By Susan Lore. Photos courtesy of the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center (click to enlarge)
Located in the heart of the Nebraska Panhandle, Box Butte County is one of only two Nebraska counties to be named after a widely-recognized local landmark. The name Box Butte was chosen in recognition of the large box-shaped butte located approximately 12 miles north/northeast of Alliance.
Box Butte County was originally part of Dawes County. The residents who resided in the 1,078 square miles of southern Dawes County voiced their concerns of traveling sixty miles or more to conduct business at the courthouse in Chadron. On November 2, 1886 Dawes County residents voted to create Box Butte County. Governor John Milton Thayer then called a special election for organization of the new county on March 7, 1887. As a result of that election, centrally located Nonpareil became the first county seat. The building used for a courthouse was a two-story structure, built of rough boards from native pines that were obtained from saw mills in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The lower floor was occupied by county officials for their offices. The upper floor was housed the courtroom and was accessible from an outside stairway.
The extension of the Burlington Railroad fixed Hemingford as a railway point. Hemingford was founded in 1886. In an election held on November 3, 1890, Hemingford was selected to serve as the seat of Box Butte County. As an inducement to influence voters in favor of Hemingford, the Lincoln Land Company made the proposition for donating ground and a suitable building for a courthouse, which would remain property of the county as long as the county seat remained in Hemingford.
As the decade of the 1890s matured, Alliance, founded in 1888 and located in the southeast portion of the county, experienced a growth in population and a movement began to move the county seat to Alliance. This proposition was strongly protested by residents in northern Box Butte County. Eventually, the proposition was submitted to voters and an election was held on October 11, 1898, and Alliance was selected by the required legal majority. The question was then raised as to a suitable building for the courthouse. The Lincoln Land Company sold the courthouse building and other property for $1,900 to the county and a contract was let for removal of the building.
Mr. E.W. Bell was charged with the task of moving the building, which was placed railroad flatbed cars and transported on the railroad line from Hemingford to Alliance. It was a feat that attracted favorable mention for many national scientific journals of America and foreign countries. It holds high rank in the annals of building movements. The structure was placed in position, properly finished and furnished, and was occupied by county officials on August 2, 1899. The first term of court was held on December 18, 1900 with the Honorable W. H. Westover presiding.
The building served its purpose until people realized the danger of entrusting public records in a structure that could burn down or be blown away. On February 18, 1913, Box Butte County voters approved $65,000 in bonds for the construction of a new courthouse. County Commissioners Calvin Hashman, Joseph Wanek, and Sang C. Reck traveled over various sections of the United States viewing and studying modern buildings. After weeks of studying plans and specifications, it was the belief of the commissioners that the new building would be one “to last for all time to come.”
Ground was broken on August 13, 1913 and the new courthouse was completed on December 1, 1914. The building -- a Beaux Arts style -- was designed by the Kansas City architectural firm of Rose and Peterson. The contract was awarded to R.A. Matthews of Grand Junction, Colorado. It measures 85 feet by 65 feet and consists of four stories and a basement. The first story and all columns and ornamentations are built of Bedford stone. The walls of the upper stories are built of a light gray pressed brick with a heavy, ornamental, terra cotta Cornish. The floors are made of reinforced concrete, with the beams and columns of the same material thus creating as fire proof of a facility as possible. All the floors in the lobby and public spaces are laid with tile. The entrance and lobbies are supplied with marble wainscoting.
On December 1, 1914, offices in the new structure were finished and the work of moving from the old into the new structure was begun. County Clerk M.S. Hargraves had the distinction of carrying the first armful of county records into the new building.
Since construction, the courthouse has been modernized and updated as the technology to run county government has moved into the computer age. The original structure has remained unchanged on both the interior and exterior. It was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places on January 10, 1990.
Originally, the courthouse’s fourth floor was used as the county jail. In 1976, the new Regional Law Enforcement Center was built on land located to the east of the existing courthouse. The cost of the new center was $826,000. This portion of the courthouse now houses the Box Butte County Sheriff Department and City of Alliance Police Department.
Since 1926, the Box Butte County Fair has been held in Hemingford.
Box Butte County is home to the Nebraska State Veterans’ Cemetery. Located four miles southeast of Alliance, the cemetery was dedicated on August 13, 2010. The first interment was held January 21, 2011.
As of the 2010 census, Box Butte County was home to 11,308 people. It includes the city of Alliance, the village of Hemingford, and the unincorporated town of Berea.
Box Butte County enjoys some of Nebraska’s most fertile farms and richest rangeland for the grazing of thousands of head of cattle.
To learn more about Box Butte County’s rich history, visit the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center at 908 Yellowstone Avenue, Alliance.