The Home in the Cedars (Story of BRAUN Family in Nebraska)


By Florence B. Kortman, Madison, Nebraska

"The Home in the Cedars" recounts the story of the BRAUN family settling in Nebraska.   This article was first published in the April-June issue of Nebraska History (Vol. XIX, No. 2), printed in January of 1939.   It is printed here with permission.   Nebraska History is a publication of the Nebraska State Historical Society

A snowstorm sweeping across the prairie in 1871. A covered wagon moving slowly along, trying to follow the trail. The driver peering anxiously in every direction. Where would there be shelter? Suddenly before them appeared the welcome sight of a sod house, to which they made their way.

This one-room sod house, twelve feet square, was the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Peter Braun and their family, consisting of two sons, John and Hubert, and two daughters, Anna and Rosa.

The occupants of the covered wagon were Mr. and Mrs. William Dittberner and little daughter, Mandy, now Mrs. Philip J. Knapp of Alliance, Neb., who were on their way from Columbus to take a homestead in Madison county. They were obliged to remain with the Brauns for three days. Later that winter Benjamin Reed from the Township Farm, riding horseback, was snowbound there for three days.

The hospitality extended to the Dittberner family and to Mr. Reed has been a characteristic of the Braun family through three generations. No one has ever been denied shelter and food.

Mr. and Mrs. Braun, descendants of French people, had come from Germany to the United States in 1848, settling in Milwaukee county, Wis. There Hubert Braun, who has related the events in this story, was born on Sept. 10, 1859. After living 16 years in Milwaukee county, the family moved to Dane county, Wisconsin.

The interesting, descriptive letters of a former neighbor, Joseph Jordan, who had moved from Dane county to Nebraska and settled in Platte county on Shell Creek, induced the Braun family to emigrate to Nebraska. They, with their daughters and Hubert came by train, arriving in Columbus on the 15th of October, 1871. John Braun came in a freight car bringing four horses, a few chickens, and other family possessions. These included a melodeon, a sewing machine, a box churn, some farm and garden tools, machinery and their sled runners. He had been a teacher in a parochial school and could play the melodeon and sing well. The sewing machine, while similar in style to those used today, sewed seams from left to right, instead of from front to back as now. The box churn had an inside reel, turned from the outside, which churned the cream into butter. Freight cars were brought across the Missouri river at Omaha by ferry.

Another son, Joseph Braun, attending college, remained in Wisconsin for a year before joining the family in the new home in Nebraska. Mr. Braun made his selection of land at the office of Spiece & North in Columbus, taking as a preemption the NE Quarter of Section Eight, Tp. 19 North, Range One West of the 6th P. M. His son John took as a preemption the southwest quarter of the same section. Clark Cooncey accompanied Mr. Braun from Columbus to locate for him the land he had selected. He counted his horse's steps as a measure of distance. There the sod house and a sod barn close by were built.

One Sunday in the fall, O. A. Stearns, a neighbor who lived two and a half miles away and often helped the pioneers to locate, came to the Braun place and suggested to Mr. Braun that his buildings might be too far west to be on the northwest quarter of Section Eight. Such mistakes were not uncommon. Mr. Braun, his son John and Mr. Stearns set out to find the indisputable location stake set by the government surveyors at the section corners.

These stakes were set diagonally across the adjoining corners of four sections, and on each side of a stake the number of the section was cut. Earth was shoveled around the stake from the four corners, making a mound of earth more plainly visible than a single stake would have been.

Finding such a marker and measuring accurately from it proved that the Brauns had built off their land. It was late to begin a new set of buildings. They dug a cellar on their own land, in which they stored their potatoes. The sod barn had no roof when the snow began to fall. They made good use of their sled runners that winter, although they had been advised when they left Wisconsin that such things were not needed in Nebraska.

When spring came in 1872 their second sod house was built. The northwest quarter of section eight had begun to fulfill the purpose for which it was made.

Whereas it had been unnamed and unclaimed, simply marked with an identification number, henceforth it would be known as "Braun's Place." A family would live on the land, and from the land must come the provisions for sustenance, education and pleasure. The plowshares would soon turn the sod where wild animals and Indian ponies had been free to run.

Section eight was one of the sections inside the railroad land grant. On these sections only eighty-acre homesteads could be taken by the settlers. When Mr. Braun had paid for his preemption he and John decided to exercise their homestead rights, so the quarter-section previously taken by John as a preemption was divided into two eighty-acre homesteads for both father and son. Small settlers' cabins were built on both homesteads, where the men spent their nights to comply with the homestead law. When the timber claim law went into effect in 1873, Mr. Braun took the northeast quarter of section eight, township nineteen north, range one west of the sixth principal meridian as his timber claim.

One of the first necessities was a well. Mr. Braun set to work to make a boarded well three feet square. He dug to a depth of seventy-five feet, then hired Peter Ripp from St. Anthony's to complete the well, digging it to a depth of one hundred fourteen feet. This was "the old oaken bucket" style, with a pulley and rope with a bucket on each end. Later Joseph Braun constructed a windlass which could be turned to bring up the buckets of water. In time this was replaced by a bored well, and later by the windmill, which marks the place where the sod house stood.

Lovinus Leach, with his wife and family, came to Platte County in the spring of 1872 and took a homestead about five miles north of the Braun place. The Hellbusch family lived a few miles to the east and the O. A. Stearns family located two and a half miles to the south. These were the first neighbors of the Brauns.

A new town named Madison had been platted in Madison County, and a store, surveyors office and a few houses built there in 1871. With the idea of serving meals and lodgings to the pioneers of Madison and Antelope counties as they journeyed back and forth to Columbus, Mr. Braun continued the plowing, making furrows along his quarter-section line, and this came to be the well traveled road.

The plow which had been brought from Wisconsin did not scour well in Nebraska sod. In exasperation one day Joseph remarked, "I would like to take the ax to this plow!" Realizing that good implements were a necessity, Mr. Braun went to Columbus and bought a Moline plow. Then both corn and potatoes were dropped into furrows and covered by the next furrow. Some wheat was planted that spring, but the soil had not been properly prepared. The yield was small and the stems short. Pumpkins were raised in great quantities.

Indians were numerous but not troublesome. Bands of them went by on their hunting trips. Often they came to the house begging bread, flour, or melons in season, which were always given to them. The year 1873 was a very busy one for all the members of the Braun family. More of their land was broken and planted to farm grains and garden. Mr. Braun and John went to the "Township Farm'' in Stanton County to get apple trees to start an orchard. Mr. Braun, doing his own carpenter work, replaced his sod house with a frame house, 24x24 feet, a story and a half high. The ground floor was divided into four rooms, but the upper floor was left in one room, 14x24 feet, in which were placed eight beds.

The Braun land was to feel the wheels of various machines that summer. When the wheat was ripe it was cut with the Wood's Self-Rake, brought from Wisconsin. This reaper was similar in style to those in use now, but it had no canvas nor did it bind the bundles of grain. The wheat was caught by an arm on the machine and tossed behind this reaper. Men followed, each gathering an armful for a bundle binding it with a twist of straw or "straw-band." Ad Alderson, with his horsepower threshing machine and crew of helpers, was hired to thresh that summer's crop. The self-rake was replaced the next year by a Marsh Harvester. Hubert and Rosa Braun did the binding. Tons of hay were cut by Mr. Braun with a scythe and raked with a hand rake before he sent to Wisconsin to have a Wood's Mower, which could be made a part of Wood's Self-Rake, sent to him.

Wheat was the farmers' principal crop and had to be hauled to Columbus to be sold. Most of the hauling was done through the fall and winter months. These were long trips, often made in weather so cold that the drivers would walk and ride alternately to avoid complete numbness. Food and rest must be obtained along the way. The Brauns began serving meals to travelers, and soon "Braun's Place" was a popular stopover as well as the Stearns "Half-Way House."

Mr. Braun charged 70 cents for supper, breakfast and bed, and hay for one team. Twenty-five cents paid for a single meal. The preparation of food for an unknown number of hungry travelers required careful planning and hours of work. Homemade bread must always be kept on hand. Home butchering provided the meat and lard. Plenty of potatoes, cabbage and turnips were always kept in the cellar. Pumpkins were plentiful and were cut and dried for making into pies. Wild plums and wild grapes could be found on Shell creek. Molasses was bought in five gallon kegs, apples by the barrel; "Arbuckle" roasted coffee in packages soon replaced the merchant's bulk coffee, which had to be roasted and ground at home. Mr. Braun took a license for the sale of tobacco and always had a supply on hand. He kept a strictly temperance place, and on rare occasions had to deal with some man who imbibed too freely in Columbus.

While the men who stopped might have appeared rough and uncouth, they were honest. Thru all the years the only article taken from the house was a blanket. But on one occasion Hubert Braun, out with his father with their lanterns to help their guests get teams hitched for an early start discovered the lines gone from his harness. He spoke of this to his father, who called out: "Have any of you men made a mistake and taken my lines?"

The replies came back, "I don't have them," "I have only my own lines," and one voice louder than the rest: "Come look through my things if you want to; I don't have your lines."

A few days later Rosa found the lines, evidently tossed into the weeds during the denial.

One time a transient who came afoot late at night arose before any one else and rode away on one of Mr. Braun's horses. He was apprehended at Lone Tree, taken into custody and the horse returned.

In 1874 Mr. Braun had a large addition built on the east side of his house, and with this additional room could provide beds for 22 persons. The mattresses for those beds were ticks filled with hay or straw. The pillows were filled with "pillow flakes." Never a bit of goods, cotton or wool, was wasted, but was cut into tiny scraps to fill those pillows. On two occasions 36 people spent the night under that roof. Those who could not be provided with beds slept on hay on the floor of an adjoining room or sat up all night.

Twisted hay or slough grass provided most of the fuel for early settlers. Occasionally Mr. Braun would get a load of wood over on the Loup river or buy a fallen tree from a neighbor on Shell creek. J. O. Trine, who came to Madison county in October, 1868, and has lived many years just across the county line in Stanton county, remembers having been at the Braun place. He said: "Braun used hay a good deal in the heater in the large room where their wheat-hauling guests were entertained. One night when I was stopping there, some of the boys thought the room uncomfortably cool and proceeded to do some firing. The method of preparing the hay was to take a large handful, twist it then double it like an old-fashioned doughnut. The boys got a good supply of these "twisters" and then filled the stove nearly full. After smoldering awhile it blew up, throwing the lids into the air, opening the stove door, and filling the room with smoke and ashes." Settlers began coming more rapidly to take the land between Columbus and the Elkhorn river. Traffic on the road was heavy. Farmers who hauled their wheat to Columbus to market were beginning to return with loads of lumber to replace their sod houses and to build churches and school houses. Merchants went for stocks of goods; loads of lumber and building materials were hauled to Madison; agents, well diggers, the mail and stage driver traveled the Columbus road. This brought patronage to the Braun place. Hubert Braun stopped his plowing one day to count 80 teams in sight. He recalls the names of scores of men who were regular patrons at his father's home.

Frequently the men who spent nights at Braun's would play checkers, but most of them were content to visit and enjoy discussion of crops and stock raising, land laws, taxes, improved machinery, possible railway service, politics and news.

The exchange of methods and ideas and the friendships formed at these gatherings were of incalculable value to these early settlers. On the 30th of December in 1879, the Union Pacific railroad began making daily round trips from Columbus to Norfolk. The days of heavy overland hauling on the Columbus road were over.

The grasshopper invasion which came in July, 1874, completely devastated the crops and gardens on the Braun land, except the field of wheat which they were binding when the grasshoppers came. That was passed up for greener food. "All that was left in our garden were the empty shells of turnips in the ground." Life-saving relief from the eastern states consisted of food, seeds and clothing. This was apportioned by the "Aid Society" at Columbus and distributed over the country by the school director in each district. Mr. Braun had charge of the work in District 30.

No serious accidents have occurred on this farm, nor has prairie fire swept across the plowed land to damage their buildings since the Braun family have made it their home. But an incident happened which might have had disastrous results.

"Mr. Tracy came to buy hay. Brother John loaded the wagon and drove away to take it to the Tracy farm. Mr. Tracy lighted his pipe and carelessly tossed aside the match, then noticed the hay in the stack had caught fire. He tried to pull out the burning hay, singeing his hands and face, then ran to the house calling, 'Braun, Braun, the hay's afire!' He ran to the well and began pulling up buckets of water. Father grabbed buckets of slop standing near the kitchen door, and the girls ran with water as fast as Mr. Tracy could pull it from the well. Father brought a pitchfork, got on the stack and turned the top over, putting out the fire. Mr. Tracy willingly paid for the burned hay--quite an expensive smoke for him."

Mr. and Mrs. Braun realized that land could provide work and recreation for the physical development of their own and their neighbors young people, but that plans must be made for their educational and religious development. Mr. Braun organized School District No. 30 in Platte county and was the first director in the district. Joseph Braun had taught one term in the log school house in the Arntz district on Shell Creek. His brother Hubert was one of his pupils for five weeks. When Mr. Braun built the frame house in 1873, Joseph Braun gathered the children from the Tracy, McCleary, Wieser, and Krause families. Another summer term was held in the Braun home with Joseph as teacher, before the small frame school house was built in 1870. Mr. Braun sold a half-acre of land from the NE corner of NW quarter of Section Eight to the district for the school ground. Their first teacher was Miss Sarah Fitzpatrick. The school house has now been sold and moved from the land.

The Brauns were desirous of having their family attend a nearby Catholic church. Mass had been held in the sod house with their family and in the frame house with the neighbors joining them. The priest, Father Ewing, came from West Point. Mr. Braun offered to donate the land and one hundred dollars toward a building fund. Mr. Eimers, who had recently moved from Iowa into the neighborhood, offered ten acres of his land and one hundred fifty dollars. His offer was accepted. Mr. Braun and Glass Cerner built the first church, a frame building, in 1875. A parochial school was built in 1881. As the population in the parish increased, church and school were replaced with more commodious buildings. Brick was used in building the church (1924), school (1908), and the priest's house. All have their places in the well kept yard. Services are held Sundays and five week days.

One after another, the family of John Peter Braun left the parental home until the son Hubert, alone, remained with them. John Braun had established a home on part of Section Six and, exercising his inherent love of trees and shrubs, had made of the place a veritable nursery. In 1882 his catalog listed 500 varieties of plants and trees. Joseph Braun, the former teacher, made a home for his family near Humphrey. Anna Braun married Ignatz Zach. Rosa Braun had joined the Sisters of Precious Blood in Missouri. These four have passed away.

In September 1879 the land may have experienced a new thrill, for a bride came to live on it, a new family life began. Hubert married Miss.Mary Delsmann of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, who had come visiting her relatives in Columbus and in the vicinity of the Braun home. Through the following 12 years children's feet pressed soil, played under the trees, trudged down the lane to school. Happy, busy years.

In time John Peter Braun and his wife gave up active management of the home they had established and moved to Humphrey. They passed away there many years ago. Later a shadow fell over the home, for the young wife's health failed and in December, 1892, the wheels of a solemn cortege passed along the driveway, taking her to the final church service and to her resting place. Her paramount interest to the last had been the care of her children, and she had taught her husband homekeeping ways even to baking the bread.

The years from 1890 to 1895 were years of drouth, crop failures and hard times. Many banks failed. The few crops the farmers could raise brought lowest prices. Attention began to turn to producing new crops--alfalfa and winter wheat. When it was proved that these were adaptable to Nebraska soil, land prices began to rise.

The land of his farm was not only planted for grain and garden products, but space was allowed for beautiful trees and flowering shrubs and a blue-grass lawn with flower beds. Hubert Braun bought twelve red cedar trees to plant north of his home where six of them still stand, three on each side of the walk. From the seedlings of these trees, Mr. Braun has set more than three hundred red cedars on his place. He has set walnut, thornless locust, blue spruce, elm and other varieties also. Lilac, spirea and snowball bushes had their places, and peonies, tiger lilies and iris added to the beauty of his yard. He arranged a pipe line from the water tank to irrigate his yard, but the prolonged dry seasons and grasshoppers have destroyed much of its beauty.

This fertile farm has produced good crops when there was sufficient moisture. Mr. Braun recalls the great oats yield of 50 bushels to the acre in 1895. In years of normal rainfall their corn produced forty bushels and wheat twenty to thirty bushels to the acre, and there were three heavy cuttings of alfalfa in a season. Mr. Braun has not planted the much discussed hybrid corn some farmers are testing this year. In May, 1894, Hubert Braun and Miss Mary Lohaus were married and the home again responded to a woman's hand and heart. Children came to bless this union. The farm was producing bounteous crops. A new organ replaced the melodeon. New machinery came into use. A cream separator was added to the household equipment. It could be expected that Mr. and Mrs. Braun might enjoy many years of companionship, but Mrs. Braun failed to recover from an operation and August 10, 1912 passed away in St. Mary's hospital in Columbus.

Mr. Braun has continued his residence on the farm, for through inheritance and purchase it has become his possession.

In 1915 he bought his first automobile, an Overland, with self-starter. He comes and goes when it pleases him to do so now, driving a Ford coupe. He has always been interested in politics and new laws. He served a year as township supervisor and has served nineteen years as township clerk in Grand Prairie township.

The call to defend the United States reverberated across the land in 1917. Joseph F. Braun was called in the first draft. He went from Columbus to Camp Funston, where he was made a corporal; thence to France, a member of Company D, 137th Infantry, 35th Division, American Expeditionary Forces. There he served in some of the decisive battles of the World War, including the drive on Verdun and five days and six nights in the drive on the Argonne-Meuse. He returned from France to Camp Dodge, where he received an honorable discharge. Minnie and Josephine Braun, nieces of Hubert Braun, offered their services as nurses and went overseas.

Six sons and six daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Braun have grown to manhood and womanhood on their grandfather's preemption and are taking places as good citizens in the communities where they live. Each one of them learned to speak, read and write German as well as the English language. The girls of the family played the organ and every boy was a member of the band. Their land felt the rhythm of dancing feet for that was one of their diversions. Kodaking was another of the family pleasures.

Katherine, the oldest daughter, lives in Omaha. One daughter, Gertrude, now Sister Mary Romana, took training and has been a nurse in the Franciscan Sisterhood for 30 years. At present she is supervisor of night nurses in the St. Francis Hospital in Grand Island.

Three sons and one daughter of Hubert Braun have married three daughters and one son in the Henry Krause family. Another unusual relationship is that of Mr. Braun's son and one of his grandsons, who have married two sisters in the Magseman family. One might ask, "When is a sister not a sister," or "Who's who in this family." One son, Ignatz, and his family live two miles from the home place. Louis Braun with his wife and children live with Hubert Braun.

All of Mr. Braun's sons and daughters were christened in their neighboring St. Mary's church. All were confirmed there and all who married, with the exception of one son, were married in that church. Their wedding days meant gatherings of many relatives and friends. Hubert Braun has sixty-seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Braun is interested in the happenings of the day, the problems of unemployment and relief and crop restrictions. One of his nephews has been enrolled in a CCC camp in Colorado and he is interested in their work, although he has not needed the CCC boys to do soil erosion work, tree planting or contour farming on his land.

So we leave him, this August afternoon in 1938, standing under one of his red cedar trees on the land that has been glorified by hospitality to man, affection to family and reverence to God.