In 1882 the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad had pushed its way westward from O'Neill to a small lake surrounded by cottonwood trees. It was given the name "Cottonwood Lake," but soon the word "cotton" was dropped, and "Wood Lake" became the name of the oldest town in Cherry County.
Located south of the Niobrara River and it's formidable canyons, the low-rolling hills covered with native grass made it ideal cattle-raising country. As soon as the rails were completed, Wood Lake was the largest cattle shipping town on the line that later became the Chicago & North Western.
A large stockyard with loading chutes was built by the railroad. Cattle were driven from the ranches and loaded onto trains bound for Omaha. At shipping time, the hotel and livery stable were filled. The lowing of cattle, the whistles and yells of the cowboys, and the puffing and clanging of the trains could be heard day and night for weeks.
During the late 1940s closer markets, oiled highways, and semi-trucks changed all that. Shipping cattle by rail was abandoned in the early 1950s, and the depot and stock yards were torn down. In the 1950s, the ranchers established and now maintain truck weighing scales and loading chutes south of town, and another to the north, which are used at shipping time.
School District No.7 was organized and a one-room school built in 1883. A two-story frame school was built in 1895, with a brick building erected in 1929, still used today. The high school closed in 1963 when enrollment dwindled. The rural schools joined with Wood Lake to form a consolidated K-8 so that in 1988 there are 28 students, three teachers, 3 buses, and several volunteers.
With its easy accessibility, Wood Lake drew trade from miles around. By 1900 there were several general merchandise stores, a doctor and pharmacy, newspaper, ice house, grist mill, livery stable, blacksmith, lumber, grain, and coal business. A piece of land was designated for a cemetery.
Wood Lake reached its peak population of 500 by 1920. A municipal power plant, built in the early 1920s, was used to produce electricity until 1948 when Wood Lake elected to join the REA system. Windmills gave way to the new water system with its large holding tank, and a centrally-operated telephone system was installed.
The Union Church was organized in 1883 with a building erected in 1901. On December 6, 1964, it burned down. Services were held in the Assembly of God building that had closed earlier that year. In 1965 the O'Halloran Hardware building was acquired and remodeled into the church that is used today. The Catholic Church, built in 1915, was closed in 1987.
The town of Wood Lake was hit hard when the stock market crashed in 1929. It caused some businesses to close, however, the bank survived. During the drought and "dust bowl days" followed, many ranches were lost and more businesses closed, forcing people to seek economic security elsewhere.
"Progress" was also changing the local trade area. By the middle 1930s Highway 20 was completed. Better automobiles and trucks made it easier to travel to the larger towns with more variety and competitive prices.
World War II contributed further to the demise of our small town as young men entered the armed services and other people moved closer to the war-related jobs in factories. Most never returned to "the country."
Wood Lake remained the center for many activities during the 1950s. Main street was a good place to hold the 4-H baby-beef sale and other events of local interest. The Bank of Wood Lake moved to Valentine in 1965. More businesses closed at that time, and the one general store that had survived, good times and bad, burned in 1974.
The 1986 farm-ranch economy upheaval was the greatest threat to the area since the 1930s. With ranch foreclosures, bank closings, and business failures, it is yet to be determined what the final impact on our rural society will be.
The 1988 population of Wood Lake was 90. In addition to the school, we still have a post office, service station, small engine repair shop, a church, Masonic Lodge, a rural fire protection district, and a small park with RV hookups. The oiled main street is generally very quiet, except for the annual free barbecue and street dance held in July.
Every five years a school reunion brings back many old friends and neighbors. Our town is still "home" to many people around the country who remember the good ol' days and growing up in the wide-open spaces of Cherry County where cattle graze on the native grasses.
By Elsie M. Coble, Coordinator, Box 713, Wood Lake, NE 69221. Committee includes: Elsie Carter, Catherine Dukat, Pauline Swett, W.S.Richardson, Willa Marie Tische, Peggy Fitzler, Mildred Welker, Pearl Wilson, Del Wayne, Lena Gardiner, Phyllis Davis, and Mary Osterman. Also KBR Public Power District for information.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: An Early History of Cherry County, by Reese; A Sandhill Century, Book I, The Land and Book II, The People by Cherry County Centennial Committee 1985.