Volume 2, No. 10
Buffalo County Historical Society
THE WATSON RANCH
- Part II.
by Philip S. Holmgren
Part I of this account of the Watson Ranch emphasized those aspects of the
Ranch and its operation dealing with the size, the large barn and the introduction
of alfalfa to this region of the United States.
Although the introduction of alfalfa to the middle west was the major contribution
of Watson and his ranch, the ranch like the man, exhibited a variety of activities
almost beyond belief. Alfalfa was the principal crop but as a part
of the rotation with alfalfa, up to 2,000 acres of corn, as well as several
hundred acres of wheat, were planted. A large feeding operation developed.
Sheep and cattle were brought in from western ranches to be fattened on alfalfa
and corn. A seed raising experiment was begun in 1898 but it seems
to have been most successful in producing alfalfa seed. Very early
it was discovered that alfalfa grown in the hills produced better seed than
that grown in the valley. Other than the crops mentioned already there were
extensive plantings of such garden crops as potatoes, squash, corn, cucumbers,
melons, celery as well as other garden crops for use by those living on the
Fruit growing was another large
scale venture on the Watson ranch. The trees were planted on the low
hills to the north of the buildings. Thousands of cherry, peach, apple
and plum trees were planted. The rows of trees followed the contour
of the hills and methods of their tillage, pruning, and general orchard care
were adapted from other fruit growing regions of the country. Visitors
from as far away as Cornell University liked what they saw and pronounced
the fruit as fine as anywhere.
One of the most
interesting events that drew large crowds to the ranch was the annual cherry
picking day. A proclamation signed by N. D. Dunlap, a ranch foreman,
and published in the local papers, invited people to the ranch for a day
of cherry picking. The proclamation gave complete instruction on registration,
equipment they should bring, cost of cherries per bushel if you picked them
($1.50) and cost if picked for you ($2.50). People were instructed
on expected behavior such as "wearing your sunniest smile". Children
under fifteen were permitted only if they had parents along to paddle them
if they got smart. One such proclamation brought over 1,500 people
to the ranch with 625 bushels recorded as having been picked.
Auto Relay Racer Carrying
President Taft's Message across the continent
The ranch was a show place and visitors
were welcome. Prominent people were entertained in the large ranch
house and fed elaborate meals. This practice, plus its size, all must
have contributed to a feeling on the part of some outsiders that here was
public property free for the taking. Those responsible for the day
to day management of the ranch were annoyed almost beyond endurance by "pilferers".
One of the managers had himself appointed as a game warden to attempt to
control the hunting on the ranch by outsiders. Sheep seem to have been
a major target of those who stole from the ranch. Sometimes the thieves
even butchered and dressed them on the ranch before making off with the meat.
This practice seems to have carried over long after the Watson ranch was
broken up and the nucleus of it was bought by Wood's Brothers and re-named
the 1733 Ranch. Further breakup followed and new tenants continued
to be bothered by outsiders helping themselves to any product they could
find. When confronted with the demand for an explanation of their action,
they would say it was all right to take anything they wanted from the ranch.
N. C. Dunlap, foreman
of the Watson Ranch.
Photo, Courtesy Nebraska Historical Society
The prominence of poultry is
associated with the later years of the Watson ranch. Like everything
else on the ranch it was carried on in grand style complete with a three
story poultry barn and extensive hatchery facilities - Watson is given much
credit for the introduction of Chinese Pheasants to the Midwest. The
high point in the poultry operation appears to have been reached after Watson
left the management of the ranch.
Photo, Courtesy Nebraska Historical Society
Financing of the Watson ranch is extremely
involved and cannot be reduced to any single explanation. Watson's
method of financing has been described as taking from Peter to pay Paul but
never giving Paul as much as was taken from Peter. Throughout its existence
the Ranch operated under a heavy burden of debt. Its operations were
so extensive and so diverse it resulted in disjointed management and inefficient
operation. The major cohesive force appears to have been the magnetic
personality of H. D. Watson whose many other interests frequently kept him
away from the ranch for extended periods of time. Some of these interests
showed a profit and these profits were sunk in the ranch. In the end
investors in the land are reported to have lost in excess of 80 per cent
of their investment. Walter M. Parker, president of the Manchester
National Bank, Manchester, New Hampshire was the real owner of about 4,400
acres from 1901 to 1917. This made up the heart of the ranch, including
all the buildings, and was the ranch purchased by Wood's Brothers June 20,
1917 and renamed the 1733 Ranch because it was located 1733 miles from Boston
and 1733 miles from San Francisco. After changing hands several more
times in the next few years, the final break up came in 1923.
Financially the ranch was a disaster
for all those who invested in it and yet this huge operation, often described
as a gigantic experiment station, enriched the lives of many people associated
with agriculture in the Midwest. It drew many people from all parts
of the United States and some foreign countries to Kearney and Buffalo County
to view the development of alfalfa, dairying, livestock feeding, fruit raising,
seed production plus numerous other agricultural developments. The
credit or blame for all of this, for there are those who praise and those
who curse him, rests heavily on the shoulders of Henry David Watson, a dreamer
of great dreams who died penniless on February 9, 1924.
Much of the information
in this article comes from an unpublished masters thesis, H. D. Watson
and His Agricultural Experiment written by Floyd A. Miller.
Additional information was obtained from items in Kearney, Lincoln and Omaha
newspapers, a letter written by Will C. Scoutt to Floyd Miller, as well as
some data provided by Albert Kjar.
Back to Buffalo Tales
Back to Buffalo County Historical
Society home page