- Associated Press - Sunday, March 28, 2021

GIBBON, Neb. (AP) - The first settlers of Gibbon arrived on April 7, 1871, to a barren land that had been ravaged by fire just a few days before.

The members of the Soldier’s Free Homestead Colony were led by Col. John Thorpe, who already had settled a colony in Kansas. Thorpe advertised the colony throughout the eastern U.S. as a promise of wonderful new lands, said Jean Widdowson, a board member of the Gibbon Heritage Center.

The Gibbon Switch was established in 1866 when the Union Pacific Railroad first went through central Nebraska. The only home the colonists could see when they arrived was the switch house occupied by men who worked on the railway.

“They got off the train and looked around, and two days earlier a prairie fire had been through. So there was nothing. No trees, no brush, nothing green. That happened on April 5. They got here April 7,” Widdowson told the Kearney Hub.

On Sunday, April 9, the colonists organized a church service in the morning. The day started with bright, blue skies, but by that afternoon it began to snow. It soon turned into a blizzard, piling snow as high as the railroad cars the colonists used as temporary living quarters.

“Once they recovered from the blizzard, they had a meeting and said, ‘What are we going to do? Are we staying or what are we doing?’ They decided to stay, and here we are,” said Widdowson.

The Gibbon Heritage Center, along with the Gibbon Chamber of Commerce and Buffalo County Historical Society, will be celebrating Gibbon’s 150th anniversary with events throughout this year.

The celebration will kick off April 7, the anniversary of the day the colonists arrived in the area 150 years ago, with an open house from 1 to 8 p.m. at the Gibbon Heritage Center. The event will feature a program with music and a proclamation from the mayor. Gibbon High School will provide music, and essay and poster winners from Gibbon Public Schools will take part in the program.

“We are very pleased to be partnering with the school because our objective is history and to get the school to work with us on history is absolutely what we are all about,” Widdowson said.

There will be a roll call of colonial ancestors, and Buffalo County Historical Society will give a presentation about their preservation efforts in Buffalo County.

A religious history event will take place at 2 p.m. April 10 and will feature the Rev. Mark Robinette, who is researching Arthur and Laura Carson, the original founders of Gibbon Baptist Church.

The next scheduled event will be the Independence Day Parade July 3 as well as Fourth of July events throughout the weekend, including a downtown walking tour and a tour of historic Gibbon homes. On Aug. 6, there will be a parade of tractors and a tractor pull.

Patrons will have a chance to see history in action during the Trails & Rails Museum’s Beyond the Grave event at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 1-2 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at Riverside Cemetery. The event will feature a reenactment and a tour of the cemetery.

“What they do is the pioneers come back and tell you about their life. … When it’s here in Gibbon, it’s going to feature some of the original colonists and they’re likely to appear from behind their tombstone,” explained Widdowson. Gibbon High School senior Delaney Tracy has been writing the scripts for Beyond the Grave.

“She did the research, writing the scripts. We are hoping to find descendants of some of these people to bring back,” said Widdowson.

Veterans will be honored during the Veterans Wall Recognition at 2 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Gibbon Heritage Center. The guest speaker will be Kurt Hackemer with the University of South Dakota, who has done research on the Soldier’s Free Homestead and the Civil War.

New events are expected to be added throughout the year, and updates will be posted on “Gibbon, Nebraska 150th Celebration 1871-2021” Facebook page and gibbon150th.com.

Widdowson is excited to bring community members together to celebrate Gibbon’s 150th anniversary.

“With the school, with Trails & Rails, that’s what is special to me. At this point in time, everybody is busy and doesn’t have time for so many things. Working with these people it really has been fantastic, especially the school to get kids interested and their parents and the staff, paying attention to local history. That is pretty cool,” she said.

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