5 Towns Under 500
Though there are hundreds of tiny towns to fit this bill, we narrowed our list down to 5 fabulous communities that each offer up their own unique tastes of small-town life. One thing's for sure: it's never as dull as you might expect.
(page 1 of 6)
(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
THERE ARE MORE than 300 towns in Nebraska with populations under 500, each filled with its own local legends and colorful characters. We’d love to visit each of them and bring you their stories, but that might be a tad too ambitious – for now, at least. We picked the more manageable number of five towns under 500 and met with the locals to find out what goes on in those communities. The short answer? A lot. To paraphrase one of the folks we talked to: If you’re bored, you’re doing something wrong.
If you visit Lewellen (pop. 224), you can see Cynthia Miller roller-skating across the floor of her art gallery/bistro, arms laden with plates of food to serve her eager diners. In Petersburg (pop. 360), you’ll meet Doug Koch, the village superintendent who occasionally pulls double duty as the village’s chief squirrel wrangler. Springview (pop. 239), home to the first Nebraska-made wind turbines installed in the state, is where you can join the party in the annual Turbine Days celebration. The people of Diller (pop. 289) hold their annual fish fry in grand style inside a restored opera house, which they banded together to save. And in Brainard (pop. 330), community members are always volunteering for projects to “make a good town better.”
Come with us and discover the “5 under 500.”
Petersburg (pop. 360) - Boone County
LIKE MANY FOLKS in this charming Boone County village, Doug Koch juggles a lot of jobs – and sometimes even a net chasing after a nutty squirrel.
Koch is chairman of the town’s big economic boosters, the Petersburg Industrial Development Corp., but in his “regular” job as the village superintendent he has to keep the toilets flowing and the streets plowed. He rescues citizens from opossums napping in garages or a squirrel’s sneak attack in a resident’s basement. When Koch took that night call and saw a flying squirrel bouncing off the walls, he called for reinforcements.
Actually, the cavalry was a guy standing in his driveway across the road. The two of them grabbed a net and charged into the cellar, but in a bizarre circus stunt, the squirrel on steroids jumped right through the net’s holes. Koch and the neighbor giggled and cringed as the squirrel led them on an obstacle race, but eventually they got the critter to dash off into the wilderness.
Mission accomplished once again in Petersburg. Citizens pull together to get the job done, and they always have fun along the way.
“Utility superintendent is my official handle, but most places they just call you the town guy,” laughs Koch, who is also a volunteer fireman and helped his wife, Angie, raise four children here in their hometown.
Ever since railroad agent John Peters homesteaded a spread in 1872 and then officially founded the town in 1887, a loyal group of town guys, and gals, has kept Petersburg moving forward. The Petersburg Industrial Development group that Koch heads is keeping the momentum going. The nine-member board purchased seven lots for new housing, and several years ago it helped nearly 20 jobs blow into town from the wind farms that sell 120.5 megawatts of green energy to Nebraska power companies.
One local businessman who got a boost from the Koch gang was Larry Temme, whose Rae Valley Market’s lunch menu includes the original sausage recipe rescued from the Petersburg Locker before it closed. The development group aided the grocery’s move to a prime location at the intersection of highways 14 and 32. The current store offers facilities about 129 years newer than his former place, a weathered landmark on Main Street.
“The building was actually there before the town was founded,” said Larry, whose market also recently took over the role of the closed senior center and now provides meals to residents over 60 who stop in.
Young families are staying home here, and a brainstorming local banker has helped organize many community projects. Something that never gets old in Petersburg is having fun. There are nearly enough events stretched over the year to fill a state fair. “The people in Petersburg just really step forward and take charge of things,” said Jim Leifeld, who owns Leifeld Hardware & Furniture, his family’s Main Street store that’s been in business since 1926. “There’s a lot of kickers and shakers and they want to make things work.”
As president of the Petersburg Community Club, Leifeld is another one of those guys making things work. He’s already helping get Werner Hall ready to serve and entertain about 300 folks at the Community Club Christmas Supper, which follows October’s Punkin Chunkin Contest, where thousands watch cannons launch pumpkins into the autumn sky – higher than the 80-meter turbines at two area wind farms. But Leifeld says Petersburg’s most-attended event is the Carnival Days in June that the D.C. Lynch Carnival has run for nearly 55 years, making Petersburg the only town under 1,000 it continues to visit.