Chadron State College
Chadron State College

Coffee family's legacy to Chadron State continues, is older than the college

Mar 9, 2015

Bill and Virginia Coffee were strong supporters of Chadron State College, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Charles F. Coffee.
Bill and Virginia Coffee were strong supporters of Chadron State College, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Charles F. Coffee.

In 1935 during the funeral for Charles F. Coffee, Chadron State College’s eminent history professor E. P. Wilson was quoted as saying, “It will not be possible 50 or 100 years from now to write the pioneer history of eastern Wyoming or western Nebraska without recognizing Col. Coffee’s far-reaching influence.”

Eighty years later, those words are definitely true. In fact, over the years because of the prominence and generosity of Coffee’s descendants, they have been enhanced.  Chadron State College, in particular, has benefited from that legacy.  The Coffee Cattlemen’s Gallery is a prominent feature of the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center at CSC and the college is making good use of the Coffee Pavilion, the first phase of the Rangeland Complex that is now under construction.

No person or family has been more closely associated with Chadron State through the years than the Coffees. It’s a story that bears retelling because of its importance to the college and its development from a fledgling normal school that opened in 1911 to train teachers into a comprehensive, full-fledged institution with more than 50 bachelor’s degree programs and eight master’s degrees programs.

While much has changed in the past 130 years since white man began settling western Nebraska, one thing has remained the same: The area’s rich rangeland, plentiful water supplies and rugged, yet negotiable, topography makes it one of the world’s best places to raise beef.

That’s what attracted Charles Coffee and continues to draw men and women who embrace the challenges and the benefits of producing one of the most enjoyed and palatable sources of protein and sustenance. Whether it’s a beef steak, a roast and or a hamburger, these items remain among America’s favorite foods.

The Coffee family was living in Missouri and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.  After the fighting ceased they moved to Georgetown, Texas. That was in the midst of the nation’s cattle country in that era, but word soon spread that there were better ranges to the north.

By then in his early adult years, Charles Coffee was involved in three cattle drives up the Texas Trail.  He was a partner with A.H. Webb of the third herd.  They planned to sell the Longhorns in Cheyenne, but retained them when the market was determined to be unfavorable. Thus, they pastured the critters in the Goshen Hole area to eastern Wyoming and obtained a contract to sell 60 head a month to Fort Laramie.

Six years later, Coffee, with the help of 35 cowboys, pushed 3,000 head of cattle into the Hat Creek Valley in what would become Sioux County, Neb., arguably as good a place to ranch as there is anywhere.

His plans were to supply beef to the U.S. Army that was trying to protect the miners and homesteaders, the Black Hills mining towns and the American Indians whose buffalo herds had been diminished by zealous overhunting that no one has ever been able to logically explain.

When the railroad reached Chadron in 1885, Coffee was the first to use that means of transportation to ship cattle to the Omaha Stockyards.

In 1900, Coffee traded 2,000 cow and calf pairs to Bartlett Richards for the finest home in Chadron and ownership of the First National Bank. Richards used the cattle to stock his sprawling Spade Ranch that was located in the midst of another exceptional place to raise cattle—the Nebraska Sandhills.

Not coincidentally, both Coffee and Richards were inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City many years after their deaths.  Coffee was honored in 1966 and Richards in 1970.  The Hall of Great Westerners also includes James Dahlman, the Dawes County sheriff 1887-92 and Chadron mayor 1892-94 and later the “cowboy mayor” of Omaha, along with author Mari Sandoz, whose induction occurred in 1998.

After moving to Chadron, Charles Coffee became extremely active in the community while maintaining his ranching interests and operating banks in Chadron, Harrison, Hay Springs and Gordon. During the 1909 legislative session, he spent three weeks in Lincoln lobbying for the passage of a measure that would place a teacher training institution in the Sixth Congressional District, comprised of the northern tiers of counties in Nebraska from Ainsworth to the west.

When the bill passed, he was designated by the Chadron Commercial Club as co-leader of efforts to promote the community as the site for the school “whenever and wherever possible.”

That effort succeeded when Chadron was chosen in early 1910 as the location for the new “Nebraska State Normal School,” now Chadron State College. Coffee then was named chairman of the committee to purchase land for the college’s location and a couple of decades later headed the corporation that was formed to secure a loan to construct Edna Work Hall, the school’s first major dormitory.

In between those two assignments, Coffee also demonstrated his steadfast support of the college in another, more casual, way. He was among the dyed-in-the-wool football fans who accompanied the team to Boulder in 1925 when the Eagles beat the University of Colorado 3-0 for one of the college’s most celebrated athletic achievements.

In 1996 when Chadron State launched a fund drive to renovate and expand its football stadium, Coffee’s grandson Bill and his wife Virginia contributed $25,000 to the project in memory of the pioneer rancher/banker. It was one of several contributions that the third generation Coffees made to the college through the years.

Virginia, was a native of Alliance and graduated from Chadron State in 1942, shortly before the couple was married. They operated the Hat Creek and Warbonnet Ranches the remainder of their lives. Their four daughters and families now own the picturesque spreads.

It’s fitting that the ranches remain in the family. About the time Charles and his wife, also named Virginia, moved from Harrison to Chadron at the turn of the century, the pioneer rancher put their oldest son, John, in charge of the Hat Creek operation as well as the ranch that belonged to Charles’s brother, Buff, who died in 1900, making that a memorable year for the Coffee family, both good and bad.

The Coffee and Son partnership was formed in 1902.  John reportedly was paid the same as the other top hands on the ranch--$30 a month.  In 1940, John added the Warbonnet Ranch to the holdings. His father had put him in charge of the Sioux National Bank in 1925. John sold the Harrison bank in 1945 and was in his mid-70s when he died in 1959. His younger brother, Frank, ran the First National Bank until shortly before his death in ’69.

Grandson Bill, who reportedly told his father rather emphatically that he did not want to be a banker, focused his entire life on ranching.  A powerfully built person with a large, friendly personality, he raised both outstanding cattle and Quarter horses. During the 1950s and ‘60s his horses won at least 100 championships in the region, including four consecutive gelding grand championships at the Wyoming State Fair with four different horses with the square top 3 brand. He also maintained a herd of “wild horses” into the 21st century.

Bill could tough it out when that was necessary, such as during the Blizzard of 1949.

According to a story written by Moni Hourt in the mid-1990s, when the blizzard struck, Bill, Virginia and their daughters were living on the Warbonnet Ranch, but the cattle were at the Hat Creek Ranch, eleven miles to the east.  

Bill knew he had to go there because that’s where the cattle were being wintered and the hired man had left for New Years and wouldn’t be able to get back.

Ironically, none of the prize winning horses was in the barn or corrals and Bill had to saddle a molly mule and head east. The mule tried to buck him off, but he rode her into deeper snow.

He made it to his destination, but his next two months were desperate as the region experienced its harshest winter since the late 1880s and none of them since can compare to it. He had no electricity, no companionship, not much food and lots of work to accomplish.  The Jersey milk cow’s udder had frozen and burst, so he butchered her. That was his food supply.

Thankfully, he was able to get a TD14 International crawler started to open trails and shove the snow away from haystacks. According to Hourt’s story, in order to reach cattle on the other side of what the Coffees called Boggy Creek, he pushed some cottonwoods over to form a bridge.  But on his return trip, he missed the edge and buried “the cat” in about 30 feet of snow.

He was finally able to get it out of the gully and fed the cattle by pitching lots of loose hay. Most of the cattle survived, thanks in part to the protection that the trees and canyons provided. Another plus was the fact that the telephone lines, some of which were still on fence posts, continued working so he could keep in contact with Virginia.  She eventually ran out of fuel at the Warbonnet and was taken to Harrison by an Army weasel to buy groceries and other goods.

Not too long after things got back to normal, Bill and Virginia moved into his parents’ home in Harrison after the older couple built a new home on Main Street.

The Coffees were among the leaders starting a facility to tell the story of the development of the cattle industry when the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center was being developed at Chadron State in the early 2000s.  Bill and Virginia joined the Charles and Barbara Marcy family and the First National Bank of Chadron in making the initial contributions.  

Named the Charles F. Coffee Cattlemen’s Gallery, it is located on the lower level of the heritage center and has been described as “a great little museum” that isn’t overwhelming, but has numerous facets and is already regarded as being an exceptional research facility. 

“We’re interested in telling the story of the industry because we think it is important to the region,” Bill was quoted as saying when it was announced that the gallery would be a reality. It opened in 2007.

One of the main features is a history of the open range and the huge, colorful ranches that emerged. It also includes an illustration of the trails that brought cattle to the region, the introduction of British breeds and how the railroad was used to both ship cattle to eastern markets and bring in homesteaders who took over much of the land, leading to today’s more compact ranches that are usually measured in terms of acrs, not sections or townships.

Other facets include the impact that banks have had in ranching, the involvement of women, displays of the equipment used by the cowboys more than a century ago, an extensive library that contains some publications no longer in circulation and even the replica of a bunkhouse that was the cowboys’ home on the range.  

“It’s continually being upgraded and expanded,” said Tammy Littrel of Chadron, a rancher, history specialist and the gallery’s research historian. We are always receptive when ranch families want to add their stories to our history collection.”

The Coffee Pavilion is the latest facility with a western motif on campus. During the ground-breaking ceremony in September 2102, it was announced that the Coffees had provided the naming gift to launch the construction.

Virginia, who received the college’s Distinguished Service Award in 1999, said the family once again was proud to support the project because of its importance to agriculture. She also said her husband, who died in 2005, believed the region had given him much and he wanted to reciprocate.

The 25,150-square foot pavilion opened in 2013, about the same time as Virginia passed away at age 92. It is seen as an invaluable addition to the rangeland, livestock, equine and wildlife management courses that Chadron State offers, providing space for live animal demonstrations, workshops and exhibitions. The highly-successful CSC rodeo team uses it almost daily for practice.

The pavilion was phase 1 of the college’s Rangeland Complex. Phase II is now under construction. It will include laboratories and classrooms to support Chadron State’s range management curriculum that has become one of the college’s most popular programs.

Cost of the predominantly state-funded project is $3.8 million. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.

—Con Marshall