Cornlea was named "...on account of the fine corn crop and good green pastures," (with "lea" meaning land or meadows in Welsh, native language of some of its early settlers). This little town is nestled in the middle of the tall cornfields four miles west of Humphrey, several miles south of Highway 91. Its present population is about 40.
The community was originally settled in the early 1880s by George, H.C., and Peter Bender, John Ternus, Jacob Olk, William Berg, L.S. Wartin, and a Mr. Edwards -- to name a few. A village was laid out in September 1886 by the Western Town Lot Company. It was just a tiny spot in the vast prairie where the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad passed through. Established as a siding, trains delivered the mail, passengers, and supplies, and loaded produce and livestock for market. Soon a grain elevator was built and the town began to grow.
With residents predominantly German Catholic, a parish, complete with chapel, school, and convent, was organized in 1888. However, it was "unacceptable" to the sisters who were to teach there, so the buildings were sold to Charles Jonak. A second attempt to establish a church in 1906 resulted in the dedication of Sacred Heart Church in 1908, after a major portion of the indebtedness was paid off. A school was built between 1910-16, which was taught by the Sisters of Lafayette. It closed in the early 1960s, at which time two rooms were added to the public school. The church closed its doors in 1966.
It was 1902 before the people petitioned for incorporation, which was granted the following day, October 29. The town, however, never got very big, reaching its peak population of just over 100 in 1930. Signs of "hard-times ahead" were felt when the bank failed in 1928. The population fluctuated since then, basically downward.
The railroad has long-since left the scene. The old Albion line was abandoned and the tracks removed in 1961. The post office closed when long-time postmaster Howard Bender retired. The grocery store went out of business soon thereafter. The town felt a big loss when Korth's "Steak and Grog" cafe burned to the ground one night in the middle of the winter 1980, when the wind chill was 77 degrees below zero.
But Cornlea remains. Two famous auction houses, holding regular sales, bring people from far and wide. The Noonan Equipment Inc. consignment sales is on the south edge of town and Wegener Auction Company is on the north side of Cornlea. David Schnitzler owns a couple of gas tanks, and does auto and machinery repairs. Priester's Well Company is also located in Cornlea. Howie Bender still has a barber shop, which you can find by the barber pole out in front.
The public school closed when enrollment declined, and burned in 1980. The bell that once called children to classes now stands next to the old city hall building.
The present hot-spot in town is Bender's Bar, owned and operated by Gary and Kris Bender, located at 7205 Broadway in downtown Cornlea. This is also the town's social hall, where townsfolk meet, hold pool and euchre tournaments, and discuss world affairs. Besides liquid refreshment, you can get soup, sandwiches, and entertainment.
Gary Bender also keeps a supply of hardware and fishing equipment on hand. He handles a line of guns, and repairs them, too. In addition, Bender also has quite a few antiques (his specialty is antique clocks).
Future plans for Cornlea include a new park that will be located across the street from Bender's Bar. It started with a wooden windmill that was donated and placed on the park site, but it is uncertain when the park itself will be completed.
"One thing about Cornlea," we were told, "its a safe place to be at night. And, all the people are friendly."
A trip to Cornlea and a visit with the "friendly people" is well worth the drive. It gets you away from the hustle and bustle of civilization, and allows you time to really enjoy the tranquillity of the Nebraska countryside.
By Irene O'Brien, 2702 8th Street, Apt 2, Columbus, NE 68601, with excerpts from "Columbus Telegram", February 23, 1974; Cornlea's roots by Lisa Bender; The Franciscans in Nebraska , Curry; Past & Present of Platte County , Phillips.