Until not that very long ago, the only major rumbling in Fort Calhoun was the result of the teeth-shattering vibrations made by a never-ending parade of 18-wheelers lumbering through town along the busy commercial corridor that is Highway 75.
“Straightening picture frames is a daily chore here at the museum,” explains Julie Ashton, director of the Washington County Historical Association. “We go through the space to straighten things that forever seem to be just a little out of whack.”
The community first platted in 1855 and now with a 2010 census population of 908 is experiencing something of a youth movement as new businesses launched by an equally new generation of entrepreneurs have opened their doors up and down the main drag of 14th Street. The sleepy little bedroom community, perhaps best known for the Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, is increasingly becoming an attractive day trip offering a folksy alternative to the bustle of Omaha.
Fort Atkinson was the first U.S. Army military installation west of the Missouri River in the then unorganized lands of the Louisiana Purchase. The fort was erected in 1819 and abandoned in 1827. The present structure is a replica constructed by the state on the original site that housed a brickyard, lime kiln, stone quarry, grist mill, saw mill, and cooper shop.
The site’s position on a bluff above the Missouri River led William Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to recommend the plot of land as being ideal for a military outpost, one that was built 35 years before Nebraska became a territory. Colonel Henry Atkinson, who also became its first commander, established the fort.
Which takes us to the question of why the town itself does not carry the Atkinson name. Legend has it that it was a split decision on the naming of the hamlet, with the winning faction opting for the name of then Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who would later go on to become a U.S. Senator after acting as Vice President under John Quincy Adams.
Back in modern-day Fort Calhoun, cash registers are ringing in a series of new and not so new businesses.
Sandy and Dane Kucera operate Too Far North, a charming little wine, craft beer, and gift shop. A faded Metz Beer sign is a clue to the space’s unique heritage. The building dating to 1904 originally housed a Metz Beer saloon in an era when brewers most often also operated their own taverns.
“We like to think that Fort Calhoun is a great place for a fun outing,” Sandy says. “The drive from Omaha is beautiful and there’s now lots more to do here, especially after the last few years. It’s an eclectic, friendly little community.”
Almost right next door at Cure Cooking, owner Chad Lebo was busy preparing some of his savory Vietnamese potbelly pig prosciutto and pungent, stir-cured cheddar. Lebo’s robust selections of meats, cheeses, and extras are sold mainly at Provisions in Midtown Crossing and at farmers markets.
Lebo shares the space with Big Green Tomato, whose array of specialty granola products are sold at Hy-Vee, Tomato Tomato, and other outlets.
The old blends seamlessly with the new in Fort Calhoun. Lunch at the seemingly always-crowded (and legendary) Longhorn Bar revealed something telling about small-town life. Glancing up from a plate of yummy, crowd-favorite chicken wings, this writer was suddenly struck by what one didn’t see—cellphones. No texting. No calls. None. It must surely be something of an anomaly even in the small town of Fort Calhoun, but there wasn’t a single cellphone being wielded. Which also meant no annoying ring tones competing with my attempt to tackle a heavenly pork tenderloin sandwich too big for the bun that struggled unsuccessfully to contain it.
The scene was probably much more sedate than in the earlier part of the 20th century when the bar was a roadhouse situated below a hotel that attracted by all manner of rambunctious souls.
The Longhorn is also where we found regular Ron Ferring, whose wife happens to be on the board of the Fort Atkinson Foundation. He was chatting about the easygoing vibe at the place, but he could just as easily have been talking about the quaint little community as a whole.
“These are good people here; real people,” Ferring says. “Blue collar, white collar, it doesn’t make any difference here. It’s the kind of place where if I happen to forget my wallet, it’s all good. They know it’ll be made right on my next visit.”