Stockville is in Frontier County, Nebraska. The population was 25 in 2010. It is the county seat of Frontier County, Nebraska. That means the courthouse is there.
Folks outside of Stockville but within Frontier County think the people of Stockville stole the county seat back in the day. It is clear that something happened because men from another town tried to steal it back.*
The driving time from Lexington, where I practiced law, to Stockville is about an hour and ten minutes. A good part of that is gravel. You can save time by taking a dirt road, but it is perilous when wet.
Born in 1897, Robert Van Pelt was from Stockville. He became Nebraska’s federal judge in Lincoln. He also never forgot his home town of Stockville. Much of the historical material about Stockville comes from Van Pelt’s writings.
I knew Judge Van Pelt. A year or so before his passing at 91 while still sitting as a senior district judge, he participated in my sad little swearing-in ceremony as a United States Magistrate Judge. My wife had just died unexpectedly. Accompanied by my children, and my dear mother-in-law Merle, I took the oath. Judge Van Pelt told me that I would do fine so long as I never did anything that would make her ashamed. That was good advice.
The first time I ever went to the courthouse in Stockville a horse was tethered to the steps of the courthouse. There were other peculiarities. In order to get to the district courtroom, you had to walk up very, very narrow stairs that turned several sharp right angles to reach the second floor. Once there, you found a large room with chairs for the jury near a heater that went from the floor to the ceiling. If I remember correctly, the district judge (who rode the circuit) sat at an ordinary desk. Counsel were seated at two tables and each table would seat two people. The witness sat next to the jurors and the heater.
I tried a civil jury case in Stockville. My opponent was John Wightman, a friend of mine from Lexington. John is a very good lawyer. He is extremely smart, and his take on people is even better. I suppose that is why he is now a Senator in the Nebraska Unicameral.
I vividly remember breaking for lunch. I had two choices. I could grab a burger and something to drink at a tiny bar. (The burgers were greasy and great.) Or I could walk across the street to the unused church. Ladies from Curtis, Nebraska would come to Stockville when a jury trial was conducted to raise money for charity by providing lunch. These fine women would cook up a great big meal served family style in the basement. The judge, the jurors, the lawyers, the witnesses and anyone else who was hungry all ate together. Not wanting to offend the jury, I decided I would eat with them and everyone else. For a dollar, I got more than I could possibly eat. I really liked the chicken.
After each lunch, we would resume the trial. After each trial day was over, I drove back to Lexington and returned in the morning. I don’t remember whether I took the dirt road or stayed safe on the gravel. While I have absolutely no recollection of what the case was about, I know I lost. I have a clear memory of shaking John’s hand and congratulating him while the jury shuffled out avoiding my gaze.
What’s the point of this story? I’m not certain. But I can say it makes me happy.
*According to a brief history of Stockville, “At one time the men of Stockville armed themselves to stop an attempt to seize the county files by force and set up shop in another town. The incident, luckily, ended without bloodshed and the county files remained in Stockville.”