The town of Cozad, located on the 100th Meridian 247 miles west of Omaha, was the dream of John J.Cozad from Ohio, who saw it as "...clean and peaceful, with no drinking, gambling, or carousing...full of hard-working, energetic people." Meridian Avenue would be a wide, tree-lined street with a beautiful home for his wife Theresa, and sons, John and Robert Henri.
Mr.Cozad, as he was always called, bought 40,000 acres from the UP Railroad and organized a campaign to get people to move to his town, "...with the air pure and the opportunities endless..." A railroad boxcar was the first building, with the name "COZAD" painted on each end.
A hotel, built of "new wood" in 1873, served as a home for the Cozad family, and later where immigrant families stayed while building their homes. 1874 was a bad year because of the grasshopper plague, but people continued to pour in.
Mr.Cozad, while known as a haughty, aloof man with a violent temper, spent thousands of dollars building a school and a temporary "sod bridge" across the Platte River in order to give the settlers work and to improve the chances for his town to succeed. Interestingly, when he needed funds, he would "seek out a Faro game" somewhere, and was known to make $50,000 in a gambling room in Omaha between trains.
He was very vocal about wanting the county seat at Cozad and not at "Plum Creek," an early name for Lexington. That did not come to pass.
In 1876 all of Cozad's buildings burned. Many people, discouraged with life on the prairie, returned to their homes in the East. Cozad immediately built a brickyard for his brother-in-law to run, and put up a fireproof hotel and business houses. By 1879, when settlers had not returned, Mr. Cozad organized excursion trips that would leave Cincinnati, Ohio, every Tuesday, at $22 one way or $35 round trip for "...the great Platte Valley." This proved very effective, as many settlers from Ohio took up claims in Dawson County.
Pioneers struggled with the weather, and with the cattlemen who would drive their livestock through towns, people's gardens, and hayfields. There were several clashes between Mr.Cozad and Print Olive, who lived near Oconto, but after Olive was sent to prison for killing two settlers near Callaway, the confrontations with cattlemen ended. However, when Alfred Pearson died as a result of a fight with Mr.Cozad, he quickly borrowed a horse and left town. As soon as Theresa could settled her business and the entire Cozad family left Nebraska.
Recently a foundation has been established in the name of Robert Henri Cozad, who became a world-famous painter. A museum area containing the Hendee Hotel, the Willow Island Pony Express Station built in 1861, a church, and a schoolhouse, are featured on a historic walkway that serves as a memorial to the Cozad family and as tourist attraction.
In the early days, the Cozad area was primarily an agricultural community. Changes started to occur in the 1920s as the automobile brought more people to town. A new schoolhouse, built in 1931, reflected the population increase noted as 1,800 in the 1930s.
When World War II ended, alfalfa dehydrating plants came to the Platte River Valley. The 1940 population of 2,150 was nearly 2,900 by 1950. A new school was needed in 1953. By 1960 the population was 3,184. Both light industries and heavy manufacturing were added in the 1960s, bringing many new families to Cozad. Yet another new school was needed in 1965. By 1970 the population had jumped to 4,219. The 1980 census is lists the population at 4,453.
The change to a more industrialized city necessitated the development of recreational facilities: parks, swimming pools, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and ball diamonds. The town supports an arts council and an active historical society. As Cozad looks to the future, its rich heritage and good location on Highways 30 and 21, and close proximity to I-80, may lead to a sizable tourism business.
Cozad's countryside can best be described as expansive -- as wide as the sky, bordered on the north by Nebraska's grasslands, and on the south by a chain of lakes and reservoirs. Mr. Cozad's dream was not too far off, as the town that bears his name has truly some of the best unspoiled scenery in Nebraska.
Compiled by Jane Graff from material sent by the City of Cozad
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Robert Henri, by Betty Menke; brochures from Chamber of Commerce.