104. An Accidental Field Trip

I was heading into the school the other day to tune pianos for last Friday’s District Music Contest when I noticed my daughter, Angela, getting on a school bus.  I asked Arnie Johnson, who was with the students, where they were going and he replied that he was taking his Nebraska History class out to see Gene Atwood.  He invited me to come along and even though I didn’t really have time, I decided to accept his invitation.  And I was sure glad I did.

Gene’s family is one of the very oldest in Boone County.  When we arrived at his farm northwest of town Gene stepped on the bus and proceeded to tell the students a little about his family’s history.

He pointed across the Beaver Valley and told them to imagine what it must have been like in 1871, when his family first arrived.  He explained there would have been no roads, no electrical poles, no houses and probably no trees.  Just grass, taller in some places, shorter in others.

He said his grandfather, Elias Atwood, had been an officer in the Civil War and as such had been given 80 acres of land by the government.  That land was in what is now Omaha and Elias thought it was too hilly.  He happened to encounter a young man named William Stout who said he’d just been trapping in newly-formed Boone County and thought Elias might find that land more to his liking.

Elias and his father, who was a barrel maker and lobster fisherman from Massachusetts, immediately staked claims on land their descendents still farm today.  Elias then headed back to get his wife, but his father was so afraid of losing the land that he stayed, instructing Elias to bring his wife, Elias’s mother, back also.

Elias was satisfied with one claim but his father staked out two timber claims in addition to his homestead.  And there they’ve stayed through thick and thin.

Gene talked about William Stout, a pioneer still remembered for Stout’s Addition to Albion, an area in the northwest part of town.  I had heard of “old man Stout” because my grandfather Hosford’s family had lived with him on the west edge of town.  I knew he once cut down a grove of trees and split them into lumber all by himself to add a new room to the house, and I remembered being told the unique cuss-word chant he’d recite when splitting firewood, but Gene knew a lot of things about him I’d never heard, including that he was looked down upon by the community for his numerous illicit liaisons with Native women.

Gene showed us a number of things, including Native American artifacts his family had found along the Beaver. His collection includes a piece that an archaeologist identified as dating from the Woodland Period over a dozen centuries ago.

We then drove down to the bottom between the county road and the creek where Gene pointed to an area of grass.  He explained that his grandfather had told the Native Americans who still visited this area in the early pioneer days that he would preserve that ground for them, that they were welcome to use it at any time.  And use it they did, camping there on many occasions.  Gene told how once, when she was home alone, his grandmother had baked pies.  The Indians smelled them, and seven men came to the house.  Though frightened, she put out her best tablecloth, dishes and silverware and treated those men to probably the best meal they’d ever eaten.  Gene said because of that act of kindness none of his grandparents’ horses were ever stolen.

Gene finished up by telling a story about the piece of ground his grandfather had set aside for the Indians.  He said that as his grandfather lay on his death bed, one of Gene’s uncles decided to plow up that plot of ground.  His uncle only made two rounds before Gene’s grandfather got himself up and out to the field where he made it very clear that if Gene’s uncle didn’t stop plowing he’d stop him with a shotgun.  That’s how seriously Gene’s grandfather Elias took his promise, and to this day his descendents have never broken that piece of ground.

So thank you, Gene, for preserving that ground and keeping our history alive by sharing your stories with our young people.  Hearing you tell those stories beats tuning pianos any day…


  1. Mary Ellen Graham Said,

    Thank you for sharing this.

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