In 1857 John and Margaret Prey, adult sons, John W., Thomas, and William, and teenage children, David and Rebecca, came from Wisconsin to preempt land near the proposed town called "Olathe." There were high hopes for the future of the area, which was designated as "Clay County." However, not many people ventured this far out onto the prairie. While there were no major confrontations with Indians, there were several scares, which caused some settlers to leave and not return. Rebecca Prey was taken by Indians, but they released her when her father and brothers appeared.
In 1861 Delos and Frances Mills settled one-half mile west of Salt Creek. They built a small stone house, using limestone from a ledge that protruded from the ground. This was the beginning of the quarries that became a primary business. The following year Mills' mother, Orra Boydston, and her sister, Esther Warner arrived. Both widows, they filed on adjoining homesteads near Mills' cabin.
There was a "political altercation" in 1863, at which time Clay County was dissolved and the land divided between Gage and Lancaster counties. The Prey family and John Haskins were the only original settlers who remained at this location. In 1864 Elmore Keys arrived and bought Prey's cabin for $20. He moved it, log by log, to a site on the east side of the creek, and later added a small stone lean-to.
In 1867 a committee was commissioned to find a location for the state's capital city. A site near the rock quarries on the Mills farm was suggested because of the availability of good building materials. However, the town of Lancaster was chosen instead. When work was started on the statehouse in 1868, rock from the quarry was said to be "unsatisfactory for building."
A school was built in 1869 near the Warner farm by the quarry men. When the Atchison & Nebraska Railroad built its line to Lincoln in 1871, it came right through the area. The siding and station established at that time needed a name. Haskel Warner, who had worked with a survey crew in the New Mexico Territory, suggested "Roca," which is Spanish for rock.
Elmore Keys and John Meyer donated the land, and a town site was platted. The big stone house that Keys built on top of the hill east of the town at that time is still a fine home today. The town immediately started to grow, and by 1876 it was incorporated.
Keys & Bullock opened a new quarry on the south side of Roca in 1875, and later the Blue Stone quarry. Rock from these quarries was used in the construction of many buildings in Lincoln, out-state, and beyond. There was active quarrying in the area for over 100 years, both by the county and by private owners.
In 1879 the number of students had grown so that another schoolhouse was needed. That one also was quickly outgrown, so a larger wooden building was erected. By 1882 there were 280 residents and businesses included a hotel, a mill, a hardware store, a lumberyard, a drug store, and a scattering of other shops. Main Street faced Salt Creek on the west side of town, with the railroad depot across the street.
Fire destroyed several businesses in 1891, the mill in about 1900, and the hotel in 1910. By then the quarries were not as productive. Businesses, once displaced, did not rebuild. In 1933 a large brick schoolhouse was built, which served the community until 1964, when a consolidation effort formed the Norris School District with a building south of Hickman.
A Methodist Church, formed in 1876, was built by quarry men, and enlarged in 1925. That edifice burned in an early morning fire in 1969. A new church was built which has a small but active congregation. A small Lutheran church, located near the school, was active until 1916, when they disbanded. The original cemetery was one mile north of town on a sand hill. In 1876 the present cemetery was established on land donated by the Keys family, an enlargement of their family burial grounds.
Today, Roca is a quiet village of 130, the quarry is used as a county shop headquarters, and the elevator is the principal business.
By Shirley Tebo, 6000 Lillibridge, #4, Lincoln, NE 68506