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Nebraska...Our Towns


Little did the first settlers on the North Fork of the Elkhorn River dream that their town would become one of Nebraska's 12 largest cities. They were simply looking for a new place to live. A major disagreement within a Lutheran congregation in Ixonia, WI, prompted a number of families, led by The Rev.Hoeckendorf, to resettle on the prairies in Nebraska Territory. A committee was sent to find a suitable location for the colony in this "new promised land" in 1865. The next spring, 44 families packed all their earthly possessions into wagons and started for the fertile Elkhorn Valley.

Starting in May, they arrived at the confluence of the Elkhorn and North Fork rivers on July 17. The land was divided into equal shares of 160 acres for each family. Their homes included dug-outs, sod houses, and log cabins (or a combination of these) and roofed with slough grass.

Their late arrival meant that no crops could be raised that season. Food and supplies were a great distance away and prices were very high. The people endured many hardships, denials, and disappointments, but noted, "...sure as there is a sky above, the Lord has placed in the midst of the beautiful prairie a variety of wild fruits, game, and fowl to sustain us until crops can be planted and a harvest brought in."

This group of good German farmers was so well established by the spring of 1868 that they petitioned Congress for a post office for the settlement, named "North Fork." However, authorities, thinking it was misspelled, issued the permit for "Norfolk" and appointed August Raasch postmaster. (Nebraskans, however, pronounce it Nor-fork.)

The first store (a soddy with a log front) was located where the Elkhorn and North Fork rivers join, and was kept by a man named Jones. Indians often came through the valley on hunting expeditions. The Ponca and the Omaha tribes made yearly visits to the area, and would stay several weeks, trading ponies, buffalo robes, and moccasins for blankets, knives, guns, powder, shot, beads, and other items.

In 1868 Colonel Charles Mathewson arrived with his family, which included several grown children. The colonel's appointment at the Winnebago and Omaha Reservation had expired, and he was searching for "a new profitable location." Finding this settlement in need of lumber and a grist mill, he decided to stay.

A makeshift sawmill was made by digging a hole in the ground deep enough for a man to stand. A log was then placed in a rack across the top of the hole. Using a two-man saw with one man in the hole and the other at the ground level, they pulled the blade back and forth through the log, cutting it into planks.

As soon as Mathewson had built a frame house for his family, he put up a mill store. Opened in February 1869, it was run by his son-in-law, John Emery Olney. Construction was then started on the grist mill, completed in February 1870.

The location of the grist mill and mill store actually determined the present location of Norfolk. With these basic businesses located, the colonel drew out a design for lots. Herman Braasch engaged the county surveyor, Thomas Ward, to lay out the town site. A public square was included, for the hoped-for county courthouse.

A host of new citizens arrived in the 1870s. John Koenigstein opened a drug store, Ferdinand Wegener built a "real hotel," August Pilger started a hardware store, and John Oesterling had a harness shop. Fred Lehman set up a blacksmith forge in 1871. The next year a newspaper, "The Pioneer," was established. Written by hand, it was edited by Charles Mathewson and Mary Fish, and published "semi-occasionally."

Blizzards in the spring of 1873 were devastating. The summer brought another disaster -- prairie fire. As the flames raced toward the settlement, threatening the business district, women worked shoulder to shoulder with the men, pumping tubs full of water and flailing the burning stubble with water-soaked sacks or blankets. The town was saved, but crops, livestock, and many homesteads were not.

Grasshopper invasions had come to parts of the plains states on numerous occasions, but hit northeastern Nebraska hardest in 1874. Fear of their return left many people feeling helpless in the face of such overwhelming obstacles.

The hope that Norfolk would be named as the county seat was dashed the following year when the election went to a town more centrally located. However, the gold rush to the Black Hills from 1876-78 quickly made Norfolk the "gateway to the northwest." The trail up the Elkhorn Valley, and then across to the Niobrara cut miles off the route along the Platte to Sidney and then north. Norfolk became a stopping point for freighters, where provisions could be purchased for the long journey west. Supplies went to the end of the extending rail line, and then were rushed on to Norfolk by wagon.

The Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad arrived in September 1879, and the next year the Union Pacific completed its line from Columbus. The appearance of two major railroads, and eventually a third, the Chicago, St.Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha, out of Sioux City, were eminently more important to Norfolk's destiny as a trade center than being the county seat.

With all the activity and growth, the town asked to incorporate. In September 1881 a village board was elected. Streets and alleys were dedicated, lamps were erected on major thoroughfares, and by 1884 a fire department was organized.

In 1888 the Legislature appropriated funds to build the State Hospital for the Insane in Norfolk. Although only limited treatment methods were known at the time, this institution grew and at one time accommodated over 1,400 residents.

With good rail connections and power, Norfolk had a sugar beet factory from 1891 to 1904. From 1915-25 Norfolk was the home of the Square Turn Tractor Company, which produced machinery that helped mechanize farming. Manufacturing and industry grew and Norfolk flourished with the increasingly diversified economy. Currently more than 40 manufacturing plants produce a wide variety of products and employ over 3,000 people. Located at the junction of two major highways and two railroad lines, Norfolk continues to be a major transportation center for northeast Nebraska.

Norfolk is the hometown of a number of famous people:

-- Johnny Carson, host of the "Tonite Show" lived here and graduated from Norfolk High School.

-- George L. Carlson became a world renowned geologist, explorer, and editor. A horse-breeder, he is credited with the introduction of artificial insemination of livestock.

-- Dr. Richard J. Tanner was also widely known as "Diamond Dick," hero of countless ten-cent western novels. World champion long distance rider and sharp shooter in the 1890s, he lived in Norfolk from 1910-43.

-- Joyce Hall, founder of the Hallmark Company, started the firm Norfolk Post Card Company in 1908.

As the hub of northeast Nebraska, Norfolk is unique as an economic center for that part of the state. Named "All-America City" in 1975, it was a finalist again in 1980, and has been an "All-Nebraska City" every year since 1977.

The 1980 census lists Norfolk with a population of 19,449 and still growing. A city of the first-class, our town is keeping up with the ever-changing times through the watchful eyes of its agricultural and industrial base.

By Mary A. Voss, 721 East Park Avenue, Norfolk, NE 68701


ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Koxie Comie, 1886-1986, Norfolk Centennial, 1966; Souvenir of Norfolk, 1894; Norfolk of Today 1894; A History of Norfolk , by Pangel, 1929; "Early History of Norfolk & Madison County Towns," 1938, by Langraff; A Nostalgic Tour & Trivia of Norfolk, (before 1900), by Cobb and Robinson, 1979; History of Norfolk Livestock Sales Company, 1919-77, by Barritt, 1977; Norco News 100th Anniversary, 1969; Methodism in Norfolk , Hess, 1947; Heritage of the United Methodist Parish, Moody, 1984; and "Norfolk: Where Industry Meets Instant Success," 1967, B & I Magazine. Information also found in: History of Nebraska, 1882, Andress; History of the Elkhorn Valley, 1892, Scoville; End of the track , by Kyner, 1937; and Nebraska, A Guide to the Cornhusker State , a WPA project, 1939, 1947. Newspaper articles from "Norfolk Daily News," "Anzeiger," "Daily Times," "Herald," "Journal," "Press," and "Norfolk Weekly News Journal."