It was in 1883 that the Omaha & Republican Valley Railroad Company began acquiring right-of-way for the railroad from Lincoln to Beatrice. Documents recorded in Lancaster and Gage County show most of the right-of-way deeds being recorded in June, July and August of 1883. Alfred Gales sold a tract of his land to the Omaha & Republican Valley Railroad Company for $400 on August 3, 1883. He sold the remainder to J. H. Millard who then platted the land into 25 blocks containing up to 12 lots each and proceeded to sell the lots at varying costs, averaging approximately $150 per lot. The plat was filed and the first town lot sold on February 4, 1884. In the spring of 1884, the Lincoln to Beatrice railroad branch was completed spanning a distance of 40 miles.
The town was first called Galesburg in honor of the man who owned the ground where the town is located, but in view of the fact that there were so many towns by that name, it was changed to Cortland. The name was suggested by one of the men connected with the railroad town site committee, it being said that it was named after Cortland, New York. Cortland was centrally located being 21 miles south of Lincoln and 19 miles north of Beatrice, making it a convenient shipping location for livestock and grain from existing area farms. The town site was on high ground which sloped gradually to the south. It was a beautiful location, and commanded a splendid view of the surrounding country.
The growth of the town was, indeed, something marvelous. The town had not been advertised or boomed in any way. Those who visited were struck with the natural beauty of the location and its advantages for a business center. In the first few months, 80 lots were sold and between 60 and 75 buildings were completed or in the process of construction; this growth due entirely to its advantageous location in a rich agricultural country.
During the winter and spring of 1884, a number of business houses were built at the north end of town near the railroad tracks on First Street. On the north side of Fourth Street, a depot was built between the main track and the side tracks. The depot was the shipping and receiving point for goods in and out of the area. Locally produced goods such as livestock, grain, butter and cream were shipped out; lumber, coal, apples, seed and livestock all arrived by rail. Passenger traffic via railroad motorcars began with passengers paying fares of $1.30 to Beatrice and $1.80 to Lincoln, and considering that a day’s wages in 1884 was $1.00 per day, the fares took more than a day’s wages to travel and return. The depot was a telegraph station, handled the transportation of the U.S. mail, and later was made a water station for steam locomotives as water was easily obtainable at that point. A January 1, 1908 news article states, “To name the agents who have attended to the wants of the people and the business of the U.P.R.R. would be too much of a task. Suffice it to say that there have been some fine, gentlemanly, accommodating agents…”
A number of businesses were built when the corn stocks were still standing in rows through Fourth Street; the village having been laid out in a corn field. These buildings, being so much nearer the depot, soon attracted the trade from those businesses at the north end of town, who then secured lots on Fourth Street. During the summer of 1884, both sides of Fourth Street were occupied by business buildings; nearly every industry was represented in the town.
In 1884, wagon loads of grain held approximately 50 bushels. Chas. and G.C. Conant started in the grain buying business. It was said that grain dealers were receiving and shipping from 25 to 100 wagon loads of grain per day. The grain was brought to Cortland from a radius of 5 to 14 miles. It is not known what year the two elevators were constructed in Cortland; however, records indicate it was prior to 1890. The Omaha Elevator Company sat on the south side of Fourth Street directly across from the depot. The elevator was one of large capacity and operated by steam. It had an equipment of machinery for shelling and cleaning corn and also a pair of burrs for grounding feed. At times the streets of town were blocked by teams waiting to unload their corn and often times they would have to camp over night to wait until the next day.
The Nebraska Elevator Company was behind the depot one block to the north on Third Street, adjacent to and east of the sidetracks. In 1903, “the elevator, like all enterprising grain merchants, handled grain in sufficient quantities to sell in the market to the best advantages or hold to suit their pleasure.” The elevator had a capacity of 15,000 bushels.
The stock yards were located on the south side of First Street on Union Pacific Railroad land, east of the side tracks and west of Sherman Avenue. The stock yards were holding pens and loading chutes for loading cattle, hogs, and horses that were being shipped or received by rail. An early account in the spring of 1885 states a livestock train paused in Cortland; banners on the cars indicated it was shipped by A.W. Boehm. “One of the first stock buyers in town was Asa Boehm…Mr. Boehm enjoyed a reputation of being a great stock buyer, and one who generally looked out for No. 1.” The stock yards were also a convenient location to hold auctions and sales of livestock.
The most common known location of the lumber yard was located directly east of the depot on property owned by the railroad. Hiram Parker and Sons, who had an established lumber and coal business in Beatrice, opened a yard in Cortland when the town first began. In 1907, the lumber yard changed hands to Walker-Schoenthal Co. “They built a long string of sheds so that all their lumber was under cover. Builders could find almost anything used in the building trade, and at prices that were reasonable and just. These gentlemen also kept on hand a large supply of coal of both the hard and soft varieties and are an obliging, accommodating, gentlemanly firm.” The yard changed hands many times over the years. Several smaller lumber businesses were located around town, all enjoying an immense trade for a while; some eventually quitting the business or being purchased by other yards.
Allen E. Knox purchased a 25-foot lot on February 8, 1884 for $60. On it he built the Commercial Hotel which sat a short distance west of the railroad depot on the south side of Fourth Street. Gage County Courthouse records show that Mr. Knox conveyed this property to H. H. Silver on April 1, 1885 in consideration of $2,300. During those early years, the hotel changed hands several times to include J. J. Bridges, M. A. Crosby, Joseph Bonebright and W. A. Warner.
The Cortland Hotel was one of the first structures in town. It sat on the northwest corner of Fourth Street, two blocks west of the depot. J. H. Millard sold the lot to George D. Armstrong on February 13, 1884. According to the register of deeds, this property changed hands five times early on. It is not known which transaction converted this structure to a private residence. Frank Burling took ownership March 18, 1908. Mrs. Burling is pictured at right.
The first bank was organized in 1884 known as the Bank of Cortland, located on Fourth Street, one block west of the depot. “The bank has an authorized capital of $50,000. It is now being erected and vault front and safe are now on the road from the east. R. H. Oakley was president. J. H. Ballard was cashier. Jas. S. Scanlon was vice-president.” During the panic of 1893, the Bank of Cortland failed but was reopened in May 1895.
In 1910, Cortland’s second bank was organized and known as the Farmers State Bank which sat on Fourth Street, a short distance west of the depot. “The officers were Dave Pothast, president; C. P. Potts, vice-president, E. L. Pothast, cashier; J. W. Miltenberger, Fred Hartwig, A. M. Balderson, F. H. Pape and Henry Riley as directors.” The bank had an authorized capital of $15,000. Stockholders of this bank were mostly farmers of the vicinity.
When the town was new, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) boasted a lodge membership of about three hundred. In 1889, they built a large opera house and lodge hall. “A desire to accumulate fines sufficient to pay for this building caused them to accept any person or anything as members and the lodge was soon compelled to surrender their charter.” The opera house was located one block north of Fourth Street. In September 1907, the Modern Woodman of America purchased the building from the I.O.O.F. A 1908 newspaper article states, “Cortland can boast of an opera house and lodge hall as any small town in the state, a building which is now owned by the M.W. of A., the Opera hall of which has a seating capacity from 500 to 600 people and a stage large enough for some of the regular circuit companies, as was but recently demonstrated when the “Pickings from Puck” company visited the town. The upper story of this building is used by the Woodman, the Masons, the O.E.S., the Royal Neighbors and the Highlanders, for their lodge meetings, and is very few nights without a lodge meeting of some order.” In January 1911, a new floor was laid in the Opera House for the benefit of the roller skaters.
According to the Gage County Historical Society, School District 55 started in 1872. The first school was located one mile south and a 1/2 mile west of present day Cortland. G. S. Goodban was the first teacher of the district. In 1884, the district purchased property in the southeast part of town and the school was moved. George N. Price had been teaching for several years and was also on the school board. A new location would be secured near the central part of town to build a larger building.
In 1898, “Cortland had reason to be proud of its school, for the educational facilities provided were far in excess of those usually met with in places of this size. The two-story frame building, with its four departments, was frequented each day of the school year by about 200 bright-eyed boys and girls under the tutorship of some of the best educators residing within Nebraska borders. Professor C. H. Kindig was Principal and an instructor of extraordinary ability.” The course of study included ten years work prior to graduation. In 1906, Sherman and Pfeiffer were awarded the contract for remodeling and repainting the public school building. The tower had always been a source of annoyance on account of its construction and was rebuilt on a different plan.
In 1874, German Methodist church services were held in a school house three miles north and 3 1/2 miles east of Cortland. It was organized as the Salem Methodist Church in 1875, and became a member of the West German Conference. In 1885, a church was built on the Foster Homestead two miles north and two miles east of Cortland. In 1886, a branch of this church was organized in Cortland and services were held in the school house. In 1890, the original church purchased lots in town and the church building was moved to the new location. The first parsonage was purchased in 1902 for $450.
In 1875, fourteen zealous pioneers, with the aid of Rev. Frederick Alley, organized the Pilgrim Congregational Church and Sunday school in the old Barkey schoolhouse, located five miles west and two and one-half miles south of Cortland. In the summer of 1884 the meetings were transferred to Whites Hall in the new town of Cortland. One year later in 1885 they purchased the Missionary Baptist Church building. Two additions were built in later years.
In 1882, the home of Joseph Krapp, located about one mile southwest of town, served as the Chapel for the first Holy Mass offered in the Cortland area. Later other homes were used. In 1884, when the number of Catholic families had increased to 25, these German and Irish pioneers decided they needed a church in Cortland. After much hard work and many sacrifices their goal was accomplished before the end of the year. The building (left) was erected at a cost of $1,200 and named in honor of St. James. Lumber for the church was hauled by horses and wagons from Crete.
The Missionary Baptist church was mentioned from time to time in newspaper accounts of Cortland. A property deed recorded on November 12, 1884 shows a lot located one block south of Fourth Street as belonging to the Bethel Baptist Church. A Cortland Sun account in 1908 only mentions three churches; it does not list the Baptist Church and a pastor. The church may not have been active in 1908. A deed recorded at the Gage County register of deeds shows Seven Day Adventist ownership starting in 1899. The church occupied a small structure toward the west end of Fourth Street; however, it also was not listed in the 1908 account but is mentioned in later history.
At its beginning, Cortland was wild and wooly. “Two saloonists and several temperance joints assisted materially in making plenty of business for the justice office….” Ed Denton was one of the saloonists from 1884 to about 1898, his establishment being on the north side of Fourth Street.
Businesses emerged of every kind imaginable: doctors and dentists; druggists and apothecary; millinery shops; dressmakers; general mercantile stores; clothing emporiums; hardware and harness stores; farm implement stores; dray businesses; restaurants; boarding houses; furniture and undertaking; barber shops; butcher shops; creameries; feed and seed stores; woodworkers; paint and paperhangers; watches, clocks and silverware; dry goods, notions and groceries; photographers; notary public, real estate and insurance agents.
Liverys and blacksmiths were abundant. H. H. Sprague amd J. T. Harrod were the first liverymen and in their time did an immense business. J. A. Dorning was a veterinarian and liveryman. A 1908 article states, “Dr. J. A. Dorning, the popular liveryman of the town, has been in the business so long at this place that everybody knows Dr. Dorning and his accommodating partner, Bert, his son. These gentlemen keep some of the best driving teams in the country and are ready at any time, rain or shine, mud or no mud, to make drives to the nearby towns or anywhere their patrons demand. They are accommodating gentlemen and well worthy the patronage they receive.” The first two blacksmiths in town were Henry H. Silver and Ed Smith. Mr. Smith also did wagon repair, horseshoeing and plow work.
The first newspaper, the Cortland Herald started in 1884 with H. T. Wilson being the editor and proprietor. History records show there were 11 different editors between 1884 and 1900. The Cortland Sun started up in 1897 with M. E. Kerr and H. E. Tweedy as its first editors, changing to H. L. Gardner in 1907.
J. J. Bridges was the first and only lawyer who ever hung out a shingle in Cortland and was among the first settlers here. He had a regular formula for his practice in a justice court which was first to file a motion to dismiss the case after which he would proceed to show the court what he didn’t know about the law. He ran the Commercial Hotel for a short time. By 1908 he had moved to Lincoln and become engaged in the real estate business.
Horace P. Clough was Cortland’s first postmaster who started the office in the front of his residence on Third Street. There were a number of successors and as such, the post office was moved to many different locations around town. A rural mail route was established in October 1903 with Henry Pfeiffer as the carrier, shown here with his mail route horse. Albert Sausman was another rural route carrier in 1904.
The volunteer fire department had been an active, vital part of this town since its beginning. On January 1, 1890, the Village of Cortland purchased the south 25 feet of I.O.O.F.’s lots. Although much of the early history has not been found, it is known that the Jungmeyer brothers, Alvan and Milton, played an instrumental role in manning the department in its early days. A gear pump that had to be pulled by hand was their first method of fighting fires. A small frame building was erected one-half block north of Fourth Street that housed the fire-fighting equipment, the town hall and the local jail.
On January 21, 1905, a telephone company was formed to purchase a switchboard capable of accommodating 100 drops. The Cortland Telephone Co. received their switchboard on March 20; an expert arrived on March 22 to put it in running order. The board was installed at G H. Jones’ store with James Windle as hello girl. In 1909, the telephone company decided to build a new home on Main Street for the telephone central. “The object is to get a family to live in the cottage and look after the telephone nights, thus giving a good night and day service. This will give Cortland another good building on Main Street which will help the looks of things, besides giving the central a permanent home off by itself, with special favors to none and convenient to all.”
Organizations in the early years included the Order of Eastern Star, Masons, Knights of Pythias, Modern Woodmen, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Royal Neighbors, Highlanders, Rebekah and Workmen. In the early 1900’s there were a few casual clubs, of the humorous sort, known as the Bachelors Girls Club which consisted of the unmarried women, and an Old Maid Boys Club which consisted of the unmarried men. The Kandle-light Klub was an organization of young married couples whose object was entirely of a social nature; each couple expected to entertain the members one evening during the season; flinch, panic, donkey pillowdeck and music furnished the greater part of the amusements.
Street Fairs were popular galas in the early years. The days generally started early and included events such as speakers addressing the crowds, ball games, sideshows, bands, clowns, parades, business floats and carriages decorated with live flowers, and fireworks. For many years, the parade was headed by the Honorable P. H. James on horseback. One such day on September 13, 1902, the crowd was estimated by conservative outsiders to be not less than 3,500 people.
The country around Cortland had been settled for many years by farmers, who were in thrifty circumstances, their farms being well-developed. This, of course, gave Cortland a splendid business from the start. In this respect, Cortland was more fortunate than towns in a new and undeveloped country. A 1908 Cortland Sun article states, “At the present time the town is on a solid, substantial business basis and for its size is one of the best towns in the state, being surrounded by a splendid farming country with its farms all occupied by prosperous, well-to-do farmers, all of whom are finding wealth in the splendid soil.”
Historical photographs courtesy of the Village Museum. Excerpts from the history books Cortland, Nebraska, 1883-1983; and Cortland, Nebraska, 1883-2008, Vol. II, Our Quasquicentennial Year, which are available for purchase through the Village Museum.