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Nebraska...Our Towns

Decatur

Burt County

One of Nebraska's early river towns, the history of Decatur is long and colorful. Closely tied to that of the Missouri River, the ferry carried horses, wagons and cars across the river into the 1930s.
The Decatur Bicycle Club, 1898. [Loaned by Mrs. Pearl Anderson, Nebraska State Historical Society]

Decatur, second oldest settlement in Nebraska, is rich in Indian legend, tales of explorers, and pioneers. Among the first white men in this area were those from the Lewis & Clark Expedition while on their exploration of the newly-acquired territory in 1804. A Mr. Woods is said to have settled within the present corporate limits in 1837, at the mouth of the creek he named for himself. In 1853 Col. Peter Sarpy and Clement Lambert of Bellevue, in the employment of the American Fur Company, camped at the mouth of Wood Creek with Henry Fontanelle, and later that fall, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs negotiated the purchase of the Omaha Indian lands. The treaty, comprising 300,000 acres, was signed in 1854.

Stephen Decatur had arrived from Bellevue in the 1840s and made his home with the Omaha Indians. Later he was a clerk at Sarpy's trading post and lived on a farm which was called "Decatur Springs," owing to the pure spring found there, which supplied water for the town for another century.

Decatur incorporated in 1856 under the name "The Decatur Townsite & Ferry Company." Incorporators included Decatur, Thomas Whiteacre, T.H.Hineman, George Mason, and Herman Glass. In the village election held in January 1858, Silas Leaming was elected mayor. The patents for the town, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, were granted on May 1, 1862.

A railroad company, organized in Decatur in 1857, resulted in the first railroad survey from the west bank of the Missouri River. Leaming was appointed chief engineer, however work was abandoned "due to a shortage of provisions and approaching cold weather."

Early churches played an important role in the life of settlers as they do today. The Methodists held Sunday school in 1861, with their present church built in 1889. An Episcopal Church was founded in 1862, and Catholic masses were celebrated in homes from 1862-80, when a building was purchased. Presbyterians built in 1871, and the Latter Day Saints organized in 1879.

The first school was held in 1861 in the Town & Ferry Company Hall. (A Mrs.Samuels, said to be the mother of Frank and Jesse James, taught the school term in 1862.) Mrs.Canfield was teacher in 1874 when a brick building was completed. A larger frame school was built in 1903 and used until 1936, when the present brick structure was built. Decatur and Lyons merged in 1984, with our elementary students attending in Decatur and 7-12 classes held at Lyons.

Located at the foot of a high bluff, the fortunes of Decatur are closely tied to the Missouri River. During the heyday of river traffic, many boats tied up at the Decatur landing, bringing supplies, lumber, and people. Ferry boats carried horses, wagons, and cars across the river until the 1930s. In 1946 the Burt County Bridge Commission asked the U.S.Army Engineers to approve a bridge site at Decatur. Four years later construction of the bridge was authorized, and in 1951 it was completed. In the meantime the fickle Missouri, after one of its rampages, shifted its channel to the east leaving the bridge high and dry. The project was put on "hold" due to the Korean Conflict, which had the engineers short of funds. It was not until 1954 that "Old Muddy" was put back in place. The Nebraska and Iowa approaches were completed and the first traffic moved across in December 1955. Formal openings were held in combination with Decatur's centennial in 1956.

The present population of Decatur is 720, virtually unchanged for several decades. While the number of businesses has declined, services to the town are still adequate. Many former residents have chosen to return to Decatur upon retirement -- which is a real credit to the community.

Beck Memorial Park, beside the river, features picnic shelters, a boat dock, and a large camping area. Hillcrest Cemetery, atop the bluff, provides a panoramic view of the town, the winding Missouri, and farmlands that stretch for miles. The Avenue of American Flags on the eastern slope for Memorial Day observances is a spectacular sight.

Decatur's very active Community Club sponsors the annual Riverfront Days in June, in addition to other activities for young and old throughout the year.

By Jacqueline Maryott, Box 314, Decatur, NE 68020

ADDITIONAL MATERIALS: "1856-1956 Decatur Centennial", and Story of an Old Town , by A.P DeMilt. Decatur alumni from 1935 to 1984.