Monday, October 20, 2014

History Along Nebraska's Highways (Part II)

Continuing with our brief visit to southern Nebraska… As we moved westward along the Lincoln Highway (US Hwy 30), we continued to search for places that are listed on the National Register of Historical Places.  Our efforts always ensure that we take a better look at the communities that we’re passing through…and we learn a little bit about history too!

As per its listing on the Nebraska National Historic Sites website, this is the IOOF Opera House.  It was built by James M. and Joshua Cox in Hampton Nebraska.  This two-story brick building originally housed retail businesses on the first level, with the opera house and Independent Order of the Odd Fellows meeting hall on the second floor.  The stage has a wooden proscenium arch and a vintage curtain, depicting a nude with flower garlands, fringes, and tassels.  

As the last frontier approached an end, nearly every town of any distinction on the Plains boasted an opera house. The term "opera house" was preferred over theater" since opera was considered a highly respected art form rather than mere popular amusement, even though grand opera itself was seldom actually performed.  What the management offered on its stage depended primarily on the town’s proximity to a railroad, which in the late nineteenth century served as the major link to the outside world.  Whether or not opera troupes ever sang for local audiences, an opera house was viewed as the crowning achievement…re: tangible proof that a town had come of age!  In addition to performances per se, these ‘opera’ houses provided a venue for community gatherings and activities.

There wasn’t much going on in Hampton…and yet there was obviously pride in the community with these colorful flower baskets hanging from the old fashioned looking light poles.  This building wasn’t listed on the National Register but I liked the look of it… It was the First National Bank and the dates on this building are 1884 and 1912.  It looks more like a 1912 structure to me…with modifications. 

Hampton, which was originally called Murray, was surveyed and platted in 1879.  Joshua Cox of Illinois was the driving force behind Hampton’s founding.  The town was incorporated in 1883.  Hampton quickly became a local shipping center for agricultural goods—in 1887 the Hampton railroad station shipped out 1,065 railroad cars of grain!  Today the population of Hampton has declined to just over 400 residents.

Hampton was the center of a celebrated legal case regarding the teaching of foreign languages. As per a 1919 Nebraska law, the ‘Siman Act’ imposed restrictions on both the use of a foreign language as a medium of instruction and on foreign languages as a subject of study.  With respect to the use of a foreign language while teaching, it provided that "No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language."  The law was struck down by the Supreme Court.  To learn more, go to

This is a view from the courthouse square in Aurora Nebraska.  Aurora is just 6 miles from Hampton and it’s the county seat for Hamilton County.  Note the brick streets.  Laurie and I saw more brick streets in Nebraska than we’ve seen in many, many years.  The good news is that people do not speed on brick pavement! 

This is the bandstand in Aurora’s very attractive courthouse square.  The bandstand dates back to the late 1800’s…very classic indeed!

The current population of Aurora is roughly 4,500.  The town was laid out in 1871 by David Stone…who named it after his home town of Aurora Illinois.  The Burlington and Missouri Railroad came to town in 1879 and that spurred a period of fast growth. 

This impressive structure is the Hamilton County Courthouse in Aurora Nebraska.  This massive red limestone building was built back in 1895 and its construction cost was $60,000!  In today’s dollars, that would come to roughly $1,720,000…

While in Aurora, we were also looking for this historic building…but all we found was a vacant lot on the corner.  It was originally called the Royal Highlanders Building.  Designed after the Balmoral Castle in Scotland, construction on the building began in 1904 for the Royal Highlander Insurance Company.  It was originally known as the Royal Highlander Douglas Castle No. 1.  The building, which sat on Aurora’s courthouse square, was destroyed by fire on July 10, 2008. 

While checking out what had happened to the Royal Highlanders Building, I ran across some information on the company that built it.  This photo is of the Royal Highlanders drill team from Ida Grove, Iowa.  The Royal Highlanders was originally a fraternal insurance organization.

There were two classes of membership, benefit and social.  The ritual of the Royal Highlanders was based on the story of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in their struggle for Scottish independence, and was intended to teach “Prudence, Fidelity and Valor”.  Degree teams wearing kilts and glengarries and carrying shields and swords initiated new members into the Order.

In 1930, the Order numbered some 17,000 members, both men and women, with “extensive investments” in Nebraska farmland.  Seven years later, the Order reincorporated to become a mutual life insurance company, and it was renamed as Lincoln Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1946.

Many of the buildings surrounding Aurora’s courthouse square are over 100 years old.  Almost all of the structures were occupied…always a great sign in a rural community in this day and age.  These 3 buildings are dated 1908, 1904 and 1899.

·        Harold Eugene Edgerton was from Aurora.  He was the inventor of the strobe light and for strobe flash photography. 
·        In 2003, the largest hailstone recorded in US history fell near Aurora.  It measured over 7 inches across.  However, in 2010 a hailstone was recovered in Vivian South Dakota that set a new record for size and weight.  It was over 8 inches across and weighed almost 2 lbs.  Those dimensions were documented after some melting occurred when it was preserved in a freezer where the power had been out for a few hours! (FYI…a soccer ball is 8.6 inches across) 

Moving west we crossed the beautiful Platte River near Grand Island Nebraska.  The Platte River is a major river in the state of Nebraska.  Measured to its farthest source via its tributary, the North Platte River, this watershed flows for over 1,050 miles!  It is a tributary of the Missouri River.  Over most of its length, the Platte is a muddy, broad, shallow, meandering stream with a swampy bottom and many islands—a braided stream.  These characteristics made it too difficult for canoe travel, and it was never used as a major navigation route by European-American trappers or explorers.

However, the Platte River Valley did play an important role in the westward expansion of the United States, providing the route for several major emigrant trails, including the Oregon, California, Mormon and Bozeman trails.  The first Europeans to see the Platte were French explorers and fur trappers about 1714.  They first called it the Nebraskier, a transliteration of the name given to the river by the Otoe people, meaning "flat water".

Our next stop was Grand Island Nebraska.  Grand Island is the county seat for Hall County.  This imposing structure is the Liederkranz… In 1870, German settlers met to organize a German singing society or "Liederkranz" to provide musical and social entertainment and to cultivate the members' musical talents.  This large brick building, constructed in 1911-12, was designed by a Liederkranz member, and it demonstrates influences of the Neo-Classical Revival style.  The hall has long been a community meeting place, an auditorium for civic activities, and a polling place.

There will be more on Grand Island and its historic building in a forthcoming posting, but that’s about it for now.  Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit and a brief historical tour!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. Looks like a nice day spent visiting small town America and good to see some towns without vacant stores. I like the third shot.

  2. I was reading a survey of American cities – what ranking they had (conservative or liberal) and was surprised to find out that Omaha is ranked 55 in the top 100 conservative cities, higher than many cities in southern states, and that surprised me. Aurora looks like a very nice town to visit and I enjoyed all the pictures you took. I always thought that US people in the olden days enjoyed classical music a lot more and that is why they had opera houses, I mean the real thing, like or the opera Carmen. So you are telling me that they only used the name opera to look more sophisticated? That is disappointing! Is that why they call it the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville? I thought it came from “the grand old opera” then it turned into country music and they could not pronounce its name?

  3. I agree with Larry. It's really nice to see a small town that's not in decline. Sadly so many are. I particularly like the band stand. I am imaging my grandmother in her youth going to town and enjoying the music with her friends.