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Nebraska...Our Towns

UNADILLA -- OTOE COUNTY

When looking at all the towns platted in Otoe County during the 1860s, it is a wonder that Unadilla has survived. Paisley, to the west, and Nursery Hill, to the east, met their demise before the turn of the century.

In 1864 James Wallen and his family claimed the 24th homestead in the county and established a "half-way house" which served freighters on the Nebraska City cut-off route. It was immortalized under another name in the novel "Nebraska Coast" by Clyde Brion Davis.

Strite and Catherine Axtell, having "inside information" on the path of the railroad, platted and recorded a town in May 1871. Mrs. Axtell is said to have borrowed the name from Unadilla, New York. "Unadilla" is an Iroquois Indian word meaning "a place of meeting." William Saunders built the first house, which was on the site now occupied by Lempka Recycling. Almost due south, on the bank of the Little Nemaha, Saunders built a dam to provide power for the Unadilla Roller Mills.

The school district was organized in 1871, with classes held in a building near the town site. A school was built in 1872 near where the Methodist Church now stands.

The Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks entered Unadilla approximately 1,000 feet south of the Saunders' residence. Crossing the south road, it makes a wide curve and exits the town in a north westerly direction. Following the grade of the tracks, main street was also laid out along the curved line.

A post office was established in April, 1872, as were two small general stores, and a blacksmith shop. However, while there was a siding at this location, no depot was built. A depression, which gripped the nation in 1873, made for "tight money" all along the new line. In 1874 the people collected what they could and built their own depot and a stockyard, which they donated to the railroad. It soon became known for "top prices" for cattle and grain. An elevator was built in 1880, which handled 90,000 bushels of grain the following year. Large amounts of stone from a nearby quarry were also shipped by rail.

Sunday services met in John Abbott's store in 1873. The first church was built in 1879, with a Methodist church completed in 1899. Numerous fraternal organizations provided cultural and financial support for the community. These include the Order of Good Templars (1874), the Building and Loan (1879), the Equitable Aid Union (1881), and the Mutual Aid Association (1882). A literary association was established in 1881, and a cornet band, best known and long affiliated with the community, was organized in 1879.

Unadilla grew in spurts. In 1888, when the Bank of Unadilla was formed, the population hovered around 300. The 1900 census listed only 243 residents. After numerous small floods, which were blamed on the mill dam, it was blown up. A few years later, in 1908, an even larger flood did $20,000 damage and took six lives. The drop to 209 residents in 1910 was attributed to the flooding. The town gradually moved north to higher ground.

Telephones were introduced in 1901 and a water system was installed in 1905. However, no fire department was initiated at that time. In 1911, a disastrous fire destroyed all the businesses, with the exception of Horstman & Parker's Grocery and the bank.

The restoration of Unadilla during the next two years were a tribute to the unity of the community. Residents pitched in to help clean up and build temporary shelters. While a number of businesses suggested relocating to the block north (so the buildings could "line up straight") the majority were rebuilt along the original curved street. Soon new buildings were completed, and a full line of services, which had been available in Unadilla since its inception, were again in place.

Unadilla's population remained constant until the end of World War II when the town again began to grow. Now boasting a population of nearly 300, a new Methodist Church was built in 1990, and an elementary school was completed in 1991.

Unadilla celebrated its centennial in 1971. Since then an annual birthday party has been held in June with a picnic, ball games, and other festivities. In January 1988, the Lt. Governor signed a proclamation declaring Unadilla "Groundhog Capital of Nebraska." It is celebrated with a Wild Game fee, and (weather permitting) a parade.

 

By Barb Wilhelm, local historian, Rt. 1 Box 161, Unadilla, NE 68454.

 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Unadilla -- the First 100 Years , by Norman Rodaway, and Perkey's Nebraska Place Names.