Incidents of Pioneer Life on the Nebraska Frontier
by Edwin Jeffrey (E. J.) Babcock


There is always a charm about pioneer life. It is always full of hardships. It is also rich in incidents of interest. Many of these came to all early settlers. Very many more came to me due to my father’s official position. My father was Elder Oscar Babcock, a pastor of the (Seventh Day Baptist) church at Dakota, Wisconsin, organizer and President of the Colony and first pastor and first postmaster at North Loup and in Valley County and in all this upper North Loup Country. These positions and many others of prominence that he held led to very many such incidents.

This is the 50th anniversary of the organization of our S.D.B. church at North Loup, the first church of the county and of all this North Loup country, for many years the church home of all early settlers, first day people as well as Seventh Day. On Thursday afternoon at Conference an Historical program will be given. It is thought that a few preliminary items and a narration of a few early incidents and anecdotes may further the interest in Conference and in this Historical session, since nearly every church in our denomination was represented in this North Loup Church.

As one of the very few remaining first settlers of 1872, I have been asked to furnish the Recorder a few of these. They will be mostly personal incidents in my own and my father’s life, but they will all be characteristic of the experiences of all old settlers. I shall attempt no literary style or finish, and will confine this preliminary item largely to a description of this new primitive country as it appeared to me, a boy of 12 years of age, as I now remember it.

I had come from a small village and a thickly settled country where all the cultivated fields were enclosed with log fences. All the houses and buildings were frame or log. There were no prairies. Nearly all the land had originally been covered by heavy forests of white oak, pine, tamarack and other large timber. In the North Loup valley and in much of Nebraska all was strikingly different.

As the first settlers forded Davis Creek and picked their way around and over the hills which at this point bordered the river and rounded the "Sugar Loaf", a vista of unexcelled loveliness opened before them. Here was a beautiful and fertile valley 6 miles wide, skirted by low hills or bluffs. In summer it was carpeted with green but later, when killing frosts had browned the green and prairie fires had burned the carpet of grass, it was black and the charred blades of burned grass glistened like mirrors.

Disagreeable and dread was the day when a strong wind or gale would pick up the fine ashes and seared blades and fill the air. This was known as a dust storm. It cut into the very flesh, filled one’s ears, nose, eyes and clothing. So dense would be this cloud of ashes and grass cinders that it was blinding. No wonder the early explorers caught in such a dust storm reported the country a veritable Sahara Desert. Thanks to civilization these prairie fires and dust storms are now entirely a visitation of the past. Our children know them not; they have never seen one.

So, too, this North Loup country was in reality on the extreme border of civilization. When C. P. Rood, the leader of the first committee that spied out the land, and we early settlers climbed the "Sugar Loaf" and viewed the landscape o’er, all was virgin wilderness. Not a human being, not a house, not a plowed furrow, not a road or fence met their view. Had the early settler started north toward and through Canada, toward and over the Arctic Ocean, toward and into the great Pacific, to the borders of Mexico, he would not have seen any of these things, unless perchance some poor Indian. Yes, we were on the border land, sure enough.

The valley was almost as level as a house floor. As I stood on my father’s new claim on the present site of the town of North Loup, waiting for him to stake off his new Dug Out, only five trees or very small clumps of trees could be seen as far as the eye could reach. How different in this respect from my old Dakota home. How different from the North Loup of today, a veritable forest (by comparison), the home of more birds on one forty acres than on any equal area in the state or in very many other states, a bird paradise as Rev. Shaw and Dr. Burdick can testify.

Most of our early houses were either "Dug Outs" or sod. A very few were made of logs. None were frame. Mira Creek ran southeast through father’s claim. Along it’s margin were flats about 4 1/2 feet lower than the regular plane of the valley. Near the center, just back of the present parsonage, was a draw or ravine of about the same depth running onto the flat and on into the creek. The north bank or side hill of this ravine was chosen as the site for our house, the first in the present town, and later used as the first school house in this upper North Loup valley.

It was a typical location. As it was made, so were all the others.

It was in this wise: Back about 10 feet from the bottom of the ravine on the high land a hole was dug 14 feet square and 4 feet deep. On the south side a door and passage way 3 feet wide was cut. On the same side a space about 2 feet square was leveled off, 4 boards were nailed into a square frame for a half sash, 4 light, window.

Then the walls were raised about 2 feet higher by laying up willow logs. Another log was laid across the middle for a ridge pole. Then willow poles were laid from this ridge pole to each side wall for rafters. Across these rafters were laid small willows and on top of these long blue grass was spread. The side logs were covered the same. The dirt taken from the hole was then piled back against the side logs and over the roof ‘till all was completely covered. Not a vestige of anything could now be seen but a round smooth pile of earth and clay except on the door and window side. If a roof was desired to be extra good, fresh sod was broken about 3 inches thick, cut into 2 foot lengths and laid on top of the clay and enough more clay spread over the sod to well fill the cracks. (My father’s) cash outlay for window, stove pipe, latch, nails and lumber for door and frames was $2.78 1/2!

In this dug out, with no floor but mother earth, the President of the Colony and the first Pastor and his family and the family of his brother, H(eman) A. Babcock, afterwards prominent as Sheriff, County Clerk and Auditor of Public Accounts, 7 people in all, lived the first winter. How we were buried for three days in the greatest "Blizzard" which the west ever knew and how we were finally, a few weeks later, all drowned out like rats from a hole, I will narrate in a future item.

It was while working on this dug out the first day after reaching North Loup that I found my first game. I had carried a new shot gun all the way from Wisconsin and had it with me that first morning. Toward noon John Sheldon, who was helping father with others, hailed me and said he had just seen a badger coming down the ravine. Grabbing my good gun to protect our workmen I hurried to a side depression a few rods up the ravine, cocked my gun and waited, lying flat upon my face, for the badger to approach. The moment was tense. Wild animals were known to be fierce. Soon there came square upon me the Badger, sure enough. It was Miss Hattie Badger, daughter of Dr. Chas. Badger, just from Milton (Wisconsin), with dainty dress and parasol, aristocratic as always in bearing, unmindful of her dire danger. Suffice it to say, nerve failed the bold hunter and his quarry escaped unscathed, but not so the brave hunter from the jests of the men for many a long day.