Mr. and Mrs. James Nolan of Fillmore County

Mr. and Mrs. James Nolan, now of Cambridge, Nebraska, were among the pioneer settlers of Fillmore County, having come by wagon from Iowa, and settled on a homestead six miles south of Exeter, on June 12, 1871.

They brought along with them nine head of cattle and four horses, and were fortunate in having also a good supply of meat and provisions which lasted them until fall. After landing on the prairie, they took off the wagon covers and used them to sleep under, cooking their food by camp fire, and hauled all the water they needed from Turkey creek, a distance of about two miles. Mrs. Nolan made her first butter out on the prairie and sold it to Dr. Smith of Exeter, the next butter she took in, they paid her 30 cents per lb, and Chas Smith (then a little fellow) said, “We will eat that butter ourselves.”

Their first house consisted of but one room, made out of logs, sod and grass, having one window and one door. Their well was dug with a spade, the lumber necessary to use in it had to be hauled all the way from Lincoln. During the time they were digging the well Mr. Nolan’s mother, (then an old lady of about 75 years, who made her home with them) got her leg broken.

Their furniture had not yet come, so a bed had to be made of logs and boards, and a doctor secured from Crete. One day after her bed had come and she was more comfortably situated, a little house dog insisted on barking and making a great fuss over something it saw under the bed, and on investigation it was found that a large rattle snake was coiled up on the floor. They knew that it must be gotten out, somehow, without letting her know it, so some of them gathered around the bed and talked to her while her son took the snake out with a pitchfork.

Fifteen acres was all that was broken up the first year, but each year more of the land was farmed, some trees and shrubs were set out, and a new sod house with a shingle roof and a board floor took the place of the old one.

One day in August when Mr. Nolan was away from home, his wife saw a great prairie fire about a mile west, and she, fearful for the mother lying helpless in the house, went to fight the fire, and worked hard all day long until sundown, coming home almost exhausted only to find another fire coming from the east and was only a short distance from the house, but by this time Mr. Nolan was home, and plowing a fire guard which saved them from harm. Their first snow came in the night and crept in all around the roof and open places in the house, so that when they awakened in the morning they found themselves covered with a blanket of snow. Their first Christmas morning on the homestead found everything covered with about two feet of snow and not an ounce of flour in the house. Mr. Nolan had to go after it on horseback, the snow was so drifted in places that it was almost two o’clock in the afternoon before he got home.

It was the custom of Mr. Nolan to fix a lantern on a pole in front of the house, so that when he had to come home after night, his wife could light the lantern that he might find his way home, for at that time there were no roads in the country. The second year they had fifteen acres of wheat all ripe and ready to cut, so Mr. Nolan went to Fairmont and bought a harvester, but that night there came a heavy rain and hail storm, and in the morning no harvester was needed as all the grain was lying flat on the ground.

In the year of the grasshoppers he was fortunate to have his wheat in the shock, but the corn and the contents of a small garden were eaten in about an hour, only the stumps of the cabbages remained. Mrs. Nolan’s brother, George Nugent, had a small patch of tobacco, and they took it all so clean, one could scarcely tell what had been in the field. Mr. Nugent said, “If they had only waited he would have gotten them a gross of pipes so they could have had a smoke.”

The first school house was built on the south east corner of their claim, and was used as school house, church, and a place for any kind of public gatherings, and often proved a place of shelter for the passing home seeker. In those days the Indians were often seen roaming over the prairie. One day just at noon one of them came to the door and wanted his dinner, so they gave him bread and butter and some coffee; from a good sized loaf of bread they cut four slices, the first two he ate, but the next two he cut out the centers leaving the crust.

During the blizzard of 1874, they endured many inconveniences, having in the house a calf, a colt, and two dozen chickens. The fuel got so scarce they had to chop up a bed and other pieces of furniture to keep themselves warm. They endured many of the trials and hardships incident to real life on the plains. Three times the angel of death visited their home and carried away their loved ones, but never did they think of leaving the place they then called “Home.”


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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