The Old Block House, Tekamah, Nebraska
From: A History of Burt County, Nebraska
From 1803 to 1929
The Ludi Printing Co.
Wahoo, Nebraska - 1929

THE OLD BLOCK HOUSE

A Company Is Organized

Only a short time after the first building activities were commenced in Tekamah and a few families had moved to Silver Creek and started settlement, an episode happened in the lives of those few pioneers who had come in to make their homes that stands out in Burt county history so that it is fitting that we devote an entire chapter to it. This incident was the brutal murder of two white boys by a wandering band of Indians near the now extinct town of Fontanelle.

The news spread like wildfire. Hastily reaching the conclusion that the Indians were on the warpath, every settler in eastern Nebraska became terrified. The small band of settlers at Tekamah took the news seriously, but instead of packing up their few belongings and leaving, immediately began making preparations to ward off their supposed redskinned enemies. B. R. Folsom sent a hasty call to the territorial governor for aid and protection. The governor responded by dispatching General J. M. Thayer, a West Point graduate, to the little community to assist in organizing the settlers into a company of soldiers and to build a minature fortress for the protection of the inhabitants.

All the male settlers old enough to shoulder a musket were organized into a single company, comprising 24 men in all. B. R. Folsom was made captain, W. B. Beck, first lieutenant, L. P. Peterson, second lieutenant, Rev. William Bates, chaplain and commissary sergeant, Olney Harrington, drum major and drill master, and Niles R. Folsom, sergeant. Regular army equipment was issued to each man and the entire company drew regular rations of flour, bacon, sugar and coffee, which had to be transported from Omaha.

Under the direction of General Thayer, plans for a block house were drawn up and the company of men were set, at work at the task of constructing a fortification in the event of possible siege by the Indians. Every morning the small group of soldiers drilled zealously, and after dismissal from this duty, immediately went to work at various assigned tasks on the construction of their fort. It was a government block house, and was forty by forty feet and two stories high, which would give ample refuge for the entire settlement in case of an Indian attack. Following roll call and brief drill each morning, the company was detailed for work on the fort. Some were sent to cut logs in the timber east of town while others did the hewing to get the logs ready for the building. Thus the block house was rushed to completion in a short time and was ready for the protection of the fifty odd settlers.

Block House Was Needless

However, it soon developed that so far as possible Indian attacks were concerned, all their work had been in vain and that they had terrified themselves needlessly. It was learned that it was only a small band of Indians that had been responsible for the murder of the two boys and that the Indians in general were very peaceable. Occasionally small bands would drift into the little settlement to beg foods and sweets, but they were easily satisfied and were more of a nuisance than a danger.

All the logs that went into the building were hewed square. The lumber for finishing the job was indeed a problem, as there was no saw mill. It would have been impossible to have whipsawed enough lumber for this huge building as was done for other smaller buildings already constructed. So the rafters were made from poles flattened on one side and the roof boards were hauled by oxen from Omaha. All the small streams and the sloughs were forded, making the trip a difficult one. The shingles were shaved by hand from cottonwood timber. As soon as the river was frozen over that fall, some lumber was brought over from Iowa on the ice for the floors and partitions and the siding came up the river by boat. The building was finally completed just in time for the first Indian scare in July, 1856.

Settlers Receive Indian Scare

About three hundred Indans came down one afternoon from the north. The few whites who had moved out on their claims to farm saw them coming and rushed with their families to the block house and the few families in town gathered there. The old muskets were primed and the ammunition was placed nearby. The pickets were stationed and the loop holes in the fort were manned, with all windows and doors barricaded. As darkness approached, the Indians lighted their camp fires and a regular pow-wow was held and kept up until morning. The little band of white settlers cowering inside their fortress underwent a terrible suspense that night, an attack being expected at any moment. The next morning the little colony learned that it was merely a band of Omahas who had no warlike intentions, but came down to their old burying ground with the body of a squaw, a wife of a former chief, to be laid beside her husband and that they had indulged in the formal burial services by engaging in a war dance. This was the only occassion that the early settlers of Tekamah and Burt county ever had occasion to flock to the block house for protection from the Indians.

Within a short time the settlers forgot their fright; the company of soldiers became tired of drilling and was disbanded. The block house soon ceased to be regarded as a possible haven of refuge and was later fitted up by B. R. Folsom as a hotel, with a hall on the second floor for public gatherings. It was here that the first term of court was held in Burt county, May 5, 1857, with Judge E. Wakely of Wisconsin, as presiding judge. Judge Wakely had been appointed as territorial judge in Nebraska by President Buchanan. Court was held here for the next ten years. The attic above the court room was used as a jail where prisoners were held during trial.

From 1867 to 1877, court was held in the old Thomas hall, and from 1877 was held in the old court house, until the building of the present magnificent structure.

Other details of early history that are connected with the time of the old block house are interesting. Dr. Potter was the first physician, coming in 1855 during the building of the block house. He also was elected first mayor of Tekamah. The first tax was levied in 1855, on $13,000 valuation, rate 7 mills and collection $91.04.

First Officials Are Elected

The first county officers were B. R. Folsom, first probate judge, commissioned by territorial authority May 16, 1855; Major Harrington, first attorney, 1855; Major Harrington and Adam Olinger, first justices of the peace, 1855; first county judge, elected 1855, William Bates; county treasurer, Lewis P. Peterson; sheriff, John Nevett; county surveyor, William F. Goodwill; county clerk, Peter F. Peterson.

General John M. Thayer, builder of the block house, was the orator at the first Fourth of July celebration in Tekamah, in 1856. Miles Hopkins started the first store in 1855. Major Harrington kept the first hotel, 1855. Michael Olinger was the first village blacksmith, 1855. Tekamah was incorporated as a city, March 14, 1844, by act of the territorial legislature and was made county seat. The first funeral was for Mrs. Thomas Thompson, mother of the first baby born in Burt county. Both mother and baby died, in the fall of 1855. Major Harrington who seemed to have a proclivity for annexing small offices, was the first postmaster, also in 1855. Mail service was poor, coming overland from Council Bluffs. The first regular mail service was established in 1856, coming once a week from Omaha, which by this time was developing into a thriving little city. W. B. Beck brought in the first top buggy in 1856, this vehicle being considered the ultimate in riding comfort.

Conclusion of Second Period

Thus we come to the end of the second important event in the life of the young county that was rapidly being molded from the wilderness found by that first band of settlers. Almost sensational changes in the appearance of the countryside had been made by this time and new arrivals were no longer novelties. The choicest bits of land were being taken up rapidly by the ever growing numbers of settlers flocking in to the new community. A town was taking shape and a stable local government already was established. Houses and farms were carved out of the wild country and within a short time all the hardships of pioneering were past. The community was ready to settle down to a life of happiness and contentment.

Those who came early were fortunate. The pick of the land was theirs, and today we can look around us and see their posterity continuing to reap the benefit of labor and foresight of their fathers and grandfathers. Burt county was no longer an experiment. It was a reality. Tekamah was a growing town. Farms were to be seen everywhere. Burt county was established permanently.

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