Broken Bow Aims for the Bull's-eye

When that sweet spot between summer and fall hits in Broken Bow, travelers to this Custer County city are greeted by pleasant valleys and lush hillsides.

On days like this, nothing seems broken in Broken Bow.

On the town square rows of stores keep shoppers hopping, residents gather for farmers markets, visitors explore the bandstand from 1916 and children play on the grass. Across the street to the south, grass was about all that was left of the historic block after fate’s cruel April Fools Day joke seven years ago.

 The fire started on Palm Sunday on April 1, 2007, with the businesses asleep and a blaze simmering in a photography store basement. By evening, a rising plume drew curious residents and the square was evacuated. The long building of businesses was engulfed. A layer of protective foam quickly deployed on the roof of the Arrow Hotel saved Broken Bow’s most prominent historical building from the flames.

 Thankfully the only fatalities were the businesses. Only Chapin Furniture has returned to its previous location on the square. Most of the other businesses have reopened elsewhere in town. Across the square is Shirts, Signs, Mugs & More. The store’s graphic designer, Barb McCandless, remembers watching from her home as the flames roared. She’ll never forget how the community pulled together to recover. Just like when they pulled together to save the Chevrolet dealership during the 2008 auto crisis by unleashing a postal stampede of protest upon Detroit executives. Just like they did for McCandless when her husband died four years ago.

“It was kind of a tough go, but if I had lived anywhere else it probably would have been tougher,” she said. “Broken Bow’s more like a giant family than just a place to live.”

This city is famous for having one of the largest feed lots in the world, where Adams Land and Cattle employs nearly 200. Piles of praise have been heaped upon the company for its good deeds in the community. While there have been occasional grumbles about the odor wafting from the beefy business, there’s a refreshing breeze of optimism blowing about town. 

The Kinkaider Brewery is set to open in December, and a courthouse annex is coming in 2015. Medical supplier BD Diagnostics continues growing its 54-year legacy in Broken Bow with nearly 500 workers. The west side of town is growing, too, with a new Trotter service center, convenience store and restaurant. There’s a new Cobblestone Hotel and its 550-seat One Box Convention Center, where celebrity pheasant hunters gather with locals each November. And Broken Bow has a new campus for Mid-Plains Community College. 
The happy tunes play loudly on Broken Bow’s KBBN and KCNI radio stations, but a recent live performer was an alligator chomping at the microphone on the popular Get Up and Go Breakfast show. Longtime DJ “Buffalo” Bob Bowles and station owner and co-host David Birnie both dodged the reptile, which was visiting from the traveling Shrine Circus.
Birnie, a lifetime resident and longtime general manager, purchased the stations three years ago. Now its 30,000-watt FM rock broadcasts face a grizzly-sized country music challenge from a station with a guitar-strumming bear for a mascot. The tower built for the new KBEAR channel will reportedly be the last 100,000-watt tower to gain state approval. Despite towering challenges from toothy gators and bears, Birnie delights in his dream job. 

This was the station his uncle took him to as a child in the 1960s, where he’d watch DJs behind the building fling 45 records into the air and blast away with shotguns as if it were a vinyl skeet club. This is the town where he got married in high school to a classmate, and 44 years later this September, the marriage between Dave the radio guy and Joan the library director rocks on.

If anybody knows all the happy tunes of Broken Bow it would be Chard Hirsch, a retired music teacher, businesswoman, endless volunteer and tireless cheerleader for this city of about 3,500. “We’ve had our ups, we’ve had our downs, but we’re certainly on an up plateau right now,” Hirsch said.

The journey that best symbolizes Broken Bow’s reverence for its past and a hopeful yearning to move forward is that of the barn Hirsch lassoed from a local golf driving range.
Built by Omer Kim Luther, the weary white barn was 150 years old. Hirsch pitched Broken Bow and the barn as the home of the new Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway Interpretive Center. Officials agreed, and the barn was soon donated to Custer County Economic Development. It was trailered in 2006 from west of Broken Bow, driven through a cheering downtown and placed on a new foundation just east of town along Highway 2. Hirsch can still see the wary looks of electricians as they raised power lines for the barn to pass on the road beneath. After months of repairs, the dying white barn became a ruby jewel.

 More than 5,000 travelers from every state and as far away as South Africa have climbed into the loft of this barn that anchors the byway’s 272-mile scenic journey from Grand Island to Alliance. 

While it’s hard to imagine anyone singing more praise for Broken Bow, Hirsch hails the most memorable voice of all, a legendary soprano named Miriam Carleton, whose spectacular singing in sub-orbital octaves echoed for decades into the 1960s from her home on the third floor of the downtown Arrow Hotel. The classically trained opera singer from Massachusetts fell in love with Broken Bow on a visit to see her sister and soon fell in love with the local judge, Edwin Squires.

Squires owned acres of ranchland but moved in with his opera singer in the 72-room hotel that opened just years earlier in 1928. After the judge died in 1942, Squires sang on for her adopted state by giving performances throughout central Nebraska and teaching voice lessons to hundreds of Broken Bow students, including a young Hirsch.

The landmark hotel suffered some lean decades, but the Arrow seems on target now, re-energized with 25 luxury suites. In 1984, nursing home developer Ray Brown was determined to save the dying hotel he once vowed to own after walking into it at the end of a hard day of carrying bags from the nearby train station. He converted the rooms into grand apartments, but when that vision failed, Brown teamed up with other visionaries to make preserving the place a reality.

“This is something you won’t just find anywhere,” said Anne Thomas, who owns the hotel along with her husband, R.J., and Wes and Cathy Province. The couples joined in with Brown in 2005 and are still warmed by memories of their partner, who died four years ago. Now, like many in this town, the Arrow targets the future, and its recipe for success includes its acclaimed Bonfire Grill. Since New Year’s Eve 2009, a single-named chef, Afif, has guided the restaurant’s culinary creations. The native of Ecuador has slowly helped the town open its taste buds with pork, lamb and chicken selections that give a nod of his chef’s hat to Vietnamese and Hawaiian flavors. He’ll even turn it up a notch with the hotel’s weekly contest, where the winner gets the chef to cook whatever meal they desire.

Although the owners are delighted by his charming demeanor with guests, the demanding Chef Afif admits he can get a little heated in the kitchen. “With talent comes ... personality,” is how Anne Thomas describes her fiery chef.

The history of the Arrow and all of Custer County is found just across the street at the Custer County Historical Society museum, where curator Tammy Hendrickson keeps track of thousands of folders on generations of citizens. They’re all stacked inside nine file cabinets.

The museum’s most valuable collection is the 800 pictures, prints and postcards from the stark sod house photography of Broken Bow resident Solomon Butcher from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Holy Grail of Broken Bow also is housed here: part of the Pawnee bow found by homesteader Wilson Hewitt’s son that inspired him to come up with the community’s unforgettable name in 1879. Almost lost forever, his neighbor, Mrs. Pelham, rescued one end of the broken bow from the kindling.

Of all the exhibits, Hendrickson’s favorite is a Thomas Edison phonograph she cranks up. She never tires of hearing from schoolchildren who have grown up with iPods and Pandora radio: “Where are the batteries? Where’s it plugged in?”

Those children are signs of the growing group of returning former residents and newcomers moving here to raise families. One is 29-year-old Michael Tierney, whose muscular frame is carrying on five generations of farming and ranching that his great-grandpa began 115 years ago about 14 miles southeast of town on Highway 21. The former standout football and track athlete at Doane College is ready to tackle a bag of doughnuts he’s carrying out of the City Cafe, but he’s still fit enough to chase down the cattle and quarter horses he helps raise.

“It’s a gorgeous town,” Tierney said. “As soon as you leave Broken Bow, you realize what you’re missing.”

Inside the cafe, the deep baritone voice of local sports announcer and emergency dispatcher Larry Cotnoir explains how you either fall in love with Broken Bow or speed away. After several stops here during his radio career, Cotnoir stayed for good in 1995. He later became the sports editor for six years here at the Custer County Chief newspaper. He’s had to guide local citizens through many stressful situations in his past seven years as a dispatcher, but there’s also room for fun. The dispatch center still has a hotline number to a national UFO center posted by his desk.

At the Tumbleweed Cafe, retired farmer Richard Slingsby remembers the parking lot being full each morning with farm and ranch pickups, including his, parked for a breakfast of giant buttermilk pancakes larger than the plate. The keys were left inside the ignitions without a care. That trust has never left Broken Bow or Tumbleweed regulars, but the high-tech electronics in new trucks locked up that carefree attitude. The parking lot is still full come mealtime, and those breakfast crowds and billowy, yellow pancakes are just as large.

A few miles southeast of town off Highway 21, Marty and Karen Bredthauer have been growing big, beefy bison at their Straight Arrow Bison Ranch for two decades. They sell their grass-fed bison meat from a 20-foot-long log house by their home, and on many Saturdays they take that show on the road to Grand Island and other communities. Back at the ranch house, the skull of the first bull, Buffalo Bill, is mounted on their wall. This fall his descendants will beef up as they lounge on heavenly hillsides. Karen still remembers the day Buffalo Bill had a tussle with a steel gate and knocked it to the ground. He marched off to freedom and then headed back inside the pen.

He knew what he’d be missing if he left. Just like all the rest of the residents who have stuck around Broken Bow. 

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