Not long after Wheeler County had been established in 1881, voters in the west half of the 48 mile wide county petitioned for the west 24 miles to be separated from Wheeler County. In 1881 Garfield County was voted into existeance and was named to honor President James A. Garfield whose untimely death briefly preceded the county election of 1881.Despite Governor Dawes kindly mention of Burwell as the temporary location of the county seat, Midvale and Willow Springs had no thought of letting the Governor decide which village would enjoy the advantages of the position. Having the least votes, Midvale dropped out of November 4th election. Burwell and Willow Springs had to hold a run-off election. Both had been incorporated as villages in 1884. Each was determined to survive at the expense of the other. Each had expected the railroad to give transportation leverage over the other. The run-off election took place January 30, 1885. Willow Springs got 142 votes; Burwell got 135. An authorized recount gave Willow Springs 105 votes and Burwell 128, but the votes from the Dry Cedar precinct came up missing. The State Supreme Court awarded the certificate of election to Willow Springs, establishing it as the county seat. Through 1885, Burwell’s contingent of county officials ignored, rebelled against and finally yielded to the legally established authority. Until Burwell won its first election on February 16, 1890, with 228 votes to 148 for Willow Springs, the latter remained the authorized county seat.The Lincoln and Black Hills Railroad, under Burlington (CBQ) management, had extended its road-bed from Ord through Burwell and on up the Calamus, apparently headed for the Black Hills. The Union Pacific disappointed Willow Springs and retained Ord as its terminus. When the railroad built the East bridge (to avoid the old fords), Burwell became the transportation contact and Willow Springs people had to come to Burwell to use it. Gradually, much of Willow Springs was absorbed by Burwell. The transfer finally included the C.H. Jones establishment which had provided the Willow Springs court house.The count seat was moved to Burwell April 10, 1890. To the present time, the commissioners have continued to meet in Burwell.

The Garfield County court house dates from November 11, 1890. The minutes show: “On motion the building erected by certain bondsman to be donated to the county of Garfield Nebraska, was this day tendered by said committee and the same is hereby accepted.” The building was used until 1963, when it was replaced with a modern one story structure.

In 1890, the population of Garfield county was 1,659. Immigrants continued to come, singly and in groups, to file on their 160 acre homesteads and timber claims. There were a few negroes. The nationalities represented then, as now, were predominantly Bohemian, Polish, Scandinavian, Scotch, Irish, English and German, all mutually respected Americans. Those first to come largely determine the destiny of a locality.

After the best lands were taken, some late comers staked claims in the Sandhills. The Kinkaid Act of 1904, providing for 640 acres of land for homesteads, brought a new influx of people. The Kinkaid land office was located in O’Neill. Many went there to file on their homesteads on June 28th, the day the office opened. Others, at five o’clock in the morning, stood in a long line in front of the Burwell Post Office awaiting their turn to purchase a money order and mail their file fee. Time proved that 640 acres could not carry enough cattle to make a living. Small holdings were sold and later combined to form large farms and ranches. At present there are approximately 280 farms n the county in an area of 576 square miles.

Today’s economy in Garfield county comes mostly from agriculture or agriculture related industry. The area is promoting its unique Sandhills scenery, excellent hunting, fishing, camping, boating, canoeing, wild west rodeo in July, and Calamus Lake (third largest lake in Nebraska). They welcome everyone to visit the great outdoors in Garfield County and enjoy a wild west adventure.

Garfield County Online