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Nebraska Life Logo-l#12DA8D
The magazine that explores Nebraska!
P.O. Box 819 · Norfolk, NE  68702-0819 · 402-371-5433 · www.NebraskaLife.com

Fairbury's Resolution

Life's tough, but Fairbury adapts, through ups and downs.

Story by Christopher Amundson

ONE THING CAN BE SAID ABOUT NEBRASKA: there is no shortage of adversity to test the mettle of our resolve. When adversity comes (and it will here on the Prairie), there are two ways to look at it: it will either wear you out, or it will sharpen you.

Fairbury is a town not unlike many of our other towns. It has farming, a livestock market, a town square and a stately old courthouse. On the outskirts, there are an airport and a manufacturing plant, a new Super Wal-Mart and the shell of a vacant regular Wal-Mart. Nearby are a grocery store and a few convenience stores along the highway. For housing, there is a newer subdivision on the north side of the city and, everywhere else, older neighborhoods where blocks of well-kept houses are peppered with unkempt houses.

Fairbury was a hopping town into the 1970s. More than 7,000 people lived here, plus all the residents of Jefferson County that came for employment and commerce at this county seat.

Among its good fortune, Fairbury was the western division point for the Rock Island Railroad, running train operations from Des Moines to Colorado Springs and Denver. Train crews, design and maintenance crews, financial managers and others worked at a two-story brick depot on the south side of town, spilling into buildings around the square for additional office space.

Fairbury also was a college town, home to Fairbury Junior College, founded after the war in the late-1940s.

All was well in Fairbury until 1980, when Rock Island Railroad went bankrupt. Operations ended, and many of the employees and their families left Fairbury. Wal-Mart came in 1982; and in 1986, the junior college moved to Beatrice as part of the state-wide community college restructuring.

“Those three episodes were more than Fairbury could take, and we haven’t been the same since,” said Michaela Call, who runs the Abstract and Title, Inc. business from an office on the square overlooking the west side of the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Homer Ward would say there was a fourth thing that affected Fairbury in the 1980s – a garment factory that changed hands “a time or two,” until the last purchaser moved it to “who knows where.”
“That took care of our industry, and we have struggled a lot since,” said Ward, the city’s mayor.

Fairbury’s population has been declining since those events in the 1980s. It plummeted from 7,000 to 4,200 in 20 years, and in the last nine years, appears to have dropped more yet down to 3,800.
But in true Nebraska fashion, Fairbury has been fighting back to rebuild and re-position itself. Living in the shadow of its own former glory, Fairbury grows sharp.

It has consolidated its schools, is cleaning up old, dilapidated houses, keeps its parks fresh and appealing and is investing when it can in important infrastructure like schools, medical facilities and business recruitment efforts. People we met in town, like Mayor Ward, say Fairbury is a good family town with more potential than drawbacks.

“We’re in a spot where we can do some things, but it’s going to take a lot of legwork and a lot of time,” Ward said while taking a break one afternoon from the arduous task of scraping paint from the west side of his home on K Street.

Sunday Movies at the Bonham

The red letters on the white water tower spell the obvious: FAIRBURY. But don’t let the letters fool you. As locals will tell you, it is pronounced Fair-Berry (as in “Mayberry”), named in 1869 after the hometown of one of the two original city fathers from Fairbury, Ill.

Like many other cities in Nebraska, Fairbury was founded by speculators on the prospect of the railroad coming through, which it eventually did. The town sprang up from there.

However, the European history of the area goes back further yet, to the time before railroads. The Oregon, California and Mormon trails all passed through Jefferson County. North of town stands the grave marker of a 25-year-old man, George Winslow, who died most likely of cholera in 1849 while on his way from Massachusetts to the California gold fields. This is also where, as a young man, James Hickok kicked off his “Wild Bill” dime novel reputation when he shot and killed David McCanles at Rock Creek Station east of Fairbury (see sidebar story: “Fairbury’s Attractions”).

During the tough years of the Dirty 30s, on the morning of election day, April 4, 1933, when Fairbury was voting on whether to allow Sunday movies at the Bonham Theater, the Ma Barker Gang with Alvin “Creepy” Karpis held up the First National Bank of Fairbury with pistols and “Tommy” sub-machine guns. Bank employee F.P. Conrad was so surprised and frightened that he swallowed his chewing tobacco.

The gang ordered the customers and bank staff to lie face-down on the floor while they looted the teller counter and vault. Ironically, at the time of the robbery, the sheriff, deputy sheriff and a gun salesman were meeting across the street at the courthouse to discuss the need for more arms in the sheriff’s office. With a tip from a nearby business owner, the sheriff and deputy ran out to the courthouse lawn, set up positions and began firing at gang members in the look-out car. The gang members returned fire, sending a spray of bullets around the square.

Trapped inside, the rest of the gang shot out the bank’s front glass door then blasted a side-street window near the Bonham Theater. Using human shields, they escaped from the window and into their waiting Buick. Bank employee Keith Sexton took five bullets and lived.
The gang fled from town with one hostage on each running board. The hostages were found unharmed north of town, and the body of one of the gang members was found later in North Dakota.

After a series of other bank robberies, many of the gang members were eventually apprehended and imprisoned, but none was ever tried for the Fairbury robbery despite the efforts of Fairbury businessmen who tried to bring them to justice. In what was considered the largest heist on the Great Plains that year, the gang made off with $125,700 in bonds and $25,700 in cash.

Located in the back of the bank today, Vernon Pfaff has created an impressive display of the bank’s 125-year history and, in particular, the 1933 robbery. In addition to photos and newspaper clippings, the exhibit features a handful of roofing nails that the robbers tossed onto the highway as they fled town.

As for that election-day vote on allowing Sunday movies at the Bonham Theater in Fairbury, seems the robbery was enough excitement for one day – it failed to pass.

(The full story appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine.)

© 2009 Nebraska Life Magazine • P.O. Box 819 • 206 Norfolk Avenue • Norfolk, NE 68702
1-800-777-6159 • 402-371-5433 • publisher@nebraskalife.com

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