In early June1882 nothing existed on McCook's town site to prevent an unobstructed view, nothing more than an occasional cacti and a few blades of sparsely grown grass. Looking north, from the river, not a tree or a bush could be seen looking across the land but the sloping hill upon which McCook now stands. There was nothing upon which a bird could rest, save a few scattered sunflower stalks -- but it didn't matter -- there were no birds anyway. Thus did Albert Barnett, one of McCook's early citizens, begin to write his memories of the early days of McCook. These memoirs were never published.
A month later, in something of a miracle, McCook had taken on the appearance of a bustling new little city. One business building had been moved to the town site from Indianola, some 35 other business buildings had been built (though not all had been completed), and some 30 homes were in various stages of construction, in addition to the buildings intended to house the railroad activities -- the depot, the eating house, the round house, the section house, the coal chute, and some other minor structures.
The leaders of the new town were ecstatic, and wished to tell the world about their marvelous new little city. The perfect solution seemed to be to have a gigantic 4th of July celebration. A committee was formed, to plan an old fashioned 4th of July, with a band, a parade, picnics, a balloon ascension, fireworks, and a grand ball. There was to be inspiring music and patriotic speeches by gifted orators from the Eastern part of the state.
The widest publicity possible was to be given to the event throughout the area. An excursion train from Chicago to Denver was induced to make an unscheduled stop in McCook so that travelers could marvel at the miracle and take part in the planned program, which were to include speeches by James Laird, Congressman from Nebraska, and District Judge William Gaslin, as well as a huge parade, foot races, wheel barrow races, the balloon ascension, fireworks and climaxed by the "Grand Ball" in the evening.
The committee was only able to raise $26.70 to put on the event. However, that amount was enough for the celebration, as expenses amounted to only $21.50, including the large expense of the balloon ascension, which came to $11.80, plus the printing bill of $2.75, lumber for the reviewing stand-$6.20, and the drayman, who charged $.75 for his services. All the labor, was donated. The $5.20 surplus was donated to the McCook Sunday School, which was in dire need.
The crowd, of several hundred persons, homesteaders and ranchers, came from miles around, arriving the day before in their covered wagons or on horseback. Royal Buck, one of the early settlers along the Willow, was chosen to preside at the "ragamuffin" parade.
One of the families that chose to attend was a young family who had come into the valley in 1872, barely 3 years after Indians had been subdued by U.S. Cavalry troops. They came to the celebration in their covered wagon, the same that they had used to come to the area originally. During the 10 years they had lived in the area social opportunities had been scarce, especially for the wife, and had been limited to church functions, picnics and visits with close neighbors. Newspapers seldom reached them, and magazines -- never.
The couple and their children looked forward to the McCook 4th of July celebration with great anticipation. When the wife had come to the region she had a "best" dress, fashioned to the style of 1872. On this 4th of July this was still her "best" dress. They had not been able to afford a better one. She had had few opportunities to wear it, and with slight alterations she felt that it was quite good enough for her to wear to the grand celebration.
However, when the good lady arrived in McCook and first approached a group of women, she realized that in the intervening 10 years her costume had become decidedly outmoded. As soon she could safely break away she crept beneath the friendly canvas of their wagon, where she spent most of the day, and where she wept bitter tears of chagrin and humiliation. Not only was her dress hopelessly out of style, but she realized, for the first time in 10 years, that the world had moved on and left her behind.
The 10 years in this land had been entirely a struggle for the very existence of her family, a struggle which had consumed all her strength and energy, leaving her no time for the nicer things in life. Her story was just one of the real tragedies of pioneer life -- a part of the cost of taming the prairies.
As might have been expected, the celebration did not quite meet expectations. The Nebraska Congressman and District Judge were not available to speak in McCook. Their places were taken by a quite vocal Irishman from Indianola and R.B. Daily, the Lincoln Land Co.'s agent, who had political aspiration of being a State Senator. Music was in short supply. Singers did not appear and the band was absent, except in the evening when a violin player and a harmonica player showed up and played music for the dance at the Congregational Church bowery.
In the afternoon, after the picnic session, where everyone brought a basket of food, a "grand" balloon was inflated with hot air produced from a blazing rag saturated with kerosene and "sent towering above the clouds," to the delight of at least the youngsters who swarmed over the hillside, trying to keep up with the beautiful soaring balloon.
A fellow who had followed the vocation of teaching, and considered himself somewhat of an elocutionist, read the Declaration of Independence. But the highlight for most of the folks attending the celebration was "just visiting" and getting acquainted with the other settlers. The absence of speakers and musicians was scarcely noted.
Mr. Barnett added this description of the evening festivities: "Mr. Nettleton, of Indianola, had been leading the construction for a small Congregational Church (on the site of the present Congregational Church). A Bowery was built along the north side for those who wanted to dance. Boys and girls came from farms and ranches over a wide radius of McCook. They danced the night away and had such a good time. A young fellow by the name of Davis was one of the dancers. Davis wore heavy plow shoes and a winter coat, which he refused to take off, in spite of the July heat. At first he danced with the married women, but "they could not stand his speed." The dance caller called mostly swing dances and Davis was forced to turn to the younger girls for dance partners, whom he "waisted, as we called it." Davis didn't miss a dance, but toward the end of the evening when they called a "swing dance" he was soaking wet with sweat and could barely lift his feet from the floor. "But," said Mr. Barnett, " he bowed his back and along with that persistent under hold that he got (waisting), and with a big red handkerchief that was wet as a sponge...and with that 'self-satisfied', 'never let go' look on his face, Davis left an impression on me that I have never gotten over." Mr. Barnett added, "I have been to many Fourth of July celebrations since, but ... in many respects, that one beat them all!"
Source: Albert Barnett papers (available for view at the High Plains Museum) McCook Tribune items for July 1882