Excerpted from: One Hundred Years on the South Loup
Richard Allen and Lovira Parks had been married in Linn County, Iowa, in 1879. In the spring of 1880 they left Iowa and started the long journey by covered wagon to northwest Kansas, looking for land. When they said goodbye to their home in Cedar Rapids, their belongings consisted of three horses and the contents of the wagon. With them were their baby daughter, Gertrude, and Lovira’s sister, Josephine.
By the time they reached Red Willow County, drought conditions discouraged them, so they changed their plans, passed Kearney and struck the South Loup River, following it wherever it might lead.
They were farmers and this was cattle country, and the location they chose to settle was between the headquarters of the two cattle companies, Henry Brothers and Arnold & Ritchie.
John Finch was the first cowboy they met on the last day of their journey. He was riding for Henry Brothers in the spring roundup when John Henry’s horse stumbled and fell, pinning the rider underneath, literally crushing him to death. In the vain hope he might be saved, camphor was thought of us as a remedy. As none was available around the cow camp, Finch was sent to get some from his Aunt Sarah. As he rode over the hill at the south of Pine Canyon, he saw a prairie schooner moving up the valley, its occupants the Allen family. They had with them a supply of Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for the baby and Mrs. Allen sent it, along with the camphor, to the injured man, who had died by the time it arrived.
Another family, the Joe Halls, also from Iowa, had come with the Allens, but stayed only a few days before moving on.
Had these land hunters come a year later, their arrival would have been different, but the cattlemen had not yet suffered the winter that was to wipe them out, and settlers were not welcome this summer of 1880.
No sooner had a camp been made than cowboy rode up to warn them to move on, so they packed up and started back down the river, but soon turned and returned to the camp site, angry at the cowboys and angry at themselves for giving up so easily. This time they were left alone, and gradually they made friends with the ranch hands.
The wagon was pulled nearer the river (about on Forrester’s garage site, Mrs. Allen would recall), the covered box lifted from the chassis and set on the ground to serve as a shelter for the family while Mr. Allen put up a small sod house. There were no wells of course, they depended on the river for water.
They longed for a comfortable home but the wagon was well kept, the cover made in sections of good quality canvas that could be opened or closed, depending on the weather. There was a small cast iron cook stove, a collapsible table and bed, and boxes filled with clothing and bedding which served as seats, made comfortable with feather cushions.
Their only water container was a wash boiler, this they filled at the river. When it froze in the winter, snow was melted in the boiler. When they later acquired two cows, these were led to the river to drink.
The family had been camped for a few weeks when Lovira and Josephine’s father, Civil War veteran Morgan Parks, came by rail to Cozad where he was met by Allen. Parks owned a compass and had some knowledge of engineering, so he did the necessary surveying to locate a homestead – a move viewed with alarm by the cattlemen. Part of this homestead would in due time become the town of Arnold.
By summer the soddy was ready, built near the present swimming pool, on buffalo grass criss-crossed by the trails of deer coming to the river to drink.
Due to the cedar robbing of the Powell Brothers Company, there was not a usable tree closer than Pine Canyon, and there Allen went to cut logs for a cabin he built to replace the tiny sod one. The log cabin was finished August 22, 1880. Mrs. Allen recalled papering the walls with old newspapers, using flour and water for paste. The papers went on smoothly over the hewn logs and looked nice. Clothes were hung behind a blanket stretched across a corner. In this cabin they weathered the terrible winter of 1880-81, so devastating to the cattlemen (The 1880-81 blizzard is the same one the Ingalls family endured in the Little House book "The Long Winter).
Gaston and Humphrey’s History of Custer County gives this account of that winter:
Early in the winter a rain began falling. The grass became thoroughly saturated; then it suddenly turned clod and every stalk, spear and blade of grass at once became an icicle – all matted together in one sheet of solid ice. Immediately following this came a heavy snow, from ten to twelve inches deep, which was followed by another rain, and this in turn by another cold wave, the result of which was to cover the surface of the snow with a thick, strong crust. The country was covered with ice and snow until spring. The winter was very severe, the temperature ranging for days and weeks at from ten to twenty below zero…
The legs of the cattle, traveling about in a famished condition seeking food, soon became bruised and bleeding from contact with the sharp crust of snow. There was plenty of feed on the ground, but the cattle could not get at it. They died by the hundreds and thousands… they lay in piles behind the hills where they had sought shelter.
At first, except for Mrs. Swain (Sarah) Finch, Mrs. Allen was the only other woman in the country, and she was often called when help was needed. She nursed the sick and “laid out” the dead. She told of a man riding to her cabin door one morning seeking help for his sick child. The family was camped in a covered wagon several miles to the east, the child suffering with croup. She took what medicine she had, mounted the horse behind the man and rode to where the wagon stood, but the child was dead when they arrived. She prepared the little body for burial while the father dug a grave. She tried to comfort the broken-hearted parents, but they soon drove on and were not heard from again.