Timeline Tuesday: Drought and Depression in 1890s Nebraska

Nebraska in the early 1890s suffered from protracted drought, and farm prices fell to new lows. Conditions were so unfavorable that immigration, which had more than doubled the state’s population in the 1880s, almost ceased. Nebraska’s population only increased by seven thousand persons between 1890 and 1900. Some became so discouraged that they sold or gave up their property and left the state.

Charles Henry Morrill. From The Morrills and Reminiscences (1918).

     Charles H. Morrill, a prominent farmer, businessman, and banker for whom Morrill County was named, both witnessed and experienced these conditions in Nebraska. In his autobiographical The Morrills and Reminiscences, published in 1918, he recalled:

“In the year 1893 crops in Nebraska were almost totally destroyed by drought and hot winds. Then came the panic and financial stress, which paralyzed business. In 1894 Nebraska was doomed to have another crop failure. Farmers were obliged to ship in grain and even hay to feed their stock; many sacrificed their live stock by selling at very low prices. Some farmers shot their stock hogs to prevent their starving. Financial conditions grew worse and the entire state was almost in the grip of actual famine.

“Values were greatly reduced, merchants and banks failed. In Lincoln all banks with the exception of three went out of business or failed. Farmers could not pay interest on their mortgages; land could not be sold at any price; foreclosure of mortgages was the general order. . . . In the central and western sections of the state the price of land fell to almost nothing. In Custer County, a very large acreage went into the ownership of eastern real estate and loan companies. These lands were mortgaged for five hundred to seven hundred dollars on each one hundred and sixty acres. One eastern loan company offered to sell me forty quarter sections at two hundred dollars each.

“The crop for 1895 was almost a failure. The result was that all confidence in Nebraska real estate was gone. . . . Good farm lands in Polk and other eastern counties sold as low as twenty-five hundred dollars for one hundred and sixty acres. Many of these farms had improvements thereon valued at fifteen hundred to two thousand dollars. No one desired to purchase while almost everyone wished to sell.”

Urban areas didn’t escape the effects of the drought and depression. Figaro, an Omaha weekly, on December 2, 1893, noted that at the time of the recent Thanksgiving holiday, there were “two thousand people in Omaha homeless and absolutely without means of support.” The newspaper urged its readers to “give at least one of these unfortunates a place to sleep and enough to eat to sustain life without actual misery.”

The financial depression reached its summit in the period 1894-96 but continued into the year 1897. By 1898 there were signs that better times were returning. Those who managed to hold on during the hard times were rewarded by returning prosperity in the early years of the twentieth century.

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Marker Monday: Massacre Canyon

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers



U.S. 34, Trenton, Hitchcock County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 40.206898, -100.9643

Marker Text

The adjacent stone monument erected in 1930 was first placed about a mile south of this area. Originally on the highway overlooking the canyon, it was moved to this location after the highway was relocated. Massacre Canyon is the large canyon about half a mile west of here. The battle took place in and along this canyon when a Pawnee hunting party of about 700, confident of protection from the government, were surprised by a War Party of Sioux. The Pawnee, badly outnumbered and completely surprised, retreated into the head of the canyon about two miles northwest of here. The battle was the retreat of the Pawnee down the canyon to the Republican. The Pawnee reached the Republican River, about a mile and a half south of here, and crossed to the other side. The Sioux were ready to pursue them still further, but a unit of cavalry arrived and prevented further fighting. The defeat so broke the strength and spirit of the tribe that it moved from its reservation in central Nebraska to Oklahoma.

Further Information

Read more information about Massacre Canyon here.

Nebraska Marker Project

The Nebraska Marker Project is for the repainting, repair and in some cases, replacement of state historical markers throughout the state. Nebraska’s markers share our exciting history for generations to come. Please consider donating by visiting the Nebraska Marker Project webpage at http://nshsf.org/the-nebraska-marker-project/.

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Flashback Friday: Child Labor on the Farm

By: David Bristow

I am a little boy ten years old. I go to school when we have school, but we haven’t got any school now. It will begin soon. I helped to farm last spring; I plowed with three horses and helped cultivate corn and make hay. …I have to feed nine calves and my little brother and I carry in the fuel.

Bryan Echtemkardt, Knox County, Nebraska, 1907

Nebraska Farmer, May 6, 1911. The caption, taken from the saying “As the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined,” emphasizes the character-building aspect of farm chores

What was it like to grow up on a Nebraska farm a century ago? Was it a wholesome childhood shaped by character-building chores and responsibilities, or was it a life of dangerous drudgery?

A lot depended upon the particular farm or family in question. As Pamela Riney-Kehrberg writes, “Children’s responsibilities ranged from simple daily chores, requiring only an hour or two, to being the family’s primary farmers or housekeepers.” Riney-Kehrberg looks at the lives of Nebraska farm kids in “‘But What Kind of Work Do the Rest of You Do?’ Child Labor on Nebraska Farms, 1870-1920” (Nebraska History, Summer 2001),

The author writes:

In a nation where childhood, in the ideal, was increasingly defined by school and play, farm families continued to be highly integrated and interdependent units. Their success depended upon the work of children who remained tied economically to the family until they were twenty-one years old or married. Moreover, for the children-and their families-to be successful, children had to cultivate habits of independence and initiative from a very early age, and take on the work habits of adults well before their twentieth year.

People still argue about childhood today: Are today’s kids given enough responsibility? Do parents involve them in too many activities? Are part-time jobs a good idea for teens? And why are today’s kids so much worse than the kids of [insert your generation here]?

This article won’t resolve those questions, but offers a fascinating historical perspective.


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Timeline Tuesday: Bootleggers’ Carnival

The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed the manufacture and sale of liquor nationwide, but statewide prohibition was already in effect in Iowa and Nebraska. In 1916 Iowa went dry and Nebraska voters adopted a prohibitory amendment to their state constitution that took effect in May 1917. Enterprising individuals soon learned how to profit by flouting the law. The Dakota County Herald on May 24, 1917, reprinted an article from the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal reporting the bootlegging then rampant in that vicinity:

“When Iowa went dry January 1, 1916, bootlegging increased in Sioux City. For the first few months everybody who had a taste for this profitable business indulged himself. But when the police raiding squad started its work the ranks soon were thinned. The man with the clever idea survived, and his unimaginative neighbor was run out of business.

“It is the work of the members of the raiding squad to solve the question of where the liquor is hidden each time a raid is made on a ‘joint.’ A short time ago a number of metal horse collars were shipped into Dakota City. The collars are used only for heavy draft work and in the artillery branch of the army. The great numbers of this kind of harness where there was no apparent need aroused the suspicions of the authorities. An investigation was made and it was found that each collar contained several gallons of whisky. Every horse in Dakota county is now eyed with suspicion.”

prohibition, first day

May 1, 1917, the first day of statewide prohibition in Nebraska. NSHS RG0813.PH0-40

The newspaper reported that Dakota County residents had many other novel hiding places for booze. “During a raid made by Sheriff Cain a ‘plant’ was found beneath a sitting hen. The biddie was placed there shortly before the raid but could not content herself when the officers appeared at the door. She cackled so furiously that they lifted her from the nest and found the whisky buried in a deep hole filled with straw. . . .

“Pianos used to offer a safe hiding place for liquid before the policemen became aware of this scheme. When pianos went out of style empty dry goods boxes with false bottoms and ash barrels in the back yard came into fashion. These, too, were obvious methods. One day one of the raiding squad noticed that the gas jet in a house that they were visiting was damp. He opened the jet and applied a match. A fine stream of ice cold beer squirted into the air. A tank was found in the attic which was connected with a gas pipe to the sitting room on the first floor.” Bathrooms were also targeted by raiding squads. “The flush tank in the bathroom is an excellent place to cool beer and to hide it at the same time, say the police.”

Bootlegging continued even after the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning liquor nationwide, was ratified in January 1919. Nebraska was not one of the thirty-six states (out of a total of forty-eight then) that later voted to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment to repeal national prohibition, but in November 1934 Nebraskans did vote to repeal the state’s constitutional prohibition by a 60- to 40-percent margin.

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Marker Monday: First Presbyterian Church of St. Paul

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers.



901-999 8th St, St Paul, Howard County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 41.214554, -98.45951

Marker Text

The congregation was organized in 1879, eight years after the first homestead claim was filed in Howard County. The first church at this location, a frame structure dedicated in 1881, was destroyed by fire in February 1905. Construction of this building, the oldest church in town still at its original site, began in September 1905 and was completed in July 1907 at a cost of $15,000, including the furniture and organ. The bell now in use survived the 1905 fire.

Nebraska Marker Project

The Nebraska Marker Project is for the repainting, repair and in some cases, replacement of state historical markers throughout the state. Nebraska’s markers share our exciting history for generations to come. Please consider donating by visiting the Nebraska Marker Project webpage at http://nshsf.org/the-nebraska-marker-project/.

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Flashback Friday: History of the Omahawks

From 1972 until 1975 the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, a member of the National Basketball Association (NBA), played a handful of home games in Omaha’s Civic Auditorium. That three-year span was a rare moment in Nebraska history, a brief time when the Cornhusker State could claim a big league team of its own.

Omaha World-Herald October 27,1947

The Kings’ stay in Omaha is well known to many Nebraska sports fans, particularly those with an interest in history. Less well known is the story of Omaha’s first major professional basketball team. That team, nicknamed the Omahawks, predated the Knds by twenty-five years, playing in the ill-fated Professional Basketball Leagues of American (PBLA) for three weeks in the fall of 1947. Although the existence of that team and its league was incredibly brief, its story is worth remembering as one of the unique episodes in Nebraska sports history, a history in which basketball is often overlooked. A roster that featured five home-grown players–four of whom spent time in the nation’s service during World War II– the story of the Omahawks is the story of the limits and possibilities for Nebraskans chasing pro dreams in the postwar years.

Omaha’s PBLA franchise belonged to the league’s Northen Division, along with St. Joseph, Kansas City, St. Paul, Chicago, and Waterloo, Iowa. The PBLA office tabbed Frank Hagan, Creighton University athletic director, as the business manager for Omaha’s team. Len Shepherd, who had played semi-professional basketball in regional leagues around the Midwest in the 1920s, came on as coach. As for the name on the team–The “Omahawks”– it was chosen during a naming contest conducted with the aid of the Omaha World-Herald. The newspaper reported that Mrs. A. B. Richie Jr., of Auburn, Nebraska, supplied the winning entry.

To read the full article written by Paul Emory Putz  is published in 2016 winter edition of Nebraska History

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Timeline Tuesday: Saint Andre Durand Balcombe


Saint Andre Durand Balcombe. From Omaha Illustrated (1888).

  Saint Andre Durand Balcombe (1829-1904), a pioneer Indian agent and newspaper editor of Omaha, was a builder not only of Omaha and the state of Nebraska but of the West as well. During his association with the Omaha Republican from 1866 to 1876, its editorials were remarkable for their “terseness and vigor of style,” qualities which sometimes got Balcombe into trouble. An article in the Republican on Edward Rosewater, editor of the rival Omaha Bee, caused a long-remembered confrontation between Rosewater and Balcombe on a downtown Omaha street in July 1873.

Balcombe had published in the Republican what Rosewater considered an insulting article about him. The Bee’s publisher promptly responded with a note demanding a public apology. Balcombe replied that Rosewater would “get his fill of satisfaction for the article that appeared in these columns yesterday.” During a later meeting at Fourteenth and Douglas streets, Rosewater lashed at Balcombe with a cowhide whip. The Republican’s editor, however, was a taller man than Rosewater and soon landed him on the sidewalk. Each editor claimed victory in his paper the next day, although witnesses generally agreed that Rosewater came out second best.

A native of New York state, Balcombe moved with his family to Winona, Minnesota, in 1845. He lived in Elgin, Illinois, for a time and then in 1854 moved to Winona, Minnesota. Balcombe was elected to the Minnesota territorial legislature in 1855 and to the state legislature in 1857. He was elected a regent of the University of Minnesota in 1857; and served as a Republican member of the constitutional convention of 1857. In March 1861, he was appointed agent for the Winnebago Indians in Minnesota by President Abraham Lincoln, and reappointed by Lincoln from Dakota Territory in March 1865.

Balcombe settled in Omaha in May 1865, where he purchased the Omaha Republican, assuming editorial control of the leading Republican newspaper in Nebraska. One of Balcombe’s first acts after acquiring the Republican was to enlarge the paper. At the time he became connected with it, the daily was a six-column sheet. He soon enlarged it to seven columns and otherwise improved it by putting the advertisements in new type. He served as its editor and proprietor until 1871, when he disposed of a half interest to Waldo M. Potter. The paper was afterwards merged into a stock company, and Balcombe retired from its active management in 1876. He later maintained that “no Nebraska democrat was elected to congress or as a state official during my management of the policy of the Republican.”

In November 1865 President Andrew Johnson removed Balcombe as agent to the Winnebago. He never forgot or forgave this act by Johnson. Balcombe’s obituary, completed only a few hours before his death and published by the Omaha World-Herald on May 7, 1904, called Johnson an “arch traitor to the republican party and its principles, who appointed Colonel [Charles P.] Mathewson my successor.”

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Marker Monday: The University of Nebraska

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers



Stadium Dr, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 40.818317, -96.70536

Marker Text

Chartered as a Land-Grant institution by the first regular session of the State Legislature on February 15, 1869, the University opened its doors to 20 collegiate students and 110 preparatory school pupils on September 7, 1871. Lincoln was then a raw prairie village of about 2,400 people. University Hall, the original four-story building, stood on this site. Its lumber was hauled by wagon from Nebraska City; its brick made locally. It was finally razed in October, 1948. Despite financial crises and ideological disputes, the University survived its early years and in 1886 inaugurated the first program of graduate instruction west of the Mississippi. Recognized for its high scholastic standards, the University was accorded membership in the Association of American Universities in 1908. As a major institution of higher education, the University performed a key role in the early development of the State and continues now as a prime source of further Nebraska progress

Further Information

Read more information about The University of Nebraska here

Nebraska Marker Project

The Nebraska Marker Project is for the repainting, repair and in some cases, replacement of state historical markers throughout the state. Nebraska’s markers share our exciting history for generations to come. Please consider donating by visiting the Nebraska Marker Project webpage at http://nshsf.org/the-nebraska-marker-project/.

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Flashback Friday: The Great Omaha Train Robbery of 1909

RG0813-444 SFN0426_2 Burlington in Wilber 1910 detail

This isn’t the train that was robbed, but is one from that era: a Burlington train in Wilber, Nebraska, in 1910. NSHS RG0813-44

By: David Bristow

On a night train heading into Omaha, “two men wearing long coats, slouch hats, and dark-blue polka dot handkerchiefs over their faces suddenly appeared over the tender and jumped down to the engine,” writes Tommy R. Thompson. One of the men pressed a pistol to the engineer’s temple and looked out the cab window for a signal fire in the distance. They halted the train in a deep cut near Forty-second Street, where it would be hidden from view. The “Mud Cut Robbery” of May 22, 1909, had begun.

The robbery was soon the talk of Omaha. No one was killed, but the four or five bandits made off with the mail sacks. The Union Pacific Railroad and the federal government offered rewards that eventually totaled $30,000.

ODN 1909-05-29a_3

Omaha Daily News, May 29, 1909

Investigators had few leads until May 27, when “several boys from the Brown Park Elementary School at 19th and U Streets in South Omaha found two guns, dark blue polka dot handkerchiefs, and slouch hats hidden in a gully near 18th Street between T and U.” The school principal notified police, who staked out the area. That night they “arrested three men who approached the area ‘in a suspicious manner.’” Soon the mail sacks were discovered in the school’s attic.

The bandits’ plot continued to unravel . . . a story too complicated to tell in a blog post. You’ll want to read the whole thing. It involves a female companion of the robbers who agreed to testify against them, an Omaha trial and attempted jailbreak, a successful prison break in Leavenworth, Kansas, and a bitter legal fight between the many claimants for the reward money. In all, it’s a fascinating look at law enforcement a century ago.

—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research & Publications

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Timeline Tuesday: Bird Day

Bird Day was first observed on May 4, 1894, in Pennsylvania, and by 1910 was widely celebrated, often in conjunction with Arbor Day. Observances of the two holidays helped instill conservation training and awareness in the public, especially in school children. Although Bird Day was never recognized as an official state holiday in Nebraska, the observance was supported by J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day, and others, such as University of Nebraska entomology professor Lawrence Bruner.

The Omaha World-Herald on January 15, 1899, editorialized in favor of an official Bird Day, noting: “Senate file No. 19, a resolution introduced in the Nebraska state senate by Senator [Isaac] Noyes of Douglas county, proposes to create a ‘bird day’ for the state of Nebraska. This resolution should receive the support of every lawmaker in the state, and certainly will receive the endorsement of every intelligent citizen who will give the subject a moment’s thought.

“The ruthless and unwarranted destruction of the field and forest birds of the United States has grown to such an extent that an alarm is being sounded in all parts of the country. Legislatures of many states are being appealed to to protect the birds. Humane societies are directing their efforts in behalf of the feathered songsters. The ornithologists’ union has recommended the passage of a bill in the various state legislatures imposing a fine upon any person guilty of destroying birds. Societies are being organized to discourage the use of feathers of wild birds for dress ornaments. It is a fact that notwithstanding the myriads of increasing insects that threaten the destruction of our agricultural, horticultural and floricultural industries, thoughtless women of America persist in demanding the wings, the heads and plumage of these little insect destroyers for headgear ornaments. . . .

“Professor Bruner of the Nebraska university, who has a world-wide reputation as a naturalist, recently delivered a lecture in Omaha under the auspices of the Humane society. . . . [He] estimated that if destruction of birds’ eggs could be stopped for one year throughout Nebraska the number of birds would double and insects be killed off in proportion; and that in time birds would so multiply that insects could be kept under, and if insects caused annoyance in any particular part of the state the birds would flock there and put them out of the way. . . .

“The ‘Bird Day’ for Nebraska will result in educational influences upon the children, influences which will be of inestimable worth. When the schools of the state observe the occasion by suitable exercises in the form of lectures, readings of bird literature, the writing of essays and singing of songs about birds, as well as the recounting of personal experiences with these innocent creatures of the forest and the field, then will the reform so much needed show evidence of educational influence. Save the birds! Their value is inestimable and the rising generation should be taught the importance of this sentiment by an observance of ‘Bird Day’ in Nebraska.”

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