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Centennial History Book

In the beginning there was KEYSTONE.

In the southwest corner of Dawson County on sloping land that lies on the north and south sides of Plum Creek is the village of Farnam, Nebraska. It is richly endowed with approximately two hundred thirty-six residents within the village limits and about two hundred fifty residents in its surrounding communities.

But before we begin the history of Farnam, it is necessary to go back a few years to the settlement of Keystone which was located in Section 33, Township 9, and Range 25. Keystone, situated two miles east of where Farnam is located today, was the original site of these early settlers of Farnam who later moved their worldly possessions including some of their buildings to Farnam.

On a spring day, in April, 1883, a group of eleven people arrived by train from Bradford, Pennsylvania in Plum Creek, now known as Lexington. They bought horses and wagons in Lexington and loaded their possessions they had brought with them, and started out to the southwest for the Keystone area on April 16th, 1883. Going south out of Plum Creek they crossed a bridge that was nearly a mile in length. This bridge had been completed and dedicated on July 4th, 1873. From there they followed trails in a southwesterly direction that led them to the land north of where Eustis now stands. Driving their teams in a more westerly direction they came to the section of land that was to be the location of Keystone.

They were looking for some land to homestead that would be near a railroad. The railroad would provide transportation for their new community. It would take their products out and bring in supplies that they would need. It would bring in more people, too; some to work and others to settle the land. In order to locate the south line of Dawson County, the group had to get a Union Pacific surveyor to make a survey from the west boundary of Gosper County to the southwest corner of Lincoln County. From this line, settlers were able to locate their claims.

The eleven people who had journeyed from Pennsylvania to take up land in the southwest corner of Dawson County were: M. B. Taylor, R. T. Thompson, Wm. Willis, John Mahan, Robert Blackman, Dr. C. D. Buss, Mr. Hewitt, John Hunt, Jacob Seager, M. J. Tufts, and daughter, Dora. This group of pioneers filed claims on this government land May 11, 1883, at the North Platte land office. They drew lots for the railroad sections, taking up homesteads and tree claims joining the railroad land near there. With what they could file on and with the amount purchased they had forty sections of land in all.

One section with the legal description 33-9-25 was set aside for the town of Keystone. The town of Keystone was laid out with its main street running east and west. It had eleven blocks that were laid out north of Main Street and three blocks south of Main Street. In the spring of 1884, a well was drilled in about the center of the section. By late 1884 a post office-store, hotel and a blacksmith shop were built in Keystone.

As is often the case, not all of the eleven settlers were able to carry out their plans in Keystone and the surrounding countryside. For reasons of health, hardships and greener pastures, six of them returned to the East. Those returning were John Mahan, Robert Blackman, John Hunt, Jacob Seager, Mr. Hewitt, and Dr. C. D. Buss. Dr. Buss returned to Bradford, Pennsylvania within a short time after coming here to resume his practice in that location. He was a noted eye, ear, and nose specialist. Later, he became president of the Western Pennsylvania Medical Association. Some years later his son, Myron, journeyed to Farnam and worked in the Best Place, a large general store in Farnam, for some two years while that business was in operation.

Of those early settlers who stayed, M. B. Taylor brought his family, Mrs. Taylor and small son, Harry B., to their new home in the spring of 1884, and located on Section 34, Township 9, and Range 25.

R. T. Thompson, a bachelor, homesteaded on part of Section 28, Township 9, and Range 25. Although a bachelor he was an ardent worker for a school and for the improvement of the country in any way possible. He died at his home in Lexington in 1890.

The family of Wm. Willis, Mrs. Willis and daughters, Ella and Maud, and mother-in-law, Mrs. Pratt, arrived in September, 1883. They located on part of Section 19-9-25. Ella passed away the next spring in April. Mr. and Mrs. Willis and Mrs. Pratt all passed away a few years later. According to the Farnam Echo dated July 30, 1936, Maud Willis, who was then Mrs. Merton Smith, along with her husband, Mr. Smith and son, Willis, resided at Boise, Idaho.

In July, 1883, Mr. Tufts and his daughter, Dora, returned east and remained until September when they returned accompanied by Mrs. Tufts and little daughter, Minnie, and Mrs. Tufts’ brother, "Uncle" Sam Wyckoff. The M. J. Tufts located on part of Section 20-9-25, while Dora Tufts took up the north half of the same section.

Getting settled on their claims and filing for their claims was not the only business of the day being transacted. Some were taking time to incorporate to improve their town. On a document filed July 24, 1884, the Keystone Improvement Company drew up Articles of Incorporation with the following stipulations.

         Articles of Incorporation
        Keystone Improvement Company
     Section 33 - Township 9 - Range 25

Capital Stock.......................$10,000.00
Shares shall be..........................25.00
Number shares............................. 400

The corporation can do business when fifty
percent capital stock issued.
Maximum Corporation debt authorized $2,000.00.
Can transact business any place in Keystone.
Duration of corporation shall be fifty years.
Dated April 1st, 1884
M. J. Tufts                      J. H. MacColl
Dora F. Tufts                  Mrs. Wm. Willis
R. T. Thompson

This drawing of the section set aside for the town of Keystone shows that the original plan allotted the northeast quarter of the southwest quarter of the section, the southeast quarter of the northwest quarter of the section, the southwest quarter of the northeast quarter of the section, and the northwest quarter of the southeast quarter of section 33 of township 9 and range 25 to be the site of Keystone, an area around the center of the section.

The first title of this land was made out to the Union Pacific Railroad from the United States Government. (By Benjamin Harrison, President) Dated April 9,1881. The U.P.R.R. sold to the Keystone Improvement Company on May 29, 1884. The Keystone Improvement Company sold it to Dora F. Johnston and Wm. M. Johnston on February 26, 1885 with a Quit Claim Deed.

The Keystone Improvement Company sold to the public on October 1, 1885.

At a meeting of the stockholders of the Keystone Improvement Company held at Gothenburg, January 22, 1885, the following officers were elected: M. B. Taylor, president, and R. T. Thompson, secretary-treasurer.

A mail route from Lexington was established in early 1885 when the Keystone Post Office was opened in the store building. "Cap Smith was postmaster. Previous to that, whoever went to Plum Creek brought the mail for the settlement and left it at the store and everybody sorted it over and took what they considered theirs. If some mail was not claimed in Lexington, the pieces of mail were advertised in the Lexington paper so that the people could pick them up.

A school district was organized November 30, 1886. To get the school district organized a petition needed to be circulated. According to W. M. Stebbins who arrived in Keystone in April of 1884, one of the first things that commanded the attention of the early settlers was the question of a school, so in the spring of 1885, he and Mr. Taylor drove all over the school district, then No. 29, which comprised most of the southwest part of the county south of the Platte River as far east as Cozad, and circulated a petition to have the district divided so that we could get better school facilities, for at this time there was talk of a railroad going through and the settlers feared that if it did, they would have a hard time to get the division so they decided to circulate the petition and get the district divided before the railroad came through. W. M. Stebbins and M. B. Taylor secured the necessary signers and thus District 51 which comprised at first all of township 9 in the southwest corner of the county was formed. The first school board of this district was: W. L. DeClow, director, E. T. Buss, the treasurer and R. R. Teemley, was the moderator.

In 1885 another store building was. erected by Castile and Anderson and a fair sized stock of goods was carried.

Dr. W. P. Smith put a small stock of drugs in the "Cap" Smith store, which he afterwards traded to E. B. Dunham, who came from Illinois. Anthony Garven had a blacksmith shop.

Keystone kept progressing. Trees were planted, sod was broken, crops were planted, and sod houses and dugouts were more numerous in the surrounding sections of land. More pioneers came to settle around Keystone, while others went on their ways farther to the west, south or north. Keystone was alive with activity.

The Keystone school building was built a little more than a fourth of a mile north of the main street on Keystone. It was built of sod with a board floor, homemade desks, and the roof was sod laid over boards with tar paper between the boards and sod.

The first teacher was W. M. Stebbins. He taught the first two terms in this little school house while he lived in his homestead, which was only about forty rods away from the school house. Two terms were taught in the first year. This was accomplished by completing the first term during the winter months and then shortly after the term closed, it was decided to hold another term in order that the children might catch up with their schooling that had been neglected the year before due to their not having any school in this new country to which they had come. Mr. Stebbins’ salary was $35.00 per month and in order to get his pay check he had to ride horseback to the home of the director, Wm. Walker, who lived about straight north of Eustis, and then he had to go to the other member, L. W. Zook, whose home was over on the valley farther north. The next term was taught by Miss Strickland, who was later Mrs. John Jack of near Eustis, and the fourth and last term taught at Keystone was by Miss Jennie Mann, who came here from New York state and lived with her sister, Mrs. W. L. DeClow. This last term is the only one for which any records could be found, and under the teacher’s reports on file at Lexington in the county superintendent’s office is the report of Miss Mann which shows that she taught two months in the fall of 1887, and that there were five boys and one girl, between the ages of five and sixteen years, who attended. However, in the director’s reports, also, in the County Superintendent’s office it shows that E. T. Buss also, taught five months during that same year in Anthony Garven’s hall. School was held in rooms over the hardware store. The director’s report is dated July 16, 1888 and is signed by M. B. Taylor.

The following is another account of school at the Keystone settlement. This is, also, taken from the Farnam Echo dated July 30, 1936. It is a report written by Mrs. John Jack of Eustis, the former Adele C. Strickland, who taught Keystone School in 1887. This was after Farnam was established. The school was still being used at Keystone.

"I came to Nebraska in 1884. After teaching two years in Elm Creek, I purchased the relinquishment of a claim in Dawson County, a few miles east of Farnam. I soon found out the solitude of holding down a claim, its novelty and charms had faded and in 1887 I applied and secured the school at Keystone. (I think that must have been the name of the post office there of an early day.) The land around had all been taken and settled on, so it was not so extremely new. A country store kept by Anderson’s was in the distance and the school house, it had no crown top belfry, but a bright outlook, at that time. I did not admire the epithet given it, "the little old sod school house", it was not that, it was new, cool and enduring, if you please.

The Board members were Will DeClow, R. Teemley and Elmer Buss. A four months term at $25 per month. The names of the pupils enrolled were Harry Taylor, Minnie Tufts, Edith Grooms, Bess and Pearl Grooms, Willie, Julia and Clarence Balser, and I think two or three of the Baker children.

One thing I distinctly remember was the mixture of school books, but we were soon adapted even to that problem, and it was a typical western school. The pupils had been well disciplined, consequently, not many had to be censured. They came quite regularly, which was a good indication that they enjoyed their school. Fifty years is a long time, much longer than the average life.

This last spring I had the occasion to go over the old road; in glancing over the erstwhile long trail, I marveled that we ever attempted such almost impossible walks.

The pupils of that day! Some have "passed on", the early pioneers, all are gone! For hospitality and generosity they had no equal. The animate was so much above the inanimate mind, so much above matter that the spirit of the real honest-togoodness things of life were discriminated to those around them. Only their memory remains, and I often wonder in the fevered rush of living in this twentieth century civilization if we ponder or realize the first cost of what we enjoy and call our own, their works follow them more hastily than the silent granites."

One of the big events and probably the first which took place among the Keystone settlement residents was the marriage of Miss Dora Tufts to Mr. W. M. Johnston of McLean County, Pennsylvania on May 28, 1884, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at Plum Creek (now Lexington). After the ceremony the Plum Creek cornet band serenaded the party. The happy couple left by train for a visit in the East, returning in the fall to take up their home, which was the north half of section 22-9-25. They lived in a soddie, a nice one of which they were proud, for nine years. This was followed by four years of living in a granary on their land until they built a comfortable frame house.

Getting together with friends, relatives and neighbors has always been a happy occasion and one that creates anticipation and finally that of a job well done as this get together is that is described by W. M. Stebbins in the July 30th, 1936 issue of the Farnam Echo.

"Probably our closest ’get-together’ happened on our second Thanksgiving spent in this new country. This was on the 26th of November, 1885. As there were so many more young men here than there were young ladies, we young bachelors decided to have a ‘bachelors’ Thanksgiving Dinner’, to be prepared entirely by the ‘Bachelors’ themselves. Each was to bring his potion to the E. T. Buss home, he having by this time built himself a nice, new soddie which stood in the center of the section. All but about four of the fellows were from 21 to 23 years of age and all but one or two of these boys were homesteaders, and as I remember they were: Harry Hall, S. F. Parker, W. G. Parker, J. 0. Tillotson, R. R. Teemley, Chas. Fox, W. L. DeClow, E. T. Buss, W. M. Stebbins, Chas. Smith, Milton Stebbins, Geno Wood, Jack Colligan, Tom Colligan, Norman McDonald, George Elliot, Will Hunt, Frank Hawkenberry, Friend Henderson, Tom McCarty, Henry Lynch, Abe Parsons, Jack Ridge, James Berwick, J. P. Burrows, Ed Thompson and Dave Seth and possibly there were others that I do not recall.

We made a long table with boards and prepared this meal without any aid from anyone of the fairer sex. It was a delectable Thanksgiving Dinner, some of the specialities served being, mock mince pies, frosted cakes, and a dishpan full of fried doughnuts. We also had a program of songs, speaking, etc., one reading especially lingering in my mind being a poem written and read by Geno Wood, a young lawyer and homesteader at that time, now living in Virginia. The papers of the county and the daily papers of the state gave this dinner a fine write up, calling the attention of the young ladies of the east of these lonesome homesteaders who had to do their own cooking and housekeeping."

Every community has problems of some sort or another and Keystone was not any different from any other community. One of its big problems for a time was that of finding water for drinking purposes, for washing, and for their livestock. The wells for water ranged from two hundred to four hundred feet deep. Many settlers hauled water from the Platte River in those early days when the holes and lagoons were dry. Mrs. Dora Johnston related in the Farnam Echo of July 30, 1936, an incident that happened quite often when they were getting water. "The first winter while getting water on the Platte River, Father would drive about eighteen miles in the lumber wagon to the edge of the water and dip buckets of water and hand to me, and in turn I would dump it into large barrels used for that purpose. By the time we had a load, our clothes were frozen so stiff that it was with difficulty we would get seated, ready to drive the many miles back to Keystone where large numbers would be waiting thirsty for their portion of water."

The first well put down in Keystone was by M. J. Tufts in the spring of 1884. This well was dug by Hugh Brott, a homesteader north of Eustis. It was three hundred twenty-five feet deep. In the summer of 1884, a Mr. Watkins came from Bradford, Pennsylvania, with an oil drilling machine and put down the first drilled well on the Keystone Townsite Section. This was a public well, for everyone to use. The next wells drilled by Mr. Watkins were for M. B. Taylor and William Willis. With these wells finished that summer there was no more scarcity of water for these early settlers. Many of the early settlers could not afford to dig a cistern.

Another problem that the Keystone settlers shared with other pioneers was that of diseases. However, everyone was willing to help in any way in which they could. This account is an example of the way in which they cared and helped one another. "In the first year that the settlers were in Keystone, Mr. Buss was stricken with typhoid fever and was very ill. He was taken to the M. J. Tufts’ home where he was nursed through this illness. Three different times, I remember," related W. M. Stebbins, "we had to drive with team and wagon to Lexington for a doctor, bringing him up one day or night and taking him back the next. One evening I shall not forget was when I went to do the chores for Mr. Buss, during his illness, and it became very dark before I got back, so Mrs. Tufts, fearing I would get lost in returning, went upstairs and hung out a lantern that I might be guided safely back across this new prairie."

In the 1880’s a railroad was being built across Nebraska. It was the Burlington Missouri that would come across central Nebraska and serve southwestern Dawson County. The earliest thought of a possibility of a railroad for these people of the Keystone settlement was in March of 1884, when Mr. Billings, a topographical surveyor came by on horseback with a well equipped saddle of surveyor’s instruments and stayed all night at the M. J. Tufts’ home. After riding from Hastings and not passing many settlers’ homes, he appreciated the comforts of the barn, because this is where the family was living - in the haymow -- while they were waiting for their frame home to be finished. Before leaving he assured Mr. Tufts of a railroad before long. So it was in the winter of 1885 that work was started on the railroad in what is known as the Murphy Cut and the big cut west of the high bridge in Deer Creek. The settlers had agreed that they would pull together and thought that the railroad would establish their station at Keystone, when it went through. In 1885 and 1886 two Keystone citizens, M. J. Tufts and R. T. Thompson took a contract to supply all of the camps between Eustis and Curtis with fresh meat. They hired a butcher and erected a slaughter house on Mr. Tufts’ farm where they butchered hundreds of beefs, hogs and sheep. They delivered the meat in a covered wagon which was fitted like a butcher shop with hooks along the side and a meat block for cutting the meat. Everything seemed to be progressing nicely. The railroad was completed to the Farnam Townsite which had been laid out in cooperation with the Lincoln Townsite Company of Lincoln. Nebraska. R. 0. Phillips was the president of this company. The first train was to arrive on regular schedule. It came on the evening of July 20th, 1886, carrying one passenger, a contractor working on the road and who had a camp just west of Farnam. A group of homesteaders and business men of Keystone which included Bob Castile, John Castile, Levie Anderson, W. L. DeClow, E. T. Buss, Frank Hawkenberry, Lou Tonne and others with a small band, guns, and a cow bell were there to welcome the train which was going to begin giv ing the community regular service from that day on. As the train pulled in, the trainmen blew the whistle and rang the bell while the band played, the guns boomed and the cow bell rattled. It was a very happy occasion for all present and for the entire community. An associated dispatch was written and sent back by the train crew which, however, stayed overnight in Farnam, returning to Holdrege the next morning. This dispatch was for the Daily Press of the day and was published in the leading papers of the state, giving an account of the celebration of the arrival of the first train at Farnam, Nebraska. This was a happy occasion for it meant linking the East with the West, lower freight rates, and transportation for the people of Keystone - bringing supplies and more people into the area. The Keystone settlers, also, wanted to impress the railroad officials, so they, in turn, would use Keystone as their depot. Farnam was the end of the road for several weeks, until the heavy grading was completed on the Deer Creek canyon. The crews continued laying tracks farther west and much to the disappointment of the residents of Keystone, land from the Farnam townsite was purchased by the railroad for a turntable for the supply trains and also a supply depot. This was located about five hundred feet west of where the Farnam Depot was eventually built. The people of Keystone knew that there would never be a chance for their town to make it without the railroad. Whatever it was that made the officials of the railroad choose the western site - some say there were disagreements between the railroad officials and the residents of Keystone; some say the Farnam site was bought at a lower price than what the Keystone residents wanted for their land - whatever it was the settlers of Keystone knew there was only one thing they could do now, and that was to move to the new site. They packed their belongings and even prepared the buildings that had been a part of this thriving little community to be moved to the new site that was several miles to the west.

One building stayed on the section of Keystone. It was the hotel. J. B. Kitchen moved it to the west side of the section and used it for a home for his family. There was one store, too, that remained longer than the other businesses. It was run by Anderson for a while and then later moved to the new site. The little sod school house was in use for a year more, but frame

school houses were beginning to be built in the community so it was left to return to the soil from which it had been built only a few short years before. The little community of Keystone that was alive with activity was no more, but the people who had made up this community were determined to make their new community prosper whether or not they carried any ill feelings toward the railroad officials. They had come too far and had worked too hard to let a few miles come between them and their hopes and ambitions.

Published: 2/7/2023 -
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