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Clay Center

Clay County

Then & Now: Clay Center named county seat before it was "a town." The north side of the square looking east, 1905. [Cundiff]
The north side looking west, 1989. [Harris]
Historical marker erected during the centennial, 1979.

Not everyone was happy when the very center of Clay County was surveyed and staked out as a town site in the winter of 1878. There had been a great deal of controversy over the location of the county seat. While Harvard and Sutton, both in the northern part of the county, argued the matter, the citizens in the remainder of the county took steps to provide what they felt was "the perfect location." In an election held in 1879, the voters favored the proposition that the seat of government be moved to the middle of the 16-township county and be given the name "Clay Center." The election was, of course, contested. But as soon as a one-story, frame building was completed, the county records were whisked out of the building in Sutton in the dead-of-night, and brought to the official county seat by horse and wagon. Thus ended another colorful Nebraska county seat saga.

A fine brick courthouse, built in the middle of town, was completed in 1880, and a bevy of businesses set up shop around the square. Clay Center was incorporated, a railroad arrived (a line between Alma and Stromsburg), and many shops and professional offices graced the business district. A larger courthouse has since replaced that structure.

"Old Trusty Days" are a favorite topic with the old timers. M.M. Johnson came to town with his dog, "Trusty," to work in the mill. However, Johnson spent all his spare time working on inventions. Soon "Old Trusty Incubators," designed by Johnson, were manufactured at a plant he built in Clay Center. In 1924 over one-million incubators were turned out.

In 1929 Will Holcomb, using these incubators, managed the Nebraska Poultry Company. This firm hatched chicks and shipped them all over the Midwest in shoe boxes. Because of all the mail-order business done by "Old Trusty" and the poultry company, Clay Center's post office was given an advanced "second class" status. Residents of Clay Center still have house-to-house mail delivery.

On December 3, 1925, the words "KMMJ is on the air" were heard in a 300-mile radius. The station brought entertainment, news, and advertising to southern Nebraska and northern Kansas, and carried out a large mail-order business, selling everything from tractor tires to chicken feed. Business boomed and Clay Center grew. In 1939, after years of Depression and hard-times, the station was sold and moved to Grand Island. Clay Center became a quiet town for a few years.

World War II brought new growth with the establishment of the Naval Ammunition Depot west of town. Many farm families were displaced when 48,753 acres of land was needed for the war effort, but the depot brought jobs and people to the community. By 1944 the NAD was supplying 40 percent of the Navy's ammunition needs. When the war ended people moved on and, as the depot was phased out, the town once again became quiet.

In 1959 part of the land was transferred to the Department of Agriculture. A research station was authorized by Congress in 1964 to work on problems facing the livestock industry. People from all over the world now visit the U.S.Meat Animal Research Center, named in honor of Roman L.Hruska in 1978. The RLHUSMARC has made major contributions in the field of genetics, breeding, nutrition, biological engineering, production, and animal health. Adjacent to this center, the University of Nebraska also located a research station. The South Central Station provides specialized assistance to extension programs and conducts research on crops and irrigation.

Clay Center's centennial brought excitement and renewed interest in history. The year 1979 was filled with activities that included an old-fashion style show, interviews with pioneers, parades, and many special programs. The Clay County Museum was built in the park on the site of the old KMMJ building.

Today 30 retail stores and establishments serve the community of 980 people. There is always something to do: community plays and school events, church fellowship activities, and many organizations offering opportunities for everyone.

The Fourth of July, county fair, and good football games are a few of the highlights of the year, enjoyed by not only the people in Clay Center, but also from all over the county.

By Laura Cundiff, 308 North Alexander, Clay Center, NE 68933.


ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Biographical & Historical Memoirs of Adams, Clay, Hall & Hamilton Counties, 1890; "Best in Nebraska" the story of Clay County, 1969, by George Woolsey; History of Hamilton & Clay Counties , 1921; Clay Center Centennial 1879-1979, editors Laura Cundiff & Dan Baird, 1979. Bicentennial taped interviews made by Clay Center School students. Pamphlets: "Clay County Neb" and "Through the Years" by Swanson, Hjalmar; "Industrial Facts of Clay Center", Area Development Dept. NPPD, 1982.