Flashback Friday: Helen Keller Shocked at Nebraska’s Poor Financial Assistance for the Blind

Unidentified man with Helen Keller and her secretary, Polly Thompson during her visit to Lincoln on May 12, 1947. Thompson communicated with Keller by touch. RG2183.PH001947-00512-2

Unidentified man with Helen Keller and her secretary, Polly Thompson during her visit to Lincoln on May 12, 1947. Thompson communicated with Keller by touch. RG2183.PH001947-00512-2

It’s 1947, and the Nebraska legislature has not passed funding for the education and rehabilitation of people with vision loss for twenty-five years.

Who are you going to call?

You call the “nationally famous deaf and blind authoress and lecturess” Helen Keller.

Keller was on a national lecture tour sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind, raising money  to help blind children in war-ravaged Europe. She made a side trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, in May 1947 to advocate for funding because she was appalled by Nebraska’s lack of attention to its blind residents. She ranked the state’s “low standards” in the bottom three in the country.

“I was astonished and shocked that not only has Nebraska ranked far behind in establishing a program for the blind but even displayed at the polls a primitive and un-Christian attitude toward those who, through no fault of their own, live in the dark,” the 66-year-old Keller said at a May 12 luncheon in Lincoln (Lincoln Star, May 12, 1947).

Keller was known internationally as a writer, speaker, and advocate for the blind. A childhood illness had left her deaf and blind at the age of twenty months. Her journey to learn language under the care of her tutor and teacher, Anne Sullivan, was later immortalized in the play and later the movie entitled The Miracle Worker. After Keller learned how to use sign language via touch, she blossomed as a writer and speaker even from the age of eight because of her extraordinary abilities. Mark Twain even tallied Keller among “‘Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals.’ Her renown, he said, would endure a thousand years” (Ozick).

Nebraskans seemed similarly impressed with Keller. Lincoln papers gave the visit extensive coverage.

During an interview in her hotel room the night before she spoke, Keller told the Nebraska State Journal “I’m going to tell them of the great need of the blind, of how the blind must be understood and treated as human beings. The blind must be allowed to have the same feelings, same desires and ambitions as those that see.”

She then spoke in front of a sold-out public luncheon before addressing the Legislature. At the luncheon, she spoke frankly to the gathered public.

“I understand that Nebraska prides itself by not being burdened with extra taxes of a complicated legislative system,” Keller said. “Yet it continues to deny it blind adequate rehabilitation though it has been proven that the blind, given a chance, can support themselves and can take their place in life and in the work of their community.

“You who are responsible citizens and trusted stewards of Nebraska’s economic advantages, I implore you to co-operate with your enlightened governor and his committee to rescue the thousands of handicapped men and women from needless misery. You will agree, I am sure, that a state is not progressive or even civilized, if it does not seek to safeguard the interests of all of its people. Will you not use your influence to arouse the people of Nebraska to a sense of duty to aid the handicapped and help the blind turn disaster into a bridge-road of creative usefulness?”

Group in governor's office with Helen Keller during her visit to Lincoln May 12, 1947. RG2183.PH001947-000512-1

Group in governor’s office with Helen Keller during her visit to Lincoln May 12, 1947. RG2183.PH001947-000512-1

All three Lincoln newspapers ran stories about her visit, but The Lincoln Star had the most coverage.

“Miss Keller speaks in a slightly nervous, throaty, voice,” the Star reported. “Yet, her voice and her message brought tears to the eyes of several blind persons in the audience. Seeing-eye dogs barked, as if in salute, when Miss Keller entered the luncheon hall, then remained quiet throughout her address, except during the applause.

Asked what she thought of the governor’s [Governor Val Peterson] policy for the blind, Miss Keller said it impressed her as a policy ‘of true administration with a discerning eye for the needs of the blind. The most important fact in an effective program is that it is not enough to procure a program of legislation or just to give money, but also to have qualified workers who themselves have faith in the blind…also a watchful eye to see that the laws, once made, do not become so much dead letter.’

The paper also included details about Keller’s personality as well as her speaking persona and views on policy.

“Miss Keller told the audience that she enjoys flowers. She spoke of going to Radcliff college and her favorite subject – philosophy. Her greatest ambition is ‘to keep on working until the handicapped everywhere have a fair chance in life.’”

The reporter also asked Keller why she was so happy.

“Because,” she replied, “I always feel God’s nearness, because I have wonderful friends, interesting work, and the world’s wealth of literature.”

After the luncheon, Keller visited the Nebraska legislature.

“Miss Helen Keller drew a packed chamber when she spoke briefly to the legislature. She came in on the arm of Governor Peterson who introduced her. She chided the members that Nebraska had passed adequate laws to aid the blind in 1917, but did not appropriate funds for 25 years. She praised the governor’s committee report and bemoaned the fact that out of the $15,000 appropriation only 22 blind had been rehabilitated out of 1,500 on the register.

Action of the legislature in passage of bills to aid blind received her commendation. She pleaded for home teachers for the blind and objected to the school for the blind being considered a charity.”

Research into legislation regarding aid for blind Nebraskans has not found any evidence that the Nebraska legislature responded to Keller’s pleas for more funding. In some unpublished notes from Dr. James Nyman, former director of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (then the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired), he writes “that period from 1944 to 1962 was, a kind of a quiet period; some growth of the staff occurred toward the end of that period” (Presentation notes for NCBVI Staff meeting, April 2, 2014).

Nyman goes on to write, “In 1939, the Nebraska Association of Workers for the Blind…introduced legislation to establish a separate state commission for the blind. Now that was 1939, and my recollection is that the commission finally got established in the year 2000, which means that for a political process that takes 60 years, that’s about standard, I should think.”

Keller died in 1968, just a few weeks before her eighty-eighth birthday.


“Helen Keller Appeals for an Invigorated Program for Blind.” Lincoln Evening Journal. May 12, 1947. p. 1, col. 2-4 & col. 2-3.

“Helen Keller Shocked at Nebraska Standing.” The Lincoln Star. May 12, 1947. p. 1, col. 3-4 & p. 2 col. 3. Print.

“Helen Keller, Who Conquered Her Handicap, Works for Blind.” Nebraska State Journal. May 12, 1947. p. 1, col. 2-3 &

Nyman, Dr. James. Presentation notes for Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired staff meeting, April 2, 2014. Unpublished.

Ozick, Cynthia. “What Helen Keller Saw: The Making of a Writer.” The New Yorker. 16 June 2003. Web.


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What Is It Wednesday REVEALED – August 24 – Salimeter

“What Is It Wednesday” Revealed – every Wednesday we post an unusual artifact from our collections and encourage viewers to guess the object.

While this object is not on display, please visit the newly-renovated Nebraska History Museum at 15th & P Streets in Lincoln to see interesting Nebraska history like this on exhibit now!

11282-42 Salimeter from the Thiessen Pickle Company.

The H. Thiessen Pickle Company was started in 1898 by Herman Thiessen in his apartment in Omaha. He had recently immigrated from northern Germany and had


August 24 What Is It Wednesday. Nebraska State Historical Society. Salimeter

worked for the Claussen Pickle Company in Chicago for two or three years before coming to Omaha. H. Thiessen Pickle Company purchased cucumbers from growers in west central Minnesota and from Japanese-American produce farmers along the Platte River valley in northeastern Colorado. For awhile pickles were purchased from growers around Omaha, but their quality was not as good because of the hot, humid climate there. In the growing districts there were salting stations, where the cucumbers were also sorted by size. The cucumbers were placed in brine solution and cured there over winter. In the spring they were removed from the tanks and shipped by rail to Omaha where the dill and other flavorings were added and they were bottled. They were marked locally under the Thiessen brand name. The Omaha pickling and bottling plant was located at 2101 South 24th Street. They also did extra label business, meaning that they sold pickles to other companies who would market them under their own corporate names. The main customer during the 1950s was Safeway. The business closed in 1961.

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The Indians as I Knew Them by Grace Stenberg Parsons – Memories of the Genoa Indian School

This manuscript was written by Grace Stenberg Parsons. As the daughter of the blacksmithing instructor at the Genoa Indian School in Genoa, Nebraska, Parsons observed the young Native American children who attended the school on a daily basis from 1907-1911. This short memoir of her experiences gives details about her childhood growing up on the Crow Reservation in Montana and living at the Genoa Indian School in Nebraska. The original manuscript can be found in the NSHS collections, RG1298.

The Indians as I Knew Them

When I was a small girl, my father and mother, my brother and I moved to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. We were sent to Prior first, a sub-agency of Crow. We were to wait there until the appointment for Crow came through.

Both agencies are just across the Wyoming line in the south central part of Montana. When it came, the four of us and our trunks were sent to Crow by way of a spring wagon, two scrawny Indian ponies and two Indian drivers.

I remember going down the steep hills, the wagon pushing the ponies, the Indians yelling and putting on the screeching brakes. We stopped every so often to rest the ponies, one time to pick up a dead owl, which they put in the spring wagon. Another time the Indians sighted a dead horse in the distance. They stopped, gestured and talked. They looked at us, our trunks and the dead horse. My mother was concerned; she thought the dead horse might make more of an appeal than the money they were to receive for taking us to Crow. They finally decided in our favor but no doubt the dead horse was picked up on the way back.

After reaching Crow Agency we found there were no employee’s living quarters for us, so we had to live in the Indian section of the agency between the irrigation ditch and the Little Big Horn River.

The government had built some small cottages for the Indians, they pitched their tepees near the cottages so it was possible to use both. We had to live in one of these small cottages and were completely surrounded by Indians and tepees. Until we found out how we would be received, my brother and I had to stay on our own door step.

One of the squaws who lived next door to us kneeded [sic] her bread on the floor in the doorway. It being speckled with dirt didn’t bother her in the least.

The thing we really enjoyed was watching them cut up and dry their meat. They took a large piece, started in the center and cut it into long strips. They stretched all sorts of lines from their tepees to a pole or a tree. The strips of meat were draped over the lines to sun dry. Along would come the Magpies, they are a large black and white bird with a very long tail. They would grab a beakful and start off, the meat would fall to the ground, then the dogs – and the Indians love dogs for they had dozens of them – would grab a mouthful. There was so much commotion that Indians came running waiving [six] their arms and shouting. They picked up the meat, draped it over the lines again and went back to whatever they were doing. This happened several times a day until the meat was cured. It was then put in bags, tramped with the feet and stored for the winter.

According to our standards, the Indians are far from clean. They did at times wash their clothes and bathe. In the meantime when a dress became dirty another one was put over it. One day my mother counted thirteen dresses on a squaw. Each one was a bit shorter than the other.

By the time we moved to the employee’s section of the agency, my brother and I were well steeped in Indian ways and had a good sized vocabulary. We pitched tepees, made war bonnets, but we could not make a Tom-Tom so we had to use a tin can.

After watching a three day and night Indian dance, we put on our war bonnets, got our tin can Tom-Tom and started to dance. Our shrill wailing and the noise of our tin can Tom-Tom brought the agency Indians on the run. After it was over they examined our war bonnets, took the best feathers, they gave us two quirts in exchange.

We overheard our parents talking one day about visiting Big Fox in his tepee and how clean it was. Off we wnt [sic] into the Indian section of the agency and hunted until we found Big Fox. We asked if we could see inside his tepee. There must have been things inside but I was so impressed with the freshly sprinkled earth floor, to this day I have no idea what was inside.

My mother made many friends among the Indians. One of her special friends was a young mother Katy-Round-Face and her baby girl. She made the baby a bright calico dress and feather stitched it in some gay colored thread. Katy was so proud of it she showed it to the other mothers. From then on my mother spent most of her time making bright colored calico dresses for the papooses.

Her sewing machine was in front of a window, at times there were so many Indian mothers watching her they shut out the sunlight.

Runs-Through-the Tepee was not one of our friends. By Indian standards he was a rich man. His appearance gave no indication of it for he was a revolting creature with dirty matted hair, long finger nails that curled at the ends. His clothes were filthy and tattered. Fortunately he did not come to the agency often, but when he did come my mother would say emphatically, “I am not going to feed him this time.” He would sit on the edge of the porch, he would sniff, hitch himself, look in the window, sniff, hitch again, when he was about half way down, my mother would say, “I can’t stand it any longer, take this bread and butter to him.” Whoever was feeling brave at that particular moment would give the bread to him. It was always a relief when he grunted and left.

Fort Custer was abandoned because of the drinking water. Our water was not much better. It was taken from the Little Big Horn River. It had to be settled and boiled before using. In spite of these precautions, my mother developed a bad case of dysentery. There was a doctor at the agency but he was never sober long enough for any of us to find out if he could cure a patient.

In no time the Indians found out my mother was ill. One whole day they trooped into her bedroom, stood, looked, shook their heads, turned and walked out past the kitchen cupboards taking whatever appealed to them. The next day back they came, each carring [sic] a branch loaded with buffalo berries. Buffalo berries are a bright red, very pucker berry. They used them to cure meat and for medicinal reasons. Perhaps they would have cured her – the trouble was the berries were wormy.

During the summer months my father rented two Indian ponies and a spring wagon. We went for a long drive every Sunday. Often we drove to Custer Battlefield. It was three miles south of us. The battlefield is on low rolling hills. To get there we had to ford the Little Big Horn River as there were no bridges. The horses had to walk or swim the river depending on the depth of the water.

At that time there were markers for the soldiers and a wooden cross for General Custer. Today it is a National Cemetary [sic].

Some times we went to Old Fort Custer. The buildings were still standing. The first time we went there my father asked one of the employees for directions. He said, “Start northwest, follow the empty whiskey bottles and you’ll get there.”

The look-out was especially interesting to us for we could see all the surrounding country. Other times we would ride over the hills to the Indian burying grounds. At that time they buried their dead above the gound [sic]. The grave was placed on four posts as the Indians’ most valued possessions were buried with him, for he would not them in the Happy Hunting Ground. If he had killed someone, the scalps were tacked on top of a tall pole which was placed near the grave.

The Indians sometimes put their dead in a death tepee. We were told that these graves were watched at all times and it would be dangerous to molest them.

The Indians had not acquired many of the white man’s ways. Their living habits were almost the same as they had been for centuries. Both the men and the women parted their hair in the middle and wore it in braids. They wore beaded moccasins on their feet, blankets over their heads and around their bodies. They used buffalo robes in their tepees for bedding. No one knows when the Indians first started using beads. It is thought that white man must have traded beads for valuable furs.

The Indians love bright things, so they put beads on their moccasins, vests, dresses, belts, and pouches. Some tribes used porcupine quills to make designs on birch bark baskets. Sweet grass was woven into baskets and corn husks into bags. Clay is still used to make pottery. Silver and turquoise is made into jewelry. Wool from their sheep is woven into blankets. The roots and berries of plants are made into dyes. These dyes are used to color their wool, the hides of animals and even themselves when they their dances or for any special occasion.

The tribes still specialize in some handicraft. In the very early days they made their own tools and weapons. They were skillful with the bow and arrow, later with our guns. Every year they take on more and more of white man’s ways.

My parents were reluctant to leave the Indian bureau but my brother and I were past school age.

White children were not permitted to attend Indian Schools. Our Indian vocabulary was growing at an alarming rate. Billings, our nearest town, was sixty miles away. It was a wild frontier town where they shot up the town every night.

Only one thing remained, return to Nebraska where we could go to school.

At a later date we were re-instated and went to the Genoa Indian School.

Had we been in Nebraska during the 1930’s I think I might have been another Cary Nation going from town to town with a tomahawk urging Nebraskans to make it known in Washington that they objected strongly to the closing of the Genoa Indian School.

Countless times I have been told the Indians are a dirty, thieving, shiftless lot. I have pointed out repeatedly the so-called lazy buck was a hunter and a warrior and had been for centuries. Almost overnight he was forbidden to do either. The government tucked them away on some no good land called a reservation and told them to be peaceful and farm.

The Indian had no interest in farming and had no desire to learn.

It is evident the Department of Indian affairs at that time did not have the word “adjust” in their vocabulary. The squaws were better able to cope with their problems as there was little change in their mode of living. Caring for their children, cooking and making amp were the duties they were accustomed to doing.

The warrior objected to plowing the hard ground, never-the-less he did because he was forced to. He lived in mean surroundings and he became mean and rebellious.

The Indians were starving so the government started issuing rations to them. The rations were in payment for the land which was taken from them, but it wasn’t long before the rations were galled “gifts”.

The Indians were forbidden to have tribal dances, for they used their rations as food for their guests, the neighboring tribes. As a result where we were they took to the hills out of sight and sound and had their dances anyway.

This rebellious trait is noted in our early history. The early settlers tried without success to make the Indian a servant but they soon gave up the idea.

The government finally came to the realization there was little that could be done with the older Indians. They would have to begin with the children and educate them.

Schools were started here and there. The pay was small and it offered little attraction to the really good instructors. Fortunately there were some employees sincerely interested. They made known to Washington the needs of the Indians. Eventually a program was worked out. The children would be placed for three years in non-reservation schools away from the influence of their parents.

The need was for both an academic and an industrial education. The result was half a day in the class room and half a day in a shop.

The pupils worked in all the shops to get an idea of the various trades. When the time came their aptitudes and desires were considered. They then specialized in a particular trade. When they were graduated they were ready to accept a job but our white world as not ready to accept them as workers. They had not kept pace with the Indians and his education so they refused to hire them.

The heart-break came when the young people, not accepted in the white world, returned to the reservation to be met with rejection and ridicule. Only one thing remained – they were back in blankets and shawls – a disillusioned lot.

I would like to tell you about a non-reservation school. At one time the Genoa Industrial School for Indians ranked fifth in the United States. It was opened by the Federal Government in March 1884 and operated for fifty years. It was abandoned in 1933.

Indian boys and girls came from reservations from Canada to Mexico. Later the distract was limited to Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, Michigan, and Maine

At its peak the school had 600 pupils. Besides the million dollar buildings there were 320 acres of land.

The original school building housed boys, girls, and all employees. It was made of sun dried brick and cottonwood lumber.

Cannons stood near the building not for looks but for protection. That building was still in use in 1906 when we moved to the school. It was called the boy’s building and it housed all the boys.

With the increase in enrollment it was necessary to raze the old building and two buildings took its place. A big boys dormitory a small boys dormitory.

The school was a village in itself. I’ll list the buildings to give you some idea of the school.

The first building was the office building, next the big boys’ dormitory, small boys’ dormitory, small girls’ dormitory, employee’s mess hall, school building with its large auditorium, the superintendent’s home, three buildings for the single employees. These buildings were in the front row. The power house, water tanks, hospital, laundry, bakery, commissary, horse and cattle barns, the shop building with the general mechanics shop, the carpentry, the harness and the tailor shop. Then the long row of cottages for the employees with families.

The band stand and parade grounds were in front of the main buildings. The baseball diamond and bleachers were south of the parade grounds and across the railroad tracks.

Because the school was located in a farming community farming and its related subjects were stressed. Boys who specialized in farming were expected to be able to shoe a horse, mend and make harness, and all ordinary mechanical repairs.

The carpenters learned their trade, the tailor shop mended and made all the uniforms both work and dress. All dress uniforms were tailored to fit the individual.

The power house had its apprentices, a detail of boys worked in the bakery and the boys in the print shop set type and published the school paper, “The Indian News”.

The girls worked in the laundry, kitchen, dining room, and mending room. They were taught domestic science – how to cook and serve a meal in the home.

During the summer they picked and canned fruit. They were trained as nurses in the hospital. The girls were taught to sew on sewing machines. The advanced classes made all the uniforms for the girls.

Both boys and girls had to clean their rooms and the corridors. The buildings were given rigid inspection. This was the practical part of their education.

There were two bands, first and second for the boys, an orchestra for both boys and girls, also singing groups. So many people are amazed when I tell them that many Indians have a striking gift of voice and a general love of music.

There were baseball, basketball, and track teams. There were dances, plays, skating parties and walks.

Saturday was shopping day downtown for the girls. They always went in a group with a chaperon. Sunday mornings both boys and girls were escorted to the church of their choice. In the afternoon there were band concerts, skating parties and long walks. In the spring there were dress parades which attracted people far and near. Then came chapel and Sunday was over.

The school was run under military discipline. The regiment was divided into companies. Each company had its captain, first and second lieutenants. The captains were responsible for the conduct of their companies. The boys and girls marched to and from the dining hall, to and from school.

There was constant drilling either on the parade grounds or the gymnasium in preparation for the spring dress parades. The result was precision marching.

This is a typical day in an Indian boarding school.

Six o’clock rising bugle, 6:30 bugle roll call and breakfast. Between 6 and 7:30, besides dressing and eating, the beds had to be made. Seven thirty whistle for all shop classes. School room classes started at 8:30 or 9. The 11:30 whistle dismissed the shops and classes. Back to the dormitories to get ready for 12 o’clock dinner.

Bugle for company fall in and roll call then march to dinner. One o’clock whistle, shops and classes again. Class rooms dismissed at 4, the 5 o’clock whistle dismissed the shops.

Three times a day the hospital took care of drops in the eyes, cuts, burns, and bruises besides the bed patients.

A detail was sent with an employee to the commissary sometime during the day to get supplies. Loads of incoming coal had to be weighed, a detail of boys collected garbage from the employee’s cottages and the kitchen, ice was delivered to the employees and the kitchen. The lawns were rolled and mowed in the spring and summer. Walks were kept clear in winter, ice was cut and stored in the ice house. These had to be sandwiched in sometime during the day.

The 5:30 bugle was for company fall in, roll call and supper. During the evening – band, orchestra and singing practice, gymnastics and track practice.

Nine o’clock taps – all Indians in bed and lights out in the dormitories. Ten o’clock lights out for employees – power house closed down until morning.

Of all the bugles we had I shall always hear taps. On a calm, mellow night the bugler would sound taps low and long, on a cold night it came quick and sharp, on a gusty night it came in snatches. However it came, to us it meant good night and lights out.

Graduation week was our gala affair. The boys and girls were graduated from classrooms and the shops. There was open house that week. One full day was given to the shop displays and demonstrations. There were orchestra and band concerts, and dress parades. Dress parades like all military parades were spectacular and thrilling. The boys’ uniforms, form fitting, were made of government issue (blue flannel). The band uniforms had wide gold braid. The boys had white braid. The girls’ uniforms had red braid. However the braid on the boys and girls uniforms were alternated.

One year when it was the girls turn to wear white braid, the dresses were made with very deep round yokes and stand up collars. The white braid started in circles about the middle of the blouse and continued until it reached the ears. When they marched into chapel on Sunday nights all you were conscious of was a blur of white braid.

Getting back to the dress parade – First came the drum major and the band dripping gold braid, then the 600 boys and girls in companies with their officers marching past the reviewers stand.

The final commands were given just before they reached the judges’ stand, faces ahead, eyes to the left and watch the marcher next to you. Company E, the little tots, always received the greatest applause but never the flag. That was given to the company whose marching was flawless.

Victoria Tyndall, captain of Company C won the flag time after time. Vickie and I grew up together – we were inseparable. She is now a teacher in the Indian Service.

Formal graduation was, of course, the last night in the week.

Then came the dreadful let down, train loads of children who had been at the school for three years were taken home. The summers were long and quiet, with only a handful of pupils and many of the employees on vacation.

We looked forward to early autumn when the employees brought in the children. Children five years of age and up from our district were eligible to attend the Genoa School. The little folks came in scared, dirty, and buggy.

The clippers were waiting, all heads were shingled, they were bathed with carbolic soap from head to toe. At night they were dressed in long white night shirts and lined up. The matron watched while the captain called the roll, to each boy he would say, “Your name is Joe, your name Dan,” and so on until all had been accounted for. They repeated a short prayer in a monotone, said goodnight to their matron, then off to bed, some to sleep others to sob themselves to exhaustion. The little girls fared better than the little boys for the older girls mothered them. The little boys had only their matron and she was a busy person for she had many boys and many duties.

Nine o’clock taps and the wailing cry of the little boys as they stood under the sleeping porches with faces to the brick walls are two sounds that have always stayed with me.

There are very few non-reservation schools left. Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas, the one at Santa Fe and one near Riverside, California. There may be others. I grant the Indian will have to be assimilated the same as other minority groups, but we feel as do many others that the training they received at these schools was far too valuable to have been discontinued. Public schools in the states cannot afford to give them the education they received at the government schools. They also need the restraining and guiding hand the Indian Schools gave them.

According to newspaper articles delinquency and disease are on the increase.

Some effort is being made in the larger cities to help the Indians find jobs and help them get adjusted. So far it is a mere drop in the bucket. Most of the Indians who seek jobs are now classified as unskilled labor. This classification would not have been necessary has the government schools continued.

The Indians are deliberate people; that probably goes back to when they sat around a camp fire and discussed their problems.

Their decisions are not made in a hurry.

It was as late as the 1930’s that the Indian parents no longer hid their children from the employees who came for them. They were not concerned so much about their education as they were about food and shelter.

Good minds have emerged and been developed. The Indians will listen to the advice of a good Indian leader.

I cannot verify this statement, although it was given to me by an Indian, but I do know it is not far wrong. No treaty the white man made with the Indians has ever been kept.

The Navahoes [sic] have been slow to accept our education and our mode of living. Yet it was the Navaho tribe who decided they must educate some of their leaders to be lawyers so they will be able to cope with white lawyers when matters of importance come up. According to accounts I have read they now have some well educated leaders. There was an article in the Reader’s Digest not long ago about the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He is from New Mexico and has a better understanding of the Indian and his problems than previous commissioners. It is hoped he will have sufficient co-operation and funds from the Government so he can be a real service to them.

He is a firm believer in education for the Indian. Instead of having the children on the Navaho Reservation go  to schools, he has the schools go to them. They are trailer schools. Perhaps some of you read the article.

In closing, there is one trait in particular in the Indian make up that is still a great stumbling block. To the white man it is maddening. This incident illustrates the point.

Some man wanted to help the Indians improve their strain of cattle, so he gave them a blooded bull and several cows. Some member of the tribe who had been away for some time had returned. To welcome him they killed and the blooded bull and prepared a feast for him.

Such incidents make us realize how far apart we are in our thinking even today. The Indian is still a red man, in the clothing of the whites.

Until white man interfered with them, they were both clean of body and physically fit.

Today beneath their poverty, disease and despair, the race is there – a wonderful race.

Grace Stenberg Parson

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What Is It Wednesday – August 24 – Glass Tube With Weird Sphere At Bottom

Welcome to “What Is It Wednesday”!

We’ll post a photo of an unusual artifact from our collections every Wednesday morning. Post your guess in the comments, and share when you figure out what it is!

We’ll identify the artifact and its uses on Thursday.


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Timeline Tuesday: Nebraska’s Dog and Pony Show

Welcome to our new weekly series, “Timeline Tuesday.” Every Tuesday, we’ll post a brief Nebraska history story. The late NSHS historian and Nebraska History Associate Editor Jim Potter authored these columns, which are also printed in newspapers around the state.

Omaha Sunday Bee, June 10, 1900.

Omaha Sunday Bee, June 10, 1900.

Today, “dog and pony show” is a term of derision applied to pretentious or over-dramatized performances or presentations lacking substance, or failing to meet the audience’s expectations. That was not the case during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when actual dog and pony shows, particularly those presented by Henry B. Gentry and his brothers, were considered not only credible, high-quality entertainment, but suitable fare for all ages and genders.

According to a story appearing in the October 1917 issue of The American Magazine, as a youth in Bloomington, Indiana, Gentry trained several of his own pet dogs to do tricks. When a traveling animal troupe came to town, young Gentry was hired to accompany the show and “wash dogs.” A year later the troupe’s proprietor went broke and Gentry found himself “with three crates of hungry, but highly trained dogs on his hands.” Apparently that was the genesis of a business that soon involved Gentry’s three brothers and made him a wealthy man. By 1895 four Gentry dog and pony shows traveled the country. Later, elephants and other trained animals were added, with the show evolving into a full-fledged circus. By 1910 the Gentry Brothers Circus was said to be the largest traveling show in the United States. About 1916 Gentry sold out for an alleged $100,000 and became manager of the Sells-Floto Circus.

The Gentry shows often played Nebraska, though which brother was in charge of any given show is not known. On July 5, 1901, the show came to Central City. The company consisted of 124 dogs, 63 Shetland ponies, 25 monkeys, and 3 small elephants named “Pinto,” “Alice,” and “Little Jim.” “Professor” Gentry had added a new feature for the 1901 season, called “Night Alarm.” According to the Central City Nonpareil, “It is a fire scene, an everyday episode in metropolitan life, in which animal actors take the place of firemen, the dogs and monkeys portraying the parts of life and property savers in a most exciting and amusing manner.” Following the show, the paper noted that “the remarkable intelligence exhibited by the animals is very surprising. The Gentrys have reached the height of animal training and give a clean, credible performance.”

A performance in Omaha in May 1899 inspired the Omaha Daily Bee to rhapsodize, “There is something about an exhibition of trained animals that appeals to almost everyone, man, woman, and child, which only the coldest hearted of humanity fails to appreciate. . . . [The show] cultivates in the heart of everyone who attends it a kindlier feeling for all things of the lower world. The dog and the pony, for instance, are looked upon in a different light, and there are less cruel words and complaints than there were before.” Admission was then 15 cents for children and 25 cents for adults. The show’s tent could seat two thousand. In June 1914, when Gentry’s show was at its peak, it played in Omaha for a week at several venues and included not only trained dogs, ponies, elephants, and monkeys, but also cats, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses.

To learn more about the programs and services of the Nebraska State Historical Society, call 1-800-633-6747 or visit our website at www.nebraskahistory.org

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Marker Monday: Phelps County

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to kylie.kinley@nebraska.gov.



701-749 5th Ave, Holdrege, Phelps County, Nebraska; 40.439180, -99.37061

Marker Text:

The great immigrant roads to the West which followed the Platte River brought the first settlers to this area. Beginning in the late 1850’s, these frontiersmen operated stage stations, road ranches, and trading posts. An August attack upon a wagon train in present northwestern Phelps County, known as the Plum Creek Massacre, was the initial incident of the Indian War of 1864. Phelps County was organized on April 23, 1873, with the northern town of Williamsburg being named the county seat. The seat of government was moved to Phelps Center in 1879 and again to Holdrege, its present location, in 1883. Early settlers, lured by government homestead lands and cheap railroad lands, were mainly of Swedish descent. Excellence in education, religion, and agriculture was their goal, as it is today. This area is credited with one of the world’s largest underground water supplies. Phelps County is 348,000 acres in size of which 338,300 are farmland. In 1973, the county’s centennial year, over 62% of its cropland is watered by 1,041 irrigation wells and over 350 miles of ditches and laterals.

Bibliography / Read On:

Search results for “Phelps County” on nebraskahistory.org

Faceless Fred, the Phantom of Phelps County

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Flashback Friday: When Nebraska Schools Had Rubber Coats as Blackboards and Cowchips for Heat

Lakeland sod high school is under construction in Summer 1934. RG4290.PH0-001505

Lakeland sod high school is under construction. Summer 1934 RG4290.PH0-001505

Our Sod Schoolhouse Marker Monday and Throwback Thursday posts were so popular that we’ve also dedicated Flashback Friday to pioneer schools. The following accounts, many of them first-hand from the pioneers themselves, is information that was excerpted from Book Three of Nebraska Folklore. This book was written and compiled by the Workers of the Writers’ Program in the Work Projects Administration in 1941. You can find Book 3 in its entirety by clicking here.

Early School Buildings

The school houses that were built before public tax agencies had been established were usually built by the settlers themselves.

Three settlers in Saline County dug a school house out of a cave along the bank of the Blue River in 1866. Lumber for the floor and roof was obtained from railroad land fourteen miles away. From there it was hauled to a local mill and sawed into boards. A fireplace, likewise dug out of the river bank, was used for heating. The wife of one of the settlers taught the first school term. Thirteen children attended.

Sometimes the simplest necessities for building were entirely lacking: Charles Lederer had no nails when he built a school in Blair County in 1877. In this instance, with true pioneer ingenuity, the sills and studding were joined together by mortises and wooden pegs.

Nebraska School Buildings and Grounds, a bulletin published by the State Superintendent in 1902, describes a school erected in Scotts Bluff County in 1886 or ’87 that had walls of baled straw, a sod roof, and a dirt floor. This strange building was 16 feet long, 12 feet wide and 7 feet high. Two years after its erection, cattle, on range in the vicinity, literally ate it to pieces.

This view shows a stack of cow chips gathered by FERA labor. It is to be used as fuel for a sod Brown County high school. A scoop, rake and other gathering equipment hold down the pile and protect the chips from the weather. RG4290.PH0-002951

This view shows a stack of cow chips gathered by FERA labor. It is to be used as fuel for the Lakeland sod high school. A scoop, rake and other gathering equipment hold down the pile and protect the chips from the weather. RG4290.PH0-002951

Arta Ethlyn Kochen of North Platte taught in a sod school in 1901. She wrote: “The schoolhouse was a long, low sod building with hills on either side. There were two rooms, school-room and another where the children played. I called it the gymnasium. The rough dirt walls had been smeared over with some sort of a sand mixture and then whitewashed. One or both coats had broken off in places, leaving blotches of brown, white or the bare black earth.

There were two little crooked windows. One of these we curtained with daisy chains made of bright papers. This, to me, seemed pitiful, but to the children it was a most wonderful creation. In the other we stowed the pail of water. This had been carried a mile over the hill in the open pail and was peppered with sand. Nevertheless, it served to wash down that big lump that came to my throat so often the first week. The door was of rough pine and opened just far enough to allow one person to squeeze in. We propped it open with a sunflower stalk. There was a floor in the schoolroom, but about the third week one of the men of the district helped himself to that of the ‘gym.’

The schoolroom furniture consisted of a rickety table, a broken rocking chair, two good chairs donated temporarily, two others with broken backs, a cracker box and a soap box. The blackboard was a piece of a man’s rubber coat tacked on the rough wall. The roof was of branches covered with sod, but almost anywhere I could look up and see the little white clouds floating by. . . .

The second day a snake a yard and a half long entered the schoolroom and was dispatched with an umbrella. One day I entered the schoolroom to find two inches of water on the floor and rain coming from the sod roof almost as hard as it had come from the sky in the night. Our pictures and paper curtain were a sorry sight. The few books were saturated, and I would have cried had it not been for the reassuring croak of a frog.

In such surroundings I taught for two months. Our county superintendent then used her influence to have grain removed from another little house in the district, and the last four months of the term were spent in quarters somewhat more comfortable. A few old desks were given us by the city schools, for which we were very thankful.

In spite of such difficulties the interest of ‘My Six’ never waned. They were all eager to learn; they were used to hardships of all sorts; they did not mind the heat of the sun and never complained when the sand burned or the prickly cactus made their little feet bleed; they would come on the coldest days though they froze their hands and ears.

And thus amidst such difficulties and hardships the boys and girls who are to be the very warp and woof of the Great West are being trained for citizenship.”[1]

Ellsworth Paine, who combined farming with teaching school in Gosper County during the early ’80’s, gives the following description of the school where he taught:

The school house was picturesque both inside and out. On approaching it from the southeast it appeared to have bulged up and out of the ground to a height of four or five feet. A rusty stovepipe protruded through the top of a dirt roof. The roof was supported by timbers. From the adjacent background two partially transparent windows broke the monotony of the low sod wall. The door facing the south was approached by a short trench from the creek bank. This door of undressed boards was especially designed for timid “school mams” who desired to inspect their room before entering. By applying the eye to one of the copious cracks, one was able to command a good view of the interior.”

Many of the early schools were held in strange places–such as tents, a room or corner of a settler’s home, a granary, a dugout, or church, until the community became prosperous enough to erect a school building.

J.B. Jones, who taught in Custer County in 1887, says his school had been excavated out of the side of a hill. On the top and back of the school house corn for fuel was stored. Wandering pigs often raided the fuel supply by running across the roof of the school.

According to S. G. Jacoby, who attended school in Sioux County in the 70’s, gophers were another nuisance. Mr. Jacoby says they sometimes tunneled their way into the school room through the earth floor.

Mrs. M. A. Springer, who attended school in Dakota County in the ’70’s, recalls an afternoon when the entire school had to vacate the building through a window because a large rattlesnake stood guard at the door.

Mrs. Lola Bradbury McComb of Wilsonville, Nebraska, remembers the buffalo that, like Mary’s fabled lamb, followed the children to school each morning. She says, “He was a tame friendly fellow that spent hours nibbling at the grass in front of our door, but he always seemed to be resting in the doorway when we wanted to go in or out of the door. And he wouldn’t move. Many a bare leg scrambled over the shaggy side of our schoolhouse buffalo as we went in and out of the door.”

Grant Essex, of Lincoln, who has lived in the State since 1878, says the school house of pioneer days was never locked because it was often used as a haven during a storm or other emergency. A few sandhill schools were also stocked with food caches for travelers who became lost or caught in severe storms. This custom was dropped when it was found that travelers used the supplies in fair weather or when there was no real emergency.


The Lakeland sod high school after it was completed in 1934. A note on a print indicates it was built as a NERA work project. RG4290.PH0-001545


The equipment and furnishings of the early schools were often as primitive as were the school houses themselves. The County Superintendent’s school report for District 16 in Seward County from 1874 was typical of many schools:

H. Williams, director; Miss Caroline Jenson, teacher. Deportment behavior of students, fairly good; recitations pretty well conducted. An old sod house, poorly lighted and ventilated; no cupboard for books, maps, etc.; no hooks for hats, caps, etc.; no out houses; furnished with board seats and desks. School house and seats wholly inadequate for the number of pupils. No recitation seats; no chair for teacher; teacher’s desk; 24 feet of blackboard surface; no globes, maps, charts, dictionary or books of reference. Pupils in the district, 47; enrolled, 34; present 25; average attendance, 29. No visits by director. Several visits by parents.

In Crete, in 1878, the teacher’s chair was a nail keg, the desk was made out of an organ. J. Estella Allen says that in her school, in Fillmore County during the ’70’s, they used for desks, rough tables, none of which had been scaled down to fit the different ages and sizes of the children. When there weren’t enough benches to go around, as was often the case, the children sat on the floor. Too often this was a dirt floor, dusty in dry weather or muddy with pools of water from a leaky roof, following a rain.

Isabell Cornish, who taught in Custer County in the early ’80’s, says that her first blackboard was made by applying a coating of soot and oil to six feet of builder’s paper. When the commercially-made slate came into vogue it made school work easy for both teacher and pupils. The boys usually erased their figuring or writing by spitting on the slate and then rubbing it off with their coat sleeves. The girls, more fastidious, carried pieces of cloth with which they washed their slates after wetting the rag at the water pail.

The chalk for these blackboards, according to L. W. Conklin, who taught in Saunders County in the ’70’s, was sometimes made of soft white rock found in the gullies. Soapstone was also used.

Purple ink, according to Grant Essex, who attended school in Chase County during the early ’70’s, was made by steeping poke-weed berries in water.

Nicholas Sharp, who taught near Liberty, Nebraska, in 1870, says he also made his own ink. Either powder or indelible sticks were used, with water added. Stove soot, with oil, was also used. This strange concoction, being thick, resembled printer’s ink. The quill pens were, likewise, made by the teacher or by his older students. It was a common practice to bury the bottles of ink in ashes taken from the stove to keep them from freezing solid. Some teachers used a box filled with sand as an anti-freeze storage place for ink.

Even lead pencils were a luxury. There was only one in the school taught by Miss Lockwood, and it was constantly borrowed by the settlers in the neighborhood who, according to the teacher, kept it wrapped in paper.

The playground equipment used during intermission in the early schools was very meager; often there was none at all. Consequently, simple games like drop the handkerchief, hide and seek, blackman, and dare base were played by the smaller children. Older pupils played shinny [a type of pick-up hockey] and ball. The ball was usually made of string by one of the pupils. Judge W. M. Ryan, of Homer, says that the favorite pastime in the winter was coasting on the snow. Since there were no small sleds for this pastime, the tops of desks, boards, dishpans, and coop shovels were used as substitutes.

Many schools held box socials in order to raise money for a school bell, a new blackboard, or any other equipment needed. Sometimes, according to Mr. Sharp, voting contests were held at a penny a vote. The purpose was to determine “who was the most luscious girl in the neighborhood.”

Lakeland sod high school after completion. Community leaders pose for this group portrait at the dedication. c. 1934. RG4290.PH0-001508

Lakeland sod high school after completion. Community leaders pose for this group portrait at the dedication. c. 1934. RG4290.PH0-001508


The pupils furnished their own textbooks until 1891 when the Nebraska free textbook law–one of the first in the nation–was passed. Some pupils were unable to furnish any books. The lack of uniformity was the bane of the early teachers. Many of the textbooks had been brought from the East by the parents of the pupils. Mrs. Cornish found six different kinds of readers in a class of eight beginners.

A.B. Cornish and Mrs. Cornish, who before their marriage taught in the same county, printedlessons in a small account book given out by a patent medicine concern for one boy who had no book during the first seven weeks of school. The first school in Jefferson County, in 1860-61, did not have a single textbook during the first year of school. The teacher had to substitute as best she could with the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress.

Dr. A. A. Reed, who taught school in Gage County in the early ’80’s, says the salesmen, in an attempt to drive a wedge for their particular books, argued that the frequent changing of texts gave the spice of a variety to hum-drum school work by stimulating new interest and effort. After the new books had been installed, the salesman took the opposite side of the argument by saying the school had perfect textbooks so it would now be wisest never to make a change. Such sales sophistry was practiced by book salesmen throughout Nebraska in the ’90’s.

Lakeland sod high school after completion in 1934. People pose for their portrait in front of the new school. RG4290.PH0-001507

Lakeland sod high school after completion in 1934. People pose for their portrait in front of the new school. RG4290.PH0-001507

Pioneer Teachers

Some of the young pioneer teachers knew little more than their pupils. They were hired because sparsely settled communities could not afford to pay wages demanded by more experienced teachers, or because they needed the position, or had relatives on the school board.

Mrs. A. V. Wilson of Lincoln, tells of an experience she had in Colfax County where she went to school in the ’70’s. The teacher, a young girl whose education had not extended beyond the fifth reader, managed fairly well until she came to the advanced grades where, whenever she encountered any lessons she didn’t understand, she skipped over to the next lesson. When the director visited the school, one of the older boys, who was aware of her real reason for skipping lessons, would invariably appear to get confused, and then, selecting on of these omitted lessons, he would ask the teacher questions about it. She, knowing her limitations, would just as invariably say: “The lesson has been passed over because I don’t think it is important enough for class work.” Nothing was ever done about her lack of knowledge, so the skipping of lessons continued.

Discipline was often very poor. Mrs. Herzing recalls one parent saying, when bringing in her unruly youngster, “Remember lickin’ and larnin’ go together.”

The life of the early teacher was often far from pleasant. Salaries, when paid at all, were often as low as seventy-five cents and a dollar a day. Nearly always part of the salary was paid by room and board. When this was done, the teacher made the rounds living with the various families of the district who had children in school. The longest time was spent with the families who had the most children. Usually the sod home was so crowded that the teacher was forced to sleep with one of the children. Sometimes the entire family slept in one room.

Food was quite a problem. A teacher in Saunders County spoke of being fed nothing but milk and parched wheat in one home of many children. Home-made molasses and corn-bread was another common diet.

B.C. Jones recalls that, when teaching in Custer County in 1887, he had so much difficulty in finding a place to stay that for a time he thought he would be forced to sleep out in the open. At one soddy, he shared a bed with two boys, chickens roosted at the foot and pigeons were in the rafters overhead. Finally, he secured a permanent place with a Bohemian family. They prepared his meals American style, while they ate theirs out of one large family bowl.

Teaching qualifications were very low in the ’70’s and ’80’s. The passing of the sixth reader was often considered sufficient for a boy or girl to enter the profession.

Isabell Cornish tells of teaching school in Custer County in the fall of 1884, when she was fourteen. She came to the school, younger than some of her pupils, wearing short skirts, and with her hair in long braids. Later, dressed as a typical lady teacher of the time, she wore high shoes, a long skirt, a tight waist, and a blouse with long sleeves and a high neck. Her hair was coiled high on her head. Some teachers added a professional touch to their appearance by wearing a white apron in the school room.

[1] Arta Ethlyn Kochen’s story is from a Timeline column.


Checkout our other blog post about pioneer schools titled “Too educated to teach: Letters from a Nebraska educator in the 1890s” by clicking here.




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What Is It Wednesday REVEALED – August 17 – Soapstone Foot Warmer

“What Is It Wednesday” Revealed – every Wednesday we post an unusual artifact from our collections and encourage viewers to guess the object.

While this object is not on display, please visit the newly-renovated Nebraska History Museum at 15th & P Streets in Lincoln to see interesting Nebraska history like this on exhibit now!

August 17 What Is It Wednesday. Nebraska State Historical Society

August 17 What Is It Wednesday. Nebraska State Historical Society

7519-10 Soapstone Foot warmer

From the Foster Church family of Alexandria, Nebraska. The stone was heated up near a heat source and then placed in a bed to keep the occupant warm.

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Taking Lena Home Film Screening and Panel August 16 a Success

Taking Lena Home discussion panel members Cindy S. Drake, Julie Middendorf & Alexandra Grant are pictured here with moderator Film Streams Deputy Director Casey Logan. The film was shown at Film Stream Theaters in Omaha on August 16, 2016.

Taking Lena Home discussion panel members Cindy S. Drake, Julie Middendorf & Alexandra Grant are pictured here with moderator Film Streams Deputy Director Casey Logan. The film was shown at Film Streams Theaters in Omaha on August 16, 2016.

Nearly 200 attended the screening of the new edit of the film Taking Lena Home at the Film Streams Theater in Omaha August 16.  The screening and discussion was sponsored by the Omaha Public Library, the Greater Omaha Genealogical Society and Film Streams.  After the movie, Film Streams Deputy Director Casey Logan moderated a panel discussion with filmmaker Alexandra Grant, Cindy Drake (Nebraska History Library Curator, NSHS & Statewide Cemetery Registry Coordinator), and Julie Middendorf, Genealogist & Librarian (Scotia Public Library).

The film has been sixteen years in the making. In 2000, Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant came across a curious object in a Wyoming junk shop; the tombstone of Lena Davis, a baby girl who died in 1880.  Inexplicably drawn to the stone, she took it home, where it sat in her studio.  Years later, she began a quest to discover the origins of the headstone, a mission that led her all the way to Polk, Nebraska, and an adventure in first-time filmmaking. Taking Lena Home documents the marker’s return to its rightful place, as well as Grant’s journey from owner of the stone to its caretaker.

There are plans to screen the film again in Grand Island in October. Check in with us later to learn more details!

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What Is It Wednesday – August 17 – Gray Rock With a Handle

Welcome to “What Is It Wednesday”!

We’ll post a photo of an unusual artifact from our collections every Wednesday morning. Post your guess in the comments, and share when you figure out what it is!

We’ll identify the artifact and its uses on Thursday.

August 17 What Is It Wednesday. Nebraska State Historical Society

August 17 What Is It Wednesday. Nebraska State Historical Society

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