The first white men to enter Custer County in its recorded history were ranchers who drove their immense herds of white-faced cattle up from Texas as early as 1869. As happened in so many other Nebraska regions, the ranchers were later driven out by migrations of homesteaders, who found Custer County’s land suitable for raising crops as well as cattle. It was these permanent settlers who built up the country’s resources until today its agricultural product totals more than those of any other Nebraska county.
Luxuriant grasses, fine winter range and plenty of water were the features, which attracted the Texas ranchers. Each year after 1869, larger herds were driven up from the south and ten years later, there were 60,000 head of cattle on Custer County’s then unorganized open range. Abundant feed, open winters and the free range gave this area the title of “The Cattleman’s Paradise.”
The severe winter of 1880-81, which killed a large number of stock, was the beginning of the rancher’s end. Deep and crusted snow covered the ground nearly all that season. In the spring, thousands of dead cattle covered the prairie. Before the cattlemen could regain their grip on the country, homesteaders had begun to arrive in great numbers. Their coming ended the “beef barons” rule, but the change was not accomplished without a struggle.
Robert Harvey led a party of surveyors who laid out the county’s principal line in 1872 and testified there was not a single homesteader in Custer County then. During the next two years, however, a few persons took squatter’s rights on the Middle Loup, South Loup, Clear creek, Victoria creek, Muddy creek and other streams. The county’s first settler on record was Lewis R. Dowse, who made a claim in the Middle Loup valley in August of 1873. The first homestead entry was made by Frank Ohme a year later. Other early permanent settlers were Edward Douglas, Joseph A. Woods, Daniel Wagner, Harve Andrews and Judge Matthews. They all arrived in 1874. The county’s best land had all been taken by the middle of the eighties.
The cattlemen saw a portion of their rangeland disappear with the arrival of each new homesteader, and vigorously opposed settlement. Cowboys, who foresaw the loss of their jobs if the country became made up of farms, frequently made things unpleasant for the homesteaders. Bitter feelings between the two groups led to a great many violent acts and some killings resulted. A few ranchers fenced in large tracts of land, digging wells in pastures far from the streams. Cowboys in their employ took out homestead preemptions and timber claims. But there were a hundred homesteaders for every ranchman, and the cattlemen’s fight was a losing one. The ranchers’ fine homes became residences of more prosperous homesteaders. But the innumerable small herds on the farms increased the total number of cattle in the county.
The county, organized by a legislative act February 17, 1877, was named after the famous Indian fighter, General Custer. Measuring 54 by 48 miles, Custer stood several attempts at division. It is almost exactly in the center of the state, contains 72 townships and eleven incorporated cities and town. Curiously enough, the county’s most active organizations were the cattlemen, attempting to protect their interests.
The first Custer County seat and courthouse were on the Young ranch in the southwest part of the county. A log house there remained the seat of government until January 1883, when an election named Broken Bow as county seat. On their removal to Broken Bow, the county records were placed in a sod building on Wilson Hewitt’s Homestead. The next June, the records were moved to a log house on the south side of the present square and later a building was erected.
Early in the county’s settlement, rumors of an Indian uprising terrified the pioneers. Two forts were built, one near what in now Victoria Springs State Park, and another close to the site of Comstock. Most of the white women went east to “safer” locations. But the Indian raids did not materialize, and Custer County in reality has had no Indian troubles during the entire period of its white settlement.
Before 1866, Kearney, Grand Island and Lexington were the nearest railroad points and Custer County’s products and supplies had to be taken by team to and from these points. Construction of the first railroad into the county in that year, however, injected new life into its citizens. More settlers arrived, new capital was invested, towns sprang up and a measure of prosperity returned. The whole county is now served by rails, two Burlington and one Union Pacific line crossing it.
By the year 1894, Custer County had more than a quarter million acres under cultivation, while assessment records showed there were 1,000,000 cattle and 75,000 hogs in its borders. But that year also brought a severe drought. Livestock sold for practically nothing and farms were almost given away, as hundreds of settlers evacuated. Many of those who remained became Custer County’s most prosperous citizens in later years.
For many years after the county was organized, there was a great deal of agitation for division. An election on the question was held in 1879 and others occurred periodically, proposing to divide the county into three, four, or five other counties with a wide variety of irregular lines. None of these efforts, however, was successful. Automobiles and good roads made it convenient to reach the county seat and most citizens were convinced one large county was less expensive to operate than several small ones.
The last test of county division came in the voting for a tax levy to erect a new courthouse. The assessment, a small one covering only two years, was approved, and the new structure was erected without the issuance of any bonds. The county has no bonded indebtedness and no other obligations.
This central Nebraska County has been quite influential in the operation of the state government. The past half century two governors, two state treasurers, one secretary of state, one Supreme Court justice and many minor officers have been Custer County natives. Within its borders are three state parks, Victoria Springs State Park, Pressey Park and Arnold Park. They attract many visitors each year.
Custer County is one of the most fortunate Nebraska counties in the character of its topography, The South and Middle Loup rivers and many creeks provide it with many fertile valleys. Outside these rich acres are vast tablelands ideal for crop raising. Bordering the tablelands are hills and small canyons with offer food and shelter for livestock. It is this unusual combination of land formation and its size, which enables Custer County to lead other counties in the value of its agricultural production.
The progress which Custer County has made since the crude pioneer days is reflected in its advanced educational system.
ANSELMO: This town was named for Anselmo B. Smith, a civil engineer whom platted the towns along the Burlington railroad for the Lincoln Town-Site Company. Anselmo was platted on November 20, 1886.
ANSLEY: The first settlement was made here in the summer of 1886. The town was named in honor of a lady who invested a large sum of money in real estate in the newly platted town.
ARNOLD: This town was named in honor of George Arnold, who located in the vicinity in 1875. Mr. Arnold was a member of the ranch firm of Arnold and Ritchie. The town was laid out in 1883. The precinct is also named Arnold.
BERWYN: The Lincoln Town-Site Company laid out the town of Berwyn in 1886. It is believed to have been named after a railroad surveyor. A previous name was Janesville.
BROKEN BOW: Broken Bow was located and platted in June 1882. The name was suggested to the post office department by Wilson Hewitt, who found on an old Indian camping ground in the vicinity a broken bow and arrow. Mr. Hewitt had suggested three different names for the town-site to the post office department, all of which were rejected. After the third name had been rejected, he came upon the broken bow and immediately decided upon the name, feeling sure that there was no other town by that name in the state. It is not known who was the owner of the broken bow, or any other facts concerning it. The bow was partially destroyed, but a fragment still remains. It is owned by E. R. Purcell, editor of the Custer County Chief, Broken Bow is the county seat of Custer County.
CALLAWAY: The town of Callaway was surveyed and platted in the spring of 1885. It was named in honor of S. R. Callaway, at that time general manager of the Union Pacific railroad.
CLIMAX: Mrs. Mary T. Ewing, who owned the farm on which the post office is located, and who had charge of the office when it was established, named this town Climax.
COMSTOCK: W.H. Comstock moved a store building from Wescott and located on this town-site so it was named in his honor. The site was surveyed in 1899.
CUMRO: The town of Cumro was named by William Edmunds after Cumro, Wales.
DALE: The post office at Dale was named for its first postmaster, a Mr. Daley. The settlers here wished to name the office Daley, but Mr. Daley objected, so they called it Dale. This office has been discontinued.
ELTON: Named after Elton, New York. The post office has been discontinued for several years.
ETNA: A former inland post office near the southwestern corner of Custer County, in Wayne precinct. The name is probably of local selection.
GATES: An inland post office in Lillian precinct. It was named for a local resident.
HUXLEY: Huxley post office was named by J. M. Lowry (deceased), the first postmaster at this office. Mr. Lowry named it for Thomas H. Huxley, the scientist, whose works he admired and studied.
LILLIAN: Hugh Gohean was the first postmaster in this town. The office was named in honor of his second daughter, Lillian Gohean. The precinct is also named Lillian.
LODI: This place was named after Lodi, a city in Italy.
LOMAX: A station on the union Pacific railroad in Wood River precinct, apparently named for E. L. Lomax, assistant general passenger and transfer agent, Omaha, Nebraska.
MASON CITY: There are two theories concerning the naming of Mason City. One is that the early settler in the vicinity named it for Mason County, Virginia, from which they had come to Nebraska. The second theory is that the Lincoln Town-Site Company named the town Mason in honor of Judge O. P. Mason of Lincoln. The latter theory is generally accepted. The post office, however, refused to accept the name Mason because of probably confusion with Macon; so the town is Mason City to the post office department and Mason to the railroad.
MERNA: Samuel Dunning was the first postmaster here and the town was named for his daughter, Merna.
MILBURN: James Milburn established the Milburn post office on December 1, 1887 and it was named in his honor.
MILLDALE: A station on a branch line of the Union Pacific railroad in Triumph precinct. It apparently was named for a mill site along a near-by creek, the South Loup River.
OCONTO: This town was located in the fall of 1887. It was to be called Olax but the name was changed because of its similarity to Lomax, Nebraska. It received the name Oconto from a man by that name, according to local tradition; but doubtless the name is for Oconto, Oconto County, Wisconsin. Oconto is a Menominee Indian word meaning the “place of the picerel”.
ORTELLO: Ortello was named for Grove Ortello Joyner. The town was first called Ortello Grove and later shortened to Ortello.
SARGENT: The town of Sargent was laid out in 1883. The founders were E. P. Savage and Joseph W. Thomas. A few years previously, a post office was located over a mile east of the town-site with Mrs. George Sherman postmaster. She chose the name, Sargent, which was the name of some friends who lived in her old hometown, Streeter, Illinois. When the town was founded Mrs. Herman agreed to surrender the post office and permit its removal to the new town on condition that the name remain Sargent. This was agreed to by the founders, as Mr. E. P. Savage had wished to name the town after his uncle, George D. Sargent, a banker of Davenport, Iowa, late a resident of New York City and an official of the Great Northern railway.
WALWORTH: This town was named in honor of a Mr. Walworth who operated a line of lumberyards in Nebraska at the time Walworth was established in 1892.
WEISSERT: The name Weissert was suggested for this post office by the department at Washington. The office was established in 1892.
WESTERVILLE: The location here was originally known as Elm Bridge. The town of Westerville was named in honor of its first resident, James Westervelt, who established a store in the vicinity in the fall of 1880.
YUCAHILL: A locality and a former post office in the northwestern part of Custer County, in Hayes precinct. It was so named because of the prevalence of a liliaceous plant know as bear-grass or Spanish bayonet (Yucca glauca) in the vicinity.