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The Leap

 



Past

Legends, myths, and romantic accounts of a bygone era surround a very special place the looms large in any glance backward at Fullerton's historic past. "The Leap" has played a significant role in the growing up of generation after generation of Fullerton's children.

It was prominent in Indian lore. It was the backdrop and the setting for three decades of spirited summer Chautauqua shows. It provided a cool green shelter from the hot summer winds while the old Chautauqua grounds served the spiritual needs of participants in the Baptist Bible Camp activities for several years. Although now privately owned by Douglas & Darla Russell and known as Broken Arrow Wilderness it still furnishes opportunities for social gatherings such as family reunions, weddings in the Chapel, receptions, banquets etc….and just maybe to contemplate the rich history that seems to emanate from the earth itself.

One early reference to this place used the name "Buffalo Leap". It was not uncommon for Indians to drive small herds of buffalo off such cliffs as highly effective hunting technique. The name "Loon's Leap" was also a common name, coming from the Indian legend concerning a Pawnee chief and his sweetheart who supposedly leaped to their deaths from the highest point on the rim of the formation.

"The Leap" was also known for a time as Cedar Bluff, and under that name played a noteworthy part in the history of Fullerton and of the State of Nebraska. The earliest recorded history of this area was written by Mrs. Elvira Gaston Platte, and published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1892. Mrs. Platte was an old-time missionary pioneer who, along with a tiny group of family and like-minded companion, first "set foot on Nebraska soil" on June 24th, 1843. They settled along Plum creek and seemed to develop a good relationship with the Indians. This group held the first formal 4th of July Celebration known to have been held in the state at the bluff overlooking the Cedar River, then known as the Willow Creek.

Her words best describe the event.
"We of Plum Creek were off very early in the morning (of July 4th, 1844)
to Willow Creek settlement, five miles away, where we were to breakfast with our friends the Mathers. Five children belonging to the different mission families were my pupils for that season. These were fitted with Regalia, and Henery M. Allis was banner bearer for the occasion. Our point of rendezvous was Cedar Bluff, a height overlooking the Willow (Cedar) where Fullerton. Nance County now stands. The young men of our party, with aid of two Indian boys who accompanied us built bower of cedar branches from the trees near by. Our banner was planted on the edge of the precipice 200 feet from the water below, and our little company gave themselves up to the enjoyments of the hour, feasting our eyes on the wondrous beauty of the landscape before us. Blessed above most county seats is that of Nance County for views of delight. After leaving that region my heart always turned to that spot as the most desirable for making a home."

"After an hour or two spent in rambling and chatting our company was called to seat under the bower. Where spread was a collation very inviting to hungry wanderers. Before eating we had a short exercise, and though I do not find it recorded in my journal, I have the impression that L.W. Platte read the 'Declaration of Independence' and Mr. James Mathers gave a short exercises 'America' and an original poem were sung, prayer was offered, and before partaking of the feast the blessing of the Almighty God upon us was invoked by Mr. Allis. On our return home the large residue of our feast was left at the Indian village for the old and infirm who were unable to go on the hunt."

The more recent title of "Lover's Leap" had its beginnings in 1857 when a small party of five people camped beneath the Leap while on their way west. The party had come from Illinois and consists of John Edgington, his wife, and daughter Nellie, accompanied by two brothers, Frank and John Wickland.

Frank and Nellie were engaged, and would have married earlier if Mr. Edgington hadn't insisted that Frank achieved "a start in life" first. The prospect of a homestead and the "challenge of the west" brought them to where they camped that night.

The oxen were unhitched from the two wagons and the men caught fish from the Cedar River which then ran almost directly beneath "The Leap." While they were eating they watched a small herd of deer become suddenly spooked and run wildly away from the river where they had been drinking. A dog ran from the bushes and looked behind him as if to see his master follows.

The little party was sure Indians had discovered them and prepared to stay on guard all night. About two in the morning a single Indian sneaked into camp to scout the situation and, being revealed by a cloud moving away from the moon, hurried back into the bushes.

Shortly thereafter the Indians attacked and captured the five pioneers. The livestock was killed, the wagons were burned and the Indians indicated their intentions of killing the people. The chief indicated that Nellie was to be spared, presumably as "His Squaw."

Frank Wickland offered a frenzied protest to the chief and Nellie herself requested death with the rest of the prisoners. Angry at this, the chief derisively said that if the young man was so brave and wanted to take such good care of the woman he could have her if he would ride "down the bank." The "bank" (Leap) has a drop of 283 feet around the turn of the century, and the constant cutting of the Cedar River kept it steep and sharp.

Frank astounded the Chief by agreeing to the bargain with little hesitation. He extracted a promise that the rest of the party would not he harmed and climbed on an Indian pony. His hands were freed, and among cries and tears from his companions he was led to the top of the hill. He rode over the brink and fell to his death in full view of the rest of the party. The Indians silently released the party and left. Frank was buried near where he fell and the party left when morning came.

Early settlers perpetuated this story and it was reportedly confirmed by some of the survivors who returned some years later.

"Lover's Leap" and the land around it was purchased by Randall Fuller in 1878 during the sale of the Indian Lands when the Pawnee were sent to Oklahoma. Fuller cared for oak undergrowth and eventually a 40 acre forest of fine timber was the result. In 1897, Mr. Fuller gave the use of the grounds for the purpose of holding Chautauqua's. For years thereafter, it was known as Fuller's Park and was open to the public nearly all year-round.

A Chautauqua is a festival-like gathering of people to socialize and to be entertained by traveling musicians, actors, lecturers, evangelists, politicians and circuses. The event lasted from 10 days to two weeks and featured afternoon and evening shows of great variety.

The camp grounds were alive with people each paying about $2.50 for "season tickets" or 50 cents for a single admission. Many people built summer cabins in the cool shady area, but most people just rented a tent for the two weeks ($4.50). The price was $ 8.50 if one wanted a board floor. Meals were served from a big circus tent and there was all morning to relax, or take a leisurely boat ride down the placidly lazy Cedar River. (One could rent a rowboat for 50 cents or get a ride on a bit larger boat for 25 cents.) 40 to 50 tents were usually erected at first, with dozens added as necessary. Campers, along with the local daily admissions, created crowds in the hundreds to watch the performances or hear the debated echo off the curved walls of "Lover's Leap." One could even take a dip in the "Swimming Pool" provided for the campers or even play tennis on the temporary courts.

Chautauqua's were held all over the U.S., and the Chautauqua circuit lined up a certain number of very famous people along with entertainment acts to increase crowds and further the educational as well as the entertainment goals of the organization.
Fullerton hosted such celebrities as Billy Sunday (the Billy Graham of his day); William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson; the Hon. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy during WW I; and Lillian Gish, the silent movie queen who stared n the first full length silent movie "Birth of the Nation." Ringling Brothers circus did two performances here, as did off-Broadway plays and touring vaudeville acts.

By 1917, the Fullerton Chautauqua Association had purchased another 90 acres of land to expand its facilities. They had acquired ownership of the original site from the Randall Fuller estate and had put themselves into excellent financial shape. Excursion trains had nearly been replaced by auto transportation and more participants meant greater needs.

WWI brought a patriotic theme to the program for 1918 Soldiers and veterans in uniform were admitted free. A spur-of-the-moment demonstration of patriotism was displayed by placing dummy figures of Kaiser Wilhelm and General Von Hindenberg in a seven-passenger touring car and setting it to run off "The Leap" at a high speed. The event seemed to please on-lookers greatly.

People from several states came to spend their vacations at this the largest Chautauqua in Nebraska, and "the best one between Omaha and Denver." Excursion trains arrived three times daily during the Chautauqua's of the 1912-1920 era. They came from nearly every direction. Round trip fare from Columbus, for example, cost $ 1.40 and took 11/2 hours one way. The town furnished cars to take participants to the camp. The three hotels filled quickly as all the tents were rented. Rooms were $2 per day.

Restaurants were packed, and the town kids sold lemonade and "other refreshments" to the thirsty and impatient people who walked from downtown to the camp for the afternoon show. Literally thousands of people attended during each Chautauqua season. The atmosphere was one of excitement and anticipation. Friendly people greeted friendly people and enjoyed the beauty, each other, and life in general.

The three-decade span of the Fullerton Chautauqua Association (1898-1929) gave much to Fullerton. Besides bringing tourism and an element of fame, it reflected the admirable character of the people of the community. The non-profit organization provided much more entertainment to the people. Any surplus money left over each year was donated for the building of roads and public works to bring improvement.

The automobile, which was such help in swelling attendance of the yearly festivals at first, became the eventual instrument of its decline. The better and more reliable the eventual instrument of its decline. The better and more reliable cars of the late 1920's decline. The better and more reliable cars of the late 1920's permitted longer trips and the prospect of a vacation trip to the mountains, "back east", or even the coast was within nearly everyone's gasp. The luster of the once-great Chautauqua shows slowly dimmed. They became shorter and less well-attended. They began to incur financial losses and finally faded away into history; tucked neatly away in the treasured memories of those who knew and loved them.



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