Timothy and Lois Bemis are the 5th great grandparents of Pat Renschler on his mother’s side.
Timothy Bemis, son of Timothy Bemis and Martha Wesson, was born at Weston, Middlesex County, Massachusetts on July 19, 1776, fifteen days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He married Lois Rhodes on June 3, 1795 at Marlborough, Cheshire County, New Hampshire.
Timothy is recorded on the 1800 Census of Marlborough, New Hampshire, and the 1820, 1830 and 1840 Censuses of Malone, Franklin County, New York. He died May 24, 1848 on his farm near Malone. He and his wife are buried in the Webster Street Cemetery there. This information can be found on several family history web sites.
However, there is much more to Timothy’s story than just a recitation of dates and places. Timothy moved his family, a wife and seven children, to Malone about 1812. It is not known how they traveled, but many settlers from the New England states crossed Lake Champlain when it was frozen solid. Franklin County is located in upstate New York on the Canadian border. The area is rugged and mountainous, and in 1812 it was nearly uninhabited. The Bemis family must have suffered many hardships while establishing their 130 acre farm in the wilderness.
Timothy is one of our patriot ancestors, serving in the War of 1812 as a private in Stephen D. Hickok’s Militia on its march to Plattsburg, New York on September 11 to September 20, 1814. The Battle of Plattsburg, also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain, occurred when British troops converged on Plattsburg which was defended by New York and Vermont militias and US Federal troops. The British were defeated and retreated into Canada. Hickok’s militia, which was raised in Franklin County, New York, responded to the alarm of the battle of Plattsburgh, but didn’t reach there in time to participate in the engagement. Timothy’s pay as a Private was $2.66. The only record found of his service is in the Historical Sketches of Franklin County and Its Several Towns With Many Brief Biographical Sketches. By Frederick J Seaver, published in 1918. The militias were local organizations and many of their records have been lost.
Timothy built a saw mill on Branch brook near his home. It was successful and he was considered wealthy at the time of his death.
The Franklin Telegraph of March 9, 1826 printed the minutes of the Annual Town Meeting. Timothy Bemis was named a Fence Viewer. The job of fence viewer was to inspect fences, notify owners of needed repairs, and to settle fence disputes. Fence viewers were also called haywards.
Timothy’s wife, Lois, bore him thirteen children. Our ancestor, Hiram, was born in 1798. She was 42 years old when her last child, Charles, was born in 1817. Lois died August 2, 1856 at the age of 81 years.
No biographical research project is complete without searching probate records. Many years ago, before PCs and the internet, during a research trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, I located microfilm copies of Timothy Bemis’ will located in Volume 2, page 212 of Franklin County probate files. That’s when Timothy’s story became interesting—a blind man changing his will shortly before his death, a will kept in a hat, the previous will burned in a stove, a housekeeper who was the mother of two illegitimate children, and a legitimate son challenging the validity of the second will.
The second will is dated November 14, 1844. In it he leaves very small amounts to most of his children, sons Varanes and Hiram (our ancestor) received $25 each; the heirs of daughter Nancy received $5; daughters Eunice Story and Mary Perry received $20 each; son Ebenezer received 28 acres and use of the saw mill for five years. To son Charles Bemis he gave half the saw mill and two houses, and half of 136 acres of land with equipment, tools, etc. Now comes the interesting part, to Harry Bemis, son of Olive R. Bradish he left half of the saw mill and two houses, and half the 136 acres, equipment, tools, etc. Also one bed and bedding, a brass fancy clock also his brass bed and bedding and schooling till he arrives to the age of twenty-one. He also left his pew in the Baptist church and a horse stall “marked T B” in the shed attached to the church to Charles Bemis and Harry Bemis. To Olive Bradish’s daughter, Josephine Bemis, he left a bed and bedding, $400, and her maintenance, clothing and schooling until she reached eighteen years. He directed that Olive R Bradish receive her support and maintenance during her natural life or as long as she remained unmarried. After Timothy provided for the housekeeper, and near the end of the will he directed that his “beloved wife” Lois Bemis be supported equally by Charles and Harry Bemis. Lastly, he directed that grave stones be erected on his and his wife’s graves.
Timothy & Lois’s son Varanes contested the will. The testimony in that suit included: Timothy Bemis was blind, he could only see some light. Olive Bradish was in the room when the first will was destroyed. She had lived in Mr. Bemis home for fifteen years, until the day of Mr. Bemis death. (Olive would have arrived at the Bemis household about 1833. Harry was born in 1834 and Josephine in 1840.) Olive Bradish admitted that she and her daughter had read the first will which was kept in a drawer. The executor stated he put the second will in his hat, what happened to it after that isn’t stated. One of the persons who signed the will as a witness stated the will was not read and he did not know what it contained.
In December 1848 the county judge found that the will was duly executed by Timothy Bemis. Olive Bradish never married and lived until 1877.
For more than thirty years, a Catholic boarding school and academy for young women existed in Hastings. In fact, there were two schools, one superseding the other. The first one, known as the Academy of the Visitation, included the usual course of study in the primary, intermediate, and academic departments, according to the Hastings Independent Tribune of August 23, 1895. The school functioned for six years. The second one, the Immaculate Conception Academy, was a preparatory school and academy. In the 24 years this school existed, it provided an education from the ninth through the 14th grades for several hundred young women, both Catholic and Protestant, from communities in Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa.
The original school had its beginnings in 1889 when Thomas Farrell, a leading Catholic layman in community, transferred a ten-acre tract at Pine Avenue and 14th Street to the Sisters of the Visitation, an order whose Mother House was in Chicago. Construction began immediately, and the building was opened on January 6, 1890. The three-story structure was of Colorado red sandstone from Thomas Farrell’s quarries, with ground dimensions of 80 by 184 feet. The east wing was the convent for the Sisters in charge of the school, and the west wing was for the accommodation of students and the reception of visitors. A ten-foot high wooden fence surrounded the school. A newspaper story in later years said that the entire construction cost had amounted to $100,000, a large sum at that time.
The first classes began on February 5, 1890. The course of instruction included vocal music, the harp, piano, guitar and mandolin; and in the art department instruction in oil, water colors and china painting. Lessons were also given in all kinds of needlework. French, German and Latin were taught. Students were also taught bookkeeping, typewriting, stenography, and telegraphy. Some pupils were boarding students from rural areas or communities which did not have high schools. Parents who wished their children to have a full high school education had to send them to boarding schools. Protestant academies, including those at Hastings College, Franklin, Fairfield, Crete were for both boys and girls. Many families hesitated to send young daughters to non-segregated schools, and although there was a rigid divide between Catholics and Protestants, some Protestant parents decided that exposing their daughters to an alien religion was a lesser evil than having them in contact with unknown boys. Some pupils were day students from Hastings, who took the horse drawn streetcar which went up Pine Avenue and stopped at the entrance to the school.
The 1890s were years of drought, heat, crop failures and bank closings. All institutions on the Great Plains were in precarious financial condition. After the Order had paid the initial $10,000 toward the construction of the school, it could pay no more nor could it pay the interest on the mortgage. In 1896 the Visitation Academy was forced to close. The Sisters abandoned the property in December. However, Sister Margaret and Sister Anastasia, left the order and remained in Hastings to spend the rest of their lives as nurses in the community.
For a dozen years, from 1896 to 1908, the building was unoccupied save for a family that moved in as caretakers for the creditors. By the turn of the century, after the drought and depression were over, businessmen in Hastings began to consider what use could be made of the structure. A building so large, subject to deterioration if it were left unused and unrepaired, could prove damaging to property values. Rats were infesting the building, the roof was leaking and each succeeding year of non-use depreciated its usability and value.
In 1908 Bishop Thomas Bonacum of Lincoln and the Sisters of St. Dominic, known as the Dominican Sisters, from the Convent of St. Catharine of Siena in Springfield, Kentucky, made an offer to the Commercial Club of Hastings. If Hastings would raise $8,000 and turn over the old convent building, the Sisters would repair the building and establish a school for young women. Father William McDonald, local parish priest, and the Hastings Commercial Club began the job of soliciting subscriptions, and by January 6, 1909, the funds had been raised.
Mother Magdalene arrived from St. Catharine, Kentucky on April 30 to supervise the final preparations. Eight Sisters arrived mid-summer to scrub and equip the building, investing about $30,000 in the renovation. The west half of the building was the convent and the east half was the school. By September, everything was in order. “The Sisters had planned for an initial enrollment of about 75 pupils,” the Hastings Daily Tribune of September 15, 1909, reported. “Facilities were provided for a larger number, but when the registration passed the 100 mark, it was necessary to send out for more desks for emergency use until others could be obtained.”
By the following year there were 125 boarding and day students enrolled. Although there was considerable emphasis on the study of art and music, the school had laboratories for physics and chemistry and a new gymnasium. Miss Marguerite Higgins of Boston was the physical education instructor, teaching Swedish and German American systems of gymnastics, basketball, social, aesthetic and folk dancing, fencing, club swinging. The program included a special corrective department for children with spinal curvature, round shoulders, and dropping head. In later years tennis courts were added.
Among the students in 1910 was Leona Bassett whose father and step mother lived east of Hastings on the road now named 12th Street. Leona, dressed in white, is the fourth person in the back row of the photo. She was able to attend the academy only one year because her step mother did not want money spent on Leona’s education. The original of this photo is a post card.
There were three members of the first graduating class in 1911. At that time the school had 12 grades; the two junior college grades were added in 1925 with Sister Leonardo as dean. The annual Educational Directories of the Nebraska Department of Public Instruction indicate that sister Mary Louis was the principal until 1916; Sister Aloysius, 1916-1917; Sister Mary Virginia, 1918-1924; Sister Eleanor, 1924-1926; Sister Rose de Lima, a graduate of ICA, 1926-1927; Sister Clara, 1927-1928 and 1929-1930; Sister Henrietta, 1928-1929; and Sister Mary Rose, 1930-1931. Among the teachers were Sister Bonaventure, Sister Helen Marie, Sister Columbo; Sister Thersa in music; Sister Geraldine in gymnastics; and Sister Veronica in art. There were usually four or five faculty members.
During the early years of the academy there were about 125 boarding students at a time. The girls lived on the third, or top, floor of the academy, either in large barracks-like dormitory rooms, or in smaller single or double rooms, which were usually saved for the senior girls. The schedule for the boarding students called for them to arise at 6:30 a.m., attend Mass at 7, then have breakfast and be ready for classes which started at 9 a.m. The girls were carefully supervised; daily walks were part of the schedule, the girls walking two-by-two down Academy Avenue, sometimes over to the cemetery on Elm Avenue, always chaperoned by one of the Sisters. The mail of the boarding students was carefully scrutinized, particularly that from home-town boy friends, and some of the students went to great lengths to arrange mail-drops with friends in town.
The girls wore school uniforms of white middy blouses and pleated navy blue skirts during the period of the 1910’s. At a later date, according to pictures in the annuals of 1925 and 1926, they wore long-sleeved navy blue dresses with white Peter Pan collars and long satin bow-ties. For Mass, they wore chapel veils or mantillas.
The numbers of day students varied from time to time. Included among them, particularly among the lower graders, were a number of local Catholic boys, Joseph Kealy, Leo Coffey, Mark Cantwell and Paul Kernan among them. Few boys were ever graduated from the academy, however, transferring instead to the public school.
After 1912, there were no further elementary classes at the academy because St. Cecilia’s established a parish school in Hastings. The teaching staff was Dominican Sisters who lived in the Convent part of the Immaculate Conception Academy. When boarding students in elementary grades were in residence at the academy, they went into town with the Sisters who taught at St. Cecilia’s, taking their class work there. The academy was especially strong in its instruction of both art and music, and had special classrooms on the first floor for each of those subjects. Sister Veronica, the art teacher, was an accomplished painter and in addition to teaching fine arts also taught craft-style art. The school had its own kiln for firing ceramics.
The music department had a gramophone on which students could listen to records, and every time there was a opera or some other outstanding musical program at the Kerr Opera House downtown, academy students attended, under close chaperonage. From time to time, the music department presented operettas and participated in early-day radio broadcasts at station KFKX.
Students were given academy diplomas at graduation exercises, and most of the girls also received teaching certificates and/or letters of admission to the University. In fact by 1918 the headlines in the Tribune referred to the school as the Catholic Normal. (A Normal School trains students to be teachers.) According to Nebraska State Education Directories the academy was an approved normal training school from 1911 through 1931; and from the school year 1925-26 onward, graduates were accredited automatically for entrance to the University of Nebraska.
Disaster struck on May 8, 1930, when a tornado swept across Hastings. When the winds died down, the Sisters discovered that the third floor of the building was almost entirely demolished. Mercifully, no one was injured. Clearing away the rubble, the Sisters made plans to rebuild, “The gabled room and top story of the building will be removed and a flat roof will be put on.” the Tribune of July 12th reported. The interior of the building was redesigned to accommodate the necessary 17 classrooms, the library, reception room and offices in the now two-story building. And the Sisters discovered that there was enough salvaged brick to build a long needed gymnasium. The 30 by 65 feet building included a stage, flanked by dressing rooms, at one end.
But the depression that was to destroy the economy of the country in the 1930s had already begun. Money for tuition to send girls away to school was no longer as plentiful as it had been in earlier years. With fewer boarding students and less tuition money coming in, and with a new debt to cope with, the Dominican Order reluctantly decided to close the academy. On May 9, 1932 Bishop Kucera of Lincoln announced that the buildings and grounds had been sold to the Crosier Fathers. The graduating class of 1932 was the last one. The building that had been a girls school would now become a college and seminary for men. Some of the Sisters remained in Hastings and taught at St. Cecilia’s school where tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades were added.
The three youngest daughters of John and Bertha Kline attended the Immaculate Conception Academy. All three became Dominican nuns influenced by their teachers at the academy. In a 1988 interview Sister Frances Kline talked about the academy. “I was in school at Immaculate Conception Academy when Father died. [14 March 1914] Uncle George Pressler—he had a car then and we didn’t have one—came down and got us. They didn’t tell us that he was dead, just that he was sick. The Sister in charge there she said “Well now, take your black dress because you will need it to go to Mass tomorrow.” We wore blue during the week and black on Sunday. So we didn’t know until we got home. We just went home at vacation time–Christmas and in the summer. The first year I was there was when Father died. I was out of ICA for two years before I went to the convent. I taught school the second year at Skunk Hollow School. I drove a horse and buggy from home. It was four or five miles.”
In the early 20th century, the Immaculate Conception Academy served its purpose, providing quality education for upwards of a thousand young women. Some graduates became teachers, some went on to the University of Nebraska, and some graduates went into religious vocations. Sister Leonardo, formerly Clara Kline, a graduate with the class of 1913, returned to the academy as the dean of the junior college as soon as it was established in 1925. Among the other religious were Sister Theodore Kline, Sister Mary Louise Helmann, Sister Ernestine Choquette, Sister Francis Kline, and Sister Celestine Waltham. All the school records seem to have disappeared, being neither at the Mother House in St. Catharine, with the Dominican Sisters who still provide educational instruction at St. Cecilia’s, nor in any parish nor diocesan archive in Hastings or Lincoln.
Today the building is an office complex named Crosier Park.
The great blizzard which struck the northern plains on January 12, 1888 has acquired almost legendary status. Over a thousand people are said to have perished, about 100 of them in Nebraska. The blizzard came to be known as the “School Children’s Blizzard” because of the many children and teachers caught in little one-room schoolhouses scattered across the plains. But Adams County was spared, no citizen of the county is known to have died in the storm.
The morning of that fateful day was unseasonably warm and clear. Children had walked to school wearing light-weight clothing and carrying only their lunch. They would later reminisce about playing outside at noon in their shirtsleeves. While the residents of Adams County went about their daily activities unaware, a massive Canadian cold front was descending on them at a speed of 45 miles per hour. The front’s leading edge was a wall of blowing dirt, snow, and ice particles. The temperature behind the front fell by twenty to thirty degrees. By nightfall the temperature was well below zero–in some places by as much as twenty degrees below. Anyone caught out in that mass of howling winds, blinding snow and subzero temperature was in severe trouble.
H. O’Gara collected stories of the blizzard and in 1947 they were printed in a book titled In All Its Fury. The following stories, which illustrate the blizzard’s impact on the rural residents of this area, were excerpted from that book.
Lulu McGaw Cunningham lived on a farm four miles northeast of Hastings and attended school district 15. “During the noon hour, while we were enjoying our lunch, we heard a loud roaring that sounded like a train passing nearby. In a few minutes we knew what caused the noise for the blizzard struck the building and tore a shutter from one of the windows. The wind whirled dirty snow and ice against the panes, completely covering them so that we could not see out anywhere and it became very dark. The storm came with the force of a cyclone.
The temperature began to go down and by two o’clock it had fallen to about twenty below. The wind continued to blow, drifting and blocking the country roads. Our teacher said that unless our fathers came for us we would stay right there all night, as we had plenty of coal in the bin. But very soon our father’s did begin to come, one rode a horse, another had a top buggy, another a sled. My father drove a team of horses hitched to a double-box wagon. We sat in the bottom covered with blankets while father stood in front to drive. It was very hard on us, as we had to face the bitter, cold wind. Ice formed on the horses’ faces and father frosted his ear and face. A willow hedge fence was the only guide he had to keep the horses in the road. We were half an hour driving the short distance home.”
Josephine Bergeron Donnelly, daughter of Jule & Eleanor Bergeron, and a first cousin of Leona Bassett Kline, lived nine miles southeast of Hastings and attended school district 48 in Clay County. “Our teacher was a young man of nineteen and he boarded at our house. His name was Bert Stevens of Ohiowa. There were forty-five children in the school that day and he did not let one leave unless called for. The school board had delivered coal the day before and so he could keep a good fire all night.
About four in the morning the storm began to slacken and some of the parents came to see how we were getting along. Then Mr. Stevens took four dinner-pails over to our house to get food for the little ones. Mother filled all the pails and gave him milk for them too. People all over the country praised him for his kindness and wise care of the children.
When my father came to guide the three of us home he brought warm wraps along. The morning had been just like a spring day and we were lightly dressed. It took us an hour and a half to walk that one mile, for the wind blew so hard and the snow was so fine that we could not see our way. Fortunately we had a wire fence to follow. The snow was so fine and blown with such force that it went right through all our clothing and mother found it on our cold skin.
The next morning the weather was bitter but the sunshine was bright and there was no wind. The snow had drifted into high banks and was packed so hard that horses walked across it without breaking the crust.”
In 1988, Sister Frances Kline retold the story her mother had told her about the blizzard of 1888. “Father had rode a horse to Trumbull and went on the train to Aurora for some business. The two older boys, Tony and George went to country school. In the morning it was all right. Some time around noon this terrible blizzard came up. The two boys and the neighbor boy walked a half mile or so and the neighbors there said they would keep them all night because they had a mile to walk yet. And an older boy, I forget his name, he came by and told Mother where the boys were. Father got back on the train, he had tied his horse out in the yard some place and the people around there saw it and they put the horse in a barn. So Dad got on the horse and rode home from Trumbull. He had to face the wind. Mother said his clothes were just wet”.
Surprisingly a storm of this magnitude received very little mention in the two 1888 Adams County newspapers for which copies still survive On January 18th the weekly Hastings Gazette-Journal, carried stories of death and heroism from other areas of the state, but nothing about the storm’s local impact. On January 25th its Inland column mentioned livestock driven south by the storm and not yet found. That column also penned “We noticed a prairie schooner wending its weary way westward and we thought as we saw them shoveling through snow drifts that the lot of a homesteader is a hard one in midwinter.”
That same issue also carried a notice to local county superintendents from the State School Superintendent saying “Owing to the fact that numerous cases of freezing teachers and pupils of the public schools of this state during the late storm have been reported” it was requested each county report the number of children and teachers that perished, and the number who had limbs amputated from freezing
On January 12, 1943 a Hastings Daily Tribune writer quoted from a now lost issue of the Hastings Gazette-Journal.: “Once the storm struck it was apparent that Hastings was in for a bad time. School teachers quickly bundled their pupils up and sent them home in squads. Citizens hitched up carriages and helped deliver the children to their homes. Street cars were driven off the streets, stores closed early and all public meetings were cancelled. A committee from the county board of supervisors which had set out on an inspection trip to the county poor farm got caught there and had to spend the night at the institution, which probably gave them a better insight into the way the place operated.”
All trains from the east were held up at Lincoln, and the first one did not pull into Hastings until 1:30 p.m. on the 13th. The Hastings Tribune quoted a Gazette Journal writer who extended himself in describing the storm as “a desperate, howling, demoniac conglomeration of atmospherical wrath and fury.”
The Blizzard of 1888 was not notable because of its unusually low temperatures, nor its heavy snowfall, nor its exceptionally high winds. Rather it was a combination of a rapidly moving storm, a sudden drop in temperature from a balmy winter day to well below zero, gale force winds, and blinding snow which caused such hardship and claimed many lives.
Why did Adams County escape the loss of life and limb suffered in other areas of the state? Perhaps the storm was less severe here, although later accounts reported the same swift moving storm that brought howling winds and blinding snow, and the extreme temperature drop to twenty degrees below zero
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Adams County had a much denser rural population than many other counties. The number of farmsteads in 1888 is estimated to have been about 3,700 or over six farmsteads per square mile. Adams County people lost in the blizzard were more likely to stumble upon a farmstead than those in more sparsely populated areas. Also by 1888, wire fencing, which served as a life line to many people during the blizzard, was heavily used in Adams County. These two factors probably explain why Adams County lost no lives during the Great Blizzard of 1888.
It is difficult to compare the blizzards of a century or more ago with today because of the changes in technology. In 1888 people were caught unaware by the swiftly approaching storm. Today radio and television warn us well in advance of changing weather conditions. The pioneers had constructed their buildings as quickly and cheaply as possible. Wind and snow blew through the cracks, and the entire roof structure often blew off sod buildings. Our well built, well insulated buildings protect us against winter’s fury. The pioneers had no telephones to communicate with loved ones, causing some to venture out into the teeth of the storm because their family would be worried. Today’s heavy equipment clears the roads quickly; the pioneers had only the muscles of men and beasts, and the sun when it came out, to clear snow.
If the hardships and heartbreak of our Nebraska pioneer ancestors have any influence on us beyond the retelling of interesting stories, like this one, it may be that we inherited a strength and determination not found everywhere.
In simplest terms, a threshing machine is a device that beats (threshes) ripened kernels of grain from plant stalks and separates them from husks and straw. Because of this process they were also called “separators.” Although the first machines were small and hand operated, they represented a step forward from using hand flails or animals to trample grain on a threshing floor.
The first threshing machines used in the United States were imported from Scotland and England in the 1780s. The first American made thresher was built in 1792 in Philadelphia, and by the 1830s the two processes of threshing and fanning (separating chaff from the grain) were combined. But technological progress in threshing was limited by the means of power, which was primarily horsepower. The two most common ways of converting the linear motion of animals to the circular motion of machines were the treadmill and the sweep horsepower. The treadmill was limited to the power of one or two horses and dissipated much of that power with its many slats, chains, and belts. The sweep horsepower used horizontal beams, the outside ends of which were hooked to a team which walked in an endless circle. The axle transferred power through a series of gears to a tumbling rod which ran to a gear box on the thresher. Some horsepowers were attached to the thresher gear box by a long belt.
History credits “Wild Bill” Kress with planting the first wheat in Adams County on his homestead along the Little Blue River. W. S. Mont marketed the first wheat in Hastings in 1873. The settlers raised spring wheat (planted in the spring, harvested in the fall) which was often taken to a grist mill to be ground into flour with the miller retaining a portion for his pay. About 1888 winter wheat was introduced in this area, and was immediately popular. It is planted in the fall and matures in early summer before winter and spring soil moisture is lost to the heat of a plains summer. Abe Benedict of Ayr is credited with being the first to raise winter wheat in Adams County. Farmers flocked to his place to see and buy the seed.
Before the wheat could be threshed it had to be cut. Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick both patented reapers in the 1830s, and by the 1850s reapers began the mechanization of agriculture. Even after the invention of the reaper, harvesting wheat required several people: a man to drive the reaper; another to rake off the cut grain; and several more to bind and shock the grain. By the 1870s reapers which could bind the grain (called binders) came on the market, further reducing labor in the harvest fields.
In 1873, Merritt and Kellog of Battle Creek, Michigan, became the first company to manufacture self-propelled steam traction engines which moved from farm to farm under their own power. The first known steam powered thresher in Adams County was reported by the Central Nebraskan in 1878 as being operated on the C. C. Ingalls farm near Hastings. Two men were kept busy feeding headed wheat into the separator, and six men pitched it to them. It was reported that the machine threshed much faster than the ordinary horsepower resulting in saving the boarding of additional hands and teams. The steam engine required about $2.50 worth of coal per day. From 1900 to the 1930s, steam traction engines were the primary power source for grain threshing. The 1905-1906 tax schedules for Adams County list 55 farmers who owned a steam engine and a threshing machine, and 13 farmers who had only a threshing machine–apparently the old horsepower type.
There were many dangers associated with agricultural machinery. Boys usually stood on a platform in the center of the horsepower and employed a whip to urge the horses to walk faster. Standing on this platform with the exposed gears in the center was very dangerous. Eight year old Anton Trausch, son of Thomas and Anna Trausch, died in 1907 from shock and loss of blood after his foot and lower leg were ground in the gears of a horsepower. He is buried in the Assumption Cemetery.
However, the dangers of the horsepower were replaced by the steam engine’s risk of explosion and scalding by escaping steam. Pressure in the boilers could reach one hundred pounds per square inch and explosions were common. Also the fire under the boiler caused straw fires which could destroy the entire crop and escape to farm buildings. In 1897 William Lipps of Hastings was scalded to death when a steam engine exploded southeast of Pauline. The Hastings Daily Republican reported the gory details: “The rushing steam cooked the very flesh on his bones.” In 1884 J. A. Smith was killed northwest of Juniata when his steam engine exploded. He had owned the machine three years. In the tradition of the times, the Juniata Herald reported that his body was “horribly mangled. The engine was blown to atoms, the only piece of any size left being a portion of the boiler weighing perhaps 600 pounds which was hurled over thirty rods, landing in a neighbors wheat field.” (A rod is 16.5 feet) Because of the lurid newspaper stories and because the machines were huge and very noisy, the public was justifiably afraid of them.
In a 1985 interview Albert J. Trausch reminisced: “In 1925 my Uncle Joe [Trausch] bought a used steamer in Ragan [in Harlan County]. We drove it clear to Roseland; took us two and a half days. I was steering and Vet [Trausch] was shoveling the coal. Tony Seiler was the water jack. When we got west of Norman we couldn’t get any water, so we drove up into a farmyard and Tony went up to the house and asked if we could get water from the horse tank. The woman said “No.” Vet said “You go back and tell her we have to have water or the damned thing will blow up.” “Take all you want.” she replied.” And there were other dangers, in 1914 Emil Johnson of rural Juniata fell from a load of wheat bundles onto a pitch fork and died an agonizing death a few days later. He left a wife of one year and an infant son.
World War I increased demand for food products which resulted in higher grain prices. (The US entered the war in April 1917. The war ended November 11, 1918.) Farmers’ sons and farm hands were drafted resulting in a scarcity of laborers for the wheat harvest. The Council of Defense organized Hastings men to work in the harvest fields, and on June 21, 1918 it was announced that 100 men had registered to shock wheat.
The introduction of winter wheat had resulted in a great increase in wheat acreage. In central Nebraska farmers formed cooperative neighborhood threshing rings which provided the teams, hayracks and labor needed for the harvest. Local contract thresher men provided the machinery and some skilled labor. Each spring neighbors got together to organize their threshing ring, which usually included eight to ten farmers.
There were two types of threshing runs, shock threshing and stack threshing. Shock threshing was done shortly after the grain had been cut by a binder and shocked by hand. A shock is a group of grain bundles stood together to dry. Farmers’ wives and daughters often helped shock grain in the harvest field.
Wheat was cut with a binder in July and shocked grain was threshed as soon as it had cured because it was easily damaged or destroyed by rain and hail storms. If the bundles were to be stacked they were thrown onto a wagon and hauled to the stacking area, usually on high ground. The bundles were laid in a circle around a shock, with the wheat heads in and the butts out. Stacks were shaped like a mushroom, bulging a few feet off the ground and tapering to the top. This shape shed water away from the base. Stacks were as high as fifteen feet. Constructing a stack that would shed water and not blow over was considered an art form. Stacks were usually set in groups of four so the separator could be set between them and bundles pitched in from both sides.
On a shock run each member of the ring furnished a man, a team and a hayrack. When your wheat was threshed you furnished one or two grain scoopers and sometimes an extra man for the hayracks. If the grain was scooped into a bin, a man was needed for that. If it was hauled to an elevator, an extra team and wagon–often driven by boys–was needed. If there were only eight farmers with hayracks an extra spike pitcher was needed in the field to help pitch bundles onto the hayracks so the separator could be fed continuously. When a rack was loaded the driver got into line by the separator, pitched the bundles into the separator and then got back out into the field and loaded again. To be fair to all in case of a storm, they threshed one day at each farm and then went on to the next. If someone wasn’t finished they went around again. After a rain the wait was usually two days because the ground was wet and the grain too soft. Neighbors kept the same threshing ring for years; whoever was last to thresh one year was first the next.
Stack threshing required fewer men because the work of picking up the bundles and hauling them to a central location was already done. Grain could remain in the stack several months. Stack threshing usually began after plowing was finished and continued until as late as October.
In a 1984 interview Bert Trausch told of his experiences as an engineer with a threshing crew. The engineer, because of his technical knowledge of the steam engine, was regarded as the lead man of the crew. “Dad [Matt Trausch] began custom threshing in 1924 with a used Baker steamer and a wood frame Rumley threshing machine. I was eighteen years old. We furnished the engine, the threshing machine, a tank wagon which held eight barrels of water and a team to pull it, and the three man crew to run the outfit–the separator man, the engineer and the water jack. I was the engineer. I drove the engine to the farm pulling the separator, put on the belts, scooped coal into the engine–about a ton a day– kept the steam up, and watched for signals from the separator man. Our threshing runs were all the way from two miles south of Assumption to within a mile of Juniata. I wasn’t paid; I worked to help support our large family. In those days kids were considered assets.” The engineer’s hours were long. He was up early to set the fire which built up the necessary head of steam in the engine before the threshing crew arrived.
In the mid-twenties Albert J. Trausch worked on his Uncle Joe’s threshing crew which served the area around Roseland. “I ran the separator, kept it oiled and adjusted, watched the grain, moved the pipe that throws the straw onto the pile. You start out building the straw pile a little on each side then fill in the center. The separator man had more work than the engineer and a dirtier job. I was paid about three dollars a day.”
Bert remembered how hard the water jack worked to earn his three dollars a day. “He had to start early to get his mules ready, scoop the coal the farmer had piled in his yard, haul it to the engine and scoop it into the tender. After the engineer had fed it into the firebox that ton of coal had been scooped three times in one day. Our water wagon held eight barrels (a barrel was about 40 gallons). It had a hand pump on the top and a hose on one end. The water jack laid the hose into a horse tank or cistern and then he got on top of the barrel and manually pumped the water. If he was pumping up out of a cistern he had to work a lot harder. Each water tender on the back of the steam engine held four barrels of water. A hose underneath connected the two tanks equalizing the water. When the water was getting low the engineer tooted the whistle for the jack to come with a load. The engineer siphoned water from the tank wagon into the tenders, then turned the injectors on as needed and siphoned it out of the tenders into the boiler.
We charged four or five cents a bushel for threshing wheat. We could thresh 1,500 bushels in a day if there were several stacks together. Oats we threshed for two cents a bushel. It went faster because it only weighs 32 pounds a bushel while wheat weighs 60 pounds. Oats came out twice as fast so we made about the same amount in a day.
When Dad needed extra help he went up to the courthouse lawn in Hastings and picked out the best looking hobo–they rode the rails following the harvest. He picked one that was sunburned and had calloused hands–a guy with white hands would last about two hours scooping coal or pitching bundles. They worked for maybe a dollar a day.”
Edna Kline Trausch remembered how hard the women worked feeding the threshing crews. “Before noon Mom (Leona Bassett Kline) took a bench, a wash basin and some towels out by the windmill– we didn’t have water in the house. The men were so dirty they washed up out there. The women worked like slaves in the house over the hot cook stove fixing dinner for fifteen hungry men. A large platter of fried spring chickens, butchered early that morning, made one round on the table. Fresh picked green beans and of course potatoes and gravy were served. Pies, cakes, and bread had been baked the day before.” After the men left the house the women and children ate and then the tedious job of dishwashing began. There was no electricity on the farm in those days, so all the water had to be carried in by hand and heated on the cook stove. Afterwards the slop was carried out. No electricity meant no modern appliances. No mixers or blenders or grinders. Everything was done the hard way–by hand. If it was going to be a long day of threshing, as soon as the dishes were done preparations for the crew’s evening meal began.
Threshing machines and their large crews were common on the plains for more than 50 years, but the tradition could not withstand the onslaught of the combine, so named because it combined the work of all other harvest equipment in just one machine.
In the 1920s, the internal combustion tractor began to transform American agriculture, and tractor-drawn combines started to replace binders, grain separators, and steam engines. A. P. Murray operated the first combine in Adams County west of Hastings in June 1921. The days of the large, noisy steam engines were numbered and along with them the neighborhood threshing runs.
In less than a hundred years, the nature of grain production in America had changed from intense hand labor to almost total mechanization. The reason was economic. A farmer who hired a contract threshing crew faced costs of between $80 and $100 a day. Even if neighbors worked together to harvest each other’s wheat, that labor had to be repaid in kind. One man with a combine was a lot cheaper than an entire crew with a threshing machine.
After the advent of the combine the term “threshing” gave way to “combining.” Yet combines didn’t take all the risk out of harvesting. While combines dropped less grain in the field and drastically cut labor costs, wheat cut by a combine had to be dead ripe. Timing was critical because the longer wheat stood in the field, the greater the risk from rain and hail storms, diseases, and pests. Consequently, farmers bought their own machines rather than share with neighbors.
The amount of work one farmer could do exploded in the twentieth century due to power machinery. Technology, however, was both a blessing and a curse. New machines and plant varieties yielded more grain through less work. But the value of grain decreased as the supply increased, causing farms to grow larger and forcing many families off the land. Large farms and expensive machinery often led to large debt loads, sometimes resulting in foreclosures and still fewer farms. In 1950 the Farm Equipment Institute called the development of the one-man combine “one of those occasional milestones which upset the old pattern completely and changed the very course of agriculture itself.” The colorful community threshing days had come to an end.
1984 interview of Bert Trausch by the author.
1986 interview of Albert J. Trausch by the author.
Moored on the Nebraska prairie one mile east of Hastings, the Showboat was a familiar site to travelers along the DLD (Detroit-Lincoln-Denver) Highway which became Highway 6. During its forty year history it served as a service station and portions were at times a café and souvenir shop. An auto court (later called a motel) was located directly east and operated in conjunction with the service station.
During the 1920s and 1930s, highways improved and speeds increased. In Nebraska the speed limit was raised to 35 miles per hour in 1921. As the motoring public began traveling cross country on the new highways, auto campgrounds began to appear. During the 1930s the demand for more comfortable lodging was met by the auto court or tourist court, which featured identical cabins often arranged in a semi-circle.
In April 1930, newlyweds Guy and Helena Miller purchased an acre of ground east of Hastings on which to build a gas station and tourist court. The acre was located on the south side of the DLD Highway which had been graveled in 1924 and was the primary highway from Omaha to Denver. During this time service stations were built in whimsical shapes to attract customers. Helena has seen a showboat in a magazine and she chose that shape.
The first Showboat tourist cabins were built in 1931 and rented for two dollars a night. Travelers had to supply their own bedding. Later an office with round port-hole style windows was built next to the highway.
Edgar and Ida Marshall leased the service station in 1936 and purchased the complex in 1944. During World War II the entire motel was rented to married air corpsmen stationed at the Harvard Army Air Base. A café operated in the showboat. In 1952 the Marshalls closed the café and operated a gift and antiques shop there.
In September 1960 the Marshalls sold the Showboat complex to Morrison-Quirk Grain Corporation, which owned the surrounding farmland. M. E. “Bud” Renschler was operating Juniata Roofing Company. He needed a winter job so he and Maxine, along with their four children still at home–Penny, Pat, Donis and Mike–moved into the managers cabin to operate the gas station and motel for one winter. They stayed for seven years. Bud ran the “station” as we called it and Maxine the motel. The manager’s residence was located on the north end of the west line of cabins, next to the highway. The rooms were small and the walls were covered with varnished plywood paneling. There were three bedrooms and two very small bathrooms. A cement walk ran from the kitchen door to the station.
The motel operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or until the “No Vacancy” sign was turned on. The station was open about twelve hours a day from 7 am to 7 pm, seven days a week. The Renschler children who were still at home helped their parents; Pat in the station and Penny and Donis cleaning motel rooms and doing the laundry. Mike, the youngest, was still attending school. During the 1960s many of the motel’s clients were construction workers who rented rooms by the week. At that time there was a lot of construction in Hastings, including the anhydrous fertilizer plant east of town.
Bill Kindig, a nice old man from Juniata, ran the station during roofing season. He suffered a heart attack and died there. When Pat wasn’t roofing he often operated the station which sold Mobil oil and gas. Those were the days when there was service at service stations. When a customer stopped for gas the attendant pumped the gas, cleaned the windshields, checked the oil and sometimes the radiator and the tire pressure. All of this work for a dollar or two worth of gas.
While we were dating I spent many Saturday afternoons at the station with Pat. This was during the era of professional wrestling matches at the Hastings City Auditorium. The wrestlers were good actors who put on quite a show. During their performances they were bitter enemies, but when they stopped at the Showboat to gas up on the way out of town they were all riding in one car, friendly as could be. I remember one of the villains called Otto von Krup portrayed a big, mean German with a thick accent.
After Pat and I were married in 1964 we lived briefly in Cabin 16 which had a kitchenette. Occasionally I ran the motel and Pat the station so his parents could get away. Often, if there was a vacancy people rang the bell for a room in the middle of the night. There was little rest for a family running a motel and service station.
When Bud and Maxine retired in 1967 and moved back to Juniata, the motel and gas station were closed. Eventually the Showboat was demolished and some of the cabins were moved away for housing. It was the end of the era of Mom and Pop motels and independent gas stations. The Interstate Highway system drew cross-country travelers off the local highways, and large chain motels with their swimming pools and meeting rooms drew the tourist and business trade. Today all that remains of the Showboat is the name of the road which ran along the west side of the station, and memories of days gone by.