LOOKING BACK: Irrigation comes to the valley

Irrigation was first brought to the valley in the late 1880s. Most canals were little more than ditches, dug by hand. The first was the Minatare Canal, built completely with volunteer labor.Prominent among the builders was the Harshman family, whose descendants still live in the area.

Without the early homesteaders and the hardships they endured to settle this part of Nebraska, the history of the valley would be radically different.

The first settlers from the east had farmed in areas with much more fertile soil due to a lot more precipitation. But western Nebraska was different.

So when these settlers from the east went about farming as they had done for years, they also had to watch their crops slowly curl up and die from lack of water. The answer came in the 1880s, although it was as old as history itself — irrigation.

One of the first homestead filings in what is now Scotts Bluff County was made about 1885 by civil engineer George Fairfield. His place was about a mile north of Melbeta and three-quarters of a mile west of Minatare.

Fairfield and his sons worked in the land office in Sidney, where they met prospective settlers and drove them to the valley to locate them on different homesteads.

One of the first homestead communities was Tabor, three-quarters of a mile west of Minatare. It consisted of only a sod store building. Tabor would later become Scotts Bluff County’s first voting place and one of its first post offices.

Sometime around 1887, talk was going around about bringing irrigation into the valley. One of the prime movers was Fairfield, who was later instrumental in the original Farmers Canal.

Fairfield met at his home with his good friend Capt. William Akers, a state senator who was also a civil engineer. The two of them drafted proposed legislation that Akers would later navigate through the Legislature, a bill that established the state’s first irrigation law.

Once enabling legislation was in place, area homesteaders looked toward building a ditch to irrigate the area. But it would have to be done without funding.

No bond issues could be floated or paid without a government treasury to back them. The plan also met a lot of opposition from settlers from the east who thought irrigation seemed foolish.

None of the homesteaders had any money, either. The few of them willing to join in the project were lacking in capital, so they turned to labor. And labor played a large part in the development of irrigation in the valley.

In the spring of 1886, a train of covered wagons stopped in present-day Minatare. Among the travelers were the large family of Theodore Harshman, a farmer and blacksmith from Iowa. Also in 1886, area homesteaders began experimenting with what crops might grow well along the river. Orchards were planted. So was an experimental crop that wouldn’t catch on until later — sugar beets.

A year or so later, some of the settlers gathered and launched the first irrigation project in the valley. That meeting would change our entire history.

The company they organized was named the Minatare Canal and Irrigation Company for the purpose of building a ditch to carry water for irrigation.

No one in the group had any money, but they had learned about a grading company in Sterling, Colorado that wanted to sell some of its old scrapers.

Managing to borrow about $60, the group sent one if its members to Sterling with his mule team. He returned several days later with about 10 scrapers. Now the work could begin.

The first scraper of dirt was pulled out in February 1888 by R.J. Harshman, the family’s oldest son.

Lumber for headgates and bridges came from the hills, about 10 miles to the south as the project continued. Sawed lumber came from the Pine Ridge.

On one trip back, the men ran out of everything they could eat. With flour obtained from ranch in the area, they mixed it with water and cooked it along the road.

Once the men returned, the Harshman family was found in a starving condition. So the eldest son, R.J. Harshman, headed for Colorado.

Walking barefooted to Greeley, he took a job for a $1 a day to send back to the family for them to live on and continue the work.

By the time the Minatare Canal was completed in August 1888 and water turned on, the Harshman family had built more than half of the 11 miles by themselves.

It didn’t take long before ditches were being dug across the area. Tapping into the North Platte River, they brought the water needed to grow crops in arid western Nebraska.

In his book “Pioneer Tales,” Gering Courier founder and publisher A.B. Wood left a fitting tribute: Those who made it possible have since “gone west,” but their vision, energy and courage lives after them.

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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