Andreas' History of the State of Nebraska
Webster County
Produced by Elva Ambrosek.


Streams and Soil | Early Settlement | First Things
General History | Organization and Elections
Present Condition of the County | Storm and Fire


Red Cloud:  Early History | The Great Storm
Local Matters | Societies | Newspapers
Biographical Sketches


Guide Rock:   Biographical Sketches
Blue Hill:   Biographical Sketches
Amboy | Cowles

Illustration in Webster County: [Portrait of S. C. Smith.]

Part 1

WEBSTER County is situated in the southern tier of Nebraska's counties, in the Republican Valley, and about one hundred and fifty miles west from the Missouri River. It is in extent twenty-four miles square, and lies between Nuckolls County on the east, Franklin on the west, and Adams on the north, while on the south it touches the State of Kansas.


The county is well watered by numerous streams. The Republican River flows across its entire breadth, from west to east, at an average distance of about six miles from the southern boundary. On the south side of the river are but few streams of any importance, though there are many draws or cañons that contain running water for a portion of the year. On the north side of the river are a large number of creeks emptying into the Republican River. They are generally not more than three or four miles apart, and in many places even less. With two or three exceptions these creeks are small and not of much importance except to afford clear running water for stock purposes. Elm is the principal one of these creeks. These streams all have sandy beds, and, with few exceptions, this peculiarity is observed--that for a distance they flow quite rapidly and with a considerable body of water, when they suddenly disappear, and for a distance there is nothing to mark the course of the stream but a bed of white sand, after which they again appear in as great a volume as before. The water filters and flows through these sandy channels, and if one will take the trouble to scrape the loose sand away for a few inches, water, clear, pure and cool as from a spring will come bubbling up. There are many fine springs along all the streams of the county.

Along the Republican is a broad and level valley of rich bottom lands. Ascending from these to the uplands, the rise is in many places gradual, and gives the appearance of a gently sloping hillside. In other places it is abrupt, and the space between the valley and uplands is broken by a series of steep and high bluffs. The uplands themselves consist of a high and gently rolling extent of prairie. The valleys along the creeks are narrow, and the rise to the high prairies is similar to that from the Republican above described. Where the streams are not far apart there are many places where the rough land extends from one valley to the other.

Skirting the Republican River, and some of the larger creeks, are in some places quite extensive tracts of timber, which has proven of great value to the settlers in supplying fuel and lumber for building purposes.

There has been a very large acreage of trees planted, and where properly cultivated they are growing rapidly, and in some places have already attained a considerable size.

The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad extends through the county from east to west along the north side of the Republican River. Another line of the same road, from Hastings, extends nearly across the county from north to south, and forms a junction with the first named line at Amboy, about four miles east from Red Cloud.


The first settlement made in the county was in the spring of 1870 by members of the Rankin Colony. Previous to this time it had been occupied by the Indians, and was their favorite hunting ground, which they guarded with a jealous care from any incursions by white men. Occasionally, small parties of hunters and trappers would venture into the Republican Valley and remain a short time. They had to use great care, however, not to come in contact with the Indians. Sometimes they came together, and the result was generally a fight or else the hunters saved themselves by flight.

In the spring of 1870 the attention of many who contemplated settlement was called to the Republican Valley. On April 19, after having spent some time in searching for a location, Donald McCallum and Emanual Peters selected a place for settlement on the broad and fertile valley of the Republican, on the north side and near the mouth of Soap Creek. The place was called Guide Rock, from a large rocky bluff on the opposite side of the river, which being so high above the surrounding country made a conspicuous landmark. About the same time, Silas, Joseph and Abram Garber made an extended trip up the valley on horseback, carefully examining the country as they went along. They were well pleased, and concluded to locate somewhere in what is now Webster County. At that time it formed a part of Jefferson County. After a long trip, the Garber brothers returned to Beatrice, where they found a number of men who were desirous of locating on some of the rich lands of the frontier. Therefore the two parties joined together, about the middle of May, and returned to the Republican Valley in the latter part of the same month. Beside the Garbers, this party consisted of William McBride, Albert Lathrop, Thomas Comstock, and A. M. Talbott.

On arriving at Guide Rock they found McCallum and Peters living there in a dug-out. They were members of the Rankin Colony, who had selected large tracts of land, but never settled on it. The party were so well pleased with the location around Guide Rock that they determined to form a settlement here, and, therefore, to protect themselves from attacks by the Indians they set to work to build a stockade on Soap Creek. This was completed in due time, and consisted of one room, forty feet square. The first women to come to the county were Mrs. Thomas Comstock and Mrs. Joseph Garber, who, with their husbands, located at the stockade at Guide Rock. With the first settlers, Mrs. Sarah Rich, a widow, came and took a homestead near Guide Rock, where she still lives. Mrs. Garber and her husband now reside at Red Cloud.

The first settlers at Guide Rock, E. Peters and D. McCallum, still live there, are among the most respected citizens, and have held high offices in the county.

A little later in the season, Silas Garber, afterward Governor of the State of Nebraska, pushed on up the river to the point where Red Cloud now is, and made a settlement. On the 17th day of July the first homestead entries were made in the Red Cloud settlement by Silas Garber, Dr. Peter Head, W. H. Brice, August Roats, and David Hefflebower. On August 9, W. E. Jackson and James Calvert arrived with their families.

In August, 1870, the settlers erected a stockade on the little stream that flows through the original homestead claim of Gov. Garber, and a little west of his present residence in Red Cloud.

During the year 1870 a very few settlers located around the stockades at Guide Rock and Red Cloud. At this time the nearest eastern neighbor was F. J. Hendershot, near the present town of Hebron, in Thayer County.

The first post office in the county was established at Guide Rock stockade in the fall of 1870, and A. M. Talbott was appointed Postmaster. Talbott soon afterward brought in a small stock of goods, and kept a small store. This post office and store was kept in a building half dugout and half logs.

The first ranch in the county was established late in 1870, on State Creek, by A. J. Rennecker.

The first land broken in the county was on the claim of Capt. Silas Garber, in 1870. Mr. Garber held the plow, while William McBride drove the oxen.

During the summer of 1870 there were great fears of Indian attacks, and there were a great many alarms, but the Indians did not appear to do any damage.

The winter of 1870-71 was a lonely one for the early settlers. The weather was cold, and provisions soon became very scarce. Everything of that kind had to be hauled from Beatrice. Game was, however, very plentiful, and though the settlers had to suffer many privations, there was no danger of starvation.

In the spring of 1871 several more settlers located in the county. A settlement was formed on Elm Creek, between Red Cloud and Guide Rock. Among those settlers was M. L. Thomas, who opened the first farm in Elm Creek Valley. A stockade was built, and known as the Elm Creek Valley. A stockade was built, and known as the Elm Creek stockade. The Guide Rock settlement was known as the lower stockade, and that at Red Cloud as the upper stockade.


The first marriage in the county was that of William J. Norris and Hulda J. Rennecker, on July 14, 1871, and the ceremony was performed by Judge Silas Garber.

Rev. Mr. Penny preached the first sermon in the county in the summer of 1871.

The first death was that of a son of William Fennemore, who was accidentally shot while hunting on Spring Creek, in 1871.

The first birth occurred in 1871, and was that of a son of W. D. McKinney.

The first school was taught in a little log schoolhouse, at the Guide Rock stockade, by Miss Mary Kinsley, beginning in May, 1871. The salary paid was $12 per month.

The first homicide occurred in 1871. J. R. Bowbier shot a man named Hicks, with whom he had a quarrel. There were no witnesses, and as Bowbier claimed it was done in self-defense he was never punished.

In the summer of 1872, J. Q. and J. Potter, from Saline County, located at Red Cloud, and put up a saw mill, the first one in the county.

The first newspaper in the county the Red Cloud Chief, was established in July, 1873, by C. L. Mather.

The first term of District Court for Webster County was held in June, 1873.

In the spring of 1874 a bridge across the Republican was commenced, and in due time was completed.

The first flouring and grist mill was built, south of Red Cloud, on the Republican River, by Potter & Sayre, in 1874.

The first teachers' institute was held at Red Cloud in April, 1874. It was conducted by State Superintendent J. M. McKenzie and Prof. C. B. Palmer, assisted by Webster County instructors. About thirty teachers were present.


During the year 1871 there was still great fear of Indian attacks, and there were many serious scares and frights. At one time the Indian Chief, Red Cloud, was said to be camped about eight miles above the Red Cloud stockade, accompanied by a band numbering all the way from many hundreds to many thousands, and all were bent on driving the white people from the country. There was for a time great confusion among the settlers. The rumor, however, proved to be without foundation. The Indians rarely appeared, and when they did, it was in small numbers, and they were perfectly friendly.

There had been during the year 1871 quite an extensive settlement, but being so far away from any town, and from the base of supplies, the winter of 1871-72 was passed in loneliness by the settlers. Yet among themselves they managed to enjoy some very good times. Game was still plentiful, and many passed away the time in hunting. Besides this, little parties were held at different points, and at the Red Cloud stockade a literary society of considerable merit was conducted.

The first liquor license in the county was issued to Silas Garber, on March 20, 1872, it being $25 for a year.

By this time Red Cloud had quite a start as a village, and there was a store and post office, as well as a schoolhouse at Guide Rock.

The first attempt at a legal trial was that of a man named King, who was arrested and brought before the County Commissioners for trial on the charge of selling liquor without a license. The matter was commenced in earnest, but the Commissioners soon found they had no authority to try the case, and the matter was dropped.

The first real lawsuit in the county was in the spring of 1872, and was a suit for debt by Rutherford vs. Fennemore. The trial was before Justice of the Peace Penny, at his home on the south side of the river, opposite Red Cloud. The attorneys were Hon. H. S. Kaley for the plaintiff, and J. R. Willcox for the defendant. Willcox's client was beaten, and he being an energetic young man just starting in his profession, started out for Red Cloud at once to appeal the case to the District Court. It was cold weather, in early spring, and the river was flooded, but he had no way to cross but to swim, and swim he did, though he became so numb that it was with difficulty he reached the shore. Besides it was a very dark night, and, stupefied with cold, he lost his way, and came near perishing before he reached the dug-out where he and Silas Garber lived and did their own housekeeping. Willcox has since become one of the leading public men of the county, and is now Judge.

During the year 1872 there was quite a large immigration to the county, and quite extensive settlements were made in all the more fertile sections.

During the winter of 1872-1873 no remarkable events took place. The time was passed quite pleasantly by the settlers, who were now sufficiently numerous to give some social advantages.

About the middle of April, 1873, there occurred one of the most terrible snow storms ever known in this part of the State. Previous to this time the weather had been warm, the grass had commenced to grow, and a great deal of sowing and planting of crops had been done. This storm lasted three days, and was so blinding that the settlers could not venture away from their houses to care for their stock, and a great many cattle perished.

During the spring and summer of 1873, there was a large immigration to the county, and by this time all of the better lands belonging to the Government had been taken up, and considerable of the railroad land sold. By this time there was a large acreage of land under cultivation, and the yield of crops had been fair.

The Webster County Agricultural Society was organized in September, 1873, and on the 22nd and 23rd of October the first county fair was held. The fair was a complete success. There was a grand display of all kinds of farm products, which compared favorably in quality and in the yield with any part of the State. On the first organization of the society A. M. Talbott was President, and James Le Duc, Vice President.

Everything moved on quietly until the spring of 1874, when the immigration to the county again began, and on a large scale. There was a great addition made to the cultivated lands of the county. A large crop was planted, and during the early part of the season the prospects were that there would be a wonderful crop of all kinds of grain and vegetables. But early in July crops began to suffer for want of rain. The dry spell continued, and in the latter part of the month came the grasshoppers, and they stripped the fields of every growing thing. Some fields of early small grain were saved, but that was all. The late wheat, oats, and all the corn was completely destroyed. Then came a trying time for the settlers. Many of them, discouraged, and seeing no way to live during the coming winter and until another crop could be raised, left the country, some of them never to return. A large number of settlers remained, however, determined to try to live in some way, and wait for another year's crop. Some of them were able to wait with no danger of suffering if unaided, but the most of them were in desperate circumstances. Having but little money when they came, and having to spend one year in breaking the prairie, and planting a crop the second year, and that failing, they had no possible means of subsistence. Great economy had to be practiced and many privation endured. Though brave and uncomplaining, many of the settlers must have starved were it not for help, consisting of provisions, clothing and seed, sent them so liberally by the sympathizing citizens of other more fortunate States.

In the spring of 1875 the settlers who remained in the county began putting in crops, and though they had hard times and their teams were in a half-starved condition, they were in good spirits. From a lack of seed and other causes some of the settlers experienced many hardships during the summer, but they managed to exist until the crop could be gathered and marketed. The yield of crops for the year 1875 was very good, and it was with renewed energy that the settlers kept at work, constantly adding new improvements on their farms. At this time the greater number of them were living either in sod houses or dugouts, with an occasional log house. It was not until some years after that frame houses became general.

During the year 1875 there was but little immigration to the county, and the acreage of cultivated lands was increased but little.

In 1876 the county continued to increase in population and improvements. The acreage of crops was large, and the yield was good. At the State Fair, in the fall, Webster County products were awarded a medal.

For the year 1877 there is but little to note but the continued and increasing prosperity of the county. The population by this time was nearly four thousand.

The year 1878 is noted for the rapid settlement of the county and the vast number of improvements made. A movement had been set on foot to secure a railroad through the county, and the prospect of its early completion caused a great rush to Webster County. In the first place, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad Company demanded $10,000 bonds from Webster County, but they were not voted. The enterprising citizens of Webster and adjoining counties in Kansas, however, set to work and raised $6,000, in notes by subscription. These notes were afterwards all given back, except one for $15, given by J. R. Willcox, which was probably lost, as it has never been found. In the fall of 1878 work on the line of railroad from Hastings was pushed along rapidly, and in January, 1879, was completed, and trains began running into Red Cloud.

The year 1879 opened with a still greater rush of settlers than ever before. The railroad had been completed, and it was not long until all of the best lands of the county were occupied. By the close of the year the population numbered about 7,000. About this time a great number of frame houses were built in various parts of the county. Before the completion of the railroad the nearest market or place where lumber could be obtained was at Hastings, upward of forty miles distant from Red Cloud, therefore most of the settlers lived in their sod houses and dug-outs until lumber could be obtained nearer home.

During the year 1880 a steady progress was made by the entire county, but no remarkable events took place.

The winter of 1880-81 was a very severe one, and was very hard on the stock of the county, and the cattle in the spring were in very poor condition, as they had been exposed to the inclemency of the weather, with little or no protection from the storms.

In the spring of 1881, as the snow began to melt, the creeks and rivers were flooded, and much damage was done to the bridges from the ice gorges formed. In many places the valley lands were overflowed and some damage done to farm buildings and property.


At this time this county was attached to Jefferson, but early in the spring of 1871 measures were taken to secure a separate organization. Meetings were held in the dugout of Silas Garber, and a petition drawn up. As a consequence of this, Acting Governor William H. James issued a proclamation on April 10, calling an election at the residence of Silas Garber, for the purpose of electing county officers and locating the county seat, this election to take place April 19, 1871. By this proclamation James Calvert, Peter Head and William McBride were appointed as Judges of Election, and William H. Brice and M. L. Thomas as Clerks.

On the appointed date the election was held, and resulted in the election of Silas Garber, Judge; W. H. Brice, Treasurer; Thomas B. Williams, Clerk; Donald McCallum, Surveyor; W. E. Jackson, Superintendent of Schools; Emanuel Peters, Sheriff; Peter Head, Coroner; Joseph Garber, William Fennimore and Peter Head, Commissioners. The county seat was voted to be located on the claim of Silas Garber, on the east half of the northeast quarter of Section 2, Town 1, Range 11 west. The number of votes cast was forty-five.

On the evening of the day of election the votes were canvassed in the dug out residence of Silas Garber, by the Election Board. There was only one chair in the dug out, and that was given up to William H. Brice, who was then upward of eighty years of age. The others provided themselves with seats by setting sticks of firewood up endwise. The returns were made out and Dr. Thomas B. Williams and E. Edson were appointed to take them to Lincoln. The table in use at this election is now in the law office of Hon. J. S. Gilham.

The first meeting of the County Commissioners took place on May 5, 1871, when the officers all qualified for their respective offices, except W. E. Jackson, and Edward Kellogg was appointed in his place.

The settlement of Walnut Creek began in 1871, and in a short time it had several members.

The county constituted one precinct until June 15, when it was divided into three, Guide Rock, Red Cloud and Walnut.

The first regular election after the organization of the county was held on October 10, 1871, and resulted in the election of Peter Head, Joseph Garber and Allen T. Ayer, Commissioners; W. E. Jackson, Treasurer; Silas Garber, Judge; James Calvert, Sheriff; D. McCallum, Surveyor; T. B. Williams, Clerk; Edward Kellogg, Superintendent of Schools; and Dr. Peter Head, Coroner. On the same day bonds of $2,000 were voted for the erection of county buildings.

After the organization of the county the dug out of Silas Garber was used for the court house and county offices for some months. This was the residence of Mr. Garber, and was built by digging a hole in the ground, then laying logs around on the banks, three or four feet high, and then putting on a dirt roof. This was the home of the man, who less than four years after, became Governor of Nebraska. The county offices were sometime during the year moved to a small log building, and on April 16, 1872, were removed to a small frame store building, just completed by Silas Garber, and bought by the County Commissioners for the sum of $250. This was the first building owned by the county.

In April, 1872, charges of nonfulfillment of the duties of his office were preferred against T. B. Williams, the County Clerk, and Donald McCallum was appointed to fill his place. Williams was tried before the Commissioners on May 1, and the charges were not sustained, whereupon he again resumed the duties of the office.

In 1872 the first tax was levied, and the County Treasurer, W. E. Jackson, succeeded in collecting $165, though the levy was only $115.

At the election in October, 1872, A. M. Hardy was elected Commissioner; James Kirkwood, Judge; and Silas Garber, Representative to the Legislature from his legislative district, which then comprised all the southwestern part of the State.

The election of October, 1873, resulted in the election of G. W. Ball and F. Matteson, Commissioners; J. A. Tulleys, Clerk; E. H. Jones, Treasurer; I. N. Tulleys, Judge; H. G. Bill, Sheriff; H. S. Kaley, Superintendent of Schools; L. F. Munsel, Coroner; and W. E. Thorne, Surveyor.

Hon. Silas Garber, the acknowledged leader in the public affairs of Webster County, had early in the year 1874 been appointed Register of the United States Land Office at Lincoln, and at the October election in 1874 he was elected Governor of the State. The county election resulted in the selection of C. C. Coon, Coroner; and Frank Matteson, Commissioner.

At the November election in 1875, J. A. Tulleys was elected Clerk; E. H. Jones, Treasurer; H. G. Bill, Sheriff; I. N. Tulleys, Judge; J. S. Gilham, Superintendent of Schools; W. J. Fennimore, Coroner; W. E. Thorne, Surveyor; and J. H. Hobart, Commissioner.

At the November election in 1876, Silas Garber was re-elected Governor of Nebraska; J. S. Gilham was elected State Senator for the district of which Webster forms a part; J. E. Smith, of Webster County was elected Representative to the Legislature; and L. H. Luce and G. W. Ball were elected county Commissioners.

At the regular November election in 1877, the officers chosen were L. H. Luce, Commissioner; J. A. Tulleys, Clerk; E. H. Jones, Treasurer; J. D. Post, Sheriff; J. R. Willcox, Judge; W. E. Thorne, Surveyor; A. A. Pope, Superintendent of Schools; and R. R. Sherer, Coroner.

During the year 1878, the court house was built, and is a fine frame structure, with a jail in the basement; county offices on the first floor, and the court room on the next floor above.

The regular election in November, 1878, resulted in the choice of J. E. Smith for Representative, and A. H. Crary, Commissioner.

The election in November of 1879 resulted in the selection of C. W. Kaley for Judge; J. W. Warren, Sheriff; R. R. Sherer, Coroner; E. H. Jones, Treasurer; J. A. Tulleys, Clerk; W. H. Strom, Surveyor; A. A. Pope, Superintendent of Schools; and Isaac May, Commissioner.

At the November election, 1880, Hon. H. S. Kaley, who had for many years been a Regent of the State Normal School, was elected Representative to the Legislature; Hugh Stevenson, Commissioner; and J. R. Willcox, Judge.

During the summer of 1881, Hon. H. S. Kaley was appointed United States Consul at Chemnitz, Germany, but just before starting he was taken sick, and after several months' suffering, died in September. He was universally loved by those who knew him, for his strict integrity of character.

In November, 1881, the following county officers were elected: C. W. Kaley, Representative to the Legislature; J. P. Bayha, Clerk; Charles Buschow, Treasurer; J. R. Willcox, Judge; J. W. Warren, Sheriff; Charles W. Springer, Superintendent of Schools; C. Rinker, Surveyor; Dr. R. R. Sherer, Coroner; and J. E. Smith, Commissioner.


The county has continued to progress until it now has a population of more than 8,000. The great portion of this population is made up of farmers. Fertile and well cultivated farms are now opened up in all parts of the county. Great pains have been taken by the farmers to beautify their homes, and notwithstanding the hardships of opening a farm in any new country, the most of them are getting along well, adding to the improvements on their land each year, and many of them may be said to be getting rich. All those who have managed with prudence are in a prosperous condition.

Grain raising alone has been found not to be very profitable, and the more careful farmers are fast drifting into stock raising, thus combining it with the raising of crops. Those who have done this are fast accumulating wealth.

In every community, as soon as settlement had begun, one of the first things looked to was the establishment of schools. During the first year of settlement of any part of the county, there was generally a term of school taught the first year. The first school district formed in the county was at Guide Rock, the next at Red Cloud, and the third on Walnut Creek, all of which were organized in 1871. There are now seventy-five districts in the county, sixty-seven of which have school houses. Of this number, twenty-six are frame buildings, five are built of stone, thirty of sod, and six of logs. There are in the county a little upward of 2,500 children of school age.

The people of the county are of a moral and intelligent class, and whether professors of religion of not, are generally attendants at church services, and the different church societies have an organization in almost every community.

The Webster County Agricultural Society was organized in September, 1873, with A. M. Talbott, President. The first fair was held the next month and was a success. Since that date the Society has been kept up, and fairs have been held nearly every year.


There have been a number of severe storms, accompanied by hurricanes and sometimes hail. These storms have been local, however, and but a narrow belt has been damaged at one time. The greatest damage done by these storms have been in the towns, as for instance, that which nearly destroyed Red Cloud, elsewhere detailed.

During the first few years after the settlement of the county, prairie fires swept over almost its entire extent every year. It was with the greatest difficulty that the settlers protected their property from destruction by them. Even with the utmost care exerted on the part of the settlers, sometimes, the fire driven by a high wind would burn a great deal of farm property.

Perhaps the most severe of these fires, accompanied by high wind storms, occurred on March 25, 1875. An eye witness at Red Cloud describes it as it appeared at that point. About five o'clock in the afternoon a long, black cloud appeared along the western horizon. This cloud kept rising faster and faster, and by six o'clock the storm burst upon Red Cloud. The air was filled with dust and dirt as the storm swept down the valley. It was soon dark as midnight. The wind blew with such violence that it was impossible for a traveler to stand before it. Those who were out had to lie down flat on the ground to keep from being blown away. A large number of the citizens having seen the storm coming up took refuge in Garber's stone store as the most safe place. The storm lasted about half an hour, and buildings shook and tottered, though none were blown down. About this time the prairie fire came sweeping down from the north, and it looked as if nothing could save the town from destruction. Three times the fire caught in a shoe shop in the eastern part of town, but it was as promptly extinguished. Just as the people were about to give up in despair, the wind went down and changed further to the south, and by hard labor the town was saved. The fire, however, swept over the country, doing great damage. A great many horses and cattle were burned and the people only saved themselves by taking refuge in their dug outs. Throughout the county more than $10,000 worth of property was destroyed.

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