Potash Plant – Merriman, Nebraska
This story came from A SANDHILL CENTURY, Book I, The Land, 1883-1983, compiled by the Cherry County Historical Society
Potash was imported from Germany before World War I to be used in the manufacture of gun powder, fertilizer, glass, and soap. The supply was cut off by the war. Alkaline lakes in the Nebraska Sandhills were known to have this substance, and in 1914 nearly a dozen refineries were constructed along the Burlington Railroad in southern Sheridan County.
The William Berg Company sold one million dollars worth of stock in a potash venture in Merriman. Many of the investors were local ranchers and merchants. It was to be the largest plant in the state, and would employ about 200 men with a payroll of $30,000. They built a mess hall and bunkhouses for Japanese help, and built company dwellings with a promise of many more. Water was pumped through a 10-inch cypress wood tongue-and-groove pipeline from ponds near Gay Lake, 12 miles west of town.
The headlines on August 2, 1918 in the MERRIMAN MAVERICK read: “Prospects Look Bright for Merriman.” In late November of that year, the company had a Thanksgiving dinner and listed 47 single men who were fed. They gave turkeys to 15 married men and 22 more to Japanese workers.
Headlines of December 27, 1918 read: “Potash Plant Starts Producing,” and on January 19, 1919 it was: “First Shipment of Potash Billed Out Today.”
In February of 1919 the name was changed to Merriman Potash Products Company. William Chipley, Charles Wohlberg, and Charles Dundey resigned as members of the board of directors. Arthur Bowring was elected president to replace Dundey. Hugh Williams of Omaha replaced Chipley and Edward Kaminski, cashier of American State Bank, replaced Wohlberg. A petition filed in district court asked for an accounting of half a million dollars.
The plant was converted to a fertilizer factory. They resumed work in October working one shift of 12 hours a day and expected to be working 200 men by summer, but as yet hadn’t turned out any fertilizer. The Antioch plant [in southern Sheridan County] was producing 70 percent of the potash used in the world, according to the MAVERICK.
Because of a coal strike, they were forced to shut down again but were able to load out their first car in November. They closed again in December.
Another half a million dollars of stock was issued, and they reopened in February. The February 27, 1920 MAVERICK declared: “The Merriman Potash Products Co. has signed orders for more than 15,000 tons of material only part of which can be accepted for shipment this season. However, the capacity of their plant will be increased this year and indications are they will never again be denied a market for their fertilizer material at a price sufficient to make adequate returns on money invested.”
The MAVERICK headline on May 7, 1920 read: “Potash Plant Closed.” Each time the plant was closed Merriman was without lights because the light plant was at the potash plant.
The headline on May 20, 1921 read: “Potash Promoters in Clutch of Law.” Wohlberg and Masse were arrested for using the mails to defraud. McWhorter, “the big fish,” fled to Mexico and Chipley was in New York with a millionaire brother. “All of these will be arrested sooner or later. This is one of the biggest swindles in Nebraska history,” according to post office inspector Coble.
Wohlberg, Masse, and McWhorter were convicted in the federal court in Omaha in March of 1922. Dundey was deceased and A.L. Kriess, manager of the concern, “saved his hide” by turning states evidence. The satisfaction of seeing the promoters convicted was all that the stockholders got out of the fraud.
Jacob Klein was the foreman of the wrecking crew that tore the building down in 1923.
Information from MERRIMA MAVERICK, Alex Scott, and Kenneth Quible