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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Wahoo -- Saunders County

A view of Wahoo dated 1878. [Vculek Photography]
5th Street looking east in early 1900s. [Vculek]
5th Street in 1920 with paved streets and ornamental lighting. [Vculek]

Wahoo, located at the intersection of Highways 92 and 77, is roughly 40 miles west of Omaha and 30 miles north of Lincoln. This location has played an important role in the town's history.

Before the arrival of settlers, a Pawnee Indian village, containing 50 or more lodges covering a four-block area, was located in what is now the southeast part of Wahoo.

In 1869 land speculators John, James, and William Lee, H.Dorsey, E.H.Berna, J.J.Hawthorne, and George Miner, purchased this "likely spot" in the hope of developing a town.

Originally the village was called "Leesville" for its founders, but was soon renamed "Wauhoo." It is thought that word comes from the name of a bush which grew along nearby creeks and was used by the Oto for medicinal purposes. The "u" was dropped from the spelling, probably by postal authorities when they approved an office on July 15, 1869. It is the only town in the USA by that name.

The builders of this new town of "Wahoo," however, had competition for their development. Another settlement located just two miles north of Wahoo, first called "Swedeburg," and later named "Eldred," was also vying for a piece of the action. In an attempt to lure shop owners away from Eldred, Wahoo's proprietors offered them choice lots, feeling that if they could get businesses to relocate in Wahoo, their residents would follow.

Early in the 1870s there was a movement to relocate the county seat which at that time was in Ashland, in the far southeast corner of the county. Wahoo, near the center of the county, needed that designation to assure its survival. As the battle raged back and forth, Wahoo's proprietors offered to give the county "half the city's lots" if the voters approved the move to Wahoo. The men also erected a big wooden building for use as a courthouse to support their bid. In the election held October 14, 1873, Wahoo received, 617 votes; Eldred, 549; Alvin (Mead), 249; and Ashland, 214. Not waiting for confirmation on the narrow margin of victory, the county records were mysteriously spirited out of Ashland in the middle of the night and taken to new courthouse. Wahoo survived, and rival Eldred faded away.

By 1876 Wahoo had gained another advantage. The railroad arrived. Eventually three railroads found Wahoo's location ideal for their needs, dissecting the county like a giant pie. The Union Pacific branch line from Valley to Lincoln was first. By 1886 the Chicago & North Western established a Fremont to Lincoln line through Wahoo, and the next year, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy built a branch line connecting Schuyler and Ashland. The Union Pacific is currently the only railroad operating through Wahoo.

Railroads, financed largely by land grants, sent recruiters to Europe in an attempt to persuade people to buy its property and move to the newly opened place called Nebraska. Its "generous terms" included an initial cost of around $5 an acre and a ten-year payment period. As a result, a large number of Czech, Swede, and German immigrants came to the area.

In 1883 the Swedish Lutherans established Luther College. At its height, the campus contained seven buildings. Many Saunders County teachers received their normal training at this institution. In 1962 the school merged with Fremont's Midland College and the campus was closed. Three years later, in 1965, an attempt was made to establish a new college, named for John F.Kennedy. After only ten years, low enrollment and financial difficulties also forced it to close.

Wanahoo Park, located northeast of Wahoo, was opened in May 1922, with elaborate facilities for picnics, softball, dances, roller and ice skating, swimming, boating, and fishing. After several decades of popularity, the park gradually fell into disuse. Several attempts were made to revive the park, the last in 1963, with fires and floods contributing to its final end.

Five famous native sons have expanded the effect of Wahoo well beyond its borders:

-- Howard Hanson, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer;

-- Sam Crawford, baseball Hall of Fame;

-- Dr.George Beadle, Noble Prize-winning geneticist;

-- Clarence Anderson, artist;

-- Darryl F.Zanuck, Hollywood movie producer.

Location is why the people originally came to Wahoo, but it is the people from this location that now makes Wahoo a great town.

From material submitted by Carl Linnerson, updated by Deb Playfair, Curator of Saunders County Historical Society, 240 North Walnut St., Wahoo, NE 68066.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Saunders County History , SCHS, Taylor Publishing Co, 1983; Wahoo Depot James J. Reisdorff, South Platte Press, 1985; Past and Present of Saunders County Nebraska , Clarke Publishing Co, 1915; and Wahoo Century Roundup, 1970.