Eve Bowring's Sandhills Ranch Estate
Now a Historic State Park, the treasures of Bowring's Ranch shine on, illuminating the sparks and shadows of Nebraska's first female senator.
(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
VISITORS have traveled here from as far away as Greenland to see the finest of sterling silver. Tourists from China have gazed at the prized glass crystal and china, but then they notice something shining out that is even more valuable. Land.
During her years in Washington, D.C., Eve Bowring was right at home with presidents and kings, pioneering new political territory in 1954 as Nebraska’s first female U.S. senator. But she was truly at home on this massive Sandhills spread, where the first fence posts were pounded into the ground by a pioneering rancher in 1894. That pioneer was her beloved husband, Arthur Bowring, and for decades after his passing, Eve watched over their thousands of acres on her own, all alone, a distant boss lady to the ranch hands who cared for her beefy Hereford cattle. The land belonged to her, and now the working cattle ranch belongs to us all.
More than a quarter of a century after Eve’s death on the eve of her 93rd birthday, the magnificent Arthur Bowring Sandhills Ranch State Historical Park lives on near Merriman. Her wondrous gift to Nebraska of these 7,200 acres was also her final gift of loyalty to her beloved late husband; the donation preserves the land as he knew it, forever barring real estate interlopers from acquiring the Barr 99 Ranch he started in 1894, two years after Eva Kelly “Eve” Bowring was born. Now, each day of the year, travelers are welcome to stop and visit, and to walk about a place where time has stood still for 100 years.
Eve’s foundation donated her land to the state, and the ranch that once frowned on visitors now is an open gate to the past. It welcomes the public year-round, including each June, when folks flock to its Sod House Sunday of games, music, rancher food and a team penning competition. Any day visitors stop in they’ll be treated to a working cattle ranch, replica sod house and the magnificent collection of glass, china, and silver that Eve brought from all over the world to this lonely yet precious land a few miles outside of Merriman off Highway 20.
“This facility is a diamond in disguise,” said Diane Burress, the Bowring State Park superintendent who cares for the cattle and maintains the upkeep of the ranch as part of her skilled juggling act of duties here. It was said that since Eve had such a vast collection of the finest china, a plate would never be served on her dining table more than once. She also was known as a shrewd shopper of the finest Persian rugs, where a half dozen of the carpets would be brought to the ranch and then all the furniture would get moved out of the home and rearranged each time with a different rug. Eve would carefully eyeball each arrangement and then decide on a single carpet choice.
There are many tales of her folksy nature and fearless ranching spirit, but a neighbor remembers her as often distant, aloof, stern and almost never home. Despite all the elegance and luxury, and the meetings with presidents and kings, this elderly lady would sometimes find herself alone at this stately house, miles away from the nearest living soul.
“She could be hard, but most of the time I found her to be a jolly person,” said Gerald Goodwin, who ran the ranch for her from 1955 to 1965. Even though Goodwin quit the foreman’s job with a sour taste in his mouth when Bowring suddenly became the most demanding of boss ladies,
he later returned in those final years after she asked for his help during calving season. “She treated me like her son, really.”
There were many happy days, and also one of his saddest mornings.
On the night before her 93rd birthday, the first woman to serve Nebraska as a U.S. senator was reading a James Michener book when she drifted into a final sleep. The housekeeper found her on that bed in the grand home of her ranch with the novel Chesapeake still open and resting by her side. The final chapter on the amazing story of Eve Bowring closed on Jan. 8, 1985, 93 years from the day she was born on Jan. 9, 1892, in Nevada, Mo.
Goodwin had been sitting in the Bowring home on Eve’s final evening when suddenly the housekeeper came from the bedroom and told him that Eve had passed away. Just hours later, Goodwin endured the hardest job he ever faced on this ranch. That morning, he helped lift Eve’s lifeless body from her bed.
Eve endured and celebrated a long life full of change, and yet in many ways she remained the same with her powerful personality that could be both as warm as the Sandhills’ summer breeze, and as cold and harsh as its winter wind. Her biggest change came when she was sworn in at the U.S. Capitol by Vice President Richard Nixon on April 26, 1954, to become the state’s first female senator. She served the final seven months of a seat left open by the death of Sen. Dwight Griswold.
DESPITE EVE’S EFFORTS to immortalize her husband through the creation of the state park, he trails far behind the pioneering political legacy of his widow. Still, Arthur Bowring’s accomplishments in ranching and public service are worthy of filling much of the 7,400 square feet at the ranch’s visitor center.
Arthur was the seventh of 10 children of the British-born railroader Henry Bowring, who brought his family to the Sandhills determined to farm and ranch on homesteaded land near Gordon. By 1894, just three days before he turned 21, Arthur joined his father’s ranching quest and acquired his first 160 acres off homesteaded land near Merriman.
Arthur made great strides in ranching when he started raising the whitefaced Hereford cattle. His grazing land kept growing thanks to the creek flowing through the ranch. He built a sod house on his land in 1894 and lived inside his dwelling until 1908 when he married a schoolteacher from Hooper named Anna Mabel Holbrook. Within months Arthur built a four-room wooden home onto the sod house. The couple soon were expecting a child, but in August of 1909, as Arthur was trapped with a haying crew in a violent thunderstorm miles from home, Anna and their son died during childbirth in front of helpless family and friends.
For nearly 20 years, Arthur went through life alone, expanding his herd and the rooms on his ranch house. Then on an autumn day in 1927, fate and a brokendown car brought a turning in the road.
By this time, Eve was trying to cope with her own severe challenges. One of her four sons died at just 3 months old, and according to Bowring Ranch records, she endured for nearly a dozen years of abuse from her alcoholic husband, a livestock feed salesman named Theodore Forester, whom she married in 1911. Eve fled her husband in Kansas City, Mo., taking her three sons to Lincoln. She eventually divorced Forester in 1924.
Eve soon began blazing her own trail as a traveling saleswoman with Norfolk Steam Bakery. She not only had an unusual job for a woman in the mid-1920s, but even more remarkable was the 40,000 miles she drove on rural roads each year to cover a sales region that ranged from Norfolk to the Wyoming border.
It was on a long journey of sales calls that her car broke down near Merriman. Arthur was heading back to the ranch and came to the rescue. The automobile soon was back on the road, and after they exchanged addresses, the courtship got rolling, too.
After many letters, the romance bloomed and the 55-year-old rancher married the 36-year-old Norfolk sales gal in Valentine on April 13, 1928. Eve not only joined her husband’s trail into the ranching world but also into public service, where Arthur was a county commissioner, state legislator, justice of the peace and deputy of the Nebraska Game and Fish Commission. Arthur died on March 19, 1944, at 71, leaving Eve standing alone to watch over the 12,000 acres of ranchland. Political insiders soon starting watching the Sandhills heiress.
Eve became the first woman to chair the Nebraska Stockgrowers Association Brand Committee and quickly became a force in Nebraska GOP politics. Then in 1954, she reluctantly agreed to Gov. Robert Crosby’s repeated requests for her to fill Griswold’s seat. She was appointed U.S. senator on April 16. She was escorted to the front of the Senate chamber on April 26 by Nebraska Sen. Hugh Butler, who died just months later.
During the swearing-in ceremony, Nixon playfully announced Butler’s message to the gallery: “The senior senator from Nebraska has asked the chair to announce that no implication should be drawn from the fact that the senior senator from Nebraska is a widower and the junior senator from Nebraska is a widow.”
“I’m going to have to ride the fence a while until I find where the gates are,” Eve told a reporter shortly after she joined Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith as the only women in the U.S. Senate.
By June, Eve closed those Senate gates and decided not to run for an odd 60-day term to fill out Griswold’s term. Instead educator Hazel Abel won the election, but to add to the voters’ confusion, the first woman to follow another woman into the U.S. Senate in the nation’s history also resigned from office on Dec. 31, 1954.
Despite her short service, the 5-foot-7 Bowring was no shrinking violet on Capitol Hill. Her stature with her colleagues quickly grew when she gave an impressive speech on the Senate floor backing President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to provide flexible price supports for farmers.
After her term was up, Eve seemed to spend even more time in Washington and away from her ranch. She was on the advisory council to the National Institutes of Health. Ike appointed her to serve on the federal Board of Parole, a post she held from 1956 to 1964.
Eve and Ike became good friends. Ike naturally bonded with this witty cattlewranglin’ gal because of his Kansas roots, and his wife, Mamie, was said to have sparked Eve’s interest in collecting fine-cut crystal. The Eisenhowers planned to vacation with Eve at her ranch, but the president suffered a heart attack in 1955 and that dream visit was canceled.
WHEN SHE RETURNED to Merriman in 1965, ranch manager Gerald Goodwin suddenly saw a different Eve.
“She wasn’t there to boss me very much when she was with the parole board,” said Goodwin, who claims the Bowring cattle flourished when he was manager. “Then she came home and I couldn’t do anything right. She wanted to show her authority, that she was Mrs. Bowring. She didn’t want me to run the ranch anymore. That’s what it amounted to.”
These days Ken Moreland is a loan inspector for First National Bank in Gordon, but he grew up in the 1950s on his family’s ranch, where Eve was a neighbor, and always a distant one. He also worked on the Bowring ranch over several decades, helping with the spring brandings. He recalls Eve’s appearances in her big Cadillac. He said she often would wear fancy gloves, but those gloves never reached out with a friendly wave.
“She wasn’t much of a social person around the Sandhills,” said Moreland, whose family still maintains its 3,200-acre ranch at the Bowring borders. “She didn’t have much to do with the common folk around Merriman. She’d always come to the branding in a Cadillac and summons her foreman like it was an audience with the pope. Pretty soon she’d be done and roll the window up and drive off. She had a hands-on approach without being hands-on.”
Moreland said Eve could be an unreasonable haggler about cattle crossings. It was no big deal for his uncle to allow the Bowring cattle to use his land during the seasonal migrations, but Eve drew the line about letting Moreland cattle munch on her grass while they rested.
On the day of her funeral, Moreland’s father served as a pallbearer, and Goodwin asked Moreland to stay in the Bowring house to guard against thieves. Moreland said it was an eerie experience roaming alone in her big house in the dark. His creepiest encounter at the ranch came years earlier when he was pushing calves up chutes deep into the night, and then he was suddenly spooked by Eve’s voice behind him in the darkness.
“Out of nowhere she says, ‘How you boys doing?’ ” Moreland recalled. “It scared the living hell out of me. Then she turned around and walked home. But it was pitch black and she never even had a flashlight.”
One of the most memorable Moreland family stories of the ranch matron comes from Steve Moreland, a cousin of Ken’s who grew up near the Bowring ranch. Steve tells of the day Eve fired a veteran ranch hand so she could hire some guy who had blown into town and had impressed the boss lady. The fired man stuttered when he spoke, and when he came to pick up his final paycheck, Steve says he got the last word: “M-m-m-mrs. B-b-bowring, I hope all your d-d-damned cows d-d-die.” The story took another twist when the hotshot new worker stole a pickup and fled the county. Eve hired back her slow-taking, hard-working rancher.
Goodwin saw some of those hard ways from a tough lady, so tough that she once drove all the way home on her own after hip surgery in Omaha. She pulled up the Caddy, and Goodwin helped her limp into the house. He mainly looks back with fondness at her caring nature, like those times she’d bring ice cream out to him when the Sandhills heat was baking over the hay fields. His wife, Inez, says Eve was always very grateful when they had her over for supper; several times Eve invited them to her house and prepared delicious meals.
“She was a really good cook and she appreciated anything you did for her,” Inez said. “I think maybe a lot of people were jealous of her. She might have come across as aloof if you didn’t know her as well as we did. She was never that way to us.”
Moreland’s wife, Sharon, also saw that kindness as a young schoolteacher in the mid-1970s. Eve knew of this new teacher through her daugher-in-law, who decided to stay on as a teacher in Merriman after the tragic electrocution of her husband, and Eve’s son, at the ranch. Sharon didn’t have a car and was walking to work in the cold when that Cadillac pulled up and Eve warmly welcomed her inside.
Moreland got a firsthand look at Eve’s charm when he came by to collect a bill for cattle feed. The boss lady decided to give him a personal tour of her magnificent home. She showed him all of the finest silver and china and a massive Persian rug, but the greatest treasure for Moreland was when Eve pointed to a dress and shared the story of John F. Kennedy and the pool. She was wearing it at a presidential inauguration party for JFK when the elegant gown took a soaking after a drunken reveler pushed her into the pool.
“She was as charming and witty and as friendly as you could ever ask,” said Moreland of Eve on the grand tour. “She could be absolutely the most gracious person in the world. She was elegant and very educated. I don’t know how educated she was school-wise, but she was wise in ways of the world.”
People from around the globe have come to take the tour Ken got as a young man. They can see a painting of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who met with Eve to seek her expertise on using Sandhills irrigation strategies in the Ethiopian desert. The African ruler was said to have gotten invaluable guidance from Eve on accessing the desert groundwater, which had the potential to prevent the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives during the drought famines. But before the plan was implemented, he died in 1975 after a military coup.
There are the pictures of another presidential pal, Richard Nixon, with whom she shared a birthday. But when the Watergate scandal hit, a disgusted Bowring was said to have turned all of the Nixon photographs around in her home so she no longer had to look at the leader whom she felt had turned his back on the nation.
In many ways, Eve’s spirit is seen through park superintendent Diane Burress herself. She shares a ranch with her husband south of the former town of Eli, but most of her time is spent watching over the land Eve once ruled. For more than a half-dozen years she’s had to mow all the lawns, maintain the buildings and care for dozens of cattle, some of them direct descendants of Arthur’s first Herefords.
“These cows are not used to horses, so I do everything on foot or a pickup,” Burress said. “When you go to sort them, you just point at them and they’ll walk through the gate.”
Sometimes the days start as early as 6:30 a.m. and end at 9 p.m., but it is those final rays of light that are the brightest of all for this guardian of Sandhills history.
“I love the evening because you can look out over the meadow with the sun setting and it’s just absolutely gorgeous,” Burress said. “I did not know Mrs. Bowring personally, but as long as I have worked here, I like to think that I do know her.”
She stares out over the vastness of the land as the sunlight fades into the Sandhills. Perhaps the woman who brought so many treasures here would gaze upon that evening meadow and find the most precious prize of all.
(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)