5 Towns Under 500
pop. 234 • Boyd County
Outlaws, Lewis & Clark and homecomings
Shadowy figures slipping unseen into corrals to relieve owners of their equines was common during Boyd County’s early days. Horse thieves Doc Middleton and Kid Wade steered their spoils southeast of Lynch to Horse Thief Gulch. The community celebrating its quasquicentennial in 2017 is peaceful 125 years after its founding. The area’s outlaw past is preserved along Nebraska Highway 12, also known as the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway.
Lewis and Clark made history here before those outlaws. They first observed prairie dogs while exploring a barren bluff south of the Missouri River in September 1804. They ate one and captured another by dousing its burrow with five barrels of water.
That ground squirrel became President Thomas Jefferson’s pet. None of the rodents live today near that landmark bluff known as Old Baldy, but a wooden prairie dog sculpture at the top reminds visitors of Lynch’s role in American history.
Marita Placek has lived in Lynch since marrying her husband, Willard, in 1965. She has spent decades reporting Lynch’s news in newspaper stories and has watched the town evolve in the more than half century she has lived here. There are more empty buildings, fewer children and lighter traffic. The Lynch School will go from a K–12 facility to K–4 beginning in 2018. Placek also points out the positives of having a hospital, swimming pool and RV park.
Residents shuffle out of Lynch Hometown Market carrying brown bags brimming with the basics and more. Faith’s BBQ is a new business that opened in October. Bubba’s Tavern, Eagle Lanes and the Double K Bar are popular after-work hangouts. Residents and visitors needing further relaxation can visit the Niobrara Valley House of Renewal. Mineral spring water at the former sanitarium with lodging for 40 people is believed to have healing properties. Retirees are moving back, and the volunteer-run library and Lynn Theater are busy.
The 1950s theater in a Quonset hut was facing its final curtain call when residents gathered to discuss its future. They needed $80,000 for digital upgrades. A raffle and spaghetti supper provided a good start. A silent auction brought in $30,000, and Lynch alumni classes challenged one another for donations. “We ended up raising $100,000 in 64 days,” Placek said.
Boyd County may soon have its own silver screen debut. Local lawman Albert Lee was cast in the film Lillian after an Austrian movie director overheard him telling a story at a bar in neighboring Monowi. Lee hopes the film will premiere in Lynch.
Lynch High School graduates Ryan and Cindy Black returned to Lynch so he could work his family’s farm. She took a crash course in screen printing and opened Special T’s & More in 1990. The business serving a 200-mile radius got so busy that Ryan gave up farming to help. The Blacks work 70 to 80 hours per week. They are proud to provide jobs allowing others to come home.
“You sacrifice and do what you have to do to make a living,” Black said. “People thought we were crazy for starting our business in this small town. We thought we were crazy, too, but I wouldn’t change a thing about working or living in Lynch. I think we’d be crazy not to.”
pop. 419 • Butler County
Home to war heroes and children who serve
Bellwood resident Ken Schmid enlisted and served a tour of duty in Vietnam but insists he is no war hero.
Instead, he is inspired by Bellwood men like World War II vet Maurice Sylvester, who drove a halftrack across Europe with Gen. George S. Patton. In the next conflict, Joseph Romshek went to Korea and stayed longer than he wished as a prisoner of war. When he finally came home to his family and friends in Bellwood, he didn’t talk much about the war or his treatment at the hands of the North Koreans – his silence spoke volumes to Schmid.
“He impressed a lot on me about giving and not expecting something in return,” Schmid said. “He gave his time to his country and was very proud of his service.”
Schmid and a tight group of about 50 veterans, their wives and dozens of community members carry the torch of patriotism in Bellwood, a town of around 400 residents above the southern banks of the Platte River.
Highway 64 graces the northern edge of Butler County where Bellwood sits on an offshoot road. The village name is apropos – named for a Bell family that liked to plant trees.
Bellwood’s main thoroughfare is Esplanade Street, a wide tree-lined lane with a generous median where patriotic-minded residents like Schmid gather to reflect on family, country and service.
They spend time at the iconic Bellwood Veteran’s Memorial, where a soaring eagle, flags and yet more trees stand sentinel around 260 names of Bellwood-area service members, their rank, war and years of service.
Schmid’s wife, Gayla (who serves in leadership positions in the American Legion Auxiliary at state and national levels), estimates nearly 40 percent of Bellwood families have military ties – “either their son is serving or has served, or father served or grandfather served,” she said.
Tuesday nights in Bellwood are American Legion Post No. 237 meeting nights. Men gather for camaraderie, revelry and mutual respect. They plan the annual car, truck and tractor show in August, which is the chief fundraiser for the memorial.
Chris Brandenburgh has the noble job of post commander and has been a member more than 40 years. His patriotic pride swells when he walks over to the Esplanade Street median and scans those 260 names etched in brick: “There are heroes in Bellwood; I get chills when I think about everything our veterans have done for our nation.”
The men and their women in Bellwood look forward to birthdays, basketball games and holidays, but their favorite time of year is Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
They pay respects; but even better, respect is paid. Students at Bellwood Elementary School put on a program for the men. They get homemade cards from students saying thank you for “freedoms and service.” Some students stand up and talk about a brother or uncle or grandfather who has served. The men repay the favor by giving a flag-folding demonstration and explain the meaning of each fold.
And as the men sit there in the gymnasium with the children, they have joy. They have faith the next generation of Bellwood residents will know the true meaning of service.
pop. 83 • Thayer County
Border town residents live life on the edge
State Line Road splits Nebraska and Kansas along the southern edge of Byron, a tiny town of just 83 residents. Farms stretch in every direction as grain dryers hum at the Aurora Cooperative Elevator. Only a small, sunflower-shaped sign with the letters “KS” hints at the divide.
The village spilling over the border here in the 1870s was known as Harbine. Nebraska already had a town with that name, so the Nebraska side became Byron in 1899.
Linda and Doyle Heitmann make a three-block border run each day from their Kansas home to Heitmann’s Corner Market in Byron. Rather than let the small store with two aisles of necessities close following the owner’s 2009 retirement, the Heitmanns bought it. Farmers like Doyle who farm in both states eat handmade deli sandwiches at the same three tables where locals gather for Saturday morning coffee.
“I run down after hours when people need milk for their kids. We especially don’t want older residents driving to the next nearest store 11 miles away or down to Belleville.”
Resident motorists can get their vehicles fixed close to home. Tim Wenske opened his first repair shop in 2001. Wenske Repair recently moved into a new state-of-the-art facility. His wife, Kara, works there, too.
She attended school in Chester but lived in Kansas and was milking cows when she heard a song about someone looking for a diamond ring in a border town. “I thought they were talking about Chester,” she said. Her diamond ring came years later after meeting her Byron friend’s cousin, Tim. Their son and daughter go to school in Deshler. Family members line up on opposing sides of a border state rivalry.
“My siblings and I went to K-State, so I do have some purple in my closet,” Wenske said. “Tim gave me my first Husker shirt. He takes our son to Husker games, and my dad takes the children to see the Wildcats.”
Game day is busy at Tillie’s Bar & Grill. Byron’s reputation for caring proved itself to owner Jenelle Bohling when two strangers walked in after hours. Their oddly parked vehicle attracted the attention of a local man who stopped in to make sure there was no trouble. “They were lost and I gave them directions,” Bohling said. “But someone checking on me meant a lot.”
Talk of a new community center began at Tillie’s in 2010, when village Chairman Jaye Moeller began sketching ideas on a napkin. Gifts of harvested grain and a quarter section of land made the 10,500-square-foot Byron Community Center a reality in 2015. The facility includes a library, kitchen, fitness center and space for special events.
“Family kept me here,” said Moeller, whose Moeller Electric serves Kansas and Nebraska. “My grandchildren live within two blocks of me. I hope our community center will help keep them here.”
pop. 280 • Keith County
Flooded roots buoy community spirit
Want to take a stroll down Lemoyne’s old Main Street? You’ll need scuba gear and plenty of bottled oxygen. The original townsite is deep under Nebraska’s largest lake.
Fortunately, Lemoyne residents, with help from the government, packed up and rebuilt before the waters of Lake McConaughy covered the Keith County community in 1941.
Today, waves meet white sand beaches downhill from Lemoyne 2.0. This village of 280 residents on Lake Mac’s north shore has a relaxed feel with campgrounds, sunbathers and summer homes. Pickups and RVs pulling boats fill Highway 92 during busy weekends.
Becky Main, who runs Big Mac Parasailing with her husband, “Captain” Scott, said the lake can be “crazy busy,” but Lemoyne is always calm and quiet – just how Lemoyne residents like it.
The Mains keep plenty busy from Memorial Day to Labor Day with twilight flights and sunset cruises. Some people might understandably think cruising 400 feet over the water behind a motorboat is dangerous, but the Mains are proud of their safety record: Out of thousands of high-flying customers “nobody has ever even lost a pair of sunglasses,” Becky said.
At Vogl’s Lodge & Lure, 12-year-old angler Grady Vogl regales customers with the tale of battling the 8-pound, 7-ounce walleye he hooked while trolling Kingsley Dam. The lad’s business card reads “Worm Wrangler.” His 14-year-old brother, Kaden, the store’s “Minnow Manager,” rolls his eyes at the oft-recited story as the duo scoops shiners into buckets for fishermen. “That walleye tasted so good,” Grady said. “We marinated it in Mountain Dew.”
Lemoyne has a way of hooking and reeling in tourists who turn into residents. The boys’ parents, Chad and Kally Vogl, fell in love with Lake McConaughy before falling in love with each other. After marrying, they traveled from their home in Golden, Colorado, to Lake McConaughy 17 times one summer before purchasing the bait shop and moving here full time in 2011.
There was less development at the lake when Burdette Cooley moved to Lemoyne in the early 1990s. He could see growth coming and predicted the lake could be a “golden egg” for the local economy. He was right. People have moved here, and a few have built million-dollar homes – a hefty sum for this area. With a population boom on Colorado’s Front Range, by all accounts, the hen of Lake Mac should continue laying golden eggs for years. The lake set record visitation last July 4 weekend with nearly 210,000 tourists angling the deep water, paddling the shoreline and occasionally phoning 911.
Tourists keep the 20 volunteers of Keystone-Lemoyne Fire & Rescue busy in the summer. While many rural fire and rescue departments respond with lumbering fire trucks and ambulances, Chief Ralph Moul’s crew zips to rescues with two hotrod twin 150-horse motorboats outfitted with state-of-the-art sonar that can spot a beer can under 106 feet of murky water. “When people call 911, they don’t want three yahoos in the back of a pickup showing up,” he said.
Sailboat centerpieces reflect residents’ appetite for lake living at Lemoyne Senior Center. What used to be this community’s school (students now drive 20 miles into Ogallala) Lemoyne-ites of all ages gather at the Senior Center from Monday through Friday for hearty lunches priced at $4.50.
Heaping helpings of creamed chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, pork chops and salads means nobody leaves hungry. Nine years of bake sales and biscuit-and-gravy breakfasts raised money for the center’s greatly anticipated 2016 addition. The new space hosts community meetings and classes for dance and yoga.
Lemoyne locals like Sandra Holter have the best of both worlds: They appreciate the modern amenities and lake recreation, as well as the wild remoteness of rural Keith County. This summer, while tourists trolled the lake, Senior Center lunch-goers watched a mountain lion lurking outside the picture windows. “I don’t think it would want these old bones,” she joked.
The water has been high in Lake Mac for years, but as Mother Nature is prone to do, drought will return and Lemoyne’s old bones will show themselves through the foundations of Carey’s Garage, Melville Lumber and Brown’s Hotel. It will give today’s community stalwarts like Burdette Cooley opportunity to pause and reflect on Lemoyne’s past, present and future.
“Moving Lemoyne could have killed the town but didn’t,” he said. “Some original residents moved away – those who stayed formed the strength of Lemoyne’s foundations today.”
pop. 246 • Sioux County
Nebraska’s “top town”
Boots and saddles are tools of the cattle trade in Harrison. Dust-raising cattle drives clog roads as ranchers guide Angus and Hereford herds between emerald pastures. Bovines outnumber beef eaters nearly 100-to-1 in Sioux County, where residents live the cowboy way every day.
Spurs jingle as customers shop Whiteaker’s Store. Proprietor Joe Whitaker can tell how a cowboy wants his new hat shaped by looking at his old one. Jeans, boots and steamed felt hats make up the bulk of sales at the business his father, Emmett “Abie” Whiteaker, started in 1931. While Joe gave up banking and ranching to take over the business in 1990, he ditched the saddle long before that.
“I was moving cattle and had my boy riding with me when that dang horse got to bucking,” Whitetaker said. “We fell off. I hit my head and saw two of everything for 10 days. I haven’t been on a horse in 50 years.”
The 80-year-old, who works “9-to-5 banker’s hours” Monday through Friday, sees his community with 20/20 vision. “Ranches are getting bigger, and some outsiders are moving in,” Whitetaker said. “Change comes slow to this country, but it still comes.” In that way and others, Whitaker is proud to say Harrison is probably more like the Old West than “any other Nebraska town.”
Harrison began as a railroad camp in 1866. Known today as “Nebraska’s Top Town,” its elevation of 4,876 feet is the highest of any Nebraska community. The Chicago & Northwestern Railway’s 1866 Harrison House Hotel is Harrison’s oldest building. Lakota chief Red Cloud is said to have taken his first stab at using a knife and fork while dining here with Agate Springs Ranch owner James Cook.
Another tale claims the hotel was a brothel. Rose, Ann, Kate, May and Grace streets are supposedly named for working girls. Frank Street runs a block west of Main Street. “People say he was their employer,” hotel co-owner Terresa Romey said.
“Those stories are urban legends and mythology,” said Jill Balcom of the Sioux County Museum.
What is known for sure is that William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody plays a part in the area’s colorful past. Cody was already famous when he killed a Cheyenne warrior northeast of present-day Harrison just weeks after Custer’s Last Stand. Cody reportedly raised the victim’s bloody headdress while declaring, “The first scalp for Custer!” A marker near the ghost town of Montrose memorializes this engagement known as the Battle of Warbonnet Creek.
Pronghorn and mule deer roam where ancient camels and rhinos once grazed. Their 20 million-year-old buried fossils are unearthed at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument and Toadstool Geologic Park.
Paleo-sleuths can find fossil-hunting equipment and more than 100,000 other items at Herren Bros. True Value Hardware, a regional mainstay for more than 70 years.
Motorists on U.S. Highway 20, the nation’s longest road, pass Sioux County’s only incorporated community as the bawling of cattle echoes through the Oglala National Grasslands. Ranch children destined for evening chores climb off the Harrison School bus and back in the saddle.