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Across the fence

Ned Dunlap: Kearney's only Cow Boy


Courtesy of The Nebraska State Historical Society archives

Ned Dunlap by Solomon Butcher, and the Nebraska Farmer article.

Ned Dunlap marched in the 1902 Old Settler's Day Parade in Kearney, Nebraska. Decked out in Angora chaps, bibbed shirt, silk neck scarf and appropriate wide brimmed hat. Ned bobbed his horse's tail and stuck the long hair under his hat, pulled bovine hooves up into his shirtsleeves, attached a set of longhorns to his head and marched in the parade as Kearney's only real 'cow / boy', and Solomon D. Butcher, like so many other hundreds of times, captured the moment for history.

Although Ned Dunlap was quite likely a real Nebraska cowboy in his earlier years, 1902 found him to be the foreman of the H. D. Watson ranch near Kearney. With a degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska, Ned would have been eminently qualified as foreman of that historic ranch. Being recognized as an authority on the raising of alfalfa, Ned Dunlap had his hands full managing the production of 3,000 acres of alfalfa.

The Watson ranch was established in 1888 and covered an area stretching from Kearney to Odessa and from the Platte River to the north, encompassing a total of 8,000 acres.

The late 1890's saw a period of severe drought and many of the region's usual crops failed due to insufficient moisture. Watson discovered, perhaps with the encouragement of recent University graduate Ned Dunlap, that alfalfa could survive the harsh drought conditions and initially planted a 15-acre field, thus introducing the plant to the state of Nebraska.

Convinced that alfalfa was the ideal product for livestock feed, Watson expanded his fields in order to convince local stock and dairy producers that alfalfa was the ideal feed. By 1896 the Watson Ranch had expanded its alfalfa fields to 3,000 acres yielding one ton per acre. Unfortunately the ranch was unable to sell any of it. Area farmers thought it worthless and many believed it would make their animals sick.

However, in order to convince the world that alfalfa was a superior feed source the ranch established a large dairy farm and fed the milk cows nothing but alfalfa. A three story dairy barn was built in 1900 with milking stanchions to accommodate 400 cows and a hayloft to store 900 tons of hay. Known as the biggest barn in the world, the Watson Ranch dairy barn was said to be 500 feet long, 100 feet wide and stood 56 feet from ground to rooftop. The barn stood as a popular landmark until it was torn down in 1935.

I found no record of when Ned Dunlap was hired or how long he remained a foreman at the Watson ranch. Photographer Solomon D. Butcher took several photos of Dunlap on the ranch performing various duties in the hayfields and orchards. The ranch was split up and sold in 1917 with the major portion of the ranch being sold to Woods Brothers of Lincoln. In the 1920's a gentleman named A. J. Schaaf became ranch foreman, a position he held for 4 years. According to Mr. Schaaf the ranch was not only responsible for introducing alfalfa to Nebraska but also introduced the Ring Necked Pheasant.

What became of Ned Dunlap I have been unable to discover except for an article published in the March 22, 1930 edition of The Nebraska Farmer magazine by a N. C. Dunlap. Although I cannot confirm that the author N. C. Dunlap is the Ned Dunlap in Solomon Butcher's photos, I believe the chances are pretty good that they are the same. Although the article contains no mention of the Watson ranch it does tell of Mr. Dunlap's boyhood and the hardships of pioneer life in the newly formed state of Nebraska.

N. C. Dunlap was born in 1870, his mother having arrived from Scotland in 1865 and traveled to Nebraska City by rail and steamboat. His father was a government surveyor assigned to map the counties of Hall and Buffalo in 1866 then later supplied ties to the Union Pacific Railroad until settling on a preemption in Butler County in 1869, where N. C. was born.

I believe the article was written in response to an advertisement by The Nebraska Farmer asking for childhood stories that include references to the importance of the magazine to the families of Nebraska Farmer subscribers. In the article N. C. Dunlap states:

"I learned to know my alphabet by studying letters clipped from The Nebraska Farmer and pasted upon a clapboard. Aided and abetted by my mother I was taught to read out of a dog-eared 'McGuffey's Second Reader'. In later years I've fooled away a lot of time gathering together a library of first editions and queer old books. There is one volume I'll never find, that shingle primer is forever gone, it was unique."

I have a hunch that his mothers teaching of letters was the beginning of an education that led young Dunlap to the University of Nebraska.

When Ned was born, in 1870, his father was appointed to the position of United States Postmaster of the Lone Star Post Office in Richardson Township. At that time, the incoming mail amounted to less than five pieces a week, outgoing mail was about half that. The home where he was born was built of logs, chinked with mud and straw, covered on the inside with clapboard, a rough puncheon floor, a north facing window with a wooden cover and a small east facing window with an 8 by 10 inch glass pane.

It was in the 1870's that Nebraska was known as "a poor man's country". It was only the fertile soil that allowed families to make a living for without the ability to grow their own food they could not have continued. Farm equipment was scarce and those few pieces of equipment that were available were cobbled together or hand made. Money was mostly non-existent but excess farm produce was used in barter or trade for those things that were needed.

Corn meal was the primary food staple of the Dunlap family. Ned would accompany his father, with a load of corn, to the mill in Nebraska City, 75 miles distant. Roads were simply paths that followed the lines of least resistance across the terrain and over creeks without bridges. When the mill-ground corn ran out, before the next trip to Nebraska City, Ned would crush corn, one kernel at a time, with an old claw hammer. No doubt it took considerable time to hammer out enough corn for a meal. "My mother was a genius", Ned wrote, "she could make as many kinds of corn bread as Heinz makes pickles".

Other foodstuffs included pumpkins that were stewed for several days then packed in open jars and sealed to avoid spoilage. Pumpkins were cut into rings, after the seeds were scraped out, pealed and hung on poles to dry then wrapped in cloth sacks. Watermelon was boiled down to make a sweet sauce called melon larup. Tea was made from the leaves of various bushes found on the prairie and coffee was made from parched corn. For salt the Dunlaps hitched the mules to the wagon and drove to the marshes just west of Lincoln, scraped up a wagonload of grey dirt and hauled it back home. Mixing the dirt with water it was left to stand letting the dirt and sand settle to the bottom, the water above was drained off, strained through a piece of cloth, then boiled down until all that was left was a bit of salt.

For meat, game was plentiful with prairie chickens, quail and rabbits easily trapped. An occasional deer or antelope was a treat; ponds and creeks provided fish and a passing hunter might trade out a hunk of buffalo meat or a bucket full of animal fat for making soap.

Baths were taken in a wooden tub. Light was by a kerosene lamp when fuel could be afforded but was usually found from the flames of the wood stove. Young Ned's clothes were cut and downsized from his fathers 'worn-outs', home made straw hats covered his head in summer and an earflap cap of beaver hide kept his ears from frostbite in the winter. Shoes were worn only in the winter and all other seasons were barefoot.

Ned ended the story of his youth with these words:

"I've eaten many meals cooked with skill and care, served with all the little niceties which those cater to elite clientee know how to bestow. But I never get the real enjoyment which I used to have when I stuck my sun-tanned, stone-bruised, briar-scratched feet under a rough board table and filled my little paunch chuck jam-full of black-eyed peas and dried pumpkin."

Volume 1 of "101 Yesterdays", containing 50 selected columns from the past six years is now available. To order contact Tim at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com or send $17.00 plus $3.00 postage and handling to M. Timothy Nolting P.O. Box 68 Bushnell, NE 69128


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