Ericson -- Wheeler County
The first pioneers in Wheeler County settled along the Cedar River in the southwest corner of the county. After Fort Hartsuff was built in 1874 and the problems with the Indians lessened, homesteaders quickly filled the remaining open space. With hard work, a family on a quarter section of land, with some livestock and a flock of chickens, could make a good living. Prices, while low, were basically stable, and expenses and taxes were equally low.
Settlement was stimulated by news of a railroad coming through the county. A branch line of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad got as far as Greeley in 1887, with plans to continue north and west to the Black Hills.
The Lincoln Land Company bought land from Peter Erickson for $4,000, then platted and dedicated a town site in November 1887. Lots sold for $35-$50 and some even higher. Named for the former owner, postal authorities, however, dropped the "k," spelling it "Ericson."
A two-story depot was just completed when the first train arrived in 1888. As a terminus station, people came from great distances to ship produce or travel by rail, and more settlers arrived daily.
It is hard to imagine the activity that the railroad created. Carloads of cattle, cases of eggs, barrels of butter, and crates of chickens were shipped to Chicago. Supples arrived for stores in both Ericson and Bartlett. The passenger coaches were filled, and special excursion trains arrived during the summer, bringing people to the near-by lake. The county census went from 644 in 1880 to over 2,500 in 1920.
The drought in the early 1890s altered plans to extend the railroad. Work ended on the grade that had been built several miles north, and the project came to a halt.
An attempt to build a wood and earthen dam on the Cedar River west of town, with canals for irrigation, failed when the dam went out before a lake was formed. A second attempt lasted only two years, but a third dam was completed, with some irrigation possible. When that one washed out in 1910, the project was abandoned.
The delay in extending the railroad proved to be another disappointment. With other rail lines completed, it was no longer economically-viable. A bid for the county seat also ended in defeat in 1909.
Telephone service arrived in 1913. In 1916 a plan was proposed to build a dam to produce hydroelectric power, and by 1919 Ericson had limited electrical service. Enoch Hallner and his son Cecil wired nearly all the homes and businesses in town by 1922. The plant was purchased in 1932. The system was improved by building a new powerhouse and substation, and service was extended to Bartlett.
The collapse of the economy in the 1930s, coupled with years of drought, again brought great hardship. Eggs were a nickel a dozen and cream only a dime. The wind damage that occurred is still evident on many ranches.
The sale barn proved to be a big business for many years. Established in an unused livery stable by O. J. Walthers, it has had several owners. It recently has undergone a complete metamorphosis, into a new building with carpeted aisles, cafe, and well-equipped office which overlooks the auction ring. Now owned by Howard Pitzer and Jim Brinkman, the sale barn attracts livestock buyers from all over Nebraska and out-of-state.
The last train left Ericson in 1940. Trucks and cars made transportation faster and more convenient. With Highway 91 paved, Ericson is no longer isolated in bad weather. People could go to the dentist or shop in Central City and Aurora, and some stayed. The decline in population, from a high of nearly 300 in 1940, started during the war years. The 1980 count was 140.
With a lack of moisture during the 1970s, the farmers in Wheeler County put in over 150 irrigation wells and sprinkler systems, and yields nearly doubled. Only time will tell if the ground water supply will hold up and the rolling Sandhills will continue to produce bumper crops.
Ericson is proud of its community. The nation's bi-centennial was commemorated in 1976, and Ericson's centennial was celebrated in 1987. These events brought many former residents and their families back for a visit. Ericson is remembered as a great place to call "home."
By Kathleen Sheldon, Star Rte 3 Box 2, Spalding, NE 68665, and Jean Freouf, of Ericson.