Sunday Stories: Alfred Combs Part 2

Excerpted from the Sutherland Centennial Book, published in 1991.

When Pearl had just turned eleven years old, in about 1913, Alf’s investigative experience as marshal qualified him to accept a position in North Platte as a special detective for Union Pacific Railroad for the territory from North Platte to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and he was often away from home.

An example of a hay crew of this era.
Pearl says “It was a good training period for me, for I learned not only to cook and sew and crochet, but also to help with business matters like paying the bills, at such stores as the E. T. Tramp and Sons Grocery on Front Street. Members of the Tramp family became my lifelong friends, even after they later went out of the grocery business to start a quality shoe store on Dewey Street in North Platte.

But Alf was looking for a more secure home and job for his growing family when he met Mr. Dolly, an old family friend on the street in North Platte, who happened to be in town on business from Chicago. Mr. Dolly said, “Al, you are just the man I am looking for. I know a family that owns a ranch and farm at Hershey, Nebraska. The man who was living there most recently was killed in a car accident. We need to get the ranch leased out.” The Bank of Lincoln County put up the money for Alf to enter into a five year lease on the ranch. The family moved to Hershey and operated the ranch for 20 years until 1933 as the “A.C. Combs & Sons Ranch.” The ranch produced thousands of bushels of wheat and corn plus thousands of tons of wild hay. Clover seed was threshed by a steam engine and threshing machine and about 30 men, for whom Pearl Combs did all the cooking.

Pearl recalls, “The ranch house was so small that a large kitchen and bedroom were added, as well as a large bunkhouse, barn, garage and permanent cook shack, plus a portable cook shack 12 X 30 and a bunk shack also 12 X 30, each on runners so they could be moved from hay camp to hay camp during the cutting season. There would always be 10-15 hired men surrounding the long kitchen table for meals three times a day, regularly served at exactly 7am, noon and 6pm. You could set your watch by the tolling of the loud dinner bell mounted outside the kitchen on a pole and also used to call the men for an emergency or for an urgent phone call. The bell had been a school bell and held a special charm. That bell is now in use at the dairy farm of Ada McConnell, O’Fallons, Nebraska, daughter of Archie Combs and granddaughter of A.C. and Clydia.”

“Most of the Combs men were good all-around cowboys in their own right. Guy was the bronco-buster. Ted was the bull dogger. Lane was the horse racer.” Pearl recalls, “I wasn’t so bad a horsewoman myself. I rode several miles by horseback to school in Hershey every day, sometimes in weather 15 degrees below zero. Reba was the lady rider. I think Edith may have been scared of horses, if the truth were known.

We were all pretty good dancers. The ranch was a place of love, hospitality, and good food following hours of backbreaking hard work in the fields or with the cattle, often in scalding hot or freezing cold, harsh and windy weather. There were good times, loud laugher, and always friends – many, many friends and relatives who often and regularly came miles for meals and stayed long after for good conversation, always in abundance there.”

A dust storm of the 1930's
“The stress, deprivation and heartbreak of the first world war gave way to hope and recovery. Even during the great depression of the 1930’s, with all the problems plaguing us – ranging from prairie fires and terrible storms of dust one day and hail the next, there was still much happiness and many good things to remember through the worries and sorrows, even though no one ever had enough money during those years, even for necessities.”

“Some of those memories: The excitement of the family rodeos in the pasture; the crowded country dances in the barn loft; the 15 or 20 men crowded around the tables for three meals a day enjoying their daily jokes on each other and trading stories; the smell of cookies or doughnuts or of fresh bread (12-15 loaves a day) or of 10 pies or more cooling on the work table waiting to be downed by tired, hungry men.

There was always a little smell of spice in the kitchen and plenty of work for the women and children. There were always willow branches to be cut to shoo away any flies. Any time the flies got too bad, everyone would grab a dish towel to shoo the flies out of the corner into a swarm in the center of the room and thence out the open door to freedom, after which they would all cluster on the windows, especially before a summer storm.

There were always at least six oil lamps to be filled, glass lamp chimneys to be polished, four pails of water to be carried from the pump house, a tub of corncobs to bring in to fill the box by the stove. The wooden floor had to be mopped to a polish every day before noon, cream needed to be whompted into butter in the old stone churn, and warm milk from the separator needed to be put down in the bottom of the spring-cold water tank in the pump house.”

“We never dreamed of the modern conveniences we have today. When it hailed, though the crops may have been ruined, we scooped up the hailstones and stirred up a batch of homemade ice cream and invited neighbors. And at sunset of each day, the hayracks were lined up in a neat row as were all of the wagons, mowers, rakes and other equipment. This was the A.C. Combs Ranch at Hershey, Nebraska. We loved Hershey and the people who lived there. We loved our neighbors on the farms and ranches nearby, some of whom had arrived in this county 50 years earlier or more with our grandparents.”

In 1935, the Combs family lost their lease on the ranch when it changed hands; and Alf and Clydia moved to a 10-acre parcel of land in the north part of Sutherland, on part of what is now the high school athletic field. They lived there until for reasons of health, they relocated to North Platte to be closer to their daughter, Edith. They left a rich heritage to their descendants – an ability to see humor in nearly everything, to enjoy life fully by working and playing hard. They taught the virtues of honesty and integrity and the importance of being resilient in the face of life’s trials, of which they had more than their share.


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