Sam Shepard arrived in Jackson County from Virginia in 1824 with his master, James Shepard. Sam was a big man who was very proficient with a broad axe. In the pioneer days it was a big job to chop out a civilization from the wilderness, and the pioneer’s slaves were very instrumental in that task. They were also taught the use of firearms so they could be depended upon to bring home game or fight off the Indians if necessary. In those early days the only meat on the table was wild game. Of course, there was no electric refrigeration, so people had to salt down meat in order to preserve it for any length of time. The salt was found east of here in Saline County.

After the salt was mined, the water had to be boiled out of it, which took a great deal of firewood. Mr. Shepard used to hire Sam out to the salt makers during the long winter months to cut cordwood. Sam considered cutting four cords of wood each day only a fair day’s work. That’s a lot of wood.

Independence was named the county seat and immediately needed a courthouse the first thing. Sam was called upon to hew the logs for a log cabin courthouse until a contract could be issued for a permanent brick structure on the town square. Sam did such a good job; it still stands to this day. The 1827 log courthouse was originally built on the corner of Lynn and Lexington streets, one block east of the square. After only a couple of years, it was abandoned for a new brick courthouse. It was then used for a residence for a while and a warehouse, but was eventually moved to its present location on West Kansas Street and restored for county use. Harry Truman used it for his office as county judge during the re-construction of the present day town square courthouse. The old master died about 1853, and Sam was sold to Edwin Hickman, who operated a saw mill near where Fairmount is located today on U.S. 24. Another early settler, Lewis Jones, operated the Nebraska House, a hotel on the northwest corner of the square. Jones wanted to hire Sam and his famous broad axe to hew a big post for a sign in front of the hotel. A tall, perfectly straight white oak tree, nearly 30 feet high to the first limb was located, cut, and hauled into town. Jones told Sam, “Now Sam, I want this log hewed to a six sided post and I don’t want the marks of an axe left on it. If you do a first class job, I will make you a present of a nice hat and a new pair of shoes when it is done; and I will go to the bar keeper over there and tell him if you want a few drinks while you are at the job, to let you have what you want and not charge you anything for it.” From the time Sam began, until he finished, there was always a crowd of 50 to 100 people standing there watching. When he was done, a wood frame was mortised into the top of it with a free hanging sign in the frame. A picture of a huge buffalo was painted on one side and an Indian on the other side. The sign swung in the breeze until after the Civil War. During the war Sam fled to Lawrence, Kan., to escape slavery and lived there with his family until he was well past 100. His portrait at 105 years of age hangs in the old restored log cabin courthouse, one block south of the Independence Square.

Ref: A Rich Heritage, William J. Curtis

Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups. To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to or call him at 816-252-9909.