The area we know today as Elmwood was still a wandering haunt of the Omaha, Pawnee, and Otoe Indians in the 1860’s. It was dotted with buffalo wallows, and trails of the kind so familiar to Lewis and Clark, and the Mormons, who helped open the great western frontier. Danger and challenge were everywhere; but so was opportunity in the Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1862. For facing the rigors of the frontier life, the head of a family could obtain 160 acres of good black land—if he could survive for 5 years and make some improvements.
The post office was commissioned in 1868 at a log cabin built just east and north of the present town of Elmwood by David McCaig, who suggested that it be know to residents as Elmwood because of the elm grove in which the cabin was built.
Elmwood was fortunate to have not one but two newspapers during its early days. The first, the Elmwood Echo was established the same year, 1886, that Elmwood was incorporated. The second paper, The Elmwood Leader, was established in 1891 by Burt Clements. The two papers consolidated in 1896.
The Blizzard of January 12, 1888, drew front page news of the Echo. The morning dawned bright and clear and unusually warm. In just 12 hours the temperature changed 80 degrees, from 40 above to 40 below zero. The storm struck just as children were on their way home from school. No lives were lost in the community—in fact, two children, Guy Clements and William Schick were born during the storm.
Hard hit during the storm was the Missouri-Pacific railroad that had made its way to the Elmwood area just two years before. The railroad had done much to open up the lines of communication and commerce for the early pioneers. A few years later, eight passenger trains a day, four going west and four going east, stopped in Elmwood.
There are “glowing” recollections of the big bonfire following the election of 1888. Before the election, some local wagers were placed. Charley Clapp bet Jim Greene a barrel of fuel, and Billie Buster bet Doc Hobbs the brush pile. Billie and Jim lost. Billie put a big pile of brush on the southeast corner of the square (about where the Masonic Hall now stands) and Jim brought the fuel oil, part of which he had replaced with water. When it was time to celebrate, they knocked in the barrel head and threw the fuel on the fire. The flames shot into the sky. The next bucket of “fuel” put the fire out! The fellows in town, angry that the bonfire was a failure, decided to gather up the old-fashioned outhouses for a real blaze!
The Opera House was built about 1890. It took the place of the old band stand that used to be where the Masonic Hall is now. Elmwood had a number of early bands and one bandsman, Del Greenslate, had a cornet so small he could put it in his pocket.
“Big wheeler” bicycles were a big thing in the early days. Del Greenslate, Charlie Stevens, W. E. Rosencrans, and William Atchison would sometimes cycle to Louisville, Weeping Water, and back to Elmwood on a Sunday afternoon.
Gil Hooley had a pop corn stand that he hauled to the corner where the American Exchange Bank stands today. He sold pop corn every Saturday afternoon and evening. On Sunday, it was common fun to pick the stand up and haul it two miles south of town and put it in the creek. Sometimes it could be found on top of Doc Hobb’s office. Gil never knew where he might find his stand on Monday!
Elmwood’s first flag pole was two trees, bolted together and it stood in the middle of the town square. It leaned at bit to the north so the people finally built a new pole. This one was made of four sections of lumber painted red, white, and blue. There was nothing uncommon about seeing a dog or maybe a small outhouse resting on top of the pole on mornings following a night of shenanigans!
The big event each year was the State Fair. During fair week the Missouri Pacific sometimes ran as many as three special trains to Lincoln. Farmers came to Elmwood early in the morning with their horses and spring wagons, and put their teams in the livery barn that stood where the post office is today. On the library site was a big corral. The horses were put in the corral, and the buggies were backed up in the gutter around it. Farmers were given a ticket for their teams, and a number was put on the buggies. Teams were left all day for a quarter. A number of years ago, one long time Elmwood resident remembered his family buggy was number 102—an indication, at least, of how many rigs were parked that day. Kids often rode the train’s coach steps and hung their feet all the way to Lincoln!
At a special meeting of the Agricultural Society Directors in February, 1893, it was voted to give Elmwood the County Fair, although Plattsmouth was the county seat. L. V. Hogan, manager, bought 29 acres at $100 per acre in January, 1893. Fairs had been held in Elmwood in 1891 and 1892. A half mile race track was built. Fourth of July races were held for a number of years. Over 300 teams were hitched to the racks on one Saturday afternoon in 1893. Fall races were also held in October, 1893 and the fair itself ran from October 3 through 6th.
The 2nd Annual Fair in Elmwood attracted over 6,000 visitors. There were nearly 900 entries exclusive of the “speed department.” Categories included the slow bicycle race, Poland China hogs, Shorthorn cattle, sheep, fruit display, potted plants, flowers, canned fruit, knitted quilt, knit goods, rag rugs, fancy needlework, quilts, fancy table cover, poultry, and general fruit. There was a beeswax display and the prettiest baby daughter title was won by Hattie and Gird Eells.
The Cass County Republican and Democratic Conventions were held in Elmwood in September and October, 1893, and the ladies of the Christian and Methodist churches served meals.
The years up to 1900 were truly the growing period of the community that counted a population of about 800 in the village and countless hundreds in the farms surrounding the area.
Elmwood After 1900
At the turn of the century, the combined Elmwood Leader Echo said this: “The way boys of all ages are allowed to roam the streets, chew tobacco, smoke cigarettes, and swear makes it possible to keep our penitentiaries well supplies with criminals!” Through 1901 and 1902 the newspaper continued to record the activities in a bustling Elmwood. For example, “The first free rural mail delivery routes from Elmwood were started October 15, 1902 with John Hall and Will Sargent as carriers. A horse and buggy was used.”
“At a public school meeting on July 11, 1902, it was moved, seconded and unanimously carried that all shows and other entertainments that take up the scholars’ minds from their studies be eliminated from the school, with the exception of the graduating exercises at the school.”
“A committee is working to raise $500 to help pay for a bronze monument for the cemetery honoring the memory of The Grand Army of the Republic.”
“Six boys were arrested and fined for playing baseball on Sunday.”
Also published were stories about home talent plays, the Elmwood Town Baseball team, popular games (Carrom and progressive Bunco), box socials, the weather, and of, course, grocery prices. In 1902 a “good” eating rooster brought $.04 a pound—up a penny from 1901! Thirty five cents bought enough beef steak to feed a family of eight!
During this time, Elmwood continued to be a social center, hosting many activities not normally associated with a small community. One of these was the Chautauqua which began in 1907 in the Elmwood Park on the east side of town. Chautauqua was a system of education and home study by means of summer schools and assemblies originating in Chautauqua, New York. The dining hall served meals for $.25. The Elmwood Band gave concerts each evening.
The Cass County Teachers’ Institute was also held in Elmwood on the same date as the Chautauqua so the teachers could attend the programs.
The G.A.R. reunion was held in Elmwood June 29-July 4, 1907 and in 1908 Elmwood sponsored the “Modern Woodmen of America Log Rolling” picnic at the park where William Jennings Bryan was the main speaker.