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.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Missionary in a Cow Town

Wild days on the Nebraska frontier



Whitman, Nebraska, the end-point of the B. & M. railroad in the late 1880s, was a rough little frontier town with stores, saloons, dance halls, corrals, and a train station. All the ranchers for many miles around drove their cattle to Whitman to ship them to market.

In his 1921 memoirs, Trails of Yesterday, pioneer rancher John Bratt tells an interesting story about Whitman. An elderly preacher came to the little prairie outpost with deep concern for the souls of the cowboys, railroad workers, gamblers, outlaws, fallen women, drifters, and others who frequented the town's establishments.

Mr. Bratt describes a rowdy scene in a dance house. The old preacher was being forced to dance with a drunk woman, and cowboys were shooting at his feet to make him step higher.

[The old preacher] stood it all good-naturedly until completely exhausted. He got into one corner of the hall and sat down on the floor. After resting a while and during a lull in the dancing, the old man got upon a gambling table and commenced to talk to the crowd. He said he had attended their dances every night and done everything they wanted him to do, including many things that were not right. "Now," he said, "with your permission and God's help, I will hold service in this hall to-morrow, Sunday night," and asked them all to come. They told him they would be present. I could not help but admire the old man and told him I would remain with the cowboys from our round-up camp and would personally help him all I could.


The next morning, Mr. Bratt borrowed an organ from the stationmaster's wife and pursuaded her to play it for the service. He also cleaned up the dance hall and secured a promise from the owner not to sell liquor during the service.

A crowd gathered in the dance hall that evening. The preacher stood at a table with a lamp, a Bible, and a hymnbook, and spoke from his heart. Then the hymn, "Rock of Ages", was sung.

Tears came to the eyes of some of the women and all seemed deeply interested, until some one shot the lamp to pieces on the table. This mean act incurred the displeasure of nearly all present. Another lamp was secured and "Doc" Middleton walked up to the side of the old preacher and said, "Whoever did that was damn mean and if he does it again, I'll kill him." The man who shot the lamp left the hall and the service proceeded without further interruption.

At the end of the service, the group passed a hat for the old fellow, and $130 was given. The next morning, having accomplished his mission, the preacher got on the train and went back east.

Doc Middleton was well known as a horse thief, of course, but many people liked and respected him. He was gifted with natural charm, and he enjoyed a Robin Hood reputation of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This story speaks well of him, I think.

About the others who attended that Sunday service, Mr. Bratt wrote:

The cowboys and I came on to the round-up camp on the Dismal River where we had left it. On the way some of the boys talked freely and regretted what they had done and promised to do better.

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Quotations in this post are from Trails of Yesterday (pages 275-277) by John Bratt. Published in 1921. Try the "Flip Book" of this text.

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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.