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Nebraska...Our Towns


Clay County

Harvard became the "H" on CB&Q's line. Forty years after the first train arrived, the town of Harvard was a pretty classy place.
Harvard girls win the 1913 county basketball tournament over Fairfield, 20-9.
East side of main street, 1943. Woodmen Hall on the corner. [CCHS]

The surveyor's stakes, marking the features of a future village along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad line, were hidden by the tall, waving grasses found in northern Clay County in 1871. It was probably named for Harvard University by the railroad company, in conformity with its "alphabetical town site system" along the rail line.

The railroad station, Harvard's first building, was erected in 1871. The first settler, Ezra Brown, was soon followed by Neuman Brass, E.J. Stone, Bartholomew Moger, and George Van Gilder. Stone was named postmaster that December with the location listed as "migratory," since he carried the mail in his plug hat. E.H. Birdsaill built the first business and stocked it with general merchandise.

A church services was conducted by Rev. Brass at his homestead in August 1871. The following July, a class of 11 members was organized and met in a railroad coach. Union Sunday school classes, organized later that year, used the schoolhouse when it was completed.

The first Fourth of July celebration was held in 1872 in a crude pavilion, with the oration given by Hon. N.H. Harwood of Lincoln. That year the Harvard Building Association organized and built an impressive three-story building which stood until 1973. In 1890 Wolback & Black established a store, which claimed to be "the largest business in Clay County." Weiler & Rosenbaum took it over in 1900, and the Rosenbaum family ran it until the late 1960s. In 1975 it became Etherton's Grocery, which was destroyed by fire in 1987.

The first school was opened in the winter of 1872-73 by Mrs. C.K. Merrill at her home, with 39 pupils. The next year a schoolhouse was built. The present one-story K-12 school was built in 1954 when the district was enlarged by the addition of eight rural schools.

Several events have affected Harvard's growth and decline. Perhaps the first and most important of these was the locating of the county seat. After losing a hotly-contested battle with Sutton for the prize, the citizens of Harvard threw their support to a yet-to-be-created town in the middle of the county called "Clay Center."

The drought and money panic in the early 1890s caused businesses to fail and many people to leave the area. In 1914 a tornado passed through western Harvard causing much destruction and taking the life of Mrs. Dunleavy.

Harvard is proud of its library, which was started in 1915 with a $6,000 donation from the Carnegie Foundation. The citizens completed the project with local donations of $10,000.

The single largest crime occurred in 1916 when a Harvard grain dealer, Henry P. Traut, was murdered during a robbery. In attempting to make the arrest north of town, Sheriff Charles Sandersen was also killed, after which the robber committed suicide, rather than be captured.

In 1942 an Army Air Field was located northeast of Harvard. With the huge influx of workers, housing was inadequate, so barracks were quickly built. With the population doubled, the school had to hire extra teachers. The government constructed a 400-unit housing project, which continues to house many families. There is still a large landing field, but in 1983 fire destroyed three hangers. Much of the land has now been sold and is again being farmed.

Robert Pickney, then 16 years old, made national news in 1943 when he purchased four town lots on a tax sale at $6. The town's jail, one of the lots, was later sold to Hollywood's Charlie McCarthy for $10,000 worth of war bonds. After the publicity died down, the jail was deeded back to Harvard, where it still stands.

Harvard continues to add homes, apartments, and a housing project. The town, with a 1990 census figure of 976, has two parks, two tennis courts, two baseball fields and a heated swimming pool. Rest Haven, built in 1971, provides a 60-bed elderly care unit, which provides a source of employment for local residents.

Harvard's centennial celebration was held in 1973. In addition to writing a history of the town, the event included a three-day celebration with races, games, parades, a barbecue, and fireworks. The nation's bicentennial was celebrated in 1976 in a similar manner.

By Verla Frank, Box 304, Harvard, NE 68944


ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Harvard, Nebraska -- 100 Years Plus 2 , by Harvard History Book Committee, 1973; History of the State of Nebraska , 1882; The Story of Clay County, by Woolsey & Aksamit, 1969; and History of Hamilton and Clay Counties, by Stough, 1921.