It could be said that the town of Alma had to pull stakes before it could put down roots. Some 1,200 Indians had previously camped where Frank Shaffer chose to homestead in the Republican River Valley. He was obliged to pull hundreds of stakes they had used to dry buffalo hides in the sun.
Well over 100 years later, ruminants still plays a vital role in the community. The lush grasses that once fed buffalo now nourish the 3,000 to 4,000 head of cattle that on a winter Tuesday may jostle over the ring scale at the Alma Livestock Commission Company, one of the town's largest employer.
Alma, named for the daughter of N.P.Cook, was "charted" on their area map in 1871 after a cavalry unit from Fort McPherson had chased hostile Sioux and Cheyenne Indians out of the valley.
Later that year, when Harlan County was organized, a battle-royal ensued for the county seat. Three contested elections were held in 1871-72 with first Alma, then Republican City, and finally Melrose, receiving the highest number of votes.
Now comes William Gaslin, a lawyer, who filed an "interpleader" to test Alma's right to the county seat by virtue of the first election. His position was honored at a hearing held at Republican City, and according to the story, the county records were removed from Melrose (with a little night time chicanery) and taken to Alma. The town was still only a small settlement, shaky at best, but held on until the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad came up the valley in 1880, giving it a more stable existence.
In 1875 Gaslin was elected district judge for an area covering the western half of Nebraska. He served 16 years in this position and earned the title "terror of criminals" by supporting harsh justice on the frontier. He later returned to Alma and in 1903 built a new Harlan County Bank, a two-story brick building that included his living quarters. This is now the Alma city council chambers.
William Haskell, a native of Maine, joined his uncle's bank in 1908. Two years later, when Gaslin died, Haskell became its president. He built a large home that was given to the community for a hospital in 1951. From then until 1969, when the Harlan County Hospital was built, 1,053 babies were brought into the world at that hospital.
The Fourth of July has always been celebrated in Alma, perhaps more vigorously than in other communities. It was at the first celebration in 1871 that Alma noted its first sermon and its first slaying. People gathered at Foster's grove to hear the sermon delivered by Rev. John Whiting, a one-armed Civil War veteran. Later that day, John McBride went to meet his maker when shot by soldiers during a drunken brawl. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the northwest part of town.
Fourth of July activities have been more restrained in recent years, but they are still exuberant. Fireworks, parades, art festivals in the city park, and baseball annually mark the holiday. Some activities now take place in the Alma City Auditorium, a building recently refurbished with the help of funds raised by local-talent productions. It is the same auditorium in which A.C.Shallenberger paraded his prize shorthorn cattle after being defeated for a second gubernatorial term in 1910 by "wet" Democrats in the primary election.
Another building to have its plumage preened by public concern is the Parrot Theatre, supposedly the only so-named movie house in the country. Purchased by the Alma Chamber of Commerce in 1988, the old theatre was remodeled with private funds and donated labor.
To stem the flow of waters, such as those unleashed in the '35 flood, the Harlan County Dam was constructed between 1946-52 at a cost of $49 million. The resulting lake is the second largest body of water in the state. In addition to flood control and irrigation, it provides opportunities for fishing, hunting, boating, and camping. Alma, located above the western stretches of the reservoir, counts tourism as part of its broadened economic base.
With a present population of 1,300, Alma is proud of its facilities and extends an open invitation to everyone to visit the area.
By Bob Flasnick, Box 144, Alma, NE 68920
History of Alma, 1870-1906 Capital City Book Bindery, Lincoln, (Hoesch Library)
History of Harlan County, by Mrs. Thomas Rogers, 30 page mimeographed.
"History of Harlan County," by John Starr, Who's Who in Nebraska University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1940.
Built in the city park in 1978, the beautiful Hoesch Library was a gift to the community by Albert Hoesch in honor of his pioneering parents, Karl and Katherine Hoesch.
(plus others as listed)