Crossing the Plains: Dust, Dempsters, and the Homestead National Monument


During our recent sojourn to the Great Plains, land of big skies and prairie, we enjoyed driving “blue highways,” which took us past countless windmills, abandoned farmsteads, and cattle. About four miles east of Red Cloud, Nebraska, we stopped to see the Starke Round Barn, the state’s largest. Built in 1902, it stands three stories tall and is 130 feet in diameter with a center silo.  A friendly farmer driving away from the property told us to look around all we wanted, but a large dog on the premises suggested otherwise.

As we drove east, I had ample time to reflect on the past. Our route paralleled, and on at least one occasion, crossed the Oregon Trail. While I didn’t see any visible trail tracks, there was this marker, and the environment gave me an appreciation for what the pioneers endured as they trekked westward, fording rivers, contending with dust, and illness, injuries, and other challenges of daily life on the trail.  During a twenty year period beginning in 1840, between 300,000 and 400,000 men, women, and children used this 2,000-mile long trail to reach destinations in Oregon, Washington, Utah, and California. On the road for up to six months, their wagons traveled between ten and twenty miles per day (see for more).

IMG_2416-Oregon trail

While driving across dusty south central Nebraska, I thought a lot about my mother. I grew up hearing her talk about the dust storms plaguing her Kansas childhood during the 1930s. She started driving a car into town at fourteen so she could attend Riley Rural High School. Many afternoons the dust was as thick as fog, and she had to count ditches in order to find the lane to their farm.

Look at the haze in these pictures, almost obscuring the farmer in his field. Even though they’ve planted many windbreaks, the dust was as thick as fog.

One can’t cross the Plains without thinking about homesteaders. We’re nearing the 156th anniversary of the Homestead Act, signed into law by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Under this law, people (including immigrants) could claim 160 acres, given they lived on it for five years, built a residence, and grew crops. Or, if they wished, they could purchase the land for $1.25 per acre after living on it for six months, building a home, and planting crops. Just outside of Beatrice, we stopped to visit the Homestead National Monument of America, where Daniel Freeman filed the “first” claim on January 1, 1863.

The site preserves Freeman’s 160-acre claim, along with the Palmer-Epard Cabin (more lavish than the typical homesteader’s dwelling, in my opinion), and 100 acres of tall grass prairie. The visitor’s center also does a nice job of acknowledging the Native Americans who lived on the land prior to the arrival of homesteaders.

Beatrice has a rich agricultural history, in part because it was home to the Dempster  Company, founded in 1878 to provide pioneers with wind mills, pumps, and other well-related products necessary for life on the plains. But as a former librarian, I’m always on the lookout for Carnegie Public Library buildings, and I was pleased to find a well-preserved example in Beatrice.  Naturally, I wanted to know more about its origins, and upon investigating I discovered an interesting women’s history connection involving Clara Bewick Colby.

Clara_Bewick_ColbyBorn in England  in 1846, Clara Bewick married former Civil War general Leonard Colby in 1872 and they moved to Beatrice. Interested in civic improvement, she helped establish the Beatrice Public Library Association in 1873 (the Carnegie building wasn’t completed for another 31 years). Also passionate about women’s rights, Colby founded the Women’s Tribune in 1883.

Unable to have children, the Colby’s adopted a son from an orphan train in 1885, and in 1891 her husband added a daughter to their family when he returned home from the Battle of Wounded Knee with the Lakota Sioux baby girl found under her dead mother. Raised by the Colby’s (until their divorce in 1906, and thereafter by Clara), Zintkala Nuni (“Little Bird”) was reunited with her people in 1991 when her remains were  laid to rest at Wounded Knee.

Just think how different this blog would have been if we had traveled across Nebraska on I-80.


About JP in B-town

JP grew up on a sheep farm in northwest Ohio. She learned to knit by the age of ten, and loves the smell of wool. She fell in love with reading, a habit she fed with weekly visits to a nearby Carnegie Public Library. Reading fed her desire to become a writer, and her dream of traveling the world. She resides in Bloomington, Indiana, where she continues to knit and write.
This entry was posted in environmental history, family history, Immigrants, Kansas, Nebraska, The Great Depression, Travel, women's history. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Crossing the Plains: Dust, Dempsters, and the Homestead National Monument

  1. Margaret Harter says:

    I so want to see a tall prairie. Did you go into Oklahoma? Loved yr piece with the photos. I could taste the dust. My grandparents came to coastal TX prairie from Kansas to settle as newlyweds. TB was a scourge in my mom’s family. Before she died of TB, my g’ma’s mother made her husband promise to send my grandmother to college, to Washburn. And amazingly enough, he found a way. My grandmother’s happiest yrs. I’ve read her college diary.

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