What do Pawnee Indians, Mormons, soldiers, the U.S. Indian Industrial School, a Nebraska penal farm, and a University seed plot have in common? The answer is, Genoa. Now designated as the "Pawnee Capital of Nebraska," this part of the Loup River was the homeland of this tribe as far back as the 1300s.
In 1857, coexisting with the Pawnees, Mormon pioneers established Genoa as one of the settlements along the 1,000-mile trail between Florence and Salt Lake City. It served as a way-station for the Brigham Young Express & Carrying Company, which had the government mail contract to Salt Lake City, and as a supply stop for thousands of Saints that traveled across the plains. About 100 families lived here until 1859, when it became part of the newly-created Pawnee Indian Reservation, and they were forced to leave.
The Pawnee Indian Agency moved into the vacated Mormon buildings and proceeded to build a large schoolhouse. After warring Sioux Indians attacked the main village, with many large earthen lodges and tepees just south of Genoa, on several occasions, a military camp was established. Manned by government soldiers, its mission was to protect the peaceful Pawnee and the agency.
Fifteen years later, in 1875, when the Pawnee were moved to Oklahoma, the reservation land was sold. The town site of Genoa and all the government buildings, except the big brick school, were purchased by two squatters, DeLane and George Willard, for $3,500.
An Indian industrial school was opened utilizing the "big brick building" in 1884. The students that came from ten states and over 20 tribes had to be at least one-fourth Indian. In time the school grew from the original 74 students to an enrollment of 599, and encompassed over 30 buildings on 640 acres. In addition to schooling, students learned a trade by working in the carpentry shop, harness shop, tailor shop, school, hospital, bakery, laundry, dairy barn, cheese factory, blacksmith shop, horse or cattle barns, farm, or gardens. Before it closed in 1934, it was said to be one of the largest, most successful, and longest-lived of the federal Indian schools.
At this point in time, the facilities were deeded to the state, which converted it into a prison farm. Used from 1937 until 1944, it had no bars on the windows for the 143 inmates. Only six men violated the "code of honor" during their stay. There was a canning factory, packing plant, and a nursery. When it closed it was given to the University of Nebraska and made into a seed farm. In 1951 most of the buildings were auctioned off. The shop building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was restored in 1981 as a visitors center. The Pawnee Indian heritage is preserved at the Allen Atkins Collection in Genoa, and there are numerous archeological sites in the area.
As early as 1874 there were dreams of harnessing the Loup River for irrigation and power. An irrigation project was initiated and later a power ditch was completed, but neither of these lasted long. In 1934 the present power project was established. Running from five miles southwest of Genoa to Columbus, it provides water not only for generating electricity but also for fishing and recreation.
The first train arrived in 1879. During the 1930s there were four passenger trains a day providing transportation for students to and from school. The Union Pacific continues to provides freight service.
Since the 1900s Genoa has maintained a fairly even population, between 1,100 and 1,200 people. Primarily a rural community, there are 52 businesses, a K-12 school with over 350 students, and four churches: Catholic, Congregational, Lutheran, and Methodist.
Genoa has become a center for retirees with a senior center, senior bowling day, the Golden Age Band, meals-on-wheels, two nursing homes, a retirement housing unit, plus a 60-bed facility added to the hospital. The town also has a youth center and offers many recreational activities; swimming, tennis, baseball, softball, roller skating, and bowling.
Pawnee Days, the third weekend in July, features a demolition derby, livestock show, barbecue, parade, horse show, baseball game, and a free breakfast at the airport with many fly-ins. Genoa is known for its rodeo, fireworks display, and good hunting with two state wildlife areas nearby.
By Nancy F.Carlson, Genoa, NE 68640, and Kathy Harris, with credits to Allen Atkins, the Genoa Historical Board, and the "Genoa Leader-Times." Photos courtesy of the City of Genoa.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The First Voices , Nebraskaland Magazine, pg 98.