Eugene “Gene” Arnold Thornton, 93, passed away July 25, 2023, at home south of Crawford surrounded by his wife and daughters.
Gene was born March 20, 1930, to Fred and Mary Jane Lovell Thornton on the family farm in the same house where he died. The house was built by his grandfather, William Thornton in 1894, on his homestead, which was the site of the White Clay Stage Station. Gene lived and worked on the homestead most of his life. He started school at rural school district 60 four miles south of Crawford, Nebraska, graduated from Crawford High School in 1948, and attended Chadron State College for one semester.
Gene married his high school sweetheart, Bettirae LaVon Holder, September 9, 1950, and resided in Crawford. To this union four children were born: Shelley Jean, Debra Sue, James Fredrick, and Cynthia Rae. Gene held various jobs off the farm including surveying for the soil conservation service, dropping explosives in the holes while working with a seismograph crew test-drilling for oil, pumping gas and changing oil at local gas stations, and working at Abe Chicoine’s Ford Garage spraying undercoat on new cars and installing seat covers. Years later, he worked at the Crawford Implement installing seat covers.
After his father’s death in 1957, Gene moved his family to the farm where he took over the farming and ranching. He raised Hereford cattle, but later switched to Black Angus. Over the years he raised wheat, oats, alfalfa hay, corn; and was a steward of the family homestead fixing fence around the perimeter and warding off poachers. He mostly maintained, repaired, and rebuilt the farm equipment and vehicles himself having overhauled tractors, cars, pickups and trucks. In the wintertime it was common to smell John Deere paint from the drying parts by the kitchen woodstove. He also obtained several bicycles, rebuilt them, and enjoyed riding them around town and out at Fort Robinson. Whenever grandkids were around, he’d load up the bikes and kids in his Chevy Silverado pickup and head to town. Gene worked hard at stacking bales by hand, teaching the daughters how to run equipment and build decent hay stacks, feeding the cattle hay on cold winter mornings, moving snow to open driveways and roadways, and occasionally pulling out folks; including the wife and daughters stuck in snowdrifts or ditches, and watching over cows during calving in the frigid winter. He would bundle up, pump-up and light a kerosene lantern, and head out in the dark on cold, snowy nights to check the cows; sometimes having to rescue a newborn calf from the icy creek or pull a calf when a mother was having trouble.
Gene had many interests and hobbies; as well as being extremely knowledgeable, skilled and talented. He belonged to the Crawford Chamber of Commerce, served on the Rural Fire Department board, the District 60 school board and occasionally donned the Santa suit at Christmas programs, and was a member of the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. He was mechanical, industrious, creative, and liked to learn about local history. Since the Sidney-Deadwood Trail passed by the farm, he researched its history, and as a member of the Crawford Historical Society, went on an excursion with others to trace the trail ruts and locate relay station sites along the route from Sidney to Deadwood, created signs and helped place them near the sites. The William Thornton family lived in the old White Clay Relay Station until it burned in December, 1893. After that, Gene’s grandfather built the farmhouse; over the years, they built the barn, out-buildings and sheds.
Gene’s family had a pond up the creek where they cut ice in the winter and sold to folks for their iceboxes. They ran a sawmill up the creek and cut lumber for selling or building using a steam engine. Gene bought the components of a more modern sawmill in the 70’s, put it together, built the housing from native pine, and powered it off the Allis-Chalmers tractor. He did some custom sawing and built two rooms onto the old house with the help of Jerry Lindblom and cousin, Paul Lovell, using native pine he sawed with the mill. He enjoyed building and woodworking and built sheds for farm equipment, corrals and feed bunkers and winter hay storage. He was always on the lookout for a ‘nice’ piece of wood or old fence post. He made many clocks and other decorative items such as sconces, candleholders, toys and signs for several people. Many may recall a sign he made, ‘The Iron Works,’ above the door of the Crawford Implement. He participated in the annual Woodcutting Contest held in Crawford and was a champion woodcutter with his chainsaw and cross-cut saw with Jerry Lindblom.
Other pastimes included his enthusiasm for CB Radio with ‘Breakneck’ as his handle. He liked to listen to the chatter of truck drivers on the highway and had friends and family members to converse with. He loved country music and collected albums of his favorite artists including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Charlie Pride, Tammy Wynnette and George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Jeannie C. Riley and many others. He got to see several artists in person at concerts. He audio-taped the historical live satellite broadcast of Elvis Presley’s Aloha from Hawaii. He played the trombone in high school band and tried his hands at boxing. He liked to swim and recalled the spring and creek-fed pond up the creek his dad constructed for ice in the winter and a swimming hole in the summer. When Gene was young and had not learned to swim yet, the Parrish boys came to swim and Darrel Parrish threw him in and it was sink or swim. He enjoyed swimming at area lakes and dams, Cascade Falls and Evan’s Plunge in South Dakota, and he’d really holler loud when he went down the big slide. Afterwards, he’d hang his swimming trunks on the car antenna to dry while driving. One hot afternoon in summer when some grandkids were visiting the farm, Gene came in from working in the field, went in the house, put on his swimming trunks and came running outside yelling excitedly jumping in the kiddie pool to cool off. They all had a good laugh.
Gene’s other interests included going to the annual Black Hills Steam Shows with Paul Lovell, and in Crawford he won first place at an antique tractor pulling contest with his dad’s Allis-Chalmers. He took in the Cheyenne Frontier Days event several times, traveled to Lovell family reunions with his Uncle Rusty, and he recalled as a youngster his dad taking him to the World’s Fair at San Franciso’s Treasure Island. Towards the end of his life, he said he’d been to many places and saw many sights, but never got to Texas, North Dakota nor east of the Missouri River. Gene and Bettirae were members of The Grand Squares and square danced at several locations around the area and at Cheyenne during Frontier Days. Gene enjoyed western TV shows and movies. His favorite actor was John Wayne and he collected many of his movies. Additionally, he liked to read and talk about true historical western characters who hung around Nebraska and South Dakota including Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Middleton.
Gene retired from farming some years ago. He no longer did woodworking; although he turned clocks and other items on the ShopSmith for family and friends. He was a man of many talents and a hard worker. He will be missed by his wife Bettirae, daughters: Shelley (Paul) Roby of rural Crawford, Debra (Bill) Mack of rural Harrison, Cynthia (Benjamin) Herrera of Crawford; grandchildren: Julie Graham of Arvada, CO, Jay (Jennifer) Mack of Liberty Hill, TX, Barry (Kendra) Mack of Gering, NE, Shane (Misty) Mack of Lincoln, NE, Laura (Montana) Button of Harrison, NE, Christopher Herrera of Conroe, TX, Alicia Herrera of Twentynine Palms, CA, and Brittany (Aaron) McArthur of Broken Arrow, OK; 17 great-grandchildren, many nieces and nephews, including Jack and Roy Garner, and Patty (Melvin) Jones; numerous extended family members, relatives, friends, and hunters.
Among those preceding Gene in death are his infant son, James Fredrick Thornton, his parents, sisters: Rosemary Ione Stansbury and Dorothy Joan (Verne) Basse, half-siblings: Vernon Thornton, Madge Close, Esta Soden, Thelma Riddle, Ruth Garner, Irene Thornton, Hazel McCune, and Leonard Thornton, his grandparents, numerous aunts and uncles from the Thornton and Lovell families, cousin, Paul Lovell, and many other relatives and close friends. Gene lived a long life blessed with generally good health and abounding strength and mostly blessed with those he knew and loved.
Gene’s family wishes to express their deepest appreciation to the Hospice staff from Chadron Community Hospital for their loving support. Also, they wish to thank Father Arul for visiting Gene in person at home giving last rites and communion.
A graveside service will take place September 15th at 10:00 a.m. at the Crawford Cemetery with Father Arul officiating; followed by lunch and sharing memories at the parish hall at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Crawford, Nebraska. Friends are welcome to join the family at the service and lunch.
In lieu of flowers, please donate in memory of Gene to your choice: Home Health and Hospice at Chadron Community Hospital, Crawford Historical Society or Crawford Fire Department. Chamberlain Funeral Home arranged cremation.