The Critical Period in Loup Valley History


Smiling and beautiful, heaven's dome
Bends softly o'er our prairie home.
But the wide, wide lands that stretch away
Before my eyes in the days of May,
The rolling prairie's billowy swell 
Breezy upland and timbered dell, 
Stately mansion and hut forlorn--
Are all hidden by walls of corn.
All the wide world is narrowed down
To the walls of corn, now sere and brown. 
What do they hold-these walls of corn
Whose banners toss in the breeze of morn ?

Ellen P. Allerton, "Walls of Corn,"

       NEBRASKA became a state in 1867. Five years of statehood brought much prosperity to the new commonwealth. But soon after sundry warnings, the financial storm of 1873 burst over the nation and state. Times became desperately hard. All classes suffered and the rural population in particular became greatly disaffected. The granges which had long existed as social organizations, entered politics, forced as it were by prevailing economic conditions. "The farmers," they averred, "worked harder and more hours than the artisans, had poorer food and fewer privileges--while the men who handled the farmers' products were better off than either farmers or mechanics and were rapidly getting rich." The granger movement had an amazing growth. By midsummer of 1873 more than 250 granges had been organized.

     The state government was charged with incompetency, existing systems of taxation were declared inadequate and unjust. Their chief grievance was against the great railroad corporations doing business within the state. Nor was this without foundation. The Union Pacific and Burlington systems stubbornly refused to pay taxes on their land grants. Various excuses for not paying were trumped up and for years were many communities throughout the state unable to collect taxes from these corporations.

     In Valley county, for example, bonds bad been issued for public improvements based on calculations to collect the Burlington railroad tax. The county commissioners could not collect a cent for years, and, amusing
(221) as it now sounds, were threatened with arrest should they not desist. This condition of things put our local government in desperate straits. And naturally enough left a grudge against the railroads. When the issue was finally forced to a head a compromise was agreed upon and one-half of all the assessed taxes had to be accepted as sufficient payment of all claims.

     The inadequate revenue system in the state, as mentioned above, was another grievance. Many counties flatly refused to pay their taxes. Indeed one-third of all the taxes levied in the state between 1869 and 1873 remained unpaid. At the close of 1873 there were $300,000 in state taxes delinquent, and $400,000 in local taxes. Money became extremely stringent and farm produce brought shamefully low prices. Then right on top of all this came the, grasshoppers and devoured the crops and "there was real destitution in the sod houses and dug-outs along the border." But it is not the purpose to re-tell this sad story now. Let it suffice that the Nebraska Relief and Aid Society disbursed $68,000 among the sufferers. Congress appropriated both money and seed-grain, and in sundry ways aided the homesteaders. Some of this aid reached the Loup, and did much to keep the wolf from the door.

     The year 1875 was a dull one on the Loup. The loss of crops of the year before coupled with the general depression existing throughout the entire state kept newcomers out of the Valley. To add to the gloom crops again became a partial failure. Dry weather and locally hatched locusts damaged the growing grains and reduced the yield seriously; 1876 was an exact repetition of the previous year.

     But a change came. The growing season of 1877 was very favorable and farmers harvested abundant crops. The state, too, was slowly recovering from the panic of 1873. Once again the attention of homesteaders was called to the possibilities of the beautiful Loup Valley. Many who had lost in the desperate game of chance in the days of wildcat speculation back East, and others seeking cheap lands, came pouring into the Valley. The year 1878 more than quadrupled the acreage of cultivated lands. That year, and again 1879, were marked for their fine crops. A population of almost 2,200 was now scattered from Scotia to The Forks and further up the Loup. 

     But these were small things when compared with the great movement of settlers just about to begin. The decade 1880-'90 marks a new era of prosperity in Nebraska. The long "nightmare of depression" resulting from the panic of 1873, was at an end. A substantial class of settlers came out of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and other states, eager for homesteads and glad to purchase relinquishments from restless pioneers. Wealth and population increased many fold. The railroads began building new lines to keep up with the general movement. The F. E. & M. V. threw open the northern part of the state. The Union Pacific, Burlington and other lines initiated a system of expansion, running a network of branch lines throughout their part of the state and up every available watercourse and into every promising farming community.

     Prior to this time only the choicest pieces of land had been settled. Now white-topped prairie schooners were everywhere visible. Homesteaders and pre-empters quickly culled out the remaining good tracts. But the eager scramble for claims did not cease with that. The dry cattle country was invaded, and even the sand-hill ranges did not escape. Nowhere was the movement more marked than on the Loup. Valley county alone increased her population more than 30 per cent in six months. All the Valley lands were snapped up. The river bluffs showed signs of settlement. On the edge of the sand-hills sod houses and strips of breaking could be seen. It was all one mad rush for land-land in any shape or condition. A cycle of wet years had set in. Crops grew

The Evergreens; Home of Dr. F. D. Haldeman, Ord.

luxuriously everywhere. Even the high plateaus in the western and northwestern parts of the state blossomed like the rose.

     Nebraska entered upon a real estate boom of vast dimensions. The speculative fever seized the people. The east had idle capital to invest in western lands. A period of borrowing was at hand. People who had no idea whatever of making their permanent home there filed on sand-hill claims and reared their sod huts close by the smoking blow-out. The headwaters of the Loup and Calamus had their quota of these fortune hunters. Unscrupulous loan agents, more intent on earning their commissions than on serving their eastern principals, were eager to loan money on any kind of land. Security for the money seemed to trouble them but little. The New England Loan and Trust Co. and other great corporations did a rushing business in sand-hills and other worthless lands, and to this day do they regret ever having heard the name Nebraska spoken. Heaps of crumbling
(223) sod yet mark the place where some of these sand-hill speculators reared their roofs.

     Another unfortunate feature of all this "easy money " was the borrowing habit into which so many fell. All manner of expensive machinery, bought on credit, could be seen littering the barnyard or standing unsheltered at some fence corner. The top buggy and carriage began to displace the good old lumber wagon. Sundry extravagance was the mark of the times. But a day of reckoning was fast approaching when "tight money" and contracted loans were to force many an unfortunate, improvident farmer to the wall.

     The cycle of wet years came to an end at last--in 1890. That year the growing season began propitiously enough, but as time passed the needed rains failed to come. Instead, week after week, the hot, burning sun glared down from a cloudless

Home of Hon. Tom Doran of Burwell, Under Construction

steel-blue sky. The dread hot winds blew in from the south. Day after day they continued. All fodder, small grain and corn were cut short. Where farming had been carried on extensively rather than intensively the yield amounted to preciously near nothing. The careful expert got some returns for his work, though small. The northern part of our Valley fared better than the districts lying farther south, where in many places there was not enough fodder gathered to carry the stock through the winter. Those of the settlers who had come here poor, and who had borrowed freely while money was plentiful now faced a crisis. The bubble of speculation suddenly burst. Pay-day was at hand and where should the money come from?

     Right here the critical period in Loup Valley history begins. The
(224) years from 1890 to 1896 were crucial in our development, and may justly be marked as the most important six years we have known. The importance of this test period can hardly be overestimated for it marked the commencement of a struggle for the betterment of economic conditions, which has already led to a more solid prosperity in our Valley. The year 1890 found the nation entering a period of financial stringency. This taken together with crop failures resulted locally in hard times, chronic dissatisfaction and much real suffering. The cry against existing conditions of things came from the farm. The Farmers' Alliance, at first a purely agricultural organization, entered politics to find a panacea for the ills of the times. Memorable days were at hand. Midsummer of 1890 beheld 1,500 Farmers' Alliances in the field with a membership of 50,000. "There were no crops to gather so the people gathered in numbers never seen before or since, out in the groves away from the towns. 

The Charles I. Bragg Residence, Burwell.

Farmers' Alliance parades seven and eight miles long were among the sights of the campaign, and the enthusiasm of the monster meetings defied description. Everywhere there was a breaking away from former political affiliation, and the chorus, 'Good-bye, Old Party, Good-bye,' was chanted with religious ferver by thousands of throats." In the November election the new People's Independent party won an overwhelming victory, gaining control of the state legislature and electing two out of three congressmen. The work of reform began. On the Loup old-time Republican strongholds became in turn fastnesses for the new party. The farmer had spoken and--acted. In many respects he blundered, as all reformers will; but none can deny that much good has come and is yet to come from this political revolution--and (225) it was a revolution. The People's Independent party may never live to reap the fruits of its efforts--for it was untrue to its own fundamental principles--but it has served a period of inestimable usefulness all the same, and the community, state and nation are the winners.

     In a purely economic sense the hard years had a remarkable effect upon our community. The disgruntled ones and all who lacked the natural thrift to surmount the many hardships of those times became weeded out. This left the sturdiest and best of the old population in possession of the Valley, and opened the way for a new class of farmers and business men, possessed of better methods of farming and ample capital to make the most of the riches hidden in our fertile soil. But this is getting ahead of our story. To got back to the dry years:

Home of Harry Coffin, Burwell.

     The growing season of 1891 fortunately yielded good crops and eased conditions materially. '92 and '93 were rather dry though fair crops were harvested where hailstorms had not already spared the garnerer his trouble. Then came the never-to-be-forgotten drought year 1894. And who can ever forget that year!

     The spring and summer of 1894 was marked by unusual meteorological phenomena. Rainfall was withheld for months from the great plains and portions of the central prairies. All moisture seemed to disappear from the atmosphere. In sections even spring rains failed to come. There was hardly enough moisture in the soil to germinate the seed. Where it sprang up it was only to be withered by the blasting winds. The sun set at night in a sickly yellowish glare only to rise morning after morning upon a hopeless, steel-blue sky. Crops died. The loose soil from the dusty fields filled
(226) the stifling air or was heaped by the winds in dunes in the tall, dead grass of former seasons. Was it surprising that men should despair then? Fodder for stock could not be procured locally. Those who had none laid by from the pittance of past years were obliged to sell their stock or almost give it away. The market was glutted with lean cattle and hogs so that it shortly fell to a shamefully low figure. Many a farmer slaughtered his old work-horses to help keep a few brood sows alive over winter. Destitution in our central and western counties became great. The legislature appropriated $250,000 for seed and food for the sufferers besides $28,000 received in private donations. The Loup suffered with the rest of the state, and for the first time in its history had to accept aid from the outside. And yet it is but fair to add that most of those who

Home of Vincent Kokes, Ord, with Eret's Band in Foreground.

accepted aid were of the improvident class who have long ago left the Valley.

     But the dread summer came to an end at last. A mild, open winter followed providentially. Much cattle which might otherwise have perished came through the season in fair condition. Then came spring and summer of 1895 and with them an increase in rainfall. Unfortunately many of our people had lost heart and did not dare to risk too large a seeding. Others were too poor to put in much of an acreage. This resulted in a fairly good though limited acreage for the year. It was a season of beginnings--of preparations for greater things to be. The spring of 1896 was auspicious and the sluices of Heaven opened to a grateful earth. Abundant crops sprang from the rested soil and people tried in their joy to forget the nightmare of the past.

     The storms were indeed past. An adverse fate left the Valley-dwellers wiser and better equipped to cope with the problems of the future. They had passed through a stern school and experience is ever an exacting master. Six years of adversity had taught two important lessons--the

A group of Wisconsin Colonists and their descendants, taken a few years ago near North Loup.

value of money and the imperative need of a more intensive system of farming. Both lessons have taken deep root. The future can never again repeat the failures of the past. For the Loup the experimental stage has been safely passed. Our farmers have at last learned how to adapt themselves
(228) to our peculiar climatic conditions. In years gone by they clung to their corn and spring wheat. There was a strange notion abroad that winter wheat could not be grown with profit in the North Platte country. This delusion has long been exploded, and winter wheat is now one of our most important crops. Alfalfa, has solved the fodder question. This remarkably prolific plant seems to have settled for good all fear of a repetition of dry seasons. Even should droughts again strike the valley the alfalfa, the bromegrass and the English bluegrass would be pretty sure to give "roughness" sufficient to, keep our large herds in plenty.

     The past decade has wrought an economic revolution in the North and Middle Loup Valleys. Prosperity is manifest on every hand. The farmer has become independent. His granaries and sheds are full to bursting; his pastures are dotted with herds of blooded cattle. Fine modern homes supplant the humbler dwellings of yesterday. Dugouts and sod houses are even now becoming curiosities belonging to an era of beginnings now well-nigh spent. Towns and villages are taking on metropolitan airs. Modern conveniences which a few years ago would have been deemed luxuries are found in every well-appointed home. Real estate values have increased marvelously; and yet is is not an artificial increase but the legitimate result of prosperous times and continued good crops.

     Three decades back this remarkable region was a great "unfenced buffalo pasture," its virgin soil all untouched by the ploughshare. Today it is the home of thousands of prosperous families and its annual output of crops runs high into the millions. Then there was not a school nor a church nor a printing press in the Valley. Today these are everywhere disseminating the wisdom and morality which has given us high place in the sisterhood of counties forming our great commonwealth. Today a race of clear-visioned, broad-minded men and women, dwelling on high-land plateau and in lowland valley unite in grateful praise of the first comers who opened the trail of the Loup and made all of this prosperity possible.

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