Fairbury is at the heart of the Oregon Trail. Many settlers
passed through the area on their way to conquer the west.
The deep ruts left by their wagons are still visible today. Rock
Creek Station, just southeast
of town along the Oregon Trail, was an important way station
for those traveling the trail. Nebraska proved to be the
most difficult and deadly portion of the journey, so rested
animals and provisions were important. It was here that Wild
Bill Hickok began his infamous gunslinging career, by
shooting a man over a money dispute. The story became legend
as dime novels and Harper's Bazaar told of a wild tale of
murder and intrigue along the Trail.
James B. Mattingly, a frontiersman and freighter from Kentucky, first settled in Gage County, Nebraska, but with the coming of the settlers and the prospects of a railroad being planned along the Little Blue River, he gave up on freighting and built a small saw mill along the banks of the Little Blue to take advantage of the town site opportunities. Woodford G. McDowell, a capitalist from Fairbury, Illinois, also foresaw the advantages of a railroad coming through Nebraska and came to claim 160 acres. Each gave 80 acres of land for a town site, the north and south streets from First to Eighth, and the east and west streets from A to H streets. Right in the middle they left a block for the Public Square, half on Mattingly's land and half on McDowell's. They chose McDowell's Illinois town of Fairbury for a name and thus was born the city of Fairbury, Nebraska in the year 1869.
Fairbury was a town built on speculation. The early pioneers were the first to recognize Fairbury's potential by platting a town in anticipation of the railroad. With the coming of the railroad came explosive growth and prosperity, a place where people could test their ideas and launch their dreams. The Rock Island Railroad Depot is a symbol of the importance of the railroad to Fairbury's history. Now a Railroad Museum, many rail enthusiaists come to study the history and locate friends and relatives who worked for the railroad by searching the archives located there.
Fairbury, at the turn of the century, was home to the Campbell Bros. Circus. At one time, the Campbell Bros. Circus was the second largest circus in the world, featuring many daring acts and exotic animals. From 1885 to 1913, the circus winter-quartered in Fairbury and each spring, at the beginning of it's show season, a circus parade was held downtown featuring juggling acts, acrobats, circus animals and a daring hot air balloon launch. The circus traveled by train throughout the country and was the model by which many modern-day circus acts are patterned after.
The Campbell Brothers Circus parade is also the subject of a full-scale mural painted on the north side of the Globe Rexall Drug Store at the corner of 5th & E Streets in Fairbury’s Downtown Historic District, painted in 1993 by Geoff and Echo Easton of Crete, Nebraska and Greg Holdren of Friend, Nebraska and commissioned by Bob Atkins, owner of Globe Rexall Drug. The mural, which measures a massive 140 ft x 38 ft, contains many historically-accurate elements depicting buildings, businesses and the circus parade as they appeared around 1900.
Fairbury's large inventory of historic buildings were built during the 1920's and most still exist today. Fairbury's downtown historic district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, boasting one of the largest inventories of historic buildings in the Midwest. Fairbury possesses 125 blocks of brick streets, and the streets themselves are also listed in the Register.
Experience for yourself Fairbury's rich past, and join us as we look toward the future.
Fairbury Commercial Historic District
The Fairbury Commercial Historic District encompasses an area spanning approximately ten blocks and 117 properties, contains ninety-seven (97) contributing and twenty (20) noncontributing properties. Virtually every street within the boundaries of the historic district are paved with brick, which were constructed circa 1916. The district is distinguished by the prominent courthouse square, where the architecturally and historically significant Jefferson County Courthouse sits, between Fourth, Fifth, D, and E streets. The oldest buildings in the district are located around the courthouse square.
The commercial center of Fairbury revolves around the Jefferson County Courthouse, which is located in the center of the downtown on the public square. The oldest buildings in the district surround the courthouse, while the later buildings fan away from the square. A majority of the commercial buildings in downtown Fairbury, which exhibit high physical integrity, are still occupied by businesses. As a result, a bustle of activity continues to occur around the courthouse square.
Many of the commercial buildings in the Fairbury Commercial Historic District are extremely intact. They retain their original form and ornamentation, particularly in the upper stories. Often, the storefronts and interiors have been altered to accommodate changing businesses. The general appearance of the district displays high integrity and very densely placed historic properties. The modern in-fill in the district totals no more than two buildings per face block.
The Fairbury Commercial Historic District represents a span of architectural periods ranging from the oldest extant, late nineteenth century building displaying false-front construction through turn-of-the-century high styles, to more modem influenced properties. The buildings in the district represent architectural development trends typical of Nebraska commercial centers. Fine representatives of Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, Late Gothic Revival, Neo-Classical Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, and twentieth century commercial vernacular architectural styles and forms are located within the district. With the exception of the fringe blocks, the buildings within the district are densely packed, and consist mostly of two-story brick commercial buildings interspersed with several one-story buildings and one, three-story example. The largest amount of construction in the district during the period of significance (1873 to 1947) took place between 1900 and 1929*.
*Jefferson County Nebraska Historical Buildings Survey, June 1997.