Highway 2 through the Sandhills is one of Nebraska’s most scenic drives. Deep in the Sandhills lakes country, near the tiny town of Antioch, stand desolate, oddly-shaped concrete ruins visible from the highway—as if Antioch had once been a much larger city, or home to some inexplicably large enterprise. And that’s pretty much what happened during World War I when Antioch became a potash boomtown.
In 1888, H. D. Watson established the historic Watson Ranch, at one time containing 8,000 acres, reaching from the fertile Platte Valley on the south to the rolling hills on the north and from downtown Kearney to a point five miles west. During its existence, the ranching operations were devoted to grains, poultry, vegetables, and a 250-acre fruit orchard, primarily of cherry, peach, plum, and apple trees.
At left is a tractor in Ogallala, Neb., 1918. NSHS RG0716-34-5
On April 28, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill sponsored by Moses P. Kinkaid of O’Neill, which allowed homesteaders to claim 640 acres of land in certain parts of western Nebraska where smaller farms were impractical. Most of the new farmers, called Kinkaiders, had higher hopes than they ever had profits. “The Kinkaider Comes and Goes,” the title of a 1930 article by Mari Sandoz, telegraphs the end of the story. Still, the Kinkaid Act brought many people and and some permanent settlement to the Sandhills.