ELYRIA, Neb. — As a rule, you could fire a cannon down Valley Avenue at evening rush hour and never harm a soul.
With a population of 51, this “other Elyria” doesn’t know the madness of a typical evening rush at, say, Chestnut Ridge Road and the state Route 57 bypass.
The rule did not hold up on a recent Saturday evening, however.
With the help of the local Future Farmers of America chapter and a staff of volunteers, Elyria’s governing board held a free barbecue pork picnic for a crowd six times larger than the town’s population.
The feast was part of Elyria’s 125th anniversary celebration in the middle of town near the Elyria Hall and Elyria Bar, a popular gathering place for residents.
Picnic food followed dedication of the bell from Elyria’s old two-room elementary school, which was put on permanent display atop a pole in the center of town. The school, with eight remaining students, closed last year, 102 years after the district was established.
At the bell dedication, a proclamation by Mayor Holly Brinda was read. It concluded: “... I, Holly C. Brinda, Mayor of the City of Elyria, Ohio, do hereby warmly acknowledge the Village of Elyria, Neb., and wish all its residents health, prosperity, and good fortune.’’
The picnic preceded a likewise-free street dance, featuring the music of the CowboyUp Band of eastern Nebraska. The cowboys were scheduled to play until 1 a.m., but a strong thunderstorm ended the festivities before midnight.
And all the while, until dark, children were treated to free rides on a miniature trackless train provided by the area Jaycees and driven by Cory Schaaf.
About the bell
After Elyria’s governing board decided to host the celebration, some residents came up with the idea of preserving the school bell, board treasurer Delores Klimek said. Secretary Sharon Iwanski took the idea to the school board in the village of Ord, the nearby Valley County seat.
“They told me the bell had a market value of $1,000 and said they would charge us $1,000 if we wanted to keep it,” Iwanski said. “It seemed like a lot of money, but I posted it on Facebook and people donated.”
Board member Jerry Bauer contacted the local electric utility about donating the pole on which the bell now resides and volunteers from the electric company also drilled the hole for the pole. Then Bauer, Kiley White and Iwanski landscaped the site.
History in focus
The village was founded in 1888 when the Burlington Railroad was under construction in central Nebraska. It was given the name Eldan or Eldon — there are no surviving records providing the official name — but changed to Elyria not long afterward.
Burlington built a depot, a large windmill, coal shed, water well and accompanying storage tank. A post office and town hall, the latter of which still stands, came later. And in 1910, the school district, consisting entirely of the former Elyria School, was established.
When the school closed last year, the eight remaining students were given the choice of attending school in Ord, the Valley County seat seven miles south, or Burwell, the seat of neighboring Garfield County, 10 miles north.
Early settlers were predominantly Polish, with some Danish, Swedish, Irish and Czech families. The town became known for its many festivals, dances and anniversary observances. To this day, it hosts an annual Pumpkin Festival the first weekend in October.
Not far from town is old Fort Hartsuff, Valley County’s major tourist attraction. It was built by the Army to protect settlers and friendly Pawnees from other less-than-friendly Indians, mostly Teton Sioux.
There was a significant encounter with Sioux in April 1876 — two months before Custer’s even more significant encounter with Sioux — that resulted in the death of one solder and Medals of Honor for three infantrymen. The fort was active from 1874-81.
Mystery solved — sort of
Why the name changed late in the 19th century is not remembered. But unlike the result of an informal poll taken here 10 years ago, it is now known for certain where the town got its name.
Material written by an area resident, Valory Rocheleau, for Elyria’s 100th anniversary in 1988, and which now appears on a University of Nebraska website, states specifically it was “for a town by that name in Ohio.”
In the not-too-distant past, there was also an Elyria, Kan. That community evidently no longer exists — kind of like the area east of South Amherst once known as Whiskeyville. But the origin of the former Kansas town’s name is quite clear. It was named in honor of a woman from Elyria, Ohio, who married a Kansas man.
At the turn of the 21st century, 54 people lived in Elyria, which is not only close to the population (51) today, but also isn’t far from what it has been for more than 40 years. The head count was 55 in 1970, 62 in 1980 and 61 in 1990.
Is Elyria’s future less than promising? Don’t talk about pessimism to its proud and close-knit people. As far as they’re concerned, the village — whose population reached a high of about 200 in the 1920s — will be around long after they’re gone.
“As long as the Elyria Bar is here and people have a place to go and visit and talk, I think Elyria will always be here,” said Klimek, the town treasurer, a planner of the anniversary celebration and a lifelong resident. “It seems like when some people move away, there are always other people moving in.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.