The Homestead Act of May 1862 permitted "persons 21 years of age or over, or the head of a family," to receive title to 160 acres of government land, providing they would live on and improve the land for five years, or pay $1.25 an acre. Many people bet their lives that they could. Not all succeeded, but lots of them tried. In the late 1870s and early 1880s the first homesteaders came to Blaine County.
Later, in 1904, the Kinkaid Act was passed offering 640 acres in the semi-arid regions of the west, realizing that a living could not be made on only 160 acres. There was still plenty of unclaimed land in this part of Nebraska for the Kinkaiders. Although much could be written of the hardships, sacrifices, and thrilling experiences of the times, many brave-hearted men and women stayed on to claim this land in spite of its many adversities.
The first post office was known as "Lena," established January 14, 1877, at the Van Scycle Ranch, named for Van Scycle's daughter. This was near the future site of Dunning, south of the Dismal River.
In 1886-87 the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad built a bridge across the Dismal River and extended its line up through the area. A town was officially platted by the Lincoln Land Company and named "Dunning" in honor of two brothers, Sam and R.O.Dunning. They did much to develop the town and get the railroad to establish a station at this location. The post office was promptly moved to Dunning from Lena, which soon disappeared from the map.
The town grew rapidly because it was a rail-shipping point for all the settlements around it -- German Valley, Hawley Flats, Pleasant Valley, and Edith Valley. The first store in the new town was stocked by a Mr.Harris. The population in 1900 was 55.
During the time that Dunning was being platted, a depot was built in the west part of town, along with a water tower and a large windmill. The first depot burned down in 1906 and was rebuilt. This depot remained until October 1944 when east bound train #79, struck an oil truck at a grade crossing, throwing burning fuel over the depot, and burning it to the ground within minutes.
Dunning was devastated by frequent fires. One occurred in 1917 which destroyed most of the north side of main street. It was later built up again. The town's location, chosen primarily because it was between two rivers, should have helped save it from this situation. However, when it comes to fires, flowing water is not the same as water pressure.
In the late 1940s, Dunning, with a population more than twice that of Brewster, made a bid for the county seat. The issue was defeated at the November election. Residents of the eastern part of the county campaigned successfully to hold on to the position, and the necessary two-thirds majority could not be attained.
In 1971 it was decided to consolidate the county's high schools. This time Dunning was chosen as the site for the new school building, and given the name "Sandhills Public Schools."
Dunning's centennial was celebrated in 1987. At one time the town boasted a population of around 400 souls, but has suffered the same fate of many other small towns in the state, because of the Depression and out-migration during the war years of the 1940s, followed by the regression of the present times. The present population is 160.
Dunning, incorporated in or around the year 1947, continues to be "the metropolis" of Blaine County.
By Al Schipporeit, Blaine County Historical Society, Box 21, Brewster, NE 68821.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The History of Blaine County, 1988, by the Historical Society of Blaine County