Henry J. Stebbins
Chicago & Northwestern Railroad contractor on the Dakota Central line.
Mr. Stebbins bears his age well, and hasn’t changed a hair in all the years we have known him. – De Smet News, March 1900
In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Mr. Stebbins’ railroad camp to the west is said to be a much larger camp than the one at Silver Lake. Where the De Smet camp has 75-80 men, Stebbins’ camp is said to have 200 men working there (Chapter 8, “Silver Lake”), and 350 men drawing pay (Chapter 11, “Payday”). Note that the SSL manuscript specified “200 teams and men accordingly” (emphasis mine) in Mr. Stebbins’ camp, but the published version used the number of teams instead of men.
Although placed incorrectly in the historical timeline (it was the summer before the Hard Winter, not afterwards, as Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl), the story of the Indian mummy is said to be one Almanzo Wilder and the Heath brothers heard while working at Stebbins’ camp.
Henry J. Stebbins was born in Oneida, New York, in July 1829, one of eight children of Davidella and Jabez Stebbins (1802-1890). Around 1852, Henry married Maria Elizabeth Stevenson (born 1832), the daughter of Margary and John L. Stevenson. The Stevensons and Stebbinses were farming neighbors in Madison County, New York. Maria and Henry moved to Rock County, Wisconsin, and Wright County, Iowa, and were the parents of ten children: James (1852), Judd (1854), Harriet (1856), Isabel (1858), Letticia (1862), Richard (1864), Burt (1866), Henry (1868), and Maud (1869).
While living in Iowa, Henry became a railroad contractor on the Chicago & Northwestern line from Tracy, Minnesota, to Pierre, Dakota Territory. Enumerated on the 1880 census for Dakota Territory, he and his family were living in Beadle County and kept a boarding house while Henry and sons worked on the railroad grade. The Brookings County Press of May 13, 1880 (reprinted from the Huron Settler) reported: Mr. J.C. Stebbins, one of the grading sub-contractors, was here this week, looking over the line westward, on which he has a contract. A force of his graders went out to the work Tuesday. Mr. Stebbins has turned over the first sod west of the Jim and proposes to have fifty teams at work within a week.
After the railroad reached the Missouri River, Henry settled in Hughes County, filing on a homestead northwest of Blunt, which he founded in 1884. The town was named for John E. Blunt, railroad engineer. Stebbins was responsible for three additions to the original town, and a local street still bears his name, as shown in the map above. The navigation button that brought you to this page shows an early postcard view of Blunt, where Henry Stebbins was a prosperous cattle rancher for over twenty years.
The Stebbins family had ties to the De Smet area and were well-known there in the early years. John Stebbins homesteaded near De Smet, and Henry’s daughter, Belle, married De Smet postmaster, Abrose W. Mullen. After their marriage, Belle and Ambrose lived in rooms upstairs in the Bank of De Smet building, the building John Carroll built on the Ingallses’ lot in town, the Gass Law Office building of today. They then purchased the George Bradley home. The Mullens were great friends with the Sherwoods, Tinkhams, Sanfords, Garlands, Fullers, Hopps and others; Ambrose was pitcher of an early De Smet baseball team. Belle’s parents and siblings were frequent De Smet visitors.
In 1903, Henry and Marie moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma, where Marie died December 5, 1914, and Henry on February 9, 1916. They are buried in Green Hill Cemetery, Muskogee.
Old Stebbins on the North-Western Line. After the Ingalls family is left to spend the winter of 1879 alone in the Surveyors’ House at Silver Lake, Pa once again plays the fiddle. They sing a “railroad ditty” about the contractor, referred to as “Old Stebbins on the North-Western line.” During the summer of 1879, Henry Stebbins celebrated his 50th birthday and was seven years older than Charles Ingalls.
Not used in any published Little House book, the lyrics and tune of “Old Stebbins” has been lost, although Rose Wilder Lane may have been suggesting that it was sung to the tune of “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” (click HERE to listen) when she included a similar story about a character she called “Old Gebbert” in her novel, Free Land, published in 1938. In Chapter 24, Lane says that the boys worked with a “Hurrah, boys! from sunup to sundown, and came tramping back to the cook-shanty singing a new verse of the old song.” “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” would have been a well-known song at the time.
Finish up the contract for the day comes around,
Can we do the job, boys, we’ll do it up brown,
And hit the high places for a high old time,
Working for old Gebbert on the Northwestern Line!
When working on her Silver Lake manuscript, Wilder and Lane corresponded about songs, construction of the railroad, and Mr. Stebbins. In an undated letter probably from around September 1937, Laura explained how contractors cheated the railroad out of goods, and that all contractors did it. “Old Stebbins” kept three teams hauling oats, 100 lbs to a load, for a month. The oats were unloaded into a feed room 12×16 and after they had hauled for a month there were only a few oats in the room. Manly was one of the teamsters. I don’t know where the feed was hauled to sell. Perhaps sold to the R.R. to furnish another contractor. Must have been there was no other market. As 100 pounds would have been a very light load if it was all a team carried, she probably meant that this amount was added to whatever load the team was already hauling.
Mr. Stebbins (SSL 11; PG), see also mummy, Heath brothers
“Old Stebbins on the North-Western Line” (PG)
Stebbins’ Camp / railroad camp (SSL 8, 11; PG)