Stuart, located at the edge of the Sandhills, is near the head-waters of the Elkhorn River. The first settlers to this area came in the latter part of the 1870s. Timber was very scarce. The Niobrara River Valley, 25 miles to the north, was the nearest source of lumber. Overnight trips were made by crews with teams and wagons to bring back the much-needed wood, in addition to saplings and cuttings to plant on "tree claims."
The biggest influence in Stuart's growth was the coming of the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad in 1881. During the building of the line, Stuart was known as the "Bull's Head." Succeeding terminals laid claim to the name as the railroad moved west. The town was named for a Scottish sea captain, Peter Stuart, who was the town's first postmaster in 1879.
Settlers from Germany, Great Britain, Poland, and Bohemia brought the need for churches and schools to the community, and Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches were built. The first school opened in 1880 in a structure made of sod. Later, classes were moved to the Presbyterian Church and a new school was built. Additional buildings and improvements have given Stuart its present K-12 public school that is accredited and offers a diverse curriculum.
In 1884 Stuart, with a population of 200, incorporated.
Early residents were not without newspapers. The "Stuart Ledger," established in 1883, was followed by "The Press," the "Northwestern," "Stuart Herald," and the "Advocate." W.N.Coats, published the paper for many years. After 1952 there was a succession of owners, with the paper being discontinued in 1965. Currently "The Wrangler," a small publication of local news and advertising, is sponsored by the Men's Community Club and available free of charge.
Hay, grain, cattle, and hogs are the principal farm products. Popcorn, honey, and sheep also contribute to the area's economy. The large crop of native blue stem grass gave Stuart the title, "largest shipper of hay in the world." Governor Val Peterson proclaimed Stuart "Heart of the Hay Country" in 1972.
Fires and prairie fires have often threatened the life of the community. An entire city block was destroyed in 1885. Large hay barns have been struck by lightning and destroyed on numerous occasions. Exploding bulk gas tanks threatened the municipal light plant in 1960. That fire was finally brought under control with the help of units from seven communities.
Located on Highway 20, Stuart has needed to adjust to changing times. The Chicago & North Western Railroad still operates a freight line, but good roads enable people to travel to larger towns for commodities and services. Bigger machinery makes life easier for everyone, and store-bought clothing is more appealing to modern shoppers. Children who leave for college often locate in larger cities upon graduation, where jobs are available. For these and other reasons, Stuart's population declined from its peak of 800 in 1970, but has stabilized at about 650.
Over the years many businesses have come and gone. The Stuart State Bank was established in 1884. Others followed, with present needs met by the Tri-County Bank. The first hospital was located in Dr.Fred Hunt's home, however, the town has been without a hospital since 1952. The Krotter Lumber Company operates at the same location it did when established in 1891. Currently there are about 60 businesses in and around Stuart.
The town has two good schools, the public school and St. Boniface Catholic School, established in 1908 by the Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee. There is a township library, a community auditorium, and the park features summer stock-car racing, sports activities, and camper sites in additional to other local events. Stuart also supports a 53-bed nursing home, and a six-unit housing facility.
The American Legion contributes much to civic and social projects in Stuart. Other active community clubs also contribute to the well-being of the community. A year-long centennial celebration was held in 1984.
The White Horse Ranch Museum, organized in 1964, preserves items from that operation owned by Cal and Ruth Thompson. Other items important to Stuart's heritage are also on display to help citizens remember the first 100 years as Stuart forges into the next century.
By Clare Grieser, Stuart, NE 68780. Typed by Kathy Kohle. Pictures courtesy of: Hazel Lockmon, Bob Hoffman, Cindy Myers, Millie Myers, and Jim Taylor.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Stuart's First 100 Years, 1984. 373 pages, available in hard or soft cover.