History of Peru
"To see Peru is to want to be a Peruvian."
Home of Nebraska's first college, Peru is host to nearly 2,500 Peru State College students each year. Downtown Peru provides all the necessities of small-town life, including a restaurant, grocery store, bank, and night life. Peru State College and the Campus of A Thousand Oaks is one of the affiliated sites that constitute the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, a botanical resource for students, visitors and residents of Southeast Nebraska. The college offers a unique mix of innovative, online and traditional classroom undergraduate and graduate programs. What began as Nebraska's First College in 1867, a teacher training school with one building and 60 students, has transformed over the years into a state-of-the-art institution.
The Steamboat Trace Trail is a scenic hiking, biking and birding trail that links Nebraska City to Peru to Brownville and offers a total experience to nature lovers. The 21-mile historical route closely follows the Missouri River trail of Lewis and Clark, past the ghost town of Minersville and through the wetlands and river bluffs of southeast Nebraska. The Peru Trailhead located on the north end of 5th Street offers a picnic area and restrooms for visitors.
Peru Bottoms Wildlife Management Area is a wildlife restoration project with over 2,000 acres of land. Sponsored by the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, it offers birding, hunting and fishing. This is a habitat for bald eagles and snow geese migration as well as other wildlife. The area is located 2 miles north of the Peru boat ramp and offers public access to the Missouri River.
Neal Park, located south of campus, provides a pavilion, picnic area and hiking opportunities, while Sid Brown Memorial Park provides a children's play area and a splash pad opened the summer of 2015. The city is currently raising funds for a new set of playground equipment.
Old Man River Days brings visitors to the area for a 5K run, kids' events, vendors and evening entertainment. The town celebration is held the first week of June each summer to commemorate the townspeople’s efforts to keep the mighty Missouri from flooding the town in 1943.
According to the "Directory and Gazetteer of 1880":
"Peru is in Nemaha County on the line of the Brownville branch of the B & M Railroad. Peru is located on the Missouri River 8 miles above Brownville, the county seat. It is a pretty little town of six hundred inhabitants. It is surrounded by bluffs on which a goodly number of elegant homes can be seen.
"The products of the soil are cereals of every kind and the steady growth of the place is therefore assured. A good quality of coal is found nearby. An abundance of limestone and water exists.
"The chief feature of the place is the State Normal School building, which is an elegant three story brick surmounted with a cupola and set in a beautiful square which is thickly studded with shade and ornamental trees of vigorous and healthy growth. It is regarded as one of the most desirable places of residence in Nebraska."
In 1857 a settlement was established by the river. Named Peru, it immediately started to grow. The early settlers came from Peru, Illinois, and when the town was laid out they gave it the name of their former home. In 1861 a Methodist Institute, the "Mount Vernon Academy," was founded. In 1867 the academy became Nebraska's first "normal school" (for training of schoolteachers), the third such school west of the Missouri at the time.
The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad arrived in Peru in 1857. During a flood in the 1880's, the river cut a new channel; some of the city is now on the East Side of the river.
Lewis and Clark passed through the Peru area, and it is believed that a member of the group was buried there. The area was originally inhabited by the Otoe Indians.
Among the industries in Peru's early history were a canning factory, cider plant, ice plant, box factory, brickyard, and a flourmill. In 1912 the ten counties in Southeast Nebraska produced more apples than did the six states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Colorado. A disastrous freeze on "Armistice Day" in 1940 killed thousands of fruit trees. Only one orchard was replanted.
Peru's biggest celebration, June's "Old Man River Days" results from the town's willingness to work together against the forces of the Missouri River when it threatened to flood the town in 1943. The same spirit is evident today, as Peru searches for innovative ways to serve itself and the college.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Hills of Peru , by Louise Mears Dormer; The Normal on the Hill, 100 years of Peru State College," by Ernest Longfellow, O. W. A. A.; and a history of Peru, the town titled, Across the Wide Missouri, 1992, by Ernest Longfellow