Lost in the Sandhills historical tour

Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 9:57 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - A story recently brought to life in Thedford and Dunning helps us all remember the challenges settlers faced in adapting to life in the Sandhills.

On May 10th of 1891, eight-year-old Tillie Haumann and her little sister, four-year-old Retta were picking wild flowers one Sunday afternoon and became lost north of Thedford.

“The Haumann family had emigrated from Germany, and they had quite a family of kids,” Thomas County Historical Society member Helen White said. “Some of the children were born in Germany, and some were born after they came to the United States. They had homesteaded out here in the Sandhills, and of course, that was the day before fences and automobiles or anything. One of the older girls was at the neighbor’s house. A couple of younger girls wanted to go visit their sister at the neighbors. They did that. On their way home, they went hunting wildflowers and got off the trail, and were not able to find their way home.”

A search party went out. Three days later, Retta was found. That story was told by various actors in downtown Thedford on Sunday afternoon, May 16, 2021 as part of the “Lost in the Sandhills” program. Russell Licking portrayed “Doc Edmonds”. “This was a hot year,” Licking said. “There was a lot of sunshine, so if you are out all day in the sunshine, no shade trees, nothing to crawl under, you are going to get a little sun on you, and Henrietta showed it.”

Retta survived. The search continued for eight-year-old Tillie. She was not found until three days later, and she did not survive. Tillie is buried in the Thedford cemetery. About eight miles north of Highway 2 there is a marker in the Sandhills that shows visitors generally where her body was found. When you are at the marker, it’s easy to see why the girls got lost. “Even today, if you don’t know where you’re at or where you’re going out here in these hills, there aren’t very many roads,” Thomas County Historical Society member Jay Jones said. “It’s very easy to get disoriented, and if you weren’t from here, you could get lost.”

The “Lost in the Sandhills” tour is an event sponsored by the Thomas County Historical Society and The Sandhills Heritage Museum. The tour started in Thedford, and a caravan of cars traveled to the Dunning Community Center where the program concluded. Organizers hope the tour sparks new interest in the Haumann story. It’s estimated that Tillie walked 75 miles up, down and around the many hills. Relatives came to hear the story again. Vada Haumann’s husband was a brother to the mother of the girls who were lost. Betty Nelson says her aunt was Retta, the girl who survived. “I just remember as a little girl my mom used to sing a song about the girls lost in the Sandhills,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if it was a real song, or if she made it up as she went, but I would sit there and cry, because I felt so bad.”

Although the Haumann story does have a tragic ending, there is an uplifting side. It puts the focus on how the community helped one another. “They just dropped everything that they had,” Sandhills Heritage Museum member Vickie Webb said. “It was early spring, which was a really busy time, and some of the men just left for days. They camped out on the trail, searching for the two girls. The mothers did all of the chores at home, fed the kids, sent food and water out to the searchers, and everybody that was available went out looking. I think it was a great action of the community to respond to whatever the need was. That still happens today.”

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