The semicentennial celebration of the admission of Nebraska into the Union took place in 1917 under the auspices of the Nebraska State Historical Society. Society President John L. Webster of Omaha was the instigator of the event. As 1917 approached, he proposed a celebration to the members of the Historical Society. The chief feature was to be a historical pageant 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 of the celebration. Businessman Gurdon W. Wattles of Omaha was chairman.
The plans for the celebration included a pageant at Omaha in October 1916 in connection with the Ak-Sar-Ben events for that year. Ceremonies there were witnessed by more than 100,000 people. President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson were present and reviewed the pageant, and President Wilson made an address. The celebration in Lincoln took place in June 1917 at the time of the University of Nebraska commencement. An address by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt was a significant feature.
Semicentennial observances were statewide. General or county celebrations were held March 1, 1917, by schools, commercial clubs, historical societies, churches, women's clubs, men's clubs, Daughters of the American Revolution, and other civic societies. February 12, 1917, 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.
To stimulate interest in the celebration 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 should be written by some person who was then living in the state. 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.