Early Life in Fairbury, Nebraska

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The Beginnings of our Life in Fairbury

From September 1946 to August 1949, I lived with my mother, father, and three older siblings in Fairbury, Nebraska. My parents were Nebraskans — born and raised in Hastings — and after World War II they returned to Nebraska after a short hiatus in California. 2

Both of my parents were educators, but my father had built airplanes during the war. As soon as Victory in Japan was declared, they packed their bags (my mother very pregnant with me) and headed back to their native state.

After attending a Nebraska state teaching job fair, my father accepted the position of superintendent of Wood Lake Public Schools. This was a very isolated area in the Sandhills of northwestern Nebraska 3 and they didn't stay long: my father accepted a new position with Fairbury Junior College in early 1946.

We said good-bye to Wood Lake and headed for Hastings. The family had difficulty finding housing in Fairbury, so at first we remained in Hastings with my maternal grandparents while my dad started his job in Fairbury. But, eventually, a house was found and we moved to our new home.

History of Fairbury

The courthouse in Fairbury.

Fairbury, located in the southeastern part of the state in Jefferson County, is a small town of less than 4,000 people today. The Little Blue River lies south and west of the town. It is the county seat.

Like nearly all Nebraska towns, Fairbury began because people believed that the railroad would come through the area, and they were right. The Rock Island Railroad had its division headquarters in Fairbury for nearly 80 years. As the railroad grew, so too did Fairbury. As railroads declined, Fairbury suffered a similar fate.

Two men — James B. Mattingly and Woodford G. McDowell — contributed 80 acres apiece for a new townsite. They knew the railroad would be coming through. They named it Fairbury — after McDowell's hometown.

My brother and I played in the snow in Fairbury — probably about 1948.

Once established, the town grew quickly — even before the railroad came — and by 1870, there were about 370 people living there. A newspaper, the Fairbury Gazette, was established by the early 1870's and Fairbury was chosen as the county seat in 1871. The St. Joseph and Denver City Railroad reached the town in 1872, turning it into a shipping center for grain and lumber. Two years later, in 1874, there were 600 residents and 44 businesses.

A fire in 1879 destroyed around fourteen buildings, but the citizens re-built, replacing the mostly frame buildings with brick and stone. By 1882, the population had grown to 1600.

In 1886, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad reached Fairbury; it was now the junction of the north-south and east-west lines of the Rock Island Line. A large rail yard was constructed, including shops, storage and maintenance facilities, switching yards, and an 18-stall roundhouse.

The railroad had a major impact on the small community: by 1890, the population had grown to 2,630. Fairbury continued to thrive through the 1890's: boardwalks were replaced with brick sidewalks, electricty and waterworks powerhouses were constructed; electric street lights were installed. By 1900, the population had reached almost 3200.

Fairbury continued to prosper during the early 1900's, reaching a population of nearly 5300 by 1910. Another major fire in 1903, however, destroyed almost an entire block near the courthouse square. Once again, the population fought back and rebuilt the entire block.

Rock Island Train Depot

The 1910s and 1920s were the peak years for the Rock Island Railroad, with fourteen passenger trains passing through Fairbury daily, and with hundreds of Fairbury residents on the payroll. To accommodate this traffic, the railroad constructed a new depot — brick with two floors — which is now a museum and one of two remaining railroad depots between Chicago and Denver. In 1915, civic leaders began promoting the brick paving of Fairbury's downtown streets; by 1930, there were 16 km of paved road. 4

Fairbury was better situated than many communities to weather the Great Depression. Besides the railroad, it had a variety of industries. The city continued to grow through the Depression, despite the difficulties of the Rock Island, which went into receivership in 1933. The population of Fairbury peaked in 1950, at nearly 6500 residents. 5

Slowly, passenger service declined and the Fairbury yards became obsolete. By 1965, the Rock Island's Chicago-to-Denver Rocky Mountain Rocket train ceased to run through Fairbury; in that same year, the railway relocated its Western Division headquarters from Fairbury to Des Moines, Iowa. In 1980, service to Fairbury ceased, and the depot was abandoned. It is now operated as the Rock Island Railroad Depot Museum, dedicated to the railroad's history.6

Fairbury's population has been decreasing ever since 1960. There is some manufacturing in the area, and there are public schools and civil servant jobs.

Why did we go to Fairbury?

Fairbury Junior College opened in 1941, but was forced to close in 1944 because of World War II. The college re-opened in 1946 — and that is when my father became Dean of Fairbury Junior College. We stayed until 1949. My father's office was in a brick building that had once been a hospital. [7]

Dad was featured in all three years of the school's yearbooks. This one was in his first year — 1946-47.

My dad was able to walk to his work, just a half block to K street and then a few blocks to 9th street where the Fairbury Junior College building was located. He was the Dean of the School, but he had many tasks. In the 1947-48 yearbook it says 7:

"Dean Overturf was the titular head of the college. It was he who planned the curriculum, the activity program and the general publicity program of the college. He was responsible for the keeping of the student records, the collecting of the money, the guiding of the students, and the general administration work of the college. Dean Overturf also did some classroom teaching."

In the third year of his involvement with Fairbury Junior College, this was said about him in the yearbook:

"Unlike many austere educators who prefer to remain aloof from the students, Dean Donald S. Overturf was never happier than when he was working with them. He was successful in earning the respect and admiration of faculty and students alike. As the president of both the Fairbury Education Association and the Nebraska Junior College Association, and as a member of many other organizations, Dean Overturf proved himself an invaluable asset to both school and community."

He enjoyed "instructing journalism and education classes and sponsoring the Junior Collegian". According to the yearbook, he possessed "a boundless enthusiasm for all things pertaining to the college."

It was three years of his career which I'm sure he always looked back on with pride. He apparently did a good job, because when he left, he received this letter from the Alumni Association:

Dear Dr. Overturf:

In recognition of three years of outstanding service to our college, the Fairbury Junior College Alumni Association wishes to extend its most sincere appreciation to you.

The alumni feel that your unselfish devotion to duty was primarily responsible for successfully re-establishing the college following its period of inactivity during the war. Your enthusiasm as dean of the college was an inspiration to students and alumni alike, and will not soon be forgotten by us.

When you assumed the leadership of the college after the war, it was almost as though you were establishing a completely new school. Through your efforts, however, the institution has attained a status of which its alumni can well be proud. We believe that this was accomplished mainly by your skillful administration.

We are sorry that the ability you demonstrated here has taken you from us. However, we sincerely hope that your proficiency will continue to be recognized in the future and that your career will continue to reflect the high quality demonstrated at our own college.

Respectfully yours, F.J.C. Alumni Association, Dean Terrell, President

What was it like to live there?

A sunny day in Fairbury, about 1948. Considering the condition of my knees, I think I was probably interrupted at play.

My memories are limited, but I do remember the weather. Finding historical data about Fairbury's weather has proved to be almost impossible. But I spent some summers in Hastings and/or Lincoln as I was growing up, and I have photographs of my brother and me both on a clear, obviously sunny day, while in others we are playing in the snow.

What I am certain of is that Nebraska has cold and snowy winters, and reasonably warm and somewhat humid summers. The average temperature for Lincoln, Nebraska in 1947 was 52º F. Rainfall was usually in the 30" level — also for Lincoln. It's possible that Fairbury had similar temperatures, but there would be obvious differences.

In later years, my parents sometimes said that they left Nebraska to avoid the cold, snowy winters. They headed south in 1949 to New Mexico and eventually lived and retired in Arizona. At one point my father considered taking a job in Michigan, but neither of them wanted to face the winters there.

This was our home in Fairbury; my father took this photograph in 1984 when he returned for a visit. It is located on 5th Street, which goes through the downtown area.

I remember our white house with its front porch, but I don't remember the address. My father wrote on the back of the photograph at the right that it was on 5th street, but he obviously also did not remember the street number. An email from Richard Gobel, a resident of Fairbury, cleared that up for me: The house is still standing and is at 1016-5th Street.

My father was delegated with the large job of getting the junior college running again. As mentioned earlier, he had just a five-block walk from our house to the junior college. Fairbury, at that time, had about 14 streets running east/west, and about the same number running north/south. East/West streets were numbered, North/South streets were alphabetized. The streets are laid out in neat squares, all corners at 90º — so typical of prairie towns.

This is the house as seen in 2003. I took this from a realty site on the internet (thanks again to Richard Gobel for directing me to this.)

My brother and I played together quite a bit since our two older sisters were soon in school. My sisters most likely attended East Ward Elementary School, located at west 4th and L streets, just a few blocks from our house. (There were three other elementary schools at the time: Central Ward, located on 9th street, between F and G streets; Park School, located on West 4th and Charles in the northeast corner; and West Ward, located on 11th and Elm, also in the northeast corner.)

My mother at this time was a stay-at-home mom, though she did try one semester of teaching high school English in Plymouth, Nebraska (a small nearby town). She found it "too much" and only taught that one semester. I assume that my brother and I were left with a babysitter. My mother would go on to get a Masters Degree in Education and teach elementary school for 17 years, but that was in the future. During our time in Fairbury, she was very busy being a mother and a wife.

What happened to Fairbury Junior College?

Unfortunately, Fairbury Junior College was closed forever in 1986; it became Southwest Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska. Twenty-five years later — when the college was celebrating its 25th year — there were still people in Fairbury quite bitter about the loss of the school. For those who attended the school or taught there, they felt the loss of the school deeply. I'm sure my father would have been equally disappointed.

An article appeared in the Journal Star 8 discussing the fact that the college was closed down and a group of faculty members who tried to stop it. Part of it said:

Vicki Martin, an English faculty member at Fairbury college and later SCC-Beatrice, said the movement [to keep Fairbury College in Fairbury] began out of love and appreciation for the city's educational institution.

"When I came here, the college had been started by the City of Fairbury right before World War II," Martin said. "It was really an amazing thing for a town like this to have started and maintained a junior college for that period of time. I was really happy to come and be a part of that history and be part of the academic education."

The junior college was a two-year academic experience before students would transfer to a university, Martin said.

"I thought it was an important part of the educational system; it offered our young people ... the first two years of a college education," she said. "All of that fit with my philosophy of education."

This, I am sure, is how my father would have felt. If he knew that the school had closed in 1986, he never mentioned it to me.

In 1949, Another Move for the Overturfs

It's never been clear to me why my father left Fairbury Junior College, but I can make some guesses. He had already earned his Master's degree and was working on his Ph.D. He wanted to be involved with a four-year rather than a two-year school. He went looking for a small university or college where he would be able to achieve a higher level of responsibility — and probably a higher salary. He found it at New Mexico Western College (now known as Western New Mexico University) in Silver City, New Mexico. They hired him to be the Dean of Men and Registrar for the school, beginning in September 1949.

None of this meant much to me except perhaps that we were going on a great adventure. My dad bought a Jeep for what he thought would be a lot of dirt roads (and there were quite a few). My life in Fairbury was at an end.

The Overturf Family is ready to roll. We packed our things and headed for New Mexico in August of 1949.


In no particular order, here are other personal articles I have written:

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. To read more about my parents' lives, go here

  3. For more information about the Wood Lake area, see my webpage on Valentine, Nebraska

  4. If you go to Fairbury on Google maps, you can still see the brick roads. 

  5. My family arrived and left Fairbury just prior to this peak: from 1946 to 1949. 

  6. I was undoubtedly in this depot with my mother and my older siblings. We went to Hastings by train at least once — after my parents had argued and my mother temporarily "ran away." My dad followed and picked us up in the Hastings train depot. 

  7. My thanks again to Richard Gobel who went to the public library in Fairbury and found the yearbooks for Fairbury Junior College for the three years my father was Dean. He copied the pertinent pages and sent them to me. 

  8. For the full article, see: http://journalstar.com/news/local/education/years-later-fairbury-college-move-still-brings-bitterness/article_4035dc3f-af55-580e-8a07-1cf8d0554943.html