Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Daniel Thompson
Reporter 

A page in history; the building of Kimball

From humble beginnings, city has seen series of ups and downs

 

Western Nebraska Observer

The once-lively strip of businesses on Chestnut Street in downtown Kimball is now a mere ghost of its former self, with many doors and windows boarded shut.

Standing in the middle of downtown Kimball as the sunlight bounces off the windows of the businesses, one can’t help but notice the vacant lot where the Corner Bar used to sit and the dilapidated signs randomly hanging near the buildings downtown that used to house the businesses of old, businesses that have long faded from the public memory.

The story of Kimball and its businesses is one of humble beginnings and booms throughout the years that have left it still standing nearly 128 years later.

Kimball began as a mere speck on the radar when the Union Pacific pushed westward in 1867, setting up a “primitive rail station” called Antelope, along with a settlement casually known as Antelopeville due to the prevalence of antelope in the area.

For several years following the establishment of the settlement, it consisted of mainly of a watering station on the railroad with John J. McIntosh believed to have built the first building other than shacks for the railroad crews: a saloon and living quarters. Several years later in April 1874, James J. McIntosh was born, believed to be the first white child born in what is now Kimball County.

The settlement of Antelopeville remained dormant from 1867 to 1884 with little to show for itself but a few scattered buildings. It wasn’t until June 29, 1885 that the first two stores in the town were erected; Fred Schaefer’s lumber yard, and Randall and Co.

The year 1885 brought with it the greatest land rush in Nebraska as 3,698,381 acres would be filed on, bringing land agents, business entrepreneurs, speculators and land buyers, to the area. The year also brought with it the birth of the Observer, then called ‘The Nebraska Observer’, which put out its first issue on May 1, 1885, using an old United States Army press.

The first headline of the Observer boasted the growth of Antelopeville and prophesied the great promise that the town held. An article headlined ‘ANTELOPEVILLE, CENTRALLY LOCATED, FUTURE PROSPECTS, A TOWN OF 500 WITHIN ONE YEAR’ sung the praises of the growth that the town had seen, a boast which still hangs in the entrance of the current home of the Observer.

“Antelopeville, the future home of the ‘Observer’ is finely located in Western Cheyenne County, Nebraska,” the article stated. “A live western town is a marvel of growth, and all who know the history of Nebraska know towns cannot but take a lively interest in the growth and prosperity of Antelopeville from this on.”

By August of 1885, the town was in a full boom with the Observer reporting the difference only one year had made for the town’s development in an August 1885 article.

“One year ago today there was not a business house in our town, now there is six business houses and two offices aside from a large hotel and residences,” the article stated.

The trend of boastful headlines and articles was a common theme throughout the newspapers of the area of that time with many editors taking to poetic form in order to attract readers, businessmen and people from the East in general to the area.

“Westward man, if thither bound, with view to share the bounty. Uncle Sam, in western land, then go to Cheyenne County; You are welcome to our western land; Our plain, our vale, our hill, and buy your ticket, don’t forget, to the town of Antelopeville.”

This poem was written in 1885, before Cheyenne county was broken up and before Antelopeville was renamed, according to the Observer Centennial Edition article.

In early November 1885, it was decided to change the name of the town from Antelopeville to Kimball.

“Such is the good news that comes from the Post Office Department at Washington. The name Antelopeville was thought by most of our citizens to be too large and ungainly to carry around on all occasions. Consequently, in response to their petition for change to the dignified title of ‘KIMBALL’,” an Observer article stated.

The change was expected to take place after December 1 of that year. The new name of Kimball stemmed from Thomas L. Kimball, who would later become a general manager and vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad. Several months before the name change, the Observer noted that Thomas L. Kimball “passed through here in his special car.”

In 1886, the Bank of Kimball opened its doors, under President . A. Bickel with Attorney Lot. L. Latham renting a room at the Bank to open his law office. J. McCallister, a ‘tonsorial artist’, had a barbering business which he conducted in an office above the livery, according the Kimball 100 years book published in 1988.

By the fall of 1887, the Kimball Hotel, N. E. Gasmann, Kimball Livery Stale, Hotel Martha, Pioneer Drug Store, McPerhson and Jensen Company, and land agent F. M. Shirley joined the fold of businesses to be established in the growing town of Kimball.

It was also in 1887 that Charley Lippold, resident of that time, erected one of the first street lamps in Kimball outside of the Kimball Gun Shop in order to ‘make our town look more like some one lived here these dark nights,’ he said at the time.

The remaining early development years of Kimball centered around the rapid expansion that was seen for the remainder of the 1800’s.

“From watering station for Union Pacific steamers, to a settlement, to a town, Kimball was being built by a steady influx of immigrants seeking free or cheap land. As Kimball prospered more businesses were attracted to this area,” an article stated.

Perhaps the most ambitious business to grace Kimball’s early years was the venture of local wheat grower Frank Cunningham, the Wheat Growers Hotel.

The iconic building was a marvel to the public when it first opened in early 1919 under the ownership of Cunningham, who was deeply involved in large-scale farming operations in the area. This involvement led to the now famous name of the building that is etched in cream-colored bricks against a dark red brick background. In the main lobby, a sheaf of wheat is engraved into the floor, indicating, “the faith he had in wheat as the continuing mainstay of the area.”

The farming mogul spared no expense in the construction of his 86-room hotel. After buying the land in December 1918 for $20,000 ($335,183.94 in today’s money), Cunningham set to work on the construction of the property. The building contained several distinguishing characteristics that remain visible to this day.

It is reported that over 200 people from Kimball showed up to the event, and spent the evening dancing in the hotel dining room.

These dances became a regular occurrence, as evidenced by a February 27, 1919 article that describes the joy and grandeur felt at the events:

“One of the greatest crowds as yet to assemble at the Wheat Growers was present last Saturday night. It was a wonderful sight; a perfect sea of people – hundreds of them, keeping perfect step to the most inspiring music. One could hardly believe that so many people would come from other towns and cities, miles away. Many came from Cheyenne and Sidney. Sixty Sidney people by actual count were seen on the floor. Fast train No. 6, which does not stop at Kimball was ordered stopped by the Union Pacific officials for the benefit of the Sidney people. There is a dance every Wednesday and Saturday evenings with the best orchestra music and jolliest bunch of young folks in Western Nebraska.”

However, only a few years into his proprietorship of the business, the impact of a series of unfortunate events brought considerable financial difficulty to the father of the Wheat Growers. Yet, even in the midst of watching his empire begin to crumble beneath his very feet, Cunningham still considered the Wheat Growers Hotel his dream come true as he wrote in an essay in 1923:

“I had been a farmer for all my life, and I had never seen such a prosperous stretch; indeed, I have never seen one since. I knew anything that good couldn’t last. Owning my very own hotel had always been a dream of mine, so I took the opportunity to move out of farming and into the hotel business. Right now, I am just happy to run the ‘Jewel of Western Nebraska’.”

Later that year, Cunningham was under bond and awaiting trial on a charge of obtaining money under false pretense, and the Building and Loan Association of Beatrice foreclosed on the hotel. Less than a year, later Cunningham filed a petition for bankruptcy leading the greatest business venture Kimball had seen to date to close its doors.

With the 1920s came an influx of newer technology in the area, particularly the radio. Merle Brady, a former Kimball resident who worked for Fred R. Morgan at Morgan’s Drug Store recalled the age of the radio and how it impacted the day-to-day routine at the store.

“When radios were the newest thing on the market, [Morgan] was agent for RCA and had one of the first radios in town. There were few barometers, but he placed one in the front window of the store so the customers could keep track of weather predictions,” Brady said.

However, the radio was not only used by the business to pass along weather information to customers and passersby, but it also became a way to bring some entertainment to the sleepy little town of Kimball.

“We would get baseball games played that day (as there were no night games at that time), and we posted the games and scores on a blackboard about 4:30 p.m. every day. We would also provide World Series results every half inning,” Brady said.

Residents took notice of the store’s practice of posting the scores, amassing large crowds outside of the business in order to see the latest developments.

“There were few radios in town, so we had fifty of more people each day for the games. We continued that this until 1928 when there was no longer much interest after everyone had a radio,” Brady said.

Though the 1920s were filled with the spread of newer forms of technology which would become widely popular in the households around Kimball leading residents away from the downtown area, they also brought with them the opening of the longest running business in Kimball’s history: Larsen’s Jewelry Store.

In September 1926, R. E. Smith sold the business and stock to O. C. Larsen of Burwell, Nebraska. At the time, Mr. Larsen had 24 years of experience in the jewelry business. His family consisted of himself, his wife Julia, and one son, Delmar, in the junior class at the high school in Kimball. Delmar would join his father’s business in 1928.

Though the business has lasted for nearly 87 years, it has not been without its ups and downs, with the most notable struggle being a fire in 1963 which completely destroyed the original building. The fire that consumed both Larsen’s Jewelry Store and Morgan Drug, Inc was commonly referred to as “the worst downtown fire in Kimball’s history”.

Karen Robinson, Delmar’s daughter, remembers the time after the fire well.

“It was a hard time, because we lost a lot of personal things. The customers’ things were in the vault so we did not lose anything there. It was just all of our family things that we stored here that could never be replaced,” Robinson said

However, the business was rebuilt and still stands in the downtown area currently owned by Karen and Jim Robinson.

When asked what has contributed to the staying power of the jewelry store, Karen said that it’s due to the support the business has been shown throughout the years and the hard work of the businesses’ employees.

“It’s the support of Kimball and the surrounding area. We have customers that come from Colorado and Wyoming and the northern Panhandle. We’ve always said we’re quality jewelers since 1926, and that’s what we strive to be: quality,” Karen said.

The support in the early days of Kimball’s development moved it forward in grand strides taking it from being a simple settlement to a full-fledged city with businesses lining the downtown area. However, as many residents know, this was just the beginning of its development.

 

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