Transcribed from A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, written and compiled by William E. Connelley, Secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka. [Revised ed.] Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1919, c1918. 5 v. (xlviii, 2530 p., [155] leaves of plates): ill., maps (some fold.), ports.; 27 cm.

Thomas O'Brien

THOMAS O'BRIEN. The O'Brien home is about eight miles south of Bazine in Ness County. The improvements in the way of buildings are so numerous that this single homestead presents almost the experience of a small village. It is the collective enterprise of Thomas O'Brien, who was one of the pioneers in that district, and has been a very successful and influential citizen there for upward of forty years.

He came into Kansas in a covered wagon in company with several other men who were also seeking homes, and he was the only one of them to remain permanently. He drove all the distance from Linn County, Iowa, to Wakarusa, near Topeka, and after a few weeks there arrived in Ness County on August 8, 1878. He filed on his pre-emption the 12th of that month. This was the southwest quarter of section 31, township 19, range 21. For a time he lived in a covered wagon. He broke up some land, and by the 1st of November had finished his dugout and moved his goods into it. This dugout was 14 by 20 feet. It was partly in the ground, and above the surface it was walled up with stone. The roof was covered with willows and sod and dirt. He left openings for windows, but could get no sash nor glass from Larned, forty-five miles away, and during the first winter he stopped up the openings with stone and hung his wagon sheet at the door to allow such ventilation as was required.

In April, 1879, Mr. O'Brien returned to Iowa and then assisted his parents and other members of the family in moving to Kansas. His father homesteaded the southwest quarter of section 6, township 20, range 21. Both Thomas and his brother ran three sod plows during the summer and broke out about 250 acres. That fall a little hay was saved from the prairie grass, and going to Minneapolis, Kansas, the brothers husked corn and brought some of it home for feed. During the same fall they also prepared forty acres and sowed it to wheat, but not a single grain came up and the entire planting was a failure. During the year 1880 they had some corn and all kinds of garden stuff and roughness for stock.

In 1880 Thomas O'Brien left home and began earning money on a construction train for the Santa Fe Railroad. After that he did considerable rock laying, digging of wells and any other employment he could find. For several years he worked out for others in order to sustain himself. At one time he went to Colorado to work as a stone mason on bridges along the Santa Fe Railroad. He returned in June, 1881, in time to harvest a fair crop of wheat. At that time he bought a self-rake reaper, one of the first machines of the kind in the county, and cut the family harvest and also the crops of some of his neighbors. Another year he again found it necessary to go to Colorado and work as a stone mason for the Santa Fe Railroad. At Walsenburg, that state, he put up a stone store building.

Though the crops generally failed during the early '90s, the O'Brien family had secured a sufficient start in cattle and horses to pass them over these hard years, though they had to supplement the income from their farms with labor outside. During the blizzard of 1886 the O'Briens suffered the loss of forty head of cattle in a single night. That was the severest blow Thomas O'Brien ever sustained. Notwithstanding the loss he continued to pin his faith to livestock, and that industry has been his chief support and source of profit. After selling his pre-emption claim Mr. O'Brien bought his home tract, the south half of section 7, township 20, range 21, and there found not only a better water supply but also had his home nearer school advantages. The splendid stone improvements on his farm were all built by himself as a contractor or as individual mason. His residence is a two-story, nine-room house, and besides there are barns for his horses and other stock and numerous smaller buildings. He now owns a complete section of land, and he cultivates 300 acres. As a wheat grower he has reached the maximum of yield in thirty bushels to the acre, and has also attained fifty bushels of oats and fifty bushels of corn to the acre. This showing was made in the season of 1915.

There is no more unselfish and public spirited citizen in Ness County than Thomas O'Brien. He believes in doing for others as well as for himself. The first school house in District No. 1 was a stone building, and he laid the rock to the top of the windows, doing that work free of charge. He has served as a member of the school board for a quarter of a century. He also contributed liberally toward the erection of the Catholic Church nearby, and excavated the foundation.

There was no Ness County organization when he arrived here, and he took a somewhat active part in politics as soon as the proposal to organize a county was begun. He served as trustee of High Point Township five years, in 1910 was elected sheriff of the county and re-elected in 1912. He was the successor in office of Captain Herman. His administration as sheriff was not marked by any exciting adventures and there was no era of local crime, and his arrests were confined to petty law breakers. He did make one trip to Pennsylvania to secure a fugitive, but his official term was largely a matter of routine administration. Since retiring from office he has resumed his place at the head of his splendid farm.

Mr. O'Brien was born in Linn County, Iowa, November 1, 1855. His father, Thomas O'Brien, Sr., was born in Kings County, Ireland, in 1805, and when a youth of nineteen left that country, came to the United States alone, and his first employment was in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. He met his wife in Carbon County of that state and was married there in 1846. After the birth of three children they went West, taking a train from Maunch Chunk to Dubuque, Iowa, and thence went overland into Linn County. Buying land near Anamosa, Thomas O'Brien, Sr., began farming on a modest scale. His home was forty miles from the grist mill at Dubuque and he lived the life of the real pioneer. Both in Iowa and in Kansas he was a democratic voter. In 1879 he came with his family, and also brought some stock in a car, as far as Larned, and as already stated took up a homestead on the southwest quarter of section 6, township 20, range 21. His widow and his son Peter are still making that their home.

Thomas O'Brien, Sr., continued farming after coming to Kansas though most of the responsibilities he turned over to the younger generation. He died in 1881 and is buried in the cemetery near the old home. His was the first house in High Point Township to be covered with a shingle roof. The lumber used in constructing his pioneer home was hauled a distance of forty-five miles from Larned. Thomas O'Brien Sr., helped to organize School District No. 1, the first in Ness County, and served as a director of the school. He was a member of the Catholic Church and in pioneer days attended church at Brown's Grove, eighteen miles away.

Thomas O'Brien, Sr., married Rosanna O'Brien, who was born in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, a daughter of James O'Brien, who also came from Kings County, Ireland. The two families were not related. James O'Brien was a man of many enterprises in Pennsylvania, having some boats on the Lehigh Canal, operated a butcher business, and was also a farmer and merchant. He died in Linn County, Iowa. The maiden name of his wife was Catherine Delaney. Rosanna O'Brien, one of their ten children, was born in July, 1822, four years after her father had come to America. Mrs. O'Brien at the age of ninety-six is as active mentally and physically as many women of seventy.

The children of Thomas and Rosanna O'Brien were: James, who died in Kansas City in 1914, leaving three children; John, who was a soldier in the regular army and was one of the victims of the famous Custer massacre on the Big Horn River in 1876; Margaret, who died in infancy; Maria, who died at Brownsville, Texas, as the wife of William Gavin, leaving one son; Thomas; Peter, the first of the name, who died in infancy; Ellen, Mrs. Warren Kincaid, of Prince Rupert, British Columbia; Peter, the second of the name, who lives on the old homestead with his mother; and Margaret, also living at the old home, the widow of Charles Martin.

Thomas O'Brien, Jr., was married in Ness County May 31, 1886, to Miss Lettie Van Meter. She was born in Jasper County, Iowa, September 13, 1864. Her father, Jesse Van Meter, came out from that county in 1879 and was a pioneer homesteader in Kansas. He was born in Kentucky, while his wife, Sydney See, was a native of Indiana. Mrs. O'Brien is one of seven children, and the only one living in Ness County. Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien have the following children: John W., still at home; Peter F., a soldier in the World war; Rosa, wife of J. O. Narey and the mother of one child named Velma; while the younger children are James Warren, Nellie, Maggie, Jesse, George, Jennie and Mike.

Mr. O'Brien has always followed the fortunes of the democratic party in politics. As already stated he has taken considerable interest in local politics and is known to practically every citizen of Ness County. In the early days, before railroads had come into this section of Kansas, the O'Brien home was a popular stopping place for travelers, it being situated on the main road from Larned to Ness City. He has gone through all the trials and difficulties of the early settlers, and the material independence, the popular esteem and the high regard in which he is held are worthy rewards of a life of so much activity and usefulness.