Medicine Creek Reservoir draws visitors to Cambridge from far and wide.

AJ Dahm

One hundred firemen unleashed a torrent of water as flames ravaged Cambridge’s First Central Bank in November 2016. Members of the community’s fire department were ready to rush in behind their battering ram when the bank’s volunteer firefighter vice president unlocked the front door. The dedicated team of local farmers, police officers, truck drivers and other residents found the air thick with burning ash. Air packs allowed the crew to breathe as the ceiling collapsed. Visibility through the black smoke was nil. 

The building groaned as joists began twisting from the heat. Suddenly, the bank’s 1,000-pound air conditioning unit crashed through the roof. “That’s when I pulled everyone out,” Fire Chief Delaine Soucie said. “We ended up calling in two other ladder trucks to help save the block.” 

Volunteers from neighboring McCook, Bartley, Wilsonville, Holbrook, Edison, Arapahoe, Oxford and Beaver City arrived as the inferno spread to the adjoining Pinpoint Communications building. The combined forces soon gained the upper hand, and businesses began serving food and drink to exhausted hometown heroes working since before sunrise to save downtown Cambridge. 

The words “We Will Be Back” spray painted on the burned building days later hints at the steadfast determination of the community along Medicine Creek.

The narrow stream flows through loess hills to join the Republican River southeast of the community of 1,000 residents. This fertile valley has long sustained people. Arapaho and Pawnee hunters lived in bison-skin tipis near where remains of even older civilizations have been unearthed. Surrounded today by wheat and corn fields, and pastures of grazing cattle, Cambridge thrives thanks to its farmers and ranchers, community-minded residents and established businesses. A recent crop of former residents moving home to Cambridge plays an important role in keeping the community vibrant. 

The Cambridge Clarion newspaper coming up for sale delivered Ashley and Cody Gerlach back to her hometown. Both in their 30s and among Nebraska’s youngest newspaper publishers, the Gerlachs were living in Lincoln when they had an opportunity to purchase the business. Cody spends plenty of nights and weekends covering high school sports, concerts, Cambridge City Council meetings and other news. 

He has uncovered the character of his adopted hometown while researching and writing those stories. Gerlach points out “little old ladies on Social Security” pitching in a couple hundred dollars each to help open the Cambridge General Store, and funds being raised for Cambridge’s new Cobblestone Inn hotel in only months. “Some towns of our size might be shrinking, but Cambridge refuses to,” Gerlach said. 

The community grew when Gerlach’s former Miss Rodeo Nebraska wife, Ashley – who promotes Cambridge and 18 southwest Nebraska counties for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development – delivered the couple’s fifth child last June.

The Aug. 18, 2016, issue of The Cambridge Clarion got the scoop when local fishermen discovered a huge reptile northwest of town on the shore of Medicine Creek Reservoir. The bold headline on the front page read: “Giant, ancient turtle discovered at lake.”  

Anglers reel in large catches of catfish, bass and carp from the reservoir also known as Harry Strunk Lake. Meaty snapping turtles sometimes join the creel, but the 120-pound chelonian found on that summer day was out of the ordinary. The 8-million-year-old fossil tortoise was exhumed and raced to the Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, where it remains today.

The scientific world previously turned its gaze toward Cambridge when a mammoth skeleton was found protruding from an eroding reservoir bank in the late 1980s. Estimated to have died 18,500 years ago, and found with bone flakes and impact points, the discovery suggests possible human presence in North America some 6,000 years earlier than previously believed.    

The valley where Native Americans stalked bison is now a major tourist draw and recreational playground for deer and turkey hunters, fishermen, boaters, water-skiers, hikers, bird-watchers and nature photographers.

Life along the creek hasn’t always been so placid. Weeks of rain in 1947 pushed Medicine Creek out of its banks. Residents chopped holes in their roofs to escape the rising torrent that washed bridges away and killed 13 people. Lloyd Thompson moved from Oklahoma to Cambridge the following year to help tame the stream. 

The self-described grease monkey drove his grease truck from vehicle to vehicle lubing up the excavators and other machines building the earthen dam that created Medicine Creek Reservoir. 

Thompson witnessed the only human casualty of the massive operation. “I was sitting on my Cat and watching this kid put up a light pole so we could work at night. He had it set and climbed to the top, but the ground didn’t hold,” Thompson said. “The pole twisted and fell across him.” The young man was alive when Thompson got to him. He died later that day. 

The project to impound the creek into a flood-averting reservoir was completed by mostly local working in a year and a half, six months ahead of schedule. Cambridge area residents have not  endured a major flood or massive loss of life since.    


Listen to Cambridge resident Clifford Houser yodel here.

For the rest of the story see the March/April 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.

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