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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Preston -- Richardson County

The Shelly family's move to Richardson County probably included many of the typical items seen in this classic photo from Thomas D. Clark's "Frontier America." [Nebraska State Historical Society]

The Sac Post Office, established in 1874, was named for the Sac and Fox Indian tribes that live in this area. The offspring of mixed marriages (primarily progeny of early French trappers and adventurers) were given land on the Half-Breed Tract. Some of their descendants still live here, while others sold their land and moved on.

Philip Shelly moved to this area from Kansas in 1878. After farming for a few years, he purchased 40 acres of land along the Atchison & Nebraska Railroad, where a siding was available, and laid out a town. The plat and the station were named "Bluffton." A. D. McAlpine, a telegraph operator from Canada, was the first station agent.

In February 1880 Shelly built a store and applied for a post office. However, the postal authorities rejected the name, since there was another one in Sherman County. James Eatough, who worked for Shelly, had come from Preston, England, so he suggested that name. On June 23, 1881, "Preston" was accepted by both post office and railroad.

Shelly, the town's founder, wore many hats. He was the first postmaster, had built the general store and drugstore, ran the saloon, and owned a livery stable. In addition, he bought and sold cattle and hogs, shipping them to markets in St.Joseph, Kansas City, and Chicago. On Monday and Tuesday nights, the rail yards were busy as men loaded two or three carloads of livestock.

Preston's one-room school served the community until 1889, when a larger schoolhouse was built in town. The grounds were fenced with four-foot woven wire to keep animals out. In the 1920s several other districts consolidated with Preston and operated a three-year high school.

Preston's peak came in 1890 with a population of 150. The Brethren (Dunkard Society) had met in the old schoolhouse for years, but since their services were conducted in German, English-speaking citizens built their own church, St. Paul's Evangelical, in 1891.

The people of Preston represented a wide variety of occupations and avocations. Each helped the town to grow through their business and patronage. It was a center for farmers to market their produce as well as to buy needed supplies.

"Indians who lived nearby were a great source of revenue to merchants," commented Dean Stevens in an earlier story. A considerable portion of the Indian annuities were spent at Preston. "Some went for goods and food, but all too often people would 'bootleg' whisky to them, then invite them to play cards or dice until all their money was gone."

There were two, two-story hotels where traveling men stayed overnight while selling their wares to the local merchants. Levaives ran the business at the Central Hotel, but couldn't read or write -- so he made an "X" whenever his written approval was needed.

Folks in these parts enjoyed a variety of "self-entertainment." There was a dance floor above the bank, which also served as a community opera house. Programs ranged from skits and readings, to debates on a pertinent topic between men and women. "Medicine shows" were also held here.

A terrible cyclone on May 17, 1896, nearly destroyed Preston. Almost every building in town was blown away, or needed repairs. Fires also took their toll, in 1891 when the Shelly & Rieger general store burned, and in 1903 when the harness shop caught fire and burned most of the block -- four or five businesses and the Lindell Hotel.

After that, the town started to "dismantle." The Central Hotel and Farmers National Bank were torn down and moved to Falls City. When the automobile became popular people drove to Falls City to get whatever was needed. Local stores could not compete, so one-by-one they all closed. By 1969 the only thing left was the post office, a school, and a voting hall. Now, all of these are history. The post office was made a rural branch in 1974 and the school merged with Falls City. The depot closed in 1953, although coal trains continue to rumble through town on a regular schedule.

The jail, with walls two-feet thick, still stands, and there are some homes for about 45 residents. Preston is still "a town," since incorporation does have its advantages and doesn't take much to maintain.

From material found at the NSHS, Richardson County History , and a paper written by Dean Stevens, 1969.