…Talk About the Drought! President Roosevelt Visits Nebraska Panhandle

In an earlier post we we recalled the effects of the 1890s drought in Nebraska. Unfortunately, it would not be the last.

In 1936, Nebraska farmers were facing similar hardship. The ongoing drought (or “drouth” as it was often spelled) was unrelenting, and continued to produce record-breaking temperatures. The Grand Island Independent (perhaps exaggerating a bit) called it the “worst drouth in climatological history.”

Lincoln Star, August 31, 1936.

In “Franklin D Roosevelt’s Visit to Sidney During the Drouth of 1936” (Nebraska History, Spring 1984), Bethene Wookey Larson explains that following the death of Secretary of War George H. Dern, Roosevelt’s route was detoured so he could attend the funeral, causing an unplanned stop in Sidney, Nebraska. The president toured local farms and discussed the situation with farmers and their families. He spoke at length with a farmer named O.D. Burris, who was having difficulty making payments on a loan. The Lincoln Star reported a piece of their conversation:

“ ‘You ought to plant some trees,’ observed the President, gazing about at the dusty panorama, and his own dust-covered clothes.

“ ‘Yes, sir, I know it, they sure would help,’ replied Burris.

“ ‘What are you going to do with that?’ asked the president, waving at the shriveled [corn] stalks.

“ ‘Feed it,’ was the reply. The farmer said he had eight head of cattle and five head of horses which he hoped to take through the winter.”

The Presidents spoke encouragingly to Sidney citizens, and promised to help all he could.

Grand Island Daily Independent, September 2, 1936. The article on the left describes a conference in Des Moines, Iowa, where Franklin Roosevelt and Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon would meet to discuss the drought.

While on his drought tour Roosevelt visited the in-progress Mount Rushmore, inspiring him to speak to Americans about their hard work and the investment they were making for future generations.

“…I think we can, perhaps, meditate a little on those Americans ten thousand years from now…Let us hope that at least they will give us the benefit of the doubt — that they will believe we have honestly striven every day through each generation to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government.”

-Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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Holiday Wishes from 1948

Staff photo of Varsity Theatre, Lincoln, in 1948. NSHS RG2183.PH1948-1126

The staff of the Varsity Theatre, located in 1948 at 143 North Thirteenth Street in Lincoln, wished the movie-going public a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in the above staff picture, published December 25, 1948, in Lincoln newspapers. An accompanying advertisement promoted a special holiday double feature at the Varsity. Both films, which ran until New Year’s, featured animal stars: Adventures of Gallant Bess, the “wonder horse of all time in the story to cheer all hearts,” and Rusty Leads the Way, in which a boy and his dog help a bitter blind girl adjust to life. A color cartoon and newsreel were also promised. 

To the left of the Varsity entrance in the above photo is Pete’s Dog House, a hot dog stand featured in a past blog post. Both pictures are from the Macdonald Studio Collection of Lincoln and are now in the photographic collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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The Dangers of Jazz Dancing

Do you feel like the world is speeding up around you?  Like society has gotten so crazy you can’t keep up? You’re not the first! An article in the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star on August 12, 1934, talks about social health hazards of the time.

“Want to live longer? DON’T dance rapidly. It is harmful. DON’T listen to too much jazz music. DON’T wear brightly colored clothes. DON’T tire yourself out with strenuous beach games. DON’T overindulge in food or drink.”

This cartoon appeared with the article in the Sunday Lincoln Journal and Star on August 12, 1934, illustrating Dr. Adler's advice

The article opens with advice from Dr. Wolf Adler, a “noted nerve specialist.” Dr. Adler gives the above suggestions for summer weather, believing they are quite damaging to the nervous system. The risk comes from overstimulation of glands all over the body. What glands he is referring to is not specific, but Dr. Adler declares that exciting them can prove detrimental to ones’ health.

“When overstimulation occurs in the civilized man or woman, he often has no rational way of reaction, bound as he is by conventions, laws and his own ideas of right and wrong. His nerve centers are disturbed in a manner which does not help him adjust himself to the ideals of a civilized state, and such over-stimulation may have not only temporary but permanent results.”

Doctor Adler was not the only professional who felt so strongly about a fast-paced society. Dr. George W. Crile declared that “all mankind may become extinct if our present high-speed rate of living is maintained.” Dr. Crile linked the stressful energy specifically to the thyroid and adrenal glands, the brain and the inter-connecting nerves. The article states such damage is caused by activities like listening to jazz music, driving a car too fast, and dancing to “mad rhythms.”

Sunday Lincoln Journal and Star, August 12, 1934

Well-known bandleader Paul Whiteman, whom the article calls a “maestro of jazz,” disagreed with the doctors. “It’s not the music or the dancing, it’s the heat! Heat like this will ruin any one’s nervous system. The doctors should not blame the high speed of living today on the music; the music of a nation reflects the life of the nation…just plain, ordinary heat and humidity can give the old nervous system a worse shaking up than a hundred popular dance tunes.”

Dance instructor Arthur Murray agreed only partially with Adler and Crile. “I agree with Dr. Adler in so far as his objects to strenuous activities and the wild frenzy of beach games often astounds me, but dancing is quite a different matter.” Murray believed certain kinds of dancing were therapeutic. Dancing to “…the soft music of some of our popular songs… one can almost feel one’s nerves quieting down and the best of one’s heart reflecting the easy smoothness of a good dance orchestra.” Murray also felt that Adler exaggerated on the effect of bright colors. “Red, cerise, purple, combined with brilliant sunlight, may indeed prove shattering to the nervous system through the effect of the brilliance of the colors on the eyes, but in the house the brighter colors have a more soothing effect.”

No wonder Husker games are so enthusiastic. All that red clothing outdoors is shattering nervous systems left and right!

The only point on which all four men agreed was that the pace of modern life was much too fast. “I will agree that persons are living too fast,” said Whiteman, “the noise of the cities, the rush, the hurry and the heat are disturbing factors.”

“High-speed living,” said Murray, “yes, one might call it a serious menace to health and nerves…”

As a remedy to the hazardous speed of life, Dr. Adler promoted slow music and swimming, even dance if it is done in moderation and slowly. But for people who “pour themselves out as water” he felt there was no immediate solution, stating: “The less one does, the more vitality one has.”

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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Monarch’s Sad Fate

The sad end of a retired member of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West was announced by the Omaha Daily Bee on December 5, 1906. However, the article, headlined “Death Warrant for Monarch,” referred not to a human, but to an animal. Monarch, “the finest specimen of buffalo ever in captivity,” was considered too dangerous for Riverview Park, his home in Omaha since leaving the Wild West, and he was soon to be slaughtered. 

This detail from a poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West depicts men on horseback and running buffalo. NSHS RG3004.PH190

The Bee said: “Monarch was raised by Buffalo Bill and carried with him through all the countries of Europe, but he became unmanageable and as it took a large part of the gate receipts of the Wild West show to square away the depredations which were occasioned by this immense buffalo, Colonel Cody decided to sell him. He was sold to the city of Omaha for $300 and was placed in Riverview park.”  

However, Monarch behaved so badly there, rushing at the fences and threatening to trample spectators, that he was reportedly sold back to Wild West agent William McCune. By December 13 the Bee reported that Monarch had been purchased by William Buthorn, owner of the Heidelberg Cafe, who planned to slaughter the animal, and gave Omaha’s mayor, “Cowboy Jim” Dahlman, the dubious honor of shooting him. The Bee noted:  

Omaha mayor Jim Dahlman in cowboy garb. NSHS RG2990.PH0-1

“The mayor did not fail. He planted himself some thirty feet from the animal, leveled his big rifle and fired. Monarch turned to look for a second at his slayer, then walked around in a circle just once, dropped to the ground and died within ten minutes without writhing. Mr. Buthorn will have the head mounted and placed in the Heidelberg and the meat he will sell.”  

Monarch may have passed from the scene, but stories of his exploits during his Wild West days appeared in the press. In a particularly memorable incident in Germany, according to the Bee, Monarch “got loose, and, rushing through a small general store, scattered the china and other things exhibited for sale. He went right through the store and was cornered in a lot at the rear, with no way of escape except to go back through the store. When the little German storekeeper was asked what the damage was he bobbed his head up from behind the counter, where he had dodged for safety, and shouted, ‘Nothing, nothing, if you will only take the brute away!’” – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Christmas Trees Opposed by J. Sterling Morton

J. Sterling Morton and his newspaper staff in Nebraska City on May 29, 1899. NSHS RG1013-PH30-11

J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902) had a distinguished political career in this state, serving twice in the territorial legislature, as territorial secretary from 1858 to 1861, and on two occasions as acting territorial governor. He also served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland from 1893 to 1897. His chief legacy, however, is his promotion of tree planting on the prairies, and upon his initiative, the State Board of Agriculture in 1872 established Arbor Day

In 1898 Morton established The Conservative, a weekly, three-column newspaper, in his hometown of Nebraska City to further his economic and political views and to promote agriculture and tree planting. He surely would have applauded the modern advent of the artificial Christmas tree, for on November 23, 1899, he used his newspaper to attack the custom of cutting down healthy trees for use as holiday decorations. Morton wrote:  

“Millions upon millions of the straightest, most symmetrical and vigorous hemlocks, spruces, pines and balsams, will soon be aboard freight cars and going towards cities to be put into homes for Christmas trees, which shall bear tin bells, dolls, bon bons, glass bulbs and all sorts of jimcracks for the amusement of children. The generations following will want for lumber which these Christmas trees would have made.”  

Blocks and other toys at the base of a Christmas tree. NSHS RG5366.PH3-22

Reaction in the Nebraska press to Morton’s criticism of Christmas trees was mixed. The Courier (Lincoln) on December 9, 1899, agreed with him, saying, “The fragrant fir hung with presents, glittering with lights, and surrounded by the beautiful, happy faces of children is a pleasant sight. But it costs the life of a tree and we cannot afford it.” The Kearney Daily Hub said on December 13: “There are a great many of us . . . . who have not stopped to think about it at all . . . and it seems now that attention has been called to the wanton destruction aforesaid, that it ought to be stopped. But he [Morton] shouldn’t deprive us of our Christmas trees without offering us something else.”  

Today realistic artificial Christmas trees (some pre-lit) and living, potted trees for sale or rent have enabled many to dispense with a cut tree for holiday decoration. Traditionalists can still visit a commercial Christmas tree farm to select a living tree. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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The Best-Dressed Doll in the World

A new exhibit opens this evening at the Nebraska History Museum! The Best-Dressed Doll in the World: Nebraska’s Own Terri Lee runs through September 1, 2013, and is also the subject of a richly-illustrated article in the Winter 2012 issue of Nebraska History. The exhibit and article reveal the surprising impact and history of Terri Lee dolls.

While Terri Lee is an unfamiliar name to most people today, the dolls were popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and remain highly collectible today. Much of their popularity was due to brilliant marketing that portrayed the dolls as companions and the owners as “little mothers.” For example, dolls came with an Admission Card to the “Doll Hospital,” where they could be sent for repairs if they were broken or “sick.”

Continue reading

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The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Postman wearing a mask during the 1918 flu epidemic. NSHS RG2071.PHO-1

Nebraska’s last great epidemic was the Spanish influenza, commonly called flu, which hit the United States early in 1918. The scourge had greatly intensified by September and was at its worst during the fall months, throwing a damper on most social gatherings. Even World War I victory celebrations on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, were limited in some towns as the war against the flu continued.  

Symptoms of the disease included high fever, cough, dizziness, and profuse perspiration. Frequently bronchial pneumonia developed, with death following. In Omaha alone there were 974 deaths between October 5 and December 31 due to the flu.  

Life in Nebraska was severely disrupted during the height of the flu epidemic. As the disease spread, doctors and nurses were in short supply. By October the Nebraska State Board of Health had issued an order closing public meetings, schools, churches, theaters, and all types of entertainment. Mail carriers continued their rounds, but wore white face masks for protection. 

There were few holiday activities during the closing days of 1918. Most Christmas gatherings were canceled. Nebraska merchants tried various strategies to offset their losses from the slump in trade. For example, general store owner C. W. Moon of Shelby in Polk County offered “Free County Delivery Service” in order to “help during this present ‘flu’ epidemic.”    

“Flu Sunday,” December 8, 1918, in Shelby, Nebraska. Men wearing protective masks pose near Fred J. Strain’s furniture and undertaking business. NSHS RG2071.PHO-2

As the year ended, the epidemic appeared to be slowing under the strict statewide quarantine rules. Omaha authorities raised the lid to permit their citizens to celebrate the New Year’s holiday. By mid-January 1919, although national news stories indicated the epidemic still was claiming thousands of victims, in Nebraska the worst was over. A New Year’s greeting in the Shelby Sun on December 26, 1918, said:  

“The old year is almost gone. . . . It was ushered in by war, the most terrible in all history; it brought higher prices for everything; it brought short crops and a growing expense account and it brought the flu; but we have met all and conquered.” – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Major Pembleton’s Baby Drummers

Major Pembleton’s Baby Drummers. NSHS RG2856.PH9-57

Major Pembleton’s Baby Drummers, depicted in the photograph above, were a familiar feature at turn-of-the century Grand Army of the Republic reunions in Nebraska. Musician and Civil War veteran M. L. Pembleton (1846-1915), who resided at York, recruited his wife and several of his nine children to form the band. 

It was a novel attraction at the 1897 GAR reunion in Lincoln. The Nebraska State Journal on September 14 noted the excellent music “by the Pembleton baby drummers. The number was very attractive. Two snare drums were placed upon a small platform and were played by two little tots, son and daughter of M. L. Pembleton of York. Mr. Pembleton and his wife played the larger drums. The little people were dressed in the national colors and their performance was very taking.”  

A native of Pennsylvania, Pembleton came to this state in 1876 following service in the Civil War and the Pennsylvania National Guard as a drum major. He also served as a drum major in the Nebraska National Guard. and helped organize the Nebraska State Band Association in 1883. Pembleton as a drum major and band leader became a familiar figure at GAR reunions statewide and at national encampments as well, serving with the National Association of Civil War Musicians, under the auspices of the GAR.  

Pembleton lived at Wahoo, Stromsburg, and York during his life in Nebraska. He died on May 20, 1915, in York, of a heart condition and (according to the York Republican, May 21, 1915) of “the many complicated ills that followed him ever since the war.”  – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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When Conversation Runs Dry…

We are witnessing firsthand the distress a drought causes in an agricultural community. With record temperatures and minimal rainfall, there is little that farmers can do but watch their crops burn to a crisp. Combine that with the current national economy and tough financial times seem unavoidable. But Nebraskans have a history of resilience, and the current situation is far from the worst we have survived.

Devastation was facing Nebraskan farmers in January of 1895. After several years in a row of disaster from hail, fire, grasshoppers, and a severe drought, Nebraskans were going into the winter of 1895 with nothing left, and many months to go before any hope of income. In a time without crop insurance or significant irrigation, their livelihood was at the mercy of the environment.

Nellie Bly, a famous investigative journalist for the New York World, heard of the impoverished conditions in Nebraska and came to research them for herself. She traveled for miles to individual houses in several rural parts of Nebraska and South Dakota, recording the stories of people who lived there. The Spring 1986 issue of Nebraska History reviews what she found, and it was nothing short of tragic.

Nellie Bly in 1890 - five years before her visit to Nebraska. Public domain photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The complete lack of food was the most striking need. Of one family Bly found that: “The man and his wife and six children have had absolutely nothing for months but flour. It is hard to realize the full extent of that statement. Only flour! That means not even little things like salt, pepper, yeast.” Without any income, many families had been forced to destroy their investments in order to live. Many had eaten their seed corn, as well as most of their starving animals. At the time Nellie Bly visited, it was estimated that in six weeks, 80 percent of Boyd County’s population would be in need of food. The situation in Cherry and Butte County wasn’t any better. People were literally starving to death, as well as many dying from illnesses caused by a diet of almost only flour.

“People are ailing with all sorts of complaints. They do not know what is wrong with them, but the doctor does. He tells me it is all due to insufficient food. If the people were Eastern people they would have died long ago, but the inhabitants here are like their horses – they can last a long time on fresh air.”

Weather was another concern. “Hundreds of families will starve and cattle will freeze if there comes a snowstorm,” Bly wrote, “To the mildness of the winter is due the fact that human beings and stock have so far been able to live on pure air and scenery.” Still, the lack of snow did not mean warmth.

January 21, 1895, Bly wrote: “I saw a little of Nebraska weather. Saturday when I drove around to see the destitute people the air was as soft and warm as a day in September; Sunday it was 8 degrees below zero.”

Bly seemed to be expecting this kind of weather by the time she reached Butte, Nebraska: “When I got up for the day I found the water that had stood by my bedside was frozen solid. As for myself – well, I was cheered by being told it was only 20 degrees below zero. Only? I could not believe it.”

One man tried to support his family by selling firewood, but by the time he had traveled to get it, cut it into manageable pieces and taken it to town, he received 75 cents (about 20 dollars in today’s currency) for three days of work. Still, with no food, no clothes, and no prospects, Nebraskans did not ask for aid until they had nothing left. Unfortunately, the aid provided was pathetically insufficient. With no railroads to reach most of the areas that needed help, what little food was donated was left in warehouses with no way to distribute it efficiently. One of the biggest outcomes of Bly’s visit was her effort to improve aid to Nebraska after she returned east.

Thankfully, the effects of this year’s drought were nothing like those of the 1895 disaster. Advancements in communication and transportation alone mean that areas suffering from natural disasters can receive help from the rest of the country. Irrigation has greatly reduced the fragility of crops, and crop insurance provides some financial security from the unexpected. We are recipients of the produce from decades of hard work generations before us. This fall, Nebraskans have many, many things to be thankful for despite the tough weather.

In an upcoming post, we’ll revisit another historic drought that brought President Franklin Roosevelt to Nebraska’s Panhandle.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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Nebraska’s New Deal Art Legacy

Historical treasures can be found in many unexpected places. Sometimes, they may be right in front of us for a long time before we recognize their value. When the New Deal sought to breathe life into the Depression-era economy, scores of public artworks were commissioned around the country. Twelve of those artworks were commissioned to the post offices of twelve Nebraska towns, and are still on public display more than 70 years after their installation.

Nebraska’s Post Office Murals: Born of the Depression, Fostered by the New Deal is a new book from the Nebraska State Historical Society that presents the story of these historical pieces. Richly illustrated with photographs and never-before-published artists’ sketches, the book uncovers interesting aspects of the Depression through its art. Each mural and its artist had a background story, and author Robert Puschendorf follows the journey of each mural to its completion.

To oversee the creation of the public art pieces in federal buildings nationwide, the New Deal created a new division of the United States Treasury: the Section of Painting and Sculpture. In some states, the Section held contests to determine which artists would receive a commission. The artists of Nebraska’s post office murals were not selected by contest, but based on previous experience and, sometimes, their submissions for the contest of a different state.

The post office mural in Hebron, Nebraska, was painted by Eldora Lorenzini.


Project supervisors wanted each of Nebraska’s murals to reflect the interests of the area where they would be displayed. Several of the mural artists made trips to Nebraska to research local history and scenery to incorporate into the mural’s theme. Mural subjects ranged from farming and ranching scenes to historical moments and social life. With such consideration of local interest and history, the murals reveal the spirit of the times from which they emerged.

Although artist Kenneth Everett intended Pawnee City's mural to be a lively social auction, recent Depression memories caused some to think it was a foreclosure of some kind.


Edward Rowan, superintendent of the Section, kept up correspondence with each artist through their draft stages and revisions. These correspondences reveal interesting contrasts between the desires of the Washington executives, the artists, and the local people. Albion, Auburn, Crawford, Geneva, Hebron, Minden, Ogallala, O’Neill, Pawnee City, Red Cloud, Schuyler, and Valentine received murals, and Nebraska’s Post Office Murals contains color foldouts of each final work.

Author Robert Puschendorf, NSHS associate director and the deputy state historic preservation officer, spent years researching the book. With James E. Potter he is the co-author of the Nebraska Book Award-winning Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska Bridges, and has published numerous historical articles.

Nebraska’s Post Office Murals: Born of the Depression, Fostered by the New Deal, is 120 pages and costs $29.95. To order, visit www.nebraskahistory.org/murals or call 402-471-3447.

-Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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