"Hartwell, a station on the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, is located in Eaton Township in northeastern Kearney County, ten miles from Minden, the county seat." This 1886 description of the area from the NEBRASKA STATE GAZETTEER AND BUSINESS DIRECTORY also said..."the surrounding countryside is a level prairie land which yields the finest crops of wheat, rye, and barley, the soil being black loam several feet deep underlaid with deep extra strata of lighter colored earth which insures fertility for generations to come." The Gazetteer was right!
The village was named in honor of James B. Heartwell, a state senator and president of a financial company in Hastings. The original spelling, "Hartwell," was the common form used at the turn of the century. In 1902 it was corrected to "Heartwell," reflecting the man's name.
Heartwell owes its origin to the building of the railroad in 1883, which was destined to become a part of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad main line from Chicago to Denver. Late that year, the railroad and telegraph were doing business across the entire county, connecting it with the nation.
In 1884 Heartwell began a business boom. Stores, hotels, grain elevators, livery barns, lumber and coal dealers, blacksmith shops, two churches, a school, and a saloon were started. The first business, a general store, plus a dwelling, were built by Irving W. Haws. He was the town's first postmaster and a civic leader during his years there. The area was settled principally by Scotch, Irish, and Germans who were, for the most part, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Adventists, Methodists, and Episcopalians. Religious affiliation was strong and had a very important role in this area's history. It has, at times, overshadowed everything except the agricultural motivation of the settlers and their descendants.
In 1913 the village, with its many frame buildings, was nearly annihilated by a series of three fires. Only three shops survived. A new business district of brick was completed within two years and the village incorporated during the reconstruction.
During the Depression of the 1930s, Heartwell came through the drought and dust because everyone worked together, diligently sharing what they had to meet the needs of one another. There was an intimacy during this era not seen before or since. The hard times, of course, caused some population loss.
During World War II the town diminished more as many citizens left "to do their patriotic duty" in various ways. At war's end the town revitalized briefly with the return of many of its veterans. Employment opportunities were minimal though, and the young continued to leave in quest of work. Roads and cars improved and everything in life accelerated. Jobs and a bigger variety of low-cost merchandise drew citizens to the larger neighboring towns. The high school closed its doors in 1949, and only a K-6 school remains. The older students are bused to high schools in neighboring towns. The Heartwell State Bank voluntarily liquidated in 1955. James J. Smith, M.D., the town's only doctor, died in 1963.
In its more than 100 years, Heartwell has never attained more than 200 population, but it has had its moments of glory. It boasts of having had a bed springs manufacturer, automobile dealers, a broom factory, and a chinchilla plant. Heartwell was once recognized in Ripley's "Believe it or not" column: "Heartwell, Nebraska, had a pharmacist whose name was Wellensiek."
Today Heartwell is, basically, a bedroom community. Deterioration is rapid, but death is slow. Most residents commute to the larger towns for their jobs as well as many of their other needs. Housing here is cheap and homes needing work are available at bargain prices. Citizens of the surrounding area still come to Heartwell to worship, vote, meet, and socialize.
Rural Heartwell, in Eaton Township, is the genuine substance of the community. In the almost unimaginably flat countryside, irrigated land produces bountiful crops of corn, milo, and wheat. Farmsteads reflect the years of family ownership and prosperous enterprise in beautiful farm homes. Our town of Heartwell is one of Nebraska's typically quiet farm communities.
By Raymond A.Billesbach, 925 N. Hewett Avenue, Hastings, NE, 68901
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Historical Atlas of Kearney County, NE by J. H. Sears, C.E., 1894; Heroes Without Medals, by Roy T. Bang, Warp Pub Co, Minden, 1952; Heartwell's First 100 Years, by Heartwell History Writing Committee, 1983; Nebraska State Gazetteer and Business Directory (As referenced in this work. Editions dated before turn of century until prior to WW I.)