Early Days

Reminiscences Of Early Days In Nemaha County, Kansas

Reprinted from
The Bern Gazette
Bern, Nemaha County, Kansas
April 4th, 11th, 18th, & 25th, 1940

The following are some interesting events in the lives of the Swiss settlers who contributed much to early Nemaha county history.

(Editor’s note: We are indebted to John A. Minger for this series of articles concerning the early development of this section of Nemaha county. Mr. Minger, son of Christ Minger, Sr., was born in the old Balsiger log house on March 7, 1863. His twin brother, Christ Minger, Jr., now lives in Marysville. Mr. Minger has spent considerable time in compiling the data for, and writing, these interesting articles.)

Most of the early recorded history of Nemaha county centers around Baker's Ford. Many important events took place at or near the ford. The Fremont expedition crossed the Nemaha River at this point in 1841. Some historians say that Coronado, while in search of the city of gold, passed through Nemaha county from south to north in 1441. It was necessary to follow streams for their water supply. He, too, may have crossed the river at what was later known as Baker's Ford.

Miles Carter, a notorious horse thief and murderer, was hanged at the ford in the early sixties. Political and social activity in behalf of the welfare of the county seems to have been organized here.

W. W. Moore of St. Joseph, Missouri., staked the first claim at the ford in 1854. He started a store and laid out town lots, calling the place Urbana. As the land was taken up by settlers, more towns were laid out, all within a few miles of Baker's Ford. Richmond, a few miles south of Urbana, was made the county seat in 1855 when the county was organized. Other towns were Central City, Farmington and Castle Rock, which was later named Seneca. In an election a few years later, Seneca won the county seat and all the other towns folded up.

The same year that Moore settled at Baker's Ford, the Swiss began to locate on the Four Mile. (There is a story that the original name of this creek was Silver Creek. Some travelers had asked an Indian for the name of the next stream. The Indian thought they asked for the distance and said "Four mile," and it has remained Four Mile ever since.)

Those Swiss were Farmers. They built no towns, took no part in politics, and since they could neither speak nor understand the English language, they lived pretty much to themselves. They lived and worked following Swiss tradition. Religion, names and dress were typically Swiss. Many of them mastered English in time but until then all conversation was in Swiss (German). Even the children spoke nothing but Swiss until after a few years in school.

There is no record as to when the District No. 32 was organized. The old log school house was built about 1862. Mother Lehman turned her home over to the children where a minister taught them the art of reading and simple arithmetic until the school house was built.

The first to arrive was Fred Meshing with his son and two daughters. He was a widower. He staked a claim on the southeast quarter of Section 4. Balsiger came a few weeks later and located on the northeast quarter of the same section.

Christian Minger located a claim the same year on Easily Creek. After making a few improvements, he went back to St. Joseph after his wife and three daughters. While making preparations to return to his claim, there came a report that the Indians were murdering the settlers. Not wishing to take any chances, he remained in St. Joseph until the following spring.

Coming back to Easily Creek, he found his claim had been taken by another man. Then he came over on the Four Mile and bought Balsiger's rights in his claim. Balsiger's wife had died the winter before and he had decided to go back east.

Balsiger's claim had a house and barn on it. Since most of the houses were built alike, a rough description might be of interest. It was built of unhewn logs, one story high, about 24' X 36'. It had two doors, four windows. There was a large fireplace in one end built of native stone. There was a stone floor around the fireplace as a protection against fire. There was a crane-like contraption to swing pots and kettles over the fire, Dutch ovens and other cooking utensils. The roof of the house was made of clapboards instead of shingles. These clapboards were about three feet long and split out of young oak trees. They were held down on the roof with flat stones instead of nails. Wooden pins were often used in place of nails; door hinges and latches were made of wood. Most furniture was home made, the different parts being held together with glue and pegs. Most of the farming tools were home made. Harrows with wooden teeth were common.

Closely following the Meshings and Mingers came three more Swiss families -- Mother Lehman, a widow, and family of boys and girls; Jacob Spring, Sr. and family, and Christian Blauer, who located just across the state line in 1857.

These five families stood the brunt of the battle of taming the wilderness. More Swiss families came a few years later. They were John and Sam Minger, Henry Hoober, Jacob Hum, Sam Gugelman. Still later were the Paulis and the Hannis. The last to locate on the creek was Rudolph Stauffer.

The community was fortunate to have several craftsmen among them. Jacob Spring, Sr. was a stonemason; Sam Minger was a wagon maker; John Minger was a cooper; Fred Lehman was a blacksmith. To add to the self sufficiency of the community, Christ Minger did veterinary work, while the Blauers and the Lehmans kept education and religion alive.

One of the drawbacks was the long distance to market. It took most of a week to make a round trip to St. Joseph with ox team, that being the nearest market. There was no market even in St. Joe for live hogs. The hogs were butchered on the farm, the meat cured and then taken to St. Joe. Many stories were told about mishaps and adventure on these trips. Christ Minger and Fred Meshing had a heavily loaded wagon on their return trip from St. Joe. Late one afternoon while they were crossing Walnut Creek, the oxen were thirsty. Instead of crossing the ford, they turned upstream in two or three feet of water to drink. The wagon had to be unloaded. The men had to work hip-deep in water and mud, then hitch the oxen to the rear end of the wagon and pull it back on the ford.

Sometimes it became necessary to make the trip to St. Joe in winter with frozen ears and toes as a result of the cold. The Missouri river had to be crossed on the ice, as the ferry stopped during the winter. There were stories of team and wagons breaking through the ice.

The first four or five years on Four Mile were marked with much suffering. During severe winter weather, when it was impossible to go to market, they were sometimes compelled to live on corn and meat, dried wild fruits and sauerkraut added to the health and variety of their diet.

There was much sickness among them. There were nine deaths in those first few years. The first death was that of Mrs. Balsiger. Next were Fred Meshing and his son, only two weeks apart. Louise Minger and sister Lena, daughters of Christian Minger were next. There were also four young children who passed away, their identity could not be learned.

Great must have been the grief of the parents, especially the mothers, the hope and joy taken from them, their lonely lives made lonelier. Neither words nor monument can do justice to that courage and fortitude.

Not so many years ago, on the road east of the Christ Minger place, one could still see a couple of square rods of virgin prairie, gently sloping toward the rising sun. There was a crude fence around it, some native shrubs and rose bushes. That was the last resting place of the bodies of the nine who gave their lives in the cause of pioneering.

The land changed ownership and the flow has removed all trace of the graves.

The year 1860 was one of the driest years ever known in the Kansas Territory. It was so dry that even the prairie grass dried up. Only in sloughs and naturally wet places could they find grass fit to put up for their winter's hay for their stock. Their herds were not so large then and they managed to get enough to winter their stock, although the stock was in a badly run-down condition when the rains and the grass came the next spring. They were busy pulling their cattle out of mud holes, the cows being too weak to get out on their own strength.

Many settlers left the Territory, never to return. Some of the northern and eastern states, who were not affected by the drouth, sent carloads of food and clothing for the relief of the distressed settlers. But the Swiss colony asked for no aid. They were naturally a thrifty lot and always kept a surplus of grain and foodstuff on hand for any emergency that might come.

Better years followed this drouth and they began to prepare for better living conditions. They dug wells for a fine water supply, where before they had taken their water from natural springs. Some of them built new homes, barns and granaries.

About 1865 Christ Minger built a new log house much bigger than the old Balsiger house. This house was covered with real walnut shingles and it had a basement under it. With the exception of a frame addition, the old house still stands just as it was built 75 years ago 1. Christ Lehman built the first modern frame house in the '70s.

(Editor's note: This house is now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Jim Goodman. Some of the timbers in this house are from the original Meshing house.)

About the time of the drouth, there were rumors of impending trouble over the slavery question. Two German papers furnished the news for the settlement, The St. Joseph Volksblatt and the Westliche Post of St. Louis, both anti-slavery. These papers kept them informed on most of the important happenings at Washington. They were Republicans and Abolitionists.

At this time they were still using the most primitive methods of farming. They used a single shovel plow, known as a bull-tongue, to do their plowing. It was, along with the wooden tooth harrow, the one means of stirring the soil. It was used to furrow the ground for planting corn, as we use the lister now, the difference being that the corn was dropped by hand and covered with a hoe. The corn was cultivated with a shovel plow drawn by one horse. All small grain was cut with a cradle, bunched and bound by hand with a straw band. Prairie grass was cut with a scythe for hay.

Wheat and oats were tramped out of the straw with horses. The bundles were laid in a circle 30 or 40 feet across, two or three feet deep, and one or two teams were driven in a circle over the bundles until the grain was all tramped out. The grain and the chaff were then tossed in the wind to separate them. It will be easy to understand why there was only a limited amount of wheat raised for market. What wheat was sold had to be taken to St. Joe by wagon where it usually brought a good price. They had horses now and travel was speeded up considerably. Usually two or three men went to St. Joe at the same time.

The fear of Indians still possessed the women. All of the women whose men had gone on the trip would gather at one home for protection.

On one such occasion, as the women saw a band of Indians coming, they used their wits. They hurriedly made a dummy representing a man. They placed this in bed with hat and boots protruding from under the covers and a rifle leaning against the head of the bed. The chief looked at the boots and the rifle and grunted. "Him sick." he said, "No, sleeping." was the answer. After a few gesticulations and grunts to his braves, he asked for chickens. The women pointed to the chickens, which were running in the yard. The Indians ran the chickens down as a dog would a rabbit, each of the braves carrying away a chicken. The settlers were never molested by the Indians, except as they begged for food, but the fear persisted.

On the Christ Minger place there was a cane mill. It was a monstrous contraption, all made of wood, even the cogs that engaged the rollers being made of wood. The rollers were upright and over two feet in diameter, three or four feet long. The frame was large in proportion. It must have weighed several tons. Many from outside the colony had their sorghum made at this mill.

There were no idle days for these farmers from planting time to harvest, then threshing, hay making; corn must be shocked. After this they went to the woods and split rails, for it took thousands of rails to build a rail fence around a quarter section, six or seven rails high, and the stakes and riders.

The first wire fence was built by Henry Hoober. Posts were first set in the ground, then four holes were drilled in each post at the proper distance and the smooth wire was drawn through the holes. Barbed wire and staples were not known until several years later.

Patriotism is one of the traits of the Swiss character. Their small country is hemmed in on all sides by powerful nations. Their safety lies in an iron-clad loyalty to their government.

The story of the heroic deeds of Arnold Winkelreid and that of William Tell has been told for generations to the youth of the land and it's a part of their religion.

When they came to America, they transferred their loyalty to the land of their adoption. When President Lincoln called for volunteers, they were eager and ready. John U. Lehman and his brother Fred were the first to enlist. Both remained in service for the duration of the war.

A little later when General Price, with a large body of rebels, threatened to destroy Kansas City and other Kansas border towns, many of the older men joined the militia and saw service around Westport. It was said that the presence of the militia had considerable bearing on Price's defeat, although the regulars bore the brunt of the battle.

Rising prices brought on by the war and the introduction of labor-saving machinery, such as the moldboard plow, the corn planter, the mower and reaper and threshing machine brought on a wave of prosperity to the community. More land was put under the plow. They increased their herds to graze on the thousands of acres of free range. Some of them owned huge flocks of sheep. They did not sell their lambs for market as is done now, but they sheared the sheep and sold the wool at a good price at the woolen mills.

Their hogs were of the large Chester White breed and they weighed 350 to 450 pounds when full grown. In the spring of the year they turned them in the timber to feed on roots, nuts and acorns. They were fat when they rounded them up in the fall and usually had increased three to five times their original number. Most farmers usually butchered six to ten hogs for their year's supply of cured meat. Butcher time was an interesting event. Usually the neighbors were called on to help handle those heavy Chester Whites. Scalding them in a barrel and hanging them on the racks for the finishing process was heavy work. Several tubs full of sausage of various kinds were made. They had no meat grinders but used a chopping block which was about 30 inches in diameter. The meat was placed on this block and four or five men with sharp axes walked around the block, their axes dropping on the meat one at a time in perfect rhythm, until the meat was reduced to the proper fineness. A home made stuffer consisted of a wooden box six inches square, a foot or more long and a plunger attached to a long lever to force the meat into the casings. (No need telling that the good wife began frying sausage for the men as soon as the first few casings were stuffed.)

About 1868 the first coal oil lamps made their appearance. Coal oil sold at 40 cents a gallon. Previous to this time candles were used and before the candles a saucer filled with lard and a cotton wick furnished the light. The wick had to be snuffed frequently. There was a forked stick in the saucer, too, to push up the wick as needed.

The older set of boys and girls were growing up and took a hand in farming now. Among the young were Christ Blauer, Jr., an expert rifle shot; Henry Lehman, who loved to experiment with new farming methods; Fred Minger, son of Sam, had a mechanical turn of mind and became an engineer; Jacob Spring, Jr., whose popularity kept him in office as Trustee of Washington township for a quarter of a century.

The young ladies of that period were Lizzie Blauer, Louisa Minger, Caroline Hoober and Mary Spring. These young ladies helped with the light farm chores, besides doing their part of the housework. They brightened up the house with various decorations. Making charming strings was one of their hobbies. They gave occasional parties in which most of the neighborhood took part. Even the older people added to the entertainment by singing the Swiss folk songs. "John Brown's Body Lies a Mouldering in the Grave" was their favorite American song after the war.

An event of interest to the community was the triple wedding in 1867 of John U. Lehman and Magdalena Fankhauser, Christ Lehman and Katie Spring, Rosetta Lehman and Henry Legler of Valley Falls.

Other weddings some years later were Louisa Minger and Gottlieb Christ; Mary Spring and Charles Heiser; Lizzie Blauer and John Heckendorf; Caroline Hoober and Jacob Hunzeker; Margaret Pauli and Jacob Spring; Chris Blauer and Emma Conrad. Most of these weddings were celebrated with an elaborate five course dinner. The neighbors for miles were invited to the feast.

The first attempt to grow winter wheat on the Four Mile was not very successful as it winter killed. There was however a spring wheat known as grass wheat which yielded as high as 25 to 30 bushels to the acre. In late years it, too, had to be discarded because of chinch bugs. Then came the hardy Turkish and Russian varieties of winter wheat.

Christ Minger owned the first mower and reaper combined. It was what is known as a dropper and left the gavel the full width of the swath and it took five men to bind the bundles as fast as the reaper cut the grain.

Fankhauser Brothers operated the first threshing machine on the Four Mile. This was a horsepower outfit. It had an open straw carrier and there was always a cloud of dust around that end of the machine.

Christ Lehman had a piano for his new house and also an up-to-date carriage with lamps and other trappings to make it truly classy. The rest of the community bought spring wagons. The young ladies thought the spring wagon quite an improvement over the lumber wagon -- if and when the young men were allowed to use the spring wagon.

The St. Joseph and Denver Railroad was built through Sabetha and Seneca in 1870, giving the farmers a closer market for their livestock and grain.

A star route was established about 1872 between Sabetha and Pawnee, and Four Mile got a postoffice. Rudolph Stauffer was its postmaster. He called it Silver Spring. A few years ago mail from Germany addressed to Silver Spring was delivered to the addressee, although the Silver Spring postoffice had been abandoned for over fifty years.

There was an earthquake in 1868 that made the houses tremble. Dishes toppled over and men plowing in the fields found it difficult to stay in the furrows.

A tornado unroofed the house of the Thompson family. Two girls, aged 12 and 14, who slept upstairs, were carried away with the upper floor and killed. The girls had asked to come down a few minutes before. The parents however, thought there was no danger. The same storm unroofed Fred Pauli's home but he escaped injury.

John Minger, Sr. was making some improvements to his house. He dug a cellar under his log house, full size of the house. One morning while the family were at breakfast, the house dropped down to the bottom of the cellar.

The grasshoppers of 1874 and a dry season was almost as hard on the community as the drouth of 1860. There was no corn raised in '74, no late crop of any kind. The 'hoppers came about August 10 and were so thick in the air they obscured the sun like a cloud. They dropped straight down and began devouring vegetation at once. They were so hungry they kept on eating until there wasn't a green thing left, then they began eating tender twigs and the bark of trees, even the clothes on one's back. Next they laid their eggs and died.

There was plenty of wheat that year. Next spring they hatched out by the millions. They cleaned up the wheat and everything else. About the last of June they shed their skins for the third time and emerged with wings. In a few days they took to the air and disappeared.

There was no wheat that year but a big crop of late corn was raised. Most of it was too soft for market.

A branch of the California trail passed right over the Bern townsite. Its eight- or ten-deep worn tracks were still in evidence when the townsite was laid out, crossing main street somewhere between the lumber yard and the bank, then northwest, crossing the little Four Mile near Fred Miller's place.

In the early days this trail was held in reverence and awe. It started somewhere in the East and ended in the goldfields of California. It seemed to be a thing apart from the rest of the country. Many were the stories of adventure and tragedy that took place along its course. When the country between Four Mile and Sabetha was still a wide expanse of prairie, stones were found along its course with dates and initials--no doubt markers of graves. Such a marker was found a few miles east of Bern.

There were strange looking outfits passing over this trail as late as 1870. They camped along the trail and many destructive prairie fires started from these camps. There was a story about a dog that kept vigil at the ford where the trail crossed the little Four Mile. There was a pond above the ford where the dog was said to have sat on its haunches with its eyes fixed on the pond. All attempts to coax him away with food failed. His dismal baying was heard nightly. He was seldom seen away from that spot. Several weeks later he was found dead, his head almost touching the water.

From 1876 to 1882, settlers from Iowa, Indiana and Illinois began taking up land between the Four Mile and Sabetha. Previous to that time there was only one house, known as Seaman's grove, in that broad expanse of prairie. The grove was planted in 1858 and the tall cottonwoods and poplars were a landmark for miles around. As late as 1880, land could be bought for from five to eight dollars an acre. Many of these settlers paid for their land with the first crop of wheat.

Sam and Frank Hauser discovered coal on the Jake Wittwer farm in 1877. A year later they discovered another vein on the Christ Blauer farm. Charley Hofmann, Sr., sunk an 80-foot shaft on the hill west of the Blauer mine and struck 18 to 24 inches of good coal. Each of these mines employed from 15 to 30 miners. There was a small village or town at each of the mines, including a store and hotel. Most of the coal was sold in the surrounding towns. Coal was sold at 16 cents a bushel at the mine and delivered in town at 25 cents. Many were engaged in hauling coal. The rush was so great at times that late arrivals had to wait several hours for their turn.

A steam threshing outfit was brought to the Four Mile in 1882. It was owned jointly by Otto Conrad, Christ Minger, John Minger and O. Y. Harlow. The traction engine weighed five tons. There were few bridges that would carry such a load. It was necessary to cross streams at fords, sometimes with disastrous consequences. On one occasion, in crossing Honey Creek, something went wrong and the machine left the ford and skidded several yards up the creek in water deep enough to put the fire out. With the aid of six horses it was finally pulled out.

A history of the Four Mile would hardly be complete without a few words about the one-armed peddler and trapper, George Maxham, who was quite a character on the creek for many years. He drove an old dilapidated spring wagon, drawn by a mule with pant legs on the mule's front legs to keep the flies off.

"Do you want to buy a book?" were his first words of greeting. He had very little else to say. He looked as if he bore some secret grief, for he never smiled. Through him many books and magazines found their way to the homes on the creek. He sometimes made John Lehman's his headquarters. How he managed to set his traps and remove the pelts from his catches with one hand was a puzzle. He died a few years ago at a ripe old age.

There were 45 first generation descendants of the Swiss colonists. Twenty-four are still living, scattered over several states.

The question is sometimes asked how the young people of that early period managed to get any enjoyment out of life -- no autos, no picture shows, no radio, no bicycles, not even soda pop or slot machines. Here is a list of some of the entertainment: There were religious meetings weekly at the schoolhouse. In the fall there was a camp meeting, lasting from 3 to 6 weeks; debating societies; baseball or town ball, horse races, foot races, wrestling matches, dances and parties; now and then a circus; spelling school or spelling matches, for there was keen rivalry between schools about as there is now in basketball. There were always large crowds and they came a long distance. Some of the strange names now seldom heard were Lions (Lynds) Wolfs, Foxes and Coons.

Modern Four Mile has lost its old time charm. There is only a dry ditch now where the crystal stream used to flow. There was a good swimming hole at almost every bend. The axe and dry weather the past few years have removed most of the timber. Those stately oaks and walnuts that were the pride of the pioneers are gone. There was a giant walnut on the Meshing farm later owned by Louis Stalder. Because of its size and fine proportions it escaped the axe, but when the log buyers offered $100 per thousand feet, Mr. Stalder somewhat reluctantly yielded. Before he cut it down he walked around it two or three times to take a last look at the towering monarch. It was probably 200 years old. It cut four 14-foot logs to the first limb.

The only thing that's left and hasn't been tampered with is Jungfrau hill on the Christ Minger place. It was named after one of the famous Alps in Switzerland. This Jungfrau is just south of the state line between little and big Four Mile. It's all alone and looks as if it had been dumped in there with a giant steam shovel.

Four Mile has gone modern.

1. The Christ Minger house was moved in 1976 to the Albany Historical Museum, two miles north of Sabetha.

donated by John Minger, grandson of the author.