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Nebraska...Our Towns


The first few attempts to start a town at this location were unsuccessful. Father Fanning and Colonel John Atkinson both platted towns on the south side of the Elkhorn River, but before any buildings were in place, rains turned the area into a marshland.

Frank Bitney, who came to northeastern Nebraska with one of General O'Neill's colonies, saw the need of a way-station at this location. He knew that freighters, using oxen, could travel only about eight to ten miles a day, so he chose a site on slightly higher ground, north of the river.

John Crimmins built the first house, a soddy, at what is now First and Main Street. When attempting to dig a well, however, he was unable to get beyond 19 feet without the gravel caving. Disgusted, he abandoned the site, selling the land to Bitney, who built a frame structure for a store. When a post office was granted in 1878, Bitney named it "Atkinson" for his friend, the colonel.

By this time the nucleus of a town had begun. John Carberry donated land to the west of Bitney's store, and Neeley, Duffy, Kimball, Blair, and Wixon also contributed land for a town site that was registered on August 7, 1880.

General O'Neill arrived with his fourth colony, this time German immigrants. Bitney gave them land on which to settle, about a mile north of his store. He was successful in persuading the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad to run its line through Atkinson in 1881. By 1883 the town covered nearly two quarters of land with a population of 800. Many German families moved closer to the railroad, building shops and homes.

As early as 1878, priests from O'Neill held Mass in homes. A mission church was built in 1882. The Methodists organized in 1881, and Presbyterians in 1882, building a church the following year. A Lutheran Church was organized in 1888. A prairie fire destroyed that church and records in the 1920s, with a new church constructed in 1927. Additional churches include: St.John's Lutheran in 1900, the Gospel Chapel (Faith Wesleyan) in 1934, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1957, and the Assembly of God in 1985.

Ellen Hovey taught a three-month term of school in Frank Bitney's living room in 1878. A schoolhouse was built and the school year gradually increased to the traditional nine months. Atkinson boasts of a fine school system today.

Pioneers were good at entertaining themselves. Frank Bitney built a roller skating rink which was used for community gatherings until 1927. At the turn of the century the Opera House was opened, which booked both traveling shows and local talent. It also had silent movies, with someone reading the script. The Crystal Ballroom, largest hall in town, was originally built to store hay by Fred Jungman in 1926. Many famous bands, including Lawrence Welk's, played there. The mill pond, about a five-minute walk from downtown, was a great place to swim and go fishing. Atkinson, of course, had its baseball team, and sportsmen had their choice of game to hunt. Barn dances were also popular, as were families and neighbors just gathering to visit, play cards, or sing.

People from the rural area around Atkinson have always been supportive of the town. In turn the town provides machinery sales and services to help lessen the farmer's workload. Since 1940, businesses have sponsored a free barbecue in conjunction with "Hay Days."

Atkinson has been fortunate to have at least one doctor since the early 1880s. Except for a time during the 1930-40s, when midwives and nurses cared for people in their homes, there has also been a hospital.

Rural people and citizens of Atkinson are actively involved in Chamber of Commerce activities, sponsoring the Atkinson High School Rodeo, and the annual community play. Many people from the community help by donating time, money, and their expertise to help provide funds for West Holt Medical Service Foundation.

The town of Atkinson and Stuart work together to provide an outstanding hospital, a good nine-hole golf course with grass greens, and an airport with paved runways.

We are proud of our town of Atkinson.

By Lawrence and Albena Kramer, HC 59 Box 37, Atkinson, NE 68713, Maralee Gilg, and a host of individuals providing information and 150 pictures (some found to supplement stories of other towns).

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Pilgrimage to the Prairie 1876-1968, by Mrs. Merrill Anderson; early issues of the "Atkinson Graphic"; and material (not bound), found at the Atkinson Township Library.