The Story of Sherman County

The Story of Sherman County

Sami Windle Around Goodland

2013 marks the 125th Anniversary of the establishment of Goodland, distinguishing Goodland as the County Seat of a young county. The story of Sherman County is similar to many of the experiences of communities on the Great Plains and their struggle for dominance.

Of interest to the particular topic is an address given by E.E. Blackman to the Kansas State Historical Society on December 1, 1903, detailing the story of Sherman County and the Homesteaders Union Association (HUA). The address was published in the Kansas Historical Collections (V. 8, pp. 50-62).


SHERMAN COUNTY, as you will learn by consulting a map of this state, is
situated in the extreme western border, and one county south of the north
line. It is in what is commonly called the arid belt, and people have long since
found to their cost that the cattlemen told the truth when they said it was fit
only for range. The mad rush of immigrants, nearly twenty years ago, thought
different then, but they have learned a lesson which they will not soon forget.

A more beautiful country to look at is hard to find. As the prairie-
schooner began its westward sail from Colby or Oberlin, the heart of the immigrant gladdened as he beheld the almost level surface and saw the dark, rich-
looking soil. The larger portion of Sherman county was entered at the land-office
in the winter of 1881-’85, and the claims near the center of the county were
deeded or proved up as soon as possible, that the county-seat might be located
at that particular point, and the owner find himself rich in a single day.

People settled in the north part of the county first — a number of ranches
could be “proved up,” and the town of Voltaire was laid out on one of these
ranches. Voltaire was four miles north of the center, but it was an active candi-
date for the county-seat at an early day.

Itaska was near the center of the county, but not exactly so; Gandy estab-
lished a town not far off. In time these two towns moved together on new land
and pooled their interests, calling the place Sherman Center.

Early in the spring of 1885 a number of men, with P. S. Eustis and O. R.
Phillips at the head, organized the Lincoln Land Company, and laid out the
town of Eustis.

This put three towns in the field actively striving for the county-seat. The
history of intrigue and fraud practiced by the “other towns” would fill volumes;
those of you who have passed through a county-seat fight know, and those who
have not are in luck. We will not try to tell the history — others can do it bet-
ter — but you have a glimpse of the field as it stood in the autumn of 1886. Vol-
taire had won one election, Eustis claimed the second election, but Sherman
Center was growing and bid fair to win in the autumn of 1887, when the next
election would take place. In that case, the question would be submitted once
again. At best, the settlement seemed a long way off.

Sherman Center had its set of officers and was running the county in its own
way. Eustis had its set of officers, and was contracting debts. Voltaire, I think,
was rucnicg the public affairs its way. Between them all, one did not know
wheie to i ay hie taxes, and few tried to learn ; as usual, the honest man was the
victim, and in cot a few cases he lost all he had in the mad shuffle.

* Elmeb Ellsworth Blackman was born August 16, 1862, ia Scott county, Iowa. He was
d ucated in the common schools. In 1885 lie was teaching school in Sanborn, O’Brien county,
Iowa, when he visited Sherman county, Kansas. Ho intended to return to his duties as school-
teacher in Iowa, but he was so pleased with the natural beauties and future possibilities of the
new country that ho preempted the southwest quarter of section 1, township 10 south, range 41
west, and lived there until 1889. He sold out and moved to Lincoln, Neb. There he taught school
until 1901, when he was called to the position of archpeo’.ogist of the Nebraska State Historical
Society. August 19, 1903, he married Miss E. Margaret Woods, of Fort Calhoun, Neb. His
home is at Roca, Neb.


While all these town affairs were agitating the minds of speculators, out in the
surrounding precincts the actual settlers were trying to make a home and sub-
due a farm. The cattlemen had held undisputed possession of these range lands
so long, that great herds of range cattle roamed at will over the settlers’ crops as
well as the unbroken prairie. A herd of 500 head of cattle would come down on
a settlement and in one night all the fodder for the settler’s little bunch of stock
would be destroyed.

No herders were with the cattle; they were “rounded up” once a year and
the branding was done. The owners of the stock never saw the cattle — their
pasture was from Texas to Manitoba, and not a few settlers thought it no ein to
kill a beef once in a while. How much of this was really done is not possible to
tell, but some cattle were killed in the winter of 188G-’87.

The cattlemen sent cowboys out to protect the cattle and punish the culprits.
However, it is safe to say they did not catch the settlers killing cattle. Those
who knew how the cattle were killed say that five minutes was time enough to
kill and dress a beef on a foggy night — the brand was cut out of the hide and
then proof of ownership was lacking.

The cattle men offered $500 for evidence to convict a man of killing range
cattle ; this came pretty near home. Every community has some one or two
men who, under some circumstances, will give their beat friends away. The
people, who bought the range beef were as liable as the one who killed it, and there
were very few of the settlers not guilty of eating range beef that winter. A man
would kill one of his own yearlings and sell twenty quarters of beef to his neigh-
bors. One man who had sold beef to a company of bachelor neighbors began to
get alarmed and the boys proposed that the settlers organize for protection.

I am not sure who first proposed the matter, nor do I know much about the
first meetings held in an informal way, but there was a man in the neighborhood
whom they suspected of a design to wreak vengeance on this man who had sold
beef and they wished to give him a scare.

The three or four prime movers in the organization I knew quite well, but the
real cause of the move — the man most interested^! never knew personally, and
was never sure which one of two or three it might be.

Billy Blackwood, Frank Oldham, Douglas Sylvester and two or three others
on their corner were the prime movers.

I had a very graphic description of the first real secret meeting ever held. It
was in a dugout belonging to Mr. Stahm. The Homesteaders’ Protective
Association had been the talk for some days, and a select few were asked to join.
The one particular man that they wished to scare into secrecy was one of those
invited. He was taken through many oaths — not to contest a neighbor’s claim
during his absence, not to tear down the house of a neighbor while he was away,
and many other ostensible reasons for the “protective association,” until the
last, most solemn oath of all: “I do solemnly swear not to tell anything
that may in any way lead owners of cattle which are running at large contrary
to law and destroying the settlers’ crops to discover who has killed or crippled
or in any way injured these same cattle, when driving them away from the crops
or at any other time. If I do, then I shall expect this society to use me thus” —
here a straw man, with a rope around his neck, was suspended before the aston-
ished candidate, who said “I do” so quickly he bit his tongue. Let me say
right here that he never told anything for money after that. The society pros-
pered, others came in, and new lodges were organized throughout the county.

I was a notary public and did a little land business. I was pushing the in-
terests of a little town in the western part of the county, and when I asked to


join the society they rolled the black balls against me — ostensibly because I was
obliged to contest claims for other people, as I practiced before the land-office ;
so I was not eligible to membership.

They bought a case of Winchester rifles and held meetings all winter. When
thirteen lodges had been organized and the Homesteaders’ Protective Associa-
tion had assumed proportions never dreamed of by the originators — when the
first reason for the organization had passed away and the range cattle had all
been rounded up — Billy Blackwood, who seemed to be spokesman for the or-
ganization, came over to my shack and gave me the whole s’tory of the organiza-
tion, and asked me to join. “If you will join, we will organize a central lodge
and settle this county-eeat fight.” At first I was inclined to give the organiza-
tion a wide berth, but I knew most of the leading members, and I saw the great
need of active measures to prevent speculating town companies bankrupting the
county by contracting debts that we would have to pay or repudiate — and either
horn of the dilemma meant ruin.

A mass meeting of H. P. A.’s only was called. The password was taken at
the door. The building was thoroughly guarded, and a very enthusiastic meet-
ing was held.

This meeting was called to order by Douglas Sylvester June 18, 1887, in the
town of Eustis. A. M. Curtis was chosen president, and E. E. Blackman secre-

The thirteen lodges existing at this time had each a different constitution
and by-laws. All that held them together was the general password and secret
grip and signs. They were really thirteen separate units. The object of this
meeting was to cement these thirteen unite into one strong unit, that the strength
might be felt and pressure brought to bear on the county-seat question. It was
an open secret that the whole energy of the organization should be directed to-
ward a settlement in some manner of this vexing question. Every member of
these various thirteen lodges had a financial interest in this settlement.

Some had lots in one of the three towns ; some had friends who had property
or business interests there ; some lived near one town or the other, and, should
that particular town succeed, the price of their land would double; others were
paid tools of one town or the other, who joined the lodge to keep the various
town companies posted on the secret workings. This last number was few,
iiowever, and the earnestness of the association soon carried the petty interests
to the wind and the best interests of all became the single aim. The majority
were honest in their endeavors and spent time and money unsparingly for the

There was a general feeling of distrust in the mind of almost every one; each
member watched the movements of his neighbors with suspicion, and some of
the leaders were accused, from time to time, of working for the interests of the
town of their particular choice.

In an old community, where every one had a history, and where that history
was known, such an organization could never be effected. Here all were strangers.
Scarcely a man knew the power or the nature of his neighbor. This un-
certainty of material gave a strength to the organization which became a wonder
to the student of sociology. The wise heads said, “They will not stick together.”
Scarcely a single person expected to see the association accomplish anything. I
have yet to hear of a like instance in all history. I think the fact that all were
strangers to each other had more to do with the success than anything else.
Then there were a few strong intellectual men in the lodges who directed the
forces and who guided the destinies of the organization from a subordinate poei-


tion. The chairman, A. M. Curtis, was a strong character and did much to bring
success. The feeling of distrust worked his defeat at the second election, but I
am certain it was unfounded. He declined reelection and this feeling of distrust
prevented the society urging him to accept : he labored in behalf of the organiza-
tion behind the scenes and much of the ultimate success is due to his efforts and
good judgment.

But this is not a history of people, and I aim to mention as few names as pos-
sible. One of the first acts of this mass-meeting was the appointment of one
member from each lodge to draft a subordinate lodge constitution. Ye who
believe in the unlucky thirteen, observe the work of the association, built of this
committee of thirteen men, and note the results. On June 25, 1887, this com-
mittee met in a 12 X 14 frame shack a half mile west of Eustis, which belonged to
Mr. Parkhurst, a banker in Eustis.

The old gentleman loaned money at 300 per cent, per annum until he had no
more to loan, then he closed his doors, and has long since passed to the other
shore. He was a genial, kind-hearted old fellow, despite his Shylock proclivities,
and many a very pleasant hour have I spent by his fire. He had no faith in the
organization and but little in the country. I asked him what he raised on his
“claim.” “Well,” said he, “some people succeed in raising ‘Cain’ wherever
they are; I have tried to raise a disturbance but did not get my breaking done
in time. Last year I raised ‘hell and watermelons.’ This year it is too dry to
raise anything; I shall try to raise the mortgage next year and skip.”

A. M. Curtis was chosen president of this deliberate body; E. E. Blackman
and W. J. Colby were secretaries. The whole proceeding was secret — not a
scratch of the minutes was allowed to be preserved. The completed constitution
for the subordinate lodge was the result, and it took thirty-eight hours of argu-
ment and discussion to produce it. All that time we were confined in the house;
a committee went to the nearest well for water, and the merchants at Eustis sent
over some crackers and cheese which the outside guards passed in. All night the
guards paced their weary beats, and all night we contended each for his special
feature. The finished constitution was a compromise at best and really suited
no one. However, competent critics have pronounced it a work of art as a work-
ing basis for such an organization.

The following is an exact copy :


We believe the cause of agriculture and the interests of the laboring classes would be ad-
vanced by uniting in an organization to be known as the Homesteaders’ Union Association;
hence we adopt this constitution for subordinate lodges.