The history of Ponca, one of Nebraska's five oldest communities, reads like a western novel. Adam Smith, his wife, and nine other settlers crossed the Missouri into Nebraska in 1856 and camped south of the Aowa Creek, since to the north was "Indian territory." Frank West and a Mr.Carson (uncle to Kit Carson) fearlessly knocked down the warning signs and proceeded to lay out a 24-block town beyond the "safe zone" on the present town site. Named for the Ponca Indians, who laid claim to the land from the Aowa to the Niobrara River, this was the first settlement between Sioux City and Fort Randall.
A post office was established in 1857, and Ponca was elected county seat when Dixon County organized in 1858.
"Old Man Whitcomb" brought a steam mill from Ohio in December 1856. By 1861 Ponca had both a saw and a flour mill. The Ionia Ferry ran between Ponca and Fort Randall in 1860. School was held in 1859 and the first church was built in 1861.
The Civil War slowed development for a time. The brutal massacre of the five Wiseman children near St. James in 1863, still called "one of the cruelest crimes ever perpetrated on Nebraska soil," sent repeated waves of fear for years thereafter.
Ponca became "a roaring western town." By 1870, in addition to the busy steamboat traffic, there was the stage coach twice a week. Vivid accounts have been written about the early dance hall days, cowboys, speculators, salesmen, and settlers in this bustling western "port" that document the town's role in the western movement. Stories of the first hanging by citizen trial, Indian raids, and big-time gambling are all part of Ponca's historic past.
The arrival of the Covington, Columbus & Black Hills Railroad to Ponca in 1876 brought renewed growth, after the terrible grasshopper plagues of the early 1870s. In 1877 the first two-story home of "Ponca brick" was built, and the next year the third school, "an elegant building," was constructed.
The population went from 800 to 1,200 between 1877 and 1881. Large brick buildings were erected in the business district. Riverboat gamblers and traveling salesmen frequented the four large hotels, the saloons, and the opera house. Ponca also had three newspapers, a complete array of shops, and more than its share of lawyers and banks.
In 1880 the fairgrounds and "the finest thoroughbred horse track west of Chicago" were established. The Diamond Horse Ranch was renowned throughout the Midwest. Ponca's first mansion, the Mikesell House, was built in 1884 at a cost of $6,000.
In 1885, in addition to county offices, there were 97 businesses. Boasting to be "one of the very best towns in northern Nebraska," there were four churches, and a variety of benevolent and literary societies. By 1890 the population was nearly 3,000.
Over the years the Missouri River moved at will. Eventually the town was no longer "a port." In 1934 the American Legion raised money to purchase 220 acres along the river for a park. Over 2,000 people attended the dedication. The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built roads, buildings, two shelter houses, and transplanted 5,400 shrubs and trees. In the years that followed cabins were built and electric lights installed. The ferry boat, docked at the Bigley ravine, made regular trips across the river to South Dakota, carrying cars both ways. A pool was added in 1956 in honor of Ponca's centennial. Ponca State Park, now over 900 acres and ranking with the best in the nation, continues to expand.
Among the frontier-day buildings still standing are the opera house, the Commercial Hotel, the print shop, Cook's blacksmith shop, two banks, and some of the oldest homes in the state. It boasts one of the oldest banks and newspapers in Nebraska. Visitors enjoy a walking tour and discover a fascinating history mixed with modern shopping in our friendly, home-town atmosphere.
Ponca currently thrives as part of the Siouxland metropolitan area. Five churches and an excellent K-12 school system make Ponca an attractive community for people, working in the city, who opt for the advantages of small-town living. There is a growing young population as well as significant river recreation and summer housing.
Two major celebrations are held annually -- "Days of '56 Rodeo" the last of June, and Ponca's "Nifty-Fifty's Weekend" and all-school reunion the first of August.
From material submitted by John F.Kingsbury, Bank of Dixon County, Ponca, NE 68770.