Tents and a few primitive buildings dotted the prairie in 1882 when David Y. Mears, a surveyor for the Sioux City & Pacific Railroad, filed a claim on a quarter-section of land in the hope that a town would emerge. Earlier that year, construction crew camps were set up along the Niobrara. A wooden railroad bridge some 80 feet above the river was built and the tracks reached Mears' claim the following year.
At that time, the area was still "unorganized territory" attached to Holt County. Fort Niobrara had been established in 1879 to serve as a peace-keeping force for the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservation Indians. It also opened the way for settlement in northwestern Nebraska.
The first election held in this area was in 1882 at the Deer Park Hotel across the river from the fort. Votes for Congressman E.K. Valentine had been highly solicited. Contractors were paid to transport the 300-or-so railroad workers to the polls so they could vote, which helped Valentine win the election. The settlement that developed was named "Valentine" in his honor, and was chosen as the county seat for Cherry County.
By January 1884 the population had increased to 250 and tripled by 1886. Rapid growth was tarnished by lawlessness. Valentine had the reputation of being the "toughest town in Nebraska." In time, pistol practice was stopped in the saloons and guns were "removed" upon entry.
Drinking water was first hauled from the Minnechadusa Creek. A well was dug on Main Street after an 1888 fire burned all but one of the businesses on the west side of the block. The loss was estimated at $32,145. About six months later another major fire burned five more businesses.
Nearly a century later, 1987, an estimated half-million gallons of water was used during the Red Front fire. Merchandise and three apartments were lost, and smoke and water damage to the adjoining buildings was extensive, but in time all reopened. (The Red Front, built in 1884, also burned in 1893, but had been rebuilt.)
The first doctor and hospital was at Fort Niobrara in 1880. Dr.Alfred Lewis came in 1883. His first office was said to be a tent. Whiskey was the main cure-all used for medical treatment during the days of the open range. The present hospital was built in 1973 and was served by four doctors until 1987 when two long-time doctors retired, leaving one doctor to administer a fully-equipped 38-bed hospital for six months. Since then three family doctors, a surgeon, and visiting specialists serve the community.
Sometime after Fort Niobrara was established, the government built telephone lines from the railroad depot to the fort and the reservation. Iron pipe was used instead of wooden poles to prevent loss due to prairie fires. Telephone connections within the town were made in 1897, with there being a grand total of four telephones in town. By 1903 local patrons were enjoying all-night service. When the phone rates were increased to $3.75 per month in 1919, the county commissioners ordered all phones removed from the courthouse except in the county attorney's office. The first direct-dial long distance calls from Valentine were made November 11, 1964.
Graphic evidence of a growing town occurred during the 1960s. The average cost of homes was $12,000. Two new schools were built as well as motels, grocery stores, and several churches.
The highlight of the year is the annual Valentine's Day Coronation. It started as a community celebration in 1941, discontinued during the war, and was re-started soon thereafter by the high school. The band parents sponsor awards for an "Outstanding Citizen" and the "Most for Valentine High". Royalty from other organizations are also recognized. With the help of the Chamber of Commerce, the thousands of valentines that are sent to "Heart City" are stamped with the Valentine's Day cachet and re-mailed.
A three-day celebration was held for the Nebraska State Centennial in 1967, but this did not equal the two-year centennial celebration for Cherry County and the City of Valentine during 1983-84. The extended celebration was successful because of widespread participation. Highlights included; the publishing of our history, the christening of the sculpture, "Visionquest," by Congresswoman Virginia Smith, a Christmas tree tour, ice harvest, buffalo barbecue at Fort Niobrara, a heritage fair at the school, and a 25-act "Review of The Century in Song and Dance" where more than 50 flags depicting businesses and organizations were presented.
By Ruth E. Harms, Box 284, Valentine, NE 69201
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: A Sandhill Century, (two volumes) the History of Cherry County Nebraska, 1983-84; The Old Town , by Olive Van Metre; A History of Cherry County, by C.S. Reece; "Wagon Wheels to Wings" Valentine-Cherry County Diamond Jubilee, 1884-1959; "Potluck Papers", Cherry County Heritage Book.