Up a Country Lane. December 29, 2018.
As I look ahead to the coming year, I am excited about a new exhibit being organized at the Fremont County Historical Society to tell the story of lost towns. One of them is Knox, three miles west of Sidney.
Knox is very dear to our family. Just up the Bluff Road from the site of the small community is the farm that Thomas Birkby settled in 1865. When he was a pre-schooler, my husband Robert lived in Knox. Much of his love for the outdoors came from that early childhood exploring the bluffs above the town.
I wrote about Knox in a 1995 Up A Country Lane column telling how the Council Bluffs to St. Joseph, Missouri, stage coach came through the area before there was a town. So did pioneers traveling west, including those in 1849 heading for California in search of gold, and settlers who came up the Missouri River. A branch of the Underground Railroad ran nearby as a pathway for slaves escaping from southern states to reach freedom in the north.
Beginning in 1848 with the Methodist Episcopal Church, a number of congregations were formed in and near Knox. Robert’s great grandfather Thomas Birkby gave land for one church. His great grandfather Virginius Jobe served as brick mason to construct another.
Pioneer James Knox arrived in 1855 to make his home in the place then called Lick Skillet. Thirty years later, he applied to the United States government to establish a post office there. The approval letter was addressed to “James Knox - Knox, Iowa,” and thus the town was named.
A small store was at the center of Knox. One of its owners was Frank Birkby, Robert’s grandfather, who served as both storekeeper and postmaster as early as 1903.
The wooden store was eventually replaced by one constructed of concrete blocks. It served the neighborhood until 1961. With the construction of Interstate 29 bypassing Knox to the west, the little town has all but evaporated.
Some years ago I wanted to give Robert a scale model of the 1903 store his grandfather had owned. We had a photograph of the store from that time. I took it to a miniatures dealer in Omaha who built dollhouses and asked if a replica of the store could be made. By Christmas, it was done and I could give it to Robert as his gift.
Robert and I had a good time finding dollhouse-sized furniture for the store. I found a little pot bellied stove to go against the back wall of the store. We also tracked down small boxes of vegetables, fruits, canned goods, and other items that would have been sold at the time.
I found a store clerk that I imagined looked just like Frank Birkby. He was about four inches high and the right scale for the model store. Soon I had him dressed in pants, a shirt, and a vest from the era that Frank would have been behind the counter.
Something I could not recreate for the store was the landscape of Knox. The photograph we have was taken from across Cooper Creek and shows the steep rise of the bluffs behind Knox.
I also couldn’t show Big Spring, a water source just south of Knox. It was mentioned in 1820 by Dr. David Meriwether as he was traveling to an army encampment near Omaha. “We came to a spring running into the lake and looking across the frozen pond we saw a gang of elk standing under a protective bank only a few yards from us,” he wrote.
Through the decades, Big Spring and the lake would become places of interest and locations for picnics, swimming, and baptisms by immersion.
Eventually a farmer who owned the surrounding land tamed the spring by running its waters into a building to cool milk. A pipe coming out of the building carried the water to a small cement tank. The farmer also drained the lake to create more cropland.
During family hikes in the bluffs, Robert often stopped by the spring so that his children could have a sip and hear again the story of how their ancestors had drunk those same waters. He would also walk with them to the top of the bluffs behind Knox. He wanted his sons to feel the same love of the land that he had developed there.
I’m giving the model of the Knox store to the Historical Society so it can be enjoyed by anyone visiting the museum. Perhaps it will help others learn more about Fremont County’s lost towns and the legacy they have given us.
A very quick and easy treat can be made with Peanut Butter Balls. It is a recipe that can be fun to make with young children helping out.
Peanut Butter Balls
1 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 stick butter
3 cups Rice Krispies
1 package chocolate almond bark
Cream together first three ingredients and add Rice Krispies. Make into balls of desired size. Melt the chocolate almond bark. Roll balls in chocolate and place on wax paper to harden.