Jacob Zimmerman, the first settler in Mirage township, Kearney County, came in 1873. More settlers were attracted by the advertisements of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, which courted emigrants from Germany, Bohemia, and the Scandinavian countries. Frank Beiyon, a land agent whose descriptions of the area often exceeded reality, attracted many settlers. The majority of the immigrants came directly from Sweden or from Swedish communities in Iowa.
Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church, first church in Kearney County, was founded at a gathering in 1876 at the Beiyon home. Organized under the Augustana Synod, the members built a sod church which became the focus of their cultural, religious, and educational experiences.
The B&MR Railroad came to Axtell in 1885. Its arrival assured Axtell's success, and the town incorporated in December of that year. Tradition says that the village is named for the engineer on the first train.
On July 26, 1894, a strong hot wind, like one coming out of a blacksmith's forge, swept across the land destroying all crops. Intense suffering stalked the community that fall and winter. When a car load of relief goods arrived from St.Joseph, Illinois, a crowd of hungry people swarmed ahead, breaking the car's seal, and quickly distributed its goods. Those involved in the food riot were not prosecuted.
Disaster struck in 1907 when a fire that started in Erlandson's Restaurant burned most of the businesses on the east side of main street. Two weeks later a second fire destroyed the majority of the businesses on the west side. There was much rebuilding to do.
Pastor William Dahl stands out in the history of Axtell. He felt a divine call to establish a home for people whom he called "unfortunates." He felt compassion for those society labeled as "imbeciles," "cripples," and without home or family. Together with 54 other charter members, he founded the Bethphage Inner Mission Association in 1913 and located the institution at Axtell. Willie Dahl drove himself with an impassioned urgency, here and abroad, visiting the Bethel Institutions at Bielefed, Germany, (the model for Bethphage at Axtell) and sought support from families and friends in his native Sweden. His pace led to his early death in 1918 at age 34.
The Mission, that began in several houses in Axtell, moved to a forty acre knoll north of town which gradually was covered with a corbie-gabled, red-tile roofed campus. It is bordered by buff brick columns linked by massive black chains, symbols of the bondage of mental and physical handicaps, graphically restating Bethphage's watchword from Hebrews 13:3 "Remember those who are in bonds."
Bethphage Mission has reached far beyond Dahl's original vision. For many years it has been a proud participant in the care of our nation's handicapped persons.
On May 6, 1952, the residents of 13 surrounding school districts and Axtell voted to establish a new school district, the first such redistricting effort in Nebraska. This vote assured quality education for all children in Axtell area. The dream born in that action is now an excellent school and a member of the Fort Kearney Conference.
The Axtell Community School is a central feature of our town. Education is a vital link between past and future. As a focal point of community wide events, it provides a visible sense of community identity.
Axtell is very proud of Gary Anderson, who brought home the gold medals in the 1964 and 1968 Summer Olympic Games in the small bore rifle competition.
Because Axtell is primarily a farming community, the Axtell Co-op was organized in 1903 under the name Axtell Grain and Elevator Company. It has continued to serve the community through the years. The modern grain handling facilities located on the Burlington-Northern Railroad and U.S.Highway 6 & 34 provide a ready outlet for the area's grain farmers.
Bethphage Mission, the school, and the co-op all play a prominent roll in Axtell's future. Undergirding them are our churches: Bethany Lutheran, Trinity Lutheran, and Presbyterian, each ministering to the people of their congregation, providing the vital framework of faith around which to organize life.
By H.Eldin Wells, Axtell Chamber of Commerce, Box 26, Axtell, NE 68924. Photos by Jeff England. Coordinator, Diane Norblade.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: "Axtell: The First 100 Years"; Heroes Without Medals," by Roy T. Bang.