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Nebraska...Our Towns

Fort Hartsuff, near Burwell, revisited. The baker, Orval "Buck" Newbury with a basket of bread, a scene during the filming of "The Trial of Standing Bear" by NETV. [Garfield County Historical Society]
Early business, across the street north of the square at Burwell. Later was Farmers' Union Store, Holloway's Feed and Hatchery, now remodeled for the Pizza Palace. [GCHS]
Miller Hotel and Livery stable on NW corner of the Square.
Southwest corner of the Square, 1983 [GCHS]


Burwell, in the North Loup River Valley, is the only incorporated town in Garfield County. It is uniquely platted with streets go out from the center of the square, rather than from the corners, and the square is not the site of the courthouse. The town was laid out on land donated by Frank Webster and I.B.Nelson, and named for Ada Burwell, fiance of Webster's brother who was killed in a logging accident.

Originally part of Wheeler County, Garfield County was established in 1881 but struggled with its organizational duties. Burwell, on the south side of the river, and Willow Springs on the north were rivals for business and the county seat. After a real bang-up county seat fight, Burwell was finally declared the winner. When the Burlington railroad extended northwest from Central City in 1887, tracks were laid on the south side of the river to Burwell, ending forever the hopes for the Willow Springs.

The railroad did not extend beyond Burwell, so a turntable was constructed to allow steam locomotives to be turned around for the return trip. While the line was discontinued in 1983, the turntable is still intact.

The Kinkaid Act brought many people to settle in the Sandhills in the northern part of the county. They built homes, schools, and churches. At one time there were 18 rural schools in the county. Presently there are six rural districts, an elementary school, and the junior-senior high school in Burwell.

Early churches included: Congregational started in 1888; Methodist in 1894; Christian in 1895; and Catholic in 1910. Congregations now serving the area also include: Lutheran, Assembly of God, Berean Fundamental, and Evangelical Wesleyan.

A county library was started in 1912 by the Burwell Women's Club and other concerned citizens. Other organizations provide for the social and fraternal needs of the area. Burwell has a modern hospital and nursing home as well as housing for senior and low-income families. A county historical museum was established in 1970.

In 1921 in an effort to perk up business, a group of businessmen decided to have a fair. There were ball games and races, and rodeo events in Schultz' pasture. That was the beginning of "Nebraska's Big Rodeo." Soon the group formed a corporation, built grandstands and buildings, and the rodeo became "the event" of the area. In 1975 Burwell was designated the "Outdoor Rodeo Capital of Nebraska." The Garfield County Frontier Fairgrounds and Arena, a 40-acre tract of land at the southeast edge of town, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Burwell livestock market started in the early 1930s. Specializing in the sale of cattle, the market attracts buyers from far and wide. Sales are held every Friday from August to the end of May in one of the largest cattle auction operations in the nation. Annual sales have consistently topped 100,000 head, with a single day's receipts at 6,083 in 1988.

Burwell and Garfield County celebrated their centennial in 1984 with many events: a special 4th of July celebration, a 70-entry parade prior to the annual rodeo, and a community dinner to honor early settlers and the descendants of pioneers to Garfield County

Fort Hartsuff, eight miles southeast of Burwell, was built in 1874 to protect settlers and keep peace between the Pawnee and Sioux Indians. Restoration of the fort began in the 1960s. Many museum items are displayed in the hospital and guard house, and the officers' quarters contain 1870 furniture. The fort was chosen for the filming of "The Trial of Standing Bear" by the ETV network staff, a story of the removal of the Ponca Tribe from their lands in the Niobrara Valley to Oklahoma in 1877.

The Calamus Dam was dedicated on July 4, 1985. The dam, over a mile in length, forms a lake that extends well into Loup County, providing irrigation to 54,000 acres. The paved road that circles the lake provides easy access to recreational facilities which include boating, camping, swimming, and fishing.

Burwell retailers start the summer season with a street carnival, exhibits, sidewalk sales, horseshoe contests, and other activities on Memorial Day weekend.

There are lots of things to see and do in Burwell, and visitors are always welcome.

By Emma Bristol, Box 521, Burwell, NE 68823


ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Garfield County Roundup volume I, published in 1967; and volume II, published in 1984, in conjunction with the centennial. Available from the Garfield County Historical Society, Burwell, NE 68823.