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The History of Platte County Nebraska


A frequent sight in Civil War days around Columbus was the gangs of rebels, forced to flee from Missouri in consequence of the enforcement of the draft. Many of them displayed the Confederate flag and were loud in their praise of Jefferson Davis and their condemnation of the Yankee nation.

One such group attempted to cross the Loup Ferry one time when Colonel Hays, who had charge of the ferry, forced them to haul down their own stars and bars, and pay respect to the American flag that waved over the bow of his craft. At first the boys refused, but Hays threatened to call upon the blue-uniformed Union soldiers in nearby Columbus. The southerners took down their flag, paid the usual ferrying fees and were deposited on the other side of the river.


In spite of the hardships which the early settlers experienced, a large number of them prospered and attained important positions in Platte County and the rest of Nebraska.

In this group was Guy C. Barnum who, in 1859, located two miles west of Columbus and one mile west of the Loup River. Barnum built up his stock and property, later becoming a state senator, representative and county commissioner.

Another well-known citizen was Franz Henggler, who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1855, and moved to Platte County three years later. In 1858 Mr. Henggler settled on Shell Creek, eight miles north of Columbus in Bismark Township. He not only practiced farming and stock raising, but for many years manufactured Swiss cheese. His was one of the first brick homes in the area, erected in 1874.

Not far from the Henggler residence was Charles Reinke, who came to Platte County in 1856 and filed on a claim. He worked by the month for "Pat" Murray in 1860. Later Charles Reinke built up his lands and cattle to become one of the most prosperous citizens in the community.


C. H. Clother and G. W. Clother heard about the newly opened territory of Nebraska while living in New York state. In 1860, when they first came to Columbus, C. D. Clother used to relate, they did not have enough cash to purchase an ax handle. Within fifteen years, however, they had started farming and opened Clother's Hotel, widely noted throughout Central Nebraska for its hospitality and well-filled tables.


The first banker of Columbus, Leander Gerrard, came to Omaha, Nebraska, as a young man in 1856. With Charles H. and Chris Whaley, he had walked the entire distance from Omaha to Monroe (about one hundred miles) in two days during the Spring of 1857.

They later passed through on their return to Omaha. It is said that Gerrard and his friends, following this journey, mapped out the village of Monroe, then in Monroe County.


In 1860 Albertson had settled on one of the homesteads in the Platte Valley and William David lived on a farm two miles east of the present town of Schuyler. William Gillson owned a farm adjoining Hashbergers' that later embraced a portion of what is now known as "Clarkson's Addition to Schuyler."

Another well-known early resident was Mr. Rolfes, a former Hollander, who had a ranch at the slough bridge on the farm later owned by Mr. Hall. James Jeffries owned and lived on the Hurford farm three miles west of Schuyler, and Mr. Bushnell, who had previously lived in Butler County, settled on the next land to the west.

Adjacent to the latter was the famous "Russell Ranch." This property was owned by Joseph Russell, an eccentric old Englishman, who was known as a good neighbor and valuable citizen. California gold seekers in transit, Colorado miners, Oregon farmers, ranchmen from the plains and freighters on their way into the mountains all stopped at Russell's. This house had a reputation for hospitality and fun. Many were the stories of wild western adventure and "hairbreadth escapes" that were told around the campfire. Nothing later remained to mark this famous spot but a few locust and cottonwood trees set out by Mr. Russell in 1861. The noted host and raconteur died some years later and was buried in Missouri.

South of Russell's Ranch was the well-known Shinn's rope ferry across the Platte River. Elder Shinn of Omaha was the proprietor. Years ago when, as a preacher, he had traveled through eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, Shinn was noted for his adaptability in this profession. It was said of him that he fulfilled two missions

In The Good Old Days

at one time --- "Pointing out the road to heaven by way of Shinn's Ferry!"

General manager of the ferry was D. H. Gardner, who occupied a cabin on the island.

At that time, two miles below Shinn's Ferry, there lived two men whose identity sometimes confused the other settlers. William Butler and James Blair both lived on their homesteads, cut off from the outside world and were compelled to go into Plattsmouth for all their provisions. On rare occasions they were seen north of the Platte River. "Like Siamese twins," wrote one observer in 1875, "these men were never observed alone. The consequence was that Blair was as generally known by the name of Butler as Butler was by the name of Blair."

South of these pioneers there was nothing but prairie for many miles to the head of Oak Creek, and the old Mormon Trail. Later farmhouses began to appear in the area and the prairie gave way before acres of cultivated soil.


Many years after he first came to Columbus, J. H. Slater, an uncle of Rose Alderson Lemar of Columbus, looked back upon his pioneer experiences as a boy with a memory rich in both imagery and humor.

In May, 1870, Slater and his sister, later Mrs. Alderson of Humphrey, arrived in Platte County and stayed temporarily at the Clother House. They had come from a thickly settled part of New York state to make their home with an older sister who, after marrying Henry A. Barnes, had located on a homestead three and one-half miles east of the present town of Madison. The brother and sister had traveled in charge of Warren Potter who also had relatives in this part of Nebraska.

When Henry Barnes came to Columbus to call for them, they set out for their new home. Eight miles north of Columbus they arrived at Shell Creek, where a log house marked the home of Postmaster Gleason. Slater was impressed by the panoramic view of the Loup and Platte Rivers stretching below Shell Creek Hill. After traveling thirty-five miles from Columbus, they reached their destination -- a big white frame house with a background of tall trees which skirted Union Creek.

The Barnes home was one of the first frame houses erected in that part of the country at a cost of approximately four thousand dollars. In one of its rooms, he believes, was taught the first term of school in Madison County, with Mr. Barnes acting as teacher. At that time, Madison existed mostly on paper. Its mercantile development consisted of a combined store and post office, owned by M. Bauch. Frank W. Barnes owned a bank and real estate office. A schoolhouse was soon erected and a Methodist Church started in the community. These establishments, with two or three residences including the Huylar Hotel, made up Madison in the 1870's.

Slater had the opportunity, as a boy, of entering the law office of W. M. Robertson or of serving as an apprentice to T. M. Blakely, who had established the Review, a four-column, eight-page paper, "the pride and boast of the country for miles." Whereas he would have received no salary for his work in the law office, the printing apprentice's job offered one dollar per week. Slater went with the newspaper.

His description of his early difficulties in deciphering manuscripts, particularly in one serial which was assigned to him --- "The Girl in a Calico Dress," furnishes a vivid picture of the journalism of the day. His next duty was to handle that department of the paper which extended thanks to people who left samples of eatables at the newspaper office. "We had an abundance of the best the country produced," he reported, "and closed the season with enough squash and popcorn to last all winter."

Later Slater was kept busy writing birth notices and other items of community interest. Much of the success of the editor in getting the paper out on time depended upon the mail carrier from Columbus. Once when this messenger failed to arrive, the apprentice was elected to go to Columbus and bring back the mail. Since the funds of the organization did not permit the hiring of a livery, he made the trip with a neighbor, Charley Moore of Tracy Valley, who was planning to leave for Columbus at midnight with a load of wheat.

Reaching the dugout home of Moore early in the evening, Slater helped his neighbor to load the wheat and set out in the wagon behind the yoke of oxen. At nine the following morning, they arrived in Columbus. The young apprentice secured the precious bundle of paper containing the news of the outside world and set about finding someone with whom to make the return journey. He found a farmer living near Battle Creek who was going to within ten miles of Madison. He accepted the ride and trudged the remaining distance home, lugging the package that would make it possible to get the paper out on time the following day.

He remembers one time, however, when the editor was late in publishing the Review. It was

The History of Platte County Nebraska

the occasion of the first printing of the tax list and a rival paper, the Bugle, had been started by Lewis Ley for the express purpose of getting the county revenue from this publishing job. With the help of a local boy, Theron Blakely, to "roll" the old hand press, Siater worked from Thursday morning until Saturday night, stopping only for a few brief naps during the entire period.

Since that week's work netted the office a large fee, his salary was raised to one dollar and a quarter per week, a job press was purchased and within a few months the paper was enlarged. In the spring of 1876, however, Mr. Blakely announced his plan to sell the business. Frank Prince, Doctor Bridenstine and young Slater held a conference and decided to take over the operation. Prince was to be editor, Bridenstine the collector and Slater was to handle the mechanical job.

The three-way partnership was not of long duration, and soon Slater bought the paper and assumed complete charge. Since it was then the official organ of Stanton, Boone and Madison Counties, there was an abundance of work, but he remained as publisher for only four months and sold the plant to F. H. Robertson, of Dakota City, Nebraska, who later sold out to E. A. Gerrard of Monroe, Platte County.


The bitter experience of pioneering as described by A. C. Tyrrel was typical of many early Platte Valley stories. Arriving in Nebraska in the spring of 1871, he built his first home with his own hands. It consisted of a hole dug in the ground about eight by ten feet in size, six feet deep and covered with cottonwood limbs and brush. Over this, Tyrrel put enough clay to exclude rain and snow, but water ran under the door and covered the floor to a depth of seven inches with mud and ice. One pane of glass admitted light, and a stovepipe through the roof served as a chimney. "It was a dugout in every sense of the word," Tyrrel remembers, "I dug out after every blizzard, and if I was away during a big snowstorm, I dug in on my return!"

The pioneer's first bed in Nebraska was made by driving two cottonwood sticks in the ground, against which was placed a board. He filled the space between it and the wall with hay. Water was obtainable at a distance of half a mile. Tyrrel then found a job where he worked in part payment for a board bill, walking five miles to and from the field, morning and evening.

His next residence was built on a homestead near Wolf Creek, northeast of Humphrey. Constructed of strong sod, which was plentiful in the low land, this building had two windows and one door --- all that the homestead law required at that time. Hiring six yoke of Texas steer, he soon had fifty acres under plow. Like his contemporary Nebraskans, he coped with the grasshopper swarms which stripped trees of their leaves, destroyed articles of clothing, and gnawed at pitchfork and rake handles, sometimes ruining thousands of acres of growing grain in a few hours.

"Taking into consideration all the unfortunate conditions attending the pioneers," A. C. Tyrrel concludes, "the only wonder is that Nebraska today occupies such a proud position in the galaxy of stars."


From writings in the Schuyler Register of 1875, D. Anderson recalls how, in the winter of 1857, Charles Bremer, John Wolfel and J. Hashberger and his son, set out on snowshoes, drawing hand-sleds, for Omaha, to get a fresh supply of provisions. The little party followed the Platte River as the only guide on the journey, since other landmarks were obscured by the three-foot snow. On their return, the men stayed overnight with a family at North Bend who had no food left. The Columbus men divided their small supply with these people, and continued on their way.

In the winter of 1861, D. Anderson saw a "novel outfit" pass his place. It was a large prairie schooner with a very small jackass and a huge ox attached. The driver was an Irishman who spoke both German and French fluently. He had started out with a large yoke of oxen and the jackass hitched behind. When the one ox died, the driver had combined the two remaining animals to make the unique team.

In the spring of 1857, Pat Murray and Hugh McDonough came to Platte County. They walked from Omaha and located on a claim three miles northwest of Columbus where Pat Murray built a sod house.


Another early settler to come to Columbus in a covered wagon was Earle Pearsall, son of Mr. and Mrs. James Pearsall, who was born in Shannonville, Ontario, Canada, in 1872.

At the age of two his parents brought him, along with their two other sons, to Nebraska

In The Good Old Days

where his father, James Pearsall, began work as a carpenter. A former cabinet maker, the elder Pearsall soon branched into contracting and erected a large number of the early Columbus business houses and private residences.

Among the many buildings he constructed in the 1880's were the. G. W. Phillip residence at 2318 Fifteenth Street, now owned by Carl Rohde, and the original building of Friedhof and Company on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Twenty-seventh Avenue. Pearsall also had erected the building for Bonesteel Brothers, general merchants.

As a contractor, Pearsall put up the original buildings at the Genoa Indian School and was active as a government builder in the early days of Nebraska. Two of his workmen during those years were Frank Clark, uncle of Mrs. Albert J. Galley, and Frank Mills, Sr., father of Frank Mills.

The Pearsall family lived for several years in a dwelling at 2810 Fifteenth Street. After they moved, the building was occupied by Lloyd Swan, who was then part owner of the Columbus Daily Telegram.

Earle Pearsall's brother, Charles, later acquired title to forty acres of land adjacent to the city limits on the north. Approximately twenty acres of this land eventually became Pearsall's addition to the city of Columbus. The remainder was located in Columbus Township and was popularly known as the "circus grounds" or "Pearsall lots." Title to the circus grounds remained in the Pearsall family.

James Pearsall left Columbus in 1891 to make his home in Omaha, where he died in 1932. His son, Charles, became a reporter in District Judge Munger's court, a position he held for many years. Later he established his own office in Omaha and remained as one of the foremost court reporters of the time. He was frequently called to other states and to Washington, D. C. to record important cases, and was appointed deputy United States marshal during the McKinley administration. He died in Omaha in 1936.


In the Spring of 1883, when Earle Pearsall was eleven years old, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was getting ready to present his new type of circus entertainment to the public.

Cody, with the aid of his Columbus friends, Major Frank North (head of the famous Pawnee Scouts), George Clother and Fred Matthews, started assembling his Wild West show on the old circus grounds northwest of Columbus.


William F. Cody "Buffalo Bill"

One of the main attractions was to be Cody's realistic enactment of a stage coach raid by a band of "wild" Indians. Cody had procured an old stage coach and a group of Pawnees and commissioned Fred Matthews to act as driver of the coach. During the weeks when this act was being rehearsed, young Pearsall and Jesse Becher, son of the late Gus G. Becher, Sr., were among the interested sideline observers at Cody's encampment.

The day of the first rehearsal found the Pawnee Indians, guns and rifles in hand, planted well out of sight in the tall weeds, while Matthews, who lived only a block from the Pearsall home and was well-known to both boys, waited with the coach. Just before the driver got his signal and whipped up his six-horse team, the two youthful bystanders decided to "hitch a ride" and crawled, unnoticed, on the rear baggage compartment. In a few minutes the guns were blazing, and the war cry of the Pawnees went up as Matthews' team tore across the Platte countryside, and Indians on their ponies raced in from all directions. The horses, frightened by the noise, staged a real runaway, while Pearsall and Becher perched precariously on the rear of the vehicle.

Cody, himself, berated them for their recklessness and the incident was never forgotten. Years later, in Omaha, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and in Chicago, Earle Pearsall went to see Buffalo Bill's show and gained admission to his dressing-room after the showman was reminded that it was the same Pearsall who almost was killed when he stole a ride on the stage one day in Columbus, Nebraska.

Although he became an army officer in later life, Pearsall frequently commented that he had never seen anything to equal "those old sharpshooters." His partner in the escapade, Jesse Becher, moved to Duluth, Minnesota, where he later became an auditor.

The History of Platte County Nebraska


The same year that the Pearsall family came to the Platte Valley by covered wagon, the city's first hook and ladder truck was purchased at a cost of one thousand eight hundred dollars. The Columbus Engine Company No. 1 was organized in 1873 and incorporated the following spring, about one month after the incorporation of the Pioneer Company. Earle Pearsall's father became one of the early members of the hook and ladder company, or a "hookie" as they were known then. This represented a major step in the development of Columbus, since a bucket brigade had been the only means of fire protection from its founding in 1856.

Earle Pearsall's older brother, Charles, and Edward W. North, were two of the city's first "torch boys." In the days of the first fire departments, torch boys were youths of approximately high school age, who headed the procession each time the fire bell rang, carrying kerosene torches to light the way. The boys carried big kerosene torches for service, capable of considerable illumination; for night parades they carried blue and silver torches. About 1886, when Earle and his friend, Jesse Becher, were fourteen years old, they became torch boys, replacing North and Charles Pearsall.

In addition to carrying torches, the boys were equipped with elaborate helmets, presumably as a protection from falling timbers. The helmets served as decoration, also; they were later placed on display in the clubrooms of the Columbus Fire Department.

The elder Pearsall, father of Earle and Charles, not only served as a member of the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company, but acted as chief of the department for three years, from 1884 through 1886. A few years later, young Earle was graduated to full membership in the "bookies," later becoming secretary of the Nebraska State Volunteer Firemen's Association.

The system of using torch boys became obsolete when Columbus first began to use electric street lights. Previously the community had been in darkness every night, save for the gleams of light filtering from store and home windows.

However, in 1885, G. A. (Gus) Schroeder and his associates erected a flour mill in the town, and installed an incandescent electric system with a capacity of twelve hundred candle-power. Having more power than he needed in the mill, Schroeder found himself in the position of a distributor, and the town of Columbus was among his first customers. Several street corner arc lights were then installed in the city.


In the middle '80's, a small group of energetic boys in Columbus originated a trade which not only netted them spending money, but proved to be a many-faceted business venture.

As soon as the main line of the Union Pacific railroad became free from Indian attacks on the prairies, wealthy easterners began to take advantage of the transcontinental route to make business and pleasure trips to California. The western frontier was a much popularized region, and these travelers frequently stopped to spend a few days in Columbus along the Union Pacific main line. Even those who only passed through on the train were potential customers of Pearsall and other Columbus boys.

Their business was selling prairie dogs to returning easterners who wished to take home with them a living souvenir. At that time a large tract of land, reaching from what is now Seventh Street to Lost Creek, was the site of a huge "prairie dog town." Here the young "business men" spent hours catching the rodents and transferring them to smaller boxes, each containing a pair. The "gift boxes" were brought to the depot platform, from which the "salesmen" would operate during train stops. Pearsall and his partner, both in their teens, sold between three hundred and four hundred prairie dogs in this way. Others who participated in the strange business were Jesse Becher, C. C. Sheldon, Al Parker and two who were known as the "Johnson boys."

Actually the first "price fixers" in the history of Columbus, they managed this coup by fixing the price of a pair of prairie dogs at three dollars, and soundly whipping any competitors who tried to undersell them. The system worked. Prospective customers were also entertained by the sight of an exceptionally tame pet on a rope. The "sample" prairie dog would cavort about their shoulders, although the actual merchandise contained in the gift boxes was frequently more wild.

Another popular Sunday sport in Columbus before the turn of the century, was that of chasing jack-rabbits with a fast team hitched to a buckboard. This generally took place on the unbroken and unfenced prairie north of the town.

Still another sport was tandem bicycle riding, although the tandem was considered a "sissy bike" among riders when it was first introduced.

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