When Banner County was officially organized 128 years ago in the Nebraska Panhandle, the aspirations of those who had settled in the area was for it to become the “banner county” of the state.
Little did those folks realize at the time, but their aspirations would live as the county’s name and many of their descendants would still call the area home today.
Banner County commissioners say that sixth and even seventh generations live in the county, many still making their living off the land as their ancestors once did.
For example, County Board Chair John-Robert Faden’s ancestors moved to the area in 1882, he says. The original home place still remains in the family and his young daughter represents the sixth generation.
What drew early settlers to the area were the wide open spaces, plenty of grassland for raising cattle, water along the Pumpkin Creek valley and fertile soil for raising crops.
“This is as far as the wagon got. The wheel fell off. That’s the running joke around here,” Commissioner Robert Post says somewhat anecdotally in reference to what lured setters to stay in area.
But in reality, the attributes settlers found in the 1880s remain relatively unchanged today as farming and ranching provide the backbone of the county’s economy with approximately 200 farms and ranches.
“Historically it was always wheat and cattle,” says Commissioner Bob Gifford of agricultural operations in the county. “Then irrigation came in and now we have corn, edible beans, sorghum, split yellow peas, millet.”
Records show that in 2000 there were 500 registered irrigation wells in the Pumpkin Creek basin, prompting a moratorium on drilling to be declared the following year and a limitation of 14 inches annually placed on existing wells.
“There still is a moratorium on irrigation and it’s 12 inches maximum per year now,” says Gifford.
To which Post adds, “The interesting thing is, it’s working. We actually have had water running through Pumpkin Creek now.”
Land area statistics provided by Assessor Sharon Sandberg show there are just over 24,000 acres of irrigated land in the county and nearly 124,000 dryland acres which make up family farming operations.
Of course, you can still find cattle grazing over a large portion of the county’s more than 300,000 acres of grassland.
Like several of its neighboring counties, Banner County is home to a number of U.S. Air Force-maintained Atlas missile sites, which have been in the area since the 1960s Cold War. Post estimates there are between 20 and 30 missile silos within the county, including two active command centers.
Harrisburg, with a population of roughly 60 residents and the only community in the county, is one of only two county seats in Nebraska that is an unicorporated village. The other is Tryon on McPherson County. The county as a whole has a population of 798 according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimate, up from 696 in 2010.
Commissioners attribute some of that increase to farming operations becoming larger. They says when a smaller farm becomes part of a larger operation, the homes existing on those smaller farms become available and are filled by people moving to the area.
In 1957 school districts within Banner County consolidated and the pre-K-12 school, which today has approximately 115 students, is located in Harrisburg. Since open enrollment is permitted, some of the students come in from neighboring counties.
“One of the promises made,” says Post of the consolidation, “was there would be bus service door to door in the county. And today we still have that. There are eight or nine different routes. That means we have some pretty good roads in the county.”
The school system ranks among the many reasons people like living in the county.
“I grew up in Grand Island and we moved out here in 1985,” says Clerk Lori Hostetler. “We have two children and they went through the school system here and each received a good education. My daughter had 25 in her graduating class and my son had 14. They both ended up going to UNL (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and they had everything they needed from this school to be successful there.”
Other officials offer their own reasons.
“I grew up in the Hemingford area and I moved here in 1985. This county has accepted me like I was born here,” says Highway Superintendent Tom Neal.
Gifford offers this. “When you look at our population and you ask, why is this a county? It’s because of the people who live here. These people are very willing to put forth the volunteer effort to meet the needs of what needs to be done.
“Between farming, the rural life and the school, it’s the only place to raise a family,” Gifford adds.