The first settler on the land that is now Exeter arrived in 1870. Dr. Horace Greeley Smith and his wife filed a homestead claim at that time. Smith had made a trip to the area previously, deciding on this location when he learned that the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad would be constructed through this part of Fillmore County.
The Smith home, a one-room structure built of boards and battens, also served as the town's first store. Anna Smith, born to the doctor and his wife, was Exeter's first baby.
A post office was established at "Boss" Woodward's homestead in the spring of 1871, just east of Smith's land. As more settlers arrived and the railroad's tracks were completed, the town started to emerge. According to Lillian Fitzpatrick's Nebraska Place-Names , a family who had come from Exeter, NH., suggested the name. Since it fit the alphabetical system of naming towns along the B&MR line, it was adopted. The post office was moved on December 18, with Smith appointed postmaster.
During those early years the settlement grew slowly, but by the latter part of the 1870s, soon after the town was incorporated, approximately 20 businesses had opened their doors. The "Exeter Enterprise" was published on September 29, 1877. W.J.Waite owned and edited this paper for 30 years. In 1892 the "Fillmore Democrat" was established. The name was changed to "Fillmore County News," and is currently owned and published by Al and Marge Bonta under that name.
Banking has been a stablizing influence starting in 1878. Going from ledgers in pen and ink to computers, the Link and McCabe name represent generations in this field.
For a time there were five churches in Exeter: the Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, Christian Congregational, Baptist, and Christian Scientist. There are three churches today: Methodist, Catholic, and United Church of Christ, formerly known as Congregational.
Exeter's schools began as soon as the town. The first classes were held in the sod home of the first teacher, Mrs. Marion Babcock, until a schoolhouse could be built. As the population increased, larger schools were built. Today the Exeter Public School consists of an elementary school and a high school with gym, vo-ag building, multi-purpose room, and administrative area.
St. Stephen's parochial school was dedicated in 1907 with the Dominican Sisters in charge. After serving 33 years, the Felician Sisters taught from 1940 until 1967. A declining enrollment caused the school to close.
Fire was nearly Exeter's undoing. The west side of the business district burned in 1897, and again in 1898. In 1907 fire destroyed the east side. That was the year that a power plant was built, and a water works system was completed the following year. These two improvements, along with less combustible building practices provided a measure of security against further destruction.
Exeter had a steam-powered canning factory as early as 1887. The "tag factory" opened in 1907. Charles Smith, son of the town's founder, returned to Exeter after completing his education to work in his father's bank. Upon seeing a need for time-saving devices in the bookkeeping system, he devised "index tags" to solve the problem. When other bankers started requesting the tags, the Smith Index Tag Factory was opened. At one time 70 people were employed, with shipments all over the world. Operations continued for several years following Smith's death in 1951. In 1962, after changing hands several times, the factory closed and the manufacturing was moved from Exeter.
The population of Exeter hit 941 in 1930, just prior to the Depression. During those hard-times, paving was completed between Exeter and Fairmont, and WPA workers planted trees. In 1940 the population was 841, just 100 less than the peak.
Dial phones were installed in 1950, and a swimming pool opened in 1964. In 1966 the first community barbecue was held in the park, and a fire hall was built in 1968.
Exeter entered the Nebraska Community Improvement Contest and won first place in its population category in 1973. The next year 22 blocks of paving were added, a community activity sign was erected, and a library-city office building was completed.
Centennial activities were held in 1979, celebrating the first 100 years. A bike-a-thon raised over $3,100 for the project. Located on Highway 6, Exeter's population in 1990 is 807.
By Henrietta Harre, P.O. Box 335, Exeter, NE 68351
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: They Called It Exeter , 1979, Exeter Centennial Committee.