Thanksgiving usually focuses on present-day blessings. As it should.
It also should include reflection on past blessings.
So on this pre-Thanksgiving day with local historical significance — the 90th birthday of the Fox Theatre — we give thanks for the people who blessed North Platte with such a fascinating history.
People like William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, naturally. William McDonald. Ira L. Bare. Keith Neville. Walter J. O’Connor. The Hirschfeld brothers. William M. Jeffers. Rae and Denver Wilson. Butler Miltonberger.
Each represents not only himself or herself but also countless other early residents, familiar or otherwise, with whom they lived and worked.
But all saw or encouraged something priceless in North Platte and western Nebraska that we all would do well to remember when tempted to believe all those national “flyover country” put-downs.
Cody spent most of his adult life on the road, whether as an Army scout, a stage actor or leader of the Wild West Show.
But he kept his home base for decades in North Platte, which he first saw in 1869 as a Fort McPherson scout. The affection he and his hometown had for each other was palpable whenever he came home.
McDonald, the first white child born in Lincoln County, carried on father Charles’ merchant and banking interests. Their bank lasted more than a century. Born in 1860, he did, too.
McDonald joined with Bare, chronicler and promoter of our community for 67 years, to write a massive two-volume Lincoln County history that marks its centennial in 2020. Bare himself came to town as a young man in 1881 and died here 71 years later.
Neville, Nebraska’s World War I governor and the first western one, could have become a Lincoln political denizen after his 1917-19 term.
He returned home instead, building on the legacies of his grandfather (rancher M.C. Keith) and father (U.S. Rep. William Neville) and building downtown’s “Neville Corner”: the Hotel Pawnee and the Fox and Paramount theaters. All still stand. (He’s also the reason North Platte High School’s teams are the Bulldogs.)
O’Connor, a British immigrant, came west from Grand Island in 1911 and developed his own long-thriving downtown corner of five-and-dime, department and drug stores at East Fourth and Dewey.
Joe and Hyman Hirschfeld came from Denver in 1917 to liquidate a men’s clothing store. They chose to stay instead. Their store remains here a century later, now where O’Connor first had his five-and-dime.
Jeffers, the hometown railroader made good, never broke his ties to North Platte. He was here the day he became Union Pacific president in 1937, celebrating with his friends. He generously enabled our service canteens in both world wars. Even retired, he helped plant Bailey Yard’s roots as a U.P. board member.
The Wilson siblings grew up in a railroad family, too. Rae Wilson’s leadership qualities and passion to support the military gave birth in 1941 to the World War II Canteen, which next-door neighbor Helen Christ, Jessie Hutchens, Edna Neid and 55,000 others across the central Plains carried to immortality.
It was Denver Wilson whom Rae followed to Arkansas when he was first called up to prepare for the war. When Pearl Harbor happened, Denver was off with his hometown National Guard commanding officer, Miltonberger, who had to be called from hunting turkeys near Oshkosh to ship out.
Nearly four years later, both came home to a heroes’ parade. At its head was Miltonberger as one-star general of the 134th Infantry Regiment, the “All Hell Can’t Stop Us” gang, which broke through the Nazis at St.-Lo — with Lt. Col. Denver Wilson as a company commander — and barreled across Europe.
We could mention many others since 1945 whose love for North Platte has shaped the town we know. Some left us only recently; others are still with us. (Feel free to offer other names if you wish.)
Every community has people who felt about it as these well-known people felt about North Platte. They all leave interesting stories behind, though we believe (in our biased opinion) our stories give our community an especially compelling narrative.
Let’s give thanks this week for all our stories and the people who lived them, loved their families and communities and live still when we share memories.
Happy 90th birthday to the Fox, by the way. And happy Thanksgiving to all.