Friday, December 03, 2010

Venangoland in Nebraska

(News-Herald, December 2) You may recall that I have an interest in the name “Venango.” It’s short, distinctive and should be a great tool in branding and marketing the region. There are dozens of places named “Oil City” and a gazillion Franklin’s, but only four places on the planet that use the name “Venango.”
The village in Crawford County is nicely close to home, but the other two Venango’s are in Kansas and Nebraska. How did our place name, which is a mistranscription of a Native American term and therefore not really a real word—how did it end up out West?
The Kansan “Venango” is barely a place—a dozen houses next to the Venango Public Use Area set by the Kanopolis State Park and Kanopolis Lake. There’s a beach, a place that looks like an RV camp, and several roads with “Venango” in the name (as well as a Horsethief Road and Avenue Q).
It’s the Nebraskan Venango that really interests me.
It’s a small place almost on the western border of the state, with a population generally under 200 people. But if you have any doubts about its connection to Venangoland, consider the street names: Pennsylvania, Mercer, Dauphin, Allegheny, Washington, Fayette, Chester, Crawford, and Lincoln. There’s also a Ziemer Street—some digging suggests that it’s named for a family of long-time residents.
One source says that Venango was settled first in the 1860’s, spurred by the Homestead Act , but “the buckle of the wheat belt” didn’t seem to really take hold until the 1880’s, when the railroad came through. But the railroad cuts across one corner of the city’s grid at an angle, seeming to suggest that the town was there before the railroad. Across the tracks from the town are the grain elevators that dominate the landscape.
In its history the town had banks, several newspapers, schools, and a town band. Its World War I veterans formed an American Legion Post, and by the 1930 it had reached a peak population of 287.
The Depression and the Dust Bowl both took a huge toll on Venango, but over the following decades it reconfigured itself again. The school added a gym in the 50’s and a new music room in the 60’s. It celebrated its centennial in 1987 with parades and celebrations.
In 2009, it achieved a true 21st Century landmark—it was Google-Earthed. That means that visitors can now take a virtual walk through the streets of Venango.
There’s not much in Venango to suggest its history. The homes are mostly simple one-story constructions—certainly nothing to suggest a city over a century old. Google earth even captures the cars parked in driveways or on the streets (some of which are wide and paved and some of which are dirt tracks), and they are mostly pick-up trucks. Where Google indicates a car dealership, the photos show a vacant lot. There are some new buildings—most notably a church and an elementary school—but the real estate on what was once the main drag looks like a shell of the central street of earlier decades. The median household income is $24,444.
Most striking to an Easterner’s eye may be the edge of town. When you get to the edge of the grid, the streets curl back around into the town, but you are looking into a great big wide bunch of flatness. There’s no other structure or town within eyesight. Venango, Nebraska could be on the moon.
Still, the records suggest that families have stayed there for generations. The 2000 census lists 175 people, 68 households, 51 families. There is even a facebook group for present and former residents of Venango. The place looks hard, but not beaten.
So far, not much hint of how our name ended up out there. There’s a Levi Hafer who might have ties back here. There are plenty of people who left the right part of PA to head west, but landed in the wrong part of NE. Early settler names include Steinke, Watkins, Busch, Hopkins, Morton, Grothman, Strack, Wostenberg, and Fulscher.
Where is that guy who transplanted Western PA to the wide open wheat fields of the west? I’ve made a contact with a historian in Nebraska, and my brother has been poking around quite a bit, but frankly I’m hoping someone who reads this will know the story of what Venangoland ties connect us to this distant cousin of a community. Barring that, perhaps my bosses at the News-Derrick will decide to send me on a fact-finding tour.

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