Skip Navigation

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  • Virtual Nebraska Logo

Virtual Nebraska

Nebraska...Our Towns

Sumner

Dawson County

Sumner, located in northeast Dawson County along the Wood River Valley. ca: 1920-30s. The WCTU ladies fought to keep saloons out of their newly organized town, but lost.
Sumner's main street, ca. 1920s [Gust Karlberg]
The Parrish lumberyard on main street 1988 [Thorell]

The Union Pacific Railroad went through southern Dawson County in the 1860s, but in the rolling hill-country in the northeast corner, settlement was slower. James Mellott was the first to take a claim along the Wood River in 1873, said to be 20 miles from the nearest neighbor. The big wave of settlement in this area came from 1882-90.

Attracted by cheap land and the opportunity for a new life, emigrants -- individually and in colonies -- were encouraged to seek homes in the west. Germans, Scandinavians, and Czechs were the most numerous of the new arrivals in Nebraska. Around this part of Nebraska, the dominant nationality was Swedish.

As branch lines developed out on to the open prairie, the Wood River Valley was considered a logical place for a railroad. The Omaha & Republican Valley Railroad Company acquired a right-of-way through the valley in 1886. But construction did not started until after a change of ownership to the Kearney & Black Hills Railway Company.

Rails were completed to Callaway (in Custer County) in 1890, with stations spotted every eight to ten miles along the route. One of these was "Sumner," named for Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, known to have been an advocate of the abolition of slavery. (Even 25 years after the Civil War, Nebraskans still claimed strong Union sentiments.)

During the early years, six trains stopped at Sumner every day. In 1898 this line was acquired by the Union Pacific in a foreclosure sale. The line was extended to Stapleton in 1912, and was still active in 1965. Because of the dwindling rail traffic, the UP operated a large semi-truck for shipping express items on a daily schedule up Highway 40 to serve the towns that were on their rail line. So in effect, they participated in the phasing out of the railroad.

The town of Sumner was platted in 1890. Three years later it was a bustling village so the people petitioned to have it incorporated. The local newspaper, "Sumner Dispatch," recorded the big debate during the town's first year of operation, as the WCTU ladies fought to keep saloons from being licensed. After a spirited battle that raged for several months, a license was granted.

The "Dispatch" lasted just over a year, with the "Sumner News" founded in 1906. Editor F.F.Lyon, who referred to himself as the "ragged redtop, pencil pusher, and general jollier," wrote "bold" material other publishers would not have dare print, so it was much read and often quoted. This newspaper ceased publication a few years after his death in 1936.

Sumner's school, started in 1886, is older than the town. Schoolhouses were established and enlarged to keep pace with the growth of the town. A new, bigger high school was supported by a strong majority in the early 1920s, with the first graduating class from the four-year high school in 1923.

Following World War II, Sumner, like most K-12 schools, was bursting at the seams. However, in 1957, citizens of Sumner called for the high school to close, "...unless some form of redistricting was approved by the surrounding districts." Concerned for the education of all children, the five neighboring rural districts joined Sumner, bringing a combined valuation of over $2,000,000. This was an important step in establishing Sumner's school as a leader in quality education in the Wood River Valley. In the years that followed, neighboring towns of Eddyville and Miller also joined Sumner and formed district 101R. Sumner's "Trojans" gave way to the S.E.M."Mustangs" which continue to show up at state tournies on a regular basis.

Sumner's suspension bridge over Dry Run is well-remembered by many people. This 140-foot bridge connected the south part of town with the north without "...need to travel through the mud that prevailed on the road during the rainy times." The "swinging bridge," as it was called, was the creation of Street Commissioner Prichard and R. W. Putbrese in 1915, and was still in use in the 1950s.

Like many rural communities, Sumner's peak population of about 350 was during the 1920s. The 1980 population is a stable 250. The business district is not large, but serves the community and surrounding farming and ranching area. Plans are being made for a centennial celebration in 1990.

From material submitted by Vera Thorell, 151 East Seward Street, Seward, NE 68434, and Effie McFarland of Sumner 68878

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of Sumner, Nebraska by Diamond Jubilee Celebration, 1965, and official records.