Nebraska Sand Hills
By Orin Friesen
I gained a lot of my “cowboyin’” experience from working with the cattle on the Nebraska farm where I was raised. Each year my dad would purchase around 30 or 40 head of mixed-breed, yearling steers; mostly shorthorns and black baldies. We’d get those steers from ranches in the Nebraska Sand Hills. As a child, I loved traveling along State Highway 2 which led to the town of Alliance, near where we got our cattle. I thought the Sand Hills were beautiful, even though they were the only things one could see for miles and miles. It was rare to see even a single tree. Every hill looked just like the one before it. In the 1950s, long before the days of satellites and GPS, our only guide was that lonely, two-lane blacktop.
Imagine what it was like back in the 19th Century. The Sand Hills cover a large section of the state of Nebraska. They extend into nine counties. Thousands of acres are covered with giant piles of sandy soil. All of the hills seem to look alike, yet the gusting winds cause them to drift and slide. During the time when that area was being settled, there were no landmarks. It took a daring person to live there in the first place. Stories were told of explorers and hunters getting lost in the hills, never to return.
In 1891, a German family named Haumann settled in the Sand Hills near Thedford, in Thomas County. Mr. and Mrs. Haumann had nine or ten children. Their oldest daughter, Hannah, was hired by a neighbor named Gilson, who lived a mile and a half away. Hannah would spend the week with the neighbor and then return home on Sundays to spend the time with her family. The other children always looked forward to those Sundays when Hannah would come home. However, one Sunday, May 10th, Hannah didn’t come home. Mr. Gilson had gone away on business and Mrs. Gilson asked Hannah to stay and keep her company. When Hannah didn’t return home, two of her sisters, eight-year-old Tillie and four-year-old Retta, convinced their mother to let them walk to the Gillman’s to see their sister.
After their dinner at noon, Mrs. Haumann told the girls that they could go, but only stay an hour and then return home. Tillie and Retta made it to the Gilson home just fine and started home around four o’clock. In early May, the Nebraska Sand Hills were covered in wild flowers. The girls couldn’t resist gathering flowers to take home. As they picked the flowers, they saw more farther away. They kept running to gather more flowers until they lost their directions. They kept wandering on and on. Nightfall came and the girls had not arrived at home. The next morning, word was sent to the town of Thedford and to all the farmers and ranchers in the area. All of them stopped whatever they were doing to search for the girls. Late Monday afternoon, the searchers found the tracks of the girls. When darkness fell upon them, the men camped on the trail and set out again at first light. The small footprints told the story of the girls; where they had walked side by side, where Tillie had carried Retta, and where they sat down to rest.
Tuesday night came and still the girls hadn’t been found. Once again, the searchers camped on the trail. They picked up the tracks again Wednesday morning. If the girls had stayed in one spot, they would have soon been found, but the girls had moved on, continuing to look for their home. Precious time was lost that day when the trail became too hard to follow. Earlier that morning, Tillie had told Retta to wait at the bottom of large sand hill while she climbed to the top to see if she could spot a house. Once she got to the top, she saw an even larger hill and headed for that. In the meantime, four-year-old Retta thought she could catch up to her sister by going around the hill. They would never meet again.
Around noon, the searchers found Retta, carrying a shoe. Though the girls both had new shoes when they left home, Retta’s one remaining shoe had a sole that was completely worn through. Though she had been without food and water for several days, Retta survived. The search for Tillie continued.
Another search party was formed in the town of Dunning, thirty miles east of Thedford. Since the girls had been moving east, the new search party formed a long line across the hills, hoping to intercept Tillie. It was this party that finally found her. It was Sunday, May 17, a full week since the girls had become lost. Tillie had spread her apron over some rose bushes and laid down under it, where she died. When she was returned home, her parents didn’t even recognize her. Her body had become skin and bones and her fair skin had been burned black by the sun. Everyone for miles around came to her funeral.
Retta recovered from her ordeal and survived to become a mother of a little girl of her own. She never forgot her sister who held her hand and sometimes carried her across the sandy sea known as the Nebraska Sand Hills.