Old Jules' Cabin

A new chapter on Old Jules Sandoz.

(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine.)

AND OUT OF THE EAST came a lone man in an open wagon, driving hard.” Mari Sandoz used those fiery words to describe her father’s three-week voyage across the prairie to western Nebraska.

She continues “Jules, hunched down on the wagon seat, a rifle between his knees, followed up the north fringe of the river bluffs from the little town of Verdigre near the Missouri.”

Many Nebraskans know well the story of the Swiss medical student turned Western Nebraska frontier settler, immortalized to the literary world in his daughter’s biography of his life, Old Jules. The better part of the 400+ page chronicle is devoted to Sandoz’s time in Western Nebraska, but barley a paragraph of Mari’s famous book deals with his time at Verdigre.

We went searching for remnants of Jules in Knox County and found Dean Wavrunek. Like Sandoz, Wavrunek lives off the land, is an excellent shot and routinely carries a gun -- he’s Verdigre’s chief of police.

We pulled into the Wavrunek homestead outside of Verdigre and saw two rustic log cabins flanking the driveway. Dean rebuilt them by salvaging the ruins of original pioneer dwellings. “There are still cabins in the hills much like these, some in better shape than others, many are just rotting logs,” Wavrunek said. One of the cabins, he said, belonged to Jules. “Do you want to see it?” Wavrunek asked.

WE LEFT WAVRUNEK’S PLACE and drove through the gently rolling hills, green valleys and across quiet creeks of Knox County.

Mari’s writings suggest her father settled here because Northeast Nebraska was all the further his money would take him. But perhaps his settling here was no accident: This region bares a strong semblance to Jules’ homeland near Switzerland’s Lake Neuchatel.

After negotiating miles of slippery trail, we left the road, scaled a rickety fence and walked down an overgrown path. A redtailed hawk greeted us with three calls, then three more. Each step through the wet grass took us further into the past and closer to Jules. We rounded a bend, and Dean stopped.

“There it is,” he said. “You won’t be impressed.”

But we were. To lay eyes on the cabin of Jules Sandoz is an instant portal to 1881. That in 130 years this cabin had not been scavenged for wood, burned or simply rotted to the ground, defied the odds. It exists still today only because the building served useful purposes after Jules, most recently as a granery and a hog shed before that. A modern roof is responsible for the shack’s good condition.

We climbed through the doorway and into history.

The cabin is two stories, if you count the loft. Miscellaneous implements spanning generations dot the interior: a chimney flue hanging from a square nail here, a wooden keg in a corner there. We estimate the cabin’s size at 12 by 16 feet.

“The old bugger was cheap,” Dean quipped. “But he was no dummy,” he added, pointing toward the roofline.

“That’s a gun port” Dean said, directing his attention to a square hole in the loft. “And that’s another one there.”

Judging from their size, its likely Jules could have stuck his Italian-made Vetterli rifle through and made easy shots on unsuspecting game. The high vantage would have given him the upper hand should an outlaw have approached.

Using a flashlight, we searched the interior of the cabin for any sign of Jules. We found carvings near the door. The first carving was four hash marks with another line through them, indicating the number five, followed by what looks to be Aug 15, 1919.

“That’s too late for Jules,” Wavrunek said. “He high-tailed it west in 1884.”

Dean was itching to get into the loft and eventually found a way up there. He was rewarded with the discovery of an old stove. One corner read “Wrought Iron Range Co. Manufacturers St. Louis.”

Additional research would be needed to date the relic, so we headed back to town to the Verdigre Village Clerk’s office. As we entered, the smell of fresh coffee greeted us, and the warm coffee shook off the wet morning chill. Since she wasn’t on the clock yet, Wavrunek conned City Clerk Alisha Bartling into searching the Internet for the antique stove.

Also getting his morning caffeine fix was Verdigre maintenance worker and local farmer, Steve Jacot. His family has farmed the former Sandoz property for years.

“We played in there when we were kids,” Steve said with a smile, sliding briefly back into childhood. “We used to put sticks out of those gun ports and play cowboys and Indians.”

Although Alisha couldn’t find the exact model, the company began making stoves in the 1860s. Is it possible Jules once owned it? The possibility is remote; he almost certainly would have taken such a fine appliance with him.

Because of the rough topography of the valley, Sandoz’s 160-acre homestead would have been a challenge to farm. How did he make a living? Perhaps a small herd of cattle grazed his steep slopes? Maybe he trapped on his mile of Rose Creek in winter?

Local historian Peg Ebel uncovered some Jules Sandoz Knox County history and was kind enough to share.

“Under the little building he called home,” she said. “He dug out a ‘basement’ and rented that out.” The lower level was accessed via a trap door. Imagine the hottempered Jules going down to the trap door to collect late rent from a basementdwelling tenant. The Sandoz land has been in the LaPesh family for the last century. Ted LaPesh confirms that there was a basement; he recalls hearing about it from his father.

Jules sent vivid letters to Switzerland trying to recruit others to this “new land.” The highly educated man had a way with words. Camille Sandoz and Tell H. Sandoz soon located nearby. Even though Jules had already abandoned Knox County, when the 1890 Farmer’s Listing came out, Tell and Camille still were occupying their respective homesteads. Their descendants occupy Knox County to this day.

Despite his romanticized descriptions of plains life, Jules could not sway his one true love, Rosalie. After years of bachelorhood and failed attempts at convincing his Swiss sweetheart to emmigrate, loneliness forced him to find companionship elsewhere.

He obtained a marriage license to wed a Ms. Balmer. County records indicate they never married. In 1883, only five months after receiving the previous license, Justice C.W. Simpkins married Sandoz and Estelle Thompson at Bazille Mills. Mari wrote that Estelle “Refused to build the morning fires” or “run through the frosty grass to catch up his team.”

Scarcely seven months after the union, Jules, who was said to be disappointed in his spouse, dumped their sugar and flour to their few hogs, loaded his wagon and left Knox County. The fact that he had already collected $40 for relinquishing his claim shows it was more a premeditated act than the result of a fit of anger. But Verdigre area lore states that Jules had enough of Estelle when one morning “breakfast wasn’t ready.”

“They didn’t last long-Jules and Estelle, but it was long enough for her to get pregnatized,” Dean said. Everyone laughed at Dean’s intentional malaprop. Alisha shook her head and said, “This creek talk around here, it’s really bad.”

Wavrunek said Estelle had a son shortly after Jules left. Some say she was part Indian, which could explain the boy’s dark complexion. Jules never claimed him. According to Mari’s book, years later when Jules allowed Estelle and the boy to visit, he gave the boy a “sound thrashing” for calling him “Old Jules” after the youngster heard someone in Hay Springs say it.

Jules and his fourth wife, Mary, lived on a 2,300-acre ranch south of Gordon where Jules planted and grew large fruit orchards in the Sandhills where experts said such succulents would not grow. They also reared a large family of three sons, Fritz, James and Jules Jr., and three daughters, Flora, Marie (Mari) and Caroline.

Even though Old Jules is usually associated with Western Nebraska and the writings of his prolific daughter, Knox County residents are proud that the historical icon is a part of their history.

They prefer to think that his move west had more to do with wanderlust, only ending one chapter of his life and turning the page to another, rather than a boorish man closing the book on the county itself.

(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine.)

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