October 29, 2022 | Last updated Jul 6, 2023

Celebrating Nebraska’s Semicentennial, 1867-1917

This Arbor Day parade float at Nebraska City in 1917 also commemorated the state’s
semicentennial. The bust at the front of the float depicts J. Sterling Morton. NSHS RG2991-2-3

The fiftieth anniversary celebration of the admission of Nebraska into the Union in 1867 took place in 1916 and 1917. John L. Webster of Omaha, then president of the Nebraska State Historical Society, was the instigator of the event. As 1917 approached, he proposed a celebration intended to symbolize not only the development of Nebraska but the relationship of the state to the opening and settlement of the West. A committee of one hundred members was appointed to take charge, with Omaha businessman Gurdon W. Wattles as chairman.

Hartley Burr Alexander, poet, historian and educator, wrote the semicentennial masque performed in Lincoln. NSHS RG2411-65

The plans for the celebration included a “Historical Pageant” (or parade) at Omaha on October 5, 1916, in connection with the Ak-Sar-Ben events for that year. President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson attended and reviewed the parade, and President Wilson made an address to an immense crowd. The celebration in Lincoln took place June 12-14, 1917, at the time of the University of Nebraska’s commencement. Significant features included an address by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and a “semi-centennial masque,” written by Hartley Burr Alexander.

Semicentennial observances were staged in many locations outside Lincoln and Omaha. March 1, 1917, Statehood Day, saw celebrations by individual counties, as well as by commercial clubs, historical societies, men’s and women’s clubs, Daughters of the American Revolution, and other civic and patriotic societies. February 12, 1917, Lincoln’s birthday, was the date set for observances in Nebraska’s rural and village schools. Appropriate exercises were held in Nebraska churches and Sunday schools on February 25, the Sunday nearest Washington’s birthday. The citizens of Nebraska City waited until Arbor Day in April, when they combined the two celebrations.

To stimulate interest in the events John D. Haskell of Wakefield, Nebraska, offered a prize of $100 in 1916 for the best poem adapted as a state song for Nebraska. (“Beautiful Nebraska,” composed by Jim Fras, has been the state’s official song since 1967.) One condition was that the 1917 poem to Nebraska be written by a state resident. The prize winner was the Rev. William H. Buss of Fremont for his “The Ode to Nebraska.” Haskell also gave a prize of $100 for the best musical arrangement for the poem, won by John Prindle Scott of New York City.

Nebraska’s 150th anniversary as a state will be celebrated in 2017, 100 years after the 1917 events. Members of the Nebraska Sesquicentennial Commission, appointed by the governor, will work closely with various state agencies, boards, commissions, and political subdivisions to plan commemorative events and to implement educational activities. More information is available online at Nebraska150.org. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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