Biography of John Ziska of Fillmore County

John Ziska came from Bohemia in 1853, bringing with him his wife and family. In the old country he had been a coachman for a Baron; who in appreciation of his faithful services promoted him to the position of an overseer over the serfs on his estate. Owing to the doing away of serf labor and the unsettled condition of things in Bohemia he decided to come to America, and after a six weeks sea voyage arrived safely in this country, and then made his way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When looking around for a location and something to do; a Jew who was known to Mr. Ziska advised him to buy fifteen acres of swamp land near Milwaukee; he could then cut the wood and sell it for a living. The suggestion was anything but acceptable at that time, and was therefore declined, but that same land is now the center of the city which shows that it would have been a good investment.

He bought 120 acres of land about thirty miles south of Milwaukee on the Fox River in Racine County, and farmed it for ten years. Some friends at that time visited the Ziska farm from the St. Louis coal fields, and the reports given by them regarding the work and wages there seemed so much of an improvement on farming; that he decided to sell his farm, stock and implements and try mining. He made his way to the coal mines where he worked for seven years, at the end of which time he had made no progress but was in fact, financially poorer as a result of his venture. In the spring of 1869 he came up the Missouri river on a steamboat to Nebraska City, and was nine days on the trip. He then bought two yoke of oxen, an old government wagon, besides other things and started out west. He had met a fellow countryman in Nebraska City from whom he received information about the country, and having left his family near the Blue River he made his way west on foot, and secured some land on the county line in Fillmore County. Having returned after his family they came to the new location on the tenth day of May 1869, renting an old dugout on the other side of the line in Saline County until their own dugout was ready. He soon commenced breaking, and had twenty five acres ready for sowing; when he went to Lincoln for provisions, and while there he filed for his eighty acres on Section 24, Town 7, Range 1 West.

They moved onto the claim in September, and on the night of their removal there was a great flood, the Turkey creek became half a mile wide causing the loss of much property and many cattle. One poor woman lost her cow and calf which were all she possessed, so the Ziskas and other neighbors helped her over her troubles. Two years later this same woman whose husband was a carpenter and was away working at Nebraska City, had her cow stolen, and was given help by these friends.

There was another neighbor for whom Mr. Ziska ploughed some land and sowed it to wheat without making any charge so as to help him along, but who, when Mr. Ziska needed the loan of a plough and asked him for this favor refused, saying, “He did not wish to have his plough dulled.” How often it is that people fail to learn that “One good turn deserves another.”

The last buffalo killed in Fillmore county was in 1868, two Indians followed him down the Turkey creek and killed him where what afterwards became the Ziska homestead.

Dan Dillan who homesteaded in 1868 on the same section as Ziska, was the only white man they knew of in Fillmore county when they came. Mr. Ziska had put in fifteen acres of buckwheat, and then went to Lincoln leaving Fred at home to drag the land. Dan Dillon had a pair of Texas cattle and two other large oxen, and these came over and hooked the Ziska cattle very badly which scared Fred very much. His mother was advised by the neighbors to get some turpentine to put on the injured oxen, so she sent him a journey of eighteen miles on foot to get twenty-five cents worth. He reached home again about nine o’clock at night, and was so stiff and sore that he could not get out of bed the next morning. The remembrance of this experience has always prevented his forgetting the time when he was fourteen years of age, and that his mother needed turpentine for the oxen.

In 1869 the Shawnee Indians made a raid through the country; they had reached Hebron and it was reported they were coming down the Little Blue, everybody in the district had packed up ready to make an escape; when some of them went over to investigate the matter, and found that the Indians had gone home after killing some men and stealing thirteen head of horses. This was the last raid made by the Indians in this part of the country.

One winter an Indian visited the Ziska home, the snow lay thick on the ground, and the Indian by his motions indicated his desire for a place to lie down. After some hesitation they let him come into the house to stay overnight, giving him some supper and a straw bed on the floor. The Indian who was evidently out hunting carried a rifle, which they thought looked rather suspicious, so Mr. Ziska put his own gun by the side of his bed and his revolver under the pillow so as to be ready for any emergency. Neither Mr. Ziska nor the Indian slept much that night, they were evidently too much afraid of each other, and when the Indian left the house next morning and was about twenty rods away; he fired off his gun which they thought was a signal for something serious, but nothing happened, so the Indian left and the reason for firing off his gun in that way was best known to himself.

In later years he bought half a section of railroad land and divided it between his two sons, Fred M. and Frank, giving them also the grain for the first year, after which they were to “paddle their own canoes.” It meant hard work for the boys to pay interest and taxes, with corn selling at 7 to 10 cents and wheat 35 to 50 cents a bushel. So Fred farmed for only two years and then entered into the dry goods business, going to Crete to learn the secrets of the trade during the* years 187375. He next entered the Faling Brothers Store in Exeter, invoicing the stock, the business coming into the possession of Peter Faling; the other brother going west to Cambridge. Mr. Fred Ziska married in 1878, and after working in Faling’s store for two years, he sold his farm and went into business with Fred Wright a druggist who also had worked in Paling’s store. After a sixteen months partnership Mr. Wright sold his interest in the business to Mr. Ziska, and went east to Friendship, N. Y., at the urgent request of his parents. He had a business there for a short time but did not like it, and had already made up his mind to return to Exeter when he unfortunately contracted typhoid fever and died.

Mr. Fred Ziska remembers well the struggles of his parents in those pioneer days, and can appreciate to the full the changed conditions of life in this community. One time the Turkey creek was so high they could not get to the mill, and were out of flour, so they made some kind of a grater out of tin, and made corn meal “Jonny cake” was a special luxury those days. He was at the organization of the County, then came the making of the School Districts, and the erection of the first school house, the tax assessed which was mostly for educational purposes was $80 a quarter section. Mr. William Dyer, a homesteader alongside of the Ziska place was the first school teacher of their district.


Pioneer Stories of the Pioneers of Fillmore and adjoining Counties, by G. R. McKeith, Press of Fillmore County News, Exeter, Nebraska, 1915.

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