We don't get to choose when or where we are born. If World War II had not ended at the time that it did, I might have been born in sunny California instead of a small village in the sandhills of northern Nebraska.
My parents eloped in 1937 amidst family disapproval of their relationship. They both earned their BA degrees in education and began their teaching careers, though my mother's was stopped short by the beginning of a family. They lived in Harvard, Nebraska; then Norfolk, Nebraska; and then Santa Ana, California, where my father had accepted a teaching job with Santa Ana Junior College. Born and bred in Nebraska, my parents had made a huge decision to move from their home state to a new world in California.
After arriving in California, things began well enough, but Pearl Harbour had brought the United States into the war and, by March of 1943, my father felt the need to do something for the war effort — this preyed on his mind until he finally decided he had to quit teaching and do something else.
This is the letter he wrote to the president of the college:
My father went to work for Douglas Aircraft building airplanes — C47's, C47 Transports, and A-26 Bombers. He held a supervisory position and stayed there for the duration of the war. My father would always speak of these years with pride. He sent this print to his younger brother to show him one of the airplanes that he helped to build.
By August of 1945, the world breathed a huge sigh of relief and began a healing process that perhaps never ended. Victory in Europe had occurred in May, and Victory in Japan happened after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. It doesn't seem like a particularly fortuitous time to be born, yet I'm sure there was a sense of elation in my parents that the war was over and my dad was going to return to his chosen profession. A New World Order had begun — hopefully.
Once VJ Day was declared, my parents went into action. Knowing my dad, he probably had a plan all laid out in his mind beforehand. With my mother eight months pregnant (with me) and my three older siblings — 6, 4, and 2 — they packed their bags and their belongings, and headed back to their home state of Nebraska.
After attending a job seminar in Lincoln, my father found a job as superintendent of schools in Wood Lake, Nebraska, and the family moved there without delay, as the school year had already started.
Wood Lake is a small village in Cherry County, Nebraska, located in the northern part of the state in an area known as the Sandhills. To my mother, it must have seemed that we had gone to the ends of the earth. The town today has only about 65 people living in it; it was much larger in 1945, but definitely not faring as well as it had during the heydays of cattle and railroads.
Of course, the small village began because of the railroad — the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad established in 1869 in Nebraska, to be exact, which later became the Chicago and North Western — which by 1882 had made it to a small lake surrounded by cottonwood trees. At first, it was named 'Cottonwood Lake,' but people got lazy and reduced it to "Wood Lake". It became the first (and therefore oldest) town in Cherry County.
Low-rolling hills surround Wood Lake and, in the beginning, they were covered with native grass. To new pioneers entering the area, it was perfect for raising cattle. Located south of the Niobrara River, water was relatively easy to get as well. It didn't take long for ranches and cattle to arrive and, seemingly overnight, Wood Lake became the largest cattle shipping town on the railroad.
To accommodate the large shipping of cattle, the railroad built a large stockyard in Wood Lake which included chutes for the cattle to climb into and up onto the train. In addition to the local ranchers, cattle drives from as far away as Texas from the south and the Dakotas from the north headed to Wood Lake to get the cattle on board for Omaha. Wood Lake would be a quiet little village until the cowboys and the cattle came to town to meet the train. The cowboys wanted to celebrate, the cattle complained of their confinement, and the trains came in and out on a daily basis.
This small article from the Nebraska Government Website reveals that not all were enthusiastic about opening up the Sandhills area:
""Free Homes!" advertised the poster sent to H. F. McIntosh, editor of the Western Stockman and Cultivator in August of 1892. "Free Homes! For the Hundred Thousand on the line of the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad." Antelope, Boyd, Holt, Rock, Brown, Cherry, Sheridan, and Dawes counties, Nebraska, were listed as the sites of free government land still available for selection. ...
"However, McIntosh ... was skeptical of the inducements offered to prospective settlers by the railroad and explained his point of view in the Stockman and Cultivator on August 15.
"McIntosh ... wrote: 'The whole scheme is well designed to lead honest home seekers astray, to locate them in a wilderness or to get 'one fare for the round trip' out of their scant savings and send them home disgusted with Nebraska.
"[He added]'The facts in regard to the inducements held out in this poster are as follows:
- 'There is not a quarter section of free government land in Nebraska that will furnish a living for anything more domestic than the coyote.
- 'The counties in which this free land is advertised are made up of two kinds of soil, small fertile spots along a stream or lake and sand hills where nothing but a sparse covering of blue stem grass grows.
"That section of Nebraska, on its fertile soil, grows a fair crop about once in every six years and the rest of the time the settlers run neck and neck with starvation.
"McIntosh concluded: 'Out here in Nebraska it is considered 'bad business policy' to tell the truth about some things. But in this case it is certainly much worse to fail to tell the truth and permit hundreds of people to be taken into a section of our state which is not farming land but merely a range country.'"
Despite the naysayers, Wood Lake thrived at first. It built is own power plant, installed a telephone system and developed a water system. By 1920, Wood Lake had reached its peak population — but it never got any bigger.
The town was hit hard by the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression and drought that followed. By the mid-1930's, many were forced to leave, and many more left when World War II started.
Thus, the glory days were long gone by the time my parents and siblings arrived in Wood Lake in September of 1945. Already the railroads were being replaced by semi-trucks on highways. Although the stockyards and depot —and trains — were still there in 1945, they would be mostly gone by the early 1950's. My father, however, worried about the train which came in at night and parked over the main highway leading out of Wood Lake to Valentine (which is where he would have to take my mother to give birth to me).
When my father arrived, School District No. 7 was in fairly good shape, though it was no doubt greatly reduced in numbers from the 1920's. Although many young men were still away on military service, there were families left behind and the school accommodated them. It had begun as a one-room school in 1883. Two years later, a two-story frame school was built, and a brick building was erected in 1929 — my dad is standing in front of it in the photograph.
Dad was there when the district and the town were already waning — and I am sure that my parents saw it as a stopping point before moving on to someplace bigger — and better. He didn't know it, of course, but the high school would close in less than ten years. In 1963, when enrollment dwindled, a consolidated district brought students in by bus from other areas.
We had not been in Wood Lake for more than six weeks, when it was clear that my arrival was imminent. Rather than risking any problems of getting past a train parked on the tracks, my father drove my mother (and me) to Valentine early enough that there was no problem with the train.
The Valentine Hospital is mentioned in the two-volume set of A Sandhills Century which is a history of Cherry County. A photograph of it is on page 288 of that volume. This photograph, however, was (I believe) taken by my father. The hospital was built in 1913 and closed in 1916. It was opened again by the Red Cross during the flu epidemic of World War I. Over the next several years — from 1918 to 1950 — it was run by either individual families or by companies. The name was eventually changed to the Sandhills General Hospital, and additions were added in 1967. As far as I know, it's still in use today.
I was born on October 4, 1945, in the Valentine Hospital. My parents sent out my birth announcement shortly after. I was their fourth child, things were pretty bleak in the Sandhills, and I think they were anxious to not stay long there.
Although my family did not live in Valentine, it's worth noting a bit of its history, while showing on the side the newspaper article which announced my father's resignation:
Incorporated as a village in 1845, Valentine is located in a valley created by the Niobrara River, a tributary of the Missouri River. It has a backdrop of cliffs and pine trees. The largest waterfall in Nebraska, Snake River Falls, is located near Valentine. Smith Falls, the tallest waterfall in Nebraska, is located on a small tributary to the Niobrara River — about 24 kilometres east of Valentine — in Smith Falls State Park. My father liked to take Sunday drives, but when we were young, and he had so many things to do, I doubt he had much time to take his family to these falls.
In the 1880's, Valentine began as a one-room log house, sitting near the river. Like nearby Wood Lake it was the railroad that made Valentine a viable place to live.
Like H.F. Murdoch, early explorers did not think that the Sandhills were inhabitable, and so not many came. But, like Wood Lake, ranchers came to the area and used the railroad to transport their beef east. Valentine developed a reputation as being "wild and crazy" — outlaws roamed the area, including Doc Middleton who is perhaps the best known.
Several native American tribes — the Sioux and Pawnee primarily — knew this area long before the Europeans did. They hunted antelope, deer, and buffalo. As white men came, there were the inevitable clashes. Eventually, the federal government felt that the Indians needed protection from the white settlers who were encroaching on the Indians' reservation. They built a Fort on the Niobrara River to try to keep the peace.
The city was named for Edward K. Valentine, who was a congressman from Nebraska from 1879 to 1885. During that time, he was the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and worked to get local grievances settled by the federal government.
Wood Lake was not where my father wanted to be — I am sure he always considered it temporary — and my mother was weary with four young children and living in an old house. My father went looking for another job and he left Wood Lake in April to teach at Fairbury Junior College in Fairbury, Nebraska.
At just six months of age, I went with my mother and siblings to Hastings — we lived with my grandparents until housing was found for us in Fairbury. As one can see by the newspaper article, my dad left his mark, short time though it was. That was something he was bound to do, wherever he went. I have never returned to the Sandhills, unfortunately.
In no particular order, here are other personal articles I have written: