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August 2016
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Benjamin F. and Cora J. Gentry
A Paradigm for Prairie Western Settlers

Willard Gentry


Cora Johnson Gentry
Benjamin Franklin Gentry
With this article, the Journal is departing from its practice of concentrating on the history of the early generations of Gentrys to record the story of a family of recent memory. Benjamin and Cora Gentry, long-time residents of Western Nebraska, typify the sturdy stock that spread westward across the United States, generation after generation to the limits of the country's borders. Only a few of these pioneers achieved state or national prominence but within their home environment, Ben and Cora were outstanding examples of civic achievement and reputation. The author is proud to claim them as grandparents.

Summary of Benjamin Gentry ancestry by generation:

1st: Nicholas Gentry, married [Unknown], had a son –
2nd: Samuel Gentry, married Ann [Allen?], had a son –
3rd: Allen Gentry, married Mary [Unknown], had a son –
4th: Abednego Gentry, married Elizabeth Brooks, had a son –
5th: Allen Gentry, married Sarah Brittain, had a son –
6th: William Gentry, married Rebecca Wiles, had a son Benjamin.

Benjamin Gentry - Early Years

Ben never knew his father, William Ellis Gentry. William enlisted in the summer of 1861 in the local Capt. Robinson's Company D, Nodaway County Regiment, Missouri Home Guards militia in Nodaway County, Missouri, during the Civil War, along with two of his brothers when Ben was only 4 months old. William was discharged and paid for a month's active service in September 1861 (his brothers subsequently joined other military units). He died of illness (said to be dysentery contracted during his military service) little over a month later. Records of William are almost entirely limited to land and probate records relating to him in Nodaway County.

4-corner state counties
Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska Counties

More is known about Ben's mother, the former Rebecca Wiles, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Hobson Wiles<1>. Ben's mother, Rebecca Wiles Gentry, remained only briefly in Nodaway County, where Ben was born, then moved in the spring of 1862 to Mills County, Iowa, where her father, Thomas Wiles, was living. The Wiles family had moved in about 1840 from Indiana to the neighboring county of Andrew in Missouri where William and Rebecca first met, but had moved to Iowa by 1852, the year William went to Mills County to marry Rebecca and then take her back to Nodaway County with him. In Iowa, Rebecca lived with her parents for 4 years before she met and married her second husband, Mattes Akeson. [His first name is frequently Anglicized to "Mathis" and his last name is found in documentary records spelt in various alternate ways such as "Atkinson" and "Akerson"]. Mattes had immigrated from Sweden before the Civil War along with a son, Peter and a daughter Lena. Soon after Mattes' and Rebecca's marriage in Mills County in July 1866, they left Iowa and Mattes took over a homestead claim near Weeping Water, Cass County, Nebraska. The family, including Benjamin, was listed in the 1870 census, living in the Plattsmouth enumeration district. Mattes' life had a tragic end. In 1894 he was murdered by two horse thieves. The thieves were caught and one of them was hanged -- the first and only legal execution of a criminal in Cass County history.

Children of Rebecca Gentry Akeson:
Nancy Akeson, Rebecca, Catherine Gentry (front)
Thomas Akeson, Ben Gentry, Milton Gentry (rear)

Ben attended early years of school in Weeping Water and wanted to continue through high school<2>. Mattes, however, felt he had had enough education and wanted Ben to work on the farm which led to quarreling between the two which in turn resulted in Ben running away from home when he was 14. In 1878, when Ben was 17, he petitioned the courts for his uncle, Isaac Wiles, to be named as his guardian until he reached the age of majority. This was granted in March 1879<3>. Isaac was an older brother of his mother, and a former close friend of his father, William. Ben moved to nearby Plattsmouth, Cass County, Nebraska, where Isaac was living and graduated from high school there. In the 1880 census, Ben was rooming with a family in Plattsmouth next door to a cousin, Thomas Wiles, another nephew of Isaac Wiles. At the time he was listed "at work" rather than "at school" so presumably had finished high school.

The next stop on Ben's educational trail was at Northern Indiana Business Institute in Valparaiso, Indiana, where he graduated in Aug 1884 after a three-year period of study. (This school opened in 1871 and was renamed Valparaiso College in 1900, then Valparaiso University in 1906. At the height of its enrollment, the university was the second largest university in the United States.) Undoubtedly the choice of this college was influenced by the fact that it was in Porter County, Indiana, adjacent to Lake County where the Wiles family lived for many years before moving to Missouri. To pay for his college expenses, Ben sold land in Nodaway County, Missouri, that he had inherited from his father. [When the college's predecessor, Valparaiso Male and Female College, first opened in 1859, the expenses were $8 for tuition per trimester plus outside board and room of about $2 per week.] Following graduation from the Business Institute, Ben remained for a short time in Valparaiso to take a class in Plain and Ornamental Penmanship at the Northern Indiana Normal School, receiving a Penmanship Certificate in November 1884. Spencerian penmanship was very popular at the time and a number of examples of his very flowery penmanship survive. The sketch shown below has deteriorated with time but gives a sense of the very finely-drawn details required in student assignments.

Example of penmanship exercise by B. F. Gentry

In a brief biography of Ben, his wife Cora Gentry comments on his activities after finishing college:
"After graduation from Valparaiso in 1884, Ben returned to Plattsmouth taking a job as tax collector in Cass County until his cousin, Will Adam's term as County Treasurer expired. Ben then took a job with Newell & Company of Plattsmouth buying grain. During his period of time between college and leaving Cass County, Ben lived with Will Adam's mother and family and was listed with them in Plattsmouth in an 1885 Nebraska state census. His aunt, Rachel Adams, was an older sister of his mother who had married Jacob Adams and then been widowed."

It is of passing interest that in 1880, Ben's brother, Milton Gentry, lived next door to one of Rachel's daughters in Plattsmouth, but by 1885, Milton had left Plattsmouth and was living upriver along the Platte at Louisville, Nebraska (still in Cass County).

It is of further interest that Ben's son, Dr. Bill Gentry, recalls his father telling him that during his time in Cass County, Ben had worked for a time as a bookkeeper and flour mill-hand for his later father-in-law, Daniel D. Johnson in Weeping Water. Dan had traded a farm outside Weeping Water for a mill in town in 1874 which was run by Dan and family members until 1881 when he traded the mill for farmland between Weeping Water and Elmwood. Ben ran away from his home in Weeping Water in about 1875 and lived in Plattsmouth thereafter, but it is possible that this mill-work that Dr. Bill recalls was while Ben was still in school in Weeping Water.

During the 1870's and early 1880's, the land on the south side of the North Platte River was occupied by a few large cattle outfits and the north side was an Indian reservation where no white man was allowed to settle. When the Federal Government opened land in the spring of 1886 in the North Platte Valley for homesteading, Ben with a friend John Hall decided to homestead there. John Hall owned a wagon and team of mules which they drove across the state, camping at night along the way. An early settler named George Fairfield, who had first homesteaded in the North Platte Valley in 1885, had an office in Sidney where he met newcomers and directed them to possible available sites. To the dismay of many, Ben included, most of the good land had already been filed for. It was not until after Ben had paid his filing fee and started plowing the land that he found out Fairfield had made a mistake and a man by the name of Thomas Reeves had filed on his land earlier.

Cora Johnson - Early Years

Before following Ben Gentry in his initial trials and tribulations in the North Platte Valley, it will be convenient to review the early life of his future wife, Cora Johnson as described in her autobiography. Cora was the daughter of Daniel Dean Johnson and Elizabeth Adelade Lathrop. Cora's father, Daniel Johnson, arrived in February 1868 in Cass County, Nebraska, where the land had just been opened up for homestead filing, intent on exercising his rights to land as a Civil War veteran. He moved from St. Johns, Pottawattamie County, Iowa, where he had been a carpenter and where he kept a small store. He bought from the original owner, the rights to land on Weeping Water Creek about 6 miles west of Weeping Water near the present community of Wabash. He rebuilt the first homestead in a better location and ventured into farming, receiving title to the land in 1873.

Cora was born a year after the move, the fifth of a family that eventually numbered fourteen children, eleven of whom were girls. Cora's childhood life might be described as somewhat chaotic. In 1875 Dan traded his farm for a flour mill run by a water wheel at the Falls of Weeping Water Creek in the town of Weeping Water. This was precipitated by losing all his crops to a scourge of grasshoppers. He was also influenced in this move by the fact that due to Civil War wounds he lacked the strength for farming and all of his older children were girls. The Johnson family temporarily lived until 1876 with their maternal grandmother Catherine Preston and husband Jacob Preston in Harkers Corner, Illinois while Dan Johnson was purchasing the mill in Weeping Water and building a house for the family. [When the family returned home, Grandmother Preston asked to keep one of the children to raise, and two-year-old Nelle was left behind. Nelle's entire upbringing was by her grandparents and she lived with them until her marriage to Paul Scoles in 1900.]

From 1879 to 1881, Dan leased another mill in Blair, Nebraska, farther north on the Missouri River, but retained his home in Weeping Water. Anna, Dan's oldest daughter, and Cora kept house for him in Blair while at the same time Daniel's wife, Elizabeth, took care of the rest of the family in Weeping Water. In 1881, Cora moved back to Weeping Water with her father and the family was united again. Two years later, Cora's mother died unexpectedly of puerperal fever as a result of a miscarriage.

In spite of all the moves, Cora had been able to attend school and in 1884 she graduated from high school in Weeping Water. That year her Grandmother Preston visited Weeping Water en route from her former home in Illinois to a new home at Ada, a college town in Ohio. She extended an offer to have one of her granddaughters move to Ohio with her and attend college there. The privilege fell to Cora and in the fall of 1884 Cora moved to Ada to live with her Preston grandparents and enrolled in Ohio Normal College (now Ohio Northern). After three years, Cora graduated and went back to Nebraska to find that her father had moved the family from Weeping Water westward to the North Platte Valley.

After his wife, Elizabeth's death, Dan moved to property just west of town where there was room for following his dream of breeding and raising thoroughbred horses and cattle. Because of his success with livestock, he was appointed to the state Livestock Sanitation Commission (where he acquired the honorary title of "Colonel" which he frequently used). While traveling the state in this capacity, in 1885, he visited the North Platte Valley in western Nebraska and decided this was a spot for a new home. Dan filed in October 1885 for 160 acres of land in Winters Creek Canyon in what is now Scotts Bluff County (close to the location of the present Scottsbluff Airport). He filed a tree claim in order to start the process of acquiring the land without the requirement of cultivating it immediately and building a house.<4>

The next year, Dan took his oldest daughter Anna and son Merle back to the North Platte Valley. Anna, writing years later, recalled:

"It was on April 17, 1886, thirty-seven years ago, that my father, my five-year-old brother Merle, with our bulldog 'Collie Reil', and a young man by the name of Matthew Feather, and myself, landed in Sidney, with a carload of goods, among which were three horses, a wagon, and other needed supplies. Our first stop on our way to the Valley over the Sidney Divide was at a place called the 'Water Holes', the next was at old Camp Clarke, kept by the genial hosts, Mr. and Mrs. D. W. White, who had a store and who collected the toll from all comers for crossing the only bridge across the Platte River available to travelers bound for the Valley, and here we spent the night. . . On the last day of our journey we took the trail up the river with 'Scotts Bluff' in the distance leading us on. It did seem like a long thirty miles, with only the old 7UP Ranch between Camp Clarke and a small settlement, members of which had come in the late autumn before, called 'Tabor'."
They went on to Winters Creek where Dan had arranged in advance for a small frame cabin to be built on the property. Dan went back to Weeping Water and left Anna and Merle alone for the spring and summer in order for her to establish occupancy on the property claim. She managed to make-do with the help of neighbors including two brothers Will and Jap Ripley, who had been schoolmates of Anna in Weeping Water. The Ripleys had recently arrived with a number of others from Cass County. (Anna married Will three years later).

Dan and Anna followed a carefully choreographed schedule to "work the system" and make the most of residency timing requirements for claims. Bcause of Anna completing six months occupation on Dan's claim in October, he was able to convert to a preemption claim and receive title by paying $1.25 per acre ($200 total). They visited the land office in Sidney before leaving the valley and filed on two more claims, one each for Dan and Anna. While at the land office they learned that there was vacant land available next to the homestead claim for which Anna was filing, so she filed for a tree claim as well after which they returned to Weeping Water. Anna had to begin residency on her new claim within six months, so Dan sold his home and business in Weeping Water, and in April 1887, he and Anna went back to Winters Creek. Dan built a sod house large enough to accommodate everyone and in June, moved his entire family (with the exception of Cora who was at college) to their new home. In addition to engaging in farming, Dan brought west with him his thoroughbred Whiteface cattle and his blooded Hambletonian horses.

Johnson claims
Homestead, Preemption and Tree Claims by Johnsons

Benjamin Gentry - in Western Nebraska

We will leave the Johnson family at this point and return to Ben Gentry. The area of Nebraska to which Ben moved had for over 60 years been only a travel route, never a place to settle down and live. It was located on the Great Platte River Trail, the principal route for travelers between the Eastern States and the West Coast. This was a collection of trails with a series of scattered starting points that funneled down to basically a "south of the river" trail popularly called the Oregon Trail with multiple starting points in Missouri and Kansas, and a "north of the river" trail used by groups such as the Mormons with starting points primarily in Omaha and Council Bluffs. Beyond Fort Laramie in Wyoming, the trails split again depending on their eventual destinations. The route following the northern fork of the Platte River was the most direct and the easiest in terms have water availability and gentle grade. There was an obstacle in Western Nebraska for the south of the river trail in the form of Scotts Bluff. After miles of trail with tree-covered bluffs paralleling the trail to the south, abruptly one was faced with a spur ending in a formidable promontory rising some 800 feet above the valley floor at right angles to the trail. (The Indian name for the bluff was "Ma-a-pa-te", meaning "The hill that is hard to go around".) The way past Scotts Bluff was blocked on the north by impassable badlands between the bluff and the river. Mitchell Pass, immediately next to Scotts Bluff was for many years impassable for wagons and not until travelers and Army troops filled in canyons and improved the grade through the pass could it be used. This became useable in about 1850. Before that time, all travel was by way of Roubadoux (or Roubidoux) Pass some 5 miles to the south where there was more gentle terrain and there was a spring providing water, but a longer distance to travel..

Mitchell Pass (Dome Rock in back), William Henry Jackson Painting, about 1866
Mitchell Pass to left, Scotts Bluff to right

By 1869, the year that the transcontinental railway was completed, it is estimated that more than 350,000 migrants had passed through the North Platte Valley. In the year 1849 roughly 30,000 people traveled the route and in 1850, a high-water mark of 55,000 are estimated to have gone through. Initially used by fur trappers and explorers, then by the military, emigrant traffic started in 1843 with an effort to settle Oregon and wrest it from Great Britain. The Pony Express was the route's swan song, its replacement by the railroad farther to the south in Nebraska, ended the period of heavy cross-country traffic. In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty set aside land on the north side of the North Platte River for Indian use only and the Red Cloud Agency was established in 1871 at the location of present- day Henry, Nebraska, on the Nebraska-Wyoming border. In 1873, the agency was moved north and a new reservation was established based at a new Army base at Fort Robinson in 1874. From the time of the removal of the Indians until 1885, herds of cattle and attendant cowboys were all that could be found along the North Platte River. Surveying of land nation-wide began in 1854, but it was not until 1883 that it was completed in Nebraska. The land which Ben Gentry eventually claimed was surveyed in 1877. [The survey markers in the North Platte area consisted of a wooden stake at each section corner into which 4 holes were bored. At the center of each section a mound of earth was topped by a rock on which the section number was marked.]

Great Platte River Trail
The Great Platte River Trail
(Note location of Cheyenne County in the west and Cass County in the east)

In 1886, the Federal Government opened up western Nebraska for settlement under the Homestead Act. The North Platte Valley which was Ben Gentry's destination, was at that time a part of Cheyenne County which made up almost half of the panhandle of Nebraska. It was virgin farming land, but had been used for cattle ranching beginning in the 1870's. Cattlemen in Texas were attracted by the rich native grasses, the many streams and the free range and drove their cattle north to Nebraska. At the time of the first cattle roundup in May 1877, as many as 60,000 head of cattle had been brought in. The cattle were owned by a few large companies who filed for land ownership where they could locate their home ranches. From there, the cattle were left to roam at will over government lands nearby over great distances. It was necessary to have a roundup of cattle twice a year. Branding of newborn cattle to establish ownership was generally done at the fall roundup when the calves would be at their mother's sides. In 1887, a Nebraska Herd Law was passed which restricted the movement of cattle and made the cattle companies liable for damages to homesteader lands. As a consequence, all of the cattle companies moved their bases of operation across the state line into Wyoming where there were no restrictions. They also hired itinerant cowboys as "line-riders" to patrol the North Platte River and turn back any cattle that strayed back to their old range.

When Ben arrived in the Valley he filed for a homestead claim close to the river on land to the south of the preemption claim that Dan Johnson had initially purchased and which was supplemented by additional Johnson family claims in the following years. As we have already said, Ben started breaking land and building a house only to find that a Thomas Reeves had already entered a claim for the site he had selected. Ben had to start over again and selected a spot next to Nine-Mile Creek, not far from the town of Tabor (which soon after was renamed Minatare) where he filed for 160 acres.

Pioneer trails along the North Platte River near Scott's Bluff
and location of Gentry and Johnson land claims

In the meantime, he borrowed a team of horses and a plow from his future father-in-law, Dan Johnson, to break ground in the tough prairie sod for new settlers, many of whom had no horses of their own. In return he plowed the Johnson land for Dan. It was during his first years of farming, in 1887, that Ben and his future brother- in-law, Will Ripley, could claim the first successful irrigation of farmland in the North Platte Valley. They observed that a five-acre plot of millet they had planted on Dan Johnson's land started very well but began to wilt from lack of moisture. At that time few if any North Platte valley settlers had even dreamed of irrigation. Ben and Will hitched a plow to a horse and Ben describes what followed next:

"With Ripley holding the plow and myself driving the horses, or vice versa--how could I remember after fifty years?--we ran a simple side-hill and furrow down to the patch of millet from a small dam we had thrown across the brooklet below the springs and about a quarter of a mile northeast of the millet patch. There were no instruments used, no scientific engineering done; we just plowed the one single furrow by guess--but it worked. The water followed the furrow without a bobble and scarcely a leak, for there wasn't much of a head, down to the patch, spread itself with a little help over the field, and the yellowing millet made a quick recovery."
By the next year, canals began springing up everywhere and before many years, the entire North Platte Valley was covered for miles by irrigation canals that made the area a fertile bread basket for all of Western Nebraska.

In addition to sod-breaking, Ben took on odd jobs wherever he could find them, including working briefly in 1887 for the Bay State Cattle Company as a line-rider. In 1888, in another part-time job, Ben was filling in temporarily in Minatare for a store clerk who was sick when one of his neighbors by the name of Arnold shot and killed a fellow settler, George Burton, with whom he had quarreled and for whom he was working. Ben loaned a rifle to the Justice of the Peace and joined the posse to apprehend the perpetrator. Ben was the first to enter Arnold's home, but fortunately Arnold came along peaceably and was taken to the county seat at Sidney, Nebraska, where he was jailed. For some reason, the corpse of George Burton had to be left outdoors before being transported elsewhere the next day and Ben was asked to sit up with the corpse. He remarked later that he nearly froze, the weather being very cold.

Ben had another brush with danger that earned him considerable notoriety in 1890 after he had assumed the job of County Clerk. The weekly Gering Courier newspaper in a November 28th article, wrote:

"Sheriff Byal received a requisition and warrant [for grand larceny on an indictment found by the grand jury of Laramie County, Wyoming] for the arrest of Kinch McKinney last Monday evening. McKinney was advertised to make final proof before the clerk the next day -- Tuesday -- [the county clerk, being also the clerk of the district court, was authorized to take the evidence of settlers who wished to make final proof on their lands in order to get a patent and title from the government] and when [McKinney] appeared in the office, Sheriff Byal entered and informed him he had a warrant for him. Kinch started to draw his revolver and Byal clinched him around the body, but he managed to get his pistol around behind Byal, and Ben Gentry knocked the weapon down just in time to send the ball down through the floor into the store below instead of into the sheriff's body. Harry Walker and Gentry then assisted Ryal in overcoming McKinney and he was after a hard fight disarmed and handcuffed. No injury was done anyone further than the scratches made during the severe struggle. The pistol ball went just within an ace of Mr. Gentry's leg, passing through his trousers. McKinney received quite a cut on the head by someone striking him with a revolver butt. . . . Sheriff Byal performed his duty in a brave and courageous manner, although he came within one of losing his own life by it, and deserves great credit. McKinney was desperate and undoubtedly meant to kill him outright. McKinney was allowed to complete the making of his final proof, and after noon Sheriff Byal and W. H. Walker started with him for Cheyenne, where he will be lodged in jail to await his trial."
The newspaper makes no mention of two further items of human interest. Sheriff Byal was scheduled to be married the next day but the wedding had to be postponed because of his absence. A second wedding was scheduled for that next day, namely that of Ben Gentry and his deputy clerk, Cora Johnson (more on that later). The deputy was out of the office the day of the incident so she could be home doing some necessary sewing.

When Ben moved west, the entire panhandle of Nebraska consisted of two large counties. In November 1888, the southern of these, Cheyenne County, by popular election was divided and three new counties, Kimball, Banner and Scotts Bluff were carved out of it. Party conventions were held the following January to nominate county officers. At the Republican convention, Ben Gentry defeated a rival by a margin of 17 votes to 11. Before the election two weeks later on 16 Jan 1889, the Weekly Courier newspaper, published by an unabashedly Republican editor, wrote an article describing the candidates:

"Ben Gentry, for county clerk is admirably qualified also. A young man of exemplary habits, an excellent penman and a courteous gentleman. He will be a careful and painstaking clerk, and the interest of the people will be served in electing him."

Ben was elected Clerk by a total vote of 257, 47% of the total vote, over a Democratic opponent and a Peoples party opponent. Among other candidates, Dan Johnson was elected one of three county commissioners. Part of the election included a selection of the location for the county seat. This barely failed to achieve a clear majority for Gering. Three weeks later, another election was held to choose between the two top contenders, namely Gering and Mitchell (upriver from Gering). Gering won decisively aided by a promise to build a bridge across the river. This would avoid the frequently hazardous necessity of fording the North Platte (there was insufficient depth or definition of river channels to allow a ferry). The closest existing bridge was a toll bridge some 40 miles east by road from Gering at Camp Clark (later to become the site of Bridgeport which was established when the first railroad line came through). This bridge had been built in 1875 for the Black Hills gold rush to the north in South Dakota. Gering came through as promised, starting a bridge soon after the 1889 election was over, building a bridge over 3000 feet long, single-lane, with two strategically placed wider spots for passing. During the spring flood while building was underway, the river filled the entire width under the bridge, from one end to the other. The bridge was finally finished in August of 1889.

Cora Johnson - Western Nebraska

We return now to Cora Johnson and her early years in the North Platte Valley. It will be recalled that in 1887 when Cora returned from college to her former home in Weeping Water, the family had left. Cora took the train from Omaha to Sidney, where her sister, Anna, met her, bought supplies to be taken back home, and then traveled by horse-drawn wagon the approximately 70 mile, 2-day trip from Sidney to the new Johnson home at Winters Creek.

Dan had arranged for his daughter to teach that fall at a school located in Minatare, then called Tabor, so named for one of the early settlers. While Cora and Anna were in Sidney, they called upon the county superintendent of schools, Mrs. Julia Shelton, about obtaining a certificate to teach. Rather than stay in town longer to take the required examination, the girls prevailed upon her to give Cora an emergency certificate based upon her college diploma. Cora was hired to teach the Minatare school for six months that year for $25 per month, with the privilege of two of Cora's sisters, Maud and Alice, being allowed to attend.

During the school year Cora and her sisters lived in the home of a Mrs. Wynkoop in Minatare. The schoolhouse had sod walls and a timbered roof, about 20 feet by 32 feet in size, and with 2 windows each on the east and west sides. Cora described the interior as follows:

"As school opens that first morning, let's take a look at my workshop. Along each side of the room were seats for the children, made of slabs of wood with pegs driven in at each end for legs, which were far enough away from the wall so that there were no backrests. A makeshift sort of desk was in front, made from boards nailed to upright posts on which to rest their books. At the back of the room was a homemade table around which the older pupils sat, on seats made by laying planks across nail kegs, goods boxes and quite often the teacher's chair. In the center of the room was a large box-shaped heating stove, which would hold a good-sized log of wood. There was a teacher's desk of sorts and the blackboard was two boards nailed together and painted black. Floors were an extravagance in those days and this one was made of plain boards nailed down, not grooved like regular flooring and the wood had shrunk leaving cracks everywhere into which the children were always losing their pencils, and which made an excellent breeding place for fleas; these pests made life miserable for me all the time I taught there. Books were gathered from the store of all the families, but most of them were my own and were as unusual an assortment as you can imagine . . .

"You can imagine what a problem discipline would be in such a place, especially for a young teacher with no experience. There were about twenty pupils in all. . . . Several of the pupils were not six months younger than the new teacher. That winter the cowboys were stationed along the river as line-riders . . . and they often happened (?) to be riding by just at closing time, much to the disapproval of the school board. Whether they came to see the older pupils or the teacher, they were welcomed as they usually brought a treat of apples, candy, nuts or popcorn.

"[The school] was for several years the social and religious as well as the educational center for the whole community. There was Sunday school from the very first. Church was held whenever we could get a minister of any denomination to preach. A lyceum was held, of which Mr. Gentry [Cora almost always referred to him as such in her writings, rather than by first name] was the first president, singing school and even dances, which was almost the only recreation in those days, were held there."

The next summer, 1888, Cora attended a teachers' institute held in Sidney. Her emergency certificate had expired, but the teacher for the institute who was a good friend of the Johnson family persuaded the superintendent to renew it for another year rather than staying in Sidney to take the regular examination. That trip to Sidney was particularly memorable because Dan Johnson and Frances Kinney had driven to Sidney the day before Cora and had been married there on 16 Jul 1888. Dan picked up a load of supplies in Sidney and he and his new wife returned north in his freight wagon followed by Cora in a spring wagon with a Cora Akers who had just come from school in Iowa and who had made arrangements to ride home with the Johnson party.

That year of 1888, a school district had been organized that included what is now the city of Scottsbluff and extended west from there, and included Cora's own home and family. Cora was hired to teach for 3 months beginning in March. There had not been time to build a separate building so school was held in an abandoned sod shack. That next fall and winter Cora attended a number of teachers association meetings. She remembered more of the circumstances accompanying the meetings than the meetings themselves. On one occasion, enroute to a meeting in Kimball, Cora with a party of three other teachers stopped for lunch next to a shallow well. While the boards covering the well were put to one side to get water for their lunch, a calf hunting for water fell in. One of Cora's companions, a man, had to be lowered by a rope to the bottom of the well to bring the calf up.

On another occasion, an association meeting was held in the winter in Gering and Cora was able to walk across the river on the ice as most of the channels were frozen over. (Being frozen it was not possible to drive across the ford as they did in milder weather). Cora and her companion, the same Cora Akers who had traveled north with her from Sidney, were persuaded to stay overnight to attend a party and reception. The next day two gallant young Gering men escorted them back to the river. They found that a warm wind in the night had thawed the ice in many places. One of the men had waders which he donned when they saw the condition of the river. There was much joking as he carried the girls across and when they were across the young man said, "I'd ask both of you girls to marry me, but I smoke, and I know neither of you like smoke, so that is out." The two ladies were delivered safely into the hands of Mr. Akers who was waiting on the other side.

Cora continued to teach in her home district until the fall of 1889 when the Minatare school board came and asked her to return there for the winter while a new Scottsbluff school building was being completed. This time she was considered worth more and her pay was raised to $35 per month. Cora stayed with the same Mrs. Wynkoop as before, but the enrollment by now had expanded to about 35 students due to the fact that the town of Minatare had just been platted. Cora taught high school subjects this year as well.

In the summer of 1890, Cora had just turned twenty-one and decided to give up teaching. One of her actions was to exercise her right as a single woman to file for a preemption of land close to her father's (see above) (a preemption differed from a homestead claim in that title was purchased immediately at a fixed price per acre rather than title passing after a period of occupancy at a much lower price). Since Dan Johnson's original claim, a series of additional claims had been made by various members of the family and by Anna Johnson's husband, Will Ripley. A small cabin was moved to this land and Cora spent week-ends in it along with her sister Grace to satisfy residency requirements for the claim. (This same cabin was used by Ben and Cora for a very brief honeymoon after their marriage.) Her second action was to begin working in the County Clerk's office in Gering, so during the week, she rented a small two-room house in Gering.

Ben and Cora Gentry - Married Years

Cora Gentry
Ben Gentry
When Ben Gentry was elected in 1889 to the position of County Clerk of the newly-formed Scotts Bluff County, he hired a deputy, Dan Davis, who left in 1890 for a better-paying job. Ben replaced him with a new deputy, Miss Cora Johnson. At the start, Cora spent much of her time copying records applying to land transactions that had occurred before Scotts Bluff became a separate county and thus were filed in the previous county office in Sidney. This led naturally to Ben's and Cora's later business career in the real estate abstract field. During the week, Cora rented a small two-room house in Gering. Ben also rented space in Gering where he could stay and it was during this interval that a curious coincidence took place. A Methodist church was started in Gering under the ministry of an Ambrose Beck who could not find housing until Ben offered to share his rental room with Beck. This same Ambrose Beck left Gering after a short time and eventually became a missionary to Korea. Ambrose had a daughter, Esther, born in Korea, who married Olin Stockwell, and the two went to China to become missionaries. There they eventually met and became close friends of Ben's son, Dr. Max Gentry, in Chungking, China, where Max was a missionary doctor, and were good friends of the writer until their eventual death in Denver in the 1980's.

Ben and Cora were married 30 Nov 1890 in a private ceremony in her father's home attended only by family and the preacher. The wedding was followed immediately by a Thanksgiving dinner which had been postponed from three days earlier. Two days later a reception was held as reported by the newspaper:

"A reception was given to Mr and Mrs Gentry at the home of Col Johnson on Tuesday, at which many friends took occasion to express hearty congratulations. Although the evening was stormy, a large number of friends braved the elements, and were royally entertained, an elegant supper being served. A number of fine presents were received."
The presents were loaded in a wagon and carted to Ben and Cora's new home in Gering (Ben had been sleeping in the County Clerk's office until that time). The newly-married couple lived briefly in three rooms in part of the home of Charlie Johnson, the bank president, until they moved back to Ben's homestead east of Minatare.

During the time Ben was working odd jobs and throughout all of his time as County Clerk, he was also maintaining residency at a homestead claim for 160 acres in Tabor precinct that he had originally filed in April 1887. This required building a house on the land (size and type not specified), occupy the land for at least five years and to cultivate a portion of the land. Two days before her wedding, Cora Johnson filed a homestead claim for another 160 acres next to Ben's. This she could do as an unmarried woman at the time of filing regardless of her status later. In addition, Ben filed a tree claim for 160 acres a mile south a few years after his original claim. This did not require any occupancy but did require that trees be planted on at least 10 acres, totaling in number at least 675 trees. Whereas the period of occupancy to acquire a homestead was five years, a tree claim required planting and replacing of lost trees over a period of eight years with no occupancy. Ben and Cora built a home that straddled the dividing line between their respective claims. They were thus able to satisfy occupancy requirements for each at the same time. Ben's original claim was satisfied in April 1892, Cora's in January 1898. These claims are shown in the original tractbook image and in the map below.

Entries in Bureau of Land Management Tractbook

Gentry claims
Claims filed by Ben and Cora Gentry

When Ben had first settled on his land claim he had built a house that was half dugout and half sod house. Now it was time to build a new one. Their cabin was one rebuilt out of logs taken from a schoolhouse that was being abandoned in Banner County to the south. Ben and Will Ripley took the building apart, loaded the logs in Will's wagon and brought it back to Ben's claim where they put it back together. Over time the cabin changed considerably--siding was added to the outside and the inside was lathed and plastered. At first there was only a kitchen and living area, but soon after, they added two bedrooms to one side as the Gentry family increased in size. All of Ben and Cora's children were born in this cabin. Eventually some years after the property was no longer in the hands of the Gentrys, the new owners decided to tear it down but noticing that there were old, good-condition logs under the exterior siding, they got in touch with the Gentry family and asked if they wished to take it away. The City of Gering was looking for items to go into a historical park and the City Council voted to move the cabin from its site near Minatare to a park in Gering, There it was rebuilt and restored to its primitive condition with period furnishings and is on display today as an example of pioneer housing.

Gentry cabin, 1900
Gentry log cabin, 2015

The Gentry children's births in the cabin were attended by Dr. Fix, a lady doctor who came to the valley in 1886. Her maiden name was Georgia Arbuckle and she was a step-daughter of the same Thomas Reeves whose homestead claim Ben Gentry had first tried to settle. She married Nathaniel Fix in 1888 and moved to Gering in 1892. She cared for Cora during all of her pregnancies. Reminiscing about Dr. Fix, a close neighbor of the Gentrys, Bazil Decker, recalled:

"[I was] delegated to hasten for Dr. Fix to go to the home of B. F. Gentry . . . It was near midnight that I saddled my pony and sped over twelve miles in short time. Arriving at Gering, we met the doctor as she was driving in from a call she had made elsewhere. She started immediately for the Gentry home. Almost simultaneously the doctor and the stork arrived with a baby boy [Harold]."<5>
Two other Gentry children were successfully delivered by Dr. Fix, but the fourth, young William, was born with the help of a neighboring lady while Dr. Fix was involved in another medical case. Dr. Fix was the only doctor in the valley for many years. She died inn 1918 after 39 years of practice. She was a close personal friend of the Gentrys and was a strong influence in the choice of medicine as careers by two of the Gentry sons.

Cora's autobiography goes into considerable detail about all the difficulties and hardships the family suffered on the farm until they moved back to Gering in 1909. When they moved back onto the homestead, they had accumulated about 70 head of cattle. They had a wagon and team of horses, a sorrel cow pony, and a cart for single driving. They had to drive 13 miles to Gering for their mail. All supplies had to come some 60 miles from Alliance (which was on the Burlington Railroad) or 70 miles from Sidney (which was on the Union Pacific Railroad). When possible, they cut firewood from the hills south of the river and forded the river at Minatare with it. When the wood ran out, they gathered and burned "prairie coal" (cow chips).

Ben mostly raised cattle and grew hay for feed during this time. Two separate lots of cattle were almost completely lost due to contagious diseases. One lot had just been bought on credit when the animals took sick, and were a complete loss. This saddled Ben and Cora with a debt that hung over them for years to come and required them to take out a mortgage on their house.

This was the beginning of the 1893 depression and money was scarce. Ben was away hauling freight or doing odd jobs frequently to make enough money to keep food on the table. On those occasions Cora was left to search out and rescue lost calves, to pump water from a well to provide for the cattle, and to chop holes through the ice in a stream so the cattle could drink when the pump broke. The couple survived, however, and the family expanded with the birth of four children, all born in their log cabin. The children attended the school in which Cora had first taught, not starting until they were 7 or 8 years old because of the distance they had to travel each day. Because they were attending a small country school, they were able to catch up rapidly with the other children which they could not have done as easily in the larger, more regimented classes in town. Ben served on the Minatare School Board from 1892 to 1910. In addition, Cora was expected to board one of the teachers from time to time.

In 1909, Ben and Cora, concerned about education for their children, left the farm and moved to Gering where they bought out the Scotts Bluff County Abstract Company which they took over as a new business venture. This was a natural for them involving much searching of county land records with which they were both very familiar. The family rented a house in town and turned over the Minatare farm to a tenant, selling all their stock and farm machinery at a loss. They moved to another house in 1911 which they purchased and which remained in the family until after their death.

Despite leaving the homestead, Ben and Cora continued to own the property for many years. For a time, their son, Harold, lived there with his family, before returning it to rental use. In about 1937, their son, Dr. Bill took over active management of the property. Finally in 1945 Dr. Bill sold the farm and used the proceeds to buy grassland south of Gering to add to ranch property he had bought in 1943, where he followed his grandfather Dan Johnson's passion for raising fine cattle and horse stock.

The abstract business was a roller coaster one but was operated by the Gentrys until they retired in 1943 and sold it to James Ponder. Ben and Cora were forced to move their offices repeatedly as various rental locations were pre-empted for other needs, and rival abstract companies provided cutthroat competition. Cora actively worked in the abstract office supervising the office staff, with help from time to time from family members such as her granddaughter, Maurine Gentry. In addition to the abstract business, Ben also sold insurance, and served as secretary of the Gering Federal Farm Loan Association, the beginning of the Federal Land Bank program for low interest and long term loans to farmers. The Great Depression years were very difficult ones as Ben worked hard to keep farm loans for his customers from becoming delinquent. Then when foreclosures did take place, there was the difficult job of finding buyers that could keep up the payments. Ben also served for thirty years on the city school board and served many years on the city cemetery board.

In 1943, Ben and Cora finally sold their abstract business and retired. Shortly before that, in 1939 they moved into a new, smaller house next to the one they had occupied for many years and turned over the latter to their son Dr. Max, back home in Gering after fifteen years of missionary service in China. Interestingly, after spreading far and wide, in the latter years of Ben and Cora's life, all their children returned to live nearby -- Harold and Elizabeth from California, and Dr. Max from China. Only Dr. Bill had remained in Gering throughout those years. (Max and Bill practiced medicine together in Gering for many years and to distinguish them, they were always known simply as "Dr. Max" and "Dr. Bill"). Not only Gentry family members gravitated back to Gering, but they were joined by all of Emily and Esther Gentry's Nystrom family as well. Many of Cora's equally far-flung siblings were able to return to celebrate Ben and Cora's fiftieth and sixtieth wedding anniversaries. They were truly a close-knit family.


1.      Wiles, Marie Davis and Davis, Earl Harrison, "Wiles, 300 Years in America, Descendants of Luke and Margaret Wiles", privately published, 1976. Contains substantial information about the genealogy of the family of Rebecca Wiles Gentry.

2.      A very large portion of the material in this article has come from Cora Johnson Gentry, both for the Johnson family and also for the early life of Ben Gentry. She was a prolific writer and speaker for newspaper articles and talks to civic organizations, that included biographies, an autobiography, and many reminiscences. She was also a compulsive preservationist. She saved copies of her writings, newspaper clippings, civic and social announcements and such in scrapbooks. Her grandson, Dr. Donald Gentry of Gering, Nebraska, is in possession of these and has passed on her many memories to others. The writer is also in possession of original scrapbooks and copies of other materials associated with the Ben and Cora Gentry family.

3.      Notations in records for estate of William Ellis Gentry in Nodaway County, Missouri, Probate Court.
18 Mar 1878 – Request by Benj. F. Gentry, a minor of 17 years, nominating Isaac Wiles as guardian. Benj. F. Gentry is a minor heir of Rebecca Akeson as appears of record in Probate Record at page 60, signed at Plattsmouth, Cass Co., NE.
4 Mar 1879 – Letters of guardianship issued to Isaac Wiles for Benj. F. Gentry; sureties, Thomas Wiles and Peter Merges, Cass Co., NE.

4.      Acquisition of Public Land
There were three ways of acquiring title to public land in Nebraska. These were preemption, homestead, and tree claims. The requirements for each are summarized below:
  1. Preemption. This was the oldest method historically and allowed a claimant to file at specified land offices for title to a maximum of 160 acres of public land. Title was granted after cultivating at least 10 acres and after residing on the land for at last six months. Upon proof of these and payment of $1.25 per acre, title was given to the filer. Preemption claims could be converted to homestead claims before final payments, and time of residency was credited to the homestead requirement.
  2. Homestead. Authorized by the Homestead Act of 1862. A claimant could file for not more than one claim of 160 acres. He or she was required to be over the age of 21 or be the head of a family. The act required cultivation of an unspecified portion of the land and building a home within six months of filing, then living in that home for at least five years (there could be no absences of six months or more for any reason). At the end of that time, upon proof of compliance, title was given without any cost other than the initial filing fee. Homestead claims could be commuted to preemption claims after a period of at least six months after first filing by paying the full price per acre required for preemption.
  3. Tree Claim. Authorized by the Timber Culture Act of 1873. This was for 160 acres maximum also, but could be claimed at the same time as a homestead claim. It required planting of a specified number of trees covering eventually at least 40 acres, but no residency or building requirement. Title was given upon proof after eight years at no cost other than the filing fee.

5.      Wood, A. B., "Pioneer Tales of the North Platte Valley and Nebraska Panhandle", Courier Press, Gering, Nebraska, 1938, p.134

6.      Family Outlines

William Ellis Gentry
– born: 24 Jul 1829, Surry County (later Yadkin County), North Carolina;
– married: 23 Sep 1852, Mills County, Iowa, Rebecca Wiles;
 – married (2): 3 Jul 1866, Mills County, Iowa, Mattes Akeson;
 – died 12 Jul 1916, Manley, Cass County, Nebraska.
William died about 31 Oct 1861, probably in Savannah, Andrew County, Missouri.
 Children of William and Rebecca:
i Milton Gentry, born 14 Apr 1855, Guilford, Nodaway County, Missouri; married about 1878, Cass County, Nebraska, Ida Mae King (divorced); died 30 Mar 1949, Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska
ii Sarah Elizabeth Gentry, born 24 Jun 1857, Guilford; died 1 Aug 1859 (of whooping cough), Guilford.
iii Rachel Catherine Gentry, born 3 Apr 1859, Guilford; married 3 Dec 1876, Cass County, Nebraska, John William Hostetter (also Hostetler); died 15 May 1938, Weeping Water, Cass County, Nebraska.
iv Benjamin Franklin Gentry, born 24 Mar 1861, Guilford, Missouri.

Daniel Dean Johnson
– born: 20 Apr 1843, Sadsbury Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania;
– married: (1)  8 Jun 1862, in Rockford, Floyd County, Iowa, Elizabeth Adelaide Lathrop;
– married: (2)  16 Jul 1888, in Sidney, Cheyenne County, Nebraska Mary Frances Carter Kinney (widow) (divorced from Daniel).
Daniel died 11 Feb 1920, Scottsbluff, Nebraska; buried Fairview Cemetery, Scottsbluff.
 Children of Daniel and Elizabeth:
iAnna Marie Johnson, born 12 May 1863, St. Johns, Pottawattamie County, Iowa; married 20 Aug 1889, Samuel Willard ("Will") Ripley; died 2 Oct 1957, Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
iiGrace Johnson, born 29 Jun 1866, St. Johns, Iowa; died 11 Jul 1868, St. Johns, Iowa (from burns suffered as a result of a kettle of hot grease tipped from the kitchen stove.)
iiiClarissa Johnson (twin), born 11 Oct 1867, St. Johns, Iowa; died 24 Oct 1867, St. Johns, Iowa.
ivClara Johnson (twin), born 11 Oct 1867, St. Johns, Iowa; married 4 Sep 1892, Winters Creek, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, George H. Lawrence; died 3 Dec 1904, St. Louis, Missouri.
vCora Elizabeth Johnson, born 4 Apr 1869, Elmwood, Nebraska.
viFlossie Johnson, born 31 Aug 1870, Elmwood, Cass County, Nebraska; died 17 Jun 1876, Weeping Water, Cass County, Nebraska (of scarlet fever).
viiMaud Johnson, born 7 Jan 1872, Harkers Corners, Peoria County, Illinois; married 30 Sep 1891, Amassa P. Kittel; died 9 Nov 1917, Winnemucca, Humboldt County, Nevada.
viiiRoy Johnson, born 27 Feb 1873, Elmwood, Nebraska; married 4 Nov 1901, Carrie E. Baker; died 18 Oct 1937, Hutchinson, Reno County, Kansas.
ixNelle Johnson, born 11 Aug 1874, Elmwood, Nebraska; married 2 Aug 1900, Paul Beech Scoles; died 1 Mar 1964, Los Angeles, California.
xEdward Preston Johnson, born 24 Jan 1876, Harkers Corners, Illinois; married 15 Mar 1902, Elizabeth A. McConnaha; died 24 Jan 1940, Arlington, Riverside County, California.
xiAlice Johnson, born 19 Sep 1877, Weeping Water, Nebraska; married 21 Sep 1897, Henry ("Harry") Milton Thornton; died 2 Nov 1974, King City, Monterey County, California.
xiiMurrie ("Birdie") Johnson, born 28 Mar 1879, Weeping Water, Nebraska; married 19 May 1911, William Sherman Kalbaugh; died 29 Jun 1921, Omaha, Douglas County, Nebraska
xiiiMerle Johnson (M), born 28 Oct 1880, Weeping Water, Nebraska; married 11 Jul 1906, Minnie Sherman; died 22 Feb 1938, Rapid City, Pennington County, South Dakota.
xivWilmina ("Billie") Johnson, born 16 Feb 1882, Elmwood, Nebraska; married 29 Jun 1914; died 20 Nov 1961, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California.

Benjamin Franklin Gentry
– born: 24 Mar 1861, Guilford, Nodaway County, Missouri;
– married: 30 Nov 1890, Winters Creek, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, Cora Elizabeth Johnson;
 – born 4 Apr 1869, Elmwood, Cass County, Nebraska;
 – died 3 Mar 1960, Gering, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.
Ben died 31 Jan 1954, Gering, Nebraska.
 Children of Ben and Cora:
iHarold Ellis Gentry Sr., born 8 Jul 1893, Minatare, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska; married 5 Sep 1917, Gering, Nebraska, Jesse Merle Gillespie Wells; died 13 Aug 1980, Scottsbluff, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.
iiWillard Max ("Dr. Max") Gentry Sr., born 20 Oct 1896, Minatare, Nebraska; married 21 Jun 1922, Omaha, Douglas County, Nebraska, Emily Marie Nystrom; died 14 May 1979, Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
iiiBerenice Elizabeth Gentry, born 28 Aug 1898, Minatare, Nebraska; married 15 Dec 1934, Sacramento, Sacramento County, California, Leo Burnard Gaeke; died 23 Jul 1979, Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
ivWilliam Johnson ("Dr. Bill") Gentry, born 31 Dec 1903, Minatare, Nebraska; married 18 Jun 1930, Omaha, Nebraska, Esther Hildur Nystrom (sister of Max's wife, Emily Nystrom); died 2 Dec 1981, Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
All except Leo Gaeke are buried in West Lawn Cemetery, Gering, Nebraska.

August 2016

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