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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

McCook -- Red Willow County

The town of McCook, chosen by the B&MR Railroad as a division point, grew like magic. The big roundhouse provided jobs and a stable economy for the community out on the prairie. Looking south on Main Street toward the railroad, 1883. [High Plains Historical Society]
Dump rakes and hay-bucks, made the job of storing the hay crop easier. [Urbom, Loomis]
A winter's day in 1913, McCook exhibits a prosperous main street, with cement sidewalks, and a majority of second generation brick buildings. [HPHS]
Main and B Street, the Union Block, in the heart of town. n.d. [HPHS]
The city of McCook, January 8, 1914. [Ward, Palisade]
Main Street, now Norris Avenue, in 1967.
Norris Avenue looking north, 1987. [High Plains Historical Society]
An aerial view of the Burlington-Northern yards and the City of McCook. [HPHS]

McCook, population estimated at 8,584, began as the tiny settlement of Fairview on the banks of the Republican River. Building westward, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad selected the site for a division point. This assured a secure future for the village and a new railroad town was born. A large roundhouse was soon under construction and in 1882 the Lincoln Land Company began platting the town. The railroad named the town in honor of Major General McCook, who fought for the Union forces in the Civil War.

A land office opened in 1883 and settlers took up farmland by pre-emption, homesteading, or under timber claim laws. Although the open range was disappearing, grasses that had supported the buffalo for centuries now fed a growing cattle industry. Lured to the plains by railroad flyers, Europeans also came to the area, including many Germans from Russia who were fleeing persecution in that land. The soil was rich but a common belief of that time that "rain follows the plow" proved to be an illusion as a drought in the early 1890s brought grief to farmer and townsmen alike. Plagues of grasshoppers also descended on the area, devouring what few crops were left.

The city fathers initiated a plan to relocate the Red Willow County seat, and after a "good fight" and lengthy court battle, McCook won the prize from Indianola in 1892. (There have been some questions as to just how "legal" the court battle actually was, also.)

McCook grew like magic. Builders and merchants were swarming into town. Businesses of every description sprang up. This was still the frontier, and the "McCook Tribune" editor often decried the gun-totin', drinking, and gambling in the streets of the proud little city. Churches were organized to help counteract such behavior, the Congregational being the first in 1882. Soon many major denominations were represented.

McCook boasted cultural advantages in their public library and the Menard Opera House. The town built a fine school and a park with shade trees, creating a prairie oasis.

A junior college was established in 1928, the first in the state of Nebraska. That same year a devastating tornado that struck the northwest section of town, causing many injuries and leaving 1,000 people homeless. In 1935 the Republican Valley flood swept through south McCook, taking with it the city power plant and leaving 40 men stranded on the roof of the collapsing building. All were rescued, but the flood took over 100 lives as it rampaged down the valley.

World War II had a major impact on the city. McCook Army Air Base was built about eight miles north of town. Soon the community was bursting at the seams with military personnel and civilian employees, but relations between townspeople and military were generally harmonious. Local people maintained a servicemen's center as well as a canteen for the thousands of GIs passing through on troop trains. Romance often flourished and many soldiers married local girls. The air base closed in 1945.

After the war, CB&Q phased out the steam locomotives in favor of diesels and employment in the roundhouse and shops declined. An oil boom in 1956 brought a much-needed boost to the economy. A number of light industries, a rubber hose plant, and agri-business now are the major providers of employment. McCook is the major trade center for southwest Nebraska and northwest Kansas.

The late senator George Norris, known as the father of the REA and Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature, made his home in McCook for many years. This house, a gift to the state by Mrs.Norris, is managed by the Nebraska State Historical Society and is open to the public.

Crusading publisher Harry Strunk, who led the battle for effective flood control, was a powerful influence in McCook for over 50 years. In 1929 his "McCook Daily Gazette" became the first newspaper to be delivered by air to neighboring communities.

Witnessing the birth of the town in 1882, young A. Barnett wrote, "...the land has been plotted but there is nothing that even a bird might rest on...and there are no birds." Later he wrote in his diary, "...24 years of the lifetime of a town only puts it out of the cradle and we can be pardoned for thinking our city has a prosperous and expansive future." Builder and philanthropist A. Barnett was a visionary, to be sure. The City of McCook has undoubtedly progressed far beyond even his hopes and dreams.

By Marilyn Hawkins, High Plains Historical Society, 421 Norris Ave, McCook, NE 69001

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: "McCook's First One Hundred Years," Gene Morris, published by High Plains Historical Society. "Centennial Edition" (soft bound), published by McCook Gazette.