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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Diller (pop. 289) - Jefferson County
COMING TOGETHER to get things done has always been a way of life in Diller.
When a 1954 fire destroyed Diller’s school, businesses along Commercial Street, Diller’s main drag, opened their doors to provide classroom space. One of the grandest classrooms of all was the Diller Opera House and its palatial main hall. Many years after Diller built a new school, and when the opera house was sinking into disrepair, former Diller students and others returned the favor, banding together in 1994 – 20 families in all – to preserve the historic structure.
The first level was remodeled and new restrooms were built. Wanting to preserve as much of Diller’s history as possible, the group kept the opera house’s original ornate tin ceiling panels in place. The dilapidated basement was filled in.
In January 2012, Chad and Courtney Lottman, Chad’s parents, Doug and Cindy, and a host of other committed Diller volunteers began working with renewed vigor to not simply continue maintaining the antiquated building, but to transform the massive structure into the center of the community once again.
The floors of what is now the Opera House Social Club were resurfaced, and that ancient ceiling was emboldened with a lustrous new coat of gold paint. Crumbling plaster was removed to expose the building’s original brick walls, and a new central heating and air conditioning system doubled the price of the project to $50,000. The facility reopened last June. “Once again, Diller has a place for our shrimp feed, fish fry and other fundraisers,” Lottman said. “Now it’s a rentable, usable community facility.”
His involvement in the community doesn’t end with volunteering his spare time to preserve old buildings. When he was just 19, he bought his hometown’s only grocery store. Today, the Lottmans run it as C&C Processing, a meat processing facility and grocery, and it serves as the headquarters for their several area retail locations and large Internet-based meat products business.
Chad and Courtney are both members of the Diller Community Picnic Committee, perpetuating an event that has been a fixture in the area for 116 years. Chad also is a member of the school board, a volunteer fireman and an emergency medical technician.
“I believe it is important for everyone in a small community to be involved in what’s going on within the community,” Lottman said. “Without local citizens and friends of our communities investing, donating and volunteering, it can be difficult to keep things going in a small town like Diller.”
Helping to keep things going in Diller is the Diller Community Foundation Fund, which was born when a man from Cozad with roots in Diller donated a truckload of cattle worth $50,000 to the community.
The lofty gift formed the base of an endowment for the group, which is an affiliate of the Nebraska Community Foundation. It’s worth $270,000 today and disburses $6,000 to $8,000 in annual community grants that have benefitted youth sports programs, drug and alcohol awareness campaigns, 4-H, the opera house, new sidewalks, a mini-park, benches, street lights and a new $250,000 fire hall.
When mold was uncovered in the post office, it looked like its last delivery might be a condemnation notice. Through donations and other funds, help from the village board and the Diller Community Foundation, the building was purchased and renovated. “We are optimistic that this will help us keep our post office,” said special education teacher and board member Beth Roelfs.
Banking on the hard work of their can-do community, Diller didn’t stop there. More than half a century ago, banks withdrew from Diller and the community went without until residents – tired of being shortchanged and having to drive to neighboring towns for financial services – deposited their concerns with community leaders.
Legal restrictions on branch banking prohibited banks from moving in. Undeterred, the Diller Development Team contacted legislators and, with assistance from the State Bank of Odell, was able to get the law amended, paving the way for a new bank in Diller. The State Bank of Odell now occupies a building at the south end of Commercial Street and serves the area 3½ days per week.
“We need grocery stores and banks and other amenities to keep our town vibrant,” Roelfs said. “Without those things, our kids would all move away and Diller would wilt. It’s our job to keep the young people here. It’s our job to make them realize how rich life can be in a small town.”