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.

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Brainard (pop. 330) - Butler County

Lavern Fortik keeps smiling as he works on a tractor at his son Tyler’s automotive repair business, CTF Service.AS THE CIVIL WAR drew to an end, the Godfather of Butler County, James Brown, established a post office called “Urban” in the rural region of clay-loam hills near the clear waters of Oak Creek. It was 1865, and although there was no town, Bohemian immigrants and other settlers from a wide area gathered their mail at Urban and caught up with their country neighbors. A dozen years later, the Union Pacific Railroad built a depot. Thomas Logan opened a store there, as well as a new post office he named for a local missionary to the American Indians, David Brainerd – with an “e.”

Despite an early misspelling in the name of the post office, the community of Brainard has been getting things right ever since.

The community’s faithful motto, “Working Together to Make a Good Town Better,” says it all, and when it came time to make the good town’s good Catholic church better, Father Matthew Eickhoff of Holy Trinity Church put his faith in his 400 hardworking parishioners.    

In addition to helping with big projects like a recent church renovation, parishioners are responsible for the normal day-today and seasonal tasks. “We call it stewardship of talent,” Eickhoff said. They mow the lawn, remove snow, decorate, swap out candles, set up for events and perform general upkeep of the church and grounds.

That Brainard stewardship of talent is evident community-wide. Debbie Behne and her husband, Kevin, produce the local newspaper, The Clipper, as a volunteer project. It is posted on the community’s website and sent by email. For those who prefer a paper copy, the village pays to photocopy the newspaper, and a village employee distributes it around town.

Local students get in on the act through the East Butler High School chapter of the Future Business Leaders of America, preparing for the economic future of Brainard. Although getting involved in the community seems to be ingrained in its residents, there are individuals in Brainard whose dedication stands out.

Playful students at the East Butler School learn about community pride in BrainarIf something is being done to better Brainard, it’s a safe bet that Sharon Bruner and Carolyn Dvorak are involved. Bruner is the chairperson for Brainard’s Q125 committee, and both women help to coordinate the Holy Trinity Quilters. They also work to document Brainard’s history through an ongoing series of historical scrapbooks and 29 DVD videos, so far. Both women are active with the Brainard Area Seniors, and Bruner also manages Central Community College’s Brainard Learning Center and the Technology Center in the Brainard City Hall.

“Everywhere you look you see things that are accomplished by volunteers,” Bruner said. “It is the fire department, the little kids’ sports programs, the church organizations, civic and social groups, and the parent volunteers I counted on for 38 years as a school teacher. If you need help, you can count on everyone doing their share.”

Tom Pesek was born in California but has lived in Brainard since he was 7 months old. He worked for the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources for more than 30 years. He’s retired now, but he serves as president of the Brainard Area Community Club. Pesek finds that Brainard’s most valuable resource is its people.

“The club has 112 members, all working to promote Brainard,” Pesek says proudly. He also touts celebrations sponsored by the club that dates to 1917, such as the annual Memorial Day program, Evening in the Park and the Brainard Autumn Brunch. The group also awards scholarships to Seniors at East Butler High School, sponsors the post prom party, hosts Brainard’s New Year’s Party and maintains two historic cemeteries.

Every business in town provides a needed service to the community. At the top of Pesek’s long list is Frontier Cooperative and its 11 locations and more than 100 employees; CK Katering and its legendary food, DNV Repair, Gun Smoke Lodge, First Nebraska Bank and one of Nebraska’s best-known small vineyards, Makovicka Winery. “We have everything we need here,” Pesek says. “Except for a grocery store. It burned seven or eight years ago.”

Losing Grandpa’s Grocery was a big blow to Brainard when it was lost in 2004. But in true Brainard fashion, residents pulled together. Neighbors and relatives shop in the nearby communities of David City, Lincoln and Seward, and pick up groceries for the elderly. The Brainard Bar and Grill raised the bar and now carries eggs, milk, bread, and other essentials.

“We’d love to have a grocery store,” Sharon Bruner said. “The Economic Development Council has discussed it. Maybe someday it will happen.”

If the residents of Brainard put their volunteering minds to it, they just might accomplish it.


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