Kleio Historical Society
Trees lined the Big Blue as it swung from hill to hill on its way south toward the Kansas river, but the valley in the Cleburne area was unusually heavily wooded. Because of this, the first settlement west of the river and north of Randolph was named Big Timber.
The village of Cleburne was located on the bluff several miles southwest of the settlement more than ten years later. A Post Office, called Big Timber, was established October 3rd, 1866 on the Jacob Erickson place with Samuel Long as Postmaster. Mail had previously been carried on horseback from Manhattan to Irving and distributed from there.
William and Johana Carlson and the W.G. Wilder family joined the Big Timber settlement in 1860 and located on adjoining claims.
It was in this general area, the family of Velens and Vilander chose their land when they came to Riley county. This family group had come to America from Sweden in 1863. Their father, John, had died in Sweden earlier. According to Swedish custom, the family name would have been Johnson, but when they reached America and found Johnson to be such a common name they decided to change theirs. The mother and three sons, Swen, Jacob, and Charles, chose Velen, but the younger brother, Magnus, selected the name Vilander. All came west as far as Rockford, Illinois, in 1863, but three years later they continued westward to the Big Blue river valley and settled in the area north of the Cleburne site and west of the river to be near their church and "old country" friends.
Magnus Vilander and Mathilda Carlson were married in the Mariadahl church on Christmas day in 1870. They were the first to settle on the west bluff that became Cleburne. They lived in a log house for seven years then built a stone house.
In 1878, the post office was moved from Big Timber to their home though the name Big Timber was retained until Cleburne was named in 1886. The Big Timber Post Office then became the Cleburne Post Office with Mrs Vilander as Postmistress. A post office building was erected later and was used for postal operations until it was officially discontinued on July 31, 1960.
The branch line of the Union Pacific Railroad was built up the Big Blue valley in 1886 and villages along the way vied with each other for the depots. Mariadahl villagers wanted the station in their town, but the Railway Company decided to locate the tracks along the west side of the river because Mr Vilander gave them all the land in the right-of-way through Cleburne. The company then proceeded to select sites for the depots or stations. The Big Timber site was to far from the tracks so the Vilander location was chosen and a name for the station decided.
Several older inhabitants from the area tell this story about the choice of a name. Mr. Vilander is said to have invited several executives of the Railroad Company to his home and at this meeting John C Cleburne, Railroad Superintendent, suggested the name of Vilanderville for the station because Mr. Vilander owned so much land in the area. Mr Vilander refused to give his consent and suggested Cleburne's name instead. This name was then adopted for both the station and the town.
The decision to lay the tracks on the west side of the river brought the decline and finally the end to the Mariadahl village, but not to the church. It remained an active and forceful influence until the area was inundated by the Tuttle Creek reservoir water.
The first school house in the northeast corner of Riley county, the Harmony school, was built on Timber Creek between 1865 and 1870. Harmony was a joint district that crossed the county line into Marshall county and was supported by both counties. After the town of Cleburne was established and a school opened there the children in the north half of the Cleburne area were attending the Harmony school while those south of it went to Cleburne. It was finally decided that maintenance of two schools in the same district was an unnecessary expense so the joint district was dissolved April 27, 1904 and the Harmony pupils came into Cleburne. The name "Harmony" was assigned to another district in Riley county the next year.
The main part of Cleburne was built on the bluff west of the river about four miles north of Mariadahl, but a few houses were erected east of the river and that section was known as East Cleburne. When automobiles came into use in the early 1900s, a filling station was located there.
The first frame house in Cleburne was built by Peter Fernstrom whose family settled in the town when the railroad was built. Fernstrom, a former employ of the railroad company, became a plasterer and stone mason in the town.
John Palmer opened the first store in Cleburne in the small building he owned and carried a general merchandise stock of goods. Magnus Vilander built a large store building and John Palmer moved into it and enlarged his stock of merchandise. Henry Swenson started business in the small Palmer building, but erected a building of his own in 1895. It was destroyed by fire forty years later (1935). John A Forsberg and John Zakrison, former clerks in the Swenson store, and Flex Carlson opened a merchantile store. Albert T Samuelson opened another merchantile store in the large Swenson building in 1905. John W Chelander of Randolph opened a branch furniture store in Cleburne, but discontinued it later.
The Cleburne State Bank, opened in 1902, was the first bank in the town. Its principal stockholders were Fred Toburen, President, Otto Carlson, John Pishney, members of the board, and Joe M Musil, cashier. The Union State Bank followed it in 1910 with Albert W Johnson, cashier, J.A. Hawkinson as stockholders.
Mrs Magnus Vilander started a millinery store in 1904 or '05. Fritz Lindbloom operated the Grain and Livestock business. Edward Roberts started the first meat market, but sold it to Gavin Reed about 1913. Frank Youngquist was the first blacksmith, Charles E Holtgren had a wagon shop, Oscar Johnson, a barber shop and John Anderson a carpenter shop. He was said to be an excellent cabinet-maker. Robert Beachman had the first hotel in the village. Mrs Julia R Blomberg operated the last hotel in Cleburne. Micajah F Dial established the first lumber yard. It was later operated by Louis W Johnson, then Louis F Toburen and last by Elmer Hampl.
George C Hall edited and published Cleburne's first and only newspaper, "The Cleburne News." The first issue was dated February 6, 1913 and the last one in 1916. At one time he printed the ballots for the general election in Riley county.
E.C. Erickson ran the first garage and car sales business in the village. The electric light system was installed by the United Power and Light Company in 1916. A telephone system was started by William Peter from Randolph, was later operated by the Irving Telephone Company. Streets and highways through the town were curbed and guttered in 1920 and '30. The State Highway l3 connected Cleburne with cities in all directions.
A town hall was built in 1930.
The first High School classes were held in a store building on Main Street until a two-story stone building was erected in 1907. (It burned in 1930). The east half of the stone building housed the theater, the back part of the west half was used for a gymnasium, and the front part for High School in 1918. As more space was needed, the upper floor was converted to class rooms from 1921 until the new High School building was constructed in 1927.
The Peterson Brothers opened a painting and decorating shop and two meat packing companies, the Armour and the Perry Packing Company established stock buying stations in Cleburne in later years.
Two medical doctors and two dentists have served the Cleburne area. Dr. W.W. Jones opened the first Drug Store about 1890. Dr. William Reitzel practiced in the area. Dr. Parsons and Dr. Enoch Schurmann were dentists.
When death came to a community before provision was made for a cemetery, burials were made on the family farm. Often, several families shared the same plot. One such arrangement was the Dial-Wilder cemetery, a private burial ground in the Big Timber settlement. It had lain idle for many years and was found to contain only thirty graves when the Army Corps of Engineers moved it from the valley.