Skip Navigation

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  • Virtual Nebraska Logo

Virtual Nebraska

Nebraska...Our Towns


Butler County

The cabin built before 1867 still standing on original site one-half mile east of Ulysses. [Nebraska State Historical Society]
Looking east on Main Street, 1911. [UCC]
Only a few buildings remain east of the railroad tracks, 1989. [Harris]

Joseph Shields and his family moved to Butler County from Missouri soon after the Civil War began. They built a cabin in a grove of trees about a mile east of the Big Blue River in 1864, not far from the trail used by Indians when migrating to and from Kansas. Other families settled near the river in 1866-67. Crops had to be hauled to Schuyler, a two-day trip, to be made into flour or sold.

Jasper Palmer, who freighted along the trail, thought that a dam built on the Blue could provide the power to operate a mill. In 1868, together with G.McCarty, he established a grist mill, said to have a capacity of 100 barrels a day.

Before a town site was surveyed on McCarty's homestead, just west of the river a "treaty" was signed "to insure peace between the Pawnee and the settlers." Abraham Towner suggested that the town be named for General Ulysses S.Grant, Commander of the Union Army during the Civil War, and a candidate for presidency at that time. When a post office was established in October 1869, the name "Ulysses" was accepted.

A nine-mile square school district was also organized in 1869. A three-month session was held at Dr. Thrapp's home with Judge Wilkison as teacher. A small frame schoolhouse was built two years later.

In 1871 McCarty and George Reed opened the town's first store. Among the earliest settlers were many people of Irish descent, as well as some emigrants from England, Denmark, Scotland, and Germany. They lived and worked side-by-side, to make Ulysses the best community possible for their families.

The first of many threats to the life of the community came in 1874 when hordes of grasshoppers descended on the Midwest in huge black clouds, eating everything in sight. After several years, the plague subsided.

By 1877, with the town growing again, a larger school was needed. Ulysses was already a bustling community when the Lincoln & North Western Railroad Company was built from Lincoln to Columbus. In the first four months after the first train's arrival in 1880, 56 loads of lumber were hauled to the town, assuring the town's continued prosperity, or so we thought. The records indicate, however, that Ulysses hit its peak population of 700 that year. Five churches graced the community; Methodist (1872), Catholic (1876), Congregational (1883), Christian (1885), and Episcopal (1886).

A high school, built in 1888, was one of two schools accredited that year, well ahead of the state laws requiring secondary schools in each county.

After a major fire in 1890 destroyed all the buildings on the west side of the square, structures of brick and stone were built, giving the town a progressive look. Among the 50-some businesses were two brick yards, a ketchup factory, two newspapers, three elevators, a hotel, three drug stores, and several doctors, dentists, and lawyers.

Ulysses installed a water system and built an electric plant in 1909. However, these did not save the high school building from burning after being struck by lightning in 1910. The present classic brick school was built in 1912. Curbs and gravel were added to the town's streets in 1926.

During the Depression, Ulysses built a township library and a school gymnasium with W.P.A. labor. This did not stop the outward flow, which was by then less than 400 people. The years of drought caused many businesses to close and a further erosion of the population.

Ulysses, located 16 miles between David City and Seward, opted to join the Seward School district during a 1950s school reorganization. K-6 classes were held locally, with 7-12 classes in Seward. As enrollment continued to fall, the painful decision was made to close the old school. Students now attend classes in Staplehurst or Seward. The school was sold, but the gym and playground continue to be enjoyed by the community for recreational and social activities.

Our centennial year, celebrated in 1967, was a huge success. Ulysses, now well into its second century, is looking forward optimistically to many good years to come. In 1990 the population of Ulysses, varying from 250 to 270, changes often as people move in and out. Many businesses have closed and their buildings cleared away. The town is very proud of its park, tennis courts, nice picnic area, and a shelter.

From material submitted by Dorothy Payne, Box 185, Ulysses, NE 68669


ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of the State of Nebraska, 1882 , Andreas; and "Out of the Past, The Future," Ulysses centennial book, 1967.