ANSELMO—Nebraska’s first state recreation area—Victoria Springs—welcomed visitors to the Blast from the Past event this past weekend as part of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) 100 year celebration. The Nebraska parks system began in 1921 with Chadron State Park and “now, Nebraska’s 76 parks are top destinations for Nebraskans and visitors from around the world to enjoy breathtaking landscapes, unique wildlife, and abundant recreation opportunities,” according to https://parks100.outdoornebraska.gov/.
Victoria Springs was established in the early 1920s and is one of the oldest areas in the state’s park system according to NGPC Assistant Division Administrator Bob Hanover.
“This was created after a committee including the governor in 1921 visited the park, this area. Locals kind of pitched it as it would make a great state park area and in 1923–just two years later–Victoria Springs State Recreation Area was born, it was designated. We still have some of the original cabins here from when Judge Matthews, Charles Matthews, settled in the area. The springs is beautiful, the park is beautiful. For us to be able to celebrate here in the heart of Nebraska during our anniversary celebration, we just can’t think of a better thing we could do,” Hanover told KCNI/KBBN.
Saturday’s festivities included a vintage baseball game, history walking tour of the 60-acre area, fishing, archery, paddleboat rides, nature displays, wildlife, history, and game violation trailers, Dutch oven cooking, Solomon Butcher History presentation, raptor recovery program with swainson hawks on display, cabin tours, tours of historical cabins and school house, food and retail vendors, beer and wine garden, live music, and a laser light show.
“We wanted to bring a whole lot of everything here so people had a variety that they could come out and do,” Centennial Event Coordinator Lori Howard told KCNI/KBBN. “All of our parks were given a goal this year to come up with a 100th anniversary centennial event which most of them have.”
Bob Hanover said he hopes the Nebraska state parks centennial will create exciting memories for children and families as the people of the state celebrate the outdoors.
“I think what we are learning the most about the history from Victoria Springs is that it is a people’s park: the people settled this, the people made this, the people wanted this. It wasn’t the government, it wasn’t the top down–it was the people,” Hanover said. “We’re here today and the people own this park and they own all 76 state parks. So go to a state park this year!”
The Blast from the Past is one of three signature events in honor of the 2021 park system centennial. The first state park was honored in an event June 11-12 at Chadron State Park, and the first state historical park will be celebrated Oct. 2 at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.
A little more history surrounding Victoria Springs:
Victoria Springs is one of the oldest areas in the state park system and covers 60 acres. Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the area, Euro-Americans filed for land in the 1880s and Victoria Creek was named in 1872 by state surveyor Robert Harvey.
Log cabins built by Judge Matthews are still on site and were open for tours on Saturday, July 10 during the NGPC Blast from the Past event. One cabin served as his home and the other was the first post office in Custer County.
Tammy Hendrickson of the Custer County Historical Society/Museum and Research Center said the cabins are some of the oldest structures in the county.
“These are the probably the oldest structure—one of the oldest structures in Custer County (built in 1874). That is the first post office in Custer County and we have a plaque out here that was dedicated in 1937 when that happened. Judge Matthews was the one that was here,” Hendrickson told KCNI/KBBN. She said these cabins were the original “tiny homes!” “You have to be really close on your family to live in this! It’s the tiny house size just a different century.”
A mineral spring located on the grounds produced water that was bottled and sold throughout the United States in the later 1800s. The residents of the local town near Victoria Springs–New Helena–had visions of growth for the bottled water business, health resort, and hotel. According to a Game and Parks history brochure, those visions of success did not last with bottled water sales dropping off. But the New Helena settlement was laid out in 1890 and reached its peak population in 1900 with about 67 residents. The Burlington and Missouri Railroad did not choose to build through the area and instead went about six miles west, a new railroad town known as Anselmo which presented competition for New Helena.
Despite the decreasing population of the town, various organizations throughout Custer County raised money to establish a state park and welcomed Governor Samuel McKelvie in 1922 to present their case of Victoria Springs. The park opening welcomed 4,500 people in 1925. Today the area invites guests to enjoy the spring-fed lake for fishing or paddle boating, picnics, camping, playground equipment, cabin rentals, and visit the school building—the frame building was built in 1888-89.
Vintage baseball was played on Saturday afternoon but there was not a baseball glove in sight! Nineteenth century rules were followed and included underhand pitching and players having to ring a cow bell and tell the score keeper “tally one up!” anytime they scored a run. The “garden” is known today as the infield and players were not allowed to steal bases.
The school house of former District #2 New Helena was open for tours on Saturday. It operated as a school house until 1963-1964 for grades kindergarten through 8th grade. The desks, books, and shelves housed in the schoolhouse are original.