Jules Haumont Recalls

Jules Haumont Recalled Pioneer Hardships
and Many Early Events of Custer County

Taken from The Custer County Chief Golden Anniversary Edition  1892/1942
Section A, Page 6

Jules Haumont, a real pioneer, tells of hardships of first settlers.  Historical events recalled.

Custer county was organized on June 27, 1877, ten years after Nebraska became a state.  That was the year I first came to Nebraska, the place I was headed for when I left Belgium for the U.S. in July 1875 with $60.00 in my pocket.  Sufficient to pay my fare from Antwerp to Moingona, Iowa.

In 1882, a good many settlers had come to Custer County, although 1883 and 84 were the big rush years for settlers.  After 1883 and 1884 the big ranches were a thing of the past and crop raising became the chief industry of Custer county.  It took several years for the stock raising business to develop again, but the day came when more cattle were to be found in Custer county than in earlier years, when a few men owned large herds.

The winter of 1880-81 had great influence on the future of county, in helping to bring about quickly the change from a range to a farming community.  For ten years previous in 1880 the cattlemen had been very prosperous here, and there were more cattle on the range where the cattle would find their living the year around, and the loss from winter's hardships would be very light.  It is said that one, Cap Streeter, wintered the first bunch of Texas steers on Ash creek, between here and Callaway, that was ever wintered in Custer county.  That in the winter of 1869-70,  He had about 900 cattle in the herd and when he rounded them up in the spring there were only two head missing.  The story was different in 1880-81.  When spring came after that terrible winter, the losses ran from 50-80 per cent in the different herds, and trusting to the open range for wintering cattle received its death blow in this part of the country.  Even if there had been no homesteaders, it would have taken years for cattlemen to rebuild their fortunes.

We had a severe blizzard in October of that year, but the first snow mostly .disappeared  Then the came the sleet, which covered everything.  On top of that about a foot of snow and on top of the snow a drizzle, which froze to about one inch thick of ice.  Just imagine a combination like that, and the effect it would have on cattle having to pick a living on the prairie.  The wonder is, that there were any of the range cattle alive when spring came.  Horses fared some better, because horses would paw away the snow and ice and get some feed.

That inch of ice on top of the snow would just about bear me up.  One would walk on top three or four steps, and then break through.  The ice on top would soon cut the hide on the legs of the cattle and before long they would just lay down from weakness and starve.

We had steady cold winter from the tenth of December, as I remember it, until the third of February, when for three days it thawed right along and on the ridges you could see patches of buffalo grass.  Then it was cold again until March.  There were many cloudy days that winter and every few days it snowed. The cold was intense.  Ice covered the windows for a week at a time, and no matter where the wind was, the snow would be drifting over the smooth ice which covered the first snow.  I was going to say the roads were impassable, but there were no roads yet.

You could go no great distance with team or wagon, and even on horseback it was hard to get around.

The experiences of those who lived here at that time differed, of course, and so I may just as tell you of some of my brother's and my own experiences, than to talk about someone else.  My brother was married.  I was single. In the first place let me state that we had a great advantage over some of our neighbors.  All that winter we had splendid health.  My brother's homestead and mine joined.  He had a sod house of one room, 14X20, I had a little sod shanty about 8X10.  We had built that house for my brother in the late summer to take the place of a smaller one, and as we had to bring supplied in from Grand Island we sent for stovepipe, supposedly enough, to reach out through the roof.  Lo and behold when the stovepipe came, it lacked about a foot of reaching the roof,  so the only thing to do was to lay up about two feet of sod and put the stove on top of it.

We had two teams, a cow, some chickens, and 150 sheep.  Those sheep probably constituted the first permanent flock of sheep in Custer county.  For water we had to go about a mile and a half southwest to a convenient water hole on Clear Creek.  Our hay was about a mile and a half northeast.  We had good sod stables for all our stock.  Our sheep stable was  cored with sod and we had made feed racks along the east and west walls and through the center.  Then in the beginning of December, finishing the ninth, we built a pole corral.  That night we went to bed well satisfied with our work, feeling safe for the winter.

That night a blizzard came.  When we got up in the morning the corral we had so rejoicingly finished the day before about 5 feet high as a protection against wolves, was drifted level full of snow even with the eaves of the sheep stable.  We dug a hole where the door was, big enough for a man to crawl in, and through that hole we carried in all the feed and water those sheep used the rest of the winter.  The sheep never were out of there until the first week in February, when it was nice and warm for three days, and we drove, and many we carried, out into the sunshine.  Before spring came, we had lost 50 per cent of our sheep, but the descendants of that flock of sheep are on the French Table yet.  We also lost our only cow and one of our horses.  The neighbors all had experiences, different of course, but the same nature.

We had four water barrels and whenever two of them were empty we would renew the supply, if the weather permitted.  More often then not, we would have to shovel a road, both going and coming that mile and a half for the snow was nearly always drifting.  We made a cave to put the barrels in to keep the water from freezing, but as we had to open that cave every day it soon got too cold in there and the water froze, and we had to put two barrels in the house.

I slept in my brother's one room house most of that winter.  There was not enough room for an extra bed, so I slept on wide board, on which at night I put a small straw tick and my blankets.

Mr. Lampman, who had very black hair and wore it long, nearly coming down to his shoulders, had homesteaded not far from the mouth of Lillian Creek, near where Jim Oxford and the Hersons lived, and was teaching school at Westerville that winter.  Friday evening after school he would walk the 12 miles between Westerville and our place, where as was usual at that time he would be made welcome and room would be made somehow for him to spread his blankets on the dirt floor of our mansion.  Saturday morning early he would strike a bee line for the home of his wife and children 20 miles away on the Middle Loup.  Always he carried a fifty pound sack of flour all the way from Westerville to his homestead.  Sunday night he would walk back to our place, and Monday morning he would continue to the remaining 12 miles of his journey to his school.  Pioneers who show a spirit like that will conquer anything.  They have the stuff in them out of which heroes are made.

Shortly after New Year's we were about out of flour but we had plenty of meat.  Our potatoes were frozen solid, but hot water would thaw them out.  Our butter and milk supply ceased when our cow died.
Our mail at that time came from Loupe City, by way of Westerville, Elton, Round Valley, and New Helena.  Elton was our post office with Mr. James Boggs as potmaster.  For six weeks the mail carrier failed to come through.

We had no overshoes then, and often we would trudge along through all kinds of weather, our cowhide boots wrapped in sacking.  Often we could not pull off our boots until some fire would thaw them.

Let us go back to the summer of 1879.  How did the country look?  There were no houses to be seen, no groves, no trees except in some of the canyons, and once in awhile a lone tree along the bank of some creek, where the prairie fires could not reach it.  But in many places where you now find a natural growth of timber, there were then box elder, hackberry, ash or elm sprouts about a year old, grown up from the old stumps since last year's prairie fire had passed.  Prairie fires were then an annual occurrence, and no matter where they started, if not put out immediately, they would burn with the wind until they reached some river, or a rain put them out.  Ranchers would generally protect part of their range by plowing a couple of sets of furrows, two or more rods apart, and on quiet evenings burn out the space between the furrows, and so make what they called a fire break.  The trees in the canyons were generally invisible until you reached the edge of the canyon.  So the whole of the country seemed pretty much devoid of trees. And when you were on some high point, the aspect of the country would be an endless view of bare rolling plains covered with a coat of green or brown grass, according to the season of the year.  It looks different now, with groves , houses and cultivated fields dotting the landscape.  The first settlers were great tree planters.

There were plenty of game here then and most any day we would see deer or antelope not far from the house.  Often there would be 15 or 20 antelope together.  I never saw but on flock of 7 or 8 elk in Custer County and know of only one case of any one having seen a buffalo, and that was an old buffalo bull, chased in 1879 on the West Table.  Deer and antelope were common and Hank Wayne, who always hunted a good deal, twice to my knowledge killed two deer at one shot, with his gun loaded with buckshot.

On a two day drive and return up the North Loup river in 1879, up as far as where Purdum now is, following the old Black Hills trail, sitting in a covered wagon, I counted 89 deer and antelope without really looking for them.  Over all the hills and valleys you could pick up elk and deer horns, buffalo heads and bones.  Up until 1876 buffaloes were still numerous in western Nebraska, especially on the republican river, where during 1875, near Culbertson the last big fight between the Sioux and the Pawnee, took place.

Government surveyor, Mr. Harvey, said that while he was surveying in Custer County in 1872, he found no signs of settlement.  In 1874, C. R. Matthew's, located on Victoria Creek, also in 1874 H. B. Andrews, Edward Nelson, George Carr, O. A. Smith, John Dryden, James Forsythe, and J. T. Bell.  Farther down the Middle Loup came Edward Douglas in 1873; L. R. Dowse, 1873; W. H. Comstock, 1874; E. D. Eurbank and others.  In 1875, A. A. Higgins with 12 children and Aaron Crouch.  Kountz county, they called that part of the country.  The first post office was named Douglass.  W. H. Comstock at Douglas and C. R. Matthews became the first postmasters in Custer county.

The transformation of Custer county from a cattle country into a farming country, did not always proceed  in a peaceable way.  Sometimes the difficulties which arose from clashing interests did not amount to much, but too often they resulted in tragedy.  Judge Gaslin was elected judge of this district in 1875.  He served until 1892.  The district was much larger then it is now, but during the first three years he had 26 murder trials, and 68 during his 16 years of service.  That will give you some idea of the condition of the country at that time.  Many horse and cattle thieves operated here then on what was the frontier and the interests of the cattlemen and settlers were in conflict with each other.  The coming of the rail road to Custer county in 1886 changed the conditions here entirely.

We came here to this beautiful country in those early days, young, strong, healthy, filled with hope, energy and ambition.  Poor, it is true.  Oh! how poor in worldly goods, but rich beyond dreams in everything that makes life worth while.  I do not know how large a bank account some of the old settlers may have today.  I do not care, they will never be as rich as I felt, when I first settled on my homestead.  I remember the time when I did not have the money to buy a postage stamp.  I remember the hard winter, the drouth of 1894.  Then many obstacles to overcome.  We come to win the battle, and we did.  To what amounted those inconveniences, compared to the joy we felt, when we turned our long furrows of virgin sod, or planted our first fruit trees.  We were empire builders.  The future was ours.  Talk about the tropical fruits you buy at the store.  They can not compare with the cherries and apples we picked from the trees of our own planting.

You build an addition to your house, the smile on your wife's face will not be as wide as the one which greeted us when we took off the old brush and dirt roof and replaced it with boards and tar paper and sod.  You may talk about your carpets and fine furniture.  They do not begin to give you the pleasure our families derived from the homely made things we were able to provide for them.

I say those early homestead days were happy days.  We knew everyone for 20 to 30 miles around and they were all neighbors, in the best sense of the word.  Those days are past.  The experiences they brought will never be seen again.  I wish sometimes that you younger folks would have a couple of years of the experiences we had.  I you did, you would appreciate more fully the comforts you enjoy today.

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