Prairie to Prominence: Hastings' First 10 Years


“We couldn’t walk back, so there was nothing to do but stay,” George Wilkes, one of the original English colonists, would later recall. The prairie was not like it had been painted by railroad advertisements, which had lured them from their native England to Lincoln, Nebraska, in early 1871. In Lincoln, they purchased horses, wagons, plows and provisions, then followed the railroad survey stakes westward to Juniata. There, Titus Babcock helped them in selecting claims along the projected line of the Burlington Railroad. Members of the English colony included Wilkes and his brother, Thomas Wilkes, Fred Wright, Walter Micklem, John G. Moore, Robert Clarkson, Joseph Hopkins, Thomas Johnson, Stephen Binfield, James Watts, William Wallace, James Kemp, Rev. J.F. Clarkson, and Will Roberts. The group included three women: Mrs. Wallace, Mrs. Watts, and Mrs. Binfield.

A little sod house (and in some historical accounts, a dugout), the first dwelling in what would later become Hastings, was built by Walter Micklem southwest of the intersection of Third Street and Lincoln Avenue.  The second house was a soddie built by James Watts in the 1200 block of West Second. John G. Moore hauled lumber from Grand Island to build the first frame house, which stood between Second and Third on Saunders Avenue. Thomas Johnson lived in a dugout on his claim east of town in what would become Johnson’s Addition.

Samuel Alexander homesteaded the quarter section extending north of Seventh Street in the spring of 1872. He built the second frame house and the first store building, selling general merchandise which he hauled from Inland, then the terminus of the railroad.

In April 1872, representatives of the St. Joseph and Denver City Railroad asked the county commissioners at Juniata to levy $75,000 in bonds to aid construction of their railroad through the county. A special election was held on May 27, 1872. That election would have the most far-reaching consequences of any election in the history of Adams County. The bonds failed, the reasoning being that the railroad would build anyway and where else would it cross the Burlington but at Juniata, the county seat. The railroad did build, but it crossed the Burlington not in Juniata, but at a spot on the prairie seven miles east on the homestead of Walter Micklem. And as they say: The rest is history.

The settlers and those hunting for a promising business location quickly realized the site where two railroads cross had great possibilities. Hastings, part of the alphabetical naming system of the St. Joseph and Denver City Railroad following Glenvil, was named in honor of Thomas D. Hastings, construction engineer of the railroad. He never lived in the town.

C.C. Ingalls and F.J. Benedict opened the first lumber yard in July 1872. The lumber was hauled overland from Inland. They kept about two wagon loads of lumber in stock and if anyone wanted to build anything larger than a one-room claim shanty, lumber had to be shipped in by the railcar and freighted overland from Inland. Ingalls and Benedict sold out to B.H. Brown in 1873.

George H. Pratt and Charles K. Lawson established the first grocery and hardware store, called Headquarters Store, in 1872 at the corner of First and Hastings. The frame building measured 22 by 40 feet, with rooms above. Pratt, Lawson and A.H. Cramer, all young bachelors, lived over the store. Mr. Pratt would later reminisce:

After a slow and tedious train ride through an almost unbroken prairie, with eyes aching from trying to see something that would break the monotony, I arrived at Hastings. The railroad did not recognize the place, wishing me to go on to Juniata, but slowed down enough for me to make the jump. Mr. Lawson had been here three or four weeks. He met me at the train and it wasn’t long before I said, “Charlie, I can see lots of room to do business here with very little competition, but who are we going to sell goods to? I have not seen enough people west of Lincoln to support a fair sized grocery store.” His answer, “Well, they are not here yet, but they will come.”

It was not a large task to take in the business part of Hastings. It consisted of a one story building 16 by 24 foot, with nothing but siding and shingles to shut it off from the outside. It was owned by Samuel Alexander and run by him as a general store. One large dray could have moved the entire stock in one load, with room for more. A small building adjoining was the lumber office of Ingalls & Benedict. We went to supper at the home of Mr. Alexander. I cannot tell why that meal and all the others I ate at the table of Mrs. Alexander tasted so good, but I remember them as among the best I ever ate. There were six of us besides Mr. and Mrs. Alexander and the baby, with only one small bedroom. We slept on the floor and I never slept better in my life.

During the late fall and winter of 1872-73 our trade was very light. It would have been disastrous had not our expenses corresponded. Mr. Cramer, Lawson and myself lived over the store. We lived well. I remember the meat supply we had. At one time there were hanging in a shed two deer, two quarters of young buffalo, and a large piece of elk, which we mostly gave to our friends. A hunting trip to Wood River added to our larder a couple dozen grouse. Our appetite was voracious, and there never was a better cook than Mr. Cramer when it came to light biscuits and buffalo meat. That winter was one of the happiest of my life, almost care free. Our surrounds were new and peculiar. Almost without exception the settlers were young, strong, unmarried men. To that class, until their ready money was gone, or until they married, life on the prairie was a picnic.

During the winter more buildings were put up. Mr. Cameron opened a branch of his Lincoln store, Mr. Steinau a small clothing store, Messrs Batty and Ragan a law office. Our new hotel, the Roaring Gimlet, was soon ready for business. Building was done quickly, a week or two was sufficient time for the largest. There was no lack of workmen, all were glad to earn something.

Early in the spring with fast increasing immigration, business commenced in earnest. It was soon a serious matter, with our limited means, to get goods to supply the demand. The new settler had to buy everything for man and beast. The St. Joe and Denver Railroad gave us an advantage when it came to hauling heavy goods. We established trade as far south as the Solomon River in Kansas and to the Platte River on the north because we sold corn and oats on a small margin. Settlers needed feed for horses. We had one competitor in the grain trade, a Mr. Habig. When we were selling corn for 30 cents a bushel, his was the same price. When we were out, his went to 50 or 75 cents. Then the curses of Kansas men, who had come a hundred miles attracted by our low prices, were loud and deep. They sometimes waited two or three days for us [to get in a car load], but frequently had to pay the high price. Before the year was over we couldn’t sell corn for less than a dollar a bushel. The price made many cut down their feed until it caused the loss of many horses.

Mr. Lawson was quite a trader, and it soon was known that anything went at the Headquarters Store, from horses and mules to cord wood and posts, anything except second hand furniture and clothing. This led to shipping in horses and mules from Missouri, which became an important part of our business. Later Hastings became the most important horse market in the state, a thousand head being sold each year for several years.

It was not long before the settlers ran out of money. Credit had to be given or men could not stay on their claims. Credit was extended to those we considered honest, but with no sure prospect of repaying soon, refusing those who had money coming from the east. Such as could get along, or get money from friends, we refused; not because we wanted to, but because we had to. We lost some good customers for a time and some for good. We had little money and no credit. We could not get more than the customary thirty days on groceries and cash for grain. We waited for the day when pension checks came with more anxiety than did many old soldiers.

At one time when things looked pretty dark, a means of getting a few dollars was found in the purchase of buffalo bones which were scattered over the prairie where the buffalo had been slaughtered for their hides. The bones were used in the manufacture of fertilizer. Settlers brought in wagon loads of bones which were purchased for ten dollars a ton and then piled along the railroad tracks. The bone business lasted about two years during which time we shipped out several railroad car loads.

Had it not been for the large cash trade we got from distant points, we could not have cared for those near at home as well as we did. No more honest men, as a class, ever lived than our early settlers. At the time we sold out, our credits in notes and book accounts exceeded fourteen thousand dollars. We did not lose over two hundred dollars.

On October 15, 1872, the Hastings town plat was filed in the courthouse at Juniata. Owners of the townsite were Walter Micklem and Thomas E. Farrell. John G. Moore, who owned the land west of the original town, knew a good thing when he saw one and in November 1872 he filed the plat of Moore’s Addition to Hastings. Moore later opened a land office at the corner of First Street and Burlington Avenue. The first deed for a lot in Hastings was filed on December 9, 1872, by Emanuel Steinau and Co. for Lot 15 in Block 23. That location is in the parking lot at First Street and Hastings Avenue. Steinau operated a clothing and dry goods store.

Through the efforts of Samuel Alexander, the Hastings post office was established in October 1872. Alexander was appointed postmaster with an initial salary of $1 per month. He held the office until February 1882. The office was located in his store, Alexander & Wheeler, at the northwest corner of Second and Hastings. In later years, Mrs. Alexander often told of her husband’s anxiety in caring for the post office receipts and registered mail which came for settlers scattered over the prairie who seldom came to town. There were no vaults or safety deposit boxes of any kind in Hastings at that time so Mr. Alexander carried the money and registered mail home with him and hid them under two floor boards at the foot of his bed.

W.H. Stock with his wife and his brother, Theodore Stock, arrived in the fall of 1872 and built a building at about 641 W. First, which he used as a meat market and residence. It was here in the spring of 1873 that the first child, Claudius Hastings Stock, was born in Hastings. In a few months, Mrs. Stock became the first person to die in the new town.

The Roaring Gimlet, Hastings’ first hotel, was erected by Morris and Eugene Alexander late in 1872. It was located south of the Burlington tracks on Hastings Avenue. The second hotel, the Inter-Ocean, was erected by Captain E.S. Wells at 124 South St. Joseph Avenue and stood until the 1920s. By the end of 1873, the Howling Corkscrew, the Burlington House and the Denver House brought the number of hotels to five.

The Hastings Town Company was incorporated in April 1873 to sell lots. Incorporators were Walter M. Micklem, Thomas E. Farrell, William B. Slosson, James D. Carl, and William L. Smith. They built a small office on Second Street between Denver and Hastings Avenues and began advertising the sale of lots. They offered to refund the price of railroad tickets to Hastings bought within a 100-mile radius. Their advertising spread the reputation of Hastings throughout Nebraska. By the close of 1873, Hastings had become a booming prairie town.

Charles Cameron opened a branch of his Lincoln mercantile business in Hastings in 1873 at the northwest corner of First and Hastings. It was managed by J.D.B. Smith until Cameron moved to Hastings in 1878. Despite his tragic death from exposure in 1893, Charles Cameron’s name has been associated with business in Hastings longer than any other. In 1883, Cameron built a large brick block on the site of his original frame building. That block, still known as the Cameron Block, stands today, minus its Victorian ornamentation.

The County Commissioners granted a license to operate a “sample room” (bar) to Charles Kohl on March 15, 1873. The license fee was $200 for six months. The October 2, 1903, Adams County Democrat printed the following story: “An event took place in Charley Kohl’s saloon, a popular thirst quencher, which was wholly out of the ordinary even in this, then wild prairie state. There was neither church nor school house in the Hastings hamlet at the time of the event which we are about to mention, nor was there any public hall where a gathering of people could be held. In fact preachers were mighty scarce in this neck of the woods. The Rev. John W. Warwick resided about three miles east of Pauline and he officiated at funerals, weddings and upon occasions where divine favor or approval was desirous. He came up to this little settlement and saw at first glance that we pioneers had brought our worldly goods with us, but that we had left the teachings of our mothers back east. He rustled around to find a suitable place for holding a meeting but there was none. Charley Kohl told Rev. Warwick that if his saloon would answer the purpose, he would cover his bottles and freely donate the use of the room. As a result a well attended religious meeting was held in that saloon. That was the first religious service held in what is now the city of Hastings.”

School District 18, Hastings, was organized in July 1872, but it wasn’t until the spring of 1873 that school was held in a small 14 by 16 foot room rented by the district. Miss Phoebe Dentsoe was the first teacher. Construction of the first school house was begun in May 1873 on Second Street in the block between Minnesota and Colorado Avenues. The building, a two-story frame with seats for 350 pupils, was used until 1892.

On April 13, 1873, the famous Easter Sunday blizzard struck. It began with freezing sleet, which made walking difficult, and continued for three days with blowing snow so heavy it was impossible to see. A rope was tied from the Headquarters Store to the public well at the southeast corner of First and Hastings to help guide pedestrians. Homesteaders and new arrivals were trapped at Charley Kohl’s saloon and in the hotels. After the storm, some newcomers went back east, never to return.

In 1873, C.H. Paul opened a shoe store and Andreas Veith a furniture store, both on Second Street. On the southwest corner of Hastings and Second, the Forcht Brothers opened a hardware store and in the block east, R.V. Shockey opened the second hardware store.

The first issue of the Hastings Journal, owned by A.L. Wigton and M.K. Lewis, appeared on May 24, 1873. S.S. Dow purchased the first copy off the press for $10.50. The paper was printed on a hand press that printed two pages at a time. The largest circulation achieved was about 300. On September 16, 1879, the newspaper office burned, destroying all back issues. With that fire many details of early Hastings history were forever lost. In December 1880, the Hastings Journal and the Adams County Gazette merged forming the Gazette-Journal which continued to publish until July 1889.

The first physician in Hastings was Dr. C.M. Wright, whose residence and office were located on Second Street. The second physician was Dr. S. Sadler who moved to Alma, Nebraska, in 1880. In an October 23, 1903, article the Adams County Democrat stated the following: “there was a mistake made in the wording of his sign. It should have read Dr. S. Sadler, `physic `em’, not physician. The first drug store was established by Mr. Andrus. His establishment was not extensive, but one could get a dose of most any kind of physic, an emetic, a dose of quinine, a bottle of pain killer, a bottle of Jaynes hair destroyer, and horse liniment. Putting up Dr. Sadler’s prescriptions was not an easy matter. Doc spelled sugar with an “h” and the spelling of other ingredients was by ear without any regard to how the chemist spelled the word.”

Hastings was incorporated in April 1874, with M.K. Lewis as the first board chairman. The first ordinance, enacted in May, required sidewalks to be built six feet wide, of one inch boards. In June, Hastings was organized as a city of the second class and divided into three wards. A tax of ten mills was levied on all personal property. A city election was held in August, but irregularities in the balloting were charged and ballots from the first and third wards were thrown out. Those elected were H.A. Forcht, mayor; G.D. Pierce, clerk; L.C. Gould, police judge; J.G.B. Smith, treasurer; Alfred Berg, marshall; J.M. Smith and John E. Wood, councilmen. Not counting the ballots from two wards caused hard feelings and no sooner were the first officials declared elected than they resigned. At a September election a totally different slate of officers was elected.

In the early years money was scarce and the prevailing interest rate was three or four percent a month. Capitalists were reluctant to loan money on land as the productivity of the great plains was still unproven. They preferred instead to secure mortgages on chattels. Sheriff’s chattel mortgage sales of livestock, machinery, household goods, and store merchandise were common occurrences.

A Mr. Warwick started the first money lending enterprise in Hastings in 1873. He soon pulled up stakes and left. Then James S. McIntyre opened the Adams County Bank with $5,000 in capital. It operated from a one-story frame building at the southwest corner of Second and Hastings. A.L. Clarke and George H. Pratt purchased the bank in 1879 and replaced the frame building with a two-story brick one, the first brick building in Hastings. This building survived the great fire of 1879 and stood until 1903, when a larger bank building was erected on the site. In 1881, the Adams County Bank was reorganized as the First National Bank.

1874 was the first crop year for many new homesteaders and it was a good growing year until late in July when one awful day a large black cloud loomed in the west. It was grasshoppers. Within 48 hours not a blade of grass or a green leaf existed anywhere in the county. The fields and gardens were barren. Discouraged, many homesteaders went back home. But others, especially those from Europe, stayed mainly because they had no money to pay for a return trip. Starvation threatened many families. Juniata became a distribution point for the Nebraska Relief and Aid Society. Grasshoppers returned in 1875 but not in large enough numbers to destroy all the crops.

By 1876, Hastings had a population of 1,200 and was considered the most important commercial point between Lincoln and Kearney.

1878 was a momentous year for Hastings, by then a thriving community of about 2,500. The GAR post, the Hastings Brass Band and a baseball club were established. The first circus came to town. The first Germans from Russia, four rail cars full, arrived and immediately built a few small houses on the south side of town. 150 new buildings were erected that year, all of them wooden. Downtown was a jumble of wooden buildings of all sizes and styles crammed together. Shops were filled with goods, sometimes spilling out into the streets. Growth was so rapid that clerks were selling goods in the front of a building while carpenters were still pounding away on the rear.

Liberal Hall was erected at Third and St. Joseph by the Free Religious Society in 1878. It was the center of all Hastings’ social and political activities until the Kerr Opera House was built in 1884.

However, the most important event of 1878 was Hastings winning the county seat war, which had been waged with Juniata for a period of five years. When Hastings was platted, Block 15 was reserved as a public square and from the beginning Hastings promoters intended to wrest the county seat from Juniata. Transfer of the County Clerk’s records was accomplished on the evening of September 27, 1878. A full account of the Great County Seat War is printed in Historical News Vol. 29, No. 3.

The first location of county offices in Hastings was at 509 W. Second Street in a small frame building owned by A.H. Cramer, the county clerk. In 1880, Thomas Farrell built his large stone block at Second and Denver, and county offices were moved to the second floor of his building. The Farrell Block, the oldest building in downtown Hastings, is on the National Register of Historic Places today. It wasn’t until 1889 that a courthouse was built on the public square in Hastings.

Hastings achieved nationwide notoriety in April 1879 when the Olive Trial was held in Liberal Hall. The case was a classic one of conflict between homesteaders and cattlemen. Print Olive and an employee were tried for the murder of two homesteaders in Custer County. Newspapermen from as far away as New York covered the trial and a regiment of the Fifth Cavalry in Omaha was sent to keep the peace. Judge Gaslin is said to have conducted the trial with his six-shooter handy. The trial lasted over two weeks and was the best entertainment Hastings had ever had. Hundreds crammed the courtroom and spilled out into the street each day. Prosecutor John M. Thurston and defense lawyer James Laird both gained fame and went on to political careers.

The 1879 mayoral election proved to be almost as entertaining as the Olive Trial. The December 4, 1903, Adams County Democrat carried the following story:

Hastings had many elements of western frontier towns. Being the largest town in the west part of the state it was natural that cowboys and freighters drifted here to purchase supplies and paint the town. We had saloons and gambling houses and that other element that attracts plainsmen. Except for the fact that some people dressed up and attended church on Sunday, we could not distinguish it from any other day of the week. Business houses, saloons and gambling houses were wide open. Soon there came another element here from the moral and civilized east. It was this element that undertook to reform Hastings. Fred Forcht, candidate for mayor in 1879 was a moral man, but he was not moral enough to satisfy the ultra-moralists. He was a German and some things he had been taught in the old country, the moral element thought very immoral. For instance in the old country a man would take his family and their lunch basket to a beer garden, listen to the music, eat lunch, drink beer, take part in the dancing, unaware there was anything immoral about it.

When Mr. Forcht was named a candidate for mayor it became evident another candidate must be put up against him or Hastings would be turned into a 640 acre beer garden. The opposition chose Sylvester Renfrew. Had morality been the only question Mr. Renfrew would have been elected. But it was feared that if Hastings became a temperance town the saloons would be closed, Sunday business stopped and the town become so pure and moral that the Kansas Jayhawkers and the freighters and the plainsmen would take their trade elsewhere, and Hastings would be left upon its own nearby resources.

At this time the only full width sidewalks were on Hastings Avenue from Second Street to the B&M tracks. Along Second Street from Lincoln to St. Joseph Avenue there were two planks laid side by side and only a single plank above Second Street. Mr. Renfrew lived about three blocks north of Second Street and it was argued that if he was elected the first thing he would urge would be a full width walk to his house. If Mr. Renfrew got his sidewalk then members of the council would want to be accommodated. These walks were talked of as an expense the city could not stand. Of course Mr. Renfrew never thought of such a thing but the argument had its effect, and Renfrew was defeated.

A fire department had been established in 1878 and purchased $3,300 worth of equipment. But the new equipment was no match for the fire of September 16, 1879, the most disastrous in Hastings’ history. The fire started in the Allison Drug Store and was spread when paint supplies exploded. Just as the fire seemed under control, the new fire engine, a hand pumper, broke. After that, firemen and citizens fought the flames with bucket brigades but were unable to control their spread. During the height of the fire a windmill with the wheel running took fire. The flying sparks made quite a fireworks display. Every business building from the Burlington tracks to Second Street between Hastings and Lincoln Avenues burned, except the new brick bank building. In all, 33 buildings, many with contents, were destroyed. The estimated loss was $100,000, a huge sum in 1879.

Following the fire, the city passed ordinances requiring commercial buildings be made of fire resistant materials. In 1880, the large brick blocks, which still stand downtown, began to be built. By 1881, there was so much construction activity rebuilding the burned district that masons earned $4 per day. The McElhinney & Johnson Brickyard in the south part of town furnished most of the brick.

In its first ten years, Hastings had grown from nothing to 3,000. Blizzards, grasshoppers, and fires had not blunted the optimism of this new town on the prairie. On September 13, 1882, the first classes started at Hastings College, and Hastings was well on its way to becoming the Queen City of the Plains.

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