At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, the United States frontier—defined as any region with a population density of less than 2 people per square mile—was officially declared dead.
Hooray for progress.
Trouble is, using the boundaries of a state county as a reasonable and finite replacement for the loosely defined "region," one quickly discovers the bold, sweeping declaration to have been both inaccurate and premature. In fact, more than a hundred years later, at last count there are still roughly 130 counties in our country that fail to meet the 2-per-square mile population density criteria. Some by quite a bit.
One of those—the one I'm going to focus on here—is Arthur County, in north central Nebraska. With a total area of 718 square miles and a population of 460, according to the 2010 census, this gives it a pop density of 0.618 people per square mile. It is the least populated county in Nebraska and the fifth least populated county in the country.
In other words, as a sign just outside the town of Arthur (the county seat and only town in the county, with a population of 117) reminds us: This is "God's Cow Country" … People are more or less incidental.
Located solidly in the lower reaches of Nebraska's fabled Sandhills—20,000 square miles of rolling, treeless sand dunes anchored in place by stubborn prairie grass enriched by a massive underground aquifer, this is indeed beef-growing country. Not good for much else, many would say. In fact, for several decades the Sandhills were dismissed and ignored, considered a wasteland, a vast inland desert. Wagon trains and settlers following "the Great Platte River Road" forged by the North and South Platte rivers, never ventured north away from the waters.
All of that changed one spring, following a particularly devastating winter, when various ranchers along the river—among them Buffalo Bill Cody and the North Brothers, who at that time had a joint operation about forty miles east of present-day Arthur—ventured up into the Sandhills to see if any of their stock thought to be lost to the weather had somehow survived. To their amazement, they found large herds of not only cattle but buffalo, deer, antelope, and all sorts of animal life thriving on the grass that reached for as far as the eye could see and the marshes and small creeks provided by the invisible aquifer. Hence, God's cattle country was discovered by humans and continues to serve primarily in that capacity yet today.
Arthur was formed in 1913 and was named after President Chester A. Arthur, who served one truncated term in office after the assassination of President Garfield. At its peak, the county boasted a little over 1,000 residents. It has maintained its current level of just under 500 for the past four or five decades.
The town's side streets are unpaved. It has an outdoor public pool, grade school, and high school (which fields a 9-man football team and frequently ranks highly in the state at that level). Business-wise, there is one filling station, one bar, a saddle shop, an auto/truck repair shop, and a locker/meat processing facility. For several years there was no grocery store in town, which left residents nearly 30 miles to travel for shopping; about four years ago, the Wolf's Den Grocery opened in a formerly empty house to supply a welcome selection of essentials.
Points of interest around town are:
- The Pilgrim Holiness Church, built in 1928 and constructed (due to the scarcity of trees and lumber in the Sandhills) entirely of straw bales and covered over with thick coats of whitewash.
- The country's smallest functioning courthouse and jail, built in 1915 and in operation until 1963, when a new courthouse was built and the former structures were turned into a museum.
(All of these were featured in Ripley's Believe It Or Not and are now listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.)
- A log cabin line shack built by Buffalo Bill and the North Brothers and originally located several miles east, has been moved and reconstructed for prominently display on the north end of town.
But, for me, the entirety of Arthur and Arthur County is one big point of interest. They are like pages out of time—a better time, I feel. Rural/ Small Town America at its best. The drive up there from where I live in Ogallala is beautiful and soothing and I take it every chance I get.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot the Arthur Airport on the south side of town, near the fairgrounds. It handles about 25 flights a year … which gives the proper authorities sufficient notice to clear the cows off the runway.
If you're ever passing through Nebraska on I-80 (and pass through is pretty much all most people do when they find themselves in the western part of our state), do yourself a favor, take an extra day or two, and get the hell off the interstate. Do some exploring, particularly up into the Sandhills. There is rich history and gemlike discoveries like Arthur scattered all over. Visit the still-existing frontier.
Take my advice, you'll be glad you did.