PHELPS County is situated on the high table-lands, or upland prairies, on the divide between the Platte and Republican Rivers. In extent it is twenty-four miles square and is bounded on the north by Dawson and Buffalo Counties, on the east by Kearney, on the south by Harlan and on the west by Gosper. The only streams anywhere in the county are in the southern part, and these are only the head-waters of Spring and Turkey Creeks, which have but a small flow of water.
The surface of the land of the county is comparatively level, being but very gently rolling and nearly every acre of it susceptible of cultivation. The soil is fertile and very productive. In its natural state, the prairie is covered with a rich and heavy growth of grass of the different varieties, more particularly the buffalo grass.
The county is well adapted to farming and a very large acreage of crops are planted each year, and as a general thing a good yield is secured. The county is excelled by none in this portion of the State for fertility or productiveness.
The population of the county is now nearly 3,000, scattered over its entire area. Nearly all the inhabitants are engaged in crop or stock raising, while a large number combine the two, and thus, by carrying on a mixed farming, are sure every year to secure a liberal reward for their labor. For stock-raising, the advantages held out are very superior, and those who are giving this business their attention are fast securing a competence.
The inhabitants are made up of various nationalities, but the greater number are Americans and Swedes, the latter being settled in a large colony in the north part of the county.
The Platte River extends along the north side of the county, and in the early days of freighting across the plains, long before the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, the old freight and emigrant road extended along the extreme northern part of the county up the Platte River. The old Plum Creek Station was about on the line between what are now Dawson and Phelps Counties. During the time of the overland travel, all was excitement as the freighters and immigrants poured up and down the Platte Valley. Near Plum Creek Station, and in what are now Phelps and Dawson Counties, there were more daring and atrocious murders committed by the Indians than at any other point on the route. In the northwestern part of the county, and on what is now the homestead claim of Will Dilworth, is a graveyard in which there are fourteen graves, filled by the remains of persons murdered by the Indians during the war which commenced in 1864. One of the victims buried here was a woman who was killed during an attack upon an immigrant train passing along the route. Another attack made by the Indians in those times was one upon the three Fletcher brothers, who were attended by their sister. This attack was made upon them at a point about two miles west of the residence of Will Dilworth and near the line of the present counties of Phelps and Gosper.
Another station on the old overland route was at Hopeville, toward the northeastern corner of the county, and about eighteen miles west of Fort Kearney. This was a ranch and post office kept by Moses Sydenham, who located at the fort in 1856, and who in the early, as well as in the subsequent history of Central Nebraska, has become known to fame, not only for the degree to which his labors have contributed to the settlement and improvement of this portion of the State, but for his many eccentricities and the wild and visionary projects he has tried to carry out. After the attack by the Indians at Plum Creek, the settlers and ranchmen hurried east to the Missouri River, and the entire Platte Valley was nearly deserted, owing to fears of an attack on all the stations along the route. Sydenham, however, remained at Hopeville some time after the valley was nearly deserted. He removed his family and valuables to the islands of the Platte, where they were concealed in the thick growing brush. He and his brother remained at the store or ranch, which was built very strong, to prepare for defense. They hoisted the United States flag to give the impression that the soldiers were stationed there, and guarded their stock and were unmolested. In a short time, Moses Sydenham removed his family to Fort Kearney, and left his brother in charge of the ranch and the stock. During the war, the Hopeville Post Office and ranch was never attacked. In a short time after the big scare, occasioned by the attack at Plum Creek, had subsided, travel over the freight road was again resumed.
When the Union Pacific Railroad was built along the north side of the Platte River, in the fall of 1866, the overland freight road was of course abandoned, and for a few years there was no settlement in Phelps County.
In the year 1872, a few settlements were made in the north part of the county and a few homestead claims entered.
Early in the year 1873, quite a heavy immigration commenced, and a large number of settlers entered claims during the year, and farm buildings were erected and other improvements made to a considerable extent. A large acreage of prairie sod was broken up and prepared for the planting of crops the next year. The settlement during the year 1873 was principally in the north half of the county.
As a large number of settlers were now coming in, the citizens took steps early in the year 1873, to effect a county organization. On a petition of the citizens to Gov. Robert W. Furnas, he issued a proclamation calling for a special election to be held April 8,1873, for the purpose of electing officers and effecting a county organization.
The election was held on the day appointed, and resulted in the election of C. J. Dilworth, E. L. Barnes and J. Q. Musgrove, Commissioners; Frank H. Young, Clerk; Robert N. Hindman, Treasurer; John Shaffer, Judge; William P. Miller, Sheriff, and J. W. Benedict, Surveyor. The county seat was located at Williamsburg, in the northwestern part of the county, where it was destined to remain for a number of years, though the place never grew to the dignity of a town.
The county seat is now at Phelps Center, to which place it was removed in November, 1879, by a vote of the people. In the winter of 1879-80, the court house was removed to Phelps Center from Williamsburg, and put in good repair, but very soon after took fire and was burned down. It has not since been rebuilt, and the county, therefore, has no public buildings at the present time.
Considering the fact that there is no county property of any value, and that its indebtedness is about $25,000, it would appear that there was mismanagement on the part of some of the early county officials, and a gross careless extravagance on the part of the early settlers in voting bonds which resulted in no benefit to the county. The citizens of the county at the present time are, however, using all possible means of relieving themselves of the cumbrous debt, and are willing to pay every dollar of their honest indebtedness. To this end, in the fall of 1881, funding bonds to the amount of $l0,500, were voted by the people.
Phelps County is the home of Hon. C. J. Dilworth, the present Attorney General of the State. His homestead claim and residence are in the northwestern part of the county, near Williamsburg Post Office.
The following is the roster of county officials for 1882: D. H. K. Whitcomb, County Judge; P. O. Hedlund, County Clerk; Peter Peerson, County Treasurer; Mrs. Mina Hopwood, County Superintendent; E. G. Brunzell, County Surveyor; William Wilcox, Coroner; Lewis Newman, Sheriff; P. A. Brodin, D. M. Case and Ellis M. Palmer, Commissioners.
From the date of the organization of the county to the present time, it has continued to increase in settlement and in the number of farms broken up. Settlers are now to be found in all parts of the county. It is true that, having no railroad or large stream anywhere within its limits, its progress has been slow, but it has been steady. During all these years, except in case of grasshoppers or some other exceptional plague that has resulted in the destruction of crops throughout the western counties, those of Phelps County have been good. Agriculture has been carried on with as great success as in other counties, and the farmers are now in a prosperous condition.
School districts have been formed in all parts of the county, and the public school is well sustained.
Church societies have been organized in the different communities of the county, and have a good membership. The citizens as a class are both moral and religious, and Sunday schools are kept up in the different localities
There are no towns of any great size or importance in the county. The following places are post offices and some of them very small country villages. They are Rock Falls, Sacramento, Phelps Center, Williamsburg, Industry, Integrity and Highland.
Phelps Center is the county seat and is situated in the center of the county. It contains about a dozen buildings and has a population of about eighty. In business, about all branches in an ordinary country trade are represented; and, notwithstanding its small size two newspapers are published here. They are Nebraska Nugget, edited and published by T. M. Hopwood, and the Phelps County News, edited by Henry Hazlett. Both are enterprising weekly papers, well filled with the local news of the county. From its central location and the fact of its being the county seat, Phelps Center is growing somewhat and will doubtless soon become a thriving and prosperous village. Its location is a pleasant one, on the high upland prairie.
Rock Falls is situated on Spring Greek, in the southwestern corner of the county. Its location is a good one for a town, and it already has a few business houses and a population of about 100. In course of time, as the settlement of the a county increases, it will no doubt make a thriving little village.
Sacramento is situated in the southeastern part of the county, on the high upland prairie. The location is a pleasant one. The different branches of business in a country trade are well represented and it already has a population of about seventy-five. Considering the fact that it is located so far from a railroad, it is already a thriving place, and, with the increasing settlement of the country, it should soon make a prosperous county village.