Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--The globetrotter from Hebron

There's just no way to make Fred E. Roper's story short.

What can be known about him requires an atlas at hand. He was born in Candor Hill, New York, but when he was three years old, his family moved to Canton, Pennsylvania, and then to Baraboo, Wisconsin, where, when he was barely old enough to leave his mother's side, he got on with a rafter on the Wisconsin River who took him all the way into the Mississippi and to St. Louis even, for a dollar a day and board. 

In 1854, even though he was just a kid, Baraboo got old so he started west from Bettendorf, Iowa, where his sister lived. She walked along with him to the edge of town, while he tugged his one-horned cow, meant to be a milk machine on his trip to California. Whether that beast made it or not, history doesn't record. 

Fred E. Roper was just 19 years old, had no formal education, but had simply determined it would take him three months. Don't know how he learned his figuring.

He got on with an ox train, 25 teams. Officers of the venture were democratically voted upon, strict military discipline adhered to. Guards were posted nightly to watch all those oxen. Blessedly, they had no trouble.

They chose the south route to Salt Lake City. They'd packed more than their share of provisions, so when they got to Salt Lake they sold some of the goods to Mormons they described as "half-starved," having just arrived at their promised land. All of this Fred R. Roper witnessed before his 20th birthday.

Are we there yet? No. There's more.

Crossing the desert, he'd stand between the cattle and water when the beasts smelled what they hadn't had for far too long. They'd have hoofed it right into the water, taking the wagons with them, if he hadn't.

Fred E. Roper picked up a gold nugget in a mine during the three months he sweat his way through underground shafts north of San Francisco, back then little more than 500 people in mud huts. That gold nugget he never sold or pawned, brought it to a jeweler instead and had it made into an engagement ring his wife wore until she died.

Mr. Roper and a couple of other 59ers worked a claim that had a crevasse, people said, that had never been "bottomed." They bought some expensive quicksilver to catch the float gold in the pan, did that for three years--he was somewhere close to 25 years old. Each made about $1500. Not bad.

Fred R. Roper loaded his cash in a buckskin belt around his waist and beneath his clothes as he got on some kind of ship going north along the coast, looking for another mine that might be more productive. When that didn't work out, he boarded a steamer en route to Panama--you read that right, Panama, where he picked up a team and crossed the isthmus to board a steamer for New York, where he got on a train to Philly to get his gold minted. 

Tired yet?

He got married in 1861, spent three years back east, then got the itch once again to go west, ended up in Beatrice, NE, where he ran a hotel called "Pat's Cabin," which wasn't quite what Mr. Wanderlust was looking for either. So he bought land northeast of Hebron on the Little Blue River and apparently, mostly, right about then got some sit in him, started to ranch.

Some. He enjoyed making trips to St. Joe and Nebraska City because, locals said, he knew every man on the trail between the Missouri and Kearney, used to stop with Bill McCandles, who died, you remember, by way of the blazing six-gun of Wild Bill Hickock.

In 1864, the Cheyenne burned down the first house up on the ranch he'd bought, then threw the charred logs into the well so that travelers along the road couldn't get water. Oddly enough, right before that raid, Fred Roper had sold his ranch to some traveler, who then deserted it when it couldn't help turning belly-up. 

Fred and his wife moved to Meridian, NE, and ran a tavern for about a year, then moved back to the old Hackney ranch once again, where the two of them resided until 1893, when they moved to Hebron.

The reminiscence titled "Fred Roper, Pioneer," ends with this unobtrusive line: "Mr. Roper was postmaster at Hebron for four years under Cleveland's last administration."

Talk about anti-climatic.

But  then, can you imagine walking into the post office and greeting Fred R. Roper behind the counter? "I need this sent to Denver," you might say, or something similar.

"Denver, you say?" Roper could well have said. "Did I ever tell you about the time. . ."

Just imagine the stories.

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