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More about Nebraska statehood, the location of the capital, and the story of the commissioner's homes


When President Andrew Johnson signed the bill making Nebraska a state on March 1, 1867, a fierce struggle was already raging over the location of the new state's capital. Amid angry charges of lack of legislative representation from those living south of the Platte River, and despite frequent challenges, the seat of Nebraska's territorial government had remained at Omaha since 1854, the year in which Nebraska Territory was created. Although the then current Omaha capitol building, built in 1857-58, was apparently sturdy enough to house legislative sessions for several years and was well located in relation to Nebraska's 1867 population, it was still north of the Platte. Forces from the south launched a major verbal and legal initiative to move the seat of government to their part of the state.

Territorial capitol  Territorial capitol [C244-6, 3187]

During the last territorial legislature the battles over reapportionment and capital removal raged so hotly that at one point fists and guns were brandished. When the removal issue finally came to a vote before the first State Legislature meeting in Omaha, however, there was little protest from north of the Platte. A last-ditch attempt to steer Democrats living south of the river away from the bill came from Omaha Senator J. N. H. Patrick, who attempted to revive Civil War hatreds by moving that the name "Capital City" be removed from the bill and "Lincoln" (for Abraham Lincoln) substituted. Although the new name was accepted, the ploy failed and capital removal became a fact.

Thomas P. Kennard  Thomas P. Kennard [P853, 16329]

David Butler David Butler [B985-3, 3184]

John Gillespie John Gillespie [P853, 3183]

The removal act also called for the formation of a Capital Commission, to be composed of the three principal officers in the new state government: Governor David Butler, Secretary of State Thomas Kennard, and Auditor John Gillespie. The commission was directed to locate the capital site on state-owned land within an area that included the "County of Seward, the south half of the counties of Saunders and Butler, and that portion of the county of Lancaster lying north of the south line of township nine." The commissioners were then to have the land platted and sold to provide funds for the construction of a new capitol building. Finally, they were to oversee the building's construction.

Their tour of sites began July 18, 1867. They looked at Ashland, rural Butler County, Milford, Camden, Yankee Hill (Saline City), and Lancaster. By July 29 they were back in the Salt Creek Valley and the village of Lancaster for a second look. According to their official report the commissioners found the land

gently undulating, its principal elevation being near the center of the proposed new site, the village already established being in the midst of a thrifty and considerable agricultural population, rich timber and water power available within short distances, the center of the great saline region within two miles; and, in addition to all other claims, the especial advantage was that the location was at the center of a circle of about one hundred and ten miles in diameter, along or near the circumference of which are the Kansas state line, directly south, and the important towns of Pawnee City, Nebraska City, Plattsmouth, Omaha, Fremont, and Columbus.

wood cut  [917.82 892v C.1, salt]
Artesian salt-well, salt basin and prairie, west of Lincoln, Neb.

The "great saline region" referred to by the report was apparently quite significant to the commissioners. The salty basin was well-known to Indians and fur traders, and as early as 1857 the Crescent Salt Company had sent Captain William Donovan to investigate the possibilities of developing it. Twelve years later Governor Butler, speaking before the 1869 State Legislature, stated that the Salt Creek basin "will be directly and indirectly a source of wealth to the state whose great value no one can fully estimate." Even though these great hopes for salt fortunes were doomed to disappointment, the optimism of the time was apparently a decisive factor to Kennard. When the first ballots were cast for a new capital site, Butler, who was apparently influenced by the opinion of his secretary of state, also voted for the Salt Creek Valley. Gillespie voted for Ashland, but switched to Lancaster on the next ballot to make the decision unanimous. On August 14, 1867, their decision was formally announced. Lancaster was to become Lincoln, capital of the new state of Nebraska.

Lincoln, 1868 Lincoln, 1868 [L741-38a, 2847]

At the time of its designation as the state capital, Lancaster was composed of two stores, one shoe shop, six to seven houses, and approximately thirty residents. Forces opposed to capital removal now focused their invective on Lincoln. "Nobody will ever go to Lincoln, who does not go to the Legislature, the lunatic asylum, the penitentiary, or some of the State institutions," said the Omaha Republican. "It is founded on fiat, no river, no railroad, no steam wagon, nothing. It is destined for isolation and ultimate oblivion," said another. Governor Butler feared that unless the new capitol was completely built and ready to receive the State Legislature in January 1869, Lincoln would lose its capital status, and the removal plan would fail after all.

There was much to be done. Augustus F. Harvey and A. B. Smith were hired to survey the town-site. While Butler and Gillespie returned to other state business, Kennard remained in Lincoln to oversee the platting of the new city. A sale of lots at auction was announced for September 17, 1867.

The purchase price of the first lot was indicative of the trend for the rest of the first day's sales. The lot had an appraised value of $40 and sold for twenty-five cents. Sales on September 17 averaged only 10 percent of the expected price. To raise the money essential for construction of the capitol, more aggressive action would be necessary. That evening the three capital commissioners and a group of Nebraska City businessmen led by James Sweet reached an agreement. To encourage other buyers, the Nebraska City group agreed to bid $10,000 worth of lots up to at least their appraised value. In return the commissioners would show their faith in the new town by buying lots as well. So far the commissioners had kept out of the bidding, apparently to avoid conflict of interest charges. With the pump thus primed, a very successful auction followed, resulting in a total collection of $34, 342.25. Commented the Lincoln Statesman: "If Governor Butler, John Gillespie, Tom Kennard and James Sweet had not come up to the scratch and bid off lots at prices above appraisements, Lincoln would have fizzled-died aborning."

plat map of Lincoln  Portion of original plat map of Lincoln. [12]

Meanwhile, the commissioners and Nebraska City businessmen were not the only ones to come up to the "scratch." Newcomers arrived rapidly and on October 9, 1869, the Nebraska State Journal could report that 110 dwellings and business places had been erected, an average of four buildings a week. Lincoln's future was to remain uncertain until after the depression years of the 1870s.

1st capitol construction Construction of 1st state capitol. [RG1234:4-4, 3185]

First state capitolFirst state capitol [RG1234:3-4, 3186]

Difficulties in obtaining an architect, contractor, and suitable building materials for the capitol were met and solved by the commissioners, and by December 1, 1868, the building was ready to receive the next month's legislative session. With this job finished the commissioners could turn their attention to the construction of their private residences. Kennard and Gillespie bought the north half and south half, respectively, of Block 153, bounded by H, G, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth streets, while Butler purchased 120 acres southwest of the original Lincoln plat. By June 12, 1869, Kennard was excavating his lots in preparation for construction, and by July 17 John K. Winchell, a Chicago architect, had completed designs for the three similar homes. Joseph Ward, contractor of the newly completed capitol, served as contractor for both the Butler and Kennard houses, while D. J. Silver and Son erected the Gillespie home.

According to the Nebraska Statesman, the three residences were to cost between $8,000 and $15,000 and were to "exceed in tastefulness of design any private dwellings in the State." Thus in their private lives, the commissioners continued to exhibit confidence in the new city. In later years it was recognized that the psychological impetus given to Lincoln residences and investors by the construction of these three mansions in the raw prairie capital had been an important factor in the struggling city's ultimate success.

Kennard and Gillespie housesKennard and Gillespie houses, 1870 or 1971 [L741-11, 2849]

Butler house Butler house [B985-2, 3188a]

Architect John Keyes Winchell was twenty-seven when he submitted his designs for the commissioners' residences. At the same time he was also serving as architect for the Nebraska Insane Asylum in Lincoln, his plan for which had been accepted by the commissioners the previous June. Winchell's career was apparently plagued by ill luck. Only six buildings have specifically been attributed to him, four in the Lincoln area and two in Chicago. Two of the major ones, Lincoln's $137,000 state asylum and Chicago's $425,000 Bigelow House (planned as the city's most costly and lavish hotel), were soon to be destroyed by fire. The asylum had been completed less than a year when it burned in April of 1871, and the Bigelow was lost in the great Chicago fire of October 1871 on the night before it was to have celebrated its grand opening. Little is known of the Statehood Memorial architect's life after 1873, but he died young, possibly after several years of illness.

One of the many unsubstantiated rumors current during the impeachment proceedings against Governor Butler in 1871 was that some state funds budgeted to the asylum had indirectly gone into the construction of Butler's and Kennard's private residences. Apparently the only incriminating circumstances were that both the architect and contractor for the asylum were, at the same time, involved in the construction of the two commissioners' houses.

In constructing Kennard's house, contractor Joseph Ward used both local and imported materials. The house was built prior to the completion of the first railroad to Lincoln in July 1870, and it is believed that all original lumber in the house was hauled overland from Nebraska City and Omaha by ox-drawn freight wagons. Bricks were made from local clays, and the sandstone for the foundation was quarried along Antelope Creek in the vicinity of today's Folsom Children's Zoo. In one of its first uses west of the Missouri, Frear Stone, a forerunner of modern concrete, was used for the window heads and sills.

Lincoln's attitude toward Frear Stone was characteristic of the way in which frontier America actively anticipated joining the East in gaining the advantages of technological change. During the Kennard House construction patentee Joseph Frear visited Lincoln, and local newspapers generated excitement over the possibilities of the new artificial stone. According to the Nebraska Statesman, it was composed of "sand, Louisville cement, gypsum, oxide of iron and a small mixture of chemicals." A Frear Stone manufacturing plant was established in Lincoln, and in an attempt to popularize the product the manufacturers offered to sell it to the state at the cost of production for use in their private dwellings. Frear Stone was used in the construction of all three commissioners' residences and the state asylum. There were apparently rumors of the material's lack of durability, but the Nebraska State Journal refused to believe them. "The material looks firm," the newspaper said, "and we'll bet high on it ." Later it noted:

Some fools, who have nothing else to occupy their minds occasionally start sensational reports about "faulty walls," and the breaking of Frear Stone, & c. These silly tales are simply malicious falsehoods . . . The Frear Stone has yet to crack, crumble or scale, in the least degree.

Within a few years, however, the rumors apparently became fact, and about 1878 all the Frear Stone window heads and sills of Kennard's house were covered with the galvanized metal that remains today. The arch over the main entrance has been uncovered and here the original Frear Stone can still be seen.

On January 8, 1870, the Nebraska State Journal noted that Auditor Gillespie and his family had arrived in town to take possession of their newly completed home. Secretary Kennard, it noted, would "follow suit immediately upon his return from Washington." Kennard had moved to Lincoln in the fall of 1868; prior to the completion of their homes, both Kennard and Butler lived for some time in the newly constructed state capitol building.


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