My Home Town . . . Shelton, Nebraska! 


Every so often I go trolling eBay to see what kind of odd memorabilia might pop up related to my family name (come on, you do it, too!) or to the little place in south-central Nebraska where I spent my so-called formative years.  The above postcard views -- both of which could have been taken from the same spot, in the middle of the street at the north end of the Main Street business area -- are about the same vintage (the right-hand one bears a 1910 postmark). Although these particular images are of my parents' era rather than mine (they were both born in 1911), the west side (right) still looked very much like that when I was growing up in the 1950's and 1960's (and in fact most of that block is largely intact to this day). 
In the distance, in the left-hand view, you can see the town's old water tower.  As in many such small midwestern burgs, it was a landmark -- easily the tallest thing on the town's "skyline" (rivaled only by a couple of grain elevators), and visible from miles down the highway in every direction.  (With the name of the town painted on its side, natch.)  It was also a central presence in my young life, since we lived just a block away from it, and could see it from any window on the east side of our house -- and because the town siren (which blew faithfully at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.) was also located there, as well as the Fire Department and Rescue Unit (ambulance) (which also involved much siren-ing), it was basically impossible to ignore.  Sadly, they tore it down some years ago (long after I left town), and replaced with a more modern but truly ugly ball-on-a-shaft thing in the southeastern part of town -- out of sight from my old homestead. 

But really, the only reason I go into this at all is because that old tower actually achieved a kind of literary immortality (as did Shelton itself), courtesy of none other than Jack Kerouac, who on pages 23-24 of On the Road (at least in my Penguin edition) relates this episode: 


.... We got a ride from a couple of young fellows -- wranglers, teenagers, country boys in a put-together jalopy -- and were left off somewhere up the line in a thin drizzle of rain.  Then an old man who said nothing -- and God knows why he picked us up -- took us to Shelton.  [In the previous paragraph, they had passed through Grand Island.]  Here Eddie stood forlornly in the road in front of a staring bunch of short, squat Omaha Indians who had nowhere to go and nothing to do.  Across the road was the railroad track and the watertank saying SHELTON.  "Damn me," said Eddie with amazement, "I've been in this town before.  It was ten years ago, during the war, at night, late at night when everybody was sleeping.  I went out on the platform to smoke, and there we was in the middle of nowhere and black as hell, and I look up and see that name Shelton written on the watertank.  Bound for the Pacific, everybody snoring, every damn sucker, and we only stayed a few minutes, stoking up or something, and off we went.  Damn me, this Shelton!  I hated this place ever since!"  And we were stuck in Shelton.  As in Davenport, Iowa, somehow all the cars were farmer-cars, and once in a while a tourist car, which is worse, with old men driving and their wives pointing out the sights or poring over maps, and sitting back looking at everything with suspicious faces. 

    The drizzle increased and Eddie got cold; he had very little clothing.  I fished a wool plaid shirt from my canvas bag and he put it on.  He felt a little better.  I had a cold.  I bought cough drops in a rickety Indian store of some kind.  I went to the little two-by-four post office and wrote my aunt a penny postcard.  We went back to the grey road.  There she was in front of us, Shelton, written on the watertank.  The Rock Island balled by.  We saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur.  The train howled off across the plains in the direction of our desires.  It started to rain harder. 


Well, that's it!  It ain't much, but unless you're from some really big and famous place like New York or L.A. or Chicago (in which case your hometown has been written about so much that frankly the rest of us are a little sick of hearing about it), I'll stack that little tidbit up against your burg's literary profile any old day.  Oh, I realize it's not the least bit complimentary -- hardly the sort of thing that's likely to be showcased on a billboard outside of town -- and I also think it says quite a lot that I spent my entire childhood there without ever being made aware of this itsy-bitsy claim to fame. It's pretty darned evocative, though, as is this phrase, which shows up a page or so later: "I waited in our personal godawful Shelton for a long, long time, several hours..."  [There's also a reference about 30 pages later to the aforementioned wool plaid shirt, which the author calls "the shirt of Shelton, Nebraska."]  

Anyway, On the Road is a gen-u-wine modern classic -- and even if almost the entire population of Shelton remains unaware of it, it's sort of neat to think that every year, untold thousands of younger folk (college students and the like) will read this book and thus hear a little bit about Shelton, even though only a fraction of them will actually ever set foot in the place.   

For a slightlier rosier portrait of the town, here's a brief history that I found on the the net: