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Winning Essays Recognized

The Fillmore County Foundation announced its high school scholarship winners for 2017 during May.  One level of scholarship opportunity is the Historical Scholarship, with students submitting a historical essay with their application. The 2017 winners were Ella Wilkins of Milligan and Sophia Frook of Geneva. They were recipients of $200 and $100 scholarships, respectively.
The following are the award-winning essays printed with the author’s permission. The essays selected will be on permanent file at the Fillmore County Historical Museum in Fairmont.
By: Sophia Frook
Fillmore County was named after the 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore. Fillmore County is still the same size and shape as it was in when it made it’s first appearance in 1856. It was established in 1854, when the Nebraska Territorial Legislature commissioned eight counties. However, it would full be a full decade before pioneers would go past Saline County and into Fillmore County and York County.
Before the 20th century all of Fillmore County had been divided out. Out of its 575 square miles, 90 percent was suitable for crops. Most of the farm acres had been turned by the plow with the exception of wetlands or areas near the creeks. Except for a few miles, all the waters were referred to as creeks.
The settlement had ended by the 1930's. Now there were towns, homes, farms, churches, roads, railroads and schools. However, when the 30's did arrive it brought anguish to the people of Fillmore County. People did what they could to make ends meet. This included sharing what they had with others and helping when it was needed. The Great Depression was at its worse. There were farm foreclosures, business failures and the banks could not stay open. Many people were left with little to nothing. In addition to the Depression, there was a drought.
In 1925 the average assessed value of cropland was $85 per acre in Fillmore County. The loans on the land were based off of that dollar amount, which allowed some of the farmers to gain some capital. However, by 1930 they dropped to less than $50. It then dropped again in 1940 to about $18 per acre.
There was big news in 1939. Word had gotten to America that there was trouble in Europe. It was this time that in the front page of The Nebraska Signal were the reported threats Hitler sent to the neighboring countries.
In December 1940 the news from Europe was still not good. The words President Roosevelt spoke, “If Great Britain is defeated, the United States will be living at the point of a gun,” began to worry the people of Fillmore County. The first person drafted from Fillmore County reported for duty in June 1941. Fillmore County had to meet the quota of 151 people.
It was again in October 1941 President Roosevelt was the bearer of bad news. His words printed in November issue of The Nebraska Signal said, “...the shooting has started. The sinking of the U.S.S. Kearney was to frighten the American people off the high seas, to force us to make a trembling retreat. Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American.” The November issue also had obituaries of the people who had died overseas. The Nebraska Signal kept the people of Fillmore County up to date on what was happening overseas.
The first noticeable change that was seen in Fillmore County was the increase number of trains that were going through the area. Troop trains with freight of military equipment often delayed the regular trains. Although this did not happen immediately, Fillmore County had to endure shortages, blackouts and rationings.
The next change that developed was “Fairmont Satellite Airfield of the Topeka Army Air Base.” Railroads were quickly laid from Fairmont to the base. The construction was noisy with almost 50 trains with material going through a day. The area of the base was fenced off and security was tight. Finally, in early December the airfield was almost complete and the first wave of military personnel checked in. In January 1943, however, construction crews returned for a “base expansion.” The airfield had been upgraded from a refueling station to the final training spot for heavy bombardment groups. The new, longer runways that were needed cost nearly $3 million.
Later the Fairmont Army Air Field added a hospital. With 350 beds it became the largest hospital in Nebraska at the time. It was fully staffed with doctors, nurses,and volunteers, known as “Grey Ladies." Additionally there were other army personnel that wrote letters, contacted people and ran errands for the soldiers in the hospital.
Outside of the air base life continued for those who were not in the army. Hostilities in the Pacific cut off supplies and one of the things that was hit hardest was rubber. All the rubber went to tires for cars, hoses, the tubing of Jeeps, Army trucks and airplanes.
In addition to the lack of rubber for everyday use, there were rations on gasoline. All “nonessential people” were given three gallons per week. Doctors, plant workers, ministers and farmers were given a little bit more. Although there were conservations, people still enjoyed going to dances and baseball games.
By the end of August there were less than 2,800 military personnel at the base. On September 27, 1945 it announced that the field would have a temporary inactive status effective October 31. For many, people  wondered what they were going to do. Unfortunately, it completely shut down shortly after.
In October a five-day public auction was held. They sold everything including desks, beds, photo equipment and farm machinery. Everything was sold except for a few odds and ends. The unsold items were buried in trenches near the end of the airfield.
When the war ended the land became the property of the State of Nebraska. It was also renamed Fairmont State Airfield. Some of the land was sold, but much of it was leased for farming. Some of the hangers were turned into grain storage in the 1980s.
Fillmore County has had its struggles from when it first started, through the Great Depression and World War I. Although it is made up of many small towns, it has made its mark, especially with the airfield in World War I. Although, this is just the beginning of its long history, it truly goes to show that Fillmore County is made of survivors.
By: Ella Wilkins
When I sat down to think about what I would write for this essay, the topic immediately came to my mind. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to play the role of a young pioneer woman in a reenactment of a shooting incident that happened at turkey creek, for Milligan’s Q125 celebration. I thought to myself, what could possibly have driven several railroad workers to kill two prominent brothers of this community. The answer, believe it or not, was beer! On August 21, 1887, George, Frank, and John were throwing one of their well-known picnics at George Newer’s property. This property was located two miles north of what is now the village of Milligan. The Hewer brothers each owned a saloon in the surrounding communities which made them well known to the locals. These well-attended picnics were called “Sunday Barn Parties."
From what I read the two Newer brothers knew how to throw a party! They had Polka musicians, beer kegs, the whole shebang. So, it’s no wonder why people didn’t hesitate to attend this bohemian dance. The Newers sold beer from wooden kegs out of the back of a wagon. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what attracted the railroad workers. These railroad workers were by no means the upstanding men I’m sure we all heard bedtime stories about. No, these men were, and I quote from the Saline County Gazette, dated August 25, 1887, “a rough crowd of outlaws, and every other breed mixed in.”
In The Tobias Tribune, a local paper at the time, released an article covering the situation the next day. Inside it states that “one of the men made indecent proposals to one of the girls.” Once the news reached the ears of John Newer, he would have none of it. “(He) reprimanded the  fellow, slapping him in the face.” How could the men stand by? Their honor had just been insulted! So they did what any self-respecting party crasher would do. They attempted to steal a keg of beer.
This, as you can imagine, didn’t go according to plan. From The Nebraska Signal, “Frank Newer followed him up making him drop the keg, whereupon the would-be beer thief turned upon Frank with a torrent of billingsgate, for which he was promptly knocked down by Frank. At this time, a friend of the punished railroader instantly reached for Frank with a drawn revolver firing a bullet into the back of his head killing him on the spot. The slayer immediately turned to run and John Newer, who had come upon the scene, started, with a curse upon his lips, to give chase. The man seeing that he was about to be overtaken, wheeled and fired two quick shots at John, both with deadly effect, one entering the left breast passing through the heart and the other entering the nostrils and ranging upward.” Both of the men were killed instantly.
Who was it that killed these two innocent men? His name was Thomas Rook, from Illinois. He was arrested ten miles southwest of Exeter hiding in a cornfield. He confessed to the killings, but claimed it was done in self-defense. Though he gave never gave a reason for the defense. According to The Omaha Daily Bee, “word was received that an excited mob from Friend was en route for (where the prisoner was held)  a possible lynching. Four officers escorted Rook to the county jail in Geneva for safekeeping...Excitement runs high in the bohemian settlement south of here, as also in Friend where the murdered men were held in high esteem, and it is feared that an attempt will be made to avenge the crime in boarder style.” A lynching! Boy, you haven’t heard about one of those in a while.
He served only seven years out of a fifteen-year sentence for one count of second-degree murder. Before Rook went to trial, the Saline County Gazet wrote that, “hanging is too easy a  punishment for such a demon." So the moral of the story, in case you haven’t been listening, is don’t steal other people’s beer. Especially in Milligan.