Callaway History

The Seven Valleys Historical Society maintains the Seven Valleys Museum and Annex, the original Custer County Courthouse and Callaway Episcopal Church as well as locations of several area cemeteries. For more about these items, please visit their website.

Nestled in the heart of the seven valleys, beginnning in the mid-1800s, Callaway has had quite a history....


Callaway's settlement began right after the civil war. The seven valleys region, laced with peaceful little creeks flowing into the South Loup River, was traditional Pawnee hunting ground. French explorers had given the South Loup River its name ("Loup" being French for "Wolf").

The Idea....

One fall day in 1885, J. Woods Smith was reading a newspaper in an Omaha hotel. The paper elaborated on a plan by two railroads to intersect in Central Nebraska. He could imagine the potential of a town at this place, and rushed to the proposed intersection to begin promoting a townsite. He gathered some folks together, formed a syndicate, and within one week engineer E. McNish was platting a town.

Meanwhile, Back In Delight....

It seems that Mr. Smith was not the first to see the potential of the beautiful South Loup Valley. In August of 1880, Ira Graves became postmaster of the brand new settlement of Letup. One month later the name was officially changed to Delight, supposedly because of the delightful surroundings. In 1886, construction of Mr. Smith's new townsite progressed nicely. The nearby post office, whose name had been changed from Delight to Grant, was officially moved to the new townsite, and assumed its permanent name of Callaway.

Why "Callaway"....

Callaway was named for S.R. Callaway, second vice president and general manager of the Union Pacific Railroad when the Wood River Grade was made from Kearney to the new townsite. The founders of this new community at the end of the line found it fitting to honor him with a community bearing his name.

Born Samuel Rogers Callaway in 1850, he was a native of Toronto, Canada. He entered the railroad industry as an office boy in 1862 at the age of 13. In less than 40 years he became president of the American Locomotive Co., the greatest concern of its kind in the world. Mr. Callaway died in June 1904 in New York City.

Incidentally, the east-west streets were named after other railroad officials at the time, and the north-south avenues were named after members of the syndicate and homesteaders.

Murphy's Law Intervenes....

"If anything can go wrong it will". And it did. It came in the form of a dispute between the Federal Government and the Union Pacific Railroad. The dispute was over two proposed railroad lines into Callaway. Work was suspended. The town's growth ground to a standstill.

In 1887, the patience of the townsfolk was wearing thin. The New Callaway Townsite and Improvement Company was born. A new town was formed ½ mile west of the "old" one, presumably in the direct line of the comming railroad. But many of the established businessmen refused to move to the new site.

The Conflict....

With some citizens determined to stay where they were, and others just as set in the idea of a new site for the community, there ensued a bitter rivalry. The New Callaway Courier became the newspaper of "new" Callaway, while the Callaway Standard, established the previous year, remained the voice of "old" Callaway. Citizens of the original town called the new community "Podunk" and its inhabitants were christened "Mudhens".

For quite some time the railroad still failed to develop. New Callaway dwindled and all but faded away until the Kearney and Black Hills Railway was organized and the laying of steel on the old grade from Kearney commenced in the spring of 1890. By that time, the population of Old Callaway had nearly doubled. The townsite feud flared up again. But, the long awaited railroad ended the dispute forever when it located its depot between the two townsites on the farm of J. Woods Smith. It was there that the Wood River Improvement Company platted what is now known as the Railroad Addition to Callaway. Thus, the two towns merged and pooled their efforts toward building one town.

Good Times....

With the townsite conflict finally settled, there was much growth in Callaway. A new $10,000 hotel, the Grand Pacific, was erected. Many other improvements followed. On October 7, 1890, the first regularly scheduled train steamed into town. Callaway had finally come of age!

The Mitchell/Ketchum Incident

A person could research this happening, like so many events in the west in that era, and come up with a different story every time. Louis L'Amour would have had a heyday with this one! Due to space constraints I'll try to summarize what I've learned. I hope the following will be at least close to the actual facts....

Nebraska in its early days was not a gentle place to live. The people who settled here were as tough and biased as the land herself. Nebraska in those days was a "Homestead State" meaning that the land was given to the common man. Ranchers weren't considered common men and were looked upon as monopolizing the "free land".

In 1877 I.P. "Prent" and Ira Olive brought their cattle herd to the Republican River in Southwest Nebraska. They were tough full-time ranchers. They spent about 1 year in that region before deciding there wasn't enough grazing area for their large herd. They found the Loup to be much better suited to their needs.

Prent Olive was not a man well thought of by his neighbors. For one, he was from the South, and a Confederate veteran to boot! For another, like most ranchers in those days, he was a Democrat. And Nebraska was a Republican state. With citizens who didn't think much of "Rebels". Hmm. You do the math....

At this time it was commonly known that many Nebraska settlers occassionally slaughtered a stray beef or two (euphemistically called "slow elk"). It seems that Luther Mitchell, a settler in his early sixties, and Ami "Whit" Ketchum, a blacksmith by trade and courter of Mitchell's stepdaughter, were probably targeting the Olive herd for any extra beef they might want.

The whole thing seems to have started when Bob Olive, younger brother to Prent, came to Nebraska. Bob was wanted in Texas for killing two men, and rather than face and uncertain trial, decided to leave that part of the country. He changed his name to Bob Stevens, and joined Prent and Ira at their ranch headquarters in Plum Creek, which is now Lexington.

In the fall of 1878 Bob went back to Texas to visit his parents. This was no small undertaking since the Texas Rangers had placed him on their "Fugitive List". Upon returning to Kearney on the train, he noticed seventy head of Olive cattle in the stockyard. He spoke with Sheriff Anderson of Buffalo County and was told that there were no Olive men in town. Sheriff Anderson joined him and they then found the packing house buyer who showed them a release signed by "Prent Olive" and others including Ami Ketchum. Bob knew that his brother always signed I.P. Olive (Isom Prentice). He also knew that Ketchum had no business with Olive cattle. The Olives had already had several run-ins with Ketchum.

Sheriff Anderson swore in Bob Stevens as a Deputy on November 19, 1878, and told him to bring in Ketchum dead or alive. (Bob found it quite amusing that he was wanted for murder in Texas and a Deputy Sheriff in Nebraska.)

To make a long story short, Bob and two of his cowboys eventually found, with help, the Mitchell place, where they figured they'd find Ketchum. Bob tried to take Ketchum in, there was gunfire, and Bob wound up taking a side full of Mitchell's lead. He later died at the age of 24 on November 28, 1878. Prent and Bob's wife were at his side.

Thus started the grudge. Prent swore he'd kill the blankety-blanks who did this. (Pardon my editing, but this is a family website!) And, history shows, he made good on his promise. He offered a $700.00 reward for the capture of Mitchell and Ketchum. The two settlers had already left and went to Loup City. They were finally arrested in Howard County by the Merrick County Sheriff. The lawmen were arguing about how to split up the reward but Prent said it would not be payed until the prisoners were brought to Custer County. Finally it was decided that Sheriff Barney Gillan of Keith County should be allowed to bring the prisoners back to Custer County for trial, collect the reward, and split it with the other lawmen. Mitchell and Ketchum were taken to the Buffalo County Jail in Kearney, where they were picked up by Sheriff Gillan and a Deputy and boarded the train headed to Plum Creek. After their arrival they headed out for Custer County, spending the night at Sheriff Dick James' (of Dawson County).

Early the next morning they started for the rendezvous point where they were to meet with Prent Olive and his men. They met, Prent paid Gillan the $700.00, and took the prisoners according to the agreement. Gillan and his crew promptly left, leaving Mitchell and Ketchum at the dubious mercy of the Olive gang.

Prent offered Mitchell and Ketchum a drink of whiskey, but they refused. This was a great insult on the Plains. He questioned them as to why they had killed Bob, but neither answered. Prent then instructed his foreman Dennis Gartrell to drive the wagon up the canyon a bit.

Prent then again asked Mitchell why he had shot Bob. Still no answer. Olive then shot Mitchell at close range with a 45-70 caliber rifle. The men were then both hanged, still handcuffed together.

The Olive gang then returned to the ranch where Judge Boblits was waiting to conduct the trial. When he learned of the hangings he was outraged. He told Prent that he shouldn't have taken the law into his own hands. Angered, he left to search for Mitchell and Ketchum's bodies.

Two of the men who had accompanied Olive had gotten very drunk in the meantime. They were given fresh horses at the ranch and started for home, passing the still hanging bodies along their way. In their drunken stupor, they wondered if the dead men would drink with them now. They poured whiskey on them and one lit a cigarette. It's not known if he flicked the match on Mitchell's body on purpose, but the bodies nonetheless began to burn. Finally one of these yahoos sobered up at the spectacle and put out the fire. Mitchell's body had burned more than Ketchum's. The rope around his neck had burned through and his body lay on the ground, still handcuffed to the hanging body of Ketchum. The intense heat had also burst his abdomen.

Judge Boblits, after leaving the Olive's rode the Anton Abel's ranch. They then rode out together to search for the bodies. They found the mutilated bodies about 2 ½ miles from the Olive's ranch.

Prent hired a dim-witted cowboy to bury the bodies of Mitchell and Ketchum. This being mid winter, the ground was frozen. Therefore, he dug a shallow grave on the side of the canyon. He was unable to get Mitchell's outstretched and frozen left arm and leg into the grave. He severed them so he wouldn't have to dig any more.

Ketchum's brother and several others from Kearney later unearthed the bodies and placed them on display outside a Kearney mortuary where numerous pictures were taken and distributed. Mitchell's body had further been mutilated by coyotes who had discovered the shallow grave.

Prent Olive and a ranch hand (Fred Fisher) were convicted in Hastings of second degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at the state penitentiary. Appeals were immediately filed and the Nebraska Supreme Court found that Olive and Fisher were improperly tried in Adams County. The trial should have been held in Custer County, where the crime occurred. December 17, 1880 Olive and Fisher were taken to Custer County before Judge Boblits. No complaining witnesses appeared and the men were freed. The other defendants in the case had from time to time been set free or escaped. No others were ever brought to trial.

Incidentally, I.P. "Prent" Olive was shot to death by Joe Sparrow in Train City, Colorado on August 16, 1886. He was 46 years old.