear no more trouble from these sources. While of course some years the crops may be light from one cause or another, this county is regarded as no more liable to crop failures than are counties in the more eastern States. The farmers of the county may all be said to be in a prosperous condition. It is true, the early settlers of the county have worked hard and have undergone some hardships, but those who possess any business tact whatever have made money, and to-day have pleasant and comfortable homes, where their hard- earned independence can be enjoyed. Hundreds of these settlers who came to the county and remained through hard times, as well as good, have their own well-improved farms, are living in comfortable houses, own good teams, have fine farm equipments, and have a fair herd of cattle or sheep. Not a few of the early settlers are really wealthy. Contentment and thrift are well-nigh universal.
A large percentage of the citizens of the county are church-going people. The pioneer preacher followed hard on the track of the school-master, and great indeed was the energy and zeal displayed by these earlier ministers of the Gospel. No sooner was a settlement started and a schoolhouse built than the self-sacrificing clergyman came to plant the standard of the church in the midst of the first grain-fields. As a result of this, church services are now held in many of the country schoolhouses of the county. Sunday schools have also been organized, and are in good condition.
As fast as settlements were made in the early history of the country, one of the first things done was to organize a school district and make arrangements at once for the maintenance of a school. As a result of this, there are now in the county sixty-four school districts, and the schools are in a flourishing condition. The first of these districts, that which is now Shelton, was organized in 1869, before there was a county organization of the county. After the organization of Buffalo County, this district was the only one in the county until the settlement of Gibbon, in April, 1871, when steps were at once taken to organize a district, which was done, and this was the second district in the county. The schools of the county are all in a flourishing condition. The people are of an exceptionally intelligent class, and fully realize the importance of the public schools, and no efforts are spared to make their schoolhouses pleasant and attractive.
The State Reform School is located about two miles west from Kearney Junction, on the high table-lands, a little more than two miles north from the Platte River. At this place the bluffs rise abruptly from the level bottom lands, after which the surface of the land is nearly level, being broken only by small drawers. The lands of the Reform School comprise 320 acres, which is fast being opened up as a farm, and thousands of forest, fruit and ornamental trees have been planted out. The building itself is a large and magnificent brick structure, completed in the spring of the year 1881, and situated on the very highest point of land in the vicinity of Kearney. From the cupola of this building, on a clear day, one of the grandest of landscape scenes can be observed. The broad and placid Platte River can be traced winding its way along the broad valley for a distance of more than twenty-five miles. In fact, from this point, a view is afforded of a radius of more than twenty-five miles in all directions. The towns of Gibbon, Buda, Minden, Lowell, and Phelps Center can plainly seen from this point, of observation.
As soon as this building was ready for occupancy, in June, 1881, Hon. G. W. Collins, who had been appointed Superintendent, took charge of it, and as before remarked, he is rapidly getting the farm under a good state of cultivation. At this writing, there are only little above twenty occupants, who are being taught not only how to gain an honest and independent livelihood, but also are given instructions in the school department, which is designed to be by no means inferior to the course of instruction given in the public schools. The selection of G. W. Collins as Superintendent and Mrs. Slaughter as Matron indicated wisdom on the part of the appointing power. The inmates are not governed by severe modes of punishment, indeed, corporal punishment is unknown in this institution. A kind but watchful eye is ever over each inmate and, by this law of kindness, little trouble is created and these degraded creatures are fast becoming transformed into good and noble-minded boys and girls, who, when again allowed to mix with the outer world, will posses not only a liberal education, but will also have a knowledge of some occupation by which they can secure a respectable livelihood and become useful citizens.
When the county seat was located at Gibbon, a very good brick court house was erected, but, on its removal to Kearney Junction, the county being somewhat short of funds, a temporary frame building was erected. This house, though far below other public improvements of the county in cost and magnificence, has thus far answered every purpose for which it was intended, and is indeed a very good frame structure.
The county jail is a fine structure of stone, and, besides the cells and various arrangements for the secure confinement of prisoners, the upper part is comfortably fitted up as a residence for the Sheriff and his family.
The Union Pacific Railroad extends through the county from east to west, on the north side of the Platte River. This road was completed in this county in 1866.
The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad enters Buffalo County nearly south from Buda, crossing the Platte River from Newark, in Kearney County, at this point, and then extends northwest to Kearney Junction, where it forms a connection with the Union Pacific Railroad, and is the terminus of the original main line of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad in Nebraska. This road was completed late in the year 1872.
The telegraphic communications are by the Western Union Telegraph Line along the Union Pacific Railroad, and by the Burlington & Missouri Telegraph Line along the Burlington & Missouri River road.
Besides the railway postal routes, east and west routes are established, and mails carried to different points north and south by the stage lines from Kearney Junction.