Mar 19, 2008, 03:44 PM
Gypsyheart~ Queen of Rust
FORT CROOK VILLAGE, NEBRASKA
Fort Crook village was located in Sarpy County, Nebraska west across Highway 73-75 and the Missouri Pacific and Burlington railroad tracks from the original main gate of Fort Crook, later Offutt Air Force Base. Some newspaper articles also refer to the town name as Crooktown or Crookton. The town was incorporated on August 2, 1897. The original Fort Crook main gate was on the west side of the military post just to the northwest of the World War II era hospital building now being used as the 55th Wing Command Group Headquarters. The town’s early commercial buildings were directly across from this gate but the town eventually extended all the way south to what is now Capehart Road . The town was primarily in the area between Highway 73-75 and the railroad tracks. A branch of the Papillion Creek bordered the west side of the town.
The town was established as the “serviceman’s town” for Fort Crook with a full compliment of saloons, cafes and other stores catering to army personnel. The town also served the farmers of the area. Saloons outnumbered other businesses. Families of the soldiers sometimes lived in the houses in the town. The town’s history was impacted by a major tornado on May 12, 1908, numerous floods of the Papillion Creek which inundated the site, fires and a state law enacted in 1907 prohibiting saloons from being within two and one-half miles of the fort.
My interest in Fort Crook village comes from memories of seeing a railroad station along Highway 73-75 east of the village site and from a visit to the remains of the Oakley Building with Harold Hansen about 1967.
The July 30, 1897 Nebraska State Journal described the “thriving” village: “ Fort Crook City is the name of a village which has sprung up on the outskirts of Fort Crook . According to a census taken recently, this thriving little village contains over 200 persons and an attempt will be made next week to incorporate. The papers in the case are all prepared and will be presented to the county commissioners of Sarpy County at a meeting to be held next Tuesday at Papillion. The village is steadily growing and already possesses two hotels besides a hall and a number of boarding houses.” Fort Crook village had grown to 646 people by 1900 according to that year’s census.
The early commercial section of the town was in the rough form of a reverse “L”. The long leg of the “L” was Railroad Street on which the buildings faced east. Railroad Street ran parallel to Highway 73-75. The initial building in the village was the Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot, which was constructed in 1894 as the army post itself was being built. This depot was at the north end of Railroad Street on the west side of the tracks. J.W. Lowry’s Saloon, later Yancey “Dude” Oakley’s Saloon/Confectionary (the “Oakley Building”), anchored the south end of the Railroad Street business block. The Fort Crook Hotel, also owned by J.W. Lowry, anchored the north end of the Railroad Street business block. A newspaper article indicates this hotel was built in 1896. The east-west leg to the reverse “L” was Sarpy Avenue at the south end of Railroad Street . The Sarpy Avenue business block faced north on Sarpy Avenue . The Ketchmark Saloon was at the corner of Sarpy Avenue and Railroad Street and faced north. The saloon had a livery stable in the back (south) of the building. The Sarpy Avenue business block was only four buildings, including the Ketchmark Saloon, shorter than the six buildings which comprised the Railroad Street business block. The first two buildings along Sarpy Avenue west of the Ketchmark Saloon were a barber shop and the Katsky Grocery. The 1910 census lists Julius and George Lewis as store keepers of a general store in the village which may have been along Sarpy Avenue .
There were two commercial buildings slightly north and east of the Fort Crook Hotel and just west of the Missouri Pacific Depot, one of which was the first post office. There was an unnamed street between the hotel and these buildings. The first post office was the first building north of the Fort Crook Hotel across the unnamed street. All of these early commercial buildings along Railroad Street and Sarpy Avenue were constructed in approximately the 1894-96 time frame.
The most detailed map of the village found to date is in the 1901 Omaha Sanborn Insurance Maps. It is part of the final map of volume III of the Omaha maps. This map indicates the village was larger than previously known. A number of buildings are shown in the area behind the Railroad Street business block, including at least one business building facing south on Sarpy Avenue. Those buildings may have been on the west side of the Papillion Creek. There are also several buildings south of Sarpy Avenue . The distance from the Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot south to the Sarpy Avenue business block was about 185 feet, according to the map. The frontage of the six commercial buildings along Railroad Street was only about 90 feet.
The top floor of the Oakley Building was used for a community hall. The town board, the Modern Woodmen of the World, the Royal Neighbors and other organizations held meetings there. Dances were also held in the hall. The Oakley Building was the last survivor of the early commercial buildings. The shell of the first story of this building was still standing in mosquito-infested low land in the late 1960s near the branch of the Papillion Creek. My uncle Ewing Croft remembers that the west or back part of the building was in the ravine cut by the creek. This is my recollection also. The building appears to be completely gone in a 1971 aerial photo. My aunt Betty Croft remembers going to Fort Crook with my Grandfather James Lilley to see the flooding and watching soldiers diving for “pints” (whiskey) at the Oakley Building .
The 1920 and 1930 censuses list Yancy Oakley as a merchant in “soft drinks,” in the village. The June 25, 1931 Papillion Times identifies Y.R. Oakley as the proprietor of a “confectionery and soft drink establishment”. The 1910 census lists him as a saloon keeper in South Omaha . James W. Lowry is listed as a saloon keeper in Fort Crook village in 1910.
Both the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Railroad went through Fort Crook village. The Missouri Pacific was the west of the two sets of tracks. As indicated, the initial building in the village was the Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot at the north end of Railroad Street on the west side of the tracks. This depot was there in 1952 but gone by the late 1960s. The first Burlington Depot was built by May, 1908 as it shows in tornado photos.
The June 11, 1931 Papillion Times described the location of the village’s post offices from the first post office to that date. As indicated above, the first post office was located just west of the Missouri Pacific station north across the unnamed street from the Fort Crook Hotel. The building was owned by N. Spellman. The building was severely damaged in the May 12, 1908 tornado and the post office was moved to Rushart’s Grocery Store. According to an early Fort Crook resident, Rushart’s store was next door to the north from the first post office in 1908. The store was also severely damaged in the 1908 tornado. According to the June 11, 1931 story, the grocery store building burned on February 12, 1926 and the post office moved to the Lowry Restaurant north of Rushart’s store. But the original Rushart’s store was north of the Lowry Restaurant. Perhaps the story should have said south of Rushart’s store or because of the damage in 1908 the store was moved to another location south of the J.R. Lowry Restaurant. Mary E. Rushart was listed as the postmaster in the 1920 Nebraska Blue Book. According to the June 11, 1931 story, the post office was moved back to its original location on September 30, 1930 to a building also owned by N. Spellman. This is not consistent with the location identified in the August 13, 1932 photo since the first post office location was north of this location. In 1930, the original location of the post office was occupied by a residence.
The July 29, 1897 Springfield Monitor reported that the first death had occurred at Fort Crook village, the infant son of Samuel Pittson of the army’s Quartermasters Department. Permission was received to establish a cemetery on the Fort Crook reservation. This was the first burial in the small military post cemetery that still exists on Offutt Air Force Base.
Fort Crook School , a four classroom school, was the District 40 public school for the children of the soldiers as well as of farmers and others in the area. The school opened in September, 1904, on the west side of Highway 73-75 just south of the original town site. It was used as a school until about 1963 and was demolished in the early 1970s. The Fort Crook School District joined the Bellevue School District in 1958.
A major event was the October 15, 1911 train wreck on the Missouri Pacific tracks “about one and one-half miles south of Gilmore Junction” which was just north of Fort Crook town. It was a head on collision between two Missouri Pacific trains which killed at least 8 persons. The official accident report indicates the cause was human error. There are a number of real photo postcards of the train wreck which identify the location as Fort Crook . The postcards do not show any of the buildings in the town.
The major disasters that lead to the demise of the village were the May 12, 1908 tornado and major floods in 1903, 1932, 1938, 1950 and 1959. The inundated buildings, particularly the Oakley Building , were popular photo shots for the Omaha World Herald and Papillion Times newspapers. The flood photos and real photo postcards showing the destruction caused by the tornado are a major source of images of the town.
The buildings along Sarpy Avenue were the first to disappear. They were damaged in the 1908 tornado and, according to the newspaper accounts, the Katsky Grocery was demolished. Photos show that the Ketchmark Saloon lost its front in the tornado. The two commercial buildings (post office and Rushart’s Grocery) north and east of the Fort Crook Hotel were severely damaged in the tornado and do not appear to have been repaired as later photos show other buildings on their sites. An August 30, 1927 aerial photo (“1927 Aerial Photo”) indicates the Sarpy Avenue commercial buildings were gone.
The Fort Crook Hotel at the north end of Railroad Street burned on Sunday, March 10, 1918, according to the Historical Edition of the Papillion Times, June 11, 1931. The 1908 tornado had torn off its front but it had been repaired with a new front different from the original one. The March 14, 1918 Papillion Times provides more detail: The Fort Crook Hotel burned to the ground Sunday afternoon leaving the families of officers and men at the fort homeless. . . . The hotel, a two-story farm structure, owned by J.W. Lowry, was built in 1896 at a cost of $2,400. Since last summer it has been used exclusively by families of men garrisoned at Fort Crook and by relatives who came to visit them. . . . The fire is believed to have started from a defective flue . . .”
The February 13, 1926 Lincoln Star reported that the village “was visited by its second disastrous fire in two years and half of the business buildings were razed.… The post office, two stores and some smaller structures were destroyed.… In the previous fire, five residences were destroyed.…” According to the February 18, 1926 Papillion Times: The frame structures in Fort Crook in which a store, cafe and post office were located were completely destroyed by fire last Friday afternoon. The origin of the fire is unknown but probably started from a defective chimney. . . . Several frame structures nearby were threatened for a time but were saved. Most of the records, stamps, etc. of the post office were saved by Miss Glaesel, asst. post mistress who was in charge. Two of the buildings were owned by George Rushart and the loss is partly covered by insurance.”
The 1927 Aerial Photo shows that only two of the original buildings along Railroad Street were still standing, the Oakley Building and the J.R. Lowry Restaurant (the “Lowry Restaurant”). The June 25, 1931 Papillion Times lists four merchants in Fort Crook: the Walnut Grove grocery, rink and hall; barber John Houston; Fred Jackson’s Jackson ’s Garage and the Oakley “establishment”. The Oakley “establishment” was likely the only business remaining in the original town area.
An August 13, 1932 flood photo shows the inundated Oakley Building and two buildings north of it, one of which is an original building, the Lowry Restaurant. The Lowry Restaurant was the building immediately south of the Fort Crook Hotel. In this 1932 photo, there is a small building between the Oakley Building and the Lowry Restaurant on Railroad Street which was not an original building. The photo caption indicates the Lowry Restaurant is the former post office and that the newer building is the current post office. This post office building is in the December 8, 1940 photo and is still the post office in a November 16, 1948 photo. There are several small houses north of the Lowry Restaurant in the August 13, 1932 photo. These residences are on the site of the original post office and Rushart’s Grocery Store that were severely damaged in the 1908 tornado.
A December 6, 1932 photo of the area north of the Oakley Building shows one forlorn original building, the Lowry Restaurant, and a row of at least three houses just west of the Missouri Pacific Depot. The photo also appears to show foundation remains for the Fort Crook Hotel. The Lowry Restaurant is gone in 1938 flood photos.
The 1900 census of Fort Crook village was 646; there were 203 residents in 1910 and 402 in 1920. It is difficult to determine the 1930 population from the census records. The 1920 Nebraska Blue Book has Fort Crook in its list of towns and villages as does the 1922, 1926 and 1928 editions but it is not in the 1930 edition. The 1920’s era Blue Books use the 1920 census figure of 402 as the population in each edition. Fort Crook ’s east gate exited in Bellevue and, by the start of World War II, Bellevue had eclipsed Fort Crook village in importance to the post.
A December 8, 1940 newspaper article about the potential “boom” to be created by the Martin Bomber Plant has a photo of the Oakley Building . The photo caption says: “ Fort Crook … a tavern, a few dingy houses....” Other surviving buildings in 1940 were the District 40 school and the post office. Dude Oakley died in 1945. The post office was closed in the early 1950s. Photos of the 1950 flood show several small houses facing north just to the south of the Oakley Building . These are the same houses which appear in the December 8, 1940 photo. The December 8, 1940 newspaper article predicted the revival of the village because of construction plans for the Martin Bomber Plan but it never happened.
As a Ghost Town
A September 21, 1952 Omaha World Herald article indicates the post office was gone and that the “lone place of business activity” was the Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot. “What is left of the village – the depot, a dilapidated saloon. . . and a few homes. . . . Earlier this month the post office was moved to a building at a point a mile north of here. . . . A disastrous fire in the 1920’s that leveled nearly a block of businesses and the 1932 flood of Papio Creek seemed the turning points that doomed the village to its eventual role of a ghost town.”
The August 2, 1958 Lincoln Evening Journal and Nebraska State Journal described the village as it neared its end: “Of the old army town of Fort Crook, Nebraska, there is left standing a railroad station, a few homes, and the foundation of a saloon which burned recently. The post office has been relocated about a mile north of the railroad station and is now on the east side of the highway.”
The Site Today
The road down from Highway 73-75 west into town came out on Sarpy Avenue near the Oakley Building . Neither Sarpy Avenue nor Railroad Street are visible today. Aerial photos confirm that this was the road layout from at least the 1920s forward. The present road across the railroad tracks down into the site of the town follows the same general route. The Oakley Building would be in front of you and slightly to the right as you cross the railroad tracks. The remaining small building in front of you was probably one of the “dingy” houses referred to in a 1940 newspaper photo although it has likely been moved several times around the town site. There was a group of small houses that appear to have been moved several times within the site. The old main entrance to Fort Crook/Offutt Air Force Base on the east side of the highway has disappeared as has the entrance road inside the post. The entrance road shows in a 1971 aerial photo but is gone in a 1997 aerial photo.
There was still one residence occupied in Fort Crook village at the very south end of the original town site until at least some time late in 2003. This house burned either late in 2005 or early 2006. There are some remains of buildings just south of where Sarpy Avenue was located, including the remains of an old house. The house in ruins is just north of what was the last occupied house in the village. These remains appear to be of out buildings of the ruined house rather than of the early buildings that were along Sarpy Avenue . These two houses are in the 1932 and 1942 aerial photos and at least one of them is in the 1927 Aerial Photo.
The business block site on the west side of Railroad Street was graded, leveled and made into an outside storage area at some time after the 1960s. Some of the area was paved. Any foundations or other remains of buildings were likely destroyed at this time although the numerous floods probably swept away most remains much earlier. Even with all the fill that has gone into the area, the land on the west edge of the site of the Railroad Street business block still drops off significantly which provides an easy understanding of the village’s vulnerability to flooding. While the flood and tornado disasters brought great misfortune to people and property, they also have helped to provide a historical record of the rise and demise of Fort Crook village.
I go a great distance,while some are considering whether they will start today or tomorrow
Mar 19, 2008 03:44 PM
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