Alternative Fuels

The first settlers in Nebraska Territory found the lack of timber, except along creek and river banks, a problem. The consequent lack of fuel for heating and cooking caused an early search for firewood substitutes. No coal, at least in substantial quantities, was ever found in Nebraska, and settlers had to experiment with alternate fuels to satisfy their needs.

The burning of hay was tried chiefly in the central and northern parts of the state. At first settlers tried to burn loose hay, but this required a constant attendant to feed the stove. Later the hay was twisted into a “cat,” a number of which could be prepared ahead. Eventually, special hay burner stoves were invented and sold. One such hay burner stove donated to the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1934 uses removable, spring-operated, cylindrical magazines to feed hay into the stove.

As soon as corn was produced in any quantity it furnished several forms of fuel. Cobs were burned or cornstalks were used. At first cornstalks (like hay) were fed loose into the stove, but this required a constant stove attendant, and various methods of binding stalks together were soon devised.

Sunflowers were another projected source of fuel. It was believed by some (including Nebraska horticulturist and nurseryman Robert W. Furnas) that the tough, woody stalks of giant sunflowers would satisfy the average settler’s need for fuel. However, sunflower stalks were never widely used.

Corn itself was advocated as a fuel as early as 1862. The editor of the Nebraska Advertiser at Brownville pointed out that with corn selling at ten cents a bushel, coal at twenty cents a bushel, and wood at two dollars a cord, a farmer living far away from the Missouri River (a cheap means of transportation) would be financially ahead to use his corn for fuel. When the price of corn dipped too low, the use of corn to replace other types of fuel increased. But there were practical disadvantages: It was hard to ignite, and when finally aflame, produced such a hot fire that it damaged the stove.

West of the 100th Meridian settlers often used animal fuel, chiefly buffalo and cattle dung gathered from the open prairie. These “chips” burned rapidly with little blaze, producing hot coals suitable for heating and cooking. The use of alternate fuels was largely discontinued by 1900 when a growing network of railroads enabled enough coal to be shipped into the state cheaply enough to satisfy the need for fuel.

(August 1999)

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

Other Publications

The Bachelors’ Protective Union of Kearney

When the Bachelors' Protective Union gave a gala reception for two of its newly married, former members and their brides in March of 1890, the social club for young, ...

U.S. Weather Bureau in 1890s Nebraska

The U.S. Weather Bureau was established by an act of Congress on October 1, 1890. It took over the weather service that had been established in the office of the Chief ...

Canning the Way to Victory

During American participation in World War I the U.S. Food Administration, under the direction of Herbert Hoover, launched a massive campaign to persuade Americans to ...

The Shoemaker’s Ashes

"Edward Kuehl, one of the most peculiar characters that ever lived in Omaha, or anywhere else, was found dead in his bed last night in the back room of his place of ...

Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger Foreward

Red Dog, an Oglala Lakota who lived at the Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska, 1876-77 (Nebraska State Historical Society   In the summer of 1876, following the ...

Darryl F. Zanuck

Darryl F. Zanuck Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979), a native Nebraskan, produced some of Hollywood's most important and controversial films. He helped found 20th Century Fox ...

The Burlington’s Profitable Pork Special

Nebraska railroads were much concerned with developing an adequate economy in the areas they served. The Burlington, for example, had a long history of caring for the ...

Bungalow Filling Stations

After the giant Standard Oil Company was broken into thirty-four separate companies in 1911, the newly independent Standard Oil of Nebraska dominated the state's market ...

The Bull Fight

This is the perfect time of year for a visit to the old fishin' hole. But a group of fisherfolk from Plainview discovered that this bucolic pastime sometimes has ...

Buffalo Soldiers West

African-American soldiers on the western frontier are the focus of an exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. Buffalo Soldiers West, on loan from the Colorado ...

Protection for Buffalo

The extermination of the buffalo on the Plains occurred largely between 1870 and 1885. The Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln on February 1, 1874, editorialized in vain ...

Buffalo Hunting

In late October 1877 young Rolf Johnson and three friends left their homes in Phelps County, Nebraska, for a buffalo hunt in northeastern Colorado. The hunt was not very ...
About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.