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Nebraska...Our Towns

Johnstown

Brown County

Brown County Fair grounds, 1988
A bird's eye view of main street around 1900. [Harris]
Main street, photographed in 1988. [Harris]
Miss Nebraska 1974 was Miss Sharon Sue Pelc of Johnstown, pictured here with her friend, Oliver.

John Berry, a surveyor and land-buyer for the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad, was the originator of Johnstown. Berry acquired the land for the town and, on July 27, 1883, he platted the site and named all the streets. He never lived in Johnstown, but went on west with the railroad. A contestant in the great Chadron to Chicago horse race in 1893, a promotional stunt to try to drum up business for that far western community, Berry was awarded a pair of gold-handled pistols by Buffalo Bill Cody for being the first rider to arrive in Chicago. The Chadron race-officials, however, disqualified him for the award-money as they felt that because of his job with the railroad, he had knowledge of the route.

Silas Butts came to Johnstown with his parents in 1883. He opened a saloon and barber shop in 1900. He quit barbering in 1950, but operated the bar until his retirement. It is still open seven days a week.

Dr. Cameron came from Canada in 1905. He was not only a physician but a dentist and pharmacist as well. He practiced in the community until his death in 1936. His liquid prescriptions cured many ills, and the legs and arms he set "by feel" always grew back strong and straight. The flu epidemic during the World War I period, found him virtually living in his buggy, as after his last call for the day, his horse would bring him safely home while he slept.

Around 1910 Johnstown's population was close to 500, with four blocks of businesses. It was a railroad-shipping town, with many carloads of cattle, hogs, and grain loaded out each year.

In 1913 Johnstown built a three-story brick schoolhouse, offering 11 grades of instruction. The weekly newspaper reported that at the meetings to finalize the plans, they found they were short $100. The hat was passed and the money was raised. After World War I, Johnstown voted to install its own light plant, but a city water system failed to pass. Johnstown was the victim of many fires.

In 1929 a fire ravaged two blocks of businesses. Next came the closing of the banks, the hard times of the 1930s, and still more fires. Johnstown declined rapidly.

In 1944 a shortage of teachers, because of the war, forced the closing of the high school. The old school was condemned and a new school was built in 1961. This building included a hot lunch program and "indoor plumbing." Because there was no city water system, modern plumbing was not common until the late 1950s.

In 1936 a group of town and rural citizens organized a county fair, now known as the "Brown County Agricultural Society." During the fair, on the Labor Day weekend, the population of Johnstown swells to over 1,000. Promoted as one of the best fairs in the state, it includes a rodeo, parade, barbecue, country western show, and four large buildings of exhibits.

The town was honored in 1974 when Sharon Pelc, whose parents ranch outside Johnstown, was chosen as Miss Nebraska.

During the bicentennial year, 1976, the Johnstown Gals Extension Club chose as their project the task of cleaning up a vacant lot and creating a park honoring John Berry. Berry Park is now a little oasis along Highway 20, well-used and enjoyed by both townspeople and weary travelers.

Another fire in 1946 claimed the United Methodist Church. Members rebuilt it and in 1968 the church celebrated its centennial with over 250 in attendance.

The town celebrated its centennial year during the Brown County celebration in 1983. Many residents returned for the event. The high school alumni held their annual banquet along with a program at the fair grounds. Johnstown pioneer heritage families were honored. Descendants of pioneers to Johnstown Precinct who are still residents of the community, plus a king and queen and royal court, were honored -- and all were over 70 years of age.

Johnstown's population has been a constant 80 or so for the past 20 years. In addition to the elementary school, church, and post office, there is a bar'n grill, a service station, and a new volunteer fire department building.

With the support of the rural community, the spirit of "Johnstown togetherness" still prevails. When something needs doing, people work together until the job is completed.

Come and join us some Labor Day weekend. We promise a good time for the whole family.

Material assembled by Jackie Graff, postmaster, Johnstown, NE, 69214, (born, raised, and likely to die in Johnstown).

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Brown County Historical Book, by Blanche Honnen