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Nebraska...Our Towns

Crab Orchard -- Johnson County

Crab Orchard's main street (looking east) before the town was platted. [Lynch]
Four trains daily stopped at the Burlington depot with living quarters upstairs, ca. 1900s.

Crab Orchard is a farming community located near the western border of Johnson County in southeast Nebraska. One of the first settlers was Mary P. Laflin, who (along with her three sons) arrived on May 3, 1857. The Laflin place was headquarters for freighters who traveled from Brownville to Beatrice, then further west. It was here that the stagecoach changed horses and mail was left for the settlers. While Mary Laflin is not mentioned in Andreas' History of Nebraska, one of her sons, L. H. Laflin, is. By 1882 he had married, was a member of the local school board, and had served in the Nebraska Legislature in 1872-73. His address was listed as "Vesta."

Warren S. Dilworth took land where the Crab Orchard Cemetery is now located. Nearby, some of the wild crab apple trees grew from which the village of Crab Orchard derived its name. The government established the Crab Orchard Post Office in 1864, with Dilworth as postmaster.

While Crab Orchard was a long-established name, it was not until the railroad came through the area that it became a trading center. In building a line from Nebraska City to Holdrege, the Burlington established a town about a mile northeast of the original postal location. The plat papers were filed May 8, 1883, by H.G. Scott of the Lincoln Land Company, with the post office officially moved that August. Between August 1883 and January 1884, an average of ten new buildings were built per month.

Less than a year later, March 4, 1884, the village had grown to over 200 and was approved for incorporation. By then, within the limits of the town site of about 40 houses, Crab Orchard had 32 business places and "a splendid school building graced the hill above town." Newspaper accounts and brochures boasted that Crab Orchard was "the best trading town of similar size in this part of the state." By 1895 Crab Orchard was said to have had a population of something over 300. The official peak was recorded in 1920 with a population of 278.

Crab Orchard is said to have had the first school in Johnson County -- a little log schoolhouse one mile west of town, built in 1867. It has been without a school since 1967. Between 1884 and 1911 five churches were built in Crab Orchard. All have closed, the last on May 24, 1987.

The first two-story brick building was the Masonic Hall, with the bank downstairs. Four or five lodges use the facility. The first telephone system was installed in 1903, managed by Frank and Etta Rothell. The town had its first electric lights in 1905. The town's first newspaper was called the "Crab Orchard News." It was followed by the "Crab Orchard Eagle," then the "Crab Orchard Herald." The last issue was printed in 1936. These chronicle many interesting and bizarre events that have occurred through the years.

At one time the local residents began to think that Crab Orchard was jinxed because for decades it was plagued by fires. The town's decline accelerated in 1942 when the railroad abandoned the line.

Even so, the town did not fold up and blow away. Streets were paved in 1962 and a rural water district established in 1975 made life more pleasant for the residents. A fine community building was dedicated in January 1968 and has since then been the hub of many activities. Popular annual events formerly included the Legion-Auxiliary coon supper and the combined church's Lord's Acre Day parade and celebration.

Crab Orchard proudly became a "Bicentennial Community" in 1976. The town observed its centennial on July 24, 1983. The day-long celebration concluded with guest speaker Roger Welsch.

Some of Crab Orchard's talented people include:

-- Mrs. L.D. Spence, chosen State Mother of Nebraska for 1947.

-- Mrs. Leona Schnuelle, winner of the $25,000 grand prize at the Pillsbury Bake-off for her dilly casserole bread, 1960.

-- Paul Swan, world-renown painter, sculptor, and dancer, raised on a farm southeast of Crab Orchard. After his death in 1972, his ashes were buried in the Crab Orchard Cemetery.

Although the village of Crab Orchard (1990 population 47) now has only a post office, a service station, and a roofing business, hundreds fill the town on Memorial Day weekend. Former residents and townspeople attend services at the cemetery, share dinner with old friends at the community building, and, on alternate years, reminiscence at the high school reunion.

By Keith & Lorraine Lynch, Rt 1 Box 176, Crab Orchard, 68332

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Remonds, by John Remonds contains local history in addition to family genealogy; and The Crest of the Woodpile, by former resident J. Wesley Collins.