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The land containing the present site of Laurel was surveyed between 1856 and 1858 but the prairie sod remained unbroken for many years. The arrival of Louis C. Tolles and other pioneers in the early 1870s marked the beginning of settlement, but it was not until 1883 – when the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad opened a branch line from Wakefield to what is now Hartington – that the southern end of Cedar County was seen as a desirable place to live.
In order to serve the flood of homeseekers brought by the new railroad, a post office was established at Claramont in 1884. A few years later, plans were announced to build a transcontinental railroad from Sioux City to San Francisco. When the first leg of what was called the “Pacific Short Line” opened for business in the summer of 1890, its tracks intersected the branch line southeast of Claramont.
Recognizing that a town with two railroads might possess certain economic advantages, William M. Martin and a small number of investors drew up plans to start a new town at the crossing. A map of a small village bearing the name “Claramont Junction” was filed at the Cedar County Courthouse on October 31, 1890. But the Pacific Short Line soon experienced financial difficulties and Claramont Junction remained a jumble of rapidly-decaying survey stakes.
The Short Line was back in business by the fall of 1891 and plans to develop Claramont Junction were revived. But since the name “Claramont Junction” too closely resembled “Claramont,” a different name had to be selected before a post office could be established. Martin suggested “Laurel” after his eldest daughter Laura.
The Pacific Short Line opened a temporary depot in February 1892. This was Laurel’s first building. Another significant development came a few weeks later when Fremont Everett and Oliver Waite announced they would move their lumberyard and general store from Claramont to the new town at the crossing. The opening of Everett and Waite’s store on April 1, 1892, marked a turning point in the battle between the two settlements. Laurel then began to develop rapidly while Claramont became a ghost town.
The exodus of buildings from Claramont was augmented by a building boom in Laurel. Many of Laurel’s first homes were built either in the 200 block of Elm Street or in the same block of Oak. One of these early dwellings has been moved to the City Park where it will be restored by the Tuesday Club. It was built in 1892 by pioneer resident Angus Maun.
Although the railroad was located at the north end of Cedar Street, the 100 block of Oak became Laurel’s first “Main Street.” Everett & Waite’s store, Hotel Laurel, and the Farmers State Bank were among the first to locate there. By the time Laurel was incorporated in May 1893, the population stood at more than two hundred.
With Oak Street nearly filled to capacity, buildings began spreading along Second Street. One of the first was Everett & Waite’s new store at 124 E. Second. Completed in July 1894, this was Laurel’s first brick building. The second floor featured a large meeting room that was sometimes called the “opera house.” By this time the two-year-old town boasted of two railroad depots, two grain elevators, three carpenter shops, two general stores, one grocery store, one candy store, two hardware stores, one drug store, one furniture store, one harness shop, one millinery store, two lumber yards, two barber shops, two hotels, three livery stables, two blacksmith shops, two implement dealers, one meat market, one law office, one flour mill, one saloon, two real estate dealers, one doctor, one newspaper, and a population of more than three hundred.
Stores were open for business from six a.m. until midnight or later. When the merchants discussed closing at 8:00 p.m., the Laurel Advocate observed that Laurel had too much business to get done in a fourteen-hour day. The hard times which plagued much of the nation from 1893 to 1898 did not seem to curtail Laurel’s growth, and the town entered the twentieth century with a population of more than five hundred.
When the first automobile appeared on the street in 1908, it was seen as a curiosity. Few realized that its arrival heralded the end of an era. The two railroads which had brought Laurel into existence rapidly declined in importance as trucks, buses and automobiles began moving passengers and freight. Laurel soon found itself at another important “crossing” when the Grant Highway (U.S. 20) intersected the Sunshine Highway (Nebraska 15) at the edge of town. By this time the horse and buggy was seen as a curiosity.
Another revolution arrived in 1916 when electricity ended Laurel’s “gaslight era.” Home and businesses soon were brightly illuminated and filled with labor-saving gadgets. Electrically-projected movies at the Auditorium gradually replaced live entertainment at the “opera house.” From the 1920s through the early 1950s, families increasingly gathered around the radio for entertainment; from the 1950s to the present, television.
The tractor brought the mechanical revolution to the farm. The ability to cultivate more acres with fewer people has led to a significant decline in the rural population. The number of Cedar County residents peaked at 16,427 in 1930 and has decreased with each census. The total now stands at approximately 10,000 – the lowest number since 1890. Like other small cities, Laurel has not been immune from the effects of this demographic trend.
Laurel enters the Millennium with a population slightly over nine-hundred and a new site at one of the “crossings” on the information superhighway. Having successfully met the challenges of the twentieth century, her people look forward to new opportunities in the century to come.
Summary of Laurel's history prepared and made available by Roger Tryon.