Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Historic Steele City, Nebraska

I had the good fortune recently of making an epic road trip from Sutherland to Manhattan, Kansas. Hopefully I will get quite a few blog posts out of that journey. Here is my first - about the wonderful Steele City. There are numerous tiny hamlets along the route I took, which was comprised of Highways 23, 6/34, 136, 8, 14 and 89 (not necessarily in that order!). Many I had never heard of before, including Steele City.

The photos below are mine (except for the scan of the historic plat map). The descriptions are taken from the National Historic Register application for the Steele City Historic District that was written in October of 1970. Thankfully, many of the structures have actually improved rather than deteriorated since that writing. The numbers correspond to the plat map.

Steele City is situated on a picturesque site in the heavily wooded valley of the Little Blue River which runs diagonally through Jefferson County.

Steele City was platted in 1873, six years after Nebraska became a state, by Abner Baker and Robert Crinklow. The town was named in honor of D.M. Steele, President at the time, of the St. Joe and Western Railway. This railroad line ran through the town and stimulated the town’s gradual growth into one of the best business centers and largest shipping stations along the ST. Joe and Western lines. In 1879 Steele City was organized as a village under Nebraska Statute provisions.

The train still runs through Steele City, though now it is Union Pacific
During the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, the town continued to grow and contained several stores, a flour mill, grain warehouses and other business establishments.

In more recent years, due to declining railroad activity, the towns expansion and population has leveled off, but the town still functions as a rural center of business interests and organizations. (This might have changed in the more than 40 years since 1970 - the town is definitely on the "quiet" side.)

During the past year efforts have been made by the local community and interested individuals to restore the buildings within the Steele City Historic District, and if these efforts continue, Steele City could well develop into one of the best, typical restored frontier cities in the Midwest.

Livery Stable (1) – built in 1902, its design is very clean and utilitarian. It is constructed of native rough quarried sandstone and mortar, with a low hip roof.

The first floor has a large brick arched doorway which provides a large enough opening to allow a carriage or wagon to pass through. There is also another archway on the southeast side of the building. These archways are provided with large sliding wood doors.

The second floor appears to have been used as living quarters for the owner. There is a doorway above the archway on the front façade which probably opened onto a deck which served as a protective porch for the main first floor entrance. The southeast portion of the second floor was originally used as a hay log and another large archway, with a sliding door, accommodates it. The building’s windows are cleanly cut in the walls. Their framings and lintels are constructed of wood, but a few are arched with brick.

Recently a new shingle roof replaced a temporary metal roof. Although many of the windows mullions and panes have been broken, the building is in a good state of repair. The interior still reflects the original function and the basic character of the building has not been altered over the years.

Blacksmith Shop (2) – constructed in 1900 by J.W. Peters, whose name is inscribed on a superficial plaque, along with the date of construction, above the main entrance.

This building is also constructed of sandstone, rough cut and mortared. Its character is similar to the Livery Stable, but its construction preceded that of the Livery Stable by two years. It has one and one half stories, with the attic story furnishing quarters for the owner, as in the Livery Stable.

The structure has a gabled roof with two dormers directly opposite each other. The archways and the windows are spanned in brick and framed in wood. There are two large archways along the building’s lengthways axis which provides a circulation path through the building with offshoot stalls for the repair work. These main entrance archways are provided with sliding doors.

The roof has recently been reshingled but minor carpentry work is still needed, mainly the replacement of most windows. Minor interior deterioration is the only physical change since its original construction. The building’s original integrity remains unaltered.

Bank Building (3) – The present structure was built between the years 1880 and 1890. The building was constructed by Abner Baker to take the place of a store swept away when the Little Blue River flooded in 1869. The building was first used as a general store but between the years 1889 and 1915 three different banking companies occupied the building. At one time the banker and his family lived in back which added another function the building had to provide.

The bank was recently purchased by the Jefferson County Historical Society who have refurbished it completely. The structure has been restored to its early 1900’s appearance when the late banker H. Clapp owned the structure. (I can attest to this description - when you peek through the windows, it's as if the bank has just closed up for the day.)

Debris was cleaned from the main floor and wallpaper was scraped off the walls. Through contributions and local initiative the bank has succeeded in achieving an authentic restoration of its peak commercial period. The business and residence sections have been completely refurbished and are now open to public tours.

The building material of this period tended toward longer lasting materials such as stone and brick of which this building is constructed. The lower story is of rough cut sandstone and mortar construction and the upper story, which opens onto the street level, is of brick and mortar construction.

Baptist Church (4) – On October 20, 1882, Robert Crinklow transferred a plot of ground to the Trustees of the First Baptist Church in Steele City, and that same year a church was erected.

In 1921, as many of the older members passed away and it became more difficult to maintain a pastor, the Deed and assets of the church were transferred to the Nebraska Baptist State Convention who in turn sold the building to the Lincoln Lodge, Knights of Pythias 146, of Steele City. The Knights of Pythias still occupy and maintain the building.

The church is Romanesque in character with a large round cathedral window on the front façade, reminiscent of Gothic influences. Arthur Bower, a stone cutter, is accredited with the building of this pretentious structure. The church is constructed of fine grade limestone which the members hauled from a quarry near Hanover, Kansas. Mr. Bower shaped the rough quarried limestone into oblong blocks, all of the same size. Each block had a border of smooth rock, with the natural rough surface forming the inner part of the block. This rough stone construction is typical of the Richardsonian Romanesque Style. The interior integrity has been preserved by use of hard wood floors and partitions.

The original character of the church has endured through the years and represents a rugged well preserved building. It is one of the few remaining disbanded church buildings in Jefferson County today.

The round stained glass window on the front has in recent years been bricked up (note it has been restored in the above photo)and there are minor cracks from foundation settling. Apart from this the church is a true representation of the original structure.

Mercantile Store Building (7)- built circa 1900. The structure, in materials used and construction method is a typical product of home and commercial building during this period. (Note - there is a for sale sign on this structure - Woods Bros. Realty, 402-587-0342)

Though it isn't included in the National Register Historic District, I include a photo of the Salty Dog Saloon. When I posted the photos of Steele City in the "Nebraska Through The Lens" Facebook group, several folks commented that it is a first-class watering hole. Hopefully I'll make my way back through and stop for a beer.

Folks also commented that Steele City hosts an annual Flea Market, the third weekend in September. The website hasn't been updated since 2012, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the event.
This is the plat map that accompanied the National Register application.

ShareThis