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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nelson -- Nuckolls County

Declared the county seat because of its central location, Nelson, named for Horatio Nelson Wheeler, retained that designation largely for the same reason. Photo of main street 1900.
Nelson's main street in 1913, after cement sidewalks were installed but before the streets were hard-surfaced. [NCHS]
The main street in 1989, with many of the same buildings. [Harris]

As the great wave of settlers was arriving in Nebraska, a town called "Nelson" was established near the center of Nuckolls County. When proclaimed as the county seat in 1872, it is doubtful that more than 20 people lived here. These early settlers, many of whom had lived in good style in the east, had moved to this treeless prairie, where coyotes serenaded them at night and water was hauled from a community spring.

Faith in the future failed to die even when three disastrous fires consumed the entire business block (13 business houses in all) and when a ruinous cyclone demolished 20 homes, the Presbyterian church, and the schoolhouse. With typical pioneering self-reliance, the people picked up the pieces, rebuilt their homes and businesses, and bragged that, "there is no brighter prospects for any town in the west!"

The community also maintained its balance during the events surrounding a brutal murder of Henry Sallen in 1887. The body of this highly-respected farmer was found about a mile from town. He was reported to have accepted a ride home with a stranger after selling a load of hogs for cash. Irate citizens suspected that a railroad hand, known as "John the Cook," was the murderer, and he was quickly apprehended and thrown in jail.

That same night 100 hooded men broke into the jail and took the prisoner hostage. A rope was tied around his neck and he was marched to the railroad bridge over Elk Creek, where he was forced to leap to his death. The crew from the morning train cut the rope, allowing the body to fall to the stream below. Burial was made in "Potters Field" of the local cemetery the following day.

A grisly sequel to this story was perpetrated three years later when "night ghouls" exhumed the body of the murderer and carried away the head. Not long after this, it was learned that a phrenologist (one who believes that the skull is an indicator of mental faculties and character) had a skull on display which he described as "a murderer...of low intellect and brutal instinct..." As in the case of the members of the hooded posse, no arrests were ever made!

During the time when these gory events were taking place, Nelson was challenged for the county seat by Superior, 13 miles south. In the July 30, 1889, election, Nelson narrowly retained that title.

With a population of 733, down from nearly 1,000 in 1900, Nelson continues to serve as the county seat. The beautifully renovated 100-year-old courthouse stands on a hill overlooking the town. During the Christmas season the many beautiful evergreen trees on the lawn are decorated with lights and ornaments, with volunteers from each town in the county "adopting a tree" to decorate.

Nelson has a swimming pool, a nine-hole sand-green golf course, and a 45-bed skilled care Good Samaritan nursing home. (Nelson is the smallest town to receive a nursing home operated by this society). The local Rural Electrification District serves 2,226 customers in a three-county area, plus a part of four additional counties. Elk Creek Manor provides 20 single and double apartments for elderly and handicapped citizens.

In 1968, with 94 percent of all eligible voters going to the polls, the patrons of the school district voted to build a new junior-senior school, which now serves Nelson and Nora students.

An active American Legion Post provides a "Memory Lane of Flags" that flies at the cemetery and courthouse each Memorial Day. The flags also fly on the courthouse lawn on Flag Day, Veterans Day, and Presidents' Day. Weekly bingo games and pitch parties draw large crowds from surrounding areas. The community club provides activities for children on Halloween and Christmas. Club members also sponsor a three-act play and oleos each year using local talent. Annual craft shows bring a large number of exhibitors and visitors.

The senior citizens are active with a building of their own, where quilting and needlework are done, anniversaries and birthdays celebrated, and class reunions held. A thrift shop is open weekly, selling clothing that has been cleaned and mended by volunteers.

It takes a lot of enthusiasm and volunteer effort to make a small town a good place to live. The citizens of Nelson need not take a back seat to our pioneers in their determination and faith in the future.

 

By Charlotte E. Clabaugh, 155 West 3rd, Nelson, NE 68961

 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: From 'Hoppers to Copters, 1967; and The Wonderful Years, a History of Nuckolls County 1871-1971. Nelson has presented several historical pageants through the years, and a local column in the three county newspapers features history of the area.