Originally called "Alkali" for the alkaline content in the soil, the name was changed to "Paxton" in 1885 for a prominent rancher in the territory.
The first inhabitant was Edwin Searle, 18-year-old telegraph operator for the Union Pacific. When the tracks were completed in June 1867 and the railroad was working west, Searle lived in a tent south of the tracks until the company sent a four foot by six foot by seven foot wooden depot-living quarters with a hinged shelf for a bed.
These were incredible years. History records that in 1872 a herd of buffalo, just over the hill to the north in the North Platte valley, stretched from O'Fallons to Ogallala (32 miles); 200 emigrant wagons passed by on the Oregon Trail (just a mile south of town) during the week of June 5, 1875; and seven rail-carloads of emigrants per day passed through during the week of October 9, 1875. In August 1876 trains were delayed for several hours by grasshoppers that darkened the sky and covered the ground, tracks and all.
The abundant rainfall in the 1880s convinced hardy pioneers that farming was feasible in the area. So they came to find the spot where they could stand and say, "This is MY LAND."
A bridge was completed across the South Platte in 1886. By 1890, beside the depot, water tower, windmill and school, there were ten businesses and a dozen houses scattered across the plains. Church groups formed: Methodists, 1886; Catholics, 1887; Baptists, 1891; and Lutherans, 1902. Most of these early pioneers were from Northern Europe. In 1898 "The Paxton Pilot," came out with George Conn as editor. It lasted just over a year.
Many folks gave up and moved away during the 1890s drought. The Bank of Paxton that had opened in 1888, paid its depositors, and closed in 1896 (the last remaining bank in Keith County at that time). The neophyte town established its cemetery in 1897. To date that silent city has had 1,167 burials, almost equivalent, oddly enough, to the number of high school graduates - 1,190.
By 1900 the rains returned. Soon a larger school was built and by 1918, yet another new building was needed, as five students graduated from Paxton High School.
In 1920 continuous electrical service came so villagers no longer needed to go to bed by ten p.m. when the light plant shut down. After a fire in early spring destroyed the elevator, the citizens saw the need for fire protection and voted to construct a municipal water system. The crash of 1929 brought hard times to Paxton, from which our little town never fully recovered.
During the "Dirty 30s" with drought, depression, dust, and destructive grasshoppers, there was a reduction of the business houses and organizations from an all-time high of over 60 to their present count of 30.
The town's salvation was the construction of Kingsley Dam, from which water flows through a canal, crossing the table between the North and the South Platte rivers, and goes UPHILL through a siphon tube under the town, the railroad tracks, the South Platte River, and finally I-80, a distance of three miles. It was the "shot in the arm" Paxton's economy needed. The Nebraska Public Power District is the second-largest employer of the town, second only to the large consolidated school system which takes in an area of 220 square miles. With a budget of over $1 million annually the school employs 38 full and part-time staff. The present schoolhouse is the fourth to be built in Paxton.
During the school year the town's social life revolves around the school and its many activities. In summer, it's the Paxton Memorial Park where children from 6 to 60 swim and play baseball on the well-lit grassy field. Walking is a favorite pastime and the streets are oil-surfaced, making it safer for 112 senior citizens.
Looking back over the past 120 years, fun and games have always been a major part of the town, whether it be literaries, debates, Chautauquas, or the present annual Labor Day celebration. At the high school reunion held every five years, the town's population of 500 doubles itself. Weddings, anniversaries, and yes, even funerals, are overwhelmingly attended by all. Here once more, old friends meet and talk and remember yesterday. An informal survey shows 250 homes and apartments in the town, over half are occupied by families, 78 by persons over 65, and about 35 currently empty.
Today, as the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail disappear in the sod, they are replaced by contrails of the jets as we look heavenward and to the future, knowing full well that 100 years hence, Paxton will still be here.
By Fae Christensen, Box 5, Paxton, NE 69155
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: "Our Nebraska Heritage" by Dr.Mary Lierley, available at the Paxton Library. Information from "Paxton Pilot" and "Keith County News"; Anniversary issues of "Western Outlook" and "North Platte Telegraph"