It was a cold, windy October in 1883 when Holdrege was born. While not the first town in Phelps County by any means, it was the one that "made it big" in the end.
Early settlers in Phelps County were primarily of Swedish descent. Though many came directly from Sweden, the majority moved here from Swedish settlements in Illinois.
The railroad determined the survival or demise of many towns in the 1880s and was the reason that Holdrege came into being. Following the announcement that the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad (B&MR) would extend its line to the west, Phelps County was organized. "Williamsburg," along the northern edge, was named the county seat. When the line did not materialize, the county seat was moved to the middle of the county, "Phelps Center," in order to be more convenient for settlers and in the hope that the railroad would eventually build to the town.
The B&MR Railroad did not oblige them, and decided on a route seven miles southeast of Phelps Center. When track construction actually commenced, the rush began to move homes and businesses to that town site.
A land office was the first to arrive in the new location on October 9. The B&MR offered free lots to individuals and businesses who would move from Phelps Center and Sacramento to the new town.
Holdrege became the "Magic City of the Plains," a name well deserved, as before the end of December, when the first train whistled into town, 132 substantial buildings were in place. Another rail line west from Holdrege, the "High Line," was started in 1885 and ran to Cheyenne, while in 1886 the Holdrege to Kansas City line called the "Polly" was completed.
Holdrege, named for the general superintendent of the B&MR railroad, was incorporated as a village in 1884 and in three years boasted a population of over 2,000.
The railroad offered a city block to the citizens of Holdrege if they would build a courthouse. The ambitious merchants promptly provided the funds and the cornerstone was dedicated on October 10, 1884. Subsequently, the voters approved removal of the county seat to Holdrege on November 11 of that year. To avoid possible litigation over the matter, the records were "removed for safe keeping" (stolen) and county officers conducted business from various locations until the new building was ready to be occupied. The deed to the courthouse was presented at the July 4th celebration. A week later the officers moved in, although the building had not yet been painted.
Business establishments in Holdrege were primarily agriculture related, such as feed, seed, and implements. Whitcomb and Yorty, manufacturers of the "Holdrege" and "Bertrand" windmills, reported they had received one order for 1,000 mills.
With the building of the city auditorium in 1916, Holdrege became the entertainment center for south central Nebraska and north central Kansas. Great artists of the day appeared regularly and quickly established the reputation for outstanding shows. Later, famous bands -- Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, etc. -- were featured. Not all band leaders felt a town of 3,000 could meet their "guarantee." However, crowds of 2,000 and more were not uncommon.
In the 1930s, during a visit by the Philadelphia Philharmonic Symphony orchestra led by Leopold Stokowski, a sudden rain storm revealed that the roof -- parched by years of hot, dry winds -- had developed many leaks. Orchestra members who had spent a relaxing day riding bicycles and viewing farm life (a first for many of the musicians) graciously moved to a dry spot and continued the concert. The sell-out crowd refused to let a little dampness spoil the concert and a good, although embarrassing, time was had by all.
With the construction of the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, plus deep well irrigation, the agricultural economy has stabilized. The excellent soil, known as Holdrege silt loam, has blessed our county with the highest average rural income in the state.
While the business community is still predominantly ag-related, manufacturing has become equally important. Becton Dickinson, Artistic Woven Labels, and Allmand Manufacturing provide a diversified base upon which to grow. The population of Holdrege, at just over 5,600, has been constant for several decades.
Don Lindgrin, 1020 Sherman, Holdrege, NE 68949