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McCook, Magpie City of the West, in the fall of 1883

Monday, September 17, 2012

1880s McCook Hotel, "Arlington House"
(corner of East 1st & B Street)
In September 1883, McCook had been a town for some 15 months. An article in the Tribune took note of the fact that businessmen of McCook were advancing the incorporation of their new little city. "The advantages of incorporation are many. The County Commissioners will be holding a meeting in Indianola on Oct. 6th, and a petition, asking for incorporation of the village of McCook will be presented at that time."

About this same time good people of McCook took exception to a story in the Hastings Gazette-Journal, which referred to McCook as the "Magpie City of the West." "Of course the citizens of McCook are justly indignant at what appears to be an attempt of a jealous rival to ridicule our community." The offending paper blamed a careless typesetter and a careless proofreader for the slight, saying that the word "Magic" had been misread as "Magpie." "McCook is by no means satisfied that the mistake was unintentional. This city has been called the "Magic City of the Plains," an appellation with which we are entirely satisfied."

In 1883, as in 2012, the weather was the lead story in a September issue. "The season is nearly over, and we can see our agricultural results. Last fall was extremely dry, and the winter was open, with very little snow. Fall crops did not have a fair chance, and were practically failures. Spring crops did not do too much better. Rain fell in sufficient quantities, but they were not well distributed, and on the whole we have little with which to go through the winter. Torrential rains were followed by periods of torrid heat and drought, vegetation did not do well

Welcome dance 1880s painting
"This is the first year farming has been attempted, to any extent on the divides, and farming methods are primitive. Our farmers are poor. Most of them are young men -- many of them unmarried -- who came here with little capital, believing they saw in this country opportunities not afforded by regions having an older civilization. Most of the land is still held by homesteader, only a small part of it has come into private ownership, which is all that is subject to taxation. Money for roads and bridges, the great need of this country is available only in limited amounts."

But people still managed to have a little fun. "The only diversions of our citizens are attending church, dancing, and surprise parties. The Congregationalists have the only church building in McCook, and either they or some other Protestant denomination holds a service there every Sunday morning and nearly every Sunday evening. The Catholics meet once a month in the band hall. All of these meetings are well attended.

"At least once in two weeks a dance takes place, either at the hotel, or in the band hall. When a dance is held at the hotel the dining room is cleared of tables after the last meal of the day, and the chairs are ranged along the walls. The music is furnished by a super-annuated square piano and a fiddle or an accordion. The musicians can barely play in concert -- and only chords, of a tune like "Old Dan Tucker". The dancers -- those who know anything at all about the pastime -- are only familiar with the quadrille (a type of square dance) and the Virginia Reel.

"Nearly everyone goes to the dances. No one is excluded. McCook society is democratic in the broadest and best sense of the word. Everyone meets on a plain of absolute equality. All are newcomers in the community. No one has known his neighbor for longer than a few weeks, at the most. Everyone is accepted at his own estimate of his worth -- at first. Everyone is assumed to be who he seems to be, or says he is. But every man's measure, and every woman's too, is soon taken. No one sails for long under false colors.

"There was one woman -- not without personal charm, active in her church work -- she lived with a man reputed to be her husband. But he was not her husband, and it was learned that in an eastern state, she had abandoned not only her husband, but four pledges of affection, and had come to this prairie town where she believed she would be undiscovered, and, if such a thing be possible, retrieve her past. She left town soon after.

"Then there was the man who posed as a bachelor and was covertly admired by more than one young woman. He seemed to be supplied, from some source, with sufficient funds to enable him to enjoy the rather modest and inexpensive pleasures of this crude town. His game was up when, to his great surprise and consternation, a woman, who was able to prove that she was his wife, with two small children, who claimed him as their father, stepped from a west-bound train one morning.

"The fellow had been writing to his wife that he was engaged in some mining venture, which at the moment was yielding him no return, but which he believed would eventually bring him into affluence. Overnight he plunged, like a meteor, from the zenith of popularity, to below the horizon of obscurity. He disappeared within a few hours, doubtless to resume his despicable blandishments on some new frontier. His wife and children were cared for a few days by the charitable people of the town and finally were returned to their old home with money raised among the citizens.

There were others -- harmless frauds -- who posed as persons of substance and influence in the places from whence they came. Their assumption of superiority was discerned in every instance. They were quickly relegated to the stations to which they belonged. But there were also others -- those who had sinned, and who had repented of their sins, and who had come here to begin life anew. One of these who, in the short time of his residence, has become rehabilitated, a person who has established himself in a position of responsibility, and who has won the respect of his new acquaintances, who thought more of him because he had the will and desire to scale a barrier that weaker men might have found insurmountable.

A newcomer to McCook was very often welcomed with a surprise party. A family would scarcely be settled in its new home before the neighbors appeared in force some evening. If the head of the family seemed of sufficient importance, the town's newly formed band would be requisitioned for a serenade. A quadrille (dance) might be formed in the kitchen, if the apartment be not too small, and the members of the household were not averse to dancing. The kitchen is usually the only room in the house, the floor of which is not covered with some kind of carpet, underlain with straw or old newspapers (for insulation) and tightly tacked down.

At these surprise parties innocuous games were played, and talented members of the visitors were called upon for songs or recitations. Finally, a luncheon, generally referred to as a collation, and described as bountiful or even elegant, consisting of sandwiches, pickles and cake or the like, and brought in by the invaders, was served.

"It is not only the paucity of entertainment in this pioneer community, but the hunger for human companionship, an earnest wish to be agreeable and a desire to make strangers forget their loneliness that prompts those, who now consider themselves "old settlers," to be neighborly in their social activities." Some of those "Old Settlers" had been in McCook for a whole year!

Source: H.P. Waite's collection of old Tribune stories, available at High Plains Museum in McCook.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By