The Early History of Norton County
by William G. Cutler (1883)
Norton County, lying in the northern tier, adjoining Nebraska, is the fourth county from the Colorado line on the west and the tenth from the eastern boundary-line of the State. Its climate and soil are similar to the neighboring counties of Phillips, Smith and Decatur. The soil has the same marvelous richness and capacity to resist drouth; there is the same scarcity of timber and absence of stone-coal, the same abundance of fine building-stone (magnesian limestone.) Like its neighboring counties, already named, Norton has numerous water-courses, the principal of which are the Solomon River, flowing east through the southern tier of townships, the Prairie Dog, through the central portion, and the Sappa, from southwest to northeast, through the northwest corner of the county. The Solomon has as tributaries, Cactus, Skull, Buck, Big Timber, Otter, Sand, East and West Elk creeks, and the Prairie Dog and Sappa both have numerous tributaries. Norton County's lands are divided as follows: Upland, 92 percent; bottom land, 8 per cent; forest (government survey) 1 per cent; prairie, 99 per cent. Elm, willow and cotton-wood timber may be found on the margins of the principal streams.
Early Settlements. -- The first actual settler in what now constitutes Norton County was Shelby D. Reed, who came and settled in what is now Centre Township, in April, 1872. In the fall of the same year Thomas Beaumont, Henry Gordon and Peter Hanson settled in the southern section of the county, near the Solomon River. The last-named person (Peter Hanson), who now resides in the adjacent county, Phillips, opened the first farm in the spring of 1872, several months before he became an actual settler. The first families to make permanent settlement were James Hall and Daniel C. Coleman, who located on the Prairie Dog, twelve miles east of Norton. They came soon after Shelby Reed, in 1872. During the same season Joel Simmons, W. E. Case, Charles and John Beiber, G. N. Kingsbury, Henry Oliver, Sol. Marsh, Charles Hisinger and Joel Mott settled in the county. Soon after came an individual called Col. N. H. Billings, who taking sway as a leader, became the first Representative in the Legislature on the organization of the county.
Organization. -- August 22, 1872, the Governor issued a proclamation and declared Norton County organize for all purposes of government. He appointed as temporary officers, D. C. Coleman, County Clerk; J W. Vance, S. D. Reed and James Hall, Commissioners. The county was divided into three townships, each ten miles wide and thirty miles long -- to constitute the three Commissioners' Districts -- named Almena, Centre and Solomon.
To perfect the county organization the first election was held September 24, 1872, which resulted in the choice of the following officers: Commissioners: Almena - J. W. Vance; Center- Abram Louck; Solomon - Peter Hanson; Representative, N. H. Billings; Treasurer, H. Oliver; Clerk, D. C. Coleman; Attorney, N. H. Billings; Sheriff, James Hall; Superintendent of Schools, N. H. Billings; Register of Deeds, S. B. Newell. Less that fifty votes were cast. At the first meeting of the Legislature after the organization of the county, the name was changed to Billings, as a matter of sport, and to please the overweening vanity of the "honorable member" from the county, but the original name was preferred by the people interested and it was again assumed.
Norton was selected at the first election as the county-seat, but complaints of unfairness caused a second election to be held in 1874, when Norton again received a majority and still retains the court-house and other county buildings.
Indians. -- When Norton County was organized, it was no uncommon sight to witness immense herds of buffaloes roaming over its beautiful plains, and as a consequence there were many visits from bands of Pawnee, Omaha, and other Indians, but no outbreaks occurred. In the winter of 1872, Edgar Page, whos dug-out was located on a bend of the Prairie Dog, was one day fixing up a bedstead when the blanket that served as a door was raised and in stepped an Indian, followed by several others. The little dug-out was crowded. The old Chief, his family and five of his tribe slept by the fire that night --- it was very cold. In the morning they visited a ranch where dwelt a Mr. Shaw, and the men being absent, their presence caused consternation. One of the Indians came to the bed where Mrs. Shaw was lying with a four days old infant and said: "Good Indians; no hurt pretty white squaw," which, however, did not relieve her fears. They were part of a band of nine hundred Pawnees out on a hunt.
Educational. -- On the first day of December, 1873, J. H. Simmons (now senior editor of the Norton Advance), commenced teaching the first school ever taught in the county. The school was held in a dug-out where the town of Norton now stands. There were sixteen pupils in attendance and the time was by no means wasted. It was a "pay" school, and like most others of the kind, the tuition promised was never paid. Mr. Simmons, however, found a wife among his fair pupils, and of course that piece of good fortune compensated for his pecuniary loss.
In 1878, there were 24 organized school districts in the county, with a school population of 642. The average pay per month of male teachers was $22.55; females, $15.13. There were 11 schoolhouses in the county -- 10 log and 1 frame.
The following year, 1879, showed an increase of districts to 52; the school population was 1,623; teachers employed, 34; average pay of male teachers, $19.76; females, 13.07 (sic); the assessed valuation of school property was reported at $157,728.
In 1880, the returns show 84 districts; school population, 2,014; teachers employed, 62; the average pay of male teachers, $17.89; female, $14.80; the assessed valuation of school property, $324,922.72. The returns for the present year show the number of districts to be 92; the school population, 2,122; teachers employed, 71; males, 19 and females, 52; the average pay of male teachers, $17.50; females, $15.90. The schoolhouses, with very few exceptions, are built of sod. The public school building in Norotn, however, is a notable exception. This is a large, two-story stone structure, erected at a cost of $3,800.
Agriculture. -- There are nineteen postoffices, named as follows: Almena, Cactus, Clayton, Croco, Dallas, Densmore, Devizes, Edmond, Fair Haven, Lee, Lenora, Long Branch, Hedgewood, Neighborville, New Almelo, Norton, Reagle, Tucket, Wakeman. The townships are named as follows: Almena, Aldine, Almelo, Centre, Crystal, Emmett, Grant, Garfield, Leota, Lenora, Lincoln, Modelll, Noble, Rock Branch, Solomon, Sand Creek, Union. The population of the county, according to the returns of 1882, show a trifle under 6,000.
Number of acres in the county, 576,000. Since 1874, when the first returns were made, the acreage has increased from 3,156 to 205,921, the present season. Number of farm dwellings erected in 1881, 159; value of same, $15,635; pounds of butter made in 1881, 123,259; number of horses 2,181; mules, 280; milch cows, 2,020; other cattle, 2,684; sheep, 2,947; swine, 2,565; prairie hay, 6,900 tons; timothy, 816 tons; number of acres in spring wheat, 4,263; corn, 28,188; barley, 114; oats, 1,112, buckwheat, 38; Irish potatoes, 289; sweet potatoes, 25; sorghum, 1,366; castor beans, 116; broom corn, 970; Hungarian, 3,382; rice corn, 590; pearl millet, 39. Bearing peach-trees, 1,014; plum, 100; cherries, 117. Not bearing: Apples, 2,376; pear, 184; peach, 13,885; plum, 6,326; cherry, 1,935. Artificial forest trees: Walnut, 82 acres; maple, 26, honey locust, 40; cottonwood, 270; other varieties, 182. Value of agricultural implements in the county, $23,158.
Manufacturing. -- Saw and Grist-Mills. -- C. S. McMakin, in Almena Township, capital invested, $2,000; there are five grist-mills (water) in the county, to-wit: David Morton, Charles Lathrop (two mills) at Lenora; Lindsay & Bro., at Devizes; Noah Weaver, at Edmond. Capital invested, $21,000. Value of raw material used during the year 1882, $110,000. A successful creamery is in operation and rapidly increasing its business. Capital invested, $2,000.
Religious. -- The seating capacity of the several church edifices of the county is returned for 182 by the assessors as follows: Methodist Episcopal, 125; Presbyterian, 300; Christian, 125; Free Methodist, 400. In addition, no returns are made for the Missionary Baptists and the Church of God. These two sects have each a church edifice in the county.
Church Membership. -- Christians have four organizations and a membership of 218; Baptists, four organizations and a membership of 165; Congregational, one organization and a membership of 55; Methodist Episcopal, eleven organizations and a membership of 268; Presbyterian, one organization and a membership of 34; Roman Catholic, one organization, 100 membership. The Mennonites, Church of God and Free Methodists have organizations but have made no returns of the number of members.
First Things. -- The first marriages in the county were James Kinyon and Ellen Green, July 25, 1873, and a few days later, John Lunny and Miss Dunlap. The first births were Annie Beaumont, January 4, 1873, and Kate Kelly, March 3. 1873. The first natural death occurring in the county was that of Minnie Stiles, June 10, 1873. A few weeks previous to this date a man named Cross, supposed to be a horse thief, was shot on suspicion. The first post-offices were established at West Union and Port Landis, in January 1874. Alfred Coleman and John Landis were the first postmasters. The first store for the sale of general merchandise was established by Newell Bros., in Centre Township in 1873. In the fall of 1873 the first regular term of court was held by Judge A. J. Banty, in the fall of 1873. The temple of justice was a log house afterward used as a residence. A local historian states that "the roof was made of buffalo-skins. The term occupied some twenty minutes. Thomas Beaumont and Edward Hooverson were the two practicing attorneys. Representative Billings invited the bench and bar to take dinner at his house, and charged them twenty-five cents each."
Early Incidents. -- The canvass of the votes for the location of the county-seat in 1872 was conducted on the following plan. It is averred that the election was held in an emigrant's covered wagon, and forty-two votes were cast, and that after the "formality" of the election was gone through with it was discovered that they had neglected to locate the county-seat. Whereupon, Representative Billings, then a central figure in local affairs, climbed out on the tongue of the wagon, and assuming the duties of chairman, exclaimed in stentorian tones: "All in favor of Norton for the county-seat, say aye." The vote was declared unanimous and the record made up accordingly. This may seem slightly irregular, but two years later this action was endorsed at a regular election.
In the year 1873, and old man named Chapman settled in the county, near the Solomon, built a neat cabin, and commenced improving his claim. It was known that he had quite a sum of gold, which he it times indiscretly (sic) displayed. He was found dead in his cabin, his head severely bruised, and a pistol ball in his heart The money was taken from his pockets. The murderers were never discovered.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 2,283 km² (881 mi²). 2,274 km² (878 mi²) of it is land and 9 km² (4 mi²) of it (0.40%) is water.
As of the census of 2000, there were 5,953 people, 2,266 households, and 1,470 families residing in the county. The population density was 3/km² (7/mi²). There were 2,673 housing units at an average density of 1/km² (3/mi²). The racial makeup of the county was 93.35% White, 4.05% Black or African American, 0.44% Native American, 0.42% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 1.02% from other races, and 0.71% from two or more races. 2.37% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 2,266 households out of which 28.20% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 55.50% were married couples living together, 7.00% had a female householder with no husband present, and 35.10% were non-families. 32.30% of all households were made up of individuals and 17.90% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.28 and the average family size was 2.89.
In the county the population was spread out with 22.00% under the age of 18, 7.70% from 18 to 24, 28.30% from 25 to 44, 22.30% from 45 to 64, and 19.60% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 40 years. For every 100 females there were 122.10 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 122.90 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $31,050, and the median income for a family was $37,036. Males had a median income of $25,983 versus $20,381 for females. The per capita income for the county was $16,835. About 6.10% of families and 10.50% of the population were below the poverty line, including 12.70% of those under age 18 and 8.20% of those age 65 or over.
Cities and towns
Name and population (2004 estimate):
Unified school districts
Norton USD 211
Northern Valley USD 212
West Solomon USD 213