Venango prides itself on being the "buckle of the wheat belt." Indeed it was the agricultural possibilities which attracted the first settlers to the west end of Perkins County, just a stone's throw from Colorado. Farming, especially winter wheat, remains the mainstay of the community even today. The grain elevator became the talisman of the Great Plains.
Blessed with good soils and assisted by the Homestead Act of 1862, the area was quickly settled by pioneer families with such names as Steinke, Watkins, Busch, Hopkins, Morton, Grothman, Strack, Wostenberg, and Fulscher.
The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad built to this area in the summer of 1887. The Lincoln Land Company had platted a town site in May. Lumber was shipped in, and Venango seemed to spring up overnight, with the depot the primary meeting place.
The future, as portrayed in the "Venango Argus," seemed bright. New people arrived almost daily, credit was ample, and business was good. With plentiful rainfall all through the 1880s, the community was thriving.
Then came the dry years of the 1890s. When the drought hit, many businessmen and farmers pulled stakes and left the area. The money panic that followed caused prices to tumble. Depression was a reality.
Like most towns in Perkins County, Venango's recovery was slow. By the early 1900s when the rains returned, commodity prices came back up. The population figures which had tumbled during the drought began to revive. By 1904 Venango had 183 people.
The C.M. Weyert Store, T.C. Kunkel's Drug Store, and Venango's first doctor, I.H. Levine, assisted town recovery. "The Venango News" was the new village voice for a time. Telephones eased rural isolation. B.F. Hastings started the Venango State Bank, and electricity illuminated homes. The town was officially incorporated in 1916.
By the time the country became involved in World War I, Venango's economy was strong, and the town had become a solid, stable community complete with a good school and several churches.
The young men became "doughboys" and went off to the war in France. Perkins County's Council for Defense made sure there were no "disloyal elements" at home. War bond drives and "meatless Mondays" were in.
Veterans came home from Europe and formed the Mette-Reed American Legion Post in 1920. The townsmen and farmers went back to business and farming. There was generally adequate rainfall, but the prices for both crops and land were low and surpluses were high. Venango's peak population of 287 was recorded in 1930.
Pennsylvania Avenue boomed with new buildings. Then the stock market crashed and the drought and dust storms descended on the area, the Depression tested the mettle of many. A community band, baseball and volleyball games, plus church socials, kept the municipal fabric from unraveling.
The attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into another war and sent a new generation of soldiers off to fight in the Pacific, Africa, and Europe. Everyone at home also did their part for the war effort. There was rationing of gas, tires, sugar, and shoes, but prices were up and prosperity had returned to the farm.
Post war changes saw the consolidation of farmsteads and a resulting decrease in population. Rural schools that had closed during the war did not reopen.
There was also some urban loss in population, but community support for the expanded school system was stronger than ever. A new gymnasium was built in 1957, and a lunch room was added. In 1965 a new music room improved facilities. Juan Hass taught a generation of young musicians. Under the leadership of E.B. Shepherd and A.L. Siebenlist, the school maintained high academic standards.
Clubs such as the Merry Janes, and Live and Learn Extension Clubs, W.I.F.E. (Women In Farm Economy), Federated Women's Club, and the Lions Club have all helped reinforce a strong community fabric.
Our town has maintained its village status, and currently has an actual valuation of $1,350,000. The 1980 population was 230 citizens, and growing -- with at least four new arrivals during our centennial year!
By Allen Shepherd, Chadron State College, Chadron, NE 69337. Pictures from Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Watkins, HC 80, Box 52, Venango, NE 69168
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Venango: Buckle of the Wheat Belt, 1987, Venango Centennial Committee; "Jeanette's Valentine," 1967.