McCook becomes a 'trade center'
During the first years of McCook's existence as a town, it was primarily a "cow-town."
Ranchers far outnumbered farmers, and the cattlemen exerted a great deal of pressure, on the settler-farmer, and on the little city of McCook. Cattlemen seldom saw their cattle. Twice a year, there were roundups -- in the spring, for branding, and in the fall, when cattle were sorted out, by the brands of the various owners, and became available for sale.
The railroads were a mixed blessing for the cattlemen. On the one hand they offered a means to transport the cattleman's cattle to many more markets. On the other hand, the cattle had free range, except for the fences erected by the railroads to keep the animals off the rr track.
In the winter of 1884 the temperature dropped to -18 below zero. The loss of cattle that year was appalling -- not because of snow, or cold, but because of lack of water. Even in cold weather cattle could always find pockets of clear water in the Republican River, but RR. fencing kept cattle from reaching the Republican River. Cattle drifted down from the north in large numbers. Being unable to get through the fences, they perished by the hundreds. Cattlemen that year tore out those fences in many places to enable the cattle to get through.
As long as cow country remained open land the cattlemen realized large profits. However, when farmers began to stake out their claims, under the Homestead Act, Pre-emption, and Timber Culture Act, the cowboy gradually gave way to the farm hand.
The Land Office opened in McCook in June 1882, overseeing the distribution of some three million, seven hundred, twenty acres of land, most of which was covered by Homesteads, Timber Claims, and Pre-emption. G.L. Laws, register, and C.F. Babcock, receiver were in charge of this office, with Mr. J.E. Kelley acting as the lawyer looking after contested cases.
Even in the 1880s, there were people who sought to circumvent the law. Sometimes these "entrymen" proved up on land and put in the most meager improvements (which were required by the various Acts). For instance, one pre-empter proved his improvements by submitting a claim of a house "16 X 25, and a stable 10 X 20." Come to find out, these measurements stood for inches, not feet as one would naturally suppose.
This new way of acquiring land gave rise to a new vocabulary. A "Claim-jumper" was one who discovered the failure of some entryman and contested that man's claim. A "Claim-locator" was one who knew the country around McCook and knew the land laws. He showed newcomers to land still eligible for claiming under the various Acts -- for a fee. He provided horse and buggy for the exploratory trips. Sometimes these fellow were less than honest. One time a lady paid a locator $50 for locating her to a fine, level section of land, near McCook, and ideal for farming. When she was ready to build her house she found that the description of the land that she had entered was in the "Devils-Gap" area, 20 miles from McCook. The land was so rough that public sentiment demanded that the locator return her $50.
By 1883, encouraged by glowing reports in the Eastern Papers, people were arriving, via the train, to McCook every day. Most of these new folks were young men -- many were trained as lawyers, doctors, dentists, ministers, and other professional men. Some found that there was not business enough to live on, so they, along with farmer-settlers, sought to acquire land via the various Acts. They often became discouraged, and after few months, and the payment of a few hundred dollars to the Govt., would abandon their claim, and head back East, never to return.
From the beginning, in 1882, with the coming of the RR, McCook looked upon itself as a "Center of Commerce." But there was a problem. There was a great percentage of the area's population that lived, worked, and produced, south of the Republican River. These folks were unable to trade in McCook for much of the year because they were unable to cross the river. Since most of the land in the area, and Red Willow County was owned by folks who had claimed their land under one of the Acts, and were tax exempt, there was little or no money for tax purposes, specifically, for building a bridge across the Republican River.
People who lived south of the Republican -- as far away as Oberlin, in Kansas, were forced to either ford the river (a risky venture), or travel all the way to Indianola to cross the Republican, to do business in McCook, or Indianola, or even Plum Creek (Lexington). This did not set well with the McCook merchants.
By the end of 1883 McCook resolved its money problem to erect a bridge, just south of McCook. The McCook business men instigated a subscription from McCook businessmen; the Lincoln Land Company (the real estate arm of the Burlington RR) agreed to contribute $200; and the Burlington RR agreed to build the bridge and also haul the timber for the bridge, all without charge. The RR also gave a right of way through their land south of their track.
The new bridge had nine spans. It was 32 feet wide and 308 feet long. It rested on piles, which were driven 15 feet into the sand. The total cost of the bridge was $1,400.
The bridge was a great success and widely praised by McCook businessmen and farmers alike. From the McCook Tribune. February 19, 1884: "...a number of teams from Oberlin, Kansas were in town loading up goods for transportation...now Oberlin merchants 'can have their goods shipped over the railroad to McCook, since the completion of the bridge across the Republican. and then freight them into the couth country. It is not unusual to see a train of 20 wagons, each drawn by four horses, loaded with coal, lumber, dry goods, groceries and hardware starting southward over the hills."
By 1893 the Government Land Office was able to make a favorable report to their offices in Washington. Progress in farming in the past 10 years had been slow, but gradual. In 1882 F.W. Taylor shipped the first load of wheat to Chicago from this area. Before this time only corn had been the only grain crop raised -- and wheat crops were scarce in the vicinity. Plantings of wheat acreages were small; the expense of harvesting wheat was great and difficulties in harvesting and threshing were formidable. There was but one reaper in Red Willow County, and the one threshing machine was one driven by horse power. The twine with which the bundles were bound was all cut by hand before the wheat was fed into the machine. The threshing of 1,000 bushels of wheat in Mr. Taylor's shipment was a long and expensive process, which left but little profit for the grower. And then there were the frequent crop failure years.
However, gradually the farmers expanded their crop selection, to include corn, wheat, oats, alfalfa, barley, and livestock. Potatoes and sugar beets both proved to be good cash crops. In 1896 several farmers shipped a car-load of alfalfa seed -- 600 bushels, or 36,000 pounds -- to St. Louis. That car-load brought between $1,500 and $2,000 (big money at that time.). It was expected that another carload would be shipped from the vicinity in the near future.
The "City" of McCook and its merchants were here to serve the community. The more that the community's farmers were prosperous, the more the town prospered. The railroad was very much invested also, and was interested in, and sided with the farmers in every way possible. The farmers brought more and more business for the railroad as the years passed. The RR planned experiment stations for the farmers, to teach proper plowing and cultivation, better machinery, more diversified farming for the area, and other new agricultural ideas.
"The same faith that characterized the pioneer back in the early 80s, as he moved his family across the plains to a new country, dreaming always of a new development, which would mean a happy home and prosperity, inspired the next generation who looked forward to further and better developments in agriculture."
Source: Early History of McCook, Nebraska, by Marion McClelland