Custer County Nebraska
Sargent, Nebraska

The Formation of Sargent and its early years

To attempt to write an article on the settlement of our valley, an accurate assessment of the early pioneers and the first few years of Sargent as a town is almost speculative in nature.  Due to the very harshness of Pioneer Life, the lack of communication with the already developed portions of our county and the almost nonexistence of written records makes this undertaking less than a documented and accurate look at our ancestors and their lives.  Due to the passage of more than a century, knowledge stored in the minds of the children of these early pioneers is gone from us forever.

Most of what is written in this chapter has been gleaned from early day books such as " The Pioneer History of Custer County", "Sod House Memories" and of similar publications.  Other information has been given us by families of those who first settled this valley but in many instances it is incomplete in nature and conflicting in part with each other.  We have done our best to sort out what we feel is probably the most accurate versions in all instances and we have filled in the empty spaces with suppositions that we feel are true due to subsequent happenings that can be documented.  We sincerely hope that what is contained here is the most accurate history we are capable of writing in regards to the years of 1874 to 1884.

D.S. Groff was the first permanent settler in this area as he "squatted" on ground that was located three miles east and one mile north of the present town in the fall of 1874.  Joseph A. Woods was his nearest neighbor and he lived some miles east in an area that is still known as Woods Park.  At this time there were only a few families living along the Middle Loup this side of Arcadia, probably less than a dozen. 

After a long winter Groff's family joined him, coming from York county, and the migration of settlers started in earnest.  Within the next five years a wave settlers arrived in this area and by the early 1880's most of the valley had been settled.  The settled in all directions from what was to be the town of Sargent and according to early records the names included the following:  F.M. Morris, I.W. Morton and R.W. Fulton located north of town and were joined later in the year 1878 by H.P. Smith and Mortimer Lewis.

They were joined in 1879 by E.P. Savage, Charles Austin, Bion Darling, Daniel Myers, Simeon Perrin, C. Blackman, L.F. Grooms, W. Laughlin, I.C. Tobias, James Hagerty, William Wilde, George and William Sherman, Henry Fellows, James and William Courtney, David Shaw, J.L. Goodrich.  L.W. Cole and James and William Standard.  Other early settlers arriving during these years were: Patrick Sullivan, Wilson Dye, John and Andy Mack, J.D. Finley, Morris McDonald, Job Semler, M.H. Silivan, A.E. Bruner, George Gillett and Lyman Wolcutt.

Before a town existed more settlers arrived upon the scene and many names that are common to our area today were among them.  C.E. Roe, S.L. Perrin, A.Z. Perrin, A.A. Evans, J. Wallace, J. Evans, Wm. McGregory, J. Hagerty, C.W. Parks, E. Miller, W.A. Coslor, R. Evans, W.M. Saunders, J.K. Spacht, F. Anderson, T. Hohman, C. Swanson, W.D. Hall, G.R. Seidler, G.R. Douglas, and many others were in the vicinity of what is now Sargent. 

With Grand Island being the nearest railroad terminal almost no provisions were available or no contact with the outside world was possible so these hearty people made do with what was here.  Homes were constructed of sod or were just dugouts built into the sides of hills.  It took a trip of several days to have flour ground and fuel was whatever would burn and give off some heat.  The extension of the rail lines to the town of North Loup must have been a god send to these early settlers as it cut the time and distance required to get needed provisions by at least half.  With this extension of the rail line in 1882 it provided the stimulus for even more settlers to arrive upon the scene and the stage was set for a town to be born.

In 1875 and 1876 there are records of a number of cattlemen bringing large herds of Texas cattle into our area, mostly west of town, in the Milburn and Victoria Creek areas.  Herds of up to 800 were common and some of the ranchers names were as follows:  Thomas Loughran, N.H. Dryden, Frank Ewing, T. Childs, and the Smith & Tee Cattle Company.

These stockmen appropriated ranges from the government land by setting up land marks, then making claim for so many miles in every direction.  Ranges often overlapped and herds became mixed as few fences were erected.  In those days it was more profitable to buy young Texas steers than to raise calves as a yearling could be purchased for five to six dollars and a two year old for nine dollars.  Kept on this range for eighteen months to two years these cattle would sell for twenty five to forty dollars per head.

The severe winter of 1880-81 marked the beginning of the end of large scale ranching in the Sargent area.  The doors were opened to settlers when this severe winter caused great losses to the cattlemen with some of them loosing their entire herd.  Early in this winter rain turned to ice, coating all grass like a mat, and large amounts of snow covered the unobtainable grass.  Days later more freezing rain covered the entire country side making it impossible for the livestock to forage.  Severe ten to twenty degree below zero temperatures continued for weeks on end and the reign of the cattlemen ended as quickly as it had started.

Despite the feelings of bitterness between the ranchers and settlers a few of these cattlemen remained and made a courageous effort to hold their ranges.  Before admitting defeat they fenced in large tracts, constructed wells in the pastures and had their cowboys make homestead, pre-emption and timber-culture entries in compliance with government land laws.

With the arrival of settlers in the valley a need to provide education for the children was felt.  Mrs. William E. Sillivan held a three month term of school in 1876 in a 12' by 16' sod house in what is now the Sargent precinct.  In 1880 Miss Laura Courtney established a school that was located north of the present town and included the districts of Morris, Sargent and parts of others.  Church services were conducted in this vicinity in 1878 by the Methodist Episcopal Church of Taylor.  Later a "Sargent Charge" was established.

First crops raised by early settlers included sod corn, rye, oats, wheat, a little alfalfa, and garden produce.  These early settlers spent the rest of their time building living quarters, prospecting for water and other menial chores necessary for survival in this undeveloped country that would change so drastically in the next twenty years.  

"How We Got Our Name"
George W. Sherman, born in New York on September 7, 1835, and his wife the former Ruth Courtney, a native of West Virginia, came in the spring of 1879 to take a homestead of 160 acres a half mile east of what was later to be the village of Sargent.  Acting on a petition by the settlers for mail service, David M. Key, then Postmaster General of the United States, appointed Mrs. Ruth A. Sherman postmaster July 23, 1879.

The commission, well preserved and on display in the Sargent Post Office, was issued to Mrs. Sherman on September 5, 1879, authorizing her to establish an office.  Her office, located in a soddy a half mile east of the now corporate limits of town and providing weekly mail service from North Loup, was named Sargent in honor of close friends, Mr. and Mrs. E.D. Sargent of Streator, ILL.
(Reprinted from the Diamond Anniversary Celebration Booklet of 1958)

With the establishment of the post office, contact with the outside world came easier and more and more settlers came into this fertile valley to make a new life for themselves and their families.  At this point we can only surmise what occurred but it would seem logical that a need and desire for goods and merchandise had been created by the fairly large number of families populating the valley.

J.K. Spacht built the first store in what is now Sargent, in July of 1883, in a middle of a wheat field.  After establishment of this general store, Mr. Spacht was able to persuade Mrs. Sherman to let him move her post office to his store if the name would remain "Sargent".  In our "Diamond Jubilee Booklet", George Finley, who was alive at that time, stated that as a lad of ten years old he saw Spacht's load of building material being hauled to the building site from North Loup by M.F. Livermore, who with his family, lived a mile north of town.

While early records of the town are virtually non existent it is known that J.W. Thomas and E.P. Savage owned adjoining quarters of land on which Mr. Spacht built his store.   These two land owners by deeding each other half interests in their own quarters, laid out and platted the original town on April 2, 1884.  Within days of doing this The Loup Valley Town Lot and Land Co. was moving in to set up an office and W.T. Thomas was arriving on the scene to open the first bank in all of Custer County.  E.P. Savage, always the promoter, was out spreading the word that Sargent was the town of the future and many businesses were needed.  The early emphasis was on a good hotel, livery stable, drug store and doctor.   J.H. Brandenbury established a furniture store, the first in the county, next to Spachts General Store, and so as 1883 come to an end we have a small prairie settlement consisting of a few stores, no main street, no roads leading in or out and a very optimistic if uncertain future.

Sargent was just one of many towns in this area that started in a similar way.  When we consider that in these early days ten miles was a day long or better trip it is no wonder that attempts were made to establish towns within just miles of each other.  Most never really got off the ground but many did become viable towns until being bypassed by a railroad or a lack of backing causing their eventual demise.  Most of those established around Sargent met these fates but many of them have retained their community identities: hence people still pride themselves when they say they live in Round Valley, Sommerford, Phillipsburg, West Union, Cummings Park and many others.  Many other family names that are connected with Sargent are not mentioned at this time for the simple reason that in this very early era they were considered settlers and residents of these other communities.  Many of these will play important parts in other sections of this publication.
[Source: Sargent, Nebraska Centennial, 1883-1983, used with permission of the 2014 Sargent Chamber of Commerce]

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