Syracuse, Nebraska was originally located southeast of present-day Unadilla in 1856, where salt was discovered. The “Syracuse Town Company” was formed to get land and named for a great salt entity in Syracuse, New York. It was soon realized that salt mining was not successful. A “postal drop” changed locations in 1863 when it moved a hotel and livery barn to “Nursery Hill”. It was a link to the wagon trail going west, which is on the west edge of the present Syracuse location. It was platted in the late 1850’s, a school was established as settlers arrived and in 1869, and with talk of a railroad coming, one pioneer gave 100 acres of land to the Midland Pacific Railway. A proper town was then laid out.

By 1871, with the railroad completed to Lincoln, that station was named “Syracuse”, a major shipping point and agricultural center in Otoe County. So, Nursery Hill’s businesses moved into the town which became incorporated in 1875. Syracuse soon became the home of the Otoe County Fair and a horse track located on the southwest edge of town. Industries such as a wagon and carriage factory, a corn cob pipe factory, and an ice house were some of the original businesses established in Syracuse. The First National Bank and the Bank of Syracuse were also formed at this time. In 1875, the population was around 500 people and by 1900, it had grown to 861 people. The growth has continued through the years and today Syracuse has a population of 1,942, showing 10% growth in the last decade.

While many early settlers started businesses in Syracuse, most of them bought land to farm. In 1870, the Midland Pacific, like other railroads of this time, sent east 5,000 maps of Otoe County to encourage settlers to come. In the late sixties and early seventies, the land was taken by many families who planned to stay, build homes and begin the “dusk to dawn” task of making the land produce. The speculators, sensing that there was no easy profit here, sold their holdings. The public domain was passed into private lands. The eighteen seventies were hard and difficult years. The Panic of 1873 restricted cash flow of capital westward. There was no market for corn and wheat. Life was difficult all over the United States, but the suffering was greatest in newly established settlements such as Syracuse. Through the years, there have been plagues of grasshoppers, drought, harsh winters, too much rain, and dramatic changes in the price of grain; however, our agricultural base has persevered. Today, the agricultural economy is a driving force for the community of Syracuse.

Civil War Veterans, as well as people of New York and Wisconsin, came to Syracuse in the last half of the 19th century. The area saw a large emigration of people from Germany who settled here to live. This territory was open for settlement at a time when economic and political conditions in Germany were causing many to leave their country. Those from Germany soon became the largest group of immigrants from another country to settle in Nebraska and Otoe County. A few early German settlers to the area included Henry Frederick Wellensiek, his brother, Casper and two brothers, William and Louis Schacht. In 1876, Louis visited his parents in Germany and is credited with persuading 100 German families to settle in Nebraska, many who came to Otoe County. Today, you will still see many German family names such as Kreifels, Lutjemeyer, Steinhoff, and Buchholz in our cemeteries and also in the phone book.

The first pioneers of the Syracuse Township wished to give their children better opportunities than they could attain. To do this, they knew that they must have a school. A log cabin was built southeast of present-day Unadilla and then moved 6 miles east in 1860, which was designated as school land. Thirty-one students were enrolled. In 1865, money was allocated for a new school house on 1st Street in Syracuse. The school was later sold and became a barn that existed well into the 20th century.

In 1875, $4,000 was spent to construct a new school building on 3rd Street, near the northern edge of our current South Park. As the town grew, more classroom space became necessary to provide for the influx of greater numbers of students. In 1880, a second school was built on 7th Street, the site of the present elementary building. It accommodated the first through sixth grade children of the district. In 1887, it was noted that the school house in the park needed extensive repairs. The young people hoped that more space would be added, making the longed-for high school possible. Latin language classes needed to be offered because no university or college would accept a student who had not studied the language. In 1889-1890, the old school house on 7th Street was dragged to one side so it could still be used in the winter while a new building was constructed in the center of the block. The first floor of the schoolhouse held the primary and third through sixth grades. The seventh and eighth grades went upstairs where a long room also held the high school students – ninth, tenth and eleventh grades, which was taught by the principal. The high school was then able to allow a graduate to enter the University’s Latin School for one year and, with satisfactory work, to enroll into the University. Twelfth grade was not added until 1904.

The old school on 7th Street was then moved to Plum and Main Street where it became part of the Dey Hotel. The school building in the park (built in 1875) was then used as a knitting factory and later as a corncob factory. It wasn’t until 1941 that the town voted on a $49,000 bond issue to build a new school that would replace the 7th Street structure. The bond passed and a WPA grant was approved from the federal government. That building is still used today for kindergarten thru third grade classes. By the early 60’s, the building on 7th Street was extremely overcrowded. Both high schools in Avoca and Dunbar had closed, and those students were now attending Syracuse.  In 1962, ground was purchased on Highway 50 north and a new high school was built in 1965. Through the years, the elementary building was updated and the high school saw extensive remodeling. Unadilla, Dunbar, Avoca and Otoe elementary schools all closed and the student population was consolidated in Syracuse. The ninth graders were moved to the high school and pre-kindergarten classes were established as part of the school system. By 2010, the elementary school was extremely overcrowded, so a new middle school was built south of the high school. This became the home of fourth thru eighth grade students. As of 2012, there are over 725 students enrolled in the Syracuse-Dunbar-Avoca District 27 schools and our enrollment numbers continue to grow.

*This segment is a work in progress as we gather more details about the community. If you have some Syracuse history to share, feel free to contact us.

**Sources: For the Record: A Centennial History of Syracuse, NE and Keeping a Roof Over Their Heads, both written by Margaret Dale Masters.


Syracuse Town Company Formed

1st School Opened with 31 Students in K-8

1st Business Opened

Settlers Bought Land to Farm

Railroad Extended Through Town

Town Incorporated (Population 500)

Late 1800s
German Families Arrived

New Two-story School Built for K-11

Population of 861

2nd New School Built on 7th Street

New High School Built on Highway 50

Population of 1,942

New Middle School Built on Highway 50

756 Students Enrolled in K-12 at SDA Schools