Traveling Highway 20 in Cherry County, Nebraska
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.
Until I was 6, we lived 10 miles south of Johnstown (north of Lakeland).
Map images in this post were made from an 1895 map of Nebraska I found in a list of maps at the NeGenWeg Project.
More about Arabia, Nebraska