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Nebraska...Our Towns


Butler County

The town of Surprise grew up around the mill by that name. The surprise was the amount of water power that was available a short distance from the headwaters of the Blue. [Doehling]
Main Street in Surprise, ca. 1900. The two-story building on the right was the town's first building, 1882. [Doehling]

The first settlers in the southwest part of Butler County arrived in 1866. Soon the area was filled with hard-working, thrifty pioneers, a surprising number of whom were able to survive on the open prairie above the Platte River Valley.

It wasn't until 1881 that George Miller and several members of his family decided to built a dam on the small, spring-fed stream not far from the headwaters of the Big Blue River. They hoped to be able to impound enough water to operate a grist mill. It is said that Miller was not only pleased, but also quite surprised to get enough water power for such an enterprise, so he gave his mill the name "Surprise."

In a few years, a number of businesses had been established near the mill, as well as homes to accommodate the families of their owners. The growing community requested mail service. It was not too surprising that postal authorities accepted the unusual name by which the settlement was known. In 1883 a post office was approved, and the following year the town plat was registered.

It was a surprise, however, when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad Company built through that part of Butler County in 1887 and established a depot at the town, instead of a mile or so away in one direction or the other. Not having to relocate on a new town site, as many had to do, businesses needed only to expand. The railroad, later known as the Chicago & North Western, was abandoned in 1942.

The greatest claim-to-fame for the town of Surprise is that of the spacious Chautauqua Park near the river. This park, second-to-none for beauty, was a popular spot for family picnics and outings. Its main attraction was a week-long Chautauqua Show, usually held in late August. A wide variety of entertainment was provided daily, both afternoon and evening, under the huge five-pole tent. Camping in tents in the park, families from near and far came to hear the educational lectures, religious services, and political speeches and debates, in addition to dramatic plays and musical concerts. The town's population swelled to a surprising 1,500 people or more for this event.

Chautauquas started in 1913 and continued until the early 1930s. By then, with the country deep in the Depression and the drought, moving pictures shown in a vacant lot provided "free entertainment" as an incentive to bring people to town on shopping night.

At one time Surprise had a brick factory, two elevators, and was a good-sized livestock shipping point. There was also a big market for Surprise's ice, cut from the fresh-water mill pond and shipped out by rail during the winter. Other than these, industry never took hold, so the job-market in Surprise dwindled. The population peak of about 350 was reached in the 1920s.

Holding the record for operating a business 50 years or more was Walter H. Greenslit's lumberyard. The Doehling family is closing in on that record, with over 45 years of continuous operation of their oil company. Other businesses now consist of an auto repair shop and a bar & grill.

With the town's present population only being about 50, we no longer have a postmaster. The mail is processed locally by an officer in charge, but it will not be a surprise when the town's identity changes, and patrons are served by a rural route out of Ulysses.

The educational needs of the community kept pace with the times, quickly increasing from the traditional one-room school to a town-school with classes through the 10th grade. In 1924 Surprise became a K-12 school system. In 1953, after consolidating with four surrounding rural school districts, the school returned to a Class I system, providing K-8 classes.

The religious needs of the community were once served by Baptist, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, and Methodist Churches. The Methodists were the last to hold local services.

The appearance of the town of Surprise is quite nice. It is kept neat and well-cared for by the residents. The town's three businesses pull in customers from a wide area, and are probably as good as you can find in any town of less than 100 population.

The village government consists of a five-man board and is one of the few towns in the state which levies no city taxes. All monies required for operating expenses are obtained from state and county funds, provided for that purpose. Is it any surprise that we like living here?

From material submitted by Ed.C.Doehling, prior to his death in March 1991.


ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Memorial and Biographical Record, 1899.