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Nebraska...Our Towns

Elk Creek -- Johnson County

An early log cabin teeters at the edge of the flooding creek, years after railroads crisscrossed Johnson County. [Nebraska State Historical Society]

The creek, which empties into the Nemaha River at this location, was named for an elk seen nearby by the pioneers who arrived soon after Nebraska was opened for settlement in 1854. The town, "Elk Creek" was established many years later as a compromise between an early settlement called "Butler" and a millpond site on James Robison's farm.

The names of early families who moved to this area include Robison, Strong, Cody, Baird, Libby, Hall, and Gue. James Robison was elected to represent this area in 1860. Known as "Forney County" from 1854 to 1855, one of the original eight counties, it included much of what is now Johnson and Nemaha counties. For this reason, some of our early history is found in the records at Auburn.

The early settlers chose land on a first-come, first-served basis. Since the land had not been surveyed, no "legal description" could be registered to prove ownership, and improvements that were made belonged to whomever held the title to the land.

In 1859, after a year of political maneuvering, notices were posted that a sale of all government land was to be held in Nebraska City. Settlers had to attend the sale and "purchase their own land" or lose it to "land sharks," who were looking for bargains. This posed a problem to most "squatters," since they generally had little cash-money available. Andreas records: "...speculators offered [settlers] land warrants...with a face value of $150, but sold for $200 each. Interest was at the rate of 40-percent." Using only the land for security, it was usually just a matter of time before the "bankers" got a good share of the interest on the warrants, and the land as well. "Desperate as the offer was, it was largely accepted...and dozens of the ablest settlers became dispossessed of their premises."

During the Civil War, many men joined the service, but since they had to go to one of the "river counties" to sign up, their names are not known. It was noted that there were scarcely enough men left in the county to fill official positions. Johnson County -- not far from Missouri and Kansas -- was a haven for "refugees" who fled from the war. "Martial law" was maintained by the soldiers at Nebraska City. Horse-thieving was epidemic, and offenses were so numerous that " was hard to tell whether friend or foe, refugee, jayhawker, soldier or settler, was the transgressing party." Because of these problems, however, the area had no skirmishes with hostile Indians. With all the warring between the whitefolk, Indians (not on established reservations) had left the vicinity for the open territory farther west.

The passage of the homestead act in 1862 gave "great impetus to the county," and the remaining land was quickly taken. Milling became a very important business. James Woods, who built a sawmill at Butler in 1863, converted it to a grist mill in 1865.

Andreas' early history states, "...there has never been a great amount of excitement wasted on the subject of railroads here..." An early line was to have run from somewhere in Kansas to Nebraska City in 1869, but it never materialized. When the Atchison & Nebraska Railroad built their line through the county in 1872, early settlers "willingly gave land to the company to establish a town." Hezekiah Strong was one of these settlers, and much of the town is located on his land.

The railroad station was called "Elk Creek." Postal authorities, also accepting that name, established an office on April 12, 1872.

Elk Creek became a busy trading point for area residents, with a hotel, opera house, and all the stores and businesses needed to serve the local citizens. A Methodist church was built in 1877, and in 1882 the town was said to have a population of about 200 and "bids fair to improve materially." Incorporation papers were filed on April 23, 1883.

Elk Creek's peak population (347) was reached in 1900. Since then the town has changed considerably, so that today it is a quiet residential community of about 150.


By Jane Graff from material sent by Norman Boone, Rt 1 Box 85, Elk Creek, NE 68348; Perkey's Nebraska Name Places; and Andreas Nebraska History, 1882.