A block with special history

Monday, April 16, 2007

The next time you're on Norris Avenue, pay special attention to the 400 block between West D and West E Streets. There's history there, lots of history.

Anchoring the one-block area are four of the most important buildings in the early growth of the city. I'm talking about the buildings which formerly housed the Andrew Carnegie Library ... the U.S. Post Office ... the Keystone Hotel ... and the McCook YMCA.

All were built in McCook's second quarter century, starting with construction of the Carnegie Library in 1907.

Imagine how big an event that must have been. This railroad town, which had been rough and rowdy in the early days, was getting culture.

Then, in fairly rapid succession, the emerging community witnessed the construction of the stately Federal Building and Post Office in 1915; the six-story Keystone Hotel, between 1919 and 1922; and the McCook Young Men's Christian Association, in 1925.

Add to that the fact that, in 1919, McCook's formerly dirt streets were paved with bricks.

Those development must have generated great pride within the McCook community in the Teens and '20s. And, they should have. The buildings and the brick streets helped transform this town. They also offer potential for the future, with Rex Nelson of the McCook Economic Development Corp. now spearheading efforts to renovate the Keystone Hotel.

Community vision and action -- shown when the buildings were constructed -- are needed as much today as they were then. As we go forward, we're grateful to the town's pioneers for paving the path of progress.

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My thoughts about McCook history are the result of a major project now in progress at the Gazette. We're putting together the town's 125th anniversary historical picture book. Work on the hard cover volume is in the final stages, with the goal of having the book ready for distribution by the Fourth of July.

The pictorial tribute requires lots of fact-checking and visual looks to see if current residents can remember the names of faces from years ago. An example of this came earlier this week when I was researching a photo of a long ago Eagles lodge meeting. "What's the deal?," I wondered. "The picture says Lodge No. 1514, but I know the McCook Eagles lodge number is 2769."

A call to Melvin Thielbar, a long-time McCook Eagles member, revealed the answer. McCook did have an earlier Eagles lodge. It was established in 1906 as Lodge No. 1514, but was forced to disband in 1918. The reason was a railroad rule prohibiting employees from belonging to fraternal organizations.

In later years, the railroad rescinded the rule and the Eagles started over in McCook, establishing Lodge No. 2769 in 1948. Even though membership in fraternal organizations has dipped sharply in recent years, the Eagles have stayed alive in McCook, with their club in operation at 805 East B Street.

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For a town that's more than 200 miles away from a metropolitan area, McCook does a whale of a job of providing artistic and cultural opportunities. In fact, there are few towns of less than 8,000 population that do as much. Just consider all that's done: the concert series, college and high school art shows and plays, the Art Guild gallery, the Storytelling Festival, the Hot Summer Nights programs, the Bieroc Cafe series, the Southwest Nebraska theater productions, the community chorus presentations and the Barbershop shows, just to name a few.

The reason McCook offers so much, from a cultural standpoint, is dedicated people willing to donate time and money for artistic efforts. The volunteers devote hours of time to the productions. But that's not all. They all join together to promote art in the schools, which is tremendously important because the school district does not see fit to have an elementary art program.

All of this is leading up to a request. The McCook Arts Council's annual fund drive is now in progress, with the goal of raising $10,000 before the end of April. If you would like to help, send donations of any amount to McCook Art Guild, P.O. Box 123, McCook, NE 69001. You may also call Nancy Mousel, the fund drive chairman, at (308) 345-1917, and she will have one of the Art Council members pick up your gift.

You will be helping keep the arts alive and thriving. Cultural activities are a mark of distinction for McCook and community support is crucial for continued excellence.

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