This file portion of website


1866 Migration

Watertown / Ixonia area residents

to Norfolk, Nebraska


History of Norfolk


Article published in the Norfolk [Nebraska] Daily News, 1929 by Mary Ellen Pangle.


By an act of Congress, on the 20th of May in 1862, any citizen of the United States who is the head of a family and any person of foreign birth residing in the country, who has declared his intentions to become a citizen, may enter and settle upon not exceeding one hundred sixty acres of public land, and after residing upon it for five years, shall a receive a patent for the land.


When the Civil War ended three years later, this offer seemed a God-send to the restless men of the day. War ever leaves a scar of dissatisfaction which disappears only after reconstruction. In Wisconsin were many small colonies composed of Germans who had left their own country to seek their fortunes in a free land, and who had been sucked into the whirlpool of War. In one, Ixonia, or Exony Center, Jefferson County, near Watertown, was a particularly discontented group. Farmland was unproductive and expensive at thirty-five dollars an acre; the density of the timber kept them too far from the schools; and the winters were unbearably damp and cold. The general sentiment was for moving on, and trying once again to capture the elusive Lady Fortune.


In their church, the Evangelical Lutheran, St. Paul's they discussed the situation, and finally decided to leave. Where should they go? A few favored a northern trek to Minnesota, where some of their townspeople had gone. The Machmueller's had their bags packed and were ready to start north, when the news of an Indian uprising and the death of their neighbors convinced them that Minnesota was not the place for their new home. The Rev Mr. Heckendorf's cousin, Mr. Steifer, at West Point, Nebraska, had sent encouraging reports of the great public lands beyond the Mississippi. Dared they try that? Eventually they voted to send three men to investigate that far country.


Eagerly the chosen members of the church set forth in the late summer of 1865. They were Ferdinand Wagner, Herman Braasch, and John Gensmer. From Chicago to St. Joseph by train, and up the river in a ferry boat to Omaha, they journeyed. From Omaha they walked west until they struck the Elkhorn river, which they followed until they reached West Point, the settlement farthest west at the time. They decided against West Point as too densely settled already to accommodate their Wisconsin colony. T.F. Sporn, who had homesteaded there two years before offered to take the home seekers farther northwest until they should find a suitable location. It had been a long, hard walk, and the men grateful for the ride.


On the fifteenth of September in 1865, the little party camped at the junction of the Elkhorn and the North Fork rivers. Her was land that deserved consideration. It was virgin country, sufficiently open for grazing and cultivation, and yet plentifully wooded with elm, cottonwood, ash, box elder, and willow along the creeks. The early fall sunshine ripened grasses, the thick goldenrod, and the autumnal foliage gave promise of the golden land it could become.


At the foot of the two river Ferdinand Wagner stood, and announced, "Here will be my homestead, and here will we build a town." Herman Braasch contradicted him, prophesying truly that the town itself would be laid out farther north than the fork of the two rivers.


To these three Germans, Herman Braasch, Ferdinand Wagner, and John Gensmer, then belongs the great honor of first looking upon this part of Nebraska with a view to building homes upon its wide prairies.


So large and so strange the country that the four men arranged signals for use in case of being lost or in trouble: one shot, the call, and two, the answer. On one occasion the first shot brought no reply from Mr. Gensmer, who should have been at his post in the wagon. A search discovered him hiding in brush. The large band of Omaha and Winnebago Indians, encamped one mile west, frightened Mr. Gensmer into hastening back to Wisconsin to stay. The other men found the Indians friendly, and in a few weeks time reported to the anxiously awaiting congregation in Ixonia, in favor of Nebraska at the north fork of the two rivers.


What excitement there was in the small Ixonia church! What questions, what plans, what fears! The thrifty Germans hurried about trying to dispose of their farms and home at the best possible prices, building covered wagons, and checking over their oxen, cattle, sheep, and horses. The women were kept busy packing bedding, a few pieces of furniture and food.


On the 23rd of May 1866, one hundred and twenty-four God fearing, home loving, ambitious Germans started on their second great adventure. They set forth in three separate trains, the first led by Herman Braasch, the second by Louis Heckendorf, and the third composed of farmers from north of Watertown and from places touched en route. There were forty-two families, of which this is the most nearly complete list available:


Herman Braasch

John Braasch

Gottlieb Rohrke

Martin Raasch

Louis Heckendorf

Fred Dederman

Julius Wichert 

Martin Machmueller

August Melcher

Louis Wachter

Carl Hille

Christian Haase 

Herman Wachter

Fred Boche

Fred Haase

William Duhring 

Jacob Kaun 

William Seifert

Carl Uecher

J.M. Machmueller

Frank Wichman

Frederick Sporn

Ferdinand Wagner

Jacob Barnhardt

William Klug

Gottlieb Winter

William Fischer

August Nenow

Carl Conrad

August Lentz

Carl Nenow

William Ruhlow

Frederick Lehman



For some distance kind, well-wishing neighbors followed with hay for the oxen in the westbound trains. When their wagons were empty, they bade their friends Godspeed and returned to Ixonia. In the covered wagons sat the women and small children. Along the road ran the older boys and girls, herding the sheep and cattle. Ahead walking the tireless men, leading their sturdy oxen into the new west. Only a few had horses -- the Machmueller's, the Rohrke's, the Raasch's, and the Braasch's. August Raasch and Herman Braasch drove their horse teams hitched to Democrats.


The wagon trains moved slowly. On Sundays they paused for worship. Once a week they halted to allow the womenfolk to do the necessary washing, ironing, and baking.


At Omaha all stopped to stock up with flour and other staples, and to make up one mile-long train of prairie schooners for the final lap of the journey.


They knew they should reach West Point on the fourth of July, but they could not find it. When they finally inquired of a lone homesteader, they discovered they had missed the settlement, and had to turn back. The whole town was little more than a saw mill, a store built of perpendicular slabs, and a few huts. While there the children paddled happily in the creek, and the grown folks visited with relatives and friends. Just north of the little community, Herman Braasch planted some potatoes that they might bear that year.


There was a delay of four days when the party reached the Humboldt, Humbug creek, as it was called, proved too muddy to risk fording, so a bridge had to be constructed. The pioneers felled trees, roughly fashioned them into logs, made sills of mud, and laid split willows for a floor. Nails were whittled out of ash wood. Although this rude bridge went out with the first high water the following spring, it served a noble purpose in bearing the pioneers across and on to the mouth of the Northfork river.


On the 15th of July, 1866, the weary journey of seven weeks and four days came to an end at the fork of the Northfork and the Elkhorn rivers in Nebraska. The men in the vanguard hastened back to meet the women and the children who climbed stiffly from the wagons, crying, "Is this the Place? Is this the Place?" "Yes, this is the place, " came Father Braasch's reassuring and solemn answer. "It is good. Call the folk together. We will pray."


Eagerly the men and women looked about them at the chosen land. It was, as yet, unsurveyed, so boundary problems drew their immediate attention. To some it might have seemed an unsolvable problem, but not to the resourceful Germans. For chains, harness lines were used, and to find the corners there was August Raasch's pocket compass. They had their choice of locations with the exceptions of the property occupied by some squatters. William A. Barnes; L.D. Barnes; William H. Bradshaw; D.L. Allen; and Matthias Kerr had come in May of 1866 from Illinois. From a hat the heads of families drew numbers to determine mine their locations. Without argument they accepted those cuts as fair and final.


Most of them settled on either side of the creek so they might assemble quickly in case of trouble from the Indians. They arranged their quarter sections so that one end was near the water for the stock.


A few of the families who are still located on their original homesteads are the Hilles, one mile north at Spring Branch; the Klug's in the northeast part of town; the Duhring's and Buettows to the west; and the Wichman's to the south. Frederick Lehman staked out his claim, and went back to Wisconsin for his family. Upon his return to Nebraska, he found another man on his land. It was Evan Jones, the fur trader, who had the first store in this part of the country. From him, Mr. Lehman purchased a "quit claim", and settled down to the business of homemaking and farming.


Father Braasch was not satisfied with his lot because of its distance from water. He gave Matthias Kerr $250 for his fourteen-by-fourteen unfloored log cabin, and a "quit claim" on the half section of land along the Northfork where King's Park is today. The next spring Mr. Kerr took up the body of his wife who had died in March, and left the country.


The next problem that faced the pioneers was that of housing. They lived in their covered wagons while more permanent shelters were being erected. A few men built sod houses or seven-by-eight dugouts, but most of them took advantage of the plentiful river timber, and constructed one-room log huts. The walls of cottonwood or oak logs were plastered with a mixture of yellow clay, made solid with straw or grass. Nails and window lights came from Omaha. In several cabins there was an extra half story, the loft, reached by a crude ladder. A box for a table and tree stumps for chairs furnished the houses. Dishes, knives and forks, and cooking utensils had been brought from their old homes. Barns were little more than open shelters of poles and slough grass roofs.


Immediately upon the heels of housing problem came that of food. There was plenty of grass for the oxen, cattle, and sheep, but the supply of potatoes, flour and ex cetera brought from Wisconsin or purchased en route, was fast disappearing. Aside from the tiny dugout store maintained by Trapper Jones down towards Stanton county, the nearest sources of supplies were Columbus, fifty miles to the south; Fremont, eighty miles south and east; or Sioux City, nearly as far to the northwest. The stock in the Jones place consisted of a poor grade of brown sugar, tobacco, brooms, overalls, matches, coffee, and tea, and was so unattractively displayed that no one bought there unless forced to do so by dire necessity.


Darning needles were five cents each. What money the people had was in paper of varying denominations from five cents to fifty cents, in three-cent copper pieces, or in gold.


The large herds of antelope, deer, and buffalo that roamed at large across the unbroken prairie proved a source of meat for the pioneers. Prairie chickens were plentiful and particularly tasteful. From the clear streams the men seined fish, and the children angled for them with bent pins.


They came to think little of a thirty-five mile trip to Wisner to buy wheat at two dollars a bushel, a few staple groceries, and perhaps a pail of molasses. One man drove his oxen to Fremont to buy a cook stove. Hotel rates were prohibitive for these struggling farmers, so they camped out and saved that precious seventy-five cents a night.


Although the German farmers had been taught never to break land after the fourth of July, a few of them did in the hope that it would yield a crop anyway. Most of the men had brought stump plows with them from Wisconsin, only to find that cast iron ones could not be used for breaking prairie land. Gottlieb Rohrke's son, Gottlieb, opened a blacksmith shop on the creek near the present Isaac Walton Park.


The Braasch men broke ground with three yoke of oxen on the plow, and planted corn and wheat. Their corn was good for little more than fodder, but the wheat sold as seed for two and a quarter dollars that first year. Others planted potatoes, corn, and beans, but the crop was far from sufficient to last through out the long winter months.


The pioneers met the situation bravely. Many men found work in the brick yards or mills east of here, and others worked in the railroad yards in Omaha. Some of the older girls did housework in Omaha. Those at home managed as best they could. They took turns making the long trips for supplies whenever they had money enough. For flour they went sixty-five miles to the Logan Creek Mills near Fremont. They used bran for bread, and wasted nothing. Grandmother Winter went as far as the present town of Hooper for potatoes, and the Braasch's returned for those they had providentially planted near West Point. One woman, who was left with a little boy and two tiny girls, had only wild plums for food for four weeks. When some of her neighbors discovered the existing conditions, they banded together and managed to provide the little family with supplies until her men folks returned from Omaha. When one had money or food, everyone had money and food. Neighbors were neighbors indeed.


For fuel they burned what dry timber, usually cottonwood, was available; and when that supply was exhausted, they gathered sunflower stalks, corn stalks, and green willow. What little coal there was to be had in the northwest part of the state was prohibitive at nine dollars a ton. One woman was forced, during a blizzard, to chop up a treasured table and chair for fuel.


Hundreds of Indians passed through the tiny settlement at the beginning of winter. At one time three hundred came, frightening women and children who were alone in the houses. Even the watch dogs disappeared into the pots at the Indian camps. The Ponca's, Omaha, and Pawnees camped near the present location of St Paul's Lutheran church. The German settlers shared as best they could with the destitute Indians. A few of the savages did odd jobs for food. For a cake or a piece of bread spread with unsalted lard, they would turn a washing machine or chop wood. Most of them begged, however, or stole what they could. A mysteriously poisoned cow of Herman Braasch's herd was carried off and devoured; dead dogs were snatched at ravenously; and three weeks after the white men had killed some timber wolves, the red man stripped the carcasses. From a kettle of boiling soap, they snatched a dead lamb which Mrs. Lehman had thrown in for fat.


It was during this first winter that the first child to live was born in the colony. It was Henry Fischer, now of Pierce, born 26th of November. A Haase boy and a Klug child had been previously born to early deaths.


The first Christmas was not a happy one. Too many households were without fathers, and all were too poor to celebrate. A simple religious service was all that marked the day as any different from the others.


Food and shelter may have seemed of more immediate importance but religion was second to nothing with these splendid Germans. They had organized their pioneering party within their church in Wisconsin. They had worshipped regularly during the journey. After their arrival they had continued their services under the leadership of Father Herman Braasch or Ferdinand Wagner in their simple homes. Then in the fall of the year of 1866, came their own minister, the Rev John Heckendorf. He built his log house near the Braasch homestead, just north of the present Benjamin avenue. During that long, hard, lonely winter, the Rev. Heckendorf kept the hearts of his people close to the God who had guided them here.


Spring was unbelievably welcome and beautiful that year. The devout Germans thanked their God that somehow through His goodness they had all survived that first heartbreaking winter. Husbands and fathers and elder sisters hurried home from Omaha, bringing food, clothing, and money as reward for the months of privation.


Spring on the prairie meant great stretches of green grass dotted with flowers, large groves of budding trees, plums flowering along the creeks, the boom, of prairie chickens, and best of all, time to plow. A great mantle of beauty was thrown over the land that had lain so bare and ugly through the winter. Now she was to bear the fruits of her fertility and their labor. They planted wheat, sorghum, beans, potatoes, corn, barley, and tobacco.


In May high water menaced the property of those near the river, but did not destroy much. Everyone was happy and busy. Mother fixed up their tiny homes, and prepared for the coming winter by picking the wild grapes and plums. The fruit was boiled and dumped into barrels to keep until the sorghum was ready. In fall then the butter, sweetened with cheap molasses was made in the huge iron kettle, and stored in jars. Over at Spring Branch the Hille family operated a sorghum factory. So many people came, from fifteen and twenty miles away, that the factory had to keep running day and night for three months. Making sorghum was a slow and tedious process. It took six or seven hours to cook a batch. At the very end of the operation close watching was required lest the syrup burn.


The children did their share of the work, too. The older boys worked in the fields, and the older girls in the garden and the house. The younger children were sent to the spring wells at the creek for water, and to herd the cattle. Often the blue stem grass was so high that the children had to hold their dog upon their shoulders that he might sight the cattle. They would cry, "Sic `em; sic `em! before letting him to the ground. They were sure then that he would find the stray. Cattle which had turned out into the hills often occasioned all day and night searches.


The few boys who were fortunate enough to have guns and money for ammunition found plenty to keep them busy. There were prairie chickens so plentiful that a wagon load could be brought down in an afternoon. There were quail and duck and wild turkeys. When the geese were up, they curtained the sun.


It was this year that Father Herman Braasch, who was the first to have any small grain, and August Raasch got an eight horse-power threshing machine from Omaha. It became almost a community affair as the neighbors all used it. Mr. Barnes came all the way from Union Creek to borrow it.


Flour meant a three day trip to West Point. Sometimes there was a wait of a week before a farmer could his wheat into the mill. The toll was six bushels. From one bushel of wheat came forty pounds of flour, ten of bran, and ten of shorts.


The trip itself was hazardous due to the necessity of fording the river. If on the way they struck quicksand, they had to move fast to unload the wheat before it got wet, and to save the wagon and the oxen from miring. Often on the return trip the same thing would occur, or a frightened ox would upset the wagon in midstream. A slight dip fortunately did not ruin the flour, as it was protected by the thin coating immediately formed on the sack.


In July of this second year came the second colony from Wisconsin. The Pasewalk's, the Lukas', the Wegener's, and the Huebner's, with twelve children all together, arrived to find the best land taken. Ferdinand Pasewalk gave up the rights of the land near the present Hepperly farm, and dickered instead for the property owned by Bill Barnes near the river, and on the present Pasewalk Avenue. Mr. Barnes asked $500 for a 'quit claim', but finally accepted the two small horses and the Democrat which the thirteen year old Herman Pasewalk had driven from Ixonia.


In the early fall of 1867 the Germans built their church, the first of any denomination in this section of Nebraska. It was only a shed fashioned of pine lumber bought in Fremont and cut in the sawmill near West Point. Some native cottonwood was used. These logs were pulled by the church members with nearly two hundred cattle. The twenty-four by thirty floor was made of native willows and covered with straw. For a roof they had first a loose cover of green willow low branches, and later sod. In this same building Rev. Heckendorf taught the first school of Madison County. It was a public school, open to any child of the community, but conducted in German as that was the tongue of the pupils. It was the younger children who attended, since the older ones had been confirmed in Wisconsin, and were now free to work.


When Herman Winter was still so little that he could not see over feed board, over which he threw bundles at threshing time, he followed this daily schedule:


4:00-7:30    cultivate corn

7:30-8:30    eat breakfast and walk three miles to school

8:30-4:00    lessons

4:30    lunch

4:30    dark, cultivate

10:00    supper and study lessons later


Of this first church, the Evangelical Lutheran, St. Paul's, Frederick Wagner, Herman Braasch, and Gottlieb Rohrke were the first deacons. It was indeed fitting that the two men who had been instrumental in locating the congregation should have been so honored by the congregation.


In this church in 1867 was solemnized the first wedding of Norfolk when William Wagner and his cousin Louisa Wagner, were married.


Other pioneers arrived before the end of 1867. On November 12th D.A. Ommerman got his homestead papers for a place three miles beyond the Buettow farm which was at the time the farthest west. Mr. Ommerman and D.F. Boyden `batched' in a tiny dugout with a fireplace at one end and near it a pile of hay for a bed. Samuel H. and Andrew T. Thatch took up homesteads on the Elkhorn River immediately south of the present city of Norfolk.


1867 had brought a new problem. Where to secure adequate clothing had become a source of worry. The things brought and worn from Wisconsin were wearing threadbare. The ever resourceful Germans met it, however, with characteristic ability. The men sheared their sheep. The women carded the wool, spun the yarn, and wove on hand looms the material for clothing. The cloth was spread on the ground and the child laid on it for a pattern. They knit their stockings. Mr. Hille was cobbler for the community. He fashioned wooden shoes from native trees, and used bits of leather from worn out boots for the strings. Occasionally strips of the leather were put on the soles of women's shoes to soften the clatter. With plenty of wheat straw inside and heavy woolen hose, the feet kept warm and dry. The men wore no underwear and no overcoats. Overalls or homemade trousers, shirts, high boots, and raincoats made up their simple but substantial wardrobes.


At the suggestion of the Germans, the newly surveyed territory in northeastern Nebraska was called Madison, in commemoration of the capital of the pioneers' former state, and Norfolk named the County seat. Although Madison County was organized in December of 1867, the first county election was not held until the beginning of 1868. On the twenty-first of January, 1868, in a small hut on Taylor creek, thirty-two pioneers of the new county met and elected their first county officers: Herman Braasch, August Raasch, and Henry Barnes county commissioners: Frederick Wagner, Probate Judge, Samuel Thatch, clerk, and Frederick Heckendorf.