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Nebraska...Our Towns

Peru -- Nemaha County

Scenic view of the Missouri from the bluffs east of Peru. The trading post located on top of the bluffs was the site for the first settlement, "Mount Vernon." [Longfellow]
A view of Peru's main street in 1915. [Longfellow]
Main Street, 1987. Well-kept buildings and mini parks along the cobblestone streets. [Longfellow]

In 1853 a colony from Peru, Illinois, which included the families of Horn, Hall, Combs, Swan, Tate, and Mellick -- all somewhat related -- crossed the Missouri River into the greatly-discussed land called "Nebraska" with the intention of settling. However, at that time Nebraska was still "Indian Territory," sovereign homeland of the Otoes. When the settlers were turned back by soldiers at the Old Fort Kearny, they went to the small settlement of Sonora, Missouri, where they stayed with some relatives.

Determined to be first, several from their group crossed the river either in a boat or on the ice, and staked out farms during the winter, "...to be claimed as soon as the government bought the land from the Indians."

On the top of the bluffs, across the river from Sonora, was an Indian trading post run by Henry Martin, which became the nucleus of a town called "Mount Vernon." A plat was filed in 1855 and two years later a post office was granted. From this hill it is possible to see Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska. However, since most of the goods needed by the people came via steamboat, this location was very inconvenient.

In 1857 another settlement was established near the river. Named "Peru," it immediately started to grow. In 1861 a Methodist institute, the "Mount Vernon Academy," was founded. When Martin's trading post burned, most of the people moved down to Peru where a business district was carved from the hills. In 1867 the academy became Nebraska's first "normal school" (for the training of school teachers), which was only the third such school west of the Missouri at the time. This aided in the development of the community.

In 1875, when the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad arrived in Peru, people no longer had to rely on the river for transporting goods to and from the town.

Northeast of Peru, the Missouri River made a big sweep around a peninsula 12 miles long but only one-half mile across at the narrow neck. During a flood in the 1880s, the river cut a new channel. Now called "Island Precinct," it is still part of Nemaha County even though it is on the Iowa side of the river. The river that had run close to Peru when the town was founded, also cut a new channel several miles to the east.

Among the industries in Peru's early history were a canning factory, a cider plant, an ice plant, a box factory, a brick yard, and a flour mill. We still have a sawmill and a pallet factory, which employs 10-12 persons. Over the years, Peru State College has continued to be the "main industry," training both teachers and liberal arts students.

Peru once had an important fruit industry, which shipped many carloads of apples, peaches, pears, grapes, and berries. In 1912 the ten counties in southeast Nebraska produced more apples than did the six states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Colorado. A disastrous freeze on "Armistice Day," November 11, 1940, killed thousands of fruit trees. Only one orchard was replanted, as it takes years for trees to become productive.

Peru's business district once contained more than 20 businesses. Located in an out-of-the-way spot, they did well until cars became common and people could drive to nearby cities, where they could shop from a larger selection. Presently there are just six businesses.

Six miles from Highway 75, Peru's location is now somewhat of a drawback. However, it is also a blessing. Peru is a scenic town, with comfortable homes, and a new retirement facility. There are many trees, shrubs, flowers, and two parks. The soil is fertile loess, which produces abundant crops. Built into the hills, our town is not subject to flooding, nor have we been visited by tornados. When buildings have been destroyed by fire or are no longer needed, they have been cleared away and replaced with mini-parks to help beautify the city.

Peru's peak occurred in 1970 with a population of 1,380. The present census records nearly 1,000 residents. Utilities are provided by the Omaha Public Power District, Lincoln Telephone & Telegraph Company, and Peoples Natural Gas of Auburn, and our streets are paved with brick and asphalt.

In addition to a Catholic church, the protestant churches -- formerly the Baptist, Methodist Episcopal, and Disciples of Christ -- have united to form a Community Church.

By Ernest Longfellow, 1209 5th Street, Peru, NE 68421.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Hills of Peru , by Louise Mears Dormer; The Normal on the Hill, 100 years of Peru State College," by Ernest Longfellow, O. W. A. A.; and a history of Peru, the town titled, Across the Wide Missouri, 1992, by Ernest Longfellow