Skip Navigation

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  • Virtual Nebraska Logo

Virtual Nebraska

Nebraska...Our Towns

Pawnee City -- Pawnee County

Pawnee County's first courthouse, built in 1878 of white limestone and other native materials, was replaced in 1911 with a larger structure. [Cox]
The scene at the Pawnee City depot as people await the arrival of Taft's campaign train. [PCHS]

A group of pioneers from Ohio, arriving in the Nebraska Territory in 1854, traveled up the Nemaha River until they came to a Pawnee Indian village on Turkey Creek. The settlement they formed nearby became a trading post for the area. Since the village was near the center of Pawnee County, it was selected as county seat in 1855. A post office was established on June 2, 1858, about the time the town incorporated. We proudly claim the only "Pawnee City" in the United States.

In 1881 the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad completed construction through Pawnee City on its line from Table Rock to Wymore. This climaxed years of effort on the part of local businessmen to obtain telegraph service and a railroad. In 1886 the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, coming out of Kansas, also built a line through Pawnee City, then on to Fairbury.

On August 9, 1881, tragedy struck our young town. The cry, "Fire! Fire!" roused citizens at about 12:30 a.m. The blaze, started at the rear of Reeder's Drug Store, took less than three hours to burn 26 buildings -- two-thirds of the business community. Rebuilding started immediately, this time using fireproof materials. The town soon sported 28 new buildings and continued to grow. Our highest population, 1,969, was recorded in 1900.

Chirping sparrows in the cornice work of the historical store fronts attest to the pride of ownership and fierce determination of our early businessmen. Today this attitude is mirrored as the community works to maintain and expand in the uncertainties of the rural and national economy. Recently, two new industries -- C. J. Foods and Harrison Bird Diets, Inc. -- have located in Pawnee City, and are valuable additions to an economic growth in this area.

While the population of Pawnee City may be considered small -- 1,008 -- the services provided here are extensive. As the seat of county government, people are drawn from the surrounding area, providing clientele for two medical doctors, a veterinarian, a dentist, two opticians, three attorneys, a weekly newspaper, a bank, a grain elevator, and a good line of stores and shops which round out the business community. We also have a 21-bed hospital, a medical clinic, and a 66-bed nursing home.

Recreational opportunities include a golf club and summer ball program. The city has a tennis court, swimming pool, basketball court, playground equipment, and picnic shelters located in its two parks, and an attractive fishing pond. The K-12 school serves approximately 300 students, and there is a good public library.

In 1984 a cooperative program between the Chamber of Commerce and the Pawnee City Historical Society was established to promote tourism. Now an annual two-day event, the "Pioneer Panorama" celebration starts with a "fly-in breakfast" at the municipal airport just west of town. The historical society's buildings are transformed into a "living pioneer village" staffed by volunteers in old-time attire. Teepees spring up, Indians present authentic dances, and various pioneer crafts are demonstrated. The parade has featured Nebraska governors and national leaders. In 1987 Bob Kerrey spoke at the dedication of the Avenue of Flags on the courthouse lawn.

In 1967, when the historical society was established, a tract of land was purchased. The site now includes 15 buildings, including the house which belonged to David Butler, Nebraska's first elected governor, who was from Pawnee City. The collection of artifacts include horse-drawn equipment, antique tractors, and the world's largest barbed wire collection. A tribute to native son Kenneth S. Wherry, elected U. S. Senator in 1942 and who served as Republican leader from 1949-51, is also housed at this museum.

Our town is an agri-business community which depends heavily on the well-being of the surrounding farms. City residents watch the rain gauges and grain prices with as much concern as their rural neighbors. Pawnee City is filled with trees and nice homes with well-kept gardens and yards. It combines a unique balance of young families, energetic business people, active civic organizations, and retired citizens. Our cooperative network enriches the lives of everyone -- residents, visitors, and guests to our town.


By Nanette Hatfield, 1301 10th Street, Pawnee City, NE 68420.


ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of Pawnee City, Nebraska, 1935, by John Brenneman; Pawnee City Centennial, 1957, William Colwell, ed.; The Windmill Man , 1968, by Dorothy Jo (Williamson) Ebert; Nebraska Place-Names, 1960, by Lilian Fitzpatrick; Bicentennial Album of Pawnee County , 1976, Brand Irons; Portrait and Biographical Album of Pawnee and Johnson Counties , 1889, Chapman Bros. ed.; A History of Czechs in Nebraska, 1929, by Rose Rosecky; Footsteps on the Roof , Margaret (Waddell) Peters; The Makings of a Political Leader: Kenneth S. Wherry, 1969, Marvin Stromer; Pawnee County Cemeteries , 1977, by Ruth Anna Hicks; Souvenir Book of Pawnee County , 1899, W. E. Hassler, Pub.; and A History and Historic Sites Survey of Johnson, Nemaha, Pawnee, and Richardson Counties in Southeastern Nebraska, by Jones & Magi.