The Old West is only a memory away for many Nebraskans. Growing up on a sugarbeet and bean farm in western Nebraska in the 1940s and 50s, I had only to step out the front door of our farm house to find myself in the heart of what had once been Indian Territory.
From the front steps of our house, I could see Signal Butte and the Wildcat Hills just a few miles to the south. On a clear day, we could make out the hazy blue profile of Laramie Peak etched above the Wyoming landscape. A dozen miles north, near the little sugarbeet factory town of Lyman, was the site of the famous Horse Creek Treaty, where in the 1850s the U.S. Government had forged a treaty with surrounding Indian tribes to assure safe passage for immigrants on the nearby Oregon and Mormon Trails.
Indian history and Indian lore was all around me. Kiowa Creek, fed by spring water flowing from the nearby Wildcat Hills, ran through a corner of the pasture behind our farm house. And my two younger brothers and I went through the eighth grade at the two-room Kiowa School three miles away, the same school that our mother and her brother and sisters had attended a generation before.
My mother's parents, George and Edna Meier, had migrated to Scottsbluff County in the early 1900s from Illinois, my grandmother arriving by a horse-drawn wagon team, my grandfather by train. They soon married, filed on a homestead, and began a long and successful life as farmers. On my father's side, the Schleichers were German immigrants who had been lured to Russia by the promise of free land. When they discovered that Russia wasn't quite the mecca they expected, they crossed to the Bering Sea, voyaged by ship to Canada, and migrated south into Nebraska.
Compared to many of our neighbors, my family were relative newcomers to Nebraska. Chuck Carson, who farmed a neighboring place, was a direct descendant of Kit Carson. A mile or so in the other direction were the Lowreys, whose ancestors had arrived in the area by horseback in the 1800s. Bud Lowrey told stories of his great grandfather scouting the area by horseback and coming across the body of an Indian who had been laid to rest in a tree at the base of the hills. And I still remember going with my mother to buy eggs from an elderly lady who told us of the days when Indians would ride their ponies up to her front door asking for food.
While the days of roaming bands of Kiowa and Sioux Indians were long past, signs of their presence were still very much present. I found my first arrowhead one day while carrying trash to the burning barrel. After that, I hightailed it for the winter wheat fields after each wind storm, searching for the flint artifacts that the scouring winds had exposed. My collection of arrowhead and hide scrapers soon began to grow, and I still have and treasure it to this day.
One day, not long after I'd started high school in Morrill, Nebraska, I heard about a local farmer just across the state line in Wyoming who'd been plowing up a piece of virgin sod, and had uncovered what he believed to be an Indian burial. Figuring this could prove to be an excellent addition to my small private museum, I called him and asked if I could come gather the bones. No, he told me, he had already reburied them, and there they would stay. Probably for the best, as I'm fairly certain my mother would have refused to allow them in the house anyway.
Today, Kiowa Creek still meanders down from the Wildcat Hills, and threads its way through farm fields and pastures on its route to the North Platte River. But little Kiowa School is long gone, its students grown to become farmers and merchants, railroaders and engineers, and yes, even writers.
Sometimes, as I spent long and solitary summer days hoeing long rows of beans or irrigating the sugarbeet fields, I would catch sight of the contrail of a jet airliner winging across the sky to some unimagined destination. And I would dream of someday being one of those people who lived in and traveled to exciting cities. Places where no one wore rubber irrigation boots. Where no one had to hoe weeds. And where no one knew what a siphon tube was.
Sometimes dreams come true, and after college I began a career as a journalist and writer. But, yes, there are times when I miss those pale blue skies, and the smell of a freshly mown hayfield. I miss the views of the Wildcat Hills, the start of the pheasant hunting season, and the pink blooms on the pincushion cactus that grew in the back pasture. Maybe it wasn't such a bad place to grow up after all.
Jerry is a writer and public relations consultant specializing in aviation and agribusiness technology
|© Oldtime Nebraska, 2000 -- When the Kiowa Indians were more than place names -- submitted by Jerry Schleicher, December 1998|