Melbeta -- Scotts Bluff County
As early as 1830 fur traders, passing through this area of the North Platte River valley, followed the path later known as the Oregon Trail. It wasn't until 1886 that Ernest Zehner claimed the first homestead in the Melbeta area. Irrigation in the form of the Castle Rock Canal arrived in this area in 1889 and the Gering Canal in 1897 provided water for the valley's main crop, sugar beets. In 1908 Zehner sold a piece of his land to Dr.S.M.Bentley but the actual survey of the townsite did not take place until June of 1911.
The first mention of our town was in "The Gering Courier" in December, 1911. The railroad had just reached what is now Melbeta. Several names were being suggested -- such as, Castle Rock, Griffeth, Zehner, and Coad. "The Courier" reported, however, that the name of the town had already appeared on the new time card for the Gering railroad extension as "Melbeta." The word meaning "sweet beet" was probably chosen because the first business to be established was a high, narrow beet dump near the railroad tracks.
For years the beets were loaded into hopper cars and taken by train to the factories that dotted the area. The railroad and irrigation seemed to stimulate the growth of business, so the new town really boomed. The sugar business flourished for many years, but only a pillar and the scale house remain as evidence of that era. These days there is a more diversified agricultural base which, along with beets, includes corn, hay, and edible beans.
The depot was across the highway to the north and at one time the post office was also located there. Telephone service was installed and an office built in 1911. In no time Melbeta was full grown with a population of about 130.
In 1912 the State of Nebraska erected a marker on one of the main street corners where the Oregon Trail had been. In May of that year, 12 men met to organize a church. Dr.Bentley donated two lots for the church. The cornerstone was laid in June and the church dedicated September 8th with the ringing of the bell from its tower. A basement was dug and finished to give additional space to the congregation in 1946.
The taxpayers voted to build a schoolhouse in 1913. It was replaced in 1928 by a brick building with a steel gym added in 1962.
Formal incorporation of the village was completed in 1914. As one looked down main street in those days, there was a feed store, several lumber yards, grocery, blacksmith shop, mercantile, and drug store with a movie theater upstairs. The post office was also on main street, with Fred Smith, first postmaster. Melbeta had a bank, livery stable and garage that sold Reo and Chevrolet cars. For a short time there was a newspaper "Melbeta Times." These businesses have changed from one thing to another over the years. Today there is a combination hardware, feed, and fertilizer store, a cafe and filling station. The Flame Lounge is on the main street and bean elevator across the highway. The post office and church are west of main street.
Sidewalks and sewers were installed in 1934. Electric lights were added in 1937, however Melbeta had its own electricity much earlier. It was produced by a one-cylinder diesel engine in a blacksmith shop owned by Charles Nelson. This power was used to run the picture show.
The fire department was organized in 1949 and later built a firehall on main street.
Two disasters stand out in our history; the flu epidemic in 1918-19, which took many lives from our community, and the flood of 1920, which ruined a great deal of personal property.
Times also change things. In 1986 our school, faced with declining enrollments and a need for increased curricular offerings, consolidated with Gering. All our students now attend classes there, and the old school is in the process of being torn down, a sad era for many people in our town.
We no longer have a depot but the trains still go through town, hauling coal to the east. Over the years the population of Melbeta has remained about the same, 130. The bell in the tower of the original church building still rings every Sunday, calling the faithful to worship. Melbeta is not big, but it is our town.
We are pleased to be included in the series about Nebraska towns.
By Rowena Labertew, Box 95, Melbeta, NE 69355
Jenni Johns Barrett and Rev. Wayne McKirdy