While living in a crude dugout on the bank of a creek, Silas Garber founded the city of Red Cloud, Nebraska, established Webster County, was elected county judge, was appointed register of public lands, operated a general store and was elected governor of Nebraska.
Silas Garber was born in 1833 in Ohio where he grew up and attended school. At 17 he moved to Iowa where he became a farmer and married in 1857. In 1861, Garber joined the Union Army’s Missouri Infantry during the Civil War rising to the rank of sergeant. In 1862, he reenlisted in the 27th Iowa as a lieutenant, becoming a captain the following year. While he was active in the Civil War, his wife died.
Immediately following the war, having fought in eight decisive battles, he moved to California for four years working as a miner and merchant. After returning briefly to Iowa, then stopping for a short time in Guide Rock, Nebraska, Garber and his brother began exploring western Nebraska. In 1870, he filed for the first homestead in western Jefferson County, which later spun off, becoming today’s Webster County.
That August he built a stockade on his land on the east side of Crooked Creek as protection from possible Indian attacks, broke the first land by plow in the county and that fall constructed a crude dugout/sod house on the site of the former stockade. The same year Garber announced plans for a town on 80 acres of his land to be named Red Cloud. Aside from farming, Garber also began trading and became known for his “square dealing with Indians” as well as settlers.
At a meeting held in the dugout in 1871, Webster County was calved from Jefferson County, then at the first election, again in the dugout, 45 voters elected him county probate judge and set the county seat on his claim with the crude house becoming the temporary county courthouse as well as the first schoolhouse. That November, Garber paid $25 for the first liquor license in the county and bought the log general store at what would become Third and Webster streets from John Penny.
The following year Red Cloud was platted on his land, and Garber built a frame building on the southeast corner of Fourth and Webster for a more proper courthouse. In the fall of 1872, when he was elected to the Nebraska Legislature representing Webster, Nuckolls and Thayer counties, Garber sold his interest in the general store and devoted himself to the interests of the western parts of Nebraska and fought Omaha and eastern Nebraska control of state politics.
Hardly had his tenure at the Legislature started when, in 1873, he was “nearly unanimously” elected Nebraska’s third state governor over his Democrat opponent, in spite of personal misgivings. An early speech pointed out his concern that the future of the state depended on “discreet and prudent management [ignoring the tendency] of over legislation, over taxation.” That June Garber traveled to California, married Lyra Wheeler, whom he had met on his earlier visit there, and brought her to Lincoln, where they lived in the Tiechnor House Hotel while a house was being completed for them on the southwest corner of 11th and H streets.
In 1875, Garber was reelected governor and was made vice president of the Red Cloud National Bank, which he reorganized as the Farmers & Merchants Bank with himself as president. With his second term as governor expiring in 1878, Garber was urged to run again, but he declined and moved back to Red Cloud to a new one-and-a-half story, five-bedroom frame home on a five-acre site in the middle of a cottonwood grove near the old dugout on Crooked Creek, using lumber he imported by ox teams from Grand Island 60 miles away.
Following the depression of 1890, Garber’s Farmers & Merchants Bank was briefly the only surviving financial institution in the city and had just moved into a new three-story stone building, but sadly that bank also failed in 1893.
With the beginning of the 20th century, Garber's health began to deteriorate, possibly from an accident incurred in Lincoln as his term as governor ended. Health issues were augmented by a weakening personal financial situation and both husband and wife kept more and more to themselves with ever-decreasing away-from-home activities.
Silas Garber died Jan. 12, 1905, but lived on as the model for Willa Cather’s Captain Forrester in "A Lost Lady." The frame house burned in 1925, the bank building became city offices, then was purchased by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Foundation and is now used as their headquarters and museum.