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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Shelby -- Polk County

The west side of main street looking north, in the late teens or early twenties, with some very fancy automobiles lined up in the middle of the street. [Bahm]
Shelby's main street, 1991, current population 720.
Buildings on the other side of main street, ca. 1920. [Bahm]

Shelby lies along the north side of Highway 81 near the eastern edge of Polk County. A town of just under 700, it is six miles east of Osceola, and just 17 miles south and three miles west of Columbus.

The town actually sprang up on a timber claim owned by Gilbert Van Vorce in 1879. He and his neighbor, Peter Matter, gave a half-interest in their property to the Omaha & Republican Valley Railroad Company when it was contemplating an extended line through the area. Prior to this, a post office had been established in 1874. Its chosen name, "Arcade," was turned down because it would be confused with mail for Arcadia. Subsequently the name "Cyclone" was proposed, presumably relating to a storm that occurred about that time.

In typical railroad fashion, the town's streets were designated and businesses given incentives to make the "new town" on the line their home. The name of the station was changed to "Shelby," honoring a former official of the Union Pacific Railroad, with the post office officially moved and renamed on August 4, 1880.

The Methodist Church was the first to be built, ringing its bell to call worshipers in 1883. In 1898 the Catholics completed their first church. Soon thereafter, half of the east side of town -- the hardware store, the post office, a printing press of the "Shelby Sun", and the opera house -- went up in flames. Other early set-backs include the diphtheria outbreak that took the lives of many children, and a flu epidemic closed the schools, churches, the theaters, and public meetings were banned altogether.

Between 1890 and the turn of the century, buffalo chips, wood, and cobs were replaced by coal. Two arc lights lit up Main Street. Bare bulbs suspended by a wire from the ceiling replaced kerosene lamps and candles. In the following two decades, water was piped into homes, cesspools were dug, and the old out-houses were hauled away. In the late 1930s a sewer system was built as a WPA project. Hitching posts started to disappear about the time that horses went out of style as the village continued to grow and prosper.

Shelby's location continues to be a stabilizing influence. A new Methodist Church was built in 1951. The town presently includes the usual amenities -- a grocery store, eating establishments, several bars, a post office, a bank, a feed mill, three repair shops, and a car wash. In addition there is a residential craft shop, an antique shop in town and two in the rural area, a flying service, and a man who occasionally restores old machinery. The Butler County Clinic bought, and is providing doctors at, the Shelby Clinic. There is also a part-time dentist.

The lumber company has expanded its facilities, as has the Farmers' Co-op, which added a larger office and scales in 1991. Bernt's Cafe and Lounge has been renovated, and the service station has been renamed Joe's Quick Shop. The American Legion Club added to the downtown facilities, and the A & B Lounge has also been remodeled. The majority of Shelby's streets have been paved.

Recently a new grain marketing business was established in Shelby, providing up-to-the-minute marketing information and computer terminals in a number of nearby elevators.

Shelby's park has a swimming pool and tennis courts. Both ball parks are lighted, thus enjoyed by the town baseball team and Little Leaguers all summer. The newest community addition, the library, housed temporarily in the town hall, was given a home in the old bank building, following completion of the new First National Bank building.

Shelby senior citizens are extremely active, currently raising funds for a larger meeting center. At the other end of the spectrum, the school enrollment has also increased. As a result additions and some remodeling has been completed.

Shelby has a rich history and a promising future. The railroad that gave it birth still runs through the middle of town. This enables Shelby to be a large grain loading point, with as many as 75 cars comprising a single shipment.

Shelby celebrated its centennial in 1979. In 1985 Farm Heritage Days were initiated. Now an annual event held on the first weekend in August, this event brings large crowds to Shelby for the old tractor and machinery displays, demonstrations, and a parade.

From material supplied by Irene O'Brien, "Hardee's Salutes," for the Columbus Telegram, and Forrest H. Bahm, Box 265, Shelby, NE 68662.