Norfolk, NE – I came upon Norfolk in July of 2011 while driving south between Yankton, SD and Omaha. This northeastern Nebraska town sits along US Route 81, which was first established in 1926 and is also known as Johnny Carson Boulevard in this part of the country (Johnny Carson’s family moved there when he was 8 and he went on to graduate from Norfolk High School). Whenever I come across a town like this I make a point of driving down “Main Street” – where the oldest and most historic buildings, businesses and signs can usually be found. Norfolk was no different in this regard.
By far the most intriguing sign I spotted there in the small downtown area was clearly no longer in operation. It was a heavily rusted inverted “T” shaped sign hanging just below the roofline of a 2-story brick building. Although the vertical neon tunes were mostly gone, you could still easily make out the word ‘Hotel’. The horizontal neon at the bottom was still mostly intact and read ‘Elkhorn’. A quick scan of the building was all it took to tell that there was nothing resembling a hotel still in operating there. As I snapped some photos I remember being excited to research the history of the “Elkhorn Hotel” after my trip.
Then a long 18 months go by without too much thought given to this particular sign. Frankly, I shoot so many signs and I get excited to research nearly all of them, so this unfortunately isn’t all that uncommon.
But one day earlier this year I came across these photos again. I decided right then and there that figuring out this sign’s history was moving to the top of my priority list.After an hour of searching online, the only thing I learned was that the hotel was actually called the Elkhorn Rooming House. Feeling somewhat defeated, I reached out to a local Norfolk business man named John Day. John had been featured in a video for the Norfolk Area Community Foundation that I came across during my research. I sent him an email explaining who I was and asking for any help he could provide in getting historical information about this sign. His reply was prompt, and although he didn’t have any firsthand information, he referred me to the Elkhorn Valley Museum.
I immediately sent a similar email to the Museum Director. Another prompt response came back, but this time not so friendly… it simply read, “We don’t have any information on this Hotel.” Hmmm… So back to John I went asking for any other leads he might have. After a – you guessed it – very prompt response, he told me that he would contact some people on my behalf and get back to me. This all happened throughout the course of one afternoon.
Then, the next morning, I woke up to find another reply from the museum in my inbox. This time it was from their research department… somebody there had seen my email, sifted through their archives and found an incredible photo from the mid-1940s depicting employees of a company called Andy’s Tire Service posing with their service vehicles in front of the shop. In the background you could see (most of) the Elkhorn sign in all its glory. I was blown away.Then, more exciting news… A few days later another photo arrived from my new friend at the museum research department, named Ali. This one was from the mid-1950s and showed a wide-angle view looking east down Norfolk Avenue from the intersection at 3rd Street. This time the sign can be seen in its entirety. Just brilliant! (Note how Gamble Stores must have expanded into the building the Elkhorn sign hangs from during the time between these photos.)
So all of this was great, but I didn’t feel much closer to finding out anything about the hotel itself. I took another look at my pictures and saw something I’d failed to notice before… there is a capstone on the building with a name and year engraved into it. It read “L. Schenzel 1919”. Suddenly, I had a new lead to follow.Within minutes I came across a post on a genealogy website from someone looking for information on an L. Schenzel from Norfolk, NE. This post was 7 years old when I found it, so although I was able to email the poster, I seriously questioned whether I would get any response. Regardless, I explained in my email that I had a photo of a capstone in Norfolk that bears the name L. Schenzel. I attached the photo and asked him for any information he had about a hotel that once occupied that building.
Two days later I received the following response:
Hi Bill, I visited Norfolk a couple of years ago and photographed the capstone. My great-grandfather built that building. It housed his butcher shop, the second floor was used as meeting rooms for various organizations in Norfolk. I don’t know when the Hotel moved into it. I’m not sure when he sold the building. He died in 1956.
Thanks for the picture and taking the time to contact me.
Thanks to Brad’s response, a few more pieces of the puzzle came together, but still nothing about the hotel itself. That brings us to where I am with my research currently. The trail has gone cold, as they say. And I never did hear back from John.
But despite not getting the details I was after, I sure learned a lot about the history of Norfolk… and I was able to make few new friends along the way. Frankly, that made the entire process worthwhile.
Do you have any information to add to this story? Please say so in the comments below. I will make sure and update this post with any new details that emerge.