Like many towns on the American frontier, Madrid was the product of a thriving cattle range, an expanding railroad network, euphoria of town boomers, and the advance of a farming frontier. As cattle rail-heads moved across Nebraska, the stockyards at Ogallala brought cattle and drovers alike to the area. The 18,000-acre Holdrege Ranch north of town was typical of this era. Railroad magnate and cattle baron George W. Holdrege would periodically visit, in his special train complete with "liveried footmen."
The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad laid track through Perkins County in 1887. This provided an economic boom for area settlers such as John Peak, T.K. Davis, and Ed Allen, who performed day labor. Spurred on by the Homestead Act of 1862, farmers on quarter sections of land soon were turning the sod of this "new Arcadia." The Lincoln Land Company worked with the railroad to plat Elsie, Madrid, Grant, Lisbon, and Venango. Madrid was originally called "Trail City," but the post office department designated it "Elliston." The town was renamed "Madrid" in 1887 when the railroad came through. Named for Madrid, Spain, locally it has the strictly Midwestern pronunciation "MA'drid."
In this typical frontier town, Postmaster Karr dispensed stamps, Blackmore sold medicines, Dayton and Sturtevant sold furniture and hardware, and both Osler and Ross sold general merchandise. Bankers Beaumont and McKenzie took care of money transactions. Dr. Bartholomew looked after the sick, while Hastings and Hatcher would sell lumber for house building.
The horse was "king," both in town and on the farm. Madrid's striving for greatness, however, was undercut by both the Depression of the 1890s and the loss of the county seat contest to Grant.
World War I and the post-war years saw recovery and growth. Local men had gone "over there" to help lick the "Huns." Heatless Mondays, meatless Tuesdays and Red Cross drives welded the community into a solid war effort. The '20s were years of new businesses, a new water system, municipal light plant, new homes, and a consolidated school.
The "Madrid Herald" was published by Arthur Murray. You could buy any of 18 different marques of automobiles, alphabetically from Buick to Whippet, all of which could be gassed and oiled at Stransky's Standard. There was an upbeat mood on main street. Movies and the new radios were "in." The present looked good; the future looked even better.
The Wall Street crash and the ensuing depression changed all that. Drought and privation replaced the optimism of the previous decade. Roosevelt's New Deal did gravel some streets, while providing work for the unemployed and putting some money back into the community. The decreased number of farmers, as customers for businesses in town, boded ill for the future. Like the Joads in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath , too many were "tractored off the farm."
World War II accelerated the trend toward a depopulation of rural America. In the '30s Perkins County had over 1,000 farms; by 1960 there were just 660. That translates to a decline of 36 percent in just one generation.
There was a burst of growth after the war, but in reality, diminished opportunities awaited both businessmen and farmers. By the late 1950s signs of decay were evident. The Zala Theatre closed its doors, the railroad eliminated services, and service organizations and clubs had difficulty maintaining memberships. Ironically, items that should have made life in rural America better, such as better roads, federal farm programs, electricity and better equipment, hastened the decline of Madrid and other small towns.
Madrid has had its triumphs. School consolidation in 1967 provided a better education for students. Clubs such as 4-H, the Women's Club, the Hilton-Flaming American Legion Post and the Volunteer Fire Department are very much alive and active.
For the farmers who have survived, the future looks stable. Citizen support of the 1987 centennial was most commendable. The community will endure because people are looking forward to strengthening the socio-economic infra-structure of the town, and in so doing, provide a good place in which to rear the next generation.
By Allen Shepherd, Department of History, Chadron State College, Chadron, NE 69337
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Madrid, 1887-1987: A Centennial History , Astoria, IL: Stevens Pub. Co., 1986 Other relevant publications as listed.