Location and Natural Features | Early History | Crimes and Casualties|
First Events | County Organization | Political History
First Case in Court | General County Topics
Means of Communication | Schools
Central City: Churches | The Press | Societies | Banks | Flour Mills|
Public Buildings | Biographical Sketches
Clark's: Churches | Biographical Sketches|
Silver Creek: Biographical Sketches
Chapman: Biographical Sketches
List of Illustrations in Merrick County Chapter
Merrick County Names Index
MERRICK County is situated in the valley of the Platte, bounded by Nance County on the north, the Platte River separating Polk and Hamilton Counties, on the east and south, and Hall and Howard Counties on the west. As now organized, Merrick County stretches thirty-six miles east and west, and northward along the west end of the reservation twenty-seven miles. It contains a total area of 468 square miles, or 299,498 acres. Situated as it is, nearly seventeen hundred feet above the level of the sea, Merrick County, like all of Central Nebraska, is favored with a fine, healthful climate. Few days during the winter months are extremely cold, and, during the summer months, the constant prairie breezes reduce the temperature during the day, and make the nights cool and pleasant. Occasionally, hot winds from the southwest prevail, and twice within the history of the county great loss has resulted from extended droughts; but, as a rule, the climate is healthy, invigorating and favorable to vegetation.
The absence of all swamp lands makes this locality particularly favorable to the cure of fever and ague, and all malarial diseases.
As remarked above, the Platte River forms the eastern and southern boundary of the county, and takes a north-easterly course for forty-five miles. This, with the Loup River, which touches the northern boundary line, forms a perfect system of drainage for all the country. Wood River, a branch of the Platte, penetrates the central portions of the county, furnishing drainage and a good water supply for these districts. It empties into the Platte, just south of the village of Chapman. An unfailing supply of water can be obtained all the way from six to twenty feet below the surface of the land, so that nothing seems to be lacking in the way of healthfulness of location and good water supply.
From the description of the county given, it will be at once inferred that a majority of the land consists of valley and bottom, which is most decidedly the case, fully three-quarters of the area of the county being thus composed. As a rule, the soil is a deep, black, sandy loam, but varies in different portions of the county. It is especially dark and mellow along the Platte River, and for a distance extending backward for from one to three miles. Its depth is from two to ten feet, while upon the uplands and ridges its character changes to a vegetable mold, varying in depth from one to three feet. Underlying this is a porous subsoil, which never packs and bakes into uselessness. Ranges of sand hills extend through the northern and western portions of the county. They are from two to four miles in width, and are useless for agricultural purposes, but the short, nutritious grasses which grow there in abundance are appreciated by stock growers.
The scarcity of native timber, which is so noticeable in Merrick County, is being overcome to some extent by the planting and cultivation of this peculiar "crop." Of the native product, there are only a few patches along the banks of the Platte and on the islands. About a million and a half of forest trees are now under cultivation. On the sand bars of Platte River are found hundreds of seedling cotton-woods, which is the most prolific variety of native forest tree. Their growth is as rapid as that of any variety known. As an illustration of this fact, Wells Brewer, who has given the subject much attention, states that in thirteen years a tree which he set out has grown to a height of fifty feet. Silver maples and the box elder also do well.
Over 80,000 acres of land are under cultivation, and of this area about one-fifth is sown to spring wheat and one-eighth to corn. Rye and oats are also cultivated to some extent. The county is being developed, especially, however, as a superb stock raising section. The four wagon bridges across the Platte throw the rich country to the south open to it, and the territory for several miles north and west is tributary to it.
Preceding the Union Pacific Railroad by several years was the Western Stage Company, to which repeated reference is made in treating of the early times of the whole Platte River region. In 1858, the company established a station at Lone Tree, and erected the first building in the county. It was a small, uncouth affair, composed of unscaled cottonwood logs and sod roof, and has long since disappeared. The company, as is probably understood, was the carrier of the U. S. mail between Omaha and Fort Kearney. At this early day, weekly trips were made, with four-horse coaches, "Lone Tree Station" being one of the twenty mile stations. The "lone tree" from which it, and afterward the town, derived its name was an old cottonwood patriarch, situated on the north bank of the Platte River, about three miles southwest of the present Central City. For twenty miles either way, the old lone tree was a welcome and familiar landmark to the emigrants on their way to Salt Lake City and California. From Maine to California, "Lone Tree Station" is recognized as an old friend, while "Central City" is a name almost unknown. The affection evinced by the weary travelers for the old lone tree was eventually the cause of its ruin. There was hardly a man, woman or child who did not at some time carve a name and date upon its generous body, or build a camp-fire at its spreading roots. It is supposed that the old cottonwood lost its hold upon mother earth in passing through this fiery ordeal, so that one windy day in 1865 the dear "lone tree" toppled to the ground and was no more--and many hearts did sorely ache.
Among other gold seekers who returned from California in the fall of 1859 was James Vieregg. His brother John had settled in Hall County some years before, but James decided to push farther east after remaining in that locality about a month to investigate. He drove down his cottonwood stake and entered his claim on the 15th of September, 1859. His was the first permanent settlement in Merrick County, and when the land was surveyed in 1866, it was described as the southeast quarter, Section 5, Town 11, Range 8. The property afterward was purchased by Claus Stoltenberg. As Mr. Vieregg was the first settler in the county, so he is still one of the foremost of her business men.
Upon the same day, toward evening, Jesse Shoemaker and Charles Eggerton, of Douglas County, hitched their team under the "lone tree," and established a "ranch" then and there. The traveling public--and they were legion--were hospitably entertained, and paid for their entertainment "to the fullest extent of the law." Less than half a year passed, when Mr. Shoemaker concluded that the business was profitable enough to warrant him in bringing his family from Elkhorn. He first, however, started another ranch eight miles farther west, on the Wood River. In 1861, the first post office in the county was established here, with W. H. Mitchell Postmaster.
"Shoemaker's Point," as it was called, was located only a short distance from what is now Chapman's Station. The land was afterward occupied by Charles Howell. Soon after the settlement of Vieregg and Shoemaker, James G. and Wells Brewer came into the county, the former at once locating permanently upon the land which he now occupies, five miles southwest of the town of Lone Tree--not then platted, of course. James G. built a cabin in October, 1860.
Wells Brewer afterward returned to Michigan, and left his brother to the fate of several blood-curdling, but harmless, Indian scares. Upon one occasion, he worked himself, or was worked up, to the point where he saw a fierce band of Sioux dashing down upon his defenseless hut, with loud yells and flashing spears. Having cooled his blood a little, Mr. Brewer afterward discovered that some tall, but harmless, weeds, blown toward him with a wavy motion by a stiff breeze, had been the cause of this hallucination. It does no harm to laugh at such frights now, but they were terrible realities then. In 1863, Wells Brewer returned to settle permanently. But the first family was yet to permanently locate in Merrick County, and that event was heralded by the father of that family--Jason Parker--who staked his claim on January 1, 1860, about two miles southeast of Central City. He built a log house, roofed with cedar boughs, and two months later brought his family to live there. The next accession to the county's population, but not a permanent one, was occasioned by the erection of an imposing structure on Eagle Island, by one Bill Hufftalen. It was built of hewn logs, and roofed with actual shingles! The ambition of its owner, however, seemed to have overleaped his pocket book (or something), for the ranch building had scarcely been finished when it was purchased by the Western Stage Company. William then went west again, seven miles, and put up a little sod ranch; sold poor liquor, and made money and friends. Maj. Hartwell afterward came into possession of it. The "Lone Tree Ranch" changed hands several times in the course of the year, and another establishment was in complete operation at Warm Slough. Half a mile west of Lone Tree, Lew Hill operated a ranch a short time. He was a stage driver by occupation, a road agent of the stage company, and, on account of some irregularity, he "got notice to quit." It was just above this claim that J. G. Brewer had erected his cabin. The next settler after Mr. Brewer, whose personal record is part of the county's history, was John L. Martin, who, since 1860, had been living at Shell Creek. In May, 1861, he settled upon the claim where he now resides, about one and a half miles southeast of Chapman. Mrs. Martin was for five years the only physician between Columbus and Fort Kearney. James Huteson, after wintering on Parker Island, in the spring moved north to the main land and started a ranch. The year 1861 closed with a population, in the county, of less than forty persons.
As has been already stated, the first post office was established in 1861, at Shoemaker's Point. The order of establishment of others in the county is thus given by Wells Brewer, in a letter published in the Courier:
When the Brewer's Ranch Post Office was discontinued in 1869, its effects and the "honor of the thing" was transferred to Lone Tree Station (Central City), which was commencing to rank as quite a settlement. Ed Barker was the Postmaster, who wielded the mail bag and was both his own master and servant--his all in all.
The Indian scare of August, 1864, has been detailed elsewhere in this volume. It is sufficient for its treatment here to remark that the Brewer brothers and Mr. Hilton at the Lone Tree Ranch, were virtually all the population which remained between Grand Island and Lone Tree. For two months it seemed as if the newly effected organization of Merrick County never could be patched up again. But one by one most of the fugitives returned to live and labor for its advancement. That which the Indians feared, a permanent occupation of the county and country, became a fixed fact. The building of the telegraph, the establishment of the Western Stage Company's twenty mile stations, everything pointed that way, as the red men feared. But for a season such terror was in the hearts of the white men that Merrick County was deserted. Farms were abandoned, and implements of agriculture left to rust and destruction. Only the more valuable variety of stock was taken, such as horses and cattle; hogs and cats were turned loose to shift for themselves.
The first horse-thieves--mule-thieves in this instance--, who disgraced the county plied their avocation upon a poor, kind old man, who was engaged in freighting between Omaha and the ranches west of Fort Kearney. The time was in the month of May, 1866, and Mr. Wood started with a mule team for Omaha, this being before the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad. At Kearney Crossing, two good natured and friendly Irishmen accosted him, and asked to be given "a lift." Wood complied, and the three were soon on the best of terms. They put up for the night at Brewer's Ranch, the Irishmen spreading their blankets outside, as every bunk was occupied by wood-choppers getting out ties for the railroad. Bright and early, Mr. Wood arose to continue his journey with his newly-found friends; but they were earlier birds after all, and had caught his mules and outfit, with a saddle and bridle from the barn. It was ascertained that the thieves had struck off in a northwesterly direction, as their trail could plainly be followed across the cultivated ground. As soon as the telegraph station could be reached, descriptions of the fellows were sent in all directions. On the fourth day after the theft had been committed, a solitary mule wandered into the Wood River settlement, followed shortly afterward by an anxious Irishman searching after him who had gone astray. He (the Irishman) was arrested by the Sheriff of Buffalo County, and by means of threats and even more persuasive insinuations (in which cotton-wood trees with projecting limbs stood out in the fore-ground), the culprit conducted his captors to the camp on Prairie Creek, where was found the other Irishman and the other mule. At this time Merrick County was without a jail, and the Douglas County Jail in which the mule-thieves were promptly confined and closely guarded, was so well arranged for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that the two Irishmen promptly fled to other fields. A bill of $700 which Douglas County presented to Merrick for boarding and guarding the prisoners during the few weeks they remained in confinement was promptly rejected. Douglas was finally paid for boarding the rogues, but not a cent did she ever receive for guarding them.
Shortly after the Irishmen had been caged in the Douglas County Jail, a half-witted German tramp stole a horse from Charles Comb's barn, the animal belonging to John Kyes. The thief was tracked to the bank of the river, where several stolen articles were found and the information deduced that he must have crossed the stream, although the water was high. In fact, it was afterward ascertained that he had attempted to cross the river at about 2 o'clock in the morning, and had nearly foundered in the quicksand. A freighter, guarding his stock on the south bank of the river, thinking that no honest man would be up and crossing a dangerous ford at that time of day, accosted the stranger with a revolver when he at length clambered up the bank. The man's conduct and his contradictory statements were so suspicious that the freighter marched his victim to J. T. Bigg's ranch, two miles below. The horse was at once recognized and the thief held. Upon the third day, the owner of the horse, with two or three other regulators, having been notified that the stolen property had been recovered, crossed over the river, and, tying the man to the horse's tail, swam them across together. This course was taken on account of the German's stubborn resistance. Arriving on the north bank of the river, the settlers held a council of war, in which there was a disagreement as to what ought to be done with the horse-thief. But as the culprit continued to act ugly and pour out torrents of abuse upon everybody around him, a majority decided that patience had ceased to be a virtue. As there were no officers of the law present, the two men most interested financially in the horse, placed the thief upon his back and started for the timber land on the banks of the Platte, just above the old "lone tree." Although the rotten rope with which they strung up the man broke once, they persevered, and he was hung and buried there. Indignation was expressed over the affair in certain quarters, but such allopathic remedies were then generally regarded as necessary.
In January, 1868, while John Vieregg, with a neighbor, Claus Gottcsh, his son and hired boy, were camped upon the Loup for a hunting excursion, a mysterious tragedy occurred. Toward evening of the first day, the two men started out together to hunt, leaving the boys with the team. Shortly afterward they returned, only to find the two boys lying together, dead--shot, it is supposed, by some wandering Sioux or Pawnee. The horses were gone. As there was no evidence of resistance, the supposition is that they were asleep and were shot with their own weapons.
John L. Martin describes the tornado which swept through Merrick County, July 5, 1871, as follows: "On the 5th of July, 1871, about 6 o'clock in the evening, a tornado, or water-spout, or whirlwind, crossed the county, going in nearly an easterly course. It destroyed everything in its course for a width of about 200 feet. It lifted the roof from the depot at Lone Tree, destroyed a part of Bryant's Hotel, a blacksmith shop and some small houses, scattered a good part of Traver & May's lumber yard, and, about one mile east of town, leveled to the ground the house of E. Phelps, where he and his four children were eating supper. They were carried some eighty feet into the air, and thrown upon the ground about eighty yards from where the house had stood. The dead body of Mr. Phelps was found partially hanging in a cottonwood tree, while his children were lying among the debris. Strange as it may seem, they all recovered, without having suffered any severe injuries. Some portions of the house and furniture were found nearly two miles away."
James Vieregg was the first settler in Merrick County, and the first building erected was the twenty-mile station-house of the Western Stage Company.
On Sunday, December 25, 1864, Judge James G. Brewer solemnized the first marriage contract, binding together John M. Ryes and Viola Parker; Charles Combs and Wells Brewer, witnesses.
As stated, the first family to permanently locate in Merrick County was that of Jason Parker. His wife died July 15, 1862, and hers was the first death.
The first Gospel sermon was preached by Rev. L. H. Jones, at the house of James G. Brewer, March 5, 1865, the first church edifice in the county being erected by the Episcopalians of Silver Creek in 1870. Rev. Henry Shaw was Rector. The church was not dedicated until 1872.
John L. Martin, in his centennial address, furnished the following additional list of "first things:"
The first house erected at Lone Tree Station was built by Ed Parker and Mills May, in December, 1866.
The first Sabbath school of the county was organized in School District No. 1, June 30, 1867.
Wells Brewer was elected first Representative to the Legislature from Merrick County, in October, 1868.
The first house built in Silver Creek Station was put up by Mr. Miller, in 1870.
The first house built in Clarksville was erected by L. B. McIntyre, in 1871.
The dispensation for first Masonic lodge at Lone Tree, was granted August 9, 1871.
The first house built at Chapman Station was erected by Leake & Reed, in 1872.
In the autumn of 1858, the Legislature passed an act defining the boundaries of newly established counties and establishing the county seats. This act first brought Merrick County into being, defining its boundaries and fixing the county seat at "Elvira."
At the time of the passage of this act, Henry W. De Puy was Speaker ofthe House of Representatives, being "the gentleman from Dodge County." His wife's maiden name was Elvira Merrick, and it was in honor both of himself and his lady that the county was named Merrick and the seat of justice located at " Elvira.''
The act was approved November 4, 1858, but to this day no one has ascertained exactly where "Elvira" was situated, unless it is Judge Martin, who says that "Elvira was beautifully located upon a paper in the office of Dr. Henry, of Omaha, and supposed, by the fortunate possessor of corner lots, to be about two miles southwest of the present town of Clark's, on the old military road." It is contended, however, by "old-timers" who settled in that part of the county, that it was the design of the parties interested to locate the county seat upon or near the land now owned and occupied by the family of C. B. Hartwell, about two miles southeast of Clark's Station. As no one "dabbled" heavily, however, in Elvira real estate, it is of no particular importance, except as a matter of historical curiosity and conscientiousness, whether the exact location of the paper county seat is fixed more closely than on Dr. Henry's wall, in Omaha. In 1858, it would have been impossible to do more toward informing people where was their county seat, as the central part of the State was not then surveyed.
By the years 1863-64, the population of the county had so increased that quite a cry was raised for a regular political organization. Some opposition was at first evinced, but this feeling almost died away, so that the petition circulated for a political organization, in the winter of 1864, was signed almost unanimously. Although Elvira was still the county seat, and had been already located on the map, the citizens of the county had already fixed upon "Lone Tree"--Central City--for their place of political gathering. The first county election, in accordance with the prayer of the petitioners, was to take place April 18, 1864. One week before this time, a caucus was held at the house of J. G. Brewer.
The house was a log hut, with sod roof, but the meeting passed off harmoniously, and the following ticket was put in the field: Sheriff, T. F. Parker; Clerk, W. H. Mitchell; Treasurer, Wells Brewer; Prosecuting Attorney, H. N. Lathrop; Probate Judge, James G. Brewer; Commissioners, George Gilson, Jason Parker and Jesse Shoemaker. The county was divided into the Eastern, Middle and Western Voting Precincts, the polling place for No. 1 being the Eagle Island stage station; for No. 2, the house of Jason Parker; and for No. 3, the house of Jesse Shoemaker. Although the caucus had been of so harmonious a nature, a weak attempt was made to run an independent ticket; but the regular nominees were triumphantly elected, twenty-seven votes being cast--six in the Eastern, nine in the Middle and twelve in the Western. The fight was hot over the office of County Clerk, W. Burroughs being the independent candidate. A list of the voters at this first election in the county constitute the settlers then residing here at this early day, and is given below: John L. Martin, James G. Brewer, W. H. Mitchell, Jason Parker, W. Burroughs, H. N. Lathrop, R. Etaugh, H. C. Rowell, Henry Vieregg, William Hurley, Hugh Gambol, E. D. Hurley, Jesse Shoemaker, Wells Brewer, Robert Mitchell, T. F. Parker, George Gelston, James Vieregg, James Huteson, Charles Combs, C. Schliter, Charles Koeple, John Keyes, John Vieregg, John Spateman, J. D. Williams and Benjamin Johnson. 'Ihe election returns were made to C. B. Stillman, of Columbus, then County Clerk of Platte, who also issued the certificates of election. Henry Lathrop, the Prosecuting Attorney, qualified at Columbus, before the County Clerk; returned to Lone Tree and administered the oath of office to James G. Brewer, Probate Judge, who qualified the other officers.
Thus was Merrick County fairly established as a body politic. In May, the County Clerk called a meeting, at which the official bonds were approved. In August occurred the Indian excitement, and the county was virtually deserted. Among others, County Clerk Mitchell fled to Omaha, and never returned. During those troublesome times, his office was broken into by some marauder and all the early records were scattered to the prairie winds. In October, public confidence in the safety of the county was sufficiently restored to warrant the Commissioners in calling a special meeting, when Wells Brewer was appointed Clerk and qualified. This period marks a moderately systematic departure in the manner of transacting and recording county business. The next important incident in the political history of Merrick County was the attempt made to detach the western tier of townships from this county and attach the territory to Hall. It created much excitement, and some bitterness, and how the scheme was defeated is best told by John L. Martin, who was a prominent actor:
"In the winter of 1863-64, Frederick Hedde, of Hall County, was a member of the Legislature, elected from Merrick and Hall Counties, and the unorganized territory west of them, receiving a total of thirty-one votes. At this session, Hedde introduced a bill to attach six miles of western Merrick County to Hall County. On Friday night, at 10 o'clock, January 29, 1864, John L. Martin received a letter from Hedde, telling him that the above bill had been introduced and passed a second reading. This matter required prompt action, and on Saturday a meeting was held and resolutions adopted, denouncing Hedde's action. Before night a remonstrance against such a course was signed by every citizen living within the six-mile strip. On that afternoon, and during Sunday, the remonstrance was presented to every citizen of Merrick County, signed and forwarded to Gov. Alvin Saunders, who received it ten hours after having signed Hedde's bill. A new bill was immediately introduced, repealing Hedde's, and was bitterly fought by Dr. Renni, Chairman of the Committee on Counties, and by Hedde himself. But the new bill passed the House, and was signed by the Governor four hours before the Legislature adjourned sine die."
Until the spring of 1868, the meetings of the Commissioners were held at the house of James G. Brewer. Afterward the residences of the different County Clerks were made temporary court houses. In October, 1867, the Commissioners bought up for consideration, the location of the county seat, but laid the matter over indefinitely. Finally, on October 12, 1869, the question was brought before the people, who decided for Lone Tree, of course. This vote was sustained by Commissioners Parker and McAllister, Mr. Hartwell protesting "that the whole proceeding was illegal." In April, 1870, "the county addition to Lone Tree" was platted, Block 10 being reserved for the county buildings. On June 4, 1870, the citizens voted $18,000 in bonds for their erection. The bonds were issued January 1, 1871, the contract being awarded to Charles Lightfoot in March, for $16,000. The building was completed by Q. B. Skinner, its total cost being $20,000. It is one of the neatest and most substantial court houses in the interior of the State, being of brick with stone foundation and two stories in height. Its dimensions are 50x60 feet, the jail, according to vote of the people, being in the same building.
The county had, in July, 1870, been re-divided into precincts, Silver Creek Precinct being created. This embraced the territory included within a line drawn from the west line of Section 2, Town 16, Range 4 west, running thence south along this section line to the south bank of the Platte River. The remainder of the territory formerly comprised in the eastern district, was named Clarksville Precinct; the name of the middle precinct was changed to Lone Tree, and the western to Chapman Precinct.
Retracing the ground already trod, about a year, it is found that on November 24, 1869, the first term of District Court was held at Lone Tree, Hon. L. Krounse, Judge; E. F. Gray, District Attorney; Ira Prouty, Clerk; G. W. Moore, Sheriff.
A. L. Reinoehl, who has gathered much interesting matter for a county history, none of which has yet appeared in print, gives the following account of the trial of the first case: "At that time the building now owned by Mr. Berryman, directly south of the Union Pacific depot, was utilized for various purposes, viz.: hotel, bar-room, dwelling, general country store, etc., etc. It was thought proper to concentrate business at this point, and the Sheriff secured the odd vacant places in and around the building for a court and jury rooms. There was one jury trial during the term: 'The people of the State of Nebraska vs. John Doe, whose true name is to the Grand Jurors unknown.' This unfortunate individual was charged with the crime of grand larceny, and his hopes of acquittal gradually diminished as he saw one after another of the members of the grand jury that found the indictment against him, placed upon the petit jury. A sentence of one year in the penitentiary was pronounced, upon the verdict of guilty being rendered. During the trial, a Mr. Considine was called as a witness for the State, and after the oath was administered he pointedly refused to testify. The court charitably gave witness time to consider the result of his mutinous conduct, and genial John McLean took charge of the obstinate fellow. Mr. McLean confidentially expounded the law with such force as to lead witness to agree to apologize to the court for his insubordination. John appeared in open court and notified his Honor that witness had concluded to make a suitable apology for his lawless conduct. Witness approached the bench and addressing the court, said: 'Mr. McLean stated true as to my intention then, but on re-consideration, I conclude to abide by my former decision and not testify.' A fine of either $10, or in default of payment, commitment to the Dodge County jail, was thereupon imposed upon witness. The sentence was actually served out in a box car upon the Union Pacific Railroad track."
Previous to the establishment of the District Court, however, both civil and criminal cases had been brought before James G. Brewer, Probate Judge. The first criminal case was tried before him June 16, 1867. Matt Wertz was charged with assaulting Isaac Berry, with intent to kill him, with a pistol. Defendant was discharged. The first jury trial--a civil suit--came off before the same. The case was entitled Henry Twitchell vs. William Hayler and Jesse Shoemaker. Counsel for plaintiff, John L. Martin; for defendants, Wells Brewer.
Since these early experiments in the dispensation of justice and the management of a young and unformed county, settled and stable systems of court proceedings and government have been formed, so that at present Merrick may be said to be a county having " all the modern improvements." Her present county officers are as follows: Judge, John McDonald; Clerk, J. B. Templin; Treasurer, J. G. Holden; Sheriff, Daniel Hopkins; Superintendent of Public Instruction, B. W. Baker; Coroner, Dr. J. E. Morrill; Surveyor, A. G. Sherwood; Commissioners, N. H. Martin, A. Crawford, John Kramer.
Although, at present, the county has no paupers on its hands, it is preparing for the future, and has purchased one hundred and sixty acres of land, one and a half miles north of Central City, to be used as a poor farm. A building has also been erected, which, with the land, brings the valuation of the property up to $3,000.
Notwithstanding that the progress of Merrick County, in common with all the counties of the Platte River Valley, has been as a rule, both steady, and noteworthy; the country has had many "set-backs." First came the war to seriously check emigration westward. In 1864, a wide-spread and terrific Indian panic nearly depopulated the county, so that in 1865 its entire population was only 123, of which only thirty-one were tax-payers.
Another serious drawback to the rapid settlement of Merrick County were the devastations of large districts of territory by grasshoppers. Previous to 1857, they were almost unknown as enemies to agriculture, and it was not until 1864 that the pest "lit upon" Merrick. In July, of that year, they cleaned out the corn from the Wood River settlement, and throughout Hall County and the western portions of this county. Two years and one month later they came again in more portentous numbers, and stayed longer, devastating a district extending fifty miles further east than before. The whole of Merrick County was included this time, and their work of destruction seems to have put a quietus upon the successful cultivation of corn for some time. As most of the then population was employed by the Union Pacific Railroad Company, in one way or another, the suffering on account of the failure of the crop was not intense. In August, 1868, the grasshoppers swept about the same territory as in 1866, with the exception of eastern Merrick County, which escaped the plague. The main body of the insects crossed the Platte Valley above Grand Island. The sight here was deplorable. Not a leaf of corn was left, the stalks even being eaten down to within three feet of the ground. The great trans-continental life-giver, however, the Union Pacific, soon repaired these damages by bringing in fresh life, and by 1871 the immigration had reached tremendous proportions, and Merrick County felt a rebound of prosperity. When the line was first built to the county in 1866, the increase in population and life was nothing permanent. Lone Tree then consisted of little more than a turn-table, and a building where the railroad hands could obtain a supply of liquor. When the great procession passed on, and points further east became the terminus, even these "marks of improvement" were abandoned. It was not until the work was accomplished that the county could realize its magnitude and importance. Then emigration began to pour along the channel in a steady stream. In 1871-72-73, Merrick County made great strides of progress, but in July, 1874, another vast swarm of grasshoppers had "satisfaction" and retarded her onward movement. The latest figures give her population at 5,875, and the assessed valuation of property at $1,483,750--estimated valuation $4,451,250. In 1866, the assessed valuation was $21,531.
It would be almost impossible to overestimate the credit due to the railroads of the county in bringing about this happy change of circumstances. Early in the spring of 1865, surveyors had started from Omaha, but reported that the route up the Platte Valley would be very expensive, and for a time there was a possibility that Bellevue would be selected as the initial point. But the danger passed, and the survey was pushed up the valley. The route first selected was almost parallel with the present one, but about seven miles from the river. As the supply of railroad ties was being taken from the islands of the Platte, a "change of base" was made nearer the river. In February, 1866, contracts were let for getting out all the cross-ties that could be obtained on the unoccupied islands of the Platte. In April, the grading of the road was progressing through the county, and was completed in less than a month. By the 4th of July, the construction train of the Union Pacific Railroad could be plainly seen from Lone Tree Station, and before the end of the month, the moving village had disappeared and passed the bounds of Merrick County. The line now follows the Platte River from east to west forty-five miles. In 1880, by the extension of the Burlington & Missouri road from York, York County, and Aurora, Hamilton County, to Central City, the county of Merrick obtained railroad communication with the flourishing country south of the Platte. The county seat has become a railroad center, to a certain extent, and is growing into a flourishing town.
Falling naturally under the topic of means of communication are the several good wagon bridges which span the Platte River in the county of Merrick, and bring it into connection with Polk and Hamilton Counties to the south. The one at Central City was completed in April, 1877, at a total cost of $14,000, of which sum $8,000 was voted in precinct bonds, the balance being contributed by Hamilton County. The one at Silver Creek was completed in 1877, at a cost of $10,000, the precinct voting $4,000 and Polk County $6,000. The bridge at Clark's was built during the same year, at an expense of $15,000, and the one at Chapman in 1878. The cost of the latter was $14,000, the precinct voting nearly half of that amount. Thus within a distance of less than forty-five miles, the Platte River is spanned four times by wagon bridges, which make a freedom of communication with adjoining counties enjoyed by few other sections of the State.
Among the very important topics of general county interest is the condition of its district schools. In July, 1866, when the County Commissioners resolved to levy a tax of $100 to defray expenses, they made no provision whatever for schoolhouses. But, in October, the citizens living in the western part of the county resolved to take the educational problem into their own hands. On the 20th of that month, John L. Martin, Claus Stoltenberg and William Hayter were elected a Board of Directors of District No. 1. A log schoolhouse was erected, by subscription, and covered with willow brush and sod. It cost less than $100. In this building, Miss Ellen Abbot (now Mrs. Dodge) taught the first school during the succeeding winter. In April, the lady received her recompense in the shape of $33 in public money. In December, 1866, Mr. Martin was appointed Examiner of Teachers, and the next year was elected County Superintendent of Public Instruction. After five districts had been organized, it was discovered that the act creating the office had not been signed by the Speaker of the House, and was, therefore, no law at all. It was not until April, 1869, that this individual attached his name to a bill creating the office, when it came legally into existence. Edward Parker was appointed to "assume the duties and responsibilites of the position."
The present is an encouraging contrast to these times when public instruction was just commencing to walk. The schools, fifty in number, are under the management of B. W. Baker, Superintendent of Public Instruction, the county being divided into forty-seven districts. There are nearly two thousand children of school age in the county, and seventy-five teachers are employed. The total value of school property is $35,236. The average school tax last year was 11 mills on the dollar.