Holt County NEGenWeb Project

1903. "It headed every circular folder and poster which I issued, and I issued them by the million. I spread them over Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio and even worked some in New York and Pennsylvania. Everywhere, and in every possible publication and newspaper, printed in black, blue and red ink, in the English and German languages, was this sentence 'FREE HOMES FOR THE MILLIONS.'"

The settlers who came were enthusiastic about the "salubrious climate" "the rich, nutritious grasses," "the thousands of pure crystal springs," "artesian wells," "cattle wintered with little grain," prizes won on exhibits of vegetables and grain at the State Fair, "thirty-five bushels of wheat to the acre and other grains in proportion" and finally, the bright prospects of a sugar beet industry.

Some of the towns, too, had novel ways of advertising their advantages. Atkinson, for instance, had stationery, with an "Atkinson News Letter" of fourteen or fifteen lines printed across the top of the sheet, in which these facts were emphasized. "Atkinson is located in the center of the western half of Holt County, and is the largest town, and as Holt County is certain to be divided in the near future, it is sure to be the county seat." It also told of one of her citizens who had received more money in prizes from eastern seed houses than any other man in the United States.

In the early years of its settlement, Holt County had its share of anarchy and violence incident to a frontier community. The settlement of the region was rather too recent to have much difficulty with the Indians, though "scares" were experienced occasionally up to 1890.

The early settlers suffered considerable annoyance and some loss from horse thieves and cattle rustlers. The most noted marauders that stand out in semi-heroic stature are "Doc" Middleton, leader of a gang, Kid Wade and John Little.

To cope with marauding violence, the settlers organized themselves into groups of vigilantes. The leader of one of these bands, Capt. A. J. Burnham, was a member of the Nebraska legislature in 1889.

Vigilantes finally broke up "Doc" Middleton's gang and he was sentenced to prison in 1879. Kid Wade was lynched Feb. 8, 1884, while he was being "escorted" to a place of trial.

Some of the disorder and violence was due to rival claims for new homesteads. Some was incident to railroad construction gangs and camp followers. Cowboys were at times boisterous and lawless. Sheriff Bernard Kearnes was killed in a cowboy riot in 1881. One of the greatest forces against crime and disorder was the influence of such Catholic priests as Father Bedard and Father Smith.

The period of anarchy and self-help apparently was ushered out in 1894 with the widely heralded case of Barrett Scott, a defaulting county treasurer. Scott, who had been a very popular man, was convicted of embezzlement. While out on bail pending an appeal, he was taken by unknown parties and hanged. After several months of search his body was found under the ice of the Niobrara river. The attempt to convict the perpetrators of the deed was futile.

O'Neill did $653,850 worth of business in 1883. The continued prosperity of the city depended on retaining the county seat. On Feb. 26, 1884, Center precinct which contained the city of O'Neill, voted $8,000 worth of bonds to build a courthouse. The Frontier said: "That this insures us the county seat permanently there is no doubt and that it will benefit O'Neill directly and for keeps is also certain."

However, no such bonds are recorded in the reports of the state auditor, probably because the law permitting precincts to issue bonds to build county courthouses was not approved until March 6, 1885.

In the spring of 1885, two propositions went through the early stages of procedure: That the county issue $10,000 bonds to build a courthouse and $30,000 to fund the outstanding indebtedness of the county. The latter was the only one carried out.

On June 19, 1885 Center precinct again voted bonds, this time $10,000, for the erection of a courthouse of "brick and stone principally." a building site was obtained from patrick and Sarah Fahy and G. M. Cleveland. The courthouse, a gift of Center precinct to the county, was built in the latter part of 1885. In the advertisements of Holt County and O'Neill thereafter, it was listed as costing $20,000. With some remodeling and considerable repairing, it served for more than fifty years.

During the first ten years after its organization, Holt County had the commissioner type of government and three commissioners. This centralized system which regards the county as a unit was sufficient when the population was small and scattered. As population grew, the demand arose for that form of government known as the township-supervisor system. Not only would it permit more local participation in government, but it would help to get rid of the "courthouse ring" and the "county seat crowd."

In November, 1887, the township type of county government was adopted by a vote of 2164 to 619, the larger majority coming from the south part of the county and the east and west ends.

Township government, allowing each community to manage its own affairs, fitted in well with the ideals of the Grange and Alliance movement of that time and made, as A. E. Sheldon, Nebraska historian, says, "every schoolhouse an Irish parliament."


The county board of supervisors of thirty members, consisting of one member from each township was a miniature "senate" in the opinion of one member, who proposed the employment of a secretary for each supervisor. It was an event of some importance at the county capital when the large board of supervisors held their sessions to transact the county's business.

Until the organization of Boyd county there seems to have been an uncertainty connected with the northern boundary of Holt County. Though in all statutes the Niobrara river is named as Holt's northern boundary, a triangular piece of land north of the river, between the Niobrara and the Keyapaha, called Turtle Creek Township, was always claimed by Holt, and a supervisor from there sat several years on the county board of supervisors.

An "official" map of Holt county in 1885 contains Turtle Creek precinct. It seems there was no legal justification for the claim but that the whole matter was an illustration of the informal ways and practical mindedness of pioneers.

In 1883, the legislature passed an act extending the boundary of Holt County directly north to the Nebraska line, so as to include all of what is now Boyd County, but providing that the act should not take effect until a majority of the legal voters of Holt County should five their assent at the next general election. At the general election in 1883 there were 1821 votes cast, of which, 878 were in favor of annexation.

It was generally understood at the time that the proposition was defeated, but on Jan. 23, 1885, two years later, the Holt County supervisors declared it carried and thereafter attempted to exercise jurisdiction over that territory.

The case wen to the supreme court as State vs. Van Camp in 1893 and was decided against Holt County by two of the three judges. Chief Justice Maxwell dissented vigorously.

When the legislature created Boyd County in 1891, no consent of Holt County was sought either as to Turtle Creek precinct or the rest of what became Boyd County.

Upon the whole, there was considerable prosperity and optimism in Holt County in the later 1880'2. In its issue of Jan. 3, 1889, the O'Neill Frontier said: "Rainfall has increased in the past six years to such an extent that the bugaboo of drouth does not worry the farmers of this country. And what is still better, the rainfall is becoming more uniform; in other words, we have more rainy days and they are becoming more evenly distributed throughout the year."

It was believed by many that the plowing of ground and the planting of trees actually increased rainfall. Acting on such beliefs, Holt County farmers engaged in farming according to the methods used in more favorable regions. Toward 1890 farmers were boasting 100,000 acres of corn and another 100,000 acres of other grains.

They went into debt for land, stock, and equipment. Eastern loan companies urged loans upon settlers who had "proved up" on their land. "I have $500,000 which must be loaned on farms within three months. After that a fresh supply is coming," advertised M. F. Harrington in the spring of 1889.

About Aug. 1, 1890, another railroad reached O'Neill and began to put on passenger and freight trains. This road was the Sioux City and Pacific railway. It never went beyond O'Neill.

Coincident with the arrival of the railroad, the village of O'Neill and the surrounding precinct, now called Gratton, issued on Aug. 1, 1890 bonds for $22,000 and $36,000 respectively, "in aid of railroads."

Then came the hot winds and drouth in 1890, again in 1893, and once more in 1894, the driest year recorded up to the record year of 1939, which had slightly more than eleven inches of rainfall for the whole year.

This falling off in rainfall was serious because the normal was no more than enough. Many settlers handed over their farms to the loan companies and turned their covered wagons eastward. According to the U. S. Census there were 1500 fewer people in Holt County in 1900 than there had been in 1890, ten years before. Those who remained blamed the railroads and the money lenders for their sad plight.

Such conditions were ideal causes for the great Populist movement which had one of its greatest strongholds in Holt County. The Populists polled the highest number of votes in the county in 1890 and either lone or in fusion with the Democrats, kept the lead for more than twenty years thereafter.

Moses P. Kinkaid, a resident of O'Neill since 1881, was elected congressman from the sixth district in November, 1902. Almost at once, he revived the grazing homestead idea which had received considerable attention following the drouth of 1890. His bill for granting a section of 640 acres as a homestead in grazing regions, wa approved April 28, 1904. While the law applied more particularly to the sandhill area, Holt County still had some 55,000 acres available, largely in the southwest portion.

On June 28, 1904, the day of throwing this land open to entry, the O'Neill land office saw its last army of prospective settlers seeking a portion of the public domain. In the long line of waiting applicants a poll was taken as to whether the registrants would support Kinkaid in the coming election. He received 343 votes out of 345 polled.

Until his death in 1922, he was invincible in elections on the ground that he had championed the cause of the many small homeseekers as opposed


to the large ranchmen. The number of farms between 500 and 1000 acres more than doubled in Holt County between 1900 and 1930.

The telephone as a general system of communication began to make its appearance in the County soon after 1900. Articles of incorporation of the Holt County Telephone Company, with exchange at O'Neill, were filed with the proper authorities in the summer of 1901.

The Ewing and Deloit Telephone Company was voted a franchise within the city of O'Neill on April 7, 1903. The Northern Antelope Telephone Company installed a telephone system in Ewing in 1905.

One of the achievements of Congressman Kinkaid was the early obtaining of rural free delivery of mail in Holt County. The first rural free delivery service was inaugurated from O'Neill in the middle of April, 1905. Although Mr. Kinkaid was not able to get concessions for free delivery in the sparsely settled portions of the county, star routes have been generously substituted. Holt County has at least twelve star routes from the various post offices, and eight rural free delivery routes, one each from the towns of the county: Atkinson, Chambers, Emmet, Ewing, Inman, O'Neill, Page and Stuart.

O'Neill was the birthplace of the National Star Route Carriers Association in 1932.

About 1910, the automobile began to make its appearance in Holt County. In the Frontier of March 18, 1910 is a "boiler plate" advertisement for the Overland automobile. Those interested were asked to write to Toledo, Ohio for particulars. A few pages distant, Frank Campbell says in his advertisement, "My buggy and carriage line is large." The Stuart Advocate of July 7, 1910 says that "a carload of automobiles, Overlands, International, and Brush runabouts was received by W. N. Coats Tuesday."

In 1930 there were, on the farms alone, 1,854 automobiles, 213 trucks and 311 tractors. In 1937, there were in the county as a whole, 3,870 automobiles and more than 700 trucks.

Telephones, automobiles and trucks are compensating such towns as Chambers for the absence of a railroad.

Holt County furnished 650 enlisted men for military service in army and navy during the World War. There were twenty casualties. At home, there was a fine spirit of co-operation between town and country in keeping the "home fires burning." Under the general leadership of Judge R. R. Dickson, county chairman of the council of defense, Holt County went "over the top" in all the drives for funds for Y. M. C. A., Red Cross, Liberty Loans, and in campaigns for food and fuel conservation. The women, too, did their part in the different kinds of work under the Red Cross, in taking the registration of women, in distributing food consecration cards and in making the Liberty Loans canvass.

There are five Legion posts in the county--at Atkinson, Chambers, O'Neill, Page and Stuart.

On July 3, 4, and 5, 1924, O'Neill celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Preceding the celebration and after, numerous historical sketches appeared in Holt County papers and an unsuccessful effort was made toward the removal of General O'Neill's remains from the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha to the city of O'Neill, which was named after him.

The three-day program consisted of concerts, horse racing, parades, historical pageants, and addresses by James H. Hanley of Omaha, W. J. Nichols of Lincoln, T. V. Golden of O'Neill, and O. J. Moore of Sioux City. Old timers gathered from almost every state in the union and many who could not come sent telegrams or letters. Arthur Mullen, attending the national democratic convention in New York, telegraphed greetings.

The "great depression" of the 1930's struck severely in Holt County. In 1927, the two banks at Ewing went into the hands of a receiver; in 1929, the State Bank of Inman; in 1930 the Nebraska State Bank at O'Neill; in 1931, the Stuart Citizen's Bank and the Page State Bank. In most cases "credit associations" were formed to transact some banking business.

Land values decreased from an average of $39.36 per acre in 1920 to $13.40 in 1935. There were many foreclosures. In 1935, only 51 percent of the farms were operated by owners, as compared with 100 percent in 1880. Added to the effects of the depression were seven years, 1933 to 1939 inclusive, of scanty or ineffectual rainfall for growing crops.

In the emergency, Nebraska and the federal government entered into the affairs of Holt County, as of other counties, in a wholly unprecedented fashion. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were poured into the county for direct relief, old age assistance, PWA or WPA projects, aid to the blind or to dependent children, road building and agricultural assistance. There was renewed interest in 4-H Clubs, and besides these, in Women's Project Clubs and Recreation Centers which gave added impetus to the spirit of community co-operation.

In all these matters, Holt County was apparently quite ready to co-operate with the requirements of the "New Deal." It was one of the first twenty-four counties to agree, in February 1936, to the "unified county relief administration" under federal and state civil service rules.

The AAA farm program "went over big." In the matter of forestation, Holt County planted 350 miles of "shelter belt" up to the end of of 1939.


One reminder of aid to Holt County in the depression was the federal gift of $49,000 toward a new $110,000 courthouse. For its share, the county voted a bond issue of $61,000 on Nov. 12, 1935. The bonds were carried by the safe but not large margin of 144 votes. The west and southwest voted strongly against the issue. The interest rate was 2.6 percent as compared with 7 percent when Center precinct built the first courthouse fifty years before. The new structure was ready for use in June, 1937, and an estimated crowd of 5,000 attended the dedicatory celebration on the 16th.

The old courthouse was torn down in the early months of 1940, with the intention of using the materials to construct new quarter for agencies brought in during the depression, but destined to remain long after.

O'Neill received also in 1937, a modern commodious postoffice building, and Stuart was assisted in erecting a modern community house, costing $30,000 and dedicated September 1939. Needy farmers were cared for temporarily by the Resettlement Administration.

The depression, in the main, merely carried forward more swiftly, tendencies observable during several decades previous.

Many of the early settlers of Holt County broke up much land which should have been left in grass. This caused severe wind erosion, dust storms and exhaustion of the soil Since about 1910, however, there has been a marked increase in acreage of wild prairie grasses, of tame and cultivated grasses, and of such grains as rye, oats, and corn and sorghums for forage. the conservation program of the 1930's extended the process already begun.

The increase in road building was made necessary by the increased use of the automobile and truck.

The fact that Irish or descendants of Irish people formed the nucleus of the early settlement of Holt County has left a lasting impression on the county's history. While people of Irish extraction have never constituted a majority of the population, they have constituted approximately a majority around O'Neill and some other places. Possessing the characteristic energy, talents, and enthusiasm of their race, they have probably exerted an influence out of proportion to their numerical strength. This influence has reached out into the state and into the nation.

The Catholic Church has had an especially strong following in Holt County. There are several fine church edifices. There are parochial schools or academies at Atkinson, O'Neill and Stuart.

The Methodists have had a long and successful history beginning with the ministrations of Rev. Barley Blain in 1880, Rev. J. R. Gartner and Rev. A. J. Calvert in 1883.

The Nebraska State Gazetteer for 1890 credits both the Methodists and Presbyterians with churches at Atkinson, Ewing, Inman, O'Neill and Stuart; the Baptists with churches at Atkinson and Stuart; and the Catholics with churches at Atkinson, Ewing, and O'Neill.

The county has always had a good supply of vigorous newspapers. Representing different political views or rival sections of the county, they have not hesitated to do battle with each other in a most earnest, and at times, vitriolic fashion.

A study of the history of Holt County gives an outsider the impression that there has always been a highly enterprising spirit on the part of its leaders and citizens. They have been generally alert and courageous.

Politically, Holt County has nearly always leaned toward progressivism or even "radicalism" though there has always been a relatively large and stable conservative group. In 1876 and 1878 the Greenback party polled the highest votes in the county. The Farmers' Alliance was strong in the county in the 1880's. The Populists had a wide plurality from 1890 to 1896, then a combination of the Populists and Democrats kept a plurality almost continuously for the next twenty years. Holt County has always shown itself friendly to the Bryans, George W. Norris, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, La Follette and Wheeler, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Holt County voted 3,869 To 2,516 for the unicameral legislature.

The twenty years from 1883 to 1904 witnessed at least five attempts at county division, I. E. in 1883, 1888, 1889, and 1904. The underlying motive has been the desire of several towns in the county to be a county seat. In this matter, O'Neill and Atkinson have been the most consistent rivals. The rivalry still appeared in the vote for courthouse bonds in 1935.

The introduction of the automobile about 1910 and the consequent improvement of roads ever since may have determined the question of county division forever.

The building of the new courthouse in 1936-37 by the whole county at a cost of $110,000 appears to have fixed the county seat permanently at O'Neill.

Note: Some of the authorities consulted in the writing of this sketch have been mentioned therein. So far as it is possible here to mention others, they are as follows: Soil Survey of Holt County, Nebraska by the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska State Soil Survey; notes taken from the diaries of M. D. Long, monsignor M. F. Cassidy, Bartley Blain, and John P. Prouty as compiled by Tom Hannaberry and Dean Selah and printed in the Frontier from Jan. 19 to Feb. 16, 1939; files of Holt County papers from about 1882 to Feb. 1940, in the library of the Nebraska State Historical Society in the capitol at Lincoln.

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