Biography of Walter Howarth of Fillmore County

Mr. Walter Howarth came to this district on April 1st 1872 and homesteaded half a n.ile north of Turkey creek on the county line. He is a native of Bolton, Lancashire, England, coming from a densely populated, and an immense manufacturing community to live on the lonely prairie, thus leaving the possibilities of muslins, calicos, and woolen goods for those of the corn cob silk.

When he landed there was no depot at Exeter or Friend, they were merely flag stations; the train never stopped, it just slackened speed a little, and he had to throw off his grips and jump. How different the country looked; very few trees, nearly all the settlers lived in dugouts or sod houses, and very rarely was a frame house to be seen.

In those days the Indians came up the creek every winter trapping, and often he went in company with other young fellows and would sit in one of their tents in the evening to see their mode of life, but not to be edified by their conversation. Only some of their younger boys could speak a little English, and they never spoke unless spoken to, but they made them welcome, and gave them a seat by the fire more especially if they came with a little gift of tobacco. Nearly every evening they were there their medicine man, a tali intelligent looking Indian was orating to them, of course they could not understand the story, but it seemed to greatly interest the Indians for they listened with rapt attention occasionally breaking into a ripple of smiles, probably, when he was telling of some particularly brave deed done by a member of the tribe. For an hour at a time he would talk on and on never stopping except to fill the pipe, for he seemed to have charge of the tobacco, and always had the first pull at the pipe before passing it around the circle.

One of the settlers on the creek had lost a number of turkeys with the cholera and had thrown them into the bush, and this same lot of Indians (they were Omahas and Pawnees) found them and while they lasted the odors from their camp Kettle were most fragrant.

One night he was sitting in the tent next to a particularly good looking Indian maiden, when she got hungry and putting ner hand under a pile of buffalo robes on which they were sitting, pulled out a big cows liver which someone had given them, and cutting on two or three slices with a dirty looking butcher knife, threw them on the fire in the middle of the tent, and when they were just barely warmed, drew them out and began to eat. This and other things he saw knocked all the romance of Indian life out of Mr. Howarth, no such cooking for him.

During the time Mr. Howarth was teaching school, one day one of the girls who lived near the school house (a sod affair) stayed at home to help ner mother wash. About the middle of the forenoon she ran into the school house crying as if her heart would break, “Oh! teacher,” she said, “Will you and the big boys come over, papa’s away, and the house is full of Indians.” Of course they went, and found 10 or 20 Indians in possession. Houses in those days were wonderfully elastic affairs, and though this consisted of only one room, yet it held the beds and furniture for an average sized family, and in addition a little stock of groceries. The Indians were taking these from the shelves and asking for them; after they got there the Indians bought and paid for a few things and soon left, but there was no more school that morning. The girl and her mother were in no personal danger, but no doubt they would have stolen something, and as one of the Indians was sharpening his hatchet on a little grindstone which stood near the door, poor little Jennie thought her last day had surely come.

That school house, crude affair as it was, with sod walls, homemade desks, and planks for seats, turned out two or three pupils who afterwards became very successful teachers; they didn t have a little smattering of Latin or Algebra or Botany, but were well grounded in the essentials^the.3 R’s and after that the rest was easy of accomplishment.

One spring morning he was busily at work in the yard, he had finished teaching school the week before, (here let us say, that in the 5 years he taught, 6 months was the school term, and $25 per month the highest salary he received) and had just drawn all his back pay. It was a beautiful morning, the kind of a day which makes one glad to be alive, and altogether he was feeling particularly happy and free from care. The poet says; “In Spring the young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’ and he was singing at the top of his voice, “Come where my love lies dreaming” (The strains of which in some way or other reached Bolton with satisfactory results) when happening to turn round there stood a 6 foot Indian right close to him. The moment he saw him the thought of his money came into his mind, for he had taken his purse from his pocket and Thrown it into the cupboard, and the house door was open and the cupboard door also, and to get to him the Indian had to pass the open door. So Mr. Howarth grabbed up his hatchet and ran to the house; and if the purse was not there, right there was going to be a fight between an Englishman and an Indian. But there it was in plain sight, so he invited Mr. Indian into the house and had a visit. The Indian couldn’t speak much English but he could beg and proceeded to do so. On the table was a side of bacon from which that morning he had taken to ribs intending to boil them with some beans, so when he asked for meat he gave him the ribs, he held them in one hand and looked them over, then put them in the other hand and took another look, then put the poor ribs on the table and grunted “no good” didn’t want them; and after they had been in his dirty paws Mr. Howarth didn’t want them either so he threw them outside to the dog. After that the Indian saw the writing materials on the table, and drew from some part of his dress a letter or permit given to him by the Indian Agent when he was leaving the reservation. The letter was torn, creased and very dirty, and he made it known that he wanted a clean copy, which Mr. Howarth soon made. It stated that John Wangawah was a good Indian, but in great heed of help, that it would be an act of Christian charity to aid him, and that he would pray continually for all those who bestowed gifts upon him.

In telling us these stories without intending to do so he has shown us the condition of a bachelor’s shanty, writing materials and a side of bacon on the same table, and without doubt, a pile of unwashed dishes; these latter were attended to quite religiously every Sunday. It was on the same trip of the Indians that two or three of them suddenly appeared at the door of a dug out and so frightened the woman of the house a very large fleshy person that she dived under the bedstead a homemade contrivance of ash poles and there stuck until relieved by her husband.

Churches, there were none, but occasionally an itinerant preacher came around and held services wherever he could; either in a private house or school house. They were generally of that brand who believe the more noise they make the more effect they will have. He remembers one who apologized, saying he was not the man he once was, as now he had only one lung, but after he was well warmed up, he yelled with forty lung power, sad to say the boys in the back seats were falling off with laughter. Never before or since has he heard such a racket in a place of worship, no doubt the man meant well, but instead of creating a reverent feeling he dispelled it. He thinks it was in that same series of meetings that the preacher in a Sunday School class asked one of the boys a question he could not answer; so he said “I pass” and immediately the next boy said “then clubs are trumps” and both teacher and class laughed.

The people came to the meetings on horseback or in wagons, some in wagons drawn by oxen, he did not know of a man who owned a buggy, and doubts if there were half a dozen in the county.

What would now be regarded as horrible hardships were not so looked upon by the early settlers, but taken as part of the ordinary routine of life. For instance one of them said, he and his wife lived on corn meal mush three times a day until they tired of it, and he started out on foot to Milford, a distance of at least 25 miles and brought home on his back all that distance, a sack of flour and he didn’t seem to think he had done anything extraordinary. Others have said that when they first came here, they had to go to Nebraska City for their groceries, but one thing is certain their wants were not many.

A few of the genuine old frontiersmen who had came in and settled on the creek some 8 or 10 years before his arrival were still scattered here and there, but the country soon became too thickly settled, and they sold out and moved again still farther West. They had characteristics all their own; never very anxious to work, and content with the simple necessities, they lived an easy life.

After the grasshopper visitation of ’74 there was great distress in Nebraska, and charitable people in the East sent a number of car loads of provisions and clothing for the “grasshopper sufferers” as they were called. Mr. Howarth was one of a committee of two appointed to go around their school district and see who were in need of aid, or rather who would accept it, while they were all poor, some were poorer than others, yet some were too proud to accept charity. It was a bitterly cold morning when they started on their rounds 10 or 15 below zero. They called at every house in the district and in so doing had to cross the creek a couple of times, the ice being 12 or 14 inches thick, but on their last time over he happened to step on some thin ice over a spring and went down clear to his arm pits, the companion pulled him out and they started for his house about half a mile away, but it was not long before his clothing was frozen stiff and jingled like the bead and jet ornaments on a ladies dress.

After putting on a complete change of clothing belonging to the companion which was several sizes too large, they started for Friend with the list of requirements but unfortunately arrived too late, for all the most desirable articles had been taken, and all they got were two or three pounds of plug tobacco and some cloaks and dresses. These they distributed but the recipients did not seem very grateful they expected something better, and they never got any thanks for their labor. Those were hard times and many left the country, he remembers seeing an emigrant wagon going East on the cover of which was printed “In God we trusted in Nebraska we busted, off back to my wife’s folks,” but of those who stayed most have achieved a fair measure of success, and the old days are a pleasant recollection.

Fred Walmsley came from Bolton, England, with Mr. Howarth and homesteaded south of the Turkey creek, but remained only one year; commuting for his claim and receiving a deed by paying two and a half dollars per acre, and returned to his native hearth. While here he passed through the blizzard of ’73, when he was snowed in for three days and had to find a way to daylight by opening the window and boring a hole through the snow with a broomstick; afterwards making his escape with the help of an Irish neighbor named Tom Gilroy, who had come to see what had become of the young Englishman, by burrowing his way through that hole to liberty.

During that brief stay, he, with Mr. Howarth entertained some lady friends to dinner. The menu for that specific occasion is not forthcoming, but whether or not after the American or English style; there is reason to believe that “All’s well that ends well” is applicable as far as the dinner itself was concerned, for it won unstinted praise.

The only difficulty arising in connection with the undertaking was the losing of the dishcloth, which loss, for a time hindered the bachelors from washing the dishes. But as Shakespeare says “Wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerly seek how to redress their harms,” so they sought for it. We cannot now tell how much of blame or suspicion was placed upon their lady guests, or even if they deserved any! but let us remember, quoting again their illustrious poet, “Men are men; the best sometimes forget” where they lay the dishcloth. So after all these years, and especially for the benefit of posterity, hoping at the same time to free the innocent from any blame or suspicion, I set on record, that; the dishcloth was found safe and snug as though it were a linen handkerchief, carefully tucked away in Fred Walmsley’s hip pocket, but again the poet says; “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” and who knows how much of good resulted from that experience? The one’s continued life on the land, and the other’s subsequent life in the city of Manchester, England, are perhaps richer and fuller for having provided that dinner, and for a time, losing that dishcloth in those far off pioneer days.


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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