Homestead Discovery: A Story of Left-Behind History on 5 Dunes
“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.”
– Henry David Thoreau
At The Prairie Club, we are perpetually thankful. Our golf courses have been ranked among the best places to play golf in the nation. And along with our golf, we have been blessed with an abundance of great people.
In taking time to be thankful and reflective, we wanted to learn more about our history. We focused on a small bit of ruin just off of hole 5 on the Dunes course. We’ve passed it—and built around it—for years now. But it was time to learn the story around the small homestead there, a structure that can be seen in the image above.
Our land’s history did not start when we opened our doors in June of 2010. Knowing we are merely a fragment of the history of time on this land, we have embraced the philosophy that we discovered land made only possible by a greater creator.
“The Legend” of The Prairie Club truthfully began ten thousand years ago when the last ice age ended. As the ice melted, it caused a literal ocean of water, which left us a metaphorical ocean of grasses and sand dunes. Our entire land used to be covered by water. We are now left with 20,000 square miles of sand, some of which rise 330 feet tall, so large they’re visible by satellite.
From the outset of The Prairie Club’s construction, there were two guiding principles for designing the golf courses: “Make it Fun” and “Make it Fit.”
We believe a “fun” golf course is one that is playable for all skill levels, offers golfers opportunities to take an endless variety of shots, and inspires them to create new ones. It should challenge you to take risks, without unfairly penalizing you when your ball inevitably veers off its intended course.
Our second design mandate was to “leave well-enough alone.” The Nebraskan Sandhills are spectacular in their own right, so we designed our golf courses to synergistically work with the existing natural environment.
This second mantra was crafted because this land has history—both living and dead. For hundreds of years, people have tried to use this land, but have hit hard times, impractical climate, and found other reasons to have to abandon this special slice of the prairie.
After hundreds of years of turnover and frustration, we hope our courses are here to stay.
Many who play the Dunes Course notice the remnants of a small home near the hole 5 tee. As golfers leave the tee and head toward the fairway, it sits only a few yards off to the left of the path. It’s surrounded by a large maple tree.
(For the geography gurus, this is SE, 1/4 Qt of Sec 26, T32N, R30W. 42.7180000 N / 100.8137778 W. Google Maps.)
What little remains of this old building is no longer a home to anything more than prairie grass, wildlife, and a few forgotten artifacts.
The cornerstone pieces of the homestead have persevered through the test of time, but the memories of this humble abode have faded like sand through history’s fingers. We did our best to reclaim the history, the people, and the meaning behind this seemingly simple brick and mortar.
So here it is.
The First Land Owner
Meet John Miller Ralya.
Born around 1858 in Ohio, by the time John was 12-years old, he was living in Garnavillo, Iowa. The value of his family’s northeast Iowa real estate was listed at $300, which is the equivalent of about $5,700 in 2015. Ten years later, according to the 1880 census, John was living in Turner, Dakota Territory—country immediately southwest of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. By age 36, John lived in Sioux City, Iowa before finally moving to Cherry County by the 1910 census to be a stock-raising butcher.
The ancestors of some of today’s Cherry County residents, people who are our neighbors, perhaps knew John.
A little more background information on John’s family tree:
- —John was married to Cora G Ralya who worked as a housekeeper. She was born in Iowa, as was her mother. Her father was born in Vermont.
- —John’s mother, Eleanor Ralya, was born in Trumbull County, Ohio on May 22, 1831 and died on May 20, 1898 in Dane County, Wisconsin.
- —John’s father was Dr. David Harrison Ralya, born on June 19, 1818, in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. He died on June 12, 1908, in Dane County, Wisconsin.
John was the landowner and original land patent owner of Section 27, a portion of the land that is known today known as The Prairie Club. He and his wife had two children, Maud and Claud.
Son Claud—the younger of the two—moved to Omaha, Nebraska, worked long hours as a proprietor, and married Sarah P Ralya who was a teacher. Daughter Maud was given the land that is currently the homesteaded property behind the fifth green on the Dunes Course.
Maud, sometimes spelled “Maude,” was a school teacher, likely teaching at nearby schools (however records were somewhat unclear). She married William Bell, possibly a neighbor from several miles north, but was a widow by the time she sold the homesteaded land in 1941.
Saint Cecelia Music Club at Nebraska Wesleyan University, 1911
Note: Maud Ralya’s name 4th from the end in this photo from Nebraska Wesleyan above…
The Volatility of an Unknown Region
The Ralyas settled the land as part of the second wave of massive population swings.
“Settlers rushed into western Nebraska during the decade of the 1880s, filed on 160-acre homesteads, built small shacks or soddies on their claims, and attempted to cultivate the land. The population of the region, which later became known as the Kinkaid area, increased 877 percent from 1880 to 1890.”
—Arthur R. Reynolds, Department of History at the University of Minnesota, Agricultural History in January of 1949.
As fast as it climbed, the area’s head count would plummet. Families could not sustain their lives in the Sandhills, in part due to the limited size of territory they were able to claim.
Reynolds went on and wrote:
“…[The] tremendous influx of population was not destined to continue, as the region in the early nineties experienced disastrous drouths. Thousands, who had so enthusiastically rushed in to settle upon and cultivate their claims just a few years before, no found that 160-acre homesteads were entirely inadequate to support families. Their crops were destroyed by the hot summer winds and the lack of moisture. The dry years coupled with the panic of 1893 made it humanly impossible for many of the pioneers to remain and continue the fight against the elements on 160-acre homesteads. Between 1890 and 1900 over 10 percent of the settlers were either relinquished or abandoned their claims and returned back east.”
The land could have been written off as uninhabitable after the disappointing exodus from the once exciting area. However, congressional legislators who were concerned with the continued settling of the west would not allow for western Nebraska to be written off as a lost cause. As such, the population rollercoaster was not yet over, as Reynolds wrote here:
“President Theodore Roosevelt in his annual message in 1902 called to the attention of Congress the public land problem and the necessity of settling it. He stated that the ‘steady development of the West depends upon the building up of homes therein,’ He pointed out, however, that home building was impossible under the existing law which allowed only 160-acre homesteads in an area so dry that the land is only capable of supporting, at the most, 1 head of cattle to every 10 acres.”
After a bit of political football, United State Representative Moses Kinkaid from O’Neill, Nebraska proposed legislation that would later be known as the Kinkaid Act. It was eventually signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt on April 28, 1904. This re-opened the floodgates to settlers who clung tight to the hopeful prospects of larger homesteads.
Back to the Ralya’s
The Ralya family migrated to the Sandhills as part of this second wind of settlers. As they and other families had been promised, they claimed as much land as they were legally able.
“That was not uncommon for a family to—after the Kinkaid Act—to go in and claim land for each of their kids,” Neal Muirhead, a volunteer member of the Cherry County Historical Society said, noting that claimants had to be at least 21 years of age.
“At that point, you didn’t have to have much of a structure to build to justify calling it a homestead, even though you probably lived in a house or soddie or whatever a half mile away or a mile away.”
It is a safe bet that Maud’s father, John, lived in a larger homestead near his daughter’s place.
Even with more land, life in the Sandhills was not easy sailing, in part due to the fickle weather we have grown to appreciate with a wry smile.
“Our geographic location presents unique grass growing situations. We are too far south to get consistent and reliable snow cover, yet we’re north enough to get some nasty weather. It can be a challenge at times here in northern Nebraska.”
– Roger Brashear, Director of Agronomy at The Prairie Club
By the time Maud sold the land to Walter Peterson in 1941, John had moved to Lancaster County, Nebraska—home of Lincoln, Nebraska—and owned a billiard hall.
A year later, Peterson sold the land to Leonard Hupfer. Hupfer was born around 1893 in Germany (again, they don’t know specifics). At the time of the 1940 census – April 1, 1940 – he was 47 years old and lived in River, Nebraska with his wife, S Monica, and one-year-old son, Bernard L. Hupfer.
And although the land had changed hands a few times now, not a single golf hole had yet been discovered. But as we know now, they were there…
“…Nebraska was not always a bed of roses. When the first settlers arrived, they found a harsh, unforgiving place, a vast treeless expanse of barren, drought-parched soil. And so, summoning up the dynamic pioneer spirit of hope and steely determination, they left. But a few of them remained and built sod houses, which are actually made of dirt. Think about that. You can’t clean a sod house, because it would be gone. The early settlers had a hell of a time getting this through to their children. ‘You kids stop tracking dirt out of the house!’ they’d yell.”
― Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and columnist
Five years went by before the Hupfers sold the land to Fred G. Perrett in 1947. Born around 1917, Fred was roughly 30 years old when he acquired the land with his wife, five years his elder, Marie A Perrett. Marie was born in Colorado, but Fred was a Nebraska native. Fred’s claim on the land was held for a considerable amount of time relative to the previous owners, as he brought the land into the modern era.
Over the past 35 years, the land changed hands quite a few more times, all of the owners appreciating the beauty and treasures the land held.
And during that time, people started seeing golf for the future of the region.
The Associated Press wrote an article published on ESPN.com on August 5, 2005 and said the following:
“Ben Crenshaw was the first golf architect drawn here. His Sand Hills Club, which opened in 1995, ranks No. 12 on Golf Digest’s list of 100 Greatest American Golf Courses and is No. 1 among those built after 1960.”
For the past 20 years, golf has continued to enter the Sandhills region, an undiscovered paradise.
When the project at The Prairie Club began, the visions for three golf courses were crafted. Tom Lehman paired with Chris Brands to design our Dunes Course. Graham Marsh, a 70-time winner on professional tours across the globe, designed the Pines Course. The final addition was the Horse Course, our par-3 10-hole course takes the game of “horse” to a whole new level designed by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford.
Since, we have added The Old Wagon Course, a putting course resting on the canyon rim behind The Lodge. We’ve even been making subtle changes to the existing courses.
Through years of juggling, one thing has remained: our land has been insulated from the hustle and bustle of life in the city. For The Prairie Club’s founder, Paul Schock, it was part of the lure to the area.
“I have spent a lot of time visiting clubs, trying to find a niche,” Schock said in 2008. “I want this to be a place of serenity. Part of the success of Bandon (Dunes), Sand Hills or Sutton Bay is that it’s an adventure to get there. We think that’s fun, the trip you have to make.”
Here in Nebraska, friendly waves take priority to honks. Prairie winds take the place of sirens. Often in the summer, Tom Denham’s bagpipes carry through the Nebraskan air for miles.
Tradition is plentiful and history continues to be written every year. A look back in the rearview mirror is but a tiny glimpse of our past, remembered through the simple leftover foundation of an old home.
Our mission here at The Prairie Club is to create an unforgettable experience, one that touches the soul of all who journey here.
And when you do make your journey, and you drive past the 5th tee of the Dunes course, you’ll see a remnant of history off to the left of the path. When you see it, remember that this land has history dating back to a time before pure golf was discovered.