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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Wilber -- Saline County

Hotel Wilber, built in 1895, listed in the National Register of Historical Places, is now a bed & breakfast, serving ethnic and American cuisine daily. Historic Preservation magazine lists it as "one of 16 favorite restaurants, nationwide."
The B&MR depot in Wilber, 1871. Line now owned by Burlington Northern.
Wilber 1929, Saline County courthouse in the background.
Thousands line Wilber's streets annually during its nationally renowned Czech Festival, 1975.
A 1985 aerial of Wilber, looking west.

The earliest settler here abouts was Tobias Castor, who arrived in 1862. He established a post office at "Blue Island," a mile or so to the south. The town of Wilber was platted in 1873 on land donated by Charles Dana Wilber, a geologist and land speculator. Early merchants were W.H. Mann and Charles Harvey, who built a dam and a mill on the Big Blue River; W.C.Henry, who built an elevator; and C.D.Wilber, owner of Wilber House. By 1875 the population of this precinct was 800.

Many Bohemian immigrants settled in this area. About 90 percent of the town's 1,250 inhabitants were of Czech descent in 1900. With them came a love for music, drama, gymnastics, education, patriotism, well-tended lawns and gardens, and traditional Czech foods. From early on, there were two opera houses, many fraternal organizations, and annual summer carnivals to celebrate the harvest.

Wilber became the county seat when the courthouse records were moved from Pleasant Hill following an 1877 election. A newspaper, "The Opposition," moved from DeWitt that year. Various other newspapers, including those published in the Czech language, appeared for a short time, but the dominant publication since 1887 has been "The Wilber Republican."

The town's economy has been agriculturally based. In addition to grain elevators, flour mills, a brewery, a sawmill, a stockyard, and various meat markets, there was also a hatchery in the 1930-40s. The Farmers Elevator was enlarged to store 1,350,000 bushels of grain, and handles over 2 million bushels a year. In the 1950s a window factory and a wiener plant were established. In 1975 a hog processing plant was built between Crete and Wilber.

Prior to 1900 the Saline County Fair was held south of town. About 1910 a park, located along the Blue River near the dam, was the center of social activity including dances, Sokol tournaments, and recreation. For a short time, a nine-hole golf course was maintained on the outskirts of town. A gun club, organized in the 1880s, continues to the present time. Since 1930 the Sokol Hall has served as a community center for dances, meetings, alumni banquets, and other gatherings.

Wilber has been served by at least one doctor and a dentist since its beginning. In addition to good medical care, a nursing home and citizens housing project were completed in the 1960s. The community also places a high priority on education, providing new buildings in 1879, 1903, 1931, and 1970. In 1966 the district merged with several rural schools and was renamed Wilber-Clatonia Public Schools.

Many residents of Wilber have become prominent in their chosen fields:

-- Dr.Olga Sadilek Stastny, the first Czech woman physician in Nebraska, was elected to the Nebraska Women's Hall of Fame in 1975.

-- August Molzer, 1897 Wilber High graduate, violinist, studied in Europe with Anton Dvorak and others, served in the UN Music Departments and at Wesleyan.

-- John Grant Tobias, who lived in Wilber from 1924-39, an artist, who donated many of his scenes of Saline County to the NSHS.

-- Frank Sadilek, a prominent politician from 1883-1918, served as county clerk and treasurer, state senator, and wrote "My Reminiscences."

-- Bernard Klasek served more than 50 years with the Wilber Public Schools and as county superintendent, retiring in 1986.

-- Irma Ourecky, promoter of many Czech events, was given the Henry Fonda Award in 1990 by the Nebraska Tourism Foundation, for her work in Wilber and across the state.

In 1962 the Nebraska Czechs of Wilber sponsored a Czech Festival. It became an annual event held the first weekend in August ever since, with as many as 20,000 in attendance. In 1963 Wilber was proclaimed "Czech Capital of Nebraska" by Gov.Frank Morrison. Shortly thereafter, the Wilber Czech Museum and the Dvoracek Memorial Library were established through donations by Milo Stastny and Lillian Dvoracek Stastny. In 1987 U.S. Senators Zorinsky and Exon sponsored a bill proclaiming the last week of July as National Czech American Heritage Week, and the town of Wilber as the "Czech Capital of the U.S.A."

At the present time, there are nearly 1,600 residents in Wilber. The principal access routes are highways 41 and 103. An airport one mile west can accommodate small, propeller-driven aircraft, and there is a branch line of the Burlington Northern for daily freight service. The major tourist attractions are the annual Czech Festival, the Wilber Czech Museum, the Hotel Wilber, and the scenic valleys of the Big Blue River and Turkey Creek.

By E. A. Kral, 324 West 2nd St. Wilber, NE 68465.

 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of the State of Nebraska , Vol 2, pp. 1349-1354; Czechs and Nebraska , Kucera, Vladimir, and Novacek, 1967; "The Opposition" 1874-87; A Poetic History of Wilber, Ourecky & Kral, 1985; A History of Czechs in Nebraska CHSN, 1929; My Reminiscences Sadilek, trans. Stepanek, 1914; "The Wilber Republican," 1887-1987.