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Beatrice -- Gage County

Choosing a location where the established DeRoin Trail crossed the Big Blue, Beatrice had everything it needed: water, lumber, good soil, and traffic.[Gage County Historical Society]
Sixth Street North from Market Street, early 1900s. [GCHS]
Court Street, mid 1980s, and its ever-changing skyline. [GCHS]
The Burlington Depot became the site of the Gage County museum in 1975. The first of its kind on the Burlington route, the building's beautiful architecture stands as a landmark to the grandeur of the railroad era. [GCHS]

While the steamer "Hannibal" was stuck on a sandbar in the Missouri River near Kaw Bend in April 1857, 40 young pioneers, with the help of Judge John F. Kinney, formed the "Nebraska Association." Upon landing, two groups of men were sent to explore the open prairie. They decided upon a rather hilly, wooded region where the DeRoin Trail crossed the Big Blue River, "...since it had everything they needed -- water, lumber, and good soil for farms and gardens."

On July 4, 1857, the settlement chose the name "Beatrice" (pronounced Be-AT'trice) for their town in honor of Judge Kinney's daughter. Located in one of the 19 organized counties, Beatrice was named county seat by the territorial legislature. With scarcely three-dozen families living at the location, a mayor was elected, and a 320-acre town site plat was filed. The river, which supplied the power for a mill (the town's first business), flooded the lowlands on a regular basis.

Daniel Freeman was given the honor of filing the first claim under the new Homestead Act, four miles west of Beatrice, in 1863. A national monument now commemorates the significance of the Homestead Act in the settlement of the West. That year a plot to divide "old Clay County" which laid between Gage and Lancaster counties was also perpetrated by the political opportunists of that age. This made each 36 miles by 24 miles in size and gave Beatrice a more nearly central location, insuring its continued position as county seat.

There was a steady stream of traffic along the old trail from Brownville, which had become the town's major thoroughfare, Court Street. Even before the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad arrived in 1871, from Lincoln by way of Crete, the population had reached 624. When the hamlet organized into a city in 1872, the population had reached 1,500. Growth was slowed by the grasshopper plague of 1874-76, however, during the 10 years that Beatrice was "the end of the line," it more than doubled in size. By the 1880s trains were running in all directions.

Earliest settlers were descendants of the colonists from eastern states, followed by an influx of Civil war veterans. The largest group of immigrants came from Germany 1870-90. Others coming to the area included Mennonites, a colony from Wales, and many from Bohemia when the Otoe Indian Reservation was sold in the 1880s. As a result, a wide diversity of cultures and religions are reflected in the community.

In 1888 several members of the Beatrice Board of Trade purchased some land near the river and organized the "Interstate Chautauqua." A tabernacle, boat house, bandstand, and other buildings were completed in time for the opening in the summer of 1889. Performers included: William J. Bryan, Susan B. Anthony, and former-President Rutherford B. Hayes. The railroads ran excursion trains, and thousands of spectators filled the park. A steam-powered excursion boat, "Belle of the Blue," cruised the Big Blue River over a six-mile route carrying up to 300 passengers.

The park was purchased by the city in 1910, and from 1911-28 a river pageant, called "Venetian Nights," was held annually in late August. The local Nee-hawn-che Canoe Club prepared elaborately decorated and illuminated water crafts (so they could be viewed after dark), followed by a fireworks display. Even today, people enjoy the park as a meeting place for family reunions and picnics. It is the hope that a new pagean-type event will be restored at Beatrice in the future.

In 1873 Clara Colby set up the foundation for the Beatrice Public Library. When a reading room could no longer be maintained, Colby moved the books into her home and was "open for library business" twice a week. The WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union), which had formed a library in 1881, joined forces to form a literary club. Together they started raising money in 1893 and with the help of a Carnegie grant, a building opened in 1904. The library is now the reference and inter-library loan, plus the juvenile resource center for a 15-county area. A recently dedicated building provides "accessible space" for the many services now available.

In 1888 U.S. Senator Algernon Paddock built a hotel and a large opera house. That structure was destroyed by fire on August 1, 1919. Two years later a hotel company was organized, resulting in the New Paddock Hotel, which was completed in 1924. By the 1960s, The Paddock -- still a landmark -- became a townhouse, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1885 the City of Beatrice agreed to provide the land on which the Nebraska Institution for Feeble-Minded Youth was to be established. The first residents were admitted in 1887. Initially, only children ages 5-18 were served, but after 1921, the age-factor was disregarded. The Beatrice State Home (the name used in 1945) had a farm and a large dairy operation, providing both income and activities for the 2,100 residents until the mid-1970s, when changes occurred in mental-retardation services. Today, known as the Beatrice State Developmental Center, the institution serves 500 residents with a staff of over 800.

The public schools have kept pace with the town's phenomenal growth. Among its many graduates is one Spangler Arlington Brugh. "Arly" moved to the city with his parents in 1917 at age six. He enjoyed oratory and debate at Beatrice High School, graduating in 1929, and attended Doane College at Crete, then Pomona College in California, where he was "discovered." In 1934 he signed a movie contract under the name "Robert Taylor." In his 58-year lifespan he performed in 70 films, winning many awards.

Many businesses have grown along with the city, such as the First National Bank, which started as a private bank operated in 1872 by John and Samuel Smith, serving continuously since then. Many banks presently serve in this area.

Believed to be the oldest continuous manufacturing company in the state, F.D. Kees grew from a gun and lock repair shop begun in 1874. Hardware items include the No.308 Barn Door Latch, which not only held a door closed, but also held it open. After electrical items and a line of lawn and garden equipment were added, it became a subsidiary of Snapper Power Equipment Division of Fuqua Industries.

C.B. Dempster founded a little pump business in 1878 and soon started building windmills. That little shop developed into a large factory that carries the name and fame of Beatrice all over the world.

A creamery was established by G.E. Haskel and W. W. Bosworth in 1894 to buy poultry, butter, and eggs. By 1910 the company operated nine creameries and three ice plants. Under the trademark "Meadow Gold," its ice cream became a national commodity. The headquarters moved to Chicago in 1913, with the name changed to "Beatrice Foods" in 1946. The growth of convenience foods following World War II led to specialty snack items. La Choy joined "the family" in 1943, and a grocery division was organized in 1957. The company expanded its horizons to international levels in the 1960s, with Samsonite luggage joining in 1973. The story of Beatrice Foods is a chronicle of progressive growth in the American free enterprise system. Now part of Bordens Inc., only the history of this small partnership and nostalgia remain of the 92-year relationship with our town.

T. E. Adams started making steel tanks in 1911, soon adding such items as road culverts, grain bins, and irrigation equipment. Producing ordinance material for the war effort, the BST Company switched to making aluminum beer barrels in 1945, which were sold nationwide. In the 1950s the company entered the bulk material field, employing over 300, today known as Hoover Group, Inc.

William Morton, after designing and building his own display case for candy, founded "Store Kraft Manufacturing," in the 1920s. It built turret seats and other materials for defense during the war, and developed a complete line of store equipment by the 1960s. With about 400 employees, sales are currently recorded from all 50 states.

The Dole Floral business, started in 1891 with a $1.75 investment by Sophie Dole, now had many greenhouses in mid-western cities.

The Gage County Historical Museum is housed in the Burlington Depot, which was built in 1905 and presented to the county by the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1973. The museum collections show the development of industry, the railroad, agricultural progress, and the history of the communities in Gage County.

Today Beatrice has a thriving downtown as well as a mall and new K Mart. Industries provide a stable employment for the growing population that currently stands at 12,891.


By Mary Lou Sanny, Box 793, Beatrice, NE 68310

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of Gage County, Nebraska, 1918, Dobbs; Gage County Nebraska History, 1983, Gage County Historical Society; Memoirs of Peter Jensen: The Record of a Busy Life, 1921, Jensen; Portrait and Biographical Album of Gage County, Nebraska, 1888, Chapman Bros.; Exiled by the Czar: Cornelius Jensen and the Great Mennonite Migration, 1874, 1956, Mennonite Pub. Office; Queen City of the Blue, Beatrice, Nebraska, 1976, Gage County Historical Society.