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Nebraska...Our Towns

Cortland -- Gage County

Established as a station on the Omaha & Republican Valley Railroad in the 1880s, Cortland's homes and businesses reflected the architecture and affluence of the times. In addition to the depot, this bird's eye view, taken in 1895, features the Foster & Smith Lumberyard. [Papke]
Street Fair, 1902.
The motor car, which whisked people into Lincoln or on to Beatrice each day.N.D.

Cortland was established in the fall of 1883 at the time of the construction of the Omaha & Republican Valley Railroad, in Highland Township near the north line of Gage County (which was in "Clay" until 1863). The land was purchased by Joseph Millard of Omaha from Alfred Gale and given the name "Galesburg" in his honor. Since there were many other similar names, it was changed to "Courtland," for a town by that name in New York. The postal authorities changed the spelling to "Cortland" in February 1884. An earlier post office in the township, "Kam," established in 1872 and run by Phillip James, was discontinued in November 1884.


Millard had the land surveyed and platted early in 1884. Soon it was the "best shipping point between Omaha and Beatrice" except for Lincoln and one or two other large towns along the way.

The town sprang to a population of 600 in one season, with over 80 buildings constructed in just three months. Henry Spellman hauled lumber for a general store from Firth during the winter before the rails were completed. Walingford and Masterman started an implement business, Fred Wittstruck built a boarding house, and J. P. Clough was named postmaster.


Cortland's first school was an ordinary two-story structure. It was replaced in 1914 with a brick structure. Two rooms were added in 1935 and a gym and modern kitchen in 1963. In 1967 Cortland and several other small towns consolidated and organized the Norris School District, with buildings eight miles northeast of town. In 1974 the old school was torn down and a village board meeting room was constructed.

Among the various churches were the Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist in Cortland. Salem Methodist organized east of town, first in the German conference, later changing to English. They moved the church building to Cortland in 1890. The Pilgrim Congregational group organized in 1875 and later purchased the Baptist church. They built a brick building in 1919, and united with the Methodist congregation in 1981. Holy Mass was first offered in the home of Joseph Krapp in 1882. A wooden church was built in 1884, replaced with a brick structure in 1958.

A volunteer fire department was organized in 1910. Even so, fire destroyed five businesses in 1925 and two others in 1935. Earthquakes lasting five minutes were recorded also in 1925 and 1935. Windows rattled and dishes fell from shelves, but no one was injured.

By 1911 the population in Cortland had dropped to 364, as many had moved to Wisconsin or Kansas. World War I and the Depression and drought continued to stress the community. A great celebration was held in 1933 -- just in time for Cortland's Golden Jubilee -- for the dedication of the newly-paved Highway 77. Dignitaries spoke, a queen was crowned, and local strong-man, Eldon Snell, put on a marvelous exhibition of strength. Dr. Addison Sheldon, Director of the Nebraska State Historical Society, presented a historical review, and Elfrieda Severin Rhodes sang. More than 1,000 people attended.

By 1950 the population was only 287. However, in the mid 1950s Cortland started to grow as retired people and young families moved to the area. About 30 new homes were built by the end of 1958. During the "cold war" era, the population of Cortland doubled while the IBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) site was being built east of town. Growth ceased when the site was completed and jobs dwindled. While the site was abandoned in 1963, the improvements made during this period brought many new residents to the community. With the DeBoer addition in 1973, Deunk Addition in 1975, and Edwards Addition in 1977, many other homes were added and the population increased to over 400.

Cortland commemorated its 100th year in 1983 with an all-out effort. There were historical displays, arts & crafts, a talent show, water fights, carnival rides, games, contests, and a parade. A community worship service was held in the park followed by a basket dinner, and a softball tournament ended the very hot four-day celebration.

In the 1990s we still have about a dozen commercial businesses, some of which are working out of homes. The hardware and grocery stores have closed, primarily because of our proximity to both Lincoln and Beatrice. While many things have changed in Cortland from when it started, it is still a comfortable small town in which to live.

By Lila Mae Papke, Box 46, Cortland, NE 68331

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Cortland, 1983, a 198-page Centennial book, and other Gage County books.