Volume 28, No. 1
Buffalo County Historical Society January-February,
by Mardi Anderson
In 1982 Linda
Wilke, descendant of one of the early settlers at Sweetwater, wrote a
history of this settlement on the northern edge of Buffalo County. She
was kind enough to donate a copy to the Archives. While there are also
various miscellaneous pieces of information in the archives about
Sweetwater and the surrounding area, Wilke's history has provided the
basis for the following article.
Sweetwater is derived from Sweetwater
Creek, sometimes called McGee's Creek. It was more commonly called
Beaver Creek and is now known as Mud Creek. There are two legends about
the origin of the name Sweetwater. One is that a wagon carrying a
substantial amount of sugar tried to cross the creek and upset, dumping
sugar into the creek. The other, more likely story is that early
settlers to the region found the water to be less alkaline, sweeter,
than in states from where they had migrated.
The stream originates in Sherman
County somewhere north and west of
Hazard and winds its way southeast into Buffalo County, turns back
north briefly, then south again to empty into the South Loup at
Ravenna. If one were to take a piece of string, wad it up and squeeze
it tightly, then toss it out on a table, one would see what a
meandering course this creek travels.
When the first settlers came to
the area, Beaver Creek was clear with a
sandy bottom. As has happened to so many waterways in Nebraska, when
the land was settled and prairie broken to plant crops, the clear water
and sandy bottom disappeared. Some time through the years, therefore,
the Beaver Creek became Mud Creek.
The bridge over Mud Creek on
Sweetwater Road, a quarter mile south
In those early days, the bridge across Beaver
Creek consisted of logs long enough to reach from one bank to the
other. The logs were covered with poles and brush. Next came a layer of
hay and sod, and finally dirt. The bridge would usually last until the
next flood when it washed away. Then a new one would be built.
of Highway 2. The bridge was
built around 1909 by the Standard Bridge
Company of Omaha.
When the Buffalo County
Board of Supervisors adopted
bridge standards in 1908, they contracted with the Standard Bridge
Company of Omaha to build bridges across several streams in the county.
The following year an 80-foot pinned pony truss bridge was built across
the Beaver, now called Mud Creek. With maintenance and repair over the
years, this historic bridge is still in use today and is listed on the
National Register of Historic Places.
The first people to live in the Sweetwater area
were the prehistoric Plains Village culture called the Itskari Phase
who lived here from the early 1200s to the mid-1400s. They probably
were the ancestors of the Pawnees who were living in this part of the
state when the first white settlers arrived. Remains of Itskari storage
pits, earth lodges, and trash deposits have been found in this area
north of the South Loup River.
Settlement by people from the
eastern United States
and Europe did not begin until about 1870. When John McGee brought his
family to settle in Buffalo County in 1873, he selected a spot on the
bank of Beaver Creek in what is now Beaver Township near the Sherman
County line. A trail that was used to bring supplies from Kearney to
Loup City crossed the Beaver at this point. It was also on the route
used by travelers going west from Grand Island. McGee established a
ranch here, probably a sheep ranch, and kept a general store for the
convenience of travelers. When the stagecoach route between Kearney and
Loup City was established, his ranch became one of the stops. It cost
$2 to ride the stage from Kearney to the McGee Ranch. The McGee Ranch
was officially named Sweetwater when a post office was established
there on December 21, 1874.
When Erastis Smith (founder of
Ravenna) came to
Buffalo County he rented a house in Kearney where his family could stay
until he finished a home for them on their claim east of Sweetwater.
But then the floor of the house in Kearney collapsed under the weight
of their possessions. So they loaded up everything and went to McGee's
Ranch to stay until the dugout was completed - five Smiths, four
and a two-room house.
Three other early families in the
were the Crostons, Roberts, and Hodges. Mr. Croston was a Union Civil
War veteran from the north, who had fallen in love with a southern
girl. Because of family opposition the couple eloped and moved to
Nebraska. After spending some time in the Grand Island area they moved
to a claim on Beaver Creek on the Sherman County side of the county
The James Roberts family came to
Missouri where they were said to be friends and neighbors of the
infamous James brothers. James Roberts worked for the Union Pacific
when it was being constructed. Attracted to this part of the state, he
brought his family from Nebraska City to Grand Island and
then on to a claim on Beaver Creek in
Sherman County near Sweetwater.
Bob Hodges came to the area in
1872 and was one of
the first to settle in Beaver Township. Although he lived in the
Sweetwater area, he did not immediately file for a homestead. Hodges
reportedly rode as a herder for the Olives in Texas and in Nebraska.
The Olives had a cattle ranch in Dawson County and are best known for
the murders of farmers, Luther Mitchell and Ami Ketchum. Sweetwater was
on the dividing line between the cattlemen and the settlers at that
time. Because Hodges could play the fiddle, he was often called upon to
play at many social events around Sweetwater in those early days. It
was said that he knew three songs.
The McGees left the area late in
1876 and for a
couple of years James Goff operated the store. Goff was a farmer and
may have been the original owner of the Sweetwater town site. Then
Henry Beyer and his wife came to Sweetwater and took over the
mercantile business. Beyer built a new store with living quarters on
the second floor.
Some time later a friend and family
passing through. A blanket was hung across the upstairs living quarters
to provide privacy for each family. The next morning the two men drove
to Kearney to get supplies for the store. It was late at night by the
time they got back. The pair put up the horses and, exhausted, fell
into bed. There followed a great commotion by wives and children. The
men were in the wrong beds.
A group of Norwegian immigrants
who had been living
in Chicago moved to the area just west of Sweetwater in 1880. There
were also some Danes living here. These settlers formed the Sweetwater
Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in 1882. At first they
met in homes. Finally after about ten years, the Scandinavian community
built a sod church and then in 1903 a frame building was erected. Since
members of the congregation were from Hazard as well as Sweetwater,
they talked for many years of moving. Finally in 1940 the church was
moved to Hazard where it is now known as Faith Lutheran.
All this time Sweetwater was located on the bank of
Beaver Creek. Then in the summer of 1886 the Burlington Railroad's
Grand Island & Wyoming Central branch was constructed from Grand
Island to Broken Bow. The route entered Buffalo County at St. Michael.
Ravenna was founded and became a division point. From there the
railroad was built in a northwesterly direction, more or less following
the winding Beaver Creek. Because of the turns in the course of the
creek and because the railroad was on the north side, it missed
Sweetwater by about half a mile. Henry Beyer moved his store north to
the railroad. Sweetwater was platted in a V with the railroad forming
the southwest boundary, the section line on the east, and the Sherman
county line on the north. In fact, the street along the north edge of
Sweetwater is called Sherman Street.
Beaver Creek must have had a good
steady flow of
water because it was not long before there were three grain and flour
mills in operation at Sweetwater. Two were located south of Beyer's
store and the third one farther west. The Sweetwater Mill
stayed in operation the longest. This
mill was built and operated by brothers, Herman and Henry Wilke in
1886. In May of the following year the Kearney New Era reported that
this mill was one of the "solid improvements on the Burlington &
Missouri River Railroad to Broken Bow....The roller mill has a capacity
of 100 barrels a day and utilizes the finest water power in the state."
Three years later, in 1890, the
town of Sweetwater
was hit by a tornado, a cyclone as it was called then. The Sweetwater
Mill was destroyed. The Ravenna News
reported, "The Sweetwater Mill,
one of the best and finest roller mills in central Nebraska, had
evidently been raised into the air, crushed together by some tremendous
force, and dashed to the ground again, a series of shapeless ruins."
Several days after the storm a part of the mill's roof was found six
In 1899 Herman Wilke formed a
Andrew Rosvold, a Norweigan settler living just west of Sweetwater, to
rebuild the Sweetwater Mill. They rebuilt the building and then,
apparently, Andrew painted the interior. He died that summer from
inhaling paint fumes. In September a notice appeared in the Kearney Hub
announcing that Herman Wilke and Mrs. Rosvold, widow of his partner,
would operate the Sweetwater Mill. The mill continued to operate until
the late 1910s.
Sweetwater has never been a very
especially after Ravenna was established just five miles east. But it
did have the usual variety of businesses. Besides the Beyer's general
store there were a couple of blacksmiths and a miller listed in the
1885 Nebraska census. Then a millinery shop opened and by the turn of
the century the town even had a softball team. Other businesses in
Sweetwater included a grain elevator, a bakery, a lumber business, and
a bank. A Presbyterian congregation had formed but they did not build a
church until three years later. Out in the country the Sweetwater
Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran congregation included members from
both the Sweetwater and Hazard communities.
The Sweetwater community has
faced other hardships
besides the tornado in 1890. In the 1870s when the first settlers were
arriving there was drought and grasshoppers. There were also Indian
scares. The Sioux and Pawnee Indians frequented the region around
Sweetwater. Neither tribe was friendly toward each other or to the
white man who was encroaching on their land. Located so far north of
the Union Pacific Railroad, Sweetwater also experienced a shortage of
supplies. The trip to Kearney and back by wagon was a long one.
Apparently there was no brickyard in the area and hauling in brick was
too expensive. Buildings were therefore constructed of wood. As a
result, there have been several fires in Sweetwater over the years,
each destroying two or three businesses. Oftentimes after such
destruction businesses were never rebuilt.
Today there is hardly
a trace left of Sweetwater.
But as you drive along Highway 2 from Ravenna to Hazard, watch for a
sign along the railroad track at the county line that says "Sweetwater."
A History of Sweetwater,
Nebraska by Linda Wilke, 1982
Atlas of Buffalo County, 1919
"Early Post Offices in Buffalo
County" by Alice Shaneyfelt Howell, Buffalo
1, No. 8,
"Flour Mills In Buffalo County, Part
II" by Alice Shaneyfelt Howell, Buffalo
Tales, Vol. 14,
No. 8, Nov.-Dec., 1991
"Freighting in Buffalo County, Part
II-Kearney, The Trade Center for Buffalo County Freighting in the
Mardi Anderson, Buffalo Tales, Vol. 8, No. 3,
History of Buffalo County and Its
People, Vol. I by Samuel Clay Bassett, 1917
Historic Bridges of Nebraska,
Kearney Daily Hub,
Nebraska National Register of
State Historic Preservation Office, Nebraska State Historical
"Railroads in Buffalo County" by
Alice Shaneyfelt Howell, Buffalo
Tales, Vol. 1, No. 5,
The History of Faith Lutheran
in Hazard, Nebraska, Compiled and edited by Lenore
(on Hazard website at
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