Village of Pickrell
By: Dennis Winkle
The village of Pickrell lies between Indian Creek to the east and dry Possum Creek to the west, 8 miles north of Beatrice, one-half mile east of U. S. highway 77. It lies in Sections 22 and 7 of Holt Township, named after Frank H. Holt, who owned 1,200 acres of land north of Pickrell and raised thoroughbred American Merino sheep, cattle, and grain.
George H. Hinkle surveyed and plotted from October 31 to November 7, 1883. After he filed the paperwork, Watson Pickrell and George W. Hinkle dedicated the town on January 30, 1884. Since the village is situated on top of and east of a hill, it was called “Pick Hill”. For many years, people used the hill as an excellent toboggan and snow sled run.
Before residents created Pickrell, people settled along Steven’s Creek, later called Indian Creek, near what later became Pickrell, which apparently extended from where the Old Clay County began and extended several miles north.
In April 1857, Edward C. Austin, with his friends John Pethoud, Sr. and Henry J. Pierce, came from Ohio to Old Clay County. Pethoud settled a mile south of the county line in Gage County. Further north in Old Clay County, Austin built a log cabin that served as the Post Office and depended on the Overland Pony Express for mail service.
As the year progressed, Steven’s Creek, a settlement which extended several miles along Steven’s Creek, grew east of the site where Pickrell was established.
Early settlers were Homer C. Austin, Charles Austin, Fordyce Roper, Henry J. Pierce, Hiram Wadsworth Parker, Orren Stevens, J. Henry Butler, Albert G. Markley, George W. Phelps, Marshall C. Kelley, and about ten others. A little later the Ira Dixon family, the Thomas Scherril family, George Grant and sons, plus Joseph Proud arrived.
Some of these early settlers had explored a number of counties in Kansas and western Nebraska but found the Pickrell/Steven’s Creek area abundantly supplied with timber, water, and grazing fields.
Without roads or bridges over the streams, workers lugged a steam engine, a boiler, and saw-mill fixtures from Nebraska City to the Southwest quarter of Section 23, about one-half mile east of the present site of Pickrell. Edward C. Austin erected and operated the first sawmill and grist mill which had one pair of Todd and Company portable burr.
A little below the mill Austin surveyed a town of 40 acres called Austin, but no one built any houses or other structures on the site.
The settlers of Beatrice, jealous of this northern settlement, feared that the emigration tide would change and stop at the Steven’s Creek Settlement instead of going into Beatrice. Since both areas were competing for people to grow, the people of Beatrice refused to accept the name Steven’s Creek given to the creek that joined the Big Blue River at Beatrice. In fact, the creek went by the name Steven’s Creek in the Pickrell area but by Indian Creek near Beatrice.
After Austin built the mills, the Steven’s Creek settlers, wanting to secure the trade with emigrants traveling westward, tried to built roads and bridges between their settlement and Brownville/ Nebraska City. However, their competitive Beatrice neighbors went so far as to go east and pilot wagon trains to their area where they had a ferry boat to convey them across the Big Blue River. Therefore, Beatrice got the bulk of the trade that would have otherwise passed north.
The Austin grist mill operated one day a week for a year or so before it failed financially. In October, Austin sold one-third of the interest in the mill building, the machinery, and the burrs to Albert G. Mackey. In 1860 Fordyce Roper, who had moved to Beatrice, purchased the burrs for the mill he was constructing there. Then the United States government bought the mill and conveyed it to the Otoe Indian Reservation.
Without a major business, the Steven’s Creek settlement near Pickrell stopped growing. People move to other places like Beatrice. By 1864 no town existed in Old Clay County. In the same year the Nebraska Territorial Legislature partitioned Old Clay County into two parts: the north half becoming a part of Lancaster County and the south half, where Pickrell is now located, becoming a part of Gage County. On July 26, 1864, the commissioners of Gage and Lancaster Counties met to settle the accounts of Clay County at the home of Judge Parker, who was then the County Clerk of Clay County. Parker lived about one mile south of what is now Pickrell.
Edward C. Austin, who came from Ashtabula County, Ohio, lived the rest of his life in Gage County and developed a valuable farm estate. After spending a few years on his claim, Homer B. Austin went back to Ohio. In 1884, he established a residence in Washington County, Kansas, and in 1895 he returned to Gage County, where he died in 1897. Charles C. Austin joined the military in Ohio.
George Grant and family, after a brief stay, moved to what is now Grant Township in 1860 where he made his claim. He died at age 62 in 1882.
Albert G. Mackey sold his 160 acres to Samuel Jones.
On August 7, 1864, Marshall C. Kelley and J. Henry Butler were at Comstock’s Ranch at Oak Grove in Nuckolls County. Some Cheyenne Indians came to the ranch with a friendly attitude and asked for something to eat. After eating, the Indians began shooting without warning a little after 5:00 p.m. Kelly died from an arrow wound, and Butler died next.
Judge Hiram Wadsworth Parker, who also came from Ohio, moved to Seward County in 1865 and had a mill there. In 1871 he moved to Beatrice, where he served as Land Register until 1884. He died in Beatrice in 1893 at age 66.
Fordyce Roper, after operating a mill in Beatrice and participating actively in civic affairs, moved to Bakersfield, California, where he died in 1915.
Thomas Sherrill settled in Gage County several miles south of the Old Clay County line.
Orren Stevens moved to Beatrice.
George W. Phelps sold his 160 acres t Luckey Montgomery in 1868.
The first individual owners of land where Pickrell sits were S. L. Porter, the west 2/3 of town, John Richards, the other southeast 1/6, and Andrew R. Davison, the other northeast 1/6.
In 1883 on property owned by the Omaha and Republican Valley Railroad Company, workers laid the Union Pacific Railroad tracks along side what was to become Pickrell.
They completed the track between Beatrice and Lincoln in 1884. The ORVR Company looked for a place to put a side track where merchandise—sheep, cattle, hogs, etc., ---could be loaded and unloaded and a section maintenance crew could be located. It had also considered building the side track about a mile and a half north on land owned by Luckey Montgomery.
Two brothers, William Pickrell, born in 1851, and Watson Pickrell, born in 1853, came to Nebraska in 1878. They had a large sheep ranch and bred shorthorn cattle east of Pickrell. They owned over 2,000 sheep. Edward C. Austin owned an interest in some land near Pickrell and bought more from Charles L. Schell shortly before Austin conveyed the land to Watson Pickrell on November 5, 1883. George Hinkle, a real estate agent, bought some property from Peter Cooper in October 1883. Part of this property became Pickrell. Thus, the main street Austin was named for Edward C. Austin and the town was named for Watson Pickrell.
Mr. Bashaw, the first inhabitant, built his home outside of Pickrell but later moved it to town. Ed White owned one of the first houses built in town. Mr. McKimm built some of the first houses. Mrs. Edwards owned the first building. Pickrell started with a store, an elevator, a drug store, the Post Office, and a few other businesses; the other businesses
joined the community: two stores, two elevators, three garages, a bank, an implement shop, another drug store, a hardware store, a cream station, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, a barber shop, a lumber yard, and a cabinet shop with a cement block company.
The first Pickrell residents included the following people. David Royer ran a general store with Mr. L. Berget, who later moved to McPherson, Kansas and was buried in Hutchinson, Kansas. William H. Hunter ran a blacksmith shop; Mr. Jon R. McKim managed the lumber yard; Mr. Alexander S. Hodges is buried in the Pleasant View Cemetery; J. D. White ran a grocery store but moved to Gage, Oklahoma; Mr. G. L. Mumford owned a grocery store as did Daniel Nicewonger, who died in Pickrell and is buried in Beatrice. Other early residents of Pickrell are buried near town: George Balderson, J. Emal, Cyrus W. King, John Young, Mr. Bashaw, Mr. Lockwood, Thomas Noonan, the first section boss, Thomas Langely, Byron Bathrick, the first druggist, Dr. D. W. H. Tucker ran the livery barn, Mr. Smith Wilber, Henry Latimer, and Mr. Waters; Mr. George W. Newcomb managed a hardware store and a lumber yard; Roxie Irvin was a depot agent, Mr. James Davis and Mr. Chandler bought hogs. S.A. Jacobson, Albert Murdock, J.G. Howe, G. S. Goodwin, E. L Reese, F. V. Mann; W. A. “Jack” Swain was the last minister to live in Pickrell. Active in the community, he organized boys’ and girls’ softball teams and other activities. Another minister, Eral A. Weber served 27 years in Pickrell.
The first post office was in the office of the Farmers’ Elevator on the north side of main street just west and south of the present elevator office. The elevator office burned in 1890.
The Post Office moved up the hill to Lots 8 and 9 on the south side of the street in Block 7; then it moved down the hill on the east part of the building that housed the drug store on Lot 1 and was there when William Vanderhook was Postmaster. Then in 1931 Vanderhook built the brick and tile building in the middle of the block on the north side of the street. It later became the Pickrell Grocery Store. He used this new building to house his hardware business and the Post Office. In 1968 workers built a new Post Office at its present location, where the telephone office had been.
In 1885 workers built the first school house of school district 144 on Lots 10 and 11, block 5. It provided education for grades 1-8. In 1912 leaders consolidated the school district and had a new three-room red brick school built just a lot or two west of the first building. Students could complete ten grades until 1953, the last year for 9th and 10th grade. Students had to finish school at other districts, but most went to Beatrice.
Then in 1968 District 144 consolidated with District 15, Beatrice. By 1974 school was no longer held in the red brick building; in November 1980 workers razed the building. Students attended schools in Beatrice.
The following people taught in Pickrell: Miss Procter, Mr. Lamberti, Miss Kennedy, Miss Hadley, Mr. Kier, Floyd Burke, Irene Cornelius, Muriel Thomas, Sadie Westwood, Merna Jensen, Marie Lietke, Sharon Hertlein, Carol Duitsman, Elwood Strong, Dana Leach, Martha Sinsel, Miriam Bercha, Floyd H. Schneider, Ruth Penner Swanson, Katheran Rigg, Anne Liese Rohr Bathel, Leila Jackson, Rene Tesar, Angeline Riel, Theron Atkinson, Carlye Braaf, Glennys Schrieder, Adeline Cook, Edna Tichy, Luseta Scnackemier. Some of these spellings may be incorrect.
Pickrell residents wanted to incorporate the Village for several reasons. First, they could make street improvements. Second, they could have a saloon. However, the Village did not have an adequate population. To boost the population, the leaders decided to extend the Village limits to include the railroad bunk houses situated along the tracks where railroader workers and gandy dancers stayed.
On August 14, 1913 Pickrell incorporated as a Village. The Village Board held their meetings in the Farmer’s State building. The Village board of trustees elected G. L. Mumford, Chairman; J.R. Wilson, Clerk; Dr. Amesburg Lee, Treasurer; and Benjamin E. Ridgley, supervisor of the streets. Elmer Lawrence was appointed Marshall. Dr. Lee, Fred L. Pothast, and J. J. Wardlaw were appointed to the Board of Health. On September 17, 1913, the Board issued George G. Williamson the first saloon license. The business sat on Lot 16, Block 6 in the “Wardlaw” building on the north side of main street. On April 7, 1915, they issued Fred Schroder a license and he took over the operation. Every year until prohibition the townspeople voted on whether or not to grant a saloon license, and they always approved it by a wide margin. In 1922/23 a fire destroyed this building which also had a café run by Fred Thomas and two others where Park C. Spencer lived.
Beatrice was a dry town for part of the period before prohibition, but once Pickrell opened a saloon, people did not have to travel very far to buy a drink. Workers at Dempsters and other places in Beatrice could ride the train to Pickrell after work and then ride back later. People also liked to gamble in Pickrell. They played poker in private homes. During this period, Pickrell was slightly wild. In May 1915, the Board hired Ben Ridgley as Marshall. He earned $50.00 a month for approximately a year before he resigned. It is unknown if he made any arrests. Since they couldn’t find a replacement, the position was vacant for years.
The first year the Board concerned itself mostly with the street issues such as putting a crossing between the bank and the lumber office and passing a sidewalk ordinance. The bank was located where the Post Office is presently. The Board also passed some interesting ordinances: one prohibited a “dance house”; another one kept people from immoderately riding a horse or mule along any street; one forbid the sale of intoxicating drinks to any Indian, to anyone who had taken the “Kelley Cure”, or to anyone whose “wife or child shall have given written notice forbidding such sale; another one closed saloons on Sunday and kept them free of music; the Board assessed an occupation tax on all transient merchants, doctors, surgeons, dentists, medicine vendors, skating rinks, and “moving” picture shows.
The Board dealt with other issues dealing with human nature. They considered retaining an attorney but didn’t. They had a problem collecting the license fee from Mr. Townsend, the “Pool Hall Man” and from Mr. Odgard, the druggist, who was possibly “keeping too much liquor on hand.” They appointed “Gus” Snyder as Village Marshall. They received a petition signed by 26 qualified Village voters asking that the saloon licenses be submitted to a vote of the people. They discussed putting up “hitching racks” made of steel posts and chains. In April an election changed the Board’s personnel. Voters elected J.R. Wilson, J. J. Wardlaw, Dan Nicewanger, Dick Reid, and George Schneider.
In the first forty years after incorporation, many people served on the Board for more than one term: J.W. Wilson, Ben E. Ridgley, J.J. Wardlaw, Dick Reil, Elmer Lawrence, Charles P. Horn, William Vanderhook, Floyd Schneider, John Otto, Dean Dragoo, Ralph Wise, Harvey Spilker, William Waltke, Larry Shaw, and Dana Pittman. Members of the Board in 1984 were Larry Shaw, Dana M. Pittman, Dwayne Zimmerman, Alfred Otto, Daniel Parde, and David Hadley.
In 1915, the Board voted to erect four “street lamps” after it tested one. The same year, they granted Fred Schroder a saloon license. In 1916, they decided to annex part of the railroad into the town to increase tax revenue.
In May 1922 the Board contracted with the Electric Development Company to engineer a transmission line and lighting. The job cost $800.00. In September they voted to accept the bid of $7,274.82 from Hacker and Cooper Construction to erect 9 miles of transmission line from the Beatrice city limits and to construct the Village lines. They also accepted a bid of $2,456.55 from S. A. Foster Lumber Company for electric poles.
In December they voted to charge a minimum of $1.00 a month and 18 cents a kilowatt for all over the minimum. “Consumers of electric juice” were to deposit $5.00 for their meters. They received 32 meters and ordered more. The County Surveyor, P. W. Clancy, surveyed the town to determine the placement of poles. Nebraska Gas and Electric Company sold electricity. In September 1923, the company charged $200.00 to connect onto the system and reduced electrical rates. In 1929 the Village sold the transmission lines the right of way and a franchise to Iowa-Nebraska Light and Power Company for $10,000.00. For $247.00 a year, the company agreed to furnish nine 75-watt street and five 100 watt street lights that would run from dusk to midnight. In 1930 the Board voted “to lay water petition over” but never considered it again. In 1931 they voted to keep the lights on all night from November to March.
On October 31, 1931, the Board awarded Davis and Buell a contract to put in 6 inch thick gutter consisting of a 12 inch curb and a 5 foot gutter on Main Street (Austin) between Adams and Washington Streets at a cost of $1.12 per linear foot. At a total cost of $869.94, the curb and gutter remained until 1958.
On August 11, 1934, the Board enacted a “Foul Ordinance”, which provided a fine ranging from $1.00 to $5.00 for letting ducks, geese, chickens, or turkeys run at large. In 1935 the Board voted that “all stray dogs be kept a week and if not redeemed, a dollar a head will be paid for killing and burying.”
The road from U.S. Highway 77 with its ruts and a rather deep valley at Possum Creek was difficult to travel. On more than one occasion, the townspeople petitioned the county
or the state to improve it. In 1930-31 the state paved U.S. Highway 77 past the Pickrell corner. The cement and gravel came into Pickrell via rail. Workers unloaded the product and hauled out to the site. At that time, the road from U.S. Highway 77 into Pickrell and the main street could have been paved at very little cost to the town, but for some reason the job remained undone until the summer of 1958.
During the 1970’s, Pickrell used federal revenue sharing funds to asphalt all other streets. Adjoining landowners did not pay any property assessments.
When Pickrell incorporated, houses had individual water wells and an out house.
In the early 1960’s, just about ten years after workers installed water, they laid sewer pipes and built a sewage treatment plant south of town.
Gradually, some houses installed individual water systems and put in special tanks. In 1953 voters passed a $20,000 bond issue to pay for a town water system and to lay water mains. Workers drilled a well and installed a large ground level tank located near the well on the south side of town in Block 11, Lot 11. Some years later, they drilled another well on the north side of Block 4 on the north side of town. That line ran for several years until it was capped because a high nitrogen level made the water unfit for human consumption. In 1984 town leaders discussed building a water town on the top of the hill on the north side of the street.
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