The Sportsman's Gateway
Sportsmen began penetrating the Sandhills interior during the 1880s. As agriculture swept westward across Nebraska and neighboring states, formerly abundant game animals grew increasingly scarce, and competition for them more intense. By the 1890s, hunters and anglers were coming in droves to the pristine Sandhills grasslands. The region remained much as it had always been because ranching was infinitely more compatible sustaining native wildlife than farming. The port-of-entry for sportsmen going to the lake country of eastern Cherry County was the village of Wood Lake.
To put the timing of this influx of sportsmen in perspective, consider that in 1880 the U.S. Department of the Army established Fort Niobrara in northeastern Cherry County because Sioux Indians on the Spotted Tail Agency (later called the Rosebud Agency) seemed on the verge of revolt in response to the invasion of the Black Hills by gold seekers. Cherry County was not formally organized until March 1883. Only seven years earlier, the Sioux had cut down Custer’s troops at the Little Bighorn. The final massacre of the western Indian wars at Wounded Knee was still seven years in the future.
The Right Place at the Right Time
[ Photo: Like most Sandhills towns, Wood Lake’s population peaked in about 1920, the end of the settlement of free government land under the Kinkaid Act. ]
Blink at 65 miles-an-hour while driving U.S. Highway 20 between Ainsworth and Valentine and you will likely miss Wood Lake. The once thriving town is down to 63 residents according to the 2010 census. There is a good café on the highway and a post office. A hundred years ago Wood Lake’s streets were filled with cattle and cattlemen; and hunters and anglers from eastern Nebraska and larger cities like Des Moines, Chicago, and New York. At its peak in the 1920s, Wood Lake had three banks, two or more livery barns, lumber and hardware stores, cafes, four general mercantile stores, a meat market, shoe repair, pool halls where “all kinds of Temperance Drinks” were available during Prohibition, saloons before and after Prohibition, churches, an automobile dealer, blacksmith shop, hotel, and more. The decline of Wood Lake is more complex than the widespread withering of small towns across Nebraska during the last five decades. It was tied to the nature of the landscape.
The Chicago & North Western Railroad reached eastern Cherry County in 1882. Because the deep Niobrara Valley southeast of Valentine needed to be bridged, construction paused. The railroad built a section house near a small lake. Stores sprouted to provide for railroad workers, freighters hauling goods from the railhead to Fort Niobrara to the northwest, and settlers moving west to claim land. Thus Wood Lake was born. Until highways penetrated the interior of the Sandhills in the 1940s and 1950s, Wood Lake, not Valentine was the biggest cattle shipping point in Cherry County, at one time the largest on the North Western line, and provider of goods for ranchers living as far as 50 miles back in the hills.
A topographic map reveals why Wood Lake was ideally situated for shipping cattle out of eastern Cherry County. Towering, grass-capped sand dunes are oriented roughly northwest to southeast in the Sandhills region, one after another, separated by broad valleys. The shortest and easiest route to drive cattle to a railhead was through those valleys east to Wood Lake. Even though Valentine was a larger town, even in the early-1900s, driving cattle north meant crossing dune ridge after dune ridge, and the Niobrara River.
Sportsmen followed the same valleys to the lake country of eastern Cherry County. Hunters and anglers coming from the south, from North Platte for example, usually went no farther than needed to find a lake with fowl or fish, and that was Diamond Bar Lake in southwestern McPherson County. Anglers from Thedford, Seneca and other towns along the Burlington Northern rail line that sliced diagonally across the Sandhills most often penetrated no deeper into Cherry County than Rat and Beaver lakes south of where the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is located today. But sportsmen from the east jumped off at Wood Lake.
[Photo: As early as1911, an auto livery in Wood Lake was advertising it provided “Special Attention to Hunting and Fishing Parties.”]
Even if there had been a highway south out of Valentine and across the Niobrara River, the cluster of lakes now largely encompassed in the Valentine refuge were closer to Wood Lake than to Valentine. In the days when travel was by horseback, buggy or freight wagon, Wood Lake was the shortest and quickest route for ranchers and for sportsmen. That remained true even in the early days of the automobile, when interior roads were no more than trails frequently passing through blow sand or wet meadows, land more easily traversed by horse-drawn conveyances than skinny-wheeled Model T Fords. Sportsmen coming from the east rented a team and wagon in Wood Lake to get them to where the hunting and fishing was good, where they could pitch their tents, or hired one of the local outfitters or freighters to transport them and their equipment to a ranch or resort that would accommodate them.
“The principal waterfowl breeding ground in Nebraska is the sandhill region with its numerous lakes,” wrote Harry Oberholser and W.L. McAtee, researchers who studied waterfowl and plants used by waterfowl in the Sandhills in 1915. “This area has long been famous as a resort for water birds when migrating; consequently, it has offered great inducements as a hunting ground and has attracted thousands of hunters from all parts of the country, some coming from points as far distant as New York and San Francisco. … In the central eastern portion of Cherry County lies a group of about 65 lakes covering an area about 35 miles square. Visiting sportsmen have built clubhouses on many of the lakes for their convenience when hunting.”
From 1900 until the mid-1930s, the number of hunting clubs in the Sandhills region numbered at least 20, more if loosely organized groups of hunters are counted, hunters who might have lodged in a rancher’s calving shack near a lake. Nearly all were in eastern Cherry County. Among the best known was the Hackberry Club located on the north side of Hackberry Lake where the Valentine refuge headquarters are located today. The Hackberry Club incorporated in the spring of 1914. By 1919, it controlled 1,500 acres of land by deed, encompassing the western half of Hackberry Lake and the eastern half of Watts Lake. Two successful Omaha businessmen were at the core of the Hackberry Club – George Brandeis, president of J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store, and Nelson B. Updike, president of Updike Grain Corporation.
Perhaps the largest and most elaborate hunting club in the region, though, was the Dewey Lake Club, principally composed of hunters from Omaha. “The club organized a little over a year ago with sixteen stockholders and 380 acres of land by purchase, taking in the west one-half of Dewey Lake,” Omaha World-Herald outdoor writer Sandy Griswold wrote in 1915. “If the Dewey Lake Club carries out the plans it now has in its mind’s eye, it will certainly be a peer among peers. Planned improvements included commodious and up-to-date club houses, boat houses, garages and all modern accessories.” Within a year of its establishment, the Dewey Lake Club had grown to 25 members. By 1920 it held deed to about 2,200 acres, and leased the exclusive hunting and fishing rights on an additional 15,000 acres. Though ownership or lease, the Dewey Lake Club had access to ten lakes and controlled the entire shorelines of several.
[Photo: Neal Provost’s hunting and fishing resort on the Marsh lakes, now part of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.]
Similarly, the Red Deer Hunting Club, composed of Lincoln businessmen, established on Red Deer Lake in 1905; and the Elkhorn Hunting Club, composed of Council Bluffs men, bought land on South Marsh Lake in 1917. Some wealthy sportsmen, such as the Woods brothers of Lincoln, purchased and operated working ranches but used grouse and duck hunting to entertain guests who could advance their other business ventures. Brandeis eventually left the Hackberry Club and purchased a large ranch to the west.
But not all hunting clubs were composed of well-to-do eastern hunters. There were clubs comprised of sportsmen from smaller towns such as Valentine, Wood Lake, Long Pine, Clearwater, Seneca, Litchfield, Mason City, Fremont, and others. Most had cabins where they lodged. In addition, local families operated hunting and fishing resorts with cabins, boats, meals, and supplies. Charles Auhl had resorts on Dads and Pelican lakes; and there was the Ballard resort on the west end of Dads Lake, the Peterson Club on Hackberry Lake, Daniel’s and Wendler’s resorts on Rat and Beaver lakes, the Marsh Lake Fishing and Hunting Resort on North Marsh Lake, the Treptow Hunting Lodge north of Brownlee, and others.
Every lake in east-central Cherry County large enough and deep enough to have fish or attract waterfowl had at least one club or resort. From ice-out to ice-up there was a steady stream of sportsmen passing through Wood Lake. Trappers haunted the lakes and marshes in the months. And by the 1920s, ice fishing had become popular. Outdoor recreation was essentially the year around.
“The day was especially fair and by eleven o’clock many cars filled with fishermen from Valentine, Wood Lake, Ainsworth, and surrounding country had arrived and were parked promiscuously about on the ice off Dewey Lake,” the January 22, 1926 The Stockman reported. “Some of the ‘nimrods’ seated themselves on the running board of their jitney while others paced about waiting for a hungry perch to strike, which at times seemed ‘few and far between.’ Although there was a voice of complaint that Perch were biting slowly, most of the fishermen reported a delightful day and everyone brought back enough perch for himself and neighbors.”
Nebraska's Lake Country
"There is but little doubt, I will say in answer to innumerable inquiries, but one of the best countries in the world for feathered game, and for fish, of all kinds, is that lying adjacent to the Elkhorn road [Chicago & North Western Railroad] traversing the state northwestward,” Sandy Griswold wrote in the August 12, 1894 edition of the Omaha Daily Bee. “In many of the localities chicken, quail, plover, geese, ducks, yellow legs, crane and the sand piper family, as well as many varieties of fish, can be found in a single day’s hunt. The season for chicken shooting is now drawing near and all the country between Norfolk and Chadron is overrun with these royal birds.... At almost any of the stations good chicken shooting, coupled with first-class accommodations, can be obtained, and in numerous localities plover and wild fowl are always to be found in abundance in season. ... The best accommodations can be had at many of the ranches and farmhouses where parties do not care to camp out. Many of the Elkhorn’s agents are the best posted as to game and are always ready to introduce sportsmen to reliable persons who will give the necessary information and assistance to insure the best of sport.”
Wood Lake newspapers regularly touted the advantages of the region to sportsmen. After all, hunters and anglers were good for local business.
“In addition to being a cattleman’s paradise, Cherry County also is a sportsman’s paradise,” the editor of Wood Lake’s newspaper, The Stockman, wrote in the June 1, 1928 edition. “Its hundreds of lakes teem with fish—bass, crappie, perch, bluegills and sunfish. In season the chicken hunter can get the limit without undue effort and when the fall duck flight is on the duck hunter who cannot bag the limit is either lazy or a poor shot.” The daily limit on ducks in 1928 was 20 birds.
Nor did the desirability of eastern Cherry County’s lakes escape the attention of the state game and fish department. Not long after the Nebraska Game and Fish Commission was organized in 1901, officials began pushing to set aside some of the larger lakes in eastern Cherry County for public use. W.J. O’Brien, Deputy Fish Commissioner, made an impassioned plea in the Commission’s Biennial Report for the Two Years Ending December 31, 1912. To fund the purchases, he asked that money derived from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses be used to support Commission’s activities, rather than going into the state school fund.
“In my opinion this money should not only be used for fish and game propagation and protection,” O’Brien wrote, “but a portion should be set aside yearly for the purchase of the abutting lands around such lakes as Dewey, Willow, Hackberry and Trout, in Cherry county, so that the general public will for all time have access to such lakes. There are many other lakes that will in a few years afford fine fishing, and the state should own or control frontage on all of them.”
In 1925, the Commission purchased land on the north side of Rat and Beaver lakes, and in 1930 land encompassing Willow Lake and Ballards Marsh, all in eastern Cherry County and all from willing sellers.
In the autumn of 1929, acting on a petition from sportsmen in north-central Nebraska, the Commission declared Big Alkali and Dads lakes in Cherry County to be regulatory refuges and closed to all hunting. Petition supporter F.A. Baldwin of Ainsworth wrote in the October 18, 1929 edition of The Wood Lake Stockman: “These lakes are not feeding grounds [both are moderately alkaline] but are used by the ducks as resting places in their annual flights…. As it has been, all lakes being open, the ducks had no place to rest safely without molestation and so left the state. With guarded places to rest, they will stay longer.” At the same time, Nebraska Game, Forestation and Parks board of commissioners were investigating the possibility of the “purchase of small sites on Long and Clear lakes, to be used as public resorts.”
It was inevitable the lakes of eastern Cherry County would become the premier destination for hunters and anglers in Nebraska, and the village of Wood Lake was not only at their doorstep, it was the stepping stone to reach them.
Under the headline “Wood Lake Has Many Visitors,” The Stockman reported in its September 23, 1927 edition: “Wednesday and Thursday we could almost truthfully say that the east was moving west. Friday was the opening of the duck season which was the cause for the amount of cars which passed through our village on their way to the lakes in pursuit of the native duck. As high as six and ten foreign cars were in our streets all the time loading supplies, inquiring the road and asking for other information. The season opened well and was well celebrated by the number of explosions throughout the country.”
Ranchers were the principal customers for Wood Lake business, but the sportsmen traffic was a profitable sideline. Most businesses in town benefitted from it, even the undertaker as in the early-1900s that was the proprietor of the G.W. O’Halloran Lumber Company, who sold coffins and provided for the departed on the second floor of his building; while on the first floor he sold hardware and household goods, ranch supplies, and sporting equipment. Both George Washington O’Halloran and his son, James E., were avid sportsmen, and kept their store stocked with a full line of hunting, fishing, and camping equipment. Lausen and McDaniel, another Wood Lake lumber and hardware business, competed with O’Halloran. A September 25, 1925 advertisement in The Stockman, claimed Lausen and McDaniel was: “Headquarters for Guns and Ammunition” and “Sporting Goods of All Kinds.”
[Photo: Any lake in eastern Cherry County large enough to have fish and attract waterfowl had at least one resort or private hunting club. The photo here is from Pelican Lake, now part of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.]
Of the two stores O’Halloran went the extra mile to draw the sportsman’s trade. During the mid-1920s, for example, O’Halloran sponsored an annual big-fish context. In 1926, the first place prize for the largest bass was a Shakespeare level-wind reel, second prize a Shakespeare casting rod, third a spool of Shakespeare line and fourth a spinner bait. By June 18, Jap Holiday held the lead in the big-bass contest with a five pound, 11 ounce fish. A month later, a six pound four ounce largemouth caught in North Marsh Lake was in the lead. Some years the contest included other species of fish. The Stockman edition of July 3, 1925 noted “Art Greener of Johnstown entered a fourteen and one-half inch trout he caught in Plum Creek in the Trout Contest at O”Halloran’s. Roy Birdsall entered a five lb. bass, which is the largest, so far … and Clint Day is still in the lead on perch. He has one entered in the contest which weights one and one fourth lbs.”
The Nebraska Fish Commission began stocking Sandhills lakes in the 1880s. It is said that prior to that time the Sandhills had no fish other than stunted bullheads and perhaps native pickerel because the shallow lakes frequently winterkilled. Stocked with largemouth bass, catfish, bluegills, perch, and crappie, though, they soon became topflight still-water fishing lakes in a state where nearly all fishing was in streams.
Providing for Hunters and Anglers
[Photo: Many Wood Lake businesses profited from the sportsman’s trade, including O’Halloran’s lumber company as it stocked a full line of hunting and fishing equipment. This advertisement is from Wood Lake’s newspaper, The Stockman, September 13, 1929.]
Among the Wood Lake business profiting from the sportsman’s trade were the freight, livery and dray services. Through the second decade of the 1900s, two such businesses – Howe & Montagne and H.A. Lyons – ran display ads in the Wood Lake newspaper each spring and fall noting: “Special Attention to Hunting and Fishing Parties.” As early as September 1911, L.E. Brown was advertising his “Auto Livery” that also provided “Special Attention to Hunting and Fishing Parties.”
[Photo: The Uck & Lausen painted on the side of this wagon being used by hunters was sold by Uck, Lausen & Company of Wood Lake. It also sold ranch supplies, hardware and household goods.
One name reappears again and again during the early-1900s as seeing to the needs of hunters and anglers – Ulysses Grant Welker. In 1901 he established Welker Livery Barn and Service at Wood Lake. As a sideline, Welker transported and guided hunters and fishermen. If you were a party of hunters from Omaha planning and setting up a tent camp on Ballards Marsh to hunt ducks, Welker was the man who would freight you and your gear from Wood Lake even if it required two or three, four-horse teams pulling freight wagons. When the Red Deer Hunting Club ordered new Mullin’s duck boats and had them shipped directly from the factory to Wood Lake, it was Welker who freighted them to the lodge; and Welker who freighted blocks of coal and other supplies to many of the lodges and resorts. In addition to the freighting business, he owned the eastern half of Dewey Lake where he operated his own resort. And, Welker was frequently a middleman in land transactions between early settlers and men like George Brandeis who wanted to acquire hunting grounds in eastern Cherry County.
Wood Lake apparently was also richly supplied with local men who for a coin would guide or transport hunters and anglers even though it was not their primary occupation, as the local newspaper frequently ran such short items as: “Ely Valentine piloted a hunting party through the lake country several days last week.” Or: “A. Schlueters have some hunters out from Stanton and Beemer.” The Steamer noted, surely in jest, in its September 15, 1911 edition that: “C.R. Kinkead is the cheapest man that hunters can get to drive thorough the sand hills. He has been known to drive around with a company of six and furnish cigars for the crowd for two days and only charged them three dollars.”
[Photo: Several Wood Lake livery stables catered to the needs of hunters and anglers, renting wagons and teams or delivering parties to their destinations. This advertisement is from The Wood Lake Steamer, September 8, 1911.]
Some hunters came every year to hunt, staying with the same ranch families. Friendships often grew from such relationships, and ranch families were invited to cities where the hunters lived and shown equal courtesies. “Grant Welker and sons, Russel and Evert, returned home Monday after a week’s visit among their sporting friends in Omaha,” The Wood Lake Steamer reported in November 24, 1911.
The Lake View Hotel, located immediately south of the depot (where the county yards are today), accommodated not only traveling salesmen and ranchers staying in town overnight, but sportsmen coming and going. There were two westbound and two eastbound passenger trains daily in the 1920s; and occasionally passenger cars were added to freight trains if needed. Because of the sometimes-late hours when trains arrived or departed, guests could check into the Lake View night or day, and travelers could get “lunches at all hours in its café.” The hotel, which was enlarged several times, advertised in the September 8, 1911 edition of The Wood Lake Steamer it was “…known by traveling men as The Best on the Line. Ranchmen and Farmers find it an Ideal Place. Nothing is too good for the customers of Joe Wiesner.” Although the hotel seemed to do a brisk business in the early-1900s, its ownership frequently changed.
[Photo: The Lake View Hotel and its café was open 24 hours a day to accommodate ranchers, salesmen and sportsmen arriving or departing at odd hours on Chicago & North Western passenger trains.]
"There is one other old timer, who must not, nor shall not, be overlooked,” Sandy Griswold wrote in the January 1, 1925 edition of the Omaha World-Herald, “and that is Neal Provost, an experienced ranch and cattle man, and all round good sportsman, the original caretaker of the Brandeis Club on Hackberry and the proprietor of that cozy old hunters' hostelry, the Lake View house at Wood Lake, and which is presided over in a most generous and charming manner by the very estimable Mrs. Provost. It is a legendary old tavern, with its mine of old tales of the heavenly days of the past, and it is a delight to even stop there for a day or two en route to or from the archipelago of wonderful lakes to the southwest, some twenty or thirty miles."
Provost, like Welker, was a man who wore many hats. In addition to owning the Lake View Hotel at one time and being the caretaker for the Hackberry Club, he ran his own hunting and fishing resort on the Marsh lakes. Men coming to the Sandhills to hunt or fish, and those who provided for them, frequently seemed to cross paths on the streets of Wood Lake.
In addition to the trade sportsmen spread on Wood Lake businesses, all of the resorts and clubs employed local people to cook and generally look after things. And it was not unusual for clubs and resorts to host parties and dances. The Stockman of February 3, 1928, for example, noted: “A number of Wood Lake young people attended the dance at the Peterson Club on Hackberry Lake Saturday.”
Vice President Dawes
While most sportsmen going to the Sandhills were just regular folks, the region did attract notables, including Vice President Charles G. Dawes and General John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force in WWI. During the 1920s, Pershing was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and hence had significance influence over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Both Dawes and Pershing were in positions of considerable influence in awarding enormous government contracts. In October 1926, both were hunting guests at the Woods brother’s Red Deer Ranch. The Woods family of Lincoln had diverse business interests, including lucrative contracts with the federal government building railroad bridges, locks, dams and sea walls along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the Gulf Coast, projects administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Government contacts were critical to their businesses. P.J. Hindmarsh wrote in the October 1927 issue of Field and Stream, under the title "Hunting with the Generals," that the brothers bought the ranch “…partly as an investment, and I suspect that the fact of its being a fine place to entertain their sportsmen friends had some bearing on the purchase.” Million dollar business deals may have been sealed in tippy little Mullins duck boats on Ballards Marsh or Red Deer Lake.
[Photo: The Chicago & North Western Railroad reached eastern Cherry County in 1882 and Wood Lake grew up along side of it. Passenger trains were discontinued in 1958, and the last freight train passed through Wood Lake in 1992. ]
While everything was probably done to keep Dawes and Pershing sheltered from the public, Dawes did make a short talk at the Wood Lake depot before departing, and the occasion was noted in the October 8, 1926 The Stockman: “After a very successful hunting trip in the sand hills of Cherry county, the Vice President and party arrived in Wood Lake Monday evening to take the train east. They were greeted by a large crowd of people The Wood Lake band furnished music for the occasion and was highly complimented by the vice president. He gave a short talk in which he spoke of this part of the state as a wonderful hunting place. He was very much pleased with the hospitality of the people and expressed his desire of being with us again another year.”
George Brandeis, Nelson Updike, and Charlie Metz (who purchased a ranch encompassing Code Lake for his hunting pleasure), all of Omaha, like the Woods brothers, also used hunts to promote business ventures. It was not uncommon during the early-1900s to see private rail cars transporting well-heeled sportsmen pulled off on the siding at Wood Lake.
“At Fremont we joined a number of the members of the Red Deer Hunting Lodge, composed of Lincoln sportsmen, all good fellows, enjoying themselves in their private Pullman, and going out to initiate their new club house,” P.J. Hindmarsh wrote in the article "A Nebraska Duck and Chicken Hunt" appearing in the March 1907 issue of Outdoor Life magazine.
While out-of-town sportsmen seemed everywhere during the best times of the year for hunting or fishing, Wood Lake proper was amply populated with chasers of fin and feather. Their comings and goings was frequent fodder for the personals section of the Wood Lake newspaper, and its editor was not above jabbing locals in the ribs. From the November 17, 1911 Steamer: Mr. Hoefs and Mr. Koch have spent most of the week hunting at Marsh Lake and Goose Creek but have no game to show for their efforts. They recommend plunge baths in Marsh Lake as fine winter sport.” Or, in the September 22, 1911 edition: “Last Friday Ed Belsky, Tobie Pritchard, Geo. Hicks and Floyd Farlow went out to Wendlers lake duck hunting. After using up about 150 shells they succeeded in bagging five mallards. They got back about 2 P.M. when Ed Belsky begged to be excused. He said he had to hurry back to his place to meet a couple of cattle buyers. We suspect, however, that there was a woman in the case, as usual.”
The local newspaper also noted the presence of state or federal game wardens, it not being clear if the purpose was just reporting the news or a public service to sporting subscribers inclined to bend the game laws now and then.
It was inevitable, with so many sportsmen currycombing the almost exclusively private land of eastern Cherry County year after year that conflicts would arise. It was ranchers who hosted the hunters and anglers, often whether they wanted them or not. There were chronic complaints of trespassing, gates left open, fires started by a careless smoker, roads and pastures torn up by automobiles, and other mischief. Caught in the middle were Wood Lake businessmen who wanted the sportsmen’s dollar as well as the rancher’s trade. That included the local newspaper. It was not uncommon in the 1920s for the same edition to run display ads paid for by local businessmen to attract hunters, and a list of ranchers who did not allow hunting on their land. And the newspapers printed and sold “No Trespassing” signs for pennies each.
[Photo: This cartoon ran in the September 30, 1927 edition of Wood Lake’s newspaper, The Stockman, and hinted at the conflict between more and more sportsmen coming to hunt, and nearly all of the hunting being on private land.]
The conflict was expressed in two letters to the editor in The Stockman in January 1928. The first was from G.C. Young, a rancher about 22 miles south of Valentine, on the eastern edge of the gathering of lakes.
“Many times during the eight and one-half years we have lived here we have been bothered by having our gates left open, and letting our stock out on our hay, our neighbor’s hay, of getting mixed with neighbor’s cattle,” Young wrote. “Never have we let out a howl about it, that is out loud, for we have never known who was responsible. We just blamed it onto the hunters and fishermen, and justly so, most of the time, we think.”
Young continued with a detailed account of an occasion when someone drove through a wire gate, tearing it down, pulling staples from 18 posts down from the gate, and breaking a post. When the driver left the same pasture through another gate he left it open. Young wrote all his gates had signs asking those passing through to close them.
“If the outside hunters and fishers, especially the large number that have over-run this region for the last few years, could be stopped from coming here, nine-tenths of the lake region would be more than pleased,” Young continued. “Putting it a little stronger, if a canvas of the ranches in the lake region was made, ten-tenths of them, with the exception of those running resorts, would be in favor of stopping them.
“Why, say, if Wood Lake was dependent for livelihood upon the fishers and hunters that are induced to come here thru advertizing the fishing and hunting of this region, as well as those who need no such inducement, she would have been dead so long ago even the buzzards wouldn’t notice her.”
Two weeks later, a writer identified only as “A Good Sportsman,” replied. The writer began by stating he had been “out with a lot of fishers and hunters…and I can say that I have never left a gate open, or any of them that has been with me.
“But I can say that if this rancher only knew it,” the sportsman continued, “that four-fifths of their gates are left open by their wives or children. As they have so many of their gates so tight that a woman or child can not open them, or if they do get them open it is quite impossible for them to shut them again. I know a woman that about a week ago worked for about two hours to get one of these gates open. Now I wonder if this rancher expected her to shut this gate.”
“As to the cattle men being the back bone of Wood Lake,” the writer continued, “maybe they are right there and maybe not, that is for Wood Lake to decide. But one thing more, are the ranchers so sure that they run Wood Lake? I am afraid if it was not for the fishers and hunters that Wood Lake would not get very fat off the ranchers either.”
The sportsman writer concluded with the expected, and probably accurate assessment, that a few bad apples ruin it for responsible sportsmen.
There had been, no doubt, such feelings and conflicts between ranchers and sportsmen for decades, particularly in the late-1800s and early-1900s when market hunters scoured the hills for young grouse long before the legal shooting season commenced. It peaked again in the mid-1920s when sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens were in decline, and there future so precarious there was talk of closing the hunting season for several years. It was the perfect time for ranchers to lock the gates to their land for hunting.
[Photo: Hunting sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens for the market was not completely banned until 1907, and prior to that Wood Lake was a major shipping point. Eastern Cherry County remained one of the favored destinations for grouse hunters until the season was closed in 1928. There was not another hunting season allowed until 1950.]
The Cherry County Protective Association organized in 1928. Most of its members were ranchers, but apparently there were sportsmen involved as well, local sportsmen who, no doubt, were secure in having permission to hunt the same ranches they had always hunted. The mission of the Association was simple: “the protection of wild birds,” specifically grouse. The September 14, 1928 edition of The Stockman noted: “Most all of the ranchers have voluntarily given consent to stop all hunting and trespassing upon their land.” While there were, no doubt, ranchers truly concerned about the future of grouse, for many it was a convenient premise, a noble cause even, to be rid of pesky hunters. The Wood Lake newspaper, again riding the fence, reported fully on the effort, sold “No Hunting” signs to ranchers at 10 cents each, and at the same time accepted advertising from local businesses selling goods or providing services to sportsmen.
The Stockman noted in its September 21, 1928 edition: “Friday and Saturday a great number of cars filled our streets completing their last shopping before venturing farther on their duck hunt. The resorts were filled to an overflow with not room enough for all to have accommodations. A great line of tents were pitched along the lake shores of Dewey and Marsh.” And in another short article about the Cherry County Protective Association: “The members, we are informed, are most all ranchers in the community and from the sales of posters the last week almost every one in the community has posted their ranches. We hope they will push their convictions and protect the chickens. They belong to the rancher, he feeds them and now he has to protect them.”
That was the last year grouse were legal game in Nebraska until a hunting season was again opened in 1950. Nothing was written of the Cherry County Protective Association in the autumn 1929 editions of The Stockman, perhaps because there was no grouse-hunting season and so need to guard them. The September 6, 1929 edition, and subsequent editions that autumn, though, continued to publish a list of landowners not allowing hunting or trespassing and noted they were doing so: “In order to help protect the interest of ranchmen against the promiscuous shooting in pastures….” The newspaper again sold “No Hunting” signs that by then cost 25 cents apiece.
At the same time, in the late-1920s, roads became a prominent issue. Not unexpectedly, the sportsmen traffic also figured into demands for better roads, better maintenance of existing roads and fewer gates on heavily used interior roads. By 1928, there was a call for the state to assume building and maintaining a better roadway between Wood Lake and Valentine. At the time there was a poorly maintained route known as the Blue Pole Highway, so called as blue stripes were painted on posts and poles every so often so drivers unfamiliar with the route would not be lost. Everyone, it seems, was buying an automobile during the 1920s.
[Photo: This map shows why Wood Lake was the preferred town to pass through to reach the cluster of lakes in eastern Cherry County—it was closer than Valentine, the roads followed valleys and it was not necessary to cross the Niobrara River. By the 1940s, though, the time of this map, there was an oil road from Valentine south to the lake country and Wood Lake’s importance began to diminish.]
“Four years ago when we started to Valentine we always planned on from three and one half to five hours with about twenty-six miles of sand three feet to six inches deep, but when we were closer to Valentine the roads were better,” the editor of The Stockman wrote in the March 23, 1928 edition, of the trip that today takes about twenty minutes on U.S. Highway 20. “We can now go to Valentine without so much worry and in about an hour’s time. We also have roads running out to where the ranchers can come to town in the spring with other means of travel than a row boat.”
As roads slowly improved, autos were more commonly used, drivers became less patient, and the issue of all the gates to open and close between the lake country and Wood Lake became even more of an issue. Most ranchers were of the opinion that as Wood Lake business benefitted from their patronage, they, or some level of government, should foot the bill for auto gates that could be driven over without stopping.
“This spring has been very unfortunate for the old style gate,” The Stockman reported in its June 13, 1928 edition. “The new style auto gate…has proven a great success. All the progressive ranches have found that the gates are a very paying investment, which will relieve them of much trouble for no gates will be left open by travelers or others passing thru. The road from Wood Lake to Brownlee via the 21 Ranch in a few days will be free from all old style gates.” Under pressure from ranchers, the Wood Lake Community Club footed the bill to buy and install auto gates on major interior roads into town from the south.
An amusing sidelight to the great road debate of the late-1920s definitely revolved around auto-bound sportsmen traveling between towns and the lake country. At the time, there was great interest in a major north-south highway through the interior of the Sandhills region. Both Ainsworth and Valentine were competing to be on the north end of it. As a result, apparently, Ainsworth did everything possible to discourage travel westward on what today is U.S. Highway 20 to Valentine, including directing sportsmen to the lake country of eastern Cherry County on routes bypassing Wood Lake. It was rumored Ainsworth businessmen were telling hunters and anglers to take shortcuts via roads south of town. Travelers were reported lost, sometimes eight or nine miles from the road that would take them west to the lakes.
The Stockman editor addressed this rumor in the July 20, 1928 edition: “They all say that business men of Ainsworth directed them to go that way, because of a shorter distance. When they discover that roads are graded from Wood Lake to the lakes they believe that Ainsworth has it in for them and wishes to get them lost. Most all of them return through Wood Lake. It does not seem to me that people could be so narrow as to give a stranger a ride over such roads, because they might not be able to sell them the last pint of gas or the last pound of butter or maybe a five cent [fishing] hook.” Ainsworth denied the rumor, and within a few days sent a delegation to meet with the Wood Lake Community Club to convince them of its fallacy.
Beginning of the End
Wood Lake began to lose its advantage as the gateway to the lake country of eastern Cherry County in the 1930s. The first blow was the drought of that decade. While Cherry County fared better than most Nebraska counties, its precipitation approaching normal most years, the lakes withered, fish died, fisherman and waterfowl hunters no longer came in droves. Travel was expensive and few people could afford travel unless it was a necessity. Then, in 1935, the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge was established, encompassing almost all of the best lakes for duck hunting and fishing. Resorts and private hunting-fishing clubs vanished. Tens of thousands of acres of uplands were closed to grouse hunting. Several refuge lakes were open to fishermen once they recovered from the drought and were restocked with game fish, but the refuge would not be open to grouse hunting until 1965, and three of its lakes to waterfowl hunting until 1977.
But the real killer was improved roads. Road construction accelerated during the depression of the 1930s as federal money became available to states in “make-work projects.” U.S. Highway 20 from Ainsworth to Valentine was graded and oiled. A new and better bridge, Bryan Bridge, was completed over the Niobrara River southeast of Valentine in 1932.
And, apparently, there were politics involved in road construction. Samuel Roy McKelvie, the long-time editor of Nebraska Farmer magazine, served as Nebraska’s governor for two terms, 1919-1923. In 1931, he bought a 3,000-acre ranch 16 miles south of Valentine and named it the By-the-Way Ranch after his Nebraska Farmer column. It has been written that McKelvie’s endorsement of a candidate for the governor, the candidate who won, subsequently played a role in construction of what is today U.S. Highway 83 south out of Valentine. The road was graded and oiled prior to World War II to within one mile of McKelvie’s ranch and then stopped. When World War II broke out, money, materials and manpower essentially vanished for domestic roadwork. What would be U.S. Highway 83 had been completed to about the middle of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Sportsmen could, via Valentine, reach the lake country entirely on improved and oiled roads from the north; but yet in the late-1950s, the road north out of Thedford was graded and graveled for about eight or ten miles and then devolved into a web-work of interior trail roads north to the Valentine refuge.
Cattle were already being trucked during the 1930s, and by the mid-1940s the days of driving herds of cattle out of the Sandhills interior east through valleys to Wood Lake to be shipped were essentially over. Stock trucks, called “straight semis” at the time, could carry 30 or 35 head of yearling cattle and began carrying livestock from ranch to rail lines, and even to feeders in northeastern Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. Passenger travel by rail was replaced by travel by automobile. Chicago & North Western passenger trains were discontinued in 1958, and the last freight train passed through Wood Lake in 1992. From the 1960s on, Wood Lake began to suffer the fate of many small towns in Nebraska – people were willing to drive farther for lower prices, fresher produce, bigger stores offering larger selections and more conveniences. Valentine and Ainsworth prospered, small towns like Wood Lake withered.
The Best of Everything
“Wood Lake is a village tucked away in the sandhills, far from the hum, noise and care of the more thickly populated districts,” The Stockman of January 6, 1928 reported. “On the most part it is filled with clean, upright, honest people, people who desire to see the community kept abreast with the times.
“We have a great deal to be happy and proud about. We have sunshine and plenty of air. Our air is not filled with soot and smoke from a thousand stacks. In New York city mothers carry their babies into the streets to search for a ray of sunshine so that they might be healed of disease due to lack of sunshine and fresh air. In this place all we have to do is step out of doors and absorb all we want.
“We have hunting and fishing at our doorstep. People travel hundreds of miles to enjoy that which we can enjoy in a few minutes drive in a car. Our lakes are well stocked with fish, our hills teem with wild life, ducks stop here in their migratory flight, while some nest here during the summer months. We have the best.”