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Friday, May 6, 2016

McCook: 'The Magic City of the West' 1883

Monday, December 12, 2011

On May 25, 1883, McCook celebrated its first anniversary.

The town had been platted just one year before. In that year it had grown from a population of near zero to nearly 1000 citizens. "It could boast fine new machine shops and a 15 stall roundhouse on the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad line, and the designation of Division Point between Lincoln, the Capital City of Nebraska and Denver, the Capital City of Colorado.

It was the Metropolis for a developing farming industry, and a "vast cattle country, extending to the Union Pacific Railroad line on the North, and Colorado on the West, while the great ranches along the streams of Northwestern Kansas obtain all their supplies from this place. Any day four and six horse teams, drawing heavily loaded wagons, may be seen trailing out across the prairie -- North, West, and South."

"McCook is called a City, though (in 1883) it is not yet incorporated, even as a village. But it is home to two lumber yards, two billiard parlors (though no saloons), one hardware store, three restaurants, three drug stores, two dry goods and general merchandise stores, one furniture store, two banks, one jewelry store, one lawyer, one boot and shoe store, two real estate agents, one meat market, four hotels, three grocery and provision stores, two practicing physicians and surgeons, one merchant tailor, one hat-maker shop, three dressmakers establishments, one blacksmith shop, two livery stables, one harness shop, one "beautiful" church, a public school (but no school building), one dentist, an A-1 brass band, five carpenters and cabinet makers, one daily and one weekly newspaper, a loan agency, and the regional United States Land Office.

"After just one year of existence, school enrollment in the McCook Public Schools is 64, with average attendance of 58. Lillian M. Boyle and Lon Clark are the teachers. School is being held in the Congregational Church facilities, the only place available. The sessions are attended with more or less confusion, as both teachers preside in the one room, the two divisions being separated by a curtain only, which does not exclude noises. The seats are wooden chairs, and rough board tables serve the purpose of desks.

"There is a new water works in the course of construction -- the ditches are all dug and the pipes are being laid and the plant should be in operation in the near future. At the present time there is not a single bath tub in the entire city ... While eventually our water system will be in operation, at present one well serves every five or six families, and there is a town pump in front of LaTourette's Store (on Main St. just south of B). (Note: LaTourette's Store was one of the first businesses in McCook, W.C. LaTourette having moved his Hardware Store from Culbertson to McCook in the spring of 1882. Mr. LaTourette was very involved in civic affairs.)

"These are all facts that the leaders of McCook would have the outside world to know of our new little city, all things of which they have great pride. At the same time, there are things for which they are not so proud.

"McCook is built upon a treeless hillside. All existing buildings are built of wood, and most of them are of just one story. The business buildings are of square fronts. On the upper part of the front, the name of the proprietor or business is sometimes painted. The lower part of the front is of glass, with a double door inset near the center. In front of some of the buildings is a plank sidewalk, and some have wooden awnings supported by wooden posts. The sidewalks are of various elevations, and are not continuous, and there are no sidewalks along vacant lots. There are no crosswalks. There are no street lights of any kind.

"There are no electric lights. There are no telephones. There is no dairyman. The citizens who do not own a cow buy milk of some neighbor when the neighbor's cow is giving milk. There is no ice for refrigeration or any other purpose.

"On dark nights everyone stays at home, or when he finds it necessary to be out he carries a lantern. Public meetings held at night are scheduled for times when the moon lends its light.

Weather also played an adverse role in the life of McCookites in 1883. "When the weather is dry the streets in the business district are dusty. There are no sprinkling facilities. When the weather is wet the streets are almost un-navigable because of the mud. Hitching posts have been set by the merchants in front of their establishments. These are all in use when custom, desire, or necessity brings out-dwellers to town.

"Disputes over claim rights are frequent. They often end in physical encounters. One day last week two neighbors south of the river engaged in an argument in which not only the fists of the combatants, but a hoe and a revolver as well, were brought into play. The casualties included a bloody mouth for one of the disputants, and the loss of two fingers and a gash on the arm of the other. Yesterday two homesteaders north of town sought to settle a controversy over the right to a claim by wager of battle. Again, one of the weapons was a hoe.

"The man without the hoe was seriously injured. The man with the hoe was bound over to the District Court, charged with attempt to commit manslaughter. The hearing before the Justice of the Peace consumed the greater part of the day, and the crowd that listened to the testimony taxed the limited quarters of the Justice's office

Houses were going up at a feverish pitch. "The dwellings are fashioned on two patterns. Most are square, and most of them are somewhat longer than they are wide. Scarcely any of them are embellished with a porch, or even a stoop. There are no sidewalks in the residential section, nor are there trees, or shrubs, or in fact, vegetation of any kind, except the native grass. There are no street improvements of any kind -- nothing but trails for horses or ox-drawn vehicles -- for in these days oxen as beasts of burden are not uncommon.

"Though not a tree grows north of the railroad track, nor since summer has there been any living green in all the expanse of prairie, except on the narrow ribbons on which grass and a few scrubby trees grow along the shrunken river, which flows over its bed of sand. Yet, the whole world does not contain more gold than does the western sky at sunset, and when night comes down 'the canopy of the stars' is draped peacefully, protectingly, comfortably about this little settlement. Notwithstanding the apparent poverty of life in McCook at present, the citizens are probably enjoying their existence as much as they ever have, and more than they ever will in the future, however much of wealth and luxury may be their lot."

This is a rough picture of McCook after just one year of existence, summer 1883.

-- From the pages of the McCook Tribune in 1883, collected by H.P. Waite, on display at High Plains Museum

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By