"Tekamah?" people ask. "How do you spell it? What does it mean?"
There are several ideas. Some say it means "Big Cottonwood," others, "Flat Waters," or "Bloody Battle Field." Still others suggest that it is the misspelled name of a mountain in California. To people living here, and many who at one time lived here, the name has a special meaning -- "home."
Nine men, looking for a place to start a settlement, left the river-town of Omaha in October 1854. They traveled northerly until they found a location which they felt had all the natural resources a settlement needed to survive: good water, an ample supply of trees for wood, rich fertile soil, and abundant wild life. There was also sand stone available, so they marked their claim in the name of the "Nebraska Stock Company."
The name "Tekamah" was drawn from a hat, in which each of the nine men had placed his choice for the new town. If they knew what it meant, none of them wrote it down.
On October 15, 1854, all qualified voters were registered. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the territory needed to organize. The majority of these men returned on election day to cast their votes. Col.Benjamin R.Folsom was elected councilman, and Gen. Robinson and H.C.Purple were chosen to represent the settlement in the new house of representatives. Burt County also organized, naming Tekamah as county seat.
In 1855 Tekamah incorporated as a city. As spring arrived, building started in earnest. Cottonwood trees east of town were cut and dragged to building sites, and the whirr of the sawmill could be heard for miles. Sand stone was quarried for foundations. A town started to take shape.
Soon thereafter, it was learned that two white boys had been killed by Indians near Fontanelle. Col.Folsom sent a message to Territorial Governor Mark Izard asking for help. General J.M.Thayer, sent in response to his call, organized a company of soldiers from the men in the town, and helped to build a block house, for the protection of the citizens. Indians were observed nearby many times, but no more incidents were recorded.
The block house was also used by the community as its first courthouse, and when needed, the attic served as a jail. To provide funds to operate the county, a tax was levied in 1855 on a total valuation of $13,000. The seven-mill levy accounted for the collection of $91.04.
By this time Tekamah had a store, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, and a post office. The first birth and death occurred in 1855. The first newspaper was printed in 1856.
With the arrival of the hearty settlers, who set up shops or engaged in the main industry of agriculture, the town grew and prospered. Several churches, a school, and a number of banks were organized in 1873, known as the "Boom Year." The town continued to flourish as the Chicago & North Western Railroad was completed from Omaha to Tekamah in 1876. The line was discontinued just over 100 years later in 1979.
By the 1880s Tekamah had an active social life. An opera house was built in 1884, where political debates, plays, commencement exercise, revival meetings, dances, and roller skating parties were held. On June 1, 1904, when a tornado came through Tekamah, the building was demolished and not rebuilt.
Tekamah had a good brickyard for many years. A flour mill was in operation in 1886 and a canning factory, which processed corn and tomatoes, was established that summer. After operating only two years, the factory closed.
The Burt County Old Settlers and Pioneer Reunion was organized in 1903. The following year the reunion was held in Folsom Park, named in honor of one of the towns founders. Over 3,000 persons attended.
Tekamah reached its peak population of 1,925 in 1940. The population has remained near 1,900 since that time.
A centennial celebration was held in 1954. The citizens of Tekamah have watched the town grow from a tiny outpost on the prairie into the city of today. It has withstood floods and fire, drought and tornados, depressions and periods of inflation. Her young people have marched off to many wars, some never to return, but through it all, our town, Tekamah lives on.
By Bette Stork, 614 North 17 Street, Tekamah, NE 68061, with the help of Bonnie Newell, curator of the Burt County Museum.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of Burt County, 1903-1920; Noteworthy Men of Tekamah & Vicinity ; Nebraska Place-Names, Fitzpatrick; Tekamah Centennial Book, 1854-1954; History of the State of Nebraska, 1882, Andreas; Cemetery Book, 1984; Tracing Your Roots in the Missouri River Valley from Sioux City to Independance. Booklets include; Nebraska History Quarterly, Farm Directories, Burt County Plat Books, 1886 Voter Registration List, "Pay Dirt" Nebraska Tractor & Equipment Co., 1966, March-April issue. Newspapers: "Plaindealer" 1943-66, "Burt Co. Journal" 19000-03; "Burt County Herald" 1900-42; "Burtonians" 1897-1901; and "Burtonian Abstracts" 1874-80.