The Wakefield area was settled primarily by Swedish and German families. Wakefield, incorporated in 1881, was named after L. W. Wakefield, a railroad surveyor who platted the original townsite. Because of the area’s abundant water supply and rolling fertile hills, crop and livestock production quickly prospered.
Along with the increase in farming came the need for irrigation and well digging which led to the Salmon Well Company that has operated in Wakefield for more than 75 years. In 1882 the local newspaper and other businesses were established. The Wakefield Brickyard produced many of the bricks used for the buildings. The J.O. Milligan Roller Mills was built on nearby Logan Creek and became a regional business, drawing various other trades to Wakefield. Two branch lines of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha railroads converged at Wakefield. The large amount of stock and grain shipped and passenger traffic made it one of the busiest rail districts in northeast Nebraska.
Milton G. Waldbaum bought a local creamery in 1950. He and his partner, Dan Gardner, built the Waldbaum Company into a $200 million international egg producer and frozen food business in Wakefield. The need for schools, churches, and activities increased with the number of new businesses and growing population. Baseball, churches, and an excellent school system became Wakefield’s priorities.
Clarence Swanson, a Wakefield High graduate, was named an All-American end on the 1921 University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) football team. He later founded several large companies and served three terms on the UNL Board of Regents. Wakefield continues to be politically active. Larry Brock, a local farmer, served in the U.S. Congress in the 1950s.
If you ask the residents of Wakefield, they all are aware that at one time a railroad ran through town, but what many of them don’t know is the history behind it. In 1880, Phil Graves deeded part of his land to the Sioux City and Nebraska Railroad Company for one dollar, so that a railroad could run through Wakefield. Construction on the train station began in the spring of 1881, and was deeded to the town in December of that same year.
Train service was a vital part of Wakefield’s economy for many years. Although stock and grain shipments took up a large portion of its service, there was also some passenger trains. At one time a train passed through town 24 times a day. When the 1930’s came along, trucking companies began transporting the goods that were once popularly transported by the train. This greatly contributed to the decline in the use of the railroad. Passenger services ended in the early 40’s, while freight service lasted until 1977. In March of that same year, the residents of Wakefield gathered at the train station to watch the Chicago Northwestern Transportation Company train depart, ending the 96 years of train service to Wakefield.
Train service played a major part in the birth of towns across the country and that was also true in Wakefield’s history. The train track ran through the town and was completed from Sioux City, Iowa, to Wakefield in 1881. The depot was built that same year and finished January 1, 1882. The first depot was made of clapboard which didn’t hold up very well so around 1925, a second depot was built on the same spot as the first one.
The railroad was an important part of Wakefield’s growth, soon after it was built through the town, there was a need for more hotels to accommodate passengers who were waiting for connections. J.F. Slinger’s hotel had a restaurant in it to help take care of hungry travelers, as well as Mrs. C. Porter’s restaurant that was at the depot.
Harold Tell of Branson, Mo., (originally of Wakefield), remembers being at the depot when he was about 5 or 6 years old and hiding under the ticket booth with his friends. They would listen to the telegraph and Tell would dream of what it would be like to run one. Eventually he did. He worked for Northwestern Railroad for 40 years, part of that time as a telegrapher and 35 years as a corporate officer. Tell noted there were 22 to 28 trains a day that came through Wakefield in the late 1920s and early CEOs; six to eight of those were passenger trains and the rest were for freight.
Tell said that sometimes whole oil trains from oil fields in Wyoming came through, as well as cattle trains from cattle yards in Long Pine. The route for the trains was from Omaha to Emerson, then to Wakefield where there was a split and track went to Bloomfield or to Wayne; from Wayne the track went on to Winter, SD. Tell moved away from Wakefield in 1949.
Around 1940, trains in and out of the town no longer carried passengers, only freight until March 15, 1977, when the last Chicago Northwestern Transportation Company train came through. The M.G. Waldbaum Co. (now Michael Foods, Inc.) had storage and offices there after that time.
For many years, the depot was the hub for people and freight in and out of Wakefield. With large stock and grain shipments, as well as passengers, the depot was a busy spot. Both the drought and the development of truck lines helped bring the decline of railway service.
Set on a hill overlooking the Logan Creek Valley, Wakefield, with a 1980 population of 1,130, lies on the southern edge of Dixon County. A portion of the community now extends into Wayne County.
A sketch about the town, written in the mid 1890s, states in glowing terms: “The magnificent agricultural region lying west from Sioux City contains no more fertile or beautiful country than that adjacent to Wakefield. For beauty of location, the town is unsurpassed. THe town was founded in 1881 and now has about 1,000 inhabitants. All conditions are favorable to the future rapid growth of this town. The buildings compare well with those of much larger towns and there are now many building enterprises of importance in progress or in contemplation. It is indeed a live town, backed by energy and enterprises.”
The community was named for C.D. Wakefield, the man who surveyed the town site for the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omha Railroad. Perhaps the name should have been “Graves” instead, for Willard Graves, who received the patent for the land on which Wakefield is located from the United States government in 1859 and 1870. His son, Philo, who later owned the property, was responsible for many of the significant developments.
Philo Graves built and donated the first building used for a school. He also donated money and assisted with the building of local churches. He provided land for the cemetery, established the Graves Public Library as a memorial to his son, and created Graves Park, still existing today, with scores of walnut trees. A subdivision of the city if the Graves Addition. In 1895, Graves moved to California where little is known of his life. The sad ending to the story is that Philo Graves died penniless. Wakefield friends of this man who did so much for our town took up a collection to have his body returned to the area for burial.
While agriculture was the initial lifeblood of the community, Wakefield has seen an interesting growth in industrial development. In the early 1900s, Wakefield was the home of a pop factory. At nearly the same time, the Wakefield Manufacturing Company was making pliers. A 1913 excerpt from the “Wakefield Republican” stated, “Let us all boost for Wakefield and Shark pliers, which before another year will be known in every state in the Union and will soon be the watch word in the plier line.” Unfortunately, the statement was more optimistic than what was actually realized.
In 1950 Milton Waldbaum began a small egg-processing plant with 23 employees. Daniel Gardner soon joined the company and continues an active leadership role. It is now one of the largest such companies, and serves a world-wide market. From its central location in Nebraska, shell, frozen, and dried eggs are delivered across the country to a variety of markets and ultimately reach consumer shelves in numerous forms. Waldbaum, while maintaining an active interest in the business, entered the medical profession with his practice in Omaha.
One of the most notable names in Wakefield’s history is that of Clarence E. Swanson. A 1917 graduate of Wakefield High School, Swanson later attended the University of Nebraska and starred on the football team. In 1921 he captained the team and received All-American recognition. He was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame in 1973. While president of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Swanson was given much of the credit for luring Wyoming football coach Bob Devaney to Swanson’s alma mater at Lincoln. Few Husker fans need to be told the significance of that action.
Railroad service that established our town in 1881 on the branch line out of Sioux City ended in 1977, but not so the vitality of the citizens of Wakefield. Having met its first century of challenges enthusiastically, its people will continue every effort to make Wakefield a good place to call home in the days that lie ahead.