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Nebraska County Countdown 37: Phelps County

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Funk-y town, Kenny Bell, a massacre, and heroics vs the Hawkeyes

Phelps county courthouse nebraska

Welcome to the land down under...south of Interstate 80 that is. Phelps county is located just southwest of the city of Kearney in south central Nebraska. The population in 2010 was 9,188 and the county seat is Holdrege.

I’m the Map, I’m the Map, I’m the Map!

map highlighting phelps county nebraska

According to Wikipedia, the county was named after an early settler to the area named William Phelps. According to the official county website, it was named after Mississippi River steamboat captain William Phelps. Call me crazy, but I’ll go with the official county website’s version.

In addition to Holdrege, other communities in Phelps County include: Atlanta, Bertrand, Funk, and Loomis. There are also three unincorporated communities: Sacramento, Clyde, and Westmark.

Obligatory - Take Me to Funk-y Town!

Back to Phelps County

One significant historical event in county history was the Plum Creek Massacre. From the county website (typos and all):

The Plum Creek Massacre as told by Mrs. Thomas F. Morton In July, 1864, my husband and I decided to freight to Denver from Sidney, Iowa. After about five days travel, we arrived at Plum Creek Station. We were rejoined by nine wagons which made our wagon train consist of twelve wagons. When we were camped at Plum Creek that night, my brother and Mr. marble stood guard the forepart of the night and my husband the latter. About six o’clock in the morning we again started on our western course. My husband, being quite fatigued, requested that I should drive and I gladly consented. While I was driving, my husband was fast asleep and all my time was spent in viewing the beautiful landscape, which I supposed we would soon reach. But alas! That was only a momentary thought for far in the distance I could see objects which seemed to be approaching us but on account of the great distance, they were undistinguishable. But it was not long -- only a few minutes -- until I soon observed they were Indians and I again called to my husband and said he knew they were Indians. Soon we observed they were warriors and were pained and equipped for battle. Soon they uttered a wild cry and fired a volley from their guns which made us realize our helpless condition. This terrible and unsuspected apparition came upon us with such a startling swiftness that we had no time to make preparation for defense. With wild screams and ells, they circled round and round which frightened our teams so they became uncontrollable. Thinking there might be some faint hope of escape, I sprang from the wagon. My husband called me, ‘Oh, my dear, where are you going?’ And those were the last words I heard him say.

As with most areas in Nebraska and the West/Midwest, the location of railroad lines greatly altered the fortunes of different communities. The original county seat was “Williamsburg” in the northern part of the county. No railroad line materialized. It was then moved further to the center of the county “Phelps Center”. Again, no railroad line was forthcoming.

When the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad (B&MR) finally began building the long-desired line, the proposed route was south of the existing county seat. A scramble to a new town site resulted in the birth of Holdrege. From the University’s “Virtual Nebraska” website:

The railroad offered a city block to the citizens of Holdrege if they would build a courthouse. The ambitious merchants promptly provided the funds and the cornerstone was dedicated on October 10, 1884. Subsequently, the voters approved removal of the county seat to Holdrege on November 11 of that year. To avoid possible litigation over the matter, the records were “removed for safe keeping” (stolen) and county officers conducted business from various locations until the new building was ready to be occupied. The deed to the courthouse was presented at the July 4th celebration. A week later the officers moved in, although the building had not yet been painted.

I guess politics have always been...well, politics.

In the 1940’s Loomis had some foreign, umm, visitors (from the Virtual Nebraska website).

During World War II there was a prisoner of war camp one mile north and east of Atlanta. It opened in July 1943 and was deactivated and closed in 1946. Hundreds of German and Italian soldiers were interned there. Records show that 269 enlisted men and 60 officers were stationed at the POW camp. The silo-shaped concrete water tower of the camp is still a familiar landmark of Phelps County. In 1980, a sign giving the camp’s history was erected just south of the campsite.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Phelps county boasts some excellent birdwatching, hunting and fishing. There are golf courses and two recreation areas, Johnson Lake and Harlan County Lake. If you like history, visit the Nebraska Prairie Museum in Holdrege.

Husker Trivia related to “37”:

  • Current Huskers wearing 37: Wyatt Mazour (RB) of Albion, NE and Corbin Frederick (DB) of Mansfield, TX.
  • Who wore it best? Lawrence Ely was the first center to be named an All-American center for the Cornhuskers (1932).
  • Other notable 37’s: Ken Geddes, All-Big Eight linebacker (1968) and middle guard (1969) and Sam Koch, an All-Big Twelve punter in 2005 and who is still booting the ball for the Ravens.

Who can forget Kenny Bell’s 37 yard “SportsCenter-worthy” catch?

There you have it! What did I miss? Do you have any memories or recommendations re: Phelps County?

Enjoy a recap of Nebraska’s remarkable come-from-behind 37-34 double overtime win against Iowa in 2014. (De’Mornay’s punt return is at ~the 2:12 mark.)