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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Blair -- Washington County

The beautiful Washington County Courthouse, 100 years old in 1989. [City of Blair]
Downtown Blair, late 1930s, published by Kolterman's Five & Dime Store.
Blair's main street, 1991. [Harris]
Blair's new bank building, 1991. [Harris]

Blair, county seat and largest city in Washington County, was not one of its earliest towns. It was established when the Sioux City & Pacific Railroad chose to cross the river at that location, going from Missouri Valley, Iowa, and up along "Carter Hollow" on the Nebraska side. Whether by chance or design, the route missed the existing river towns of DeSoto and Cuming City. An entirely new town was needed.

A 1,075-acre tract of land was purchased and platted, with lots to be sold at auction on May 10, 1869. The entire tract was purchased by John I.Blair, an official of the railroad, who announced his plans for the city, which he named for himself.

Front street quickly took shape. Many businesses and several churches were hauled overland from the former town sites to supplement those being built. In a short time there were hardware, implement, and dry goods stores, a hotel, a bank, and a newspaper. A town board was formed in August.

Before the end of the year, the town called for an election to relocate the county seat, which at that time was in Fort Calhoun. Blair won, and a brick courthouse was erected at 19th and Grant.

Construction was also progressing on the rail line. Before a railroad bridge was built across the Missouri, freight cars were pushed onto barges on one side of the river, then pulled off on the other. Since the engines did not cross the river, a roundhouse to service them was built north of town. When the bridge was completed in 1882, that facility was dismantled and servicing was done in Iowa.

Local brickyards turned out 1,500,000 bricks per year to meet the demands of the city's rapid development. In 1884 the community, predominantly Danish, raised $3,000 in matching funds and appropriated several acres of land on which to establish a "folk school." The forerunner of Dana College, Trinity Seminary was housed in a home until the impressive, four-story main building was dedicated in 1886.

By then a city water system was in place, and South Creek, dug out by men with hand shovels, had been straightened to improve the drainage on south side of town. A public high school was constructed before the turn of the century.

Industries that sprang up along the railroad include: a mill which produced Maintop flour and livestock feeds; a foundry manufacturing roller bearings; a laboratory which made patent medicines; a poultry incubator plant employing about 40 men; and a horse collar company which employed up to 125 men, until "horses left the drawbar scene."

A plant, built in 1889 to provide electricity for lights, was not dependable or profitable. In 1914 a new municipal power plant was built and later a city ice plant was added to supply Blair with "safe ice," replacing the system of cutting it from the river.

Over the years, other enterprises came and went: a plant manufacturing spark plugs used in Model T Fords; a canning company; a seed corn plant; and a church-publishing house. Currently, Kelly Ryan Equipment Company, established in the mid-1940s, employs up to 50 persons. The D.L.Blair Company, specializing in nation-wide promotion campaigns, was established in the 1970s.

The "Bee-Line" Highway, started in 1923, got little use until a bridge was built across the Missouri at Blair in 1929. Later designated as Highway 30, paving was completed as a Federal Works project in the 1930s. Highways U.S.73 and State 91 and 133 were completed later.

Dana, now a fully accredited four-year liberal arts college, has 14 buildings on its 150-acre campus. The fire that destroyed "Old Main" in 1988 changed the skyline, but not the student population of around 500. The "Sights and Sounds of Christmas," held on campus each December, is a popular event.

Today, a progressive business district is flanked by a modern shopping center. There is a new middle school complex, a golf course, a municipal airport, and a swimming pool. As many as 100 new homes have been added in a single year. Spacious parks, designed into the existing landscape of the state arboretum system, further enhance the natural beauty of Blair. In 1990 the population was 6,900 and growing.

By Jane Graff from material found in Washington County History with pictures submitted by the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce, Patty Plugge, Director.