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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Memphis -- Saunders County

The CB&Q Depot at Memphis built 1887. [SCHS]

Memphis, in southeastern Saunders County, was once the home of "the world's largest ice house." The town owes its beginnings to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, which chose this site for a station along its Ashland to Schuyler branch on land belonging to John Owen. Residents wanted to name the town "Owensville," but Owen, a quiet and reserved man, objected. Since many settlers came from Tennessee, the name "Memphis" was chosen.

The first train arrived in February 1887. A post office was established in 1888, with John Barr as postmaster. The office was housed in several locations over the years, but from 1950-88, it was located in "the smallest post office in Nebraska." Many people have stopped to have their pictures taken in front of the "postage stamp post office." Today the building is located at the Saunders County Historical Society's village in Wahoo, and Memphis has a newly constructed, larger post office.

The Bank of Memphis, established in 1902, has a colorful history. In 1910 robbers blew open the safe. They had taken the precaution to build a barricade of barrels around the bank, "in case they had to shoot their way out of town," but escaped unharmed with $2,000. The bulk of the money was never recovered, although coins, dropped as they made their escape, were found along the railroad tracks. Another robbery occurred when gypsies appeared at the bank asking if they could "bless the money." The cashier, thinking he could watch them closely, allowed them into the vault. Despite his scrutiny, they managed to abscond with $500, which was never recovered. The gullible cashier was obliged to replace the stolen funds from his wages. The bank survived these incidences, but closed during the 1930s.

The town grew, reaching its peak in 1920 with a population of 186. With its rail connections, Memphis was a shipping point for grain and livestock. A variety of stores and businesses served the needs of the community. The first doctor, Dr. Mary Quincy, was the first woman doctor in Saunders County.

The largest business in Memphis was the Armour Ice House, built in 1897. A huge "earthen dish" was made by dredging out the site and building up dikes. Water to fill the lake came from springs and from Silver Creek, a half mile away. In March the water was drained and the land was pastured. In the fall, the ground was cleared of all debris, including livestock droppings, and the lake was filled with clear springwater. When it froze to a depth of eight inches, harvest began. Crews cut the ice into 20-foot by 40-foot cakes using a scorer pulled by a team of horses. The ice was then sawed into smaller blocks which were "pike-poled" to the channel, then floated onto the elevators and into the ice house where it was packed in sawdust.

The original ice house had 12 storage rooms measuring 150-feet by 32-feet. Eight more rooms were added later. A 300-horsepower steam engine and two dynamos fueled with coal provided the plant's electricity.

On average, 24-carloads of ice were shipped daily by rail to Omaha and Chicago to be used, primarily, in the Armour meat packing plants. Memphis ice was of "a better quality" than river-ice, "pure enough to be put directly into lemonade for tea." The ice house provided employment for 25 Memphis families, and an additional 300 men during the busy season. The winter crew was shipped to Memphis by the railroad from Omaha and surrounding towns to work the ice harvest, and were housed in the Armour Hotel, the boarding house for the ice plant.

In 1921 fire destroyed the ice house. The wet sawdust smoldered for days. Ice harvesting continued for a time, with the ice loaded directly into railroad cars. But times were changing. Refrigerating units were replacing "cake ice" in the packing plants, although cake ice was still used in refrigerator cars. Artificial ice plants were being built close to the cities, which eliminated the cost of labor and shipping. In 1928 the business was sold to a Mr. Tanner. Later, as the urging of the Isaak Walton League, 144 acres was sold by Tanner to the State of Nebraska, and is known today as the Memphis State Park.

Memphis has experienced a decline similar to many small towns. Through increased use of the automobile, much of the local business was lost to larger cities. The Burlington Northern discontinued its line through Memphis in 1982. Today Memphis, population 117, has only one business and the post office.

By Deb Playfair, Curator, Saunders County Historical Society, 240 Walnut Street, Wahoo, NE 68066.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of Memphis by Bessie Wright; and "Refrigeration Killed My Town," a paper by Merna Washburn submitted to Dr.Max Poole and Dr. Robert Manley.