A Love Story (The First Homesteader in Northern Saunders County)
by Dorothy Boettner
by Dorothy Boettner
the banks of Danish Langeland Island, just south of Copenhagen and very near
the northern shore of Germany, a handsome young Danish lad was staring out to
sea. He was pondering a decision he must
make very soon -- a decision that could and would change his life forever.
On his next birthday he would be of age to be targeted for conscription in the army. He didn’t want that or the way it would direct his life. He loved his native Denmark but he wanted to plant and reap and farm like his father and grandfather.
There was only one way to escape serving in the army and that was to flee to America -- “the land of the free.” But that would mean leaving his parents, his brothers and his beloved land and North Sea. And he loved his church and warm thoughts came to his mind of the pretty little girl, Christine, who sometimes sat beside him there. Could he leave all this, forever?
Right now there was a ship in the Copenhagen harbor ready any day to sail for America. If he left he promised his mother he would always write often and he’d try to come back to visit when he made a lot of money.
When the ship sailed the following week, that young man, Julius Christensen, was on board; so were a couple of other Danish boys from the area.
The passage was a good one and soon they saw the Statue of Liberty on the horizon and they arrived at Ellis Island. They dropped anchor and, as all ships carrying foreign immigrants were required to do they were quarantined for several weeks for health checks. But the three Danish boys couldn’t wait -- when the officers weren’t looking they jumped overboard and swam to shore. They soon found the “Hiring Agency” they had been told about and started sorting out the best jobs that were offered to them. They finally chose to sign a three year contract with a logging company in Wisconsin. It offered to pay the best salary; so lumberjacks they were to become!! The bosses were tough and crude. The traveling was primitive and uncomfortable and took forever, it seemed. Julius tried hard to push away the question, “Where is this Wisconsin?” Finally, they came to a logging camp in a wilderness of beautiful trees. It was far, far from any settlement but it was next to the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan and it was cold! Their quarters were bare and simple but the food was good and nourishing. The seasoned lumberjacks were rough and noisy and bossy and not very kind. But the Scandinavian boys got along with them real well.
For three long years they worked from early morning to late at night, seven days a week. All this time they never saw any civilization or hardly any other people. They proved their worth though, for they were excellent workers and they grew strong and rugged. They felled trees and loaded them on to boats for transport to Chicago. Each time a ship left, Julius had a letter to home ready to send with them.
Julius kept accurate count of their days and when the three years were up the company settled with them and they got their money but the bosses would not let them go on the ship that was ready to sail the next morning because they said that Julius’ count was not accurate and they must put in one more week of work and then go on with the next ship.
But after everyone was asleep that night, Julius and the other two jumped in the lake and swam out to the boat, they crept on and hid themselves among the logs. But, the next morning as there were sailing halfway down the Lake a terrible storm came up and the logs began to shift and roll. To save themselves from injury or death, they crawled out of their hiding place among the logs and found the crew sick and stretched out limp and quite useless to steer the ship. The three boys, all excellent sailors on much rougher voyages in the North Sea righted the ship, latched down the loose logs and sailed the boat into Chicago. But again they immediately had to jump overboard and swim to safety on the Chicago shore. They found many places that wanted to hire them. Julius hired on at the U. P. Railroad. He wanted to get down to the Nebraska he’d heard about. He wanted to get hold of some land. He wanted so desperately to farm. But he needed more money and the U. P. paid well.
He worked south and west along the line, he helped build railroad bridges crisscrossing heavy logs as bridge foundations. When he reached Omaha, he heard some startling news that a Chris Christensen was the livery stable manger in Fremont, Nebraska, which was close by Omaha. Could that be his younger brother, Chris? Could he have fled to America to avoid the draft. He kept on with the job a while longer to earn enough cash to pay down on some land. He wanted a farm, and the soil and plantings and prairie looked so lush in this eastern Nebraska place.
One night while playing cards he beat his opponent so badly that the man owed him $100. However, he didn’t have any money so Julius finally settled for a piece of paper that the man told him was worth $80. He said the paper was an application for a homestead -- free land he said. Now Julius had never head of the Homestead Act of 1862 or of President Lincoln or even much about the Civil War that had just ended a few years ago. But he took the paper, not that he thought it was worth much, but he couldn’t get money out of the guy anyway, and maybe it was better than nothing. He stored it with his meager belongings.
At Fremont, he looked up the Livery Stable and to his everlasting joy and astonishment there was his brother, Chris! Chris was dumbfounded to see him -- he hardly recognized him because the boy he remembered had matured into a hearty strong man. Chris and Julius’ family had thought Julius was dead as they had not heard from him for well over three years. Julius then realized the lumberjacks had never mailed his letters.
Julius wrote immediately to his parents and asked about the girl, Christine. Soon, he knew that all was well in Langeland and that Christine had blossomed into a 19-year-old beauty. Now he knew just what he wanted. He wanted to buy some farm land somewhere around Fremont and build a house of sorts and have a family. He showed Chris the slip of paper he had gotten as a gambling debt and Chris shouted for joy! That paper was the first step towards getting a free homestead -- 80 acres free after living on it for 5 years! Julius was astounded and wanted to know all about it. He would start homestead proceedings right away. He looked around for a place on which to file a claim. It seemed like most of the land close to Fremont in Dodge County, on the north side of the Platte River, was gobbled up. So why not go South of the river? No one had risked that, yet, as everyone said that was Pawnee Indian territory, and they might become hostile. But that didn’t seem to bother Julius. Soon he laid claim to an 80 acre tract of virgin Prairie about five miles south of the river on the trail that connected Lincoln and Wahoo to the Lee Ferry Boat landing on the bluff across from Fremont. *
Soon, Julius had a small two room house built along the trail beside a bubbling brook. He bought a team of horses and a lumber wagon and built a crude make-shift shelter for them on the other side of the trail.
Now, he was ready to write to Christine and ask her to come to Nebraska and be his bride. He wanted her to share his dream of making a life on the prairie of Nebraska.
He wrote but to his utter disappointment he received no answer. Several months passed and he still didn’t get a reply. His hopes were dashed, but he contacted brother Chris who kept in touch with Christine’s uncle who live in Omaha. And to his overwhelming delight, Christine was already here in America -- she was in Omaha at her Uncle and Aunt’s place. She had been waiting for word from Julius but not receiving any, she came anyway. She had written her answer “yes” to Julius but the better had never gotten to him.
He immediately hitched his faithful team to the wagon and started off on the little used trail to Omaha.
When he saw Christine, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. They were married right away and soon started back on the trail to his homestead. Darkness and a storm overcame them and the trail became invisible so they stopped and Julius took the wagon off the running gears and made them a safe, dry spot to sleep out the night by covering them with the upside down wagon bed. The morning came sunny and bright. Julius got his bearings and they were just over a couple of hills from home. What a homecoming that was! Julius’ dreams had come true.
Never was a young couple so in love and so happy. Christine fixed the little two room house into a lovely, snug home. Together they planted a garden with an asparagus bed and flowers and some trees. The starts for these plantings came from Denmark and friends of brother Chris in Fremont.
Soon, Christine found she was carrying a baby and their happiness was even more complete. Baby Andrew William was born, a happy, healthy, fine boy. Julius enlarged the house and built a barn on the other side of the trail. That was usually the practice on the prairie. All was well. The garden grew, the baby grew and the homestead grew. In a few years their five year settlement time would be up and they would own their homestead!! What pride and joy they felt. It was to be the first homestead in Saunders County. The little settlement around Julius’ homestead began to grow. Julius’ brother, Rasmus came and filed a claim for a homestead not far northeast from Julius and Christine’s. Other people came, mostly Danish pioneers, many needing help to get started. Julius and Christine always helped.
The County surveyed the area for roads that would follow section lines. That meant that the section road to the East of Julius’ land would eventually be highway 77. The old trail was shut off and abandoned. The ferry boat was replaced by the first wooden bridge farther down the river to the east.
Rasmus moved his unfinished buildings to be on the east side of the new section road. But Julius and Christine wanted to keep their dwelling by the garden and orchard they had started. The old trail down to their place became their driveway.
As years went on Christine seemed to droop and tired easily. She discovered she was pregnant again and was having a hard time getting things done. Julius helped as much as possible and they both, reasoned that the stress was due to her being pregnant. But Julius was uneasy as he could see she was going down hill fast.
1875 dawned and, joy of joy, the homestead became totally theirs. The certificate that states this, and signed by President U. S. Grant came in the mail. A precious document, indeed. (It is now framed and hands on granddaughter, Evelyn Reid’s wall.)
The new baby was born. Brother Andrew was now four-years-old. Christine was tire and worn out. She began to realize she had Consumption (today known as TB) -- that dreaded disease that was taking so many lives. The baby must have had it, too. Before 1875 was ended, both mother and baby were dead.
Julius’ grief was devastating. Christine had been the very light of his life and she was gone and so, too, the new baby boy! Nothing could help Julius in his darkest hour except little Andrew’s great need for him.
Julius buried mother and son side by side in a spot in the garden which he could see from his chair by the window. For a time he went through the motions of taking care of Andrew and doing the chores and sitting by his window and grieving for his beloved wife. But after a few very hard days he got up with a purpose, bundled up Andrew and drove his team north to Fontanelle, Nebraska where there was a community of Danish settlers. He advertised for a house keeper that he could hire to help him raise Andrew and to keep house for him.
Mery Petersen accepted readily. She was a plump little 20-year-old lady with a happy disposition. She was a very capable house keeper, cook and seamstress. She did a great job with Andrew and made the little home very comfortable and happy.
Julius worked hard and when he was home he played with Andrew and sat in his chair looking out on the graves of his loved ones. He wanted the best for them and knew they should be moved to a cemetery. So he deeded a piece of land from his homestead to the northeast on the west side of the section road for a cemetery. But he wasn’t ready to move his precious ones yet. Let that wait awhile.
Andrew grew and became his father’s constant companion. Julius pondered about it and worried that a cemetery should be connected with a church like they were in Denmark. So, again, near the end of the century he deeded another parcel of land just south of the cemetery for a church. He deeded this to the little community of Danish settlers around his homestead. They had organized a church a few years ago and had been meeting in their various homes because they had no church. They were dreaming of one to build some day so if would be like the “Old Country.” This generous gift of land given them by Julius was so wonderful and they were very grateful to him. They were right to work raising money and leveling off the ground. By 1900, they had a little church built just south of the cemetery. There were very proud and happy. Pastors came to offer help and the services were done in the Danish language.
Julius was a wonderful neighbor and helpmate to them all. He was a good farmer and a leader in the community. He enlarged his holdings by purchasing some Union Pacific land across the new road from the church. He was very frugal, almost “tight” some said. He had money saved. He became the “banker” for many of the struggling homesteaders. He never turned down a request for help.
Andrew grew to manhood and was faithful to the church. He became superintendent of the Sunday School and kept that job the rest of his life. He fell in love with Annie Nelson, daughter of a neighbor and their wedding was the first performed in the new church, December 20, 1900.
Mery Petersen, a very fine lady was a staunch member of the church also and a faithful housekeeper for Julius. She was a wonderful cook and baked the very best Danish pastries around the country.
Julius remained faithful to his beautiful Christine. He kept her grave in the garden. He never could bear to move her. So that was where she was when he died in 1933 at the age of 88.**
* That landing was on property now owned by Larry and Mary Brown and the ferry was being run at that time by my Grandpa, Robert McClean.
* *Sometime later, his grandson, Julius II, gathered together some willing helpers and had the graves of Christine and baby moved to the cemetery beside Julius. A stone maker marks the spot.