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Nebraska...Our Towns

Curtis, the site of the state's "Agricultural High School" as a result of federal legislature in 1913, has a long tradition in housing the young men and women who have attended this institution over the past 75 years. The campus has recently become the College of Technical Agriculture under the University of Nebraska. Pictured is the administration building, 1986.
Main Street in the early 1900s.
Curtis Lake, looking east. A mill appears to be located at the far end of the lake.
Main Street Curtis in summer, 1986. Several of the same buildings still grace the business district.
"Big snow, March 13, 1913," No trains for 6 days from the east and for 8 days from the west.
Bird's eye view of Curtis, Nebraska, in early 1900s.


Frontier County was founded in January 1872 in an Indian tepee near the mouth of Clifford Canyon. Those present included Hank and Monte Clifford, John Bratt, Paddy Miles, and a Mr. Kirby. The story goes that there was no pen or ink or pencil with which the agreement could be drawn up and signed, so a mixture of charcoal and water was made and each man signed his name with a pointed stick dipped in the thick black substance. The document was approved by the legislature in 1873.

A post office was established on the Nelson farm, three miles to the east of what was to become Curtis. There are quite a few versions as to how the name was chosen, but after considerable research by the centennial committee, it was determined that Ambrose Shelly, a trapper who had come to this area in 1871, was the person whose story was most credible. Shelly stated in a letter written March 8, 1926, that a small stream and large canyon were named in honor of Major James Curtis, stationed at Fort McPherson for a time. The first post office was near Curtis Creek, which is known to have been named for him.

Captain R.O. Phillips of the Lincoln Land Company chose the site for the present town of Curtis. By all rights the railroad should have gone through the county seat at Stockville, but for reasons known only to the land company, Phillips chose a spot several miles northwest. Land was purchased from Bakers and Kibbens.

The railroad arrived in October 1885 and the town was established in May 1886. The first passenger train pulled into town that September. A petition to incorporate was filed in August 1886, but was then withdrawn. The next year a revised petition was filed that embraces the present town site.

The first business in town was a blacksmith shop built by Jacob Scherer. He put up his building as soon as the railroad surveyed the right-of-way. When the town was platted, the building was right in the middle of main street, so he was obliged to move it to a spot that met with the planner's design.

But what of the local politics and the by-passed county seat? This early account of the settling of Curtis appeared in the "Enterprise" newspaper:

"The irrepressible Col. Harry Phillips, a resident of Beatrice, paid a visit to Stockville, county seat of Frontier County. With the pomp and air of an English lord, and with his smooth convincing argument, many were forced to believe that the proper thing to do was to move to the new town of Curtis, for it was soon to be the great western metropolis."

"Then contagion spread to quite an alarming extent. Soon day laborers and mechanics were at a premium and the sound of hammer and saw was heard from early morn until the small hours of the night, tearing down and dissecting buildings preparatory to moving to the new town...each party anxious to be first on the ground. In a short time wagon after wagon was loaded, and the road, as far as eye could see, was a panorama of buildings on wheels."

But Stockville survived the scourge and retained its claim to the seat of government. While Curtis gained many new inhabitants in a short period of time, it never became a metropolis or even a very big city.

A unique education establishment in 1913 contributed greatly to the success and growth of Curtis. The school was as a "State Agricultural High School" serving secondary students from many areas of the state for 55 years through June 1968. Because of the changing role of education, the state legislature revised the mission statement of the school to that of a post-secondary school specializing in agricultural technology. The school, known as the University of Nebraska School of Technical Agriculture, grew until it had over 300 students enrolled.

In the 1980s the Board of Regents, looking at budget restraints, suggested the school be closed. Enrollment dropped because of the uncertainty of its future. Through the concentrated effort of many people, a bill was finally passed and signed by Governor Orr in 1988, making the Curtis school a College within the University of Nebraska system. The school and town are now starting to rebuild again.

In 1958 the Curtis community presented an Easter pageant. This, plus the 30-foot lighted cross on the hill south of town, led to the official title of "Nebraska's Easter City" in 1981.

Curtis celebrated its centennial in 1986. Many stories about the town and the families who have lived here can be found in the centennial book published that year.


From information sent by Florence Nelson, Box 256, Curtis, NE 69025