Nebraska’s Ghosts Still Dot the Landscape

perkey's from catalogThe decades-long shift from rural to urban living has left the map of Nebraska dotted with abandoned town sites. A county-by-county listing of the state’s place names and their origins, including those of many ghost towns, is found in Perkey’s Nebraska Place Names, by Elton A. Perkey, first published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1982, and now in its fourth edition. It’s available from the NSHS Landmark Stores.

A former postal employee, Perkey combed post office records for obscure place names long vanished from the map and consulted library and archival sources at the NSHS. He defined a ghost town as “a village now faded from the map due to economic factors.” They vanished, he said, for a variety of reasons: “(1) failure to gain the county seat; (2) poor economic base; (3) lack of railroad; (4) inability to handle indebtedness; (5) fraudulent establishment designed to dupe the gullible; (6) Missouri River floods or abandonment of river trade due to railroad competition.”

One of the best known of Nebraska’s ghost towns, Rock Bluffs (later Rock Bluff City or Rock Bluff), was founded in Cass County in 1856 and during territorial days was a thriving river town. Perhaps the most notable incident in the town’s history was that involving a ballot box that “went to dinner.” During the referendum of 1866 Nebraska voters were deciding whether the territory should become a state, and if statehood was achieved, whether the first officers would be Republicans or Democrats.

The political parties were almost evenly divided in Nebraska Territory, and the election was close. In the precinct of Rock Bluff 107 votes were cast for the Democrats, enough to put Cass County in the Democratic column. However, the county canvassers decided that because the ballot box had been taken to the home of one of the election officials over the noon hour, when the polls were declared closed, all Rock Bluff precinct votes would be thrown out. The result was that Cass County went Republican, and its representatives furnished the edge in the legislature that enabled the Republican legislators to elect Nebraska’s first two United States senators.

Because of this celebrated incident, Rock Bluff achieved a permanent place in Nebraska’s political history. However, when the Burlington Railroad built through nearby Plattsmouth, the Cass County seat, Rock Bluff went into a serious decline. Today it is a ghost town. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Finding Nebraska’s Ghost Towns

Overlay of the plat map of the village of Violet (originally Butler) over the current site showing the correspondence between trees and streets

Overlay of the plat map of the village of Violet (originally Butler) over the current site showing the correspondence between trees and streets

Ghost towns evoke images of dusty streets, ramshackle buildings, and tumbleweed. Popular imagination places them in the high peaks of the Rockies or isolated in the deserts of the Great Basin and the South West. However, Nebraska has its own ghost towns, silent witnesses to the state’s agricultural and transportation history. They also speak to the optimism of the state’s settlers, their aspirations, and the challenges they faced on the frontier. These lost communities are easy to miss while driving along the state’s highways, but with some basic detective work, they arise out of the landscape to tell their story.

All that remains of the village of Edholm in northern Butler County are two grain elevators and the town cemetery

All that remains of the village of Edholm in northern Butler County are two grain elevators and the town cemetery

Often, the quickest means of discovering Nebraska’s ghost towns is to consult historic maps. Many former communities were established by land development companies or other private land holders, who in the process had town sites surveyed and platted. Comparison between current and historic maps, especially historic railroad maps, helps to identify ghost towns. Aerial photographs also assist in the discovery of these towns, revealing features that are hidden at ground level, such as building foundations, roadbeds, and railroad rights-of-way. Finally, county histories, newspapers, and oral histories also point to the locations of ghost towns.

Former site of St. Deroin in Indian Cave State Park. St. Deroin was an important Missouri River crossing and was one of the earliest towns established in Nebraska, but declined following a shift in the course of the Missouri. Nearly all of the town site was swept away by floods in 1911 and 1920

Former site of St. Deroin in Indian Cave State Park. St. Deroin was an important Missouri River crossing and was one of the earliest towns established in Nebraska, but declined following a shift in the course of the Missouri. Nearly all of the town site was swept away by floods in 1911 and 1920

Railroad ghost towns are the easiest to identify due to their larger size, physical remains, and higher number. Often, these towns were large enough to have graded streets, which are still visible in the landscape. These streets may still be shaded by trees planted by the original settlers. Isolated grain elevators also often indicate a former town, especially when they are oriented at an angle against the common grid of county roads, implying a location along a long-abandoned railroad. Many of these towns were founded during the period of railroad expansion, 1870-1890, and were abandoned by the late 1930s due to the collapsed agricultural economy and the closure of railroad branches.

Another class of ghost towns includes former river settlements. These towns were primarily located at fords or ferry sites along Nebraska’s multiple rivers, and are among the earliest settlements in the state. The sites of these communities often have few, if any remains such as streets or structures, due to floods or changing river courses.

The town of Antioch once boasted over 1,000 inhabitants during the Potash Boom of WWI. However, nothing remains of the town’s temporary structures and streets in southern Sheridan county, except for some factory ruins

The town of Antioch once boasted over 1,000 inhabitants during the Potash Boom of WWI. However, nothing remains of the town’s temporary structures and streets in southern Sheridan county, except for some factory ruins

Other ghost towns include speculative settlements, constructed to serve as possible sites for county seats, or as possible railroad depots, or as future centers for an industrial or agricultural area. These settlements are the hardest to find, as they often were in existence for the shortest period of time and were composed of the most temporary of buildings. These settlements are primarily found only on old maps, and have left little impression on the landscape, except for place names, groves of trees, or possibly a cemetery.

Nebraska’s ghost towns, while not as visually impactful as the mythologized ghost towns of the far west, are a key part of the state’s history and are a target for investigation and preservation. Much can be learned from these town sites, which provide us clues on not only the economic and material aspects of prairie life, but also give insight to how people planned for the future and saw their relationship between their community and the larger world.

The village of Anoka was established by the Pioneer Town Site Company in 1903 along the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. A substantial railroad town in its day, only the streets, a grain elevator, and a store building remain of the town buildings

The village of Anoka was established by the Pioneer Town Site Company in 1903 along the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. A substantial railroad town in its day, only the streets, a grain elevator, and a store building remain of the town buildings

– Ruben Acosta / National Register and CLG Coordinator, State Historic Preservation Office

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NSHS 136th Annual Awards Presentation

NSHS awards honorees

NSHS awards honorees, from left to right: David Levy, Rebecca Anderson, John Swigart, Nancy Gillis, Sen. Jerry Johnson, Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, Dr. LuAnn Wandsnider, Dr. Christopher Dore, and Barry Jurgensen.

On Friday, October 17th the NSHS held its 136th Annual Members’ Meeting and Awards Presentation in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.

Following a brief meeting led by NSHS Board President Dee Adams, the Society honored a number of Nebraska’s prominent history makers through the distribution of annual awards:

The Asa T. Hill Award, for outstanding work in Great Plains archeology, was presented to Dr. Christopher Dore, John Swigart, and Dr. LuAnn Wandsnider. They were honored for the time and energy they devoted to developing a digital mapping GIS (Geographic Information System) of all archeological sites – over 10,000! – and areas of investigation for the entire state of Nebraska. The GIS has proven to be a remarkably useful spatial tool for archeological research and cultural resource management. This was also the first GIS of its kind in the nation!

The Nebraska Preservation Award, for significant achievement in the preservation of Nebraska’s historic places, was presented to David Levy, an Omaha attorney who spearheaded the effort to enact LB 191 (2014), which established the Nebraska Job Creation and Mainstreet Revitalization Act and created a Nebraska Rehabilitation Tax Credit (NRTC) program.  A registered lobbyist, he provided his services pro bono through three sessions of the Legislature.

The Addison E. Sheldon Memorial Award, for significant achievement in the interpretation and preservation of history, was presented to Nancy Gillis, in honor of her years of service as director of the John G. Neihardt Historic Site in Bancroft, Nebraska and her continued work to protect and teach the history of Native Nebraskans.

The James L. Sellers Memorial Award, for an outstanding contribution published in Nebraska History, was presented to Rebecca J. Anderson for her article, “Grandma Gabel, she brought Ralph: Midwifery and the Lincoln, Nebraska Department of Health in the Early Twentieth Century.”

The James C. Olson Memorial Award, for inspiring and guiding K-12 students to discover and learn from the histories that Nebraskans share, was presented to Barry Jurgensen of Arlington Public Schools. While at APS, Mr. Jurgensen has instituted the Forever Free Project, in which students in his honors history class research and nominate sites associated with the Underground Railroad to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. You can read about Mr. Jurgensen and his students in this recent article from the Journal Star.

Finally, the Champion of Nebraska History Award, for conspicuous service in the public arena in support of the mission of the NSHS, was presented to Senator Jerry Johnson and Senator Jeremy Nordquist. Senators Johnson and Nordquist were both instrumental in the passage of LB 191 (2014), which enacted the Nebraska Rehabilitation Tax Credit (NRTC).

Senator Johnson named the bill as his priority in the second session of the 103rd Legislature. That priority status was essential to ensure consideration of LB 191 by the full body which led to its passing. Senator Nordquist was the primary guide and negotiator with his fellow Senators in the Legislature, providing a remarkable example of a committed champion for preservation. Through his tireless work, LB191 was passed with 45 votes in support and no votes in opposition. The resulting statute is testimony to his efforts.

The NSHS offers its thanks and congratulations to this year’s honorees!

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Buffalo Bill in Politics

Buffalo Bill at age thirty-five. NSHS RG3004-12

Buffalo Bill at age thirty-five. NSHS RG3004-12

Many of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s exploits as a buffalo hunter, scout, and showman have been publicized in works ranging from dime novels to serious historical studies. In light of these successes it is doubtful that Buffalo Bill ever had any serious interest in political affairs.

However, an obscure episode in Cody’s life did lead to his “election” to the Nebraska Legislature in 1872. At a convention held in Grand Island, some of Cody’s friends secured his nomination as the Democratic candidate from the Twenty-sixth District, which included the counties of Lincoln, Cheyenne, Dawson, Buffalo, Kearney, Franklin, Harlan, and unorganized territory. The board of canvassers for this election district was located in Lincoln County. As a Democrat Cody had little hope of being elected from the predominantly Republican district and later remarked in his autobiography that “in fact, I cared very little about it, and therefore made no effort whatever to secure an election.” However, his name proved a powerful vote getter, and the returns filed with the Lincoln County board of canvassers gave Cody a majority of about forty-four votes over opponent D. P. Ashburn of Gibbon.

A contest was immediately filed on behalf of Ashburn, charging that the returns were incomplete. An investigation revealed that the Harlan County clerk had sent his returns to the city of Lincoln, rather than to Lincoln County. When the results of these additional votes were tabulated, Ashburn was found to have received a majority of them and the legislative seat was awarded to him.

Members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago during which Cody was briefly mentioned as a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate. NSHS RG2316-30

Members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago during which Cody was briefly mentioned as a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate. NSHS RG2316-30

More than twenty years later, in the summer of 1893, Buffalo Bill was briefly suggested as a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate after he and a troupe of performers from his Wild West show had played a prominent part in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Sunday Morning Courier of Lincoln on July 2, 1893, commented, “The Chicago Sunday Democrat suggests the Honorable William F. Cody for governor of Nebraska and a number of papers in this state have endorsed the suggestion.”

The Courier, however, did not approve of Cody’s presence in Chicago, which the newspaper believed had encouraged the world to think of Nebraska as without culture, “a howling wilderness, the home of Buffalo Bill and his cowboys, the land of Indians and buffaloes,” and discouraged the “Cody for governor” idea. The boomlet soon died, probably much to the relief of Buffalo Bill.

Want to read more about Nebraska’s past? Become a member of the Nebraska State Historical Society and receive Nebraska History magazine, four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

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The Election of 1864 and Nebraska

For the full story of Nebraska Territory during this dramatic era in American history, see James E. Potter, Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

For the full story of Nebraska Territory during this dramatic era in American history, see James E. Potter, Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the election of 1864, one of the most momentous in American history. Abraham Lincoln’s re-election as president on November 8, 1864, virtually assured that the Civil War would continue until Union victory was achieved and the institution of slavery was destroyed. Another hallmark of that year was Nebraska Territory’s failure to take advantage of an opportunity to become a state. In April Congress passed an enabling act authorizing Nebraskans to adopt a state constitution complying with certain conditions that, if met, would have led to immediate statehood. However, no constitution was drafted and Nebraska remained a U.S. territory whose residents could not vote in presidential elections until statehood finally came in 1867.

As for the 1864 election, Civil War historian James M. McPherson (Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction) has termed it unique in history because it was held in the midst of a civil war that would decide the nation’s future. Moreover, no other society had ever let its soldiers vote in an election whose outcome might determine whether they would have to keep on fighting. Both Lincoln’s supporters and critics knew that if Lincoln were returned to the White House and the Republicans maintained control of Congress, the war would go on to its bitter end.

Clement L. Vallandigham, NSHS RG1013-34-49

Clement L. Vallandigham, NSHS RG1013-34-49

The election presented Democrats in the North with a dilemma. A significant number, whose most prominent spokesman was former Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, argued that the war was a failure and that the Union could be saved only by an immediate end to hostilities and a negotiated peace. They were known as “Peace” Democrats (also called “Copperheads”) and many Republicans considered them sympathetic to the Confederacy at best and traitors at worst. By contrast, the so-called “War” Democrats believed that the Southern armies must be defeated on the battlefield before peace could be restored, although they disagreed with many of Lincoln’s policies toward achieving that goal, such as the emancipation of slaves and the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army.

As the time neared for holding party conventions, the Peace Democrats’ argument that Lincoln and his administration’s prosecution of the war had been a failure was bolstered by a seeming stalemate on the battlefields and by the tremendous number of Union army casualties sustained in bloody fighting during the spring and summer. In the absence of decisive Union victories over the Confederate armies, many Republicans and even Lincoln himself doubted his chances for re-election by a war-weary electorate. Continue reading

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Columbus Day and Nebraska’s Italian Heritage

Aerial view of Omaha’s Little Italy. NSHS RG 2341-470

Aerial view of Omaha’s Little Italy. NSHS RG 2341-470

Columbus Day, established to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas on October 12, 1492, became a legal holiday in Nebraska in 1911. The bill creating it had been rejected by the Nebraska Legislature two years before and earlier in the session, and not everyone was happy about the new observance. Although banks and public offices were to be closed in Omaha, “the Board of Education failed to discover any reason why it should quit business because Columbus went out on a cruise 408 years ago and sighted land,” and the public schools remained open, although with special patriotic programs scheduled.

Columbus, the Nebraska town that shared a name with the new holiday, held no special observances on Columbus Day in 1911. However, the Italians of Lincoln planned to celebrate on October 12 with an evening banquet at the Lincoln Hotel. Attorney Edward G. Maggi, a member of the state board of pardons, was to be toastmaster. Nebraska governor Chester H. Aldrich sent a representative.

Italian stone worker in Omaha in December 1940. NSHS RG2341-479

Italian stone worker in Omaha in December 1940. NSHS RG2341-479

Festivities were more elaborate in Omaha, with a larger Italian community, many of whom had settled in the city between 1880 and 1910 in an area known as “Little Italy,” generally bounded by Pacific Street on the north, Center Street on the south, the Missouri River on the east, and South Tenth Street on the west. In 1911 Columbus Day in Omaha included initiation rites and a banquet by the Knights of Columbus and observances by other Italian fraternal organizations. One, according to the Omaha Bee, was held at Columbus Hall, “decorated profusely with Italian, Spanish, and American flags, the Spanish flags paying honor to Spain which lent assistance to Columbus in his search for financial support.”

 

In recent years some states, cities, and localities have augmented or replaced traditional observances of Columbus Day (now a federal holiday observed annually on the second Monday in October) to reflect the contributions of indigenous peoples as well as those of European explorers. The day is still a popular occasion for patriotic observances in schools.

Want to read more about Nebraska’s past? Become a member of the Nebraska State Historical Society and receive Nebraska History magazine, four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

 

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Spanning the Missouri: Nebraska’s Pontoon Bridges

Pontoon bridge at Plattsmouth. NSHS RG3384-10-71

Pontoon bridge at Plattsmouth. NSHS RG3384-10-71

Nebraska City’s pontoon bridge spanning the Missouri River was opened with much fanfare in August of 1888. Constructed by S. N. Stewart of Philadelphia as a toll bridge, it claimed to be the first such bridge across the Missouri River and the largest drawbridge of its kind in the world. The pontoon section crossing the main channel was 1,074 feet long, with a l,050-foot cribwork approach spanning a secondary channel between an island and the Iowa shore. The roadway, including two pedestrian footways, was 24.5 feet wide. Opening the “draw” (the V-shaped portion that could swing open for boats or flowing ice) provided a 528-foot-wide passage.

Another pontoon bridge spanning the Missouri was built in 1889, linking Covington in Dakota County with Sioux City, Iowa. The Omaha Bee said on April 23: “Work on the new pontoon bridge at Covington is progressing rapidly. Already sixty-five of the 200 pontoons are completed, and a gang of five men are at work on the remaining ones, which are expected to be completed in about six weeks.” The pontoon bridge there yielded a daily income of around $100, with a toll of five cents each way. The bridge operated from 1889 until 1896, when a new bridge opened for business.

A wagon and team crossing the Missouri River on the Covington pontoon bridge (left) in 1896. NSHS RG3170-15

A wagon and team crossing the Missouri River on the Covington pontoon bridge (left) in 1896. NSHS RG3170-15

In 1890 a pontoon bridge was installed over the Missouri linking Yankton, South Dakota, with rural Cedar County, Nebraska. To protect against ice damage, the pontoon structure was disassembled each year before the winter freeze. Efforts to build a more permanent bridge began in 1915, but lapsed with the country’s entrance into World War I. The Meridian Highway Bridge was finally completed in 1924.

Plattsmouth celebrated Labor Day in 1902 by opening its new pontoon bridge across the Missouri at that point. Built at a cost of ten thousand dollars by the city’s businessmen, it lasted only until the summer of 1903, when the boats forming the bridge broke loose and were carried down the river.

More information on Nebraska’s bridges is available in Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska Bridges, edited by James E. Potter and L. Robert Puschendorf, and published in 1999 by the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Department of Roads. This well-illustrated book reviews the history of bridge building from early temporary spans to contemporary highway bridges. Look for it at your local library or obtain it through interlibrary loan. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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William F. Lillie’s Help for Picking Corn by Hand

W. F. Lillie demonstrating the use of his corn husker. NSHS RG2411-3234

W. F. Lillie demonstrating the use of his corn husker. NSHS RG2411-3234

Picking corn was once an unpleasant task, done by hand, for Nebraska farmers after a fall frost when the corn was ripe and dry enough. Even in territorial days, devices were on the market to lighten the labor and reduce the discomfort of cracked and bleeding hands.

Probably the first device in general use in Nebraska was the husking peg. This originally was a small, round piece of hardwood, about six inches in length, and sharpened at one end. It was held in the hollow of the right hand and a loop of buckskin or some soft leather was attached to the peg and passed over the middle finger to hold it in place. The sharpened end of the peg was thrust through the husks at the tip end of the ear, enabling the operator to husk the ear quickly and easily.

The next great development, at least in Nebraska, was the invention in the early 1890s of the corn husker by William F. Lillie (1852-1921) of Rockford in Gage County. Lillie originally developed the device to help his father-in-law, who had lost his right thumb, to husk corn. It worked so well that the inventor decided to apply for a patent and put it on the market.

Lillie corn husker. NSHS 1581-1

Lillie corn husker. NSHS 1581-1

Worn on the right hand, the point was used to penetrate the husk top, making it easier to remove the complete husk. A leather pad protected the palm of the user’s hand. The Prairie Farmer said on October 24, 1896: “The Lillie Corn husker has been in successful use for the past three years and wherever it has been introduced, it has effectually supplanted every other kind of corn husker where husking is done by hand.”

Buffalo County historian Samuel Clay Bassett noted that Lillie perfected his device “after much thought, labor and expense. A poor man, he attempted to manufacture them and create a market under great difficulties. He succeeded in every way except financially. A grateful posterity will see that he is given the credit he deserves.” James C. Olson, superintendent of the Nebraska State Historical Society, noted in 1947 that the Lillie corn husker was still being used in Nebraska as late as the 1920s.

Also in the 1920s the mechanical corn harvester began to come into general use. It was this machine which transformed the whole process of picking corn, making Lillie’s device obsolete.

Read more about Nebraska’s history in Nebraska History magazine, a benefit of membership in the Nebraska State Historical Society. Both full members and subscription-only members receive four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

 

 

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She Didn’t Know She Was a Statue

Lucy Vander Sterre’s face was used as a model for a prominent statue in Omaha. But she didn’t know the statue existed for more than 30 years.

In the Fall 2014 issue of Nebraska History, you can read about the statue and its purpose. Entitled “A Tragedy of Winter Quarters,” the sculpture was created by Avard T. Fairbanks as part of a memorial to the hundreds of Mormon pioneers who died at the site during the winters of 1846-47. (See this blog post.)

"A Tragedy of Winter Quarters, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Kent Ahrens.

“A Tragedy of Winter Quarters, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Kent Ahrens.

But Fairbanks couldn’t have known that one of his models would become somewhat of a pioneer herself.

In the 1920s at the University of Oregon, Lucy Vander Sterre was a student and Avard T. Fairbanks was an art professor. Avard had seen Lucy walking across campus, and asked her to pose for him. Later, Lucy described the modeling sessions as unromantic – there was no young man posing with her like the one in the final piece. She never heard what became of the images, and when the art building later caught fire she thought her modeling work was lost with it.

In 1924, Lucy took a break from her studies to travel to Nome, Alaska, where she taught Inuit (Eskimo) children with her brother for a year. While in Alaska she met Elmer Forsling, a Nebraskan who had been recruited by the U.S. Bureau of Standards to work on a project involving reindeer herds.

Elmer and Lucy Forsling, with their daughter, Phyllis, and son, Al. A Sunday outing when living in Casper, Wyoming. Photo from "History of Kimball County Nebraska 1888-1988."

Elmer and Lucy Forsling, with their daughter, Phyllis, and son, Al. A Sunday outing when living in Casper, Wyoming. Photo from “History of Kimball County Nebraska 1888-1988.”

When Lucy returned to Oregon, Elmer came with her. The two were married in 1926, and over the following years they had two children and lived in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Finally, in 1944 the family returned to Elmer Forsling’s old home on Lodgepole Creek in western Nebraska. The property had been neglected for some time and was in great need of repair. The Forslings spent years rebuilding fences and windmills, harvesting wheat, and making a home out of the property.

Fast forward to the 1960s. For several summers, ranchers Kendall and Beverly Atkins of Dix, Nebraska, packed a small suitcase and a camera and toured the state. It was a good opportunity to collect pictures and stories to use in Beverly’s fourth grade Nebraska history classes. As their collection grew, several groups in the community asked them to present a slide show of their travels.

Lucy gardening at the Forsling ranch in 1968. Photo from "History of Kimball County Nebraska 1888-1988."

Lucy gardening at the Forsling ranch in 1968. Photo from “History of Kimball County Nebraska 1888-1988.”

One afternoon, the Atkinses were presenting their tour to the members of the Plains Historical Society in Kimball. After the show, they were approached by a woman interested in one particular picture – Lucy Forsling had been in the audience and recognized herself in a photo taken of “A Tragedy of Winter Quarters.”

Lucy told the Atkinses how she had modeled for Avard Fairbanks but thought nothing came of it. The Atkinses made prints of the slide for Lucy and her family to enjoy. Unfortunately, Lucy died a few years later, in 1972. She never saw the statue in person.

When the article on “A Tragedy of Winter Quarters” was published, the Atkinses wrote to tell us about their unexpected meeting. Thanks so responsive readers, we sometimes learn more about a subject after publishing an article. If you know something about Nebraska history that you’d like to share, tell us in the comments! Our readers are a great resource in connecting the puzzle pieces of history.

Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

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Omaha’s “Tragedy of Winter Quarters” Monument

More than 600 Mormon pioneers died in their Nebraska encampment during the winters of 1846-47 and 1847-48. The camp, called Winter Quarters, is the site of a monument in the Florence neighborhood of Omaha, commemorating their deaths through the sculpture of Avard T. Fairbanks. In the Fall 2014 issue of Nebraska History, you can read about the unfortunate camp and the efforts to remember what happened there.

Nebraska was only one stop along the way for the travelers. Seeking religious freedom out West, several thousand members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left Illinois in February of 1846, led by Brigham Young.

Bs Relief Listing the Names of the Deceased, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo Courtesy of Dr. Eugene F. Fairbanks.

Bas Relief Listing the Names of the Deceased, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eugene F. Fairbanks.

But disease, supply troubles, and bad weather dogged the pioneers every step of the way. By the time they reached the Missouri River in June, they were exhausted and in need of supplies. Rather than venture into more unknown territory farther west, the group got permission from the U.S. government to camp in Nebraska (designated Indian territory) for the winter.

Even though there was some trade with Native Americans, the pioneers’ diet still consisted of mostly corn bread and salt bacon. The camp was overrun with fevers, scurvy, malaria, and a host of other ailments. Eventually the site was abandoned, leaving hundreds of men, women, and children buried behind.

"A Tragedy of Winter Quarters, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Kent Ahrens.

“A Tragedy of Winter Quarters, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Kent Ahrens.

More than sixty years later, Avard Fairbanks took an interest in the Winter Quarters site. As a descendant of a Winter Quarters survivor, Fairbanks had heard about the place from family tradition. But when he actually visited the cemetery, he was moved enough to begin work on a sculpture of a mother and father burying their child.

Fairbanks’ models got the attention of the Mormon church, and after being authorized by the president of the church and Omaha city commissioners, Fairbanks proceeded with the official statue. The project would eventually involve a number of markers, engravings, and bronze works on the site.

East Gate Entrance

Fairbanks and J. Leo Fairbanks. Entrance Gate, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eugene F. Fairbanks.

Entrance Panel - Pioneer Mormon Cemetery

Fairbanks and J. Leo Fairbanks. Sorrowing Figure, Entrance Gate, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eugene F. Fairbanks.

Two special night trains brought Mormon church members from Utah to Omaha in order to attend the dedication. The monument was dedicated on September 20, 1936, giving Omaha a dramatic sculpture to remember a tragic loss.

Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

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