From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Memories of Arabia, Nebraska

Traveling Highway 20 in Cherry County, Nebraska



Cherry County, Nebraska is outlined in black.
An arrow indicates the approximate location of Arabia.


Note: This is another of those long posts that Isaac is always warning me about. He says that people hate to read them. Sorry. I have to write them anyway!

When I was a child, we traveled Highway 20 in and through Cherry County, Nebraska, fairly often. Usually we were going to Valentine to the salebarn or to a tractor dealer, or we were driving across Cherry County on our way to visit my grandma and aunt at Gordon.

To this day, Highway 20 is the main road across northern Nebraska from Sioux City on the east to Harrison on the west. Several years ago, I drove Highway 20 from Gordon to O'Neill with much nostalgia. The miles flew by!

The miles didn't go so quickly when I was a child. It was roughly a hundred long, boring miles from one end of Cherry County to the other, and Valentine was the halfway point. A few tiny cowtowns lay along the way, but the scenery was mostly Sandhills pastures with occasional barbed wire fences, windmills and cattle.

The merchants of Valentine deserve credit for trying to encourage weary travelers like myself. All through Cherry County along Highway 20, they posted red, heart-shaped road signs at two mile intervals. Each sign told the remaining distance to Valentine. The name of the sign's sponsor was posted on a small rectangular sign below the heart.

Going to Valentine, I could read the signs to see how much distance remained, and driving away from Valentine, I could turn around backwards and read the signs to see how far we had traveled away from Valentine. It was a bit of entertainment on a long road.

One of the landmarks along the way between Johnstown and Valentine was the Arabia Ranch. The Arabia Ranch was named for the Arabia railroad station that stood along the CNW train tracks, a mile or two across the meadow from the ranch headquarters.

The Arabia Ranch headquarters looked like a little village. There was a large house where the ranch owner lived with his family. A short distance away, a dozen or more small houses and bunkhouses were occupied by the hired men and their families.

In the 1950's-early 1960's, Johnny Drayton and his family lived in the big house. Johnny Drayton ran Angus cattle on the Arabia Ranch, and when he sold his herd in the 1960's, my dad bought a couple pens of cows at the auction. Those cows was known as "Drayton cows" for as long as they were in my dad's herd. The cattle in my brother's herd still carry some of the genes of the Drayton cows. But I digress.

A bit to the west of the ranch buildings, a small reddish brown building stood by the railroad tracks. That was the Arabia railroad station. The train didn't stop at Arabia unless it was notified to do so, and the station hadn't been staffed for a long time (if it ever had been).

Beside the little building, there was a large set of cattle pens and loading chutes. They bore witness to early days when ranchers drove their cattle to Arabia and kept them in pens until the train arrived. Then the cattle were loaded into boxcars to go to market at the Sioux City or Omaha Stockyards. The rancher might get on the train too, to make sure the cattle received proper care along the way and to see what price they would bring.

I remember that the paint was peeling on the railroad facilities at Arabia. Cattle shipment had been the main function of the Arabia train stop, and those days were drawing to a close by the 1950's. Most ranchers were sending their cattle to local salebarns in semi-trucks rather than to distant markets in railroad cars.

Along Highway 20 in the area of the Arabia Ranch, there were several large signs made of two boards nailed to two fence posts. The top board said "Thro No," and the bottom board said "Cigarettes." The message reflected the fear of prairie fire that every Sandhill rancher shares. A smouldering butt can ignite dry prairie grasses! I don't know why they left off the "w", and I'm not sure if the signs were placed by a rancher or by a cattlemen's association.

When I drove across Cherry County on Highway 20 several years ago, the heart-shaped Valentine signs were gone, and so were the cryptic warnings to careless smokers. The Arabia Ranch is still there, but its village is much smaller than it was in the mid-1900's. The little Arabia railroad station and its stockyards have been torn down, and even the railroad has been completely removed.

Now, the Cowboy Trail follows the railbed of the old Chicago and Northwestern Railroad alongside Highway 20. The 18-mile section from the Arabia Ranch to Valentine is open for hiking. Many of the things I've written of here are just ghosts along its way.


Highway 20 followed the railroad's route across northern Cherry County.
Until I was 6, we lived 10 miles south of Johnstown (north of Lakeland).


Credit:
Map images in this post were made from an 1895 map of Nebraska I found in a list of maps at the NeGenWeg Project.

Related post:
More about Arabia, Nebraska

10 comments:

heelers said...

Nicely evoked Gen. J

RunAwayImagination said...

You really should write a book, Genevieve! I love your writing style.

Your recollections of Highway 20 brought back memories of the summers I spent in Gordon with my granddad Bill and his wife Edna during 1959-60. I still get nostaligic feelings about that place, since I have roots there too.

RunAwayImagination said...

I remember riding along Highway 20, waiting for the tops of the Gordon grain elevators to make their appearance from over the horizon. From a distance they looked like a pack of cigarettes slowly rising from the prairie.

Genevieve said...

Thanks James & Runaway. I am cherishing these days of being able to write until I'm done with something because I am going to return to the work world soon, probably in September. Then I will either have to blog faster or shorter if I'm going to blog at all.

Today, with weather-related connectivity problems and Blogger running slow for me, it's a wonder I ever got this posted!

I remember those big elevators at Gordon, Runaway. Did you ever go up close to them? They were incredibly large.

KennethF said...

Hey Gene:
I like to grab that handle of that "Way Back When" machine, myself, from time to time. That was a steep hill... to and from school, the wind, sleet, snow and all was, so DEEP!
Isaac might be right from week to week or even month to month but from year to year, like I measure? This is a short, short good story!
I'm thinking now, he could have some of your tallents to writing? Why not give him a try. Do like they do at priviate schools... 250-500 words/week, about your choice of subject of good interest and hand written is, more easy? :)
I know__ bad idea.

On another note: blogspot's photo server puts most requests on immediate hold and sometimes a second request, will pass up the first request, that is still on hold? Try two check-out lines at the same time, next time your at the grocery... oohh no!
Cornfield junction photo__super!
later, kennethF ~(:-_))-kfh

Genevieve said...

Isaac has a blog but he's only written in it once. He said, "I'm not like you, Mom, updating it all the time." I guess he's said what he has to say for now.

RunAwayImagination said...

Genevieve, Yes, I often went up close to the grain elevators along the tracks in Gordon. The were huge! My granddad lived on Oak Street, which was just a block off Main and a block north of the railroad tracks.

You're sparking some more distant memories in my old brain. Here's another:

On Saturday nights in Gordon (pop. 2,000), Granddad Bill and Edna would get dressed up to go downtown. They would pile into Edna's 1950 Dodge, diagonal park along Main Street and watch the Sioux Indians walk up and down the street, peering into the shop windows while the teenagers would cruise up and down Main Street. It was a strange little ritual for a city boy like me to observe. Then we would all go home, Edna would fix us some dessert and Bill and I would watch professional wrestling on TV, which he called "wraslin'."

Genevieve said...

Yes, I can see it would pretty strange for a city boy. But for small town folks and country folks back then, Saturday afternoon and evening was a time to come to town, shop, and socialize. I remember going to town on Saturday afternoon (late 50's-early 60's), and you couldn't even find a parking place downtown. Later on, I was one of the teenagers driving around and I remember it as a lot of fun.

There are some parallels in other cultures, I think. For example, in Bolivia on Sunday, people would congregate in the central plaza and other parks. Some would "promenade" and some would sit on park benches to watch and chat. It was a big opportunity to socialize.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is just over the state line a few miles away, and Gordon history couldn't be told without including the Sioux. My mother had old photos of 4th of July parades in Gordon where the Indian chiefs were wearing their long feathered headdresses. I think I may have posted before that my grandfather hired workers from the reservation to help with the potato harvest back when it was mostly done by hand.

Gordon always had a strange relationship with the Indians, I think. Some tried to help them through various charities. Others took advantage of them in various ways -- really robbed them, in some instances and this always bothered my mother a lot.

Under it all, there was a lingering fear that the Indians might uprise. "Indian trouble" was still within the memory of the older citizens. Grandma Barb (my step-grandma, no blood relation) told that her father helped bury the dead at Wounded Knee.

Valentine had the Rosebud Reservation just a few miles away, and I remember seeing many Indian people whenever I went there too. Probably many of the same things could be said about Valentine that I have said about Gordon.

Collagemama said...

You brought back so many of my memories of car trips to my grandparents in McCook and Pierce, Nebraska. Thanks.

Genevieve said...

That was a long drive from back east where you lived all the way out to McCook, and there wasn't any interstate back then either.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.