For most of his life, John Lamberty carried a reminder of a horrific explosion in Scribner.
A 2 ½-inch nail had lodged just above Lamberty’s heart during the blast and remained there his death in 1998.
Lamberty lived to be 100 years old — the last survivor of the deadly explosion that occurred on March 7, 1929.
Six young firefighters died in the blast and as many as 50 other people were injured in what’s been recorded as the second largest loss of firefighters’ lives in the state of Nebraska.
Now — 90 years after the explosion — Scribner volunteer firefighters like Tom Zahourek are looking back at the deadly explosion that occurred just months before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.
Zahourek has compiled a plethora of news articles and other accounts about the blast and its aftermath.
These stories include a detailed account that firefighter Sid Spurling wrote from his hospital bed while recuperating from the explosion.
In his account, Spurling told how 250 pounds of dynamite had been stored in a shed at the home of county supervisor Carl Hollander on the west outskirts of Scribner.
A Dodge County employee later said he’d put the dynamite in one corner of the building with the percussion caps, used to detonate the explosive, in the opposite corner.
The next night — March 7 — Hollander and his wife were visiting a neighbor when a fire, attributed to faulty wiring in his car, broke out.
Neighbor Henry Meier saw the fire and sounded a siren at about 11:10 p.m.
Scribner’s volunteer firefighters, who’d had their monthly meeting that night, were out and about town and reached the fire within minutes.
When they got to the scene, Hollander’s car was engulfed in flames, but the fire was contained to a garage portion of the building.
But that building also housed a storage room with the dynamite and along with nails, wire, tool boxes and other iron materials, which became like shrapnel.
In a Fremont Tribune article, Hollander claimed the crowd was warned to stay back from the building and Spurling remembered a young man warning people about the explosives.
Firefighters, however, later alleged that Hollander told them the dynamite would burn, but not explode. Other firefighters said they didn’t know there were any explosives at all.
The fire spread.
With no hydrants close enough to bring water to the fire, a chemical tank was used. Some firefighters used pails to carry water from a well to the burning building — and some men were within 25 feet of the blaze.
“The flames were rapidly eating into the main part of the building and timbers were starting to fall, when a terrific blast lit up the skies, shook the ground, and sent the bodies of men hurling through the air and rolling along the ground,” Spurling wrote.
Spurling compared the resulting sight to a war scene.
“Scattered about the ground were forms of men lying here and there, bleeding profusely from ugly, torn wounds, fractured limbs and many with faces burned beyond recognition,” he wrote.
Bravery emerged in the midst of tragedy.
“Less-injured men heroically helped spectators gathering at the scene in removing those seriously injured from the yard and placing them in autos to be taken to the hospital,” Spurling wrote.
The force of the explosion sent flames through the Hollander building and home a short distance away and both burned to the ground. The Hollanders lost everything, Zahourek said.
In the meantime, injured people were taken to Scribner General Hospital. Many doctors came from surrounding towns, including Fremont, to help as did nurses. Some people worked 36 hours straight to help the injured. The Red Cross sent help as well.
Spurling kept a record of those hurt in the blast and their injuries — starting out with the six men who died within 18 hours of the catastrophe.
Those who died included five Scribner volunteer firefighters and one man from Wolbach, who hadn’t officially joined the department.
Obituaries and Spurling’s recollections shared thoughts on the firefighters who died. They were:
• Fred F. Felgner – Just 3 years old when his mom died, Felgner later quit school to help his father, Emil. The 22-year-old man, known as “Fritz,” worked hard to develop their business into a feed store that handled large quantities of commercial feeds. After his son’s death, Emil sold the business.
• Guy E. Clark – The 39-year-old barber and his wife, Laura, had two children, Gerald and Bernard. Clark had only lived in the town for 11/2 years, but had many friends and “was well-liked by everyone who knew him.”
• William Strube – A lifelong Scribner-area resident, Strube died about a month before what would have been his 35th birthday. Strube had served for two years in the U.S. Army. He and his wife, Eunice, had been married almost six years. “Words cannot express or set forth the noble aspirations, high aims, genial disposition and upright manly character of our departed brother,” the obituary said.
• Gus Pittack – Born on a farm, Pittack worked at the Scribner Post Office. The 26-year-old man became a valuable assistant to the postmaster. Besides the fire department, he was a member of the Scribner Municipal Band. Survivors included his wife, Evelyn, and their infant daughter, Marion.
• Arthur Shoeneck Jr. – A Scribner High School graduate, Shoeneck had participated in sports in his hometown and in Fremont. The 23-year-old man had worked as a fireman at the Armour & Co., plant in Omaha; a sporting goods store in Kansas City; and a Fremont grocery store. He’d last worked as a truck driver. He was described as an industrious man with a happy disposition.
• Harry Wibbles – Born in Wolbach, Wibbles had just come to town the preceding Monday to work as a mechanic at a local garage. The 23-year-old man planned to move his wife and two small children from Tekamah.
Zahourek said because Wibbles hadn’t yet joined the fire department, the city’s insurance company wouldn’t provide his family with compensation. Later, a fund was taken to help pay his widow’s way through college.
A March 1929 Scribner Rustler article also said Strube, Pittack and Clark’s families would receive $30 per week for 350 weeks plus $150 for burials from the insurance company. Because Felgner and Shoeneck left no dependents, only burial expenses were allowed.
Minutes of Scribner’s fire department stated that 14 firefighters were among those injured. Injuries ranged from probable permanent partial disability to minor scratches.
“A large percentage of those injured also sustained ruptures of one or both eardrums,” the report said. “Several of those injured also carry particles of metal in their bodies, which surgeons considered impractical to remove.”
In June 1929, Lamberty went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to determine the feasibility of removing fragments of metal, lodged in his lung since the explosion.
Omaha World-Herald writer Tom Allan wrote at least two articles about Lamberty years after the blast.
Lamberty would tell how he was hurled across a road and into a ditch during the explosion. The eight-penny nail ripped through his right lung before stopping above his heart.
He just 31 years old.
Lamberty recalled Omaha doctors telling him it was too dangerous to remove the nail and that he’d never be able to work, get excited or drive a car.
Mayo Clinic doctors didn’t remove the nail either, but said it wouldn’t bother him.
Lamberty would own a hardware store in Scribner for more than 50 years. He served as the town’s mayor for several years.
He kept the suitcoat he wore the night of the blast. He’d poke his finger through the hole made by the nail, adding he’d paid $25 for what was his best suit.
Lamberty and other firefighters had been celebrating after their meeting, but had rushed to the fire when they saw a red glow in the sky.
He later said he never heard the boom even though a Union Pacific train engineer pulling into Fremont heard the blast and thought his train had derailed.
About six years after the explosion — in the middle of the economically miserable Great Depression — the volunteer fire department erected a 7-foot, 5-inches tall granite monument with a bronze plaque with the names of the six firefighters who died.
Nine decades later it still stands in Scribner’s city park.
Zahourek said firefighters observed the 75th anniversary of the tragedy.
Each spring, as many firefighters who can attend will go to a church in honor of those who died. They go to a different church each year the week after Memorial Day.
Today, Scribner has 36 volunteer firefighters from ages 22 to 80.
Zahourek believes it’s important to remember the firefighters who died.
“It’s a brotherhood,” he said of the fire department, adding that any firefighter could die on a call. “You want to remember your past and honor them.”
Zahourek cites something Lamberty and his wife Edna wrote as a tribute to Scribner’s fire department. In part that statement says:
“We feel when someone joins the fire department, he has a call from God to serve his people, perhaps not in words but in deeds … A fireman is unique in a way, for when he hears the fire whistle and answers a call, he knows that his life may be in danger.
“He never hesitates to respond immediately when someone is in trouble and needs help. He doesn’t stop to ask the color of his skin, his church affiliation or any other reason.
“A volunteer fireman’s only pay is a good feeling that he has helped someone.”
A particularly cold February and snowy weather prompted the local Farm Service Agency to remind farmers about a livestock insurance program that compensates producers for weather-related animal deaths.
The Dodge-Sarpy/Douglas County FSA issued a press release on Friday reminding farmers about the program.
The program, known as the Livestock Indemnity Program, or LIP, compensates livestock and contract growers for livestock deaths that are caused by adverse weather events, including blizzards and extreme cold, according to Bryan Ralston, executive director of the Dodge-Sarpy/Douglas County Farm Service Agency.
“The Livestock Indemnity Program provides producers with a vital safety net to help them overcome the financial impact of extreme or abnormal weather,” Ralston said in a prepared statement. “We’ve had some harsh winter weather this season that may have had a significant impact on livestock. We encourage producers who suffered losses to reach out to our office for more information about LIP.”
The program was created as part of the 2014 Farm Bill.
Livestock producers need to file a notice of loss with the FSA within 30 calendar days of when the loss is first apparent, according to information provided by Ralston. They must provide some kind of evidence that the death of livestock was due to an adverse weather condition.
In addition, producers should bring supporting death documentation, like documentation of the type and number of livestock that died, dated photographs or video records, purchase records, veterinarian records or other similar documents.
The payment rate is based on 75 percent of the average fair market value of the livestock.
There are many weather-type events that could trigger a LIP claim, Ralston told the Tribune. Animals deaths that occur because of snowstorms could be eligible. As are animal deaths brought on by floods, hailstorms or extreme heat and humidity.
For more information, to submit a notice of loss or to submit an application for payment, contact the Dodge-Sarpy/Douglas County FSA office at (402) 721-8455.
To learn more about LIP, go to www.fsa.usda.gov, scroll to “fact sheets” under “popular topics.”
The nation’s farmers are struggling to pay back loans after years of low crop prices and export markets hit by tariffs, with a key government program showing the highest default rate in at least nine years.
Many agricultural loans come due about Jan. 1, in part to give producers enough time to sell crops and livestock and to give them more flexibility in timing interest payments for tax-filing purposes.
“It is beginning to become a serious situation nationwide at least in the grain crops — those that produce corn, soybeans, wheat,” said Allen Featherstone, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University.
While the federal government shutdown delayed reporting, January figures show an overall rise in delinquencies for those producers with direct loans from the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency.
Nationwide, 19.4 percent of FSA direct loans were delinquent in January, compared with 16.5 percent for the same month a year ago, said David Schemm, executive director of the FSA in Kansas. During the past nine years, the agency’s January delinquency rate hit a high of 18.8 percent in 2011 and fell to a low of 16.1 percent when crop prices were significantly better in 2015.
While those FSA direct loan delinquencies are high, the agency is a lender of last resort for riskier agricultural borrowers who don’t qualify for commercial loans. Its delinquency rates typically drop in subsequent months as more farmers pay off overdue notes and refinance debt.
In Nebraska, loan delinquencies are also up, but rates have remained below the national numbers, according to data provided to the Tribune by the Nebraska USDA Farm Service Agency.
Statewide, about 13.7 percent of direct farm loans were delinquent through Jan. 31, up from about 11 percent in 2018. Dodge County, too, saw an increase. About 9.8 percent of direct farm loans in the county were delinquent in January, compared to 4.7 percent last year.
With today’s low crop prices, it takes high yields to mitigate some of the losses and even a normal harvest or a crop failure could devastate a farm’s bottom line.
Many bankers also are concerned about farm conditions. Several of the Nebraska bankers interviewed for the most recent Ag Credit Survey from the Kansas City Federal Reserve, released Feb. 14, said they expect farmers to have to refinance loans or sell assets to increase working capital and shore up debt and liquidity positions.
The situation now is not as bad as the farm credit crisis of the 1980s — a time of high interest rates and falling land prices that was marked by widespread farm foreclosures. At the height of that crisis in 1987, U.S. farmers filed 5,788 Chapter 12 bankruptcies. There were 498 in 2018.
However, those bankruptcy numbers are climbing, especially in the Plains and Midwest. Nebraska had more farm-related bankruptcies in 2018 than every state except Wisconsin, and the numbers, though small, have tripled since 2015.
Some fears are also surfacing in reports such as one this month from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which said the outlook is pessimistic for the start of this year, with respondents predicting a further decline in farm income. About 36 percent of farm lenders who responded said they had a lower rate of loan repayment from a year earlier.
Creighton University Economist Ernie Goss’ February survey of rural bankers in parts of 10 Plains and Western states showed that nearly two-thirds of banks in the region raised loan collateral requirements on fears of a weakening farm income. The Rural Mainstreet survey showed nearly one-third of banks reported they rejected more farm loan applications for that reason.
Grain prices are down because farmers around the world have had above-average production for several years. But some nations’ economies are not doing as well, decreasing demand for those crops, Featherstone said. Grain prices peaked in 2012 and prices have roughly fallen 36 percent since then for soybeans, 50 percent for corn and 48 percent for wheat.
When President Donald Trump imposed tariffs, China retaliated by stopping soybean purchases, closing the biggest U.S. market. While trade negotiations with China continue, many farmers fear it will take years for markets to recover — as it did when President Jimmy Carter imposed a grain embargo on the then-Soviet Union in 1980.
Midland University has set a date to break ground on the new Miler Hall residence hall, which will replace the campus’ Men’s Memorial Hall.
The groundbreaking ceremony will take place on April 2 at 9 a.m., in partnership with the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce.
Construction is expected to be completed by Fall of 2020, according to Sara Robinson, Digital Communications Specialist for Midland University.
The $10 million project was announced in November, and was spurred on in part by student feedback. The Men’s Memorial Hall was built in 1947 and its “shelf life was getting close to the end,” the school’s vice president of enrollment management and marketing Merritt Nelson told the Tribune in November.
“For the last several years, we started to hear from our students that it was time to start looking at replacing Men’s Hall,” he said at the time. “Trends have changed in higher ed residential living, and we need to stay with those trends and even be ahead of those trends a little bit.”
The decision was made after it was determined that the cost to renovate the hall would have been close to the cost of replacing it.
The new co-ed structure will feature suite-style living, student lounges, study rooms and laundry facilities on each floor, according to a press release issued by Midland on Friday.
The main floor will offer “modern kitchen facilities,” a floor-to-ceiling fireplace and an outdoor patio. The garden level will feature an expansive theater room and fitness center as well as academic resource utilization.
The hall will be named after class of 1952 grad James W. Miller and Donna Johanson Miller, who provided the university with a gift to help spur the project on.
The project is part of Midland’s $50 million effort to invest in the “student experience” on campus.
Other investments have included a new common space on the first floor of the Olson Student Center, which was finished earlier this year; updates to dining spaces on campus; and additional academic programs.