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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Lewellen (pop. 224) - Garden County
WHEN YOU LOOK back at its decades of population decline, little Lewellen seems like the most unlikely place to find folks growing with enthusiasm. But a vibrant turnaround has begun in this eastern Panhandle community, and at the forefront of this inspiring jolt of new energy is a spectacular spot literally called The Most Unlikely Place.
In 1908, this Main Street building was a silent movie theater and playhouse, and now it’s showtime once again. Local brainstormers Cynthia and Dennis Miller have created an eclectic bistro and café that’s stirred together with a magnificent display of artwork worthy of a SoHo gallery in Manhattan.
“We’ve had folks tell us that Lewellen is the future Taos of Nebraska, and that’s our vision,” said Cynthia, who can often be seen on roller skates serving customers a latte or extravagant lunch dish as she glides back and forth on vast maple floors.
Visitors can lounge in sofas and chairs and enjoy a visual art feast of American Indian exhibits, a mummified snapping turtle and an enchanting, hollow cottonwood log. The gallery showcases pastels by Dennis, the paintings of his sister, Jean Jensen, and 3-D art from their brother, Rex, including a dolphin riding a wave that’s carved like a rocking horse.
When Dennis grew up here in the 1950s, this little Garden County village was in full bloom, with grocery stores, a restaurant, filling stations and a drug store with shelves rich with penny candy. But then stores closed down and by 2010 Lewellen was sinking toward a population of about 200.
“There was almost a straight line where you can see it going downhill,” he said. “But now we’re really in a very good position for tourism. We’re kind of going over the hump.”
While his wife’s gallery/cafe draws curious Highway 26 travelers, Dennis stays busy as builder and organic farmer who grows even more ideas than he does vegetables. He and his wife plan to renovate the former bar and cafe next door to their gallery and make it another destination spot. The building was owned by their 88-year-old neighbor, Vi Cochran, who now gets fan notes from people who buy her embroidered tea towels at The Most Unlikely Place.
Dennis left Lewellen in 1961 for a long career in the Navy and married Delaware native Cynthia in 1972 after their meeting in the tony port of Newport, R.I. When they moved back to Dennis’ hometown after his retirement from the Navy 21 years ago, Cynthia knew she too was home.
“I could drive up and down every street and tell you about every resident, their heartaches and their joys,” Cynthia said.
Cynthia’s love for Lewellen seems infectious, since she helped convince her new cook, Kali Mason, that she and her husband and two boys should become full-time residents. The Masons live yearround in the former parsonage house next to the United Methodist Church built in 1899.
Now this native New Yorker and vegan whips up meaty dishes and her own Big Apple-style cheesecake. In between orders, she’ll sit at her loom, weaving and spinning intricate crafts designs to sell at the cafe.
This little town is full of dream weavers. The first taste of a Lewellen revival came when Bruce and Ellen Burdick restored a Main Street building and in 2006 opened the 17 Ranch Winery. The Burdicks not only provide a grape fest from the nearby vineyard at their ranch, but each Labor Day weekend they uncork the Bluewater Blues Festival that draws a bigger crowd than the entire town, with more than 300 spectators behind their winery.
A few streets away, the Gander Inn provides cozy bed-and-breakfast lodgings to guests who include waterfowl hunters, bird-watchers at the world-renowned Platte River Valley, and visitors to the nearby Ash Hollow State Historical Park and the behemoth of Panhandle tourism, Lake McConaughy. Owners Dave and Trish Klein in 2009 revived this historic site that had been the Lewellen Community Hospital from 1943 until the late 1960s. They get many visitors who return to the motel rooms where they might have actually been born. But other visitors like to be kept in suspense.
Upon early requests, Dave Klein arranges a murder mystery dinner for guests from specially ordered scripts. One of the whodunnits had a Hollywood theme, complete with costumes that created a new mystery.
“They go the rooms and they come back looking like John Wayne, Mae West and Louie Armstrong,” Dave chuckled. “You don’t have clue who they are.”
There are plenty of clues that Lewellen keeps building on its hopes and dreams. It started in 1886 when Frank Lewellen used lumber from the raft that carried migrants across the North Platte and built a small store and post office. Then in 1940, resident Carl Beard’s donations built a swimming pool still enjoyed in town, and in 1946, his sister, Mary Beard, a established a Volunteers of America organization for the needy. Jean Jensen carries on the good will as the VOA director, and this community beacon shines out with an acclaimed preschool and child-care center.
But if you are going to build dreams, you need some wood, and the village has had plenty of it ever since Lewellen Lumber & Supply Co. first opened its Main Street store in 1905. The doors almost closed in 1992, but Charlie Epperson bought the business and he has been running things with his wife, Winnie, ever since. Charlie had been the manager for four years after he decided that he didn’t want to loaf around after retiring in Denver from more than three decades in the oil industry.
“I knew that a two-by-four was a plank,” he joked. “What more was there to know, I thought.”
Now at 79, the business is still thriving, and Charlie is still managing to stay a few clicks ahead of Father Time. He knows it will have to end one of these days, but he sees new beginnings for Lewellen.
“I’m high on Lewellen,” he says. “We’ve got some good things happening.”
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the new beginnings is The Village Green. When the grocery story burned down in 1998, out of its ruins a remarkable park was created by Rex Miller’s daughter, Sabrina Miller. Among the gravel pathways, boulders and the natural sandbox you’ll find new trees already bearing fruit.
Lewellen blooms once again.