Solomon Butcher first saw Nebraska in 1880 when he joined his father in claiming homestead land in northeast Custer County. He had been working in Ohio as a traveling salesman, but joined his father, brother George, and brother-in-law J.R. Wabel when they migrated from Illinois to Custer County. Not unlike other plains homesteaders Solomon’s first home was a wagon cover stretched over a hole in the ground.
Pioneering did not suit him one iota and within just a couple of weeks, he turned his claim back to the government. He returned to Minneapolis, attended Minnesota Medical College, and met Lillie Barber Hamilton. They married and in October of 1882 returned to Nebraska where he started teaching school. As a young man he had worked as an apprentice to a tin-typist, learning about photography. Now back in Nebraska he saved his money and purchased a photographic outfit.
Once again he obtained some land, built an unimposing structure, part of it out of sod, and used it as a studio and living quarters. But he was not content there and soon moved from town to town, staying one step ahead of full poverty, but being certain of one thing: he did not want to return to homesteading. His love of photography drew him back to the land, however, and he set out on a journey to document the lives of pioneers.
His canvas was a glass photographic plate, and the Nebraska heartland — most specifically Custer County — became his inspiration. Beginning in 1886 and continuing for the next 25 years, he carried his photographic equipment from one homestead to another, from town to town, documenting the people and their lives. His more than 1,000 photographs of sod house pioneers are the greatest collection of pioneer photographs in the country. And he made another 2,500 or so images that show other aspects of life primarily in Nebraska, although he did some work in South Dakota and a few other regions.
His photographs are iconic. They show the land, the homes, the farms, and most of all the people. They range from a photo of himself in front of his dugout to a picture of an extended Nebraska family including grandparents, parents, and children that shows the treasures of a family: chairs, cows, horses, wagons or buggies, an organ and other household goods.
Let’s start a journey into the Nebraska prairie lands Solomon Butcher traveled in Grand Island. The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer provides a glimpse into that earlier lifestyle that he photographed.
The Stuhr Museum log cabin settlement has eight structures representative of the 1850s and 1860s from various locations in the region. An early example of a homesteader cabin from Hall County, Neb., is the Menck Cabin, built in 1859 of cottonwood logs by Christian H. Menck. This German immigrant claimed land just east of Grand Island City (as the city was known in its early days). German brothers John, Henry, and James Vieregg built the Vieregg Cabin in Merrick County, Neb. With three of them to share the construction, this cabin, also now at Sturh Museum, is quite large at 20 feet by 40 feet, twice as long as the Menck cabin.
Many German settlers left their homesteads and relocated when the Union Pacific Railroad built the Grand Island Station in 1866. Some of them hitched ox teams and dragged frame buildings from their original locations to a new site near the railroad and as a result the town grew quite rapidly. When a United States Land Office opened, the stake was clearly set for Grand Island City.
The Stuhr Museum has an area dedicated to the railroad development and there are other structures representing the early settlement of Nebraska including an area representing farming in the 1890s. One house is the Cleary Farmhouse, once the home of German farmers Julius and Lena Kroll. You can also see a summer kitchen, a hired man’s house, the rural Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church and a rural schoolhouse. These structures represent the community of Runelsburg, which was bypassed by the railroad and therefore never became as prosperous as Grand Island.
The Stuhr Museum is a fun site to spend a day exploring. If you feel as though you may have been here before, perhaps you have. Three major television specials were filmed at the museum, and each of them won Emmy Awards. They include “My Antonia” based on the Willa Cather novel and staring Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint, and Neil Patrick Harris, the Hallmark Hall of Fame show “Sarah Plain and Tall” featuring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, and David Devrie’s “Home at Last,” a PBS Wonderworks special.
From Grand Island drive west through the Nebraska Sandhills on Nebraska Highway 2. This rolling grassland attracted Pawnee Indians who followed the bison as they moved across the Great Plains and it also attracted homesteaders. Solomon Butcher is most known for the photographs and writing he did about settlers in Custer County and one place to learn more about him and his work is in Broken Bow, the county seat.
The Custer County Museum recreates the Wescott, Gibbons, and Bragg General Merchandise Store of Comstock, Neb., by showing most of the store’s original display cases and merchandise as well as a drug store that operated within the general merchandise.
Visit with the folks at the Custer County Museum and learn more about the people and places Butcher photographed.
Butcher spent most of his photographic time capturing the sod house pioneers, but he also ventured north into South Dakota, where he photographed Lakota Indians on Pine Ridge shortly after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.
Solomon Butcher took more than 4,000 photographs during his career, most of them on large glass plates. He moved from place to place in Nebraska, each time carefully packing and hauling all of the glass places.
In truth, Butcher was more of an artist with a camera than he was a businessman, and ultimately he sold his photographs to the Nebraska Historical Society in order to have some money in his pocket. He only received $600 for the photos that have become priceless representations of homesteader and pioneer life.
For a more in depth look at Solomon Butcher, and to view many of his photographs, pick up a copy of “Light on the Prairie” by Nancy Plain, a book that captures the essence of Solomon Butcher and reflects it in the images of Nebraska homesteader life. ❖