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The empty west

June 16, 2010

Once upon a time, there were quite a few more Euro-American people in western Nebraska than there are now. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged millions of people to head west to make a go of living off of a quarter section of land (1/4 of a square mile, or 160 acres). (Nevermind the people who used to live there; they can move to reservations.)

There were a few problems with this plan, however. Among them was the environment. Some quotes to illustrate:

While 160 acres may have been sufficient for an eastern farmer, it was simply not enough to sustain agriculture on the dry plains, and scarce natural vegetation made raising livestock on the prairie difficult. –National Archives

Professor Samuel Aughey, from the University of Nebraska, declared the state’s rainfall was adequate to grow robust crops and, in fact, was increasing. “Rainfall follows the plow,” he declared in an 1880 book, Sketches of the Physical Geography and Geology of Nebraska. The problem, he said, was that rain would hit the hard sod and run off and into the rivers. If farmers broke up the sod, the rain would soak in and then return to the air as it evaporated. With more moisture in the air, more rain would fall, continuing the cycle. Professor Aughey and others wrote and spoke far and wide. The railroads used their trains to distribute Aughey’s book and others to prospective settlers. And for a few relatively wet years, the theory seemed to be true. Rainfall was increasing. But when the next cycle of dry years hit, many new settlers learned the truth in hard ways — Nebraska could support agriculture but not using the same techniques they had learned in more humid climates. – Nebraska Studies

The Homestead Act of 1862 brought almost six million settlers by 1890 who tried to replace grass with crops more beneficial to economic aspirations. The settlers soon discovered, however, that while these vast grasslands were productive in wet years, they were also subject to serious drought and bitter winters. Land that should never have been plowed yielded its topsoil to incessant dry winds. Dust clouds rose to over 20,000 feet above parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and the Dakotas. Ten-foot drifts of fine soil particles piled up like snow in a blizzard, burying fences and closing roads. – US Forest Service

That last quote refers to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. Add to that the Great Depression, where many people couldn’t rake together enough cash to meet their obligations and lost the farm. Add to that the closure or rerouting of railroads and highways. Add to that the increasing mechanization of farm practices that reduced the need for labor and contributed to rural unemployment. What you wind up with are some pretty empty lands in western Nebraska.

Beautiful empty lands, I might add.

Land with opportunities for watching wildlife and scoping out old cemeteries and ghost towns.

The US Forest Service manages 17 national grasslands in the Great Plains that were acquired in part through the hard times of the 1930s.

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935 allowed the federal government to purchase and restore damaged lands and to resettle destitute families. From these disastrous days, a hundred years after the Homestead Act on June 23, 1960, the National Grasslands were born. – US Forest Service

One of those grasslands is the Oglala National Grassland in northwest Nebraska. You’ll still see fences because cattle and sheep grazing is permitted on many tracts of the national grassland.

While you won’t see bison anymore, you will see plenty of pronghorn antelope.

How do, ladies?

It’s very difficult to convey in pictures the beauty of those wide-open spaces.

State Route 2/71 northbound

And there are random treasures to be found along the way. Look on a Delorme map of northwest Nebraska, and you’ll find plenty of “towns” marked on the map in which you’d better not expect any services.

Here’s a view of Orella:

Not a whole lot left of Montrose, either . . .

. . . though the hilltop church is still in good repair and the cemetery is still in use.

There are hidden stories, hints about the people who once lived here: the deaths of several young members of the Kircher family, the German-speaking Müller.

Here’s a view of Montrose from atop the Warbonnet Historical Site, (which is best walked to from the road in wet weather, unless you have a tall vehicle with 4WD). Lotta open space.

The DeLorme map marks “War Bonnet and Yellow Hair Monuments” because in addition to the Warbonnet hilltop monument, there is a stone monument behind the dilapidated Montrose house for Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hair, who was killed (and reportedly scalped by “Buffalo Bill” Cody) in July 1876.

There are other hidden stories in old places one can find by driving around.

Here’s the grave of a 10-year-old in a rather weedy Dawes County cemetery (its sign reads “Harvey AKA Crow Butte Cemetery”). Why would young Lulum Fries have the name of a 78-year-old man who died four years after she did on one side of her tombstone? Was he her great-grandpa?

What became of the people who lived at this place on Highway 71 in Sioux County?

This is my favorite picture, taken across Sand Creek Road from the High Plains Homestead:

What is it about old, abandoned houses and cemeteries that’s so attractive?

Is it the voices of the people who have long since died, asking us to remember them? Is it our hope that someday, someone will do the same for us? Are we trying to learn what drove these people away, so we can avoid their mistakes? Are we imagining the “what if?” and wondering whether we’d have been able to do things differently? Are we using images of decay and reminders of death to prepare ourselves for our own eventual demise?

One thing’s for sure . . . there’s plenty of space out here in western Nebraska to think.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 5:42 pm

    This is beautifully done! Thanks!

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  1. Excellent idea: The Great Plains Trail | SCB Citizen

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