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The Richard Dill House at Sixth and Marcy streets in Alexandria is extant with its historic use of reinforced concrete and solar heating.

One of the most confusing Nebraska towns to trace is Alexandria, which had three names, was located in three counties and briefly served as a county seat.

Interestingly as well, one of its residents patented a form of precast concrete, a variant of which has been used in several Lincoln buildings including a church and office building.

The Big Sandy Road Ranche was established on the Oregon Trail about three miles east of today’s Alexandria in the mid-1840s. An 1864 election held at the ranche organized Jefferson County, and in January of 1865 the ranche became the Big Sandy post office.

In 1859 George Weisel moved to the area from Kansas, established a mill below a brush dam he built on the Little Blue River and platted the village of Meridian, named for its location on the 6th Principal Meridian, which became known as Jefferson County’s first town.

In 1868 Meridian was designated the county seat of Jones County when the territorial legislature combined Jefferson and Jones counties. In 1870 the Big Sandy post office was renamed Meridian, and it was noted that the village, whose population was optimistically estimated at 250, supported Weisel’s hotel, a school, saloon, general store, druggist, grocery and Weisel’s mill. The county seat prize proved transient however as the following year an election moved it to Fairbury as Jones and Jefferson counties were again divided.

Isaac Alexander moved north from Kansas just into Nebraska in 1859, where he built a grist mill and cabin. After the shuffling of the area’s counties and borders, the St. Joseph & Denver/Grand Island Railroad began building through, missing Meridian, arriving at Alexander’s land, resulting in the platting of Alexandria by the Nebraska Land & Town Company, named for Isaac’s son S. J. Alexander who was land agent for the railroad and Nebraska’s secretary of state.

Within a year John Nightingale’s 1867 ranche/trading post morphed into a hotel, Summer’s store opened, the first train arrived, and most of Meridian’s population decided to pick up and move to Alexandria, including the house belonging to Silas Alexander. By 1882 Alexandria reported having four churches, a newspaper, flouring mill, a hardware store and several other active retail stores. Meanwhile Meridian dwindled, was hit by several tornadoes and slowly disappeared, leaving the cemetery as virtually the only remnant.

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About 1920 Richard E. Dill, a rural mail carrier, who had attended but did not graduate from the University of Nebraska and was a self-taught engineer, began experimenting with prestressed concrete. In 1923 he received U. S. Patent No. 1684663 for “prestressed channel plank modules” of concrete. For several years Dill then experimented with tensioned steel rods embedded in concrete, termed post-tensioned instead of the more common prestressed, and in 1928 began producing the first pre-stressed concrete planks and fence posts made in the United States.

In 1936 Dill designed and began building a “modern” house of “concrete modular construction” on the southwest corner of Sixth and Marcy in Alexandria, the first time the technique had been used in residential construction.

First a deep tunnel was dug which provided 57 degree tempered air which was circulated for summer cooling and through a fireplace in winter months for heating. A poured concrete pad was then built over the tunnel and a one-story, 1,200 square foot, three-bedroom, two-bath, 38 by 32 foot house was completed.

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The house also had its south elevation made primarily of glass windows adding solar heating in the winter months. The primary construction utilized flanged “planks” of poured concrete with a void filled with straw as insulation. The modern, forward-thinking house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

A second, extant, structure in Alexandria is Henry Austin’s 1875, or slightly later, frame livery stable built on a limestone base. No self-respecting village should be without a resident ghost and Alexandria’s came about in 1878 at James Conway’s log cabin which was later moved to the Big Sandy River. Conway was impaled by a drunken fall on a wagon tongue after which his wife’s body was found in a shallow grave nearby. It was her ghost which haunted the area several miles east of the village.

Alexandria’s peak population of 477 was reached in 1970 and today is reported at 177 while Mrs. Conway’s ghost has quietly disappeared. Undoubtedly the most interesting historic remnant is the concrete Dill house pictured above, which stands as one of the earliest experiments in what today is becoming a widely-accepted concept.

Nebraska’s capitol is in fact currently adding geothermal heating/cooling through deep buried piping from a block northeast of the building for constant tempered temperature air circulation.

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 jim@leebooksellers.com

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