The heavily wooded land generally described as north and a bit west of the village of Crete on the Blue River became one of Nebraska’s largest summer vacation spots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Encompassing hundreds of acres, the land was home to Chautauqua Park, The Blue River Boat Company, Vavra’s Park, Riverside Park, Horky’s Park, the Saline County Fairgrounds, Camp Strader, Tuxedo Park and the Blue River Lodge, with only a few remnants of most of them remaining today.
About 1870 the Methodist Church established a summer camp session primarily to train Sunday school teachers at Lake Chautauqua, New York, which began to spread across the U.S. almost immediately. In January of 1882 the Crete Congregational Club began planning a summer Sunday school institute to be held from June 26 to July 3 at Doane College and Bickle’s Grove. The camp was attended by several dozen and considered such a success that plans for the next year began immediately.
The organization, termed the Nebraska Sunday School Assembly, worked with the Congregational Church, Doane College and the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad using land adjacent to the Blue River. A floating pontoon bridge was built over the river at Doane Avenue within the park at what was called West Crete. The railroad build “Summer Station” a few hundred feet from the bridge, offered special train fares, built a wooden sidewalk to the grounds and advertised hacks could be hired from the city for 10 cents. Tents were erected and seating for about 2,000 was borrowed from Doane College.
While J. C. Bickle offered his grove and orchard with boating on the river free of charge, the downtown Opera House gave a week’s rent for $50. With nearly 2,000 reportedly in attendance during the 1883 season the Crete Chautauqua also incorporated, and the 1884 season planning began. The year 1883 also saw the incorporation of the Blue River Boat Company, which announced plans to operate boats as well as layout pleasure grounds upriver. The company then bought a 30-foot yacht with an upper deck over the pilot house, which they operated as the Belle of the Blue.
In 1884 the Nebraska Sunday School Association decided to consider purchasing a portion of Bickle’s land as a permanent site. Although J. C. Bickle died before the sale could be made, his widow Elizabeth sold 109 acres of their original 160-acre homestead to the association for $300. The 1884 assembly ran from August 18 to 28 on the then-developing site. A map of the 100-acre grounds showed named streets, 500 numbered sites/lots for rent or lease, an auditorium, 1,000-seat pavilion with gasoline lighting, a restaurant, baseball field, eight-room dormitory, grocery store, wooden sidewalks, hotel and post office.
By about 1890, 20 to 26 permanent buildings had been erected by the park and various organizations including the $679 Nebraska Press Association building plus a number of rather elaborate cottages and a two-story restaurant. As use of the park neared its zenith an advertisement extolled that the facility in the valley of the Blue River offered “a splendid cool grove in the hottest of days … two miles of stream for boating, bathing and fishing … cheaper than any summer resort and a dozen times pleasanter.” A 10-day entrance ticket cost $2, meals were a dollar a day or the entire 10-days for $7. The railroad threw in free baggage fees and half-price fares anywhere within 150 miles from Crete.
It was reported that between 3,000 and 5,000 came daily with as many as 10,000 on the Fourth of July, still in 1890 what was hoped to be at least a break-even proposition was not even producing that revenue. With the automobile, moving pictures and vaudeville offering competition, eroding admissions to the park forced the corporation to take out a mortgage.
In 1894 local businessmen took over management of the park and in 1897 the corporation was declared bankrupt. Personal property was sold to Lu Norris and that June a sheriff’s sale sold the park itself for what some showed as $5,000 but other sources claimed at $25,000. The Vavra family moved into the Press Association Building and reopened the grounds as Vavra’s Park or Riverside Park with buffalo and other semi-wild animals imported as a zoo.
The city of Crete purchased the park in 1926 renaming it Tuxedo Park and although a 16-by-24-foot log cabin was built for the Old Settler’s Association in 1938, the grounds were taken over by the Saline County Fair with abandoned buildings razed and the Editor’s Hall disappearing in 1962, leaving only the original octagonal Chautauqua Hall being used by the fair.
The Belle of the Blue was moved first to the Blue River at Beatrice then to Lincoln’s Capital Beach in 1906. The 1913, 82-acre Camp Strader for boys 9 to 18 was abandoned in favor of Camp Kitaki. Horky’s Park, now called Blue River Lodge has cabins and a dancehall while Tuxedo Park’s 96-acre grounds have a camp grounds, county fair grounds and an Izaak Walton cabin and what was once claimed to be “second in size only to the Mother Chautauqua in New York” is but a faint memory.
Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at firstname.lastname@example.org.