Cities, Towns, and Villages
County Seat: Clay Center
Courthouse Address and Hours:
111 West Fairfield Street
Clay Center, Nebraska 68933
Chairperson: L. Wayne Johnson
Senator: Dave Murman
Board Meetings: Last 3 Tuesdays of each month
View Additional Census Data
Like many of its neighboring counties, Clay County's early development can be traced to the westward movement of the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 1850s. In later years the Pony Express paralleled the trail, leading to the first settlement of the area.
John Weston established Pawnee Ranch along the Little Blue River in 1857 and it served as one of the first Pony Express stations. Within 10 years the Legislature defined the present boundaries of the county, naming it after Kentucky statesman Henry Clay. A steady influx of settlers would follow, particularly in the northern half of the county.
By 1871 the young county had progressed to the point where it had enough residents to officially organize and elect officials. The settlement of Sutton, which was platted by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad on the county's eastern border, was selected as the county seat. Within two years the county's first courthouse was built here.
As the 1870s progressed settlers began to favor a relocation of the county seat. Many, including those with an interest in the railroad, suggested Harvard, which was located farther west. Sutton residents knew the impact such a move would have on their community so efforts were quickly begun to establish a new town located toward the center of the county. Clay Center was platted and in 1879, despite the fact it existed only on paper, it was chosen by the voters of the county to become the county seat. The following year a courthouse was built.
The 10 years that would follow brought tremendous growth to the county. The railroads continued to advance their lines and more farmers came to the area to plant corn and oats. By the end of the 1880s Clay County enjoyed a population exceeding 16,000 residents. The growth and prosperity would be short-lived as the drought and depression of the early 1890s caused many residents to leave the area.
Within 10 to 15 years the local economy took a turn for the better and the 20th century marked a return of the agricultural economy.