I wrote this story for the Denton Community Historical Society’s “Tales and Trails” newsletter. Matt Steinhausen
Centerville, Nebraska began as a congregation center for the community of pioneer farmers who settled in south-central Lancaster County. As early as 1869 there was a school, cemetery, trading post and church at or near the “Centerville Corner” as it is often called. Most of the residents of the Centerville area in the late 1860s were farmers of German descent.
Today Centerville is little more than a wide spot in the road at the junction of Spur 55 B and Highway 33, about halfway between Lincoln and Crete. Present-day Centerville is comprised of a nearby cemetery, one old house, a clay tile barn, an old filling station, and a vacant fuel storage / distribution facility. The old school was razed in early 2007.
The Prey family, the first permanent white settlers of Lancaster County, made their home just a little more than 2 miles east of present-day Centerville in 1856. The area around Centerville was a good location for early settlers because it had numerous springs for water, the soil was fertile, it was near the Salt Creek where there was an abundance of native timber, the limestone quarries near Roca were not far away, and it was within 3 miles of one of the most used trails in Nebraska, the Nebraska City - Ft. Kearny Cutoff. The Centerville area was well suited for hunting, trapping, growing crops and raising livestock.
Henry Spellman, a German by birth, brought his family to Nebraska in approximately 1866. It was on Spellman’s farm just east of present-day Centerville where there was a trading post near the banks of a spring-fed creek. Mr. Spellman was the postmaster at Centerville, and according to the 1888 Biographical Album of Lancaster County he was a state legislator for one term, served as Lancaster County Commissioner, and he was a land agent for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company for several years. Today Terry Krull occupies the old Spellman farmstead.
Centerville’s exact present-day location at the junction of Highway 33 and SW 14th Street / Spur 55 B was set long before those roads were ever imagined. In the 1850s and 60’s government surveyors laid out the lines that divided up the land into one-mile square sections, ultimately dictating the location of property borders and roads. Centerville’s location was a result of the proximity of natural resources and commerce (trading post, land agent and postmaster at Spellman’s) relative to the junction of the arbitrary dividing lines of the land. Interestingly, Centerville’s location may have also been how it was named…
The name of Centerville might be a result of its location in the exact geographical center of its 36 square-mile precinct, and subsequently the precinct may have been named as per the village in its center. A map created in February of 1884 for the 1885 Nebraska Atlas shows Centerville as the only town in the entire precinct at the time. The map shows the features of Centerville including a school, church and cemetery; and there is a shaded area over the Spellman farm where there was a trading post and the occasional “post office”.
A few references spell Centerville with the “e” and the “r” reversed, ‘Centreville’. In fact, on the front of the old schoolhouse, the name is clearly spelled ‘Centreville’. However, most maps and references to Centerville spell it with an “er”, not “re”.
The first school in the Centerville area is difficult to pin down. One old story would indicate that there was a school about ¾ mile east of Centerville. In his “Remembrances of the Centerville Precinct” William Krull wrote that in a small log school in the northeast quarter of section 22 was where the precinct’s first election occurred in 1866. Krull’s description would indicate this school to be more than ½ mile east of Centerville. This description would correspond with what might have been the location of the Crozier farm, where Mr. Crozier (sp?) was serving as postmaster. But other stories indicate that there was a school at the Spellman trading post about the same time, which was only ¼ mile east of the Centerville Corner. The Croziers were Irish and the Spellmans were German, which might suggest there may have been 2 different, “segregated” schools near one another – but this is only speculation based loosely on what little information is available about the area at the time.
Longtime area resident Harlan Wittstruck (now deceased) said in a 1987 interview that his family signed a lease or easement allowing for a school to be constructed on their property in about 1867. He was told the construction of the District 22 building preceded the Methodist church built in 1869. Considering the dynamics of early settlement, evolving statehood, and lack of suitable facilities, it is possible, if not probable, that there were a variety of early schools in the area. It might also be assumed that the earliest facilities were built and organized entirely by the pioneers considering there wasn’t much government to speak of in the 1860s. As a result, there is little to no documentation that could help us verify the first schools.
The District 22 school building that stood on the Wittstruck farm on the northeast corner of Centerville until 2007 was built in 1901. The building was probably the second or third school built on the site. When Martell established a school in District 22, the Centerville school became District 22C and the Martell School was District 22M. Central Rural High School District 147 was built between the communities of Sprague, Martell and Centerville in the 1920s, after which time the Centerville school served only the primary grades. The Centerville school closed in about 1956 and the building became the property of the Salt Valley Grange. The school building appeared church-like to passersby because of its tall windows, large bell tower, and high, steep roof. However it has never been a church. According to Terry Krull, who lives near the school and attended elementary school in the building, he has been asked about “that church at the Centerville corner” a countless number of times. Krull’s reply to those who ask about the building on the corner is “If that’s a church, I spent eight years there for nothing.”
The Wittstruck family’s long-term lease with the State of Nebraska for the school property expired long ago, and the ground is once again under the Wittstruck family’s control. The school building was to have been moved off the site many years ago by its former owner, a Mr. Kubicek, but the building was never moved and subsequently razed.
Prior to the construction of the church, Sunday school was held as early as 1866 or 1867 at the homes of area residents such as Julius Wittstruck and Frederick Krull. Later, services were said to have been held in a small school, on the south side of the road, east of the Centerville Corner, near the Spellman family’s home and trading post.
Though we know there were homes, schools and even a trading post near Centerville, the first verifiable documentation of a building at the Centerville Corner was a German Methodist Church built in 1869 on the southeast corner of the road. A better, more commodious church was constructed in 1882 on the southwest side of the road. The new, tall church sat upon high ground and was considered a “Beacon on the Hill” by its membership according to Mrs. Ray (Marcella) Clawson in an article she wrote for The Crete News, dated April 2, 1970.
Centerville’s German Methodist Church was the first of six or seven German Methodist Congregations in the area, thus it was referred to as a “Mother Church”. The early German Methodist churches where part of a group of churches that shared ministers who would travel between congregations. These ministers were called “Circuit Riders”.
Centerville Church had its 50th anniversary in 1919. The anniversary services were held in German. The anniversary coincided with the end of World War I. There was no formal celebration because the congregation didn’t want it to appear to as if they were having a pro-German demonstration.
In 1928, the Centerville Church bell rang one last time. Luana (Lauterbach) Sullivan says she remembers she was attending the Centerville School, across the road from the church, as it was being razed. She was playing outside at recess when heard the gong of the bell one final time as the tower came to the ground. No new church would be built at Centerville.
A new church was erected in Martell in 1928 to serve the Centerville, Highland and Martell parishioners, whose congregations began consolidation meetings in 1926. Sprague also had a church called Sprague Union Church, which had been a Presbyterian church until 1908 when it became non-denominational. For some time the Sprague Church was affiliated with the Methodists. The Sprague church building, erected in 1894, is still being used today as the non-denominational Sprague Community Church.
The Centerville Church Parsonage was constructed in 1898 when the Centerville and Highland congregations withdrew from the area “circuit” and there was a need for their own minister. The parsonage still stands at Centerville Corner, south of the old gas station.
Centerville never had an official post office building. The area’s first post office was established on the Crozier farm, a little more than ½ mile east of Centerville, in 1866 with George M. Crozier as the postmaster. In 1869 the post office was moved to the Spellman Trading Post, about ¼ mile east of Centerville, with postmaster Henry Spellman. The post office went back and forth between the Spellman’s and Mr. Crozier until 1888 when the post office was established in the new town of Sprague, two miles to the south. Prior to the turn of the century, it was common in rural areas to have the home of the postmaster serve as the post office. Considering that both the Spellman’s and Mr. Crozier lived reasonably close to the church and school, it stands to reason they would be good candidates for postmaster.
It has been said and written that either the Centerville Corner or Spellman’s Trading Post was a station for the Pony Express. The Pony Express route was much further south, and the writer has found no verifiable documentation of a Pony Express station or route in Lancaster County.
The Centerville Cemetery was plotted on the Spellman farm in 1869, but some burials there may have occurred prior to it being plotted. The cemetery sits just a little west of Centerville Corner on the north side of the road.
Prior to the creation of a cemetery, most burials were on private land. There were people buried in almost every section around Centerville, though most of the graves were unmarked and are now forgotten. A few of those early graves were exhumed and the remains relocated to the Centerville Cemetery. In a 1987 interview, Harlan Wittstruck said that when his grandmother was originally buried at the farm, a pair of scissors his great-aunt used to lay her out went missing. The scissors were later recovered when the casket was dug up and moved to the Centerville Cemetery.
The Centerville Cemetery is still actively used for burials and is the primary cemetery for the Sprague and Martell communities. The cemetery is the final resting place of some of the county’s earliest pioneers including members of the Prey family.
Railroads and a dying town
Centerville’s status as a hub of commerce and community activity in the late 1800s was displaced by the location of new railroads. Two different rail systems were laid through the precinct, giving rise to Sprague on the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1888; and Martell on the Rock Island Line in 1893. As a result of the railroads, the communities of Sprague and Martell quickly grew out of the fields, and Centerville, less than two miles away from both towns, was sure to fade away…
Lauterbach Family and Centerville Station
In 1928 Fred and Linda Lauterbach moved their family from a farm they rented on section 23, one and a half miles east of Centerville, into the old Centerville Church Parsonage. In 1929 Fred built a long barn with a low roof of clay tile masonry (similar to brick) for housing cattle and hosting cattle sales. The Lauterbachs also built a service station on the corner. Fred Lauterbach often traveled east where he would purchase herds of dairy cattle and ship them by train to Martell, then herd them to his barn at Centerville. In later years he would have the cattle trucked in. Mark Steinhausen (grandfather of the writer) owned a semi truck with a 30’ livestock trailer that he used to haul cattle for area farmers. Lauterbach often asked Steinhausen to pick up cattle from the east, or haul them out west. In a recent conversation, Steinhausen said that Fred would travel throughout eastern Iowa, Minnesota and occasionally Wisconsin to purchase cattle to ship back to NE. Fred would also travel west to Colorado and sometimes Wyoming to sell cattle. Steinhausen said Lauterbach dealt mostly with Holstein and Brown Swiss breeds. The barn at the Centerville Corner was used for housing cattle and preparing them for sale. Sometimes cattle sales were held inside the barn.
Fred’s son Truman “Doc” Lauterbach operated the Centerville Mobile Service Station for more than 40 years, except for 2 years spent overseas during WWII serving with the Navy. Mark Steinhausen said Truman ran his tank service while others tended to the station. Truman was often driving a tanker truck and supplying area farms and homes with fuel. The bulk fuel storage tanks still sit just north of Centerville, on the west side of SW 14th Street.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Centerville Station served various functions such as a convenience store, gas station, tackle shop, bar, and a restaurant serving Cajun dishes. The fuel pumps have since been removed. Perhaps someday soon a person with the ambition of Fred and Truman Lauterbach will realize the potential of Centerville Corner and put it to good use again.
A long time ago Fred Lauterbach was upset that Centerville was not included on the Nebraska road maps by Rand-McNally. Mark Steinhausen recalled that Fred complained to the proper authorities about the omission, and the next year Centerville was on the map. Not long after Centerville was back off the map, and hasn’t been on since.
Fred Lauterbach might agree that though Centerville, Nebraska may have never achieved status as a “town”, it is perhaps deserving of status as a “landmark”.
If you have any comments, additional information or questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Matt at 402-421-9258