Sunday Stories: Alfred Combs Part 1

Excerpted from the Sutherland Centennial Book, published in 1991.

Mary Jane McGrew was born in 1830 in Clinton County, Ohio. She married William D. Combs and they made their home in Palmyra, Nebraska. When William died in 1887, she was widowed with eleven children. Her youngest son, Alfred, was but fourteen. In addition to raising her own family by herself, Mary Jane also raised a set of twins who had been orphaned at birth by the death of their mother, Mary Jane’s sister. One evening while she was alone on the ranch near Palmyra, Nebraska, Mary Jane was frightened by a party of Indians peeking through her windows. She made friends with them by sharing her fresh baked bread, and the left in peace.

The Garfield Table country, taken in 2009
Alfred Campbell Combs was born at Palmyra, Otoe County Nebraska. This branch of the Combs family is descended from Zur Combs, 1763 – 1826, born in Montgomery County, Virginia, died in Highland County, Ohio. The Combs family was from England.

Ad for 1917 era
Alfred left his mother’s ranch when he was about 25 years old, heading west on his black pony he called “Billy”. He settled on a homestead claim north of North Platte in high prairie sandhills country known as the “Garfield Table” and became the local postmaster at Garfield. At that time he met the 17 year old beauty who would become his wife, Clydia Gertrude Chappell. They were married at high noon on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1897. With over 50 guests, some from many miles away, it was a gala event of some importance for those days. She had made her own wedding dress and baked enough berry pies for all the guests at her own wedding, a task she set for herself that seemed to become a tradition for nearly every family dinner she presided over for the rest of her life.

Clydia’s family are descendants of Richard Chappell, who came from England to Virginia in 1600 where he became the patriarch of the Virginia branch of the family known as the “Tidewater” Chappells, named for the tidewater counties in which they reside along the seacoast.

After their marriage, Alf Combs operated a livery stable and taxi service in Gandy, providing horses, wagons and buggies for rent. He also furnished transportation for Dr. McClay, the town doctor, the only one for many miles. Many times he served as Dr. McClay’s assistant and thus formed a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Eventually, Alf relocated his dray business, livery stable and taxi service to Maxwell, Nebraska. He made this move across the prairie with two small children before there were any roads and while Clydia was about to deliver Pearl, their third child. In Maxwell, Alf became town marshal, solving several serious robberies and other crimes of the day.

An example of the Lincoln Highway circa 1920,
this stretch is in Wyoming.
Alf was in demand by various companies as a manager for ranches they owned in Nebraska. One of these companies was the Kent & Burke Ranch and Cattle Company in Genoa, Nebraska, where he worked for a time. Another assignment was in Silver Creek, Nebraska, working on a project for a Mr. Holcomb. At that time there was still a lot of work in the construction of the great Lincoln transcontinental highway. The first woman to drive across the country was a movie star, Miss Paramount, probably sponsored by paramount Pictures as a publicity stunt. In any event, her auto became mired in the mud just outside of Silver Creek, and Alf pulled her out with a team of horses, for which she later sent him an autographed picture.

For extra money, Alf broke horses and Clydia would sometimes accompany him as he transported them, tied to the back of the wagon. On one occasion, they would not move, so Alf built a small fire under them and started a runaway, with Clydia alone in the wagon. He grabbed the runaway horses by the bit as they charged past him and was dragged until they stopped. Clydia was more frightened at the prospect of being left a widow than she was at being injured herself in a runaway wagon.


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