North Platte author tells tales of the ‘Wild Years’

Ruby Coleman had heard so many of the stories about North Platte’s wide-open past — including the one about Buffalo Bill’s hometown also being called “Little Chicago.”

Eventually, she said, she had to write a book.

Amazon.com is publishing and taking orders for Coleman’s “The Wild Years, 1868-1951: North Platte and Lincoln County, Nebraska,” one of three books the local historian and genealogist has recently finished or soon will republish.

It covers most of the notorious aspects of North Platte’s first 85 years. Bootlegging and speakeasies during Prohibition. Gambling. Brothels. Crimes, both solved and unsolved.

And the city’s alternate identity as the out-of-the-way place where Windy City mobs would send guys to lie low.

“When my (late) husband (Richard) and I moved back here in 1976, there were still a lot of old-timers around,” said Coleman, 76, a former Telegraph columnist and the “mother” of the North Platte Genealogical Society’s 2-year-old searchable database of early local papers.

“I was hearing stories from them like, ‘The Mafia in Chicago will always protect North Platte.’ And I started thinking, what’s that all about?”

That time, if not the reputation, was left behind in 1951 when city voters elected a “reform” mayor and City Council ticket to put an end to organized prostitution and illegal gambling.

Coleman’s book ends with that election, which the late Telegraph Editor Keith Blackledge — who first joined the paper the following year — described in his 2005 book “A Short History of North Platte and the Election of 1951.”

What happened in North Platte “wasn’t any different than anywhere else,” Coleman said. “But we got the reputation because we had more of this going on per capita.”

The Lincoln County Historical Museum, which carries Blackledge’s books, also will sell Coleman’s “Wild Years” and a forthcoming third edition of her 1992 book “Pre-Statehood History of Lincoln County, Nebraska.”

She also has published a collection of her Telegraph “Heritage Lines” columns from 1983 to 1996 and three books on genealogical research resources in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. The latter was released in May.

Coleman said she started last summer on updating her earlier Lincoln County book, which Amazon.com also should be ready to publish in the coming days.

That work spurred “Wild Years,” which she finished alongside her revised “Pre-Statehood History” as the COVID-19 pandemic kept her at home this spring.

Coleman said she consulted “anything I could get my hands on,” including the newspaper database she helped set up and court records that included old Nebraska Supreme Court cases.

North Platte Public Library employee and historian Kaycee Anderson enthusiastically encouraged her and freely loaned her own files, Coleman said.

“I would go down to the library last summer and bring home mountains of files, and I’d go through them and bring them back and she’d give me more,” she said.

“Wild Years” starts soon after North Platte’s founding “Hell on Wheels” winter of 1866-67, when the transcontinental railroad construction crews arrived in the brand-new town and portable saloons, brothels and gambling dens followed to prey on them all winter.

They followed the track gangs west when the Union Pacific’s “end of track” moved in mid-1867 to Julesburg, Colorado, though some workers stayed behind to build the railroad’s “division point” roundhouse and shops.

Many Old West settlements were rife with vice in their earliest days, Coleman said. But as North Platte’s history rolled forward, “what we find here is that all of these intermingled, because one vice led to another.”

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who first was posted to Fort McPherson in May 1869, figures in some of the book’s earliest stories, she said.

“Wild Years” tells about North Platte’s most flamboyant “madams,” mysterious deaths ignored or lightly investigated and anti-liquor laws openly flouted during the Prohibition era.

Other events include the July 1929 death of a North Platte police officer — which spurred threats against the city’s Black population — and the notorious career of Lincoln County Poor Farm operator Annie Cook.

Coleman said she was a close friend of the late North Platte author Nellie Snyder Yost, who first detailed Cook’s horrific activities in her last book, 1991’s “Evil Obsession.”

The two would talk about the book often, Coleman said, with Yost agonizing about how far to go in describing Cook’s abuse of poor-farm inmates and even family members.

Yost changed many of the names in “Evil Obsession,” Coleman said. But with 30 more years gone by, her book will use the actual names, she added.

“Wild Years” sells for $17.95 direct from amazon.com. The Lincoln County Historical Museum’s sale price hasn’t yet been set, said museum director and curator Jim Griffin.

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