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Nebraska...Our Towns

Wauneta

Chase County

The falls on the Frenchman River, Wauneta, Nebraska.
First buildings in Wauneta by the falls, 1887. Sod house belonged to Rowley, frame house to Fisher. [Nebraska State Historical Society]
First train arrives in Wauneta January 15, 1892. [Nebraska State Historical Society]
Wauneta's first school was also where church services were held until that building was completed.

Wauneta, a small town of some 700 residents, is located in southeast Chase County, sprawling on both sides of the Frenchman River where it curves from west to south.

On the west bank of the river, near a little waterfall, Wauneta's first settlers, George Rowley and his wife, built the first dwelling in 1875. It was a spacious seven-room soddie, with three bedrooms and board floors, and was the birthplace of Chase County's first white child, Earl Champion Rowley. Tragedy was to come to this family some time later when George was killed by marauding Cheyenne Indians when returning home from Ogallala with supplies.

An old-fashioned square piano was a cherished possession of Mrs.Rowley. Visitors to the Rowley home were treated to piano music and songs she sang for trappers, cow-boys, and other settlers in this lonely out-post.

A frequent request was for the Spanish love song "Juanita." When the town site was surveyed in 1887, the post office given the name Juanita, spelled "Wauneta," to distinguish it from the Nebraska town of Juniata in Adams County.

This small settlement, with a grist mill, hotel, livery stable and general store, quickly grew into a bustling, frontier town -- a "melting pot" of English, French, Irish, Czech, German and Spanish business people whose descendants still live here. Wauneta's only black resident was a Civil War veteran, a barber by profession.

The first term of high school in 1887 was held in a building that also doubled as a church. There were three graduates that first year. The present brick school was built in 1953 after years of "making do" with inadequate space. It is a fully accredited K-12 school and serves an area covering 253 square miles.

The first and only newspaper, "The Wauneta Breeze," was founded by John Hann in 1887, and has had seven other publishers in its 100 years of continuous publication.

The Burlington Railroad reached Wauneta in 1892.

Two devastating floods ravaged Wauneta. The first, in 1940, caused $200,000 damage in the business and residential districts. The second in 1956 was much less destructive due to better flood control. Both were results of cloudbursts on the Frenchman River. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but the beautiful falls, so much a part of the town's history, were destroyed by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1951 as a part of the flood control dam near Enders.

Wauneta has five well-attended churches, a large nursing home, an excellent swimming pool, and a beautiful park with many recreational facilities. The Masonic and Oddfellows Lodges, American Legion, Commercial Club, church organizations and the various social clubs keep the citizens busy.

Huge grain elevators cluster near the railroad tracks, for the area around the town is productive as well as beautiful. Thousands of acres of wheatland pour a golden flood of grain into these towers each year. Giant pivot irrigation systems give fields the "tall-corn" harvests of eastern states and the rolling pasturelands of the Frenchman Valley graze immense herds of cattle.

Waunetans live in attractive, well-kept homes on tree-lined, paved streets. Its people are, for the most part, hard-working and law abiding.

Since it is an agricultural community, the depressed farm prices of the past few years have taken their toll. Several empty buildings now sit forlornly on Main Street, and there are fewer shoppers and theater-goers on Saturday nights. Since the town has no factories or industries, its young people tend to seek greener pastures, and a large part of the present population are retirees.

But the old-timers say, "Wauneta will survive, and good times will come again. They always have!"

by Gladys Hummel, Local, Wauneta 69045