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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Steele City -- Jefferson County

The mill and dam built north of Steel City after the railroad came through in 1873. [Jefferson County Historical Society].

Steele City, founded in 1873, was named for Dudley M. Steele, president of the St. Joseph & Denver City Railroad, which was built through Jefferson County the previous year. The new town replaced the earlier settlements of "Freeport" and of nearby "Jenkens Mill," which had harnessed the fall of the Little Blue River in 1867 to grind grain.

Even before there were settlements, tens of thousands of pioneers passed up the natural road of the valley along the old Oregon Trail, bound for California and the Pacific Northwest, as did riders for the Pony Express, during its brief but colorful era. In 1860 explorer Sir Richard Burton, traveling this route, commented on the extreme beauty of the valley along the Little Blue. Rich in game, the area was a hunting ground for the Pawnee, Oto, and other Indian tribes.

As a new railroad town, Steele City thrived, reaching a population of nearly 400 in 1890. Early settlers were from both Union and Confederate states. Good spring water flowed into public horse tanks, and people came from miles around -- even from Kansas -- to stock up on "the fine drinking water."

Steele City's school, first to be organized in the county, was established in 1868, long before the town was thought of. A brick school building was erected in 1881, to accommodate the growing enrollment. Time and tides have changed all that. Currently, elementary enrollment is only about a dozen children.

The first newspaper, "The Little Blue," begun at Jenkins Mill, was followed by Freeport's "Western Sun," and then the "Steele City Mail" in 1892. Early businesses included a pottery plant, a cheese factory, and a lime kiln, plus a full line of retail stores and professional people. For a brief time (1894-96) the name of the post office was changed to "Steelburg."

The last doctor, Dr. I. N. Morgan, had his own hospital. Until his death in 1963, his osteopathic practice attracted patients from as far away as California.

Over the years, Steele City churches served several denominations. The old limestone Baptist church, built in 1882, still survives as an historical landmark. The handsome red brick Presbyterian Church, built in 1920, currently houses the local congregation. Over the years, several lodges functioned as fraternal and social organizations. Today the Campbell-Klein Post 349 of the American Legion, its auxiliary, and Little Blue Belles Extension Club, are active. The Steele City Cemetery Association maintains the picturesque burial ground in the hills northeast of town, overlooking the valley.

The town extends out onto the bottom lands near the river west of the railroad as well as up the hillside to the east. Flooding of the lower part of town is almost an annual occurrence, causing the inhabitants to move to higher ground until the water subsides. Then basements are pumped and soaked possessions are aired until dry.

Fires have also damaged and destroyed buildings over the years, sometimes with loss of life. The town lost its last grain elevator to arson in the 1950s. We now have an active volunteer fire department.

A number of old brick and stone buildings have survived from the 19th century. In addition to the stone church, the blacksmith shop and the bank are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings serve as museums, containing books, pictures, furniture, and implements used in the early years, and are open to visitors during the summer.

A large stone livery stable near the railroad tracks was rebuilt after all but one wall collapsed. The restoration and maintenance of these buildings has been the responsibility of the Jefferson County Historical Society. To raise the necessary funds the society sponsors a flea market on the third weekend of September. This event draws 5,000-10,000 visitors to Steele City annually.

Three business enterprises operate in Steele City today. Bud & Bill's Ready Mix supplies concrete to area builders, as well as gravel to maintain rural roads, quarried just east of town. The Cross & Crown Company publishes and distributes Sunday school awards for churches of many denominations across the nation. And the Salty Dog Tavern, serving food and grog, occupies a brick building built by Guy Taylor as a drug store. A beautiful, old-fashioned bar has recently been restored, complete with mirrors and carved woodwork.

 

By Mary Burwell Diller, 211 South 2nd Street, Steele City, NE 68440.