Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Summer 2016 issue.
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Photographer C. W. Bonham’s North Platte Valley ∙
David L. Bristow
A Scottsbluff man was browsing an estate sale in 2014 when he noticed a box full of glass plate photographic negatives. Many were broken, but twenty-six were whole and contained recognizable views of local landmarks. He bought the box, and in so doing rescued some of the work of C. W. Bonham, one of the Panhandle’s most important early photographers.
Dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the photos are some of the finest early views of the North Platte Valley in the Scottsbluff-Gering vicinity. What is more, they document a crucial moment in the valley’s history: the beginning of large-scale irrigation projects that would soon transform the region’s economy.
The purchaser of the negatives, Devin Jacobs, had them scanned and corrected by Ken Kurtz of Spectrum Photo in Gering, then sold the negatives to Jack Preston of the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering. All parties approved the publication of these photos in Nebraska History. Many of the images were printed as picture postcards in the early 1900s; reproductions of the postcards have occasionally been republished in books and articles. We believe, however, that this is the first time the photos have been published as a group, and the first time in more than a century that the images come directly from the original glass plates.
Clarence W. Bonham (1867-1934) was a businessman and professional photographer in Gering. His father, Rev. J. W. Bonham, M.D., was both a physician and an Episcopalian minister in New York City; his mother, Anna, was involved in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement and other moral crusades. But the Bonhams separated and in 1885 Anna moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, relocating to western Nebraska in 1886. She claimed a homestead in Carter Canyon in southern Scotts Bluff County. When she was still “holding down her homestead” three years later, the Gering Courier remarked that the sixty-year-old “deserves a lot of credit for an old lady.”
Clarence apparently came west with his mother; he was living in the area at least by January 1888. He claimed a homestead five miles west of Gering, became involved in the community, and married in 1890.
Although some sources identify C. W. Bonham primarily as a photographer, he listed his occupation as “confectioner” in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census. He and his wife, Nettie, never had children of their own, but Gering children of the day had fond memories of Mr. Bonham, who “made the world’s best ice cream in a child’s mind,” according to a woman quoted in a local history. Another Gering resident remembered riding with his father in a horse and buggy to deliver milk to Bonham’s creamery on the south side of town. Mr. Bonham “would give me a dip of ice cream with a big soup ladle.”
Bonham was a man of diverse interests. His ice cream parlor and photography studio shared a building on Tenth Street. Bonham was among the shareholders of the first local telephone company, established in 1898 and which ran a line between Gering and Alliance. By 1901 he was vice president of the Gering Building and Loan Association, and in 1902-03 served as master of the local Masonic lodge. He was no longer working by the 1920 census, and he and Nettie were living in Florida when she died in 1927. Bonham latter married Nettie’s sister and spent his last years in Los Angeles, where he died in 1934.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2016 issue.
The Wayfaring Judge: Woodrough and Organized Crime in the U.S. District Court ∙ Nick Batter
In 1897, a twenty-four year old attorney came to Omaha to start his career in earnest. He lacked a law degree—or any degree for that matter—but had been admitted to the profession on the basis of having read a few legal treatises and because some prominent citizens vouched for his character. As the century came to a close, the attorney—Joseph William Woodrough—had grown to become one of the “leading legal lights of the State.”
By pure coincidence, just as Woodrough was arriving in Omaha, the city’s four biggest crime bosses were leaving in a hurry, under mysterious circumstances. Their power vacuum would be filled almost instantly by another recent arrival, Tom Dennison, whose career up until that point had consisted almost exclusively of gambling and theft across a variety of frontier towns. By the turn of the century, the gambler was king of Omaha’s underworld, having consolidated power by leveraging corrupt police officials to rout his rivals.
Like Dennison, Woodrough’s path to Omaha was meandrous. Born into family of reknowned Ohio sawmakers, Woodrough developed wanderlust in his teenage years. He traversed Europe by foot with a nephew of future President Theodore Roosevelt and met with Wilhelm II, the newly coronated German emperor. Woodrough took classes at Annenschulen and Heidelberg University but, running out of both money and enchantment for German pedagogy, he left without graduating. He celebrated his eighteenth birthday in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, aboard the Wieland en route home to America.
Woodrough lingered briefly in Omaha, joining a cohort of twenty-one students attending classes in the inaugural year of the Omaha Law School. While a student, he worked under his uncle, William Beckett, attorney for Byron Reed and for wealthy heirs to the Creighton family estate. However, Woodrough hardly lasted the year. His uncle was a firebrand, banned from one courtroom for throwing a punch at a judge (he missed his target, but hit the bailiff square in the face).
Woodrough departed to join even rougher company, arriving in remote Ward County Texas in 1894, an expanse of the Pecos Valley named for a local peg-legged hero whose natural leg was lost to a cannonball during the fight for Texan independence. Woodrough set to work raising cattle, farming onions, and practicing law. The nascent lawyer ran for, and was elected, county judge the same year. The county’s population, which hovered around one hundred, was “as unlearned in civil and criminal codes as it was proficient in the art of quick draw and steady trigger finger.” Undaunted, the twenty-one-year-old judge had gunslingers hauled into his red sandstone courthouse, where they were fined $25 for carrying sidearms in public. Thanks to Woodrough’s enforcement of the laws, “peace soon reigned in the Pecos [Valley].” His contributions to onion farming, perhaps, also warrant note: a Ward County onion would go on to win top prize at the World’s Fair in Saint Louis.
Woodrough’s connections to the Nebraska legal community led him back up tornado alley, to partner in law with William Gurley, a veteran litigator in downtown Omaha. In Woodrough’s first year back, Omaha was capturing the attention of the world with the dazzling electric lights of the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition. Yet the growth and notoriety that would follow contained equal parts darkness. As Dennison’s political machine grew, Omaha continued to garner national infamy for brazen kidnappings, racial violence, and xenophobia. Meanwhile, inefficiencies in the judiciary slowed adjudication to a crawl. Woodrough complained that new cases were simply left “mouldering, like John Brown’s body” (though apparently without marching on in spirit). Woodrough hoped to combat organized crime and disorganized law.
His legal mentor, Gurley, was a prominent enemy of Dennison’s patron, Edward Rosewater. Their feud was such a spectacle that crowds filled the Orpheum theater just to hear them argue—a show “well worth the price of admission.” The Omaha World-Herald recounted Gurley’s eloquence against Rosewater, who retorted while “teetering on tiptoe as he shrieked in high falsetto.” Rosewater, who had the benefit of owning his own newspaper, printed more glamorous accounts of himself. Gurley turned the debate toward Rosewater’s use of cronies and favoritism to build a political machine with men like Dennison working in the shadows. In the end it was a humiliating defeat for Rosewater, who had only “cleaned up” against Gurley “like the man cleaned up the packing house when he was dragged through it by the heels.”
The rivalry would soon impact Woodrough. He was nominated as the Democratic candidate for county judge in 1905. Although his opponent was “not as well versed in the law,” Rosewater campaigned strongly against Woodrough, contributing to his defeat in the general election. Omaha would prove more vexing to Woodrough than any of his previous adventures. Dennison and his associates would be not be disarmed as easily as the frontier gunslingers Woodrough was accustomed to.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2016 issue.
“Uncle Sam’s Sharpshooters”: Military Marksmanship at Fort Omaha and Bellevue, 1882-1894 ∙ James E. Potter
Between 1882 and 1894 U.S. soldiers fired lead bullets by the ton into the butts of the Department of the Platte’s target ranges first located near Fort Omaha and later near Bellevue, some ten miles southeast of the fort. Some of these missiles probably remain buried beneath the modern landscape. Physical evidence of the ranges themselves, like the clouds of black powder smoke that issued from the rifles of the soldiers who used them, has long since disappeared. Yet their story can be resurrected from the historical record to reveal how a system of target practice initiated in the last quarter of the nineteenth century helped produce an “army of marksmen” by the early years of the twentieth.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, training soldiers to shoot with accuracy was low on the U.S. Army’s list of priorities even as it adopted new weapons capable of doing so. Civil War volunteers received little if any instruction beyond how to load and fire their guns as rapidly as possible. According to the tactics of the day, mass volleys from soldiers deployed in ranks were expected to decimate an enemy force by the sheer number of bullets sent in its direction; taking time to aim at individual combatants would actually slow the rate of fire. Later, during the Plains Indian wars, U. S. soldiers’ deficiency in marksmanship became painfully evident during encounters with an elusive foe who fought individually or in small groups and often emerged unscathed by army bullets. Not until the early 1880s, after the Indian wars were nearly over, did the army brass take significant steps to address these shortcomings. They realized that future wars would be waged against foreign armies that were far more disciplined and better armed than the Plains tribes.
In the post-bellum years, Nebraska was within the army’s Department of the Platte, whose headquarters were in Omaha. In 1873 department commander Brig. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord took some of the earliest steps to train soldiers to become better shots. He ordered post and company officers to oversee weekly target practice at the department’s various stations, and published the results in the Army and Navy Journal, including the highest and lowest scores and the names of the respective company commanders. Another of his orders authorized post commanders to use lumber on hand to build target frames because “Recent campaigns against Indians have demonstrated that it is better to expend lumber for targets than for coffins.” After being reassigned to command the Department of Texas, Ord continued to promote target practice and issued a grim but practical admonition: “The soldier is armed so that he may, in battle, hurt somebody with his rifle, and the sooner he learns to do so the better the soldier.”
During the remainder of the 1870s, the army took halting steps toward developing a systematic marksmanship training program, spurred on by Indian wars reverses demonstrating that many soldiers still remained ill-prepared to “hurt somebody” in battle. In 1876 the number of cartridges allocated to each soldier for monthly target practice was increased from ten to twenty. A new manual for rifle instruction was adopted in 1879, and the army ordnance department was delegated to provide ammunition and standardized targets, the latter based on those used by the National Rifle Association. The quartermaster’s department was made responsible for the funding to build and maintain rifle ranges.
General Order 44 issued by army commander Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on May 10, 1881, completed the process of formalizing the army’s marksmanship training. The program would be underpinned by regular target practice held at individual military posts. Scores made during the “target season” would determine the competitors for an annual contest to select the twelve best marksmen in each of the army’s nine administrative departments. The department teams would then compete in the division contest (there were three military divisions in 1882). At each stage, medals and badges would be awarded. The order also provided that the army’s commanding general would select the twelve best marksmen in the army, based on the reports from the departments and divisions, for head-to-head competition in alternate years beginning in 1882.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2016 issue.
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