The first settlers in the northern part of Butler County were actually on their way to the gold fields of Colorado in the early 1860s. While camping several days west of Omaha, they were told by returning travelers that it was fruitless to continue their journey. Not wanting to go back, they decided to make their homes right here.
The fertile valley between the Platte River and the foothills to the south must have seemed like the Promised Land as they set about building homes, barns, and a school. Primarily of Pennsylvania Dutch lineage, the settlement later included English, Irish, Dutch, and German immigrants. The building of the transcontinental railroad north of the Platte in 1866-67 brought a surge of settlers to the area and the opportunity for jobs.
A "subscription school," funded by the families of children attending, was established. West of the school a small building called the Blue Valley Church was shared by three denominations. It is said that a mail station was established two miles east in the home of a Mr.Fitzsimmons.
A town was not actually established until the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad came through in 1887. Platted by the Western Townsite Company, it was named for George Spelts' wife, Octavia. Spelts, in addition to dealing in lumber and coal, was a prominent farmer and an importer and breeder of Percheron horses. Several sons continued in the lumber business, establishing the Spelts Lumber Company in Grand Island.
The first train arrived on August 15, 1887, but the post office was not officially commissioned until January 27, 1888. Like many railroad towns, Octavia grew rapidly. An 1889 account from a David City newspaper states, "A recently established town, Octavia...population 125, chiefly farmers, receive mail at that point. The town is well located and has fine prospects to be an important town."
Recording a population of 200 in 1894, the people were described as zealous, devout, and industrious. Businesses included two grain elevators, livestock and grain brokers, a bank, several general merchandise and hardware stores, a hotel, a boarding house, livery stables, a blacksmith, and a doctor.
The early church was moved into town and eventually each denomination had its own building. Through the years there were Baptist, Methodist, German Baptist, Dunkard, and Brethren churches. In 1953 the two surviving congregations, Baptist and Brethren, combined and became Octavia Community Church as it is known today.
When the one-room schoolhouse was outgrown, a larger frame building was erected. Today the brick school, built in 1924 as a high school, houses Octavia's K-8 classes. Two teachers educate the 32 village students until they enter Schuyler or David City high schools.
"A real sense of neighborhood" was felt as a result of Octavia's centennial activities organized by the village board in 1987. Virtually everyone in town and many from the surrounding area had a part in the festivities. Students designed the logo, fund raisers renewed old customs, and the church basement became a mini-museum with pictures and memorabilia. Preparations included a box social, a dress review, and a "brothers of the brush" beard contest. On July 5, in nearly ideal weather, the day-long program was enjoyed by all. A special church service honored pioneer families.
Octavia has only three remaining businesses. The store closed, but the post office is still open four hours a day. In addition to the newly renovated community building, used for meetings and social gatherings, there is a nice park. A recent addition was an outdoor basketball court.
"Our goal," said Duane Zegers, chairman of the five-member council, "is to make an addition to the playground every other year." A baseball diamond is in the planning stage, and there a six-year program to install curbs and gutters on all its streets.
"We continue to improve our community, to keep it going," added Zegers. Located on the curve of Highway 15, at the foot of the hills about halfway between Schuyler and David City, Octavia will never return to the hustle bustle of its early days. It is looking, instead, to provide a comfortable, pleasant community for the 130 residents who call it "home."
By Evelyn Stibal, Box 22, Octavia, NE 68650, with the help of Lola Cook and Herman Peters.