By Connor Besse, Phill Duncan and Ryan Pfeifer
Late in October at around 10:00 in the morning, three college students, Ryan Pfeifer, Phill Duncan and I, Connor Besse, had to drag our sorry butts out of bed to go visit a museum for our FYI class of Home on the Range. Wanting to get an amazing grade we decided to visit the small museum located in Alliance, Nebraska called Knight Museum and Sandhills Center. In this gorgeous building there are five aspects of the history were the main focuses, each being a different piece of history of the Box Butte County culture. Life in the Sandhills, life in the country, life in the city, and how much influence the railroad system had on all of these. Being the awesome college students we are, decided to each pick one of these focuses to write about. Ryan choose life in the country, since he grew up in Nebraska, Phillip choose city life because his interest of a different life style, and I chose to talk about the railroad’s influence in Box Butte Country.
The part of the museum that was the most interesting to me, Ryan Pfeifer was the section about Life in the Country. This section defiantly played a huge role in the lives of the first settlers in the area, who were trying to make their own home on the range. Farmers and ranchers got their land in the mid-1800s through the Homestead Act or also called the the Kinkaid Act. They had to pay little to no money for the land, like as in a few dollars. That is outrageous when you see land today going for thousands of dollars an acre. People in search of land today would do anything to get that cheap of ground, I know I would.
This is what really got agriculture going in Nebraska because anyone could start a new way of life for a very cheap price. Approximately 1.6 million people took advantage of this once in a life time opportunity. One of the more notable ranches and rancher came from this called the Spade Ranch owned by Bartlett Richards. His ranch became the largest in Nebraska very quickly because he bought up other people’s land after they moved away. But with so much ground he wanted to fence it to keep only his cattle on it. This caused a lot of problems because it was outlawed and he did it anyway. Eventually he ended up in jail for stealing and never got out.
This was such a great example of starting a new life and trying to make a home on the range but that’s the way it goes. He set the stage for future ranchers of the area, except for the jail part, and it has led to many good things in Nebraska’s beef production. The technology for the first farmers and ranchers was very limited compared to todays. They had to use animals like oxen, mules and horses to pull their equipment, until eventually the steam engine machinery was invented. Water was pulled from the ground water source which is the Ogallala Aquifer that stretches from Nebraska to Texas, with windmills to irrigate small patches of crops and especially livestock until the invention of center pivots and windmills are still used today to water livestock on ranches. The invention of barbed wire helped ranches in a major way with keeping their animals contained in a certain area and so they would not lose them. Barbed wire is still used today as a way of fencing for ranches. Technology in farming and ranching is still becoming more advanced. Farming and Ranching back then must have been very demanding work. Thank god we have it extremely easy in today’s world with advances in equipment and technology. The first farmers and ranchers had it tough compared to today with the modern technology, they used horses and sometimes just their body to do work that our tractors do today. Some farm and ranch kids today think they have it rough but they really don’t when you look at the history. Today farming and ranching almost takes very little human interaction and eventually it could be completely self-operating. But for the early people they had to work hard to make a living and a home on the range.
I, Phillip Duncan, choose city life because it is something I am still currently interested in, since I was born and raised in more rural areas. The museum had a lot of good information on it, which I am really thankful I could see. The city life in the early 20th century was not much different than that of today, surprisingly.
Schools and sports were still very valued to the youth of the time period. In the early 1900’s, in the panhandle of Nebraska, there were many schools that helped educate some of that era’s greatest minds. One thing that stood out to me in the Knight Museum was the Saint Agnes Academy, which was supported by the local Catholic Church. Another school mentioned was the Alliance Normal school. The Alliance Normal school was actually a four-year teachers college. However, in that time period there was considered to be too many saloons in the Alliance area for a school. The students who wanted to become teacher were not very motivated and they drank and partied the school right out of town. The school was forced to shut down, however this created Chadron State College because the school moved to the city of Chadron.
Today in Alliance baseball is still very important, as they have everything from tee ball all up to legion. In 2006 Alliance, Nebraska had the Guinness world record for the longest baseball game ever played. This game lasted nearly 31 hours straight and was witnessed by the Guinness book of world records. Sadly, the record has was broken in spring of 2011 in Missouri when a game lasted 62 hours.
Knight Museum also mentioned the presence of the traveling salesmen within cities of Box Butte. Traveling salesmen, who usually were sharply dressed in a suit with a bow tie and hat, sold everything from pans to shoes. Since Walmart was not even thought of yet, this was the number one way to shop in the early 1900’s. Salesmen were very profitable because they always knew how to sway their customers into buying their product. The salesman’s main form of transportation at the time was by horse or horse drawn carriage, if they were good enough salesmen and could afford it. The doctors in Alliance were where all of big money was. There were two motorized vehicles, both of which were owned by doctors.
The saloons in downtown Alliance were bringing in a lot of money and life into the city of Alliance. However, these profits only lasted so long before a lot of them were burned down in a random fire. It took years, with a lot of elbow grease, to rebuild all of these business. The cause of the fire was never found but most of the people thought that it was just a simple yet stupid accident. When the businesses were rebuilt it only improved. With new resources, such as brick, fires to that extent never happened again. Overall life in 1900’s in the panhandle of Nebraska was just as you would expect, simple yet always moving forward looking for the next big thing. Alliance is a gem in the coal mine of the plains.
Once passed the city life section of Box Butte Country and Alliance, railroad artifacts can be seen every which way. Old conductor uniforms, (something else really cool) and the coolest item, in my option, was an old train car. There were also plaques that told readers about the most influential people along the railroads in the region. A few people that stood out to were G.W. Holdrege, Chenia Newberry and Walter J Jones for reasons that I will get to in the following paragraphs.
The history of railroads in Box Butte started in 1870’s, when Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company got the ok from congress to expand their sea of railroad into Nebraska. There original occupants of what is now Alliance lived in tent city with a one building that served as a trading outpost. In 1888, the town, which was first called Grand Lake, started to take its shape. In less than a 6 months, about 250 buildings were built, however fires were not kind to Grand Lake. By 1893, the town was renamed to Alliance, which I’ll explain later, and was water tower was built, symbolizing that Alliance was officially on the map.
As I stated before, the original name of Alliance was Grand Lake. The man who decided wanted to change the name was one of the people who worked planned the layout of the railroad tracks. G.W. Holdrege worked for Burlington and Missouri River road Company, and just felt like the name Grand Lake didn’t suit the town very well. He thought that since it was in the north-west part of the state it should start with the letter A, like where the A is located in the alphabet. He also wanted a name to symbolize the town its self. After some trial and error, Mr. Holdrege came up with the name of Alliance. He felt that the people within the town fit this description to a T.
Among the tent village of Grand Lake, there stood one lone building. This building was owned by Chenia Newberry and was used as a tin shop. Newberry’s trading post was also a hot spot for tired travelers and railroad workers, since he also offered hotel like services. A lot of income came from this building and would eventually helped extend the boundaries of Grand Lake.
The final influential that I am going to talk about is Walter J. Jones. This man served as a ticket agent for Chicago, Burlington and Quincy line for most of his young life. With the time he served with Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Company he say Alliance grow up and watched the railroad industry skyrocket. He was so amazing with number that once he was done being a ticket agent, he created an employee credit union, in Alliance, which led to a successful career in banking. After so many years in the banking world he ran for the office. He won the spot of mayor and earned the nick name “Mr. Substantial Citizen” because he spent so much time the people of Alliance. The people of Alliance absolutely loved him because he was like no other pollination. Every decision he made, was made with full intent of making the city of Alliance better and thanks to him, a lot of income come through the railroads.
Alliance/ Grand Lake was one of the key components in the expansion of railroads. Today, Alliance is still known for the railroad traffic, having on average 65-72 trains of coal and other fossil fuels per day, and is its main source of income still. If it were not for Alliance Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Colorado, Oklahoma and some parts of Texas would be having a lot of trouble transporting fossil fuels.
If anyone is interested in learning more about the history of the Box Butte/ Alliance area, we highly recommend visiting Knight and Sandhills Center. There is so much at the museum that we could only cover so much of it in a single blog page. Even in the sections we discussed, there is so much more knowledge to gain on the topics, more people to learn about and more historical artifacts that can only be admire in person. Not to mansion the other two section we didn’t even touch. The people who work there are very knowledgeable and are only there to help you better understand a few of our origin stories a little better.