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Jim McKee: Luke Lavender, judge and brickmaker

September 24, 2018

If he had lived in London, Luke Lavender would have had a blue badge at the site of his home, but even in Lincoln, his cabin on the southeast corner of 14th and O streets is one of the very few to be marked by a brass plaque noting his was “the first house erected on land that is now part of Lincoln.”

Although Lavender was only to live in the city of Lancaster or Lincoln for about 20 years, his land, house and career were important in Lincoln’s formative years and crucial to where today’s Nebraska state capitol sits.

Luke Lavender was born in England in 1816, but at the age of four his parents immigrated to Pennsylvania, then moved to Ohio in 1824. After working as a builder, Lavender became the contractor for Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio at the age of 41.

Conflicting accounts have him moving to Brownville or Peru, Nebraska Territory, in December of 1855, but it is generally agreed that he built several structures in Brownville before relocating to Nebraska City in 1857. It was in Nebraska City that Lavender became part of Elder J. M. Young’s Methodist Protestant congregation. One second-hand account says he was made the “first probate judge” in 1862, but it is unclear where this appointment was made.

On July 4, 1863, it was well recorded that Lavender, along with Elder Young, Rev. Peter Schamp, Dr. J. McKesson and Jacob Dawson, was in Lancaster County scouting a location for a “Methodist colony and seminary.” On Aug. 1 Lavender filed a homestead in Lancaster County east of the site chosen for the Methodist Protestant Seminary building near today’s Ninth and P streets.

In 1864 Lavender dug a well a few yards south of today’s 14th and O streets and built a one-story, three-room, L-shaped cabin, possibly with two lean-tos, and began farming his 160-acre tract, which ran to the southeast of the cabin. That summer Lavender transplanted a two-year-old maple switch, which he dug up near the later site of the state penitentiary and planted it near the cabin. Two years later the maple, the first tree planted in the otherwise treeless area now Lincoln, was moved to the southwest corner of 24th and L where it stood, known as the Grandpappy Tree, until the mid-1950s when it was cut down.

In November of 1864 the first term of Territorial Court in Lancaster County was held at Jacob Dawson’s double-walled log cabin near today’s 7th and O streets. Lavender’s cabin was seemingly in existence, though court notes say Dawson’s was the only complete house.

It was still contended that Lavender’s cabin became the “center for the community’s legal and business transactions” and was stated to be the site where, in 1868, C. C. White married Olive Johnson, both of Valparaiso, officiated by Lavender, supposedly the first marriage in the county. When “the first District School was organized at the ‘Colony’ afterwards called Lancaster in the latter part of the year” directors were Luke Lavender, Jacob Dawson and J. M. Young.

With statehood in 1867 Augustus Harvey surveyed the new city of Lincoln. One of his objectives was to locate a four-square-block tract, at the highest buildable point in the city, for the first state capitol. That point turned out to be on Lavender’s farm. The oft-told story goes that Lavender was not enthusiastic, saying he would sell the land for $1,000 if they also replaced it with adjacent property. There is no factual evidence of this, but 80 acres of land was transferred from Lavender to the state “for the consideration of the sum of $23 ‘and the location of the capitol.’” 80 acres was then transferred from James Young to Lavender in exchange. It appears the $1,000 was the “fake news” of the day.

In addition to farming, Lavender became interested in real estate and from his old contracting days, he added brickmaking. When the University of Nebraska was being built it was pointed out that those bricks were the first to be made in Lincoln “except for one or two small kilns burned by Luke Lavender.” In 1871 Lavender established a short-lived carriage factory and two years later he had moved to 18th and L dtreets while operating a billiard hall and saloon on the southwest corner of 11th and N streets with a partner.

In 1883 Lavender moved to Broken Bow, where he established two brickyards, Stevenson, Elliott & Lavender and Lavender & Garlock. Troubles of all sorts plagued him in Broken Bow and by 1894 he was in Florence, Alabama, where he committed suicide.

Because there were reported to have been shacks and dugouts along Salt Creek belonging to those operating the salt flats, it may be argued that Lavender’s cabin was not the first in what was to become Lincoln and although the story of selling the capitol site for $1,000 plus replacement cannot be proven, Luke Lavender was, none the less, a prominent figure in Lincoln’s early years … and he has the brass plaque to prove it.

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