The Wood River Valley was discovered very early by pioneers coming to south central Nebraska. The fine soil, the abundance of summer and winter pasture, the streams, and the rainfall made it a good place to settle. Between 1873 and 1890, eight settlements were founded along the 25 miles of valley in Buffalo County. Amherst is one of three towns that survived.
"Huntsville" was the first name given to the settlement which later became Amherst. A few families had moved into the area in 1872 and 1873, most of them living in dugouts. Miles Hunt became the first postmaster in 1873. There is little else known, except that there was a school, and the post office was in the schoolhouse.
When a new postmaster was appointed in 1877 the name was changed to "Stanley," and during the 1880s a thriving little village sprang up. The town's people were excited when they heard that the railroad was being built up the Wood River valley from Kearney to the Black Hills. Then in May 1890 the "Kearney Daily Hub" reported: "A new town called 'Amherst' will be laid out two and one-half miles northwest of Stanley in the near future. This means the downfall of the latter."
Amherst, named by John Hamilton, president of the Kearney & Black Hills Railroad, was named after Amherst College in Massachusetts. A depot was built and lots went on sale, with free lots offered to residents of Stanley who would move to the new town. Since Stanley had been by-passed by the railroad, the people quickly chose to move to Amherst. The hotel, the Methodist Church, and many of the homes and businesses were moved to the new town, but the school remained for the rural students. The old Stanley Cemetery, established in 1881, is still the official cemetery for the town of Amherst.
The village was incorporated in 1894. Officers included: O.G. Cobleigh, John Schnoor, Frank Outson, J.Y. Jones, and Stanley Wysocki. A small church building was moved to the town in 1893 and used as a schoolhouse. Amherst quickly became a bustling little town with an active social life.
Many of the settlers in the area were German or Austrian immigrants. Those of Catholic faith attended St.John Capistran. The Lutherans went to Immanuel Lutheran, five miles northwest of town. In 1907 Trinity Lutheran was organized in Amherst and in 1970, Immanuel and Trinity united. The Methodist and Evangelical congregations also had churches in Amherst.
During the 1910-20s, Amherst continued to be a vital force along the railroad. The tracks never reached the Black Hills, but made it only to Stapleton, and were eventually taken over by the Union Pacific.
In 1926 Amherst boasted 16 businesses and two banks. Three newspapers served the town at various times: the "Fairplay," the "Times," and the "Mirror." An opera house was the scene of dramatic club offerings, lecture courses, school programs, and traveling shows.
A new schoolhouse for K-10 classes was built in 1908. Students wanting to finish high school could board the railroad motorcar at 8:30 a.m., ride nine miles to Miller, and return in late afternoon. Amherst High School was increased to a four years school in 1924.
Although normally a quiet and placid village, a day in March of 1928 is remembered as the day two thieves set fire to the school, diverting the attention of the local citizenry while they looted the bank of $2,600. They herded the bank force into the vault, threatening to "fill 'em full of lead" if they came out. The robbers were apprehended and sentenced to the penitentiary, but the schoolhouse burned down. School was held in the churches while a new brick school was built.
The railroad line that brought Amherst into being has been abandoned. Belschner's general store, established soon after the town was founded, now operates a custom meats business. Other businesses provide auto and machinery service, lumber, fertilizer, and grain storage. Amherst's proximity to Kearney makes it easy for area residents to do business away from home.
Despite such adversity, the town remains a tight-knit community centered around its school and three churches. Since 1981 a highlight of the summer has been the presentation of such musical shows as "Oklahoma," "South Pacific," and "The Sound of Music," pulling young and old of the community together.
Amherst Jubilee Days, held annually in June, draws crowds from the surrounding area for the parade, tractor pull, and other events.
By Alice Howell, 2208 C, Kearney, NE 68847. Material gathered by: Margaret Stines Nielsen, Irene Mollard, and Lawrence Curd.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: "Amherst," by Lori Potter and Diane Feldman, "Kearney Daily Hub." May 18, 1987.