Dobby's Frontier Town
Dobby Lee built a frontier town and a lifetime of stories, and now his friends keep both alive
(This article originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
HE'S BEEN GONE more than three years now, but the legend of Alliance’s Kenneth “Dobby” Lee lives on here in so many ways.
He was paralyzed from the waist down until age 2, when a freak motor vehicle accident sent him flying on his head, jolting his spinal cord back to life. Then there is the romantic tale of reconnecting with his high school sweetheart nearly five decades later.
But his story also is told to so many people in so many buildings, the magical buildings of Dobby’s Frontier Town that he brought back to Alliance, where a dedicated band of volunteers refuses to let his wonderland to the past die. When Dobby passed away in 2009 at age 87, it appeared that all these old town buildings he rescued and revived on his own land with his own hands would be lost forever.
His son, Dennis, had been the guy who inspired his dad on this quest, but Denny knew that he and his wife, Liz, couldn’t keep fixing up these 24 buildings on their own. Word was sent out to the local paper that if Alliance didn’t take over the care of these buildings, Frontier Town would be leveled.
But when about 50 residents answered the call, it was a shining example of the very name of this proud little city at the western edge of the Sandhills. They made an alliance to save Dobby’s Frontier Town, just like Dobby made an alliance with Alliance to keep folks happy in his hometown. It had always been this way for this character who could have been carved right out of the Wild West folklore he loved so well.
“He had a very giving personality,” said Denny, the 55-year-old son who lives in the big house on the nearly three-acre family spread, surrounded by the Frontier Town buildings he helped find and build. “Dad was a survivor, and he made sure that other people survived.”
Dobby’s Frontier Town has survived and is thriving again, thanks to the folks of Alliance, who took over ownership of the village in the fall of 2009 with an 18-member board led by its president, Lori White, who often spends 50 hours a week volunteering her time at Frontier Town and preparing for its famed festival, which will be held Sept. 22-23.
In addition to her many presidential duties, she also rolls up her sleeves to help with the upkeep of such sites as the town’s recreated post office from 1888, a 19th century one-room schoolhouse, an old jail, a saloon and bordello, the area’s first gas station that sold gas at 5 cents a gallon, and an original log cabin of Hemingford’s Robert Anderson, a former slave who was Nebraska’s first black homesteader.
Lori is 52 now, but this lifetime Alliance resident still can hear Dobby’s booming voice brightening her day with another funny story when she boarded the school bus. “If he was around, you knew that he was around,” Lori said. “He’d laugh and have his storytelling. You’d never miss Dobby in the crowd.”
But then there came a time when all the joy had run out of Dobby. His wife, Betty, died in 1987, and that same year, the town decided that since he was 65 he had to retire from the school bus he had been driving for 30 years. Denny saw his father age 10 years in a matter of weeks, but one day, he brought home his dad the fountain of youth.
Dobby had always been fascinated with the town’s past since growing up at his father Marvin’s downtown store, the IGA Palace Meat Market. His link to the town’s folklore heated up in 1962 when he bought the home of Clyde Rust, a legendary bootlegger who was said to have even hosted Al Capone as a house guest. The place was in such ruins that Dobby almost took a match to it. Instead, he rebuilt it as his family’s home, and during his remodeling he became Detective Dobby, discovering the first evidence of Rust’s moonshine days, when he found old, hidden recipes in the rafters. Then he spotted in a stairwell Clyde’s secret hooch stash that the lawmen never found.
But Denny said his mother was not a fan of Dobby’s hobby. His quest to restore old buildings was locked in fading dreams, and Dobby even hid the antiques he loved to collect to dodge a tiff with Betty. But in 1987, Denny was cruising around and spotted an old milk house and this would be the formula to revive the old Dobby. He loaded it up on forklift and trailer, and brought it back home. Then he handed his father a postcard of Alliance’s 1888 post office and pointed to the milk house.
“I said to him, ‘Restore this building to look like that,’ ” Denny said.
Soon, he and his son were off to the races, with Denny bringing back old buildings with a forklift and sometimes even getting a house-moving rig for the most challenging jobs. Dobby went to work on each special delivery, restoring some of the original buildings, or recreating them with his own vision, and dressing them up with antiques from that era.
Soon after the Frontier Town adventure began, Dobby’s mission got a big boost when he remarried, his spirit ignited by the old flame from his youth. Dobby and Coralee “Corky” Lee had been high school sweethearts and engaged to be married when World War II came and Dobby was off to England to serve in the Army Air Forces, repairing crates to ship airplane parts. Back in Alliance, thousands of men were sent to the massive air base, and one of them met Corky. She got a different husband, and Dobby got a Dear John letter in England. But more than 45 years later, after both had lost their spouses, they found each other again, and love once more.
“They turned around and got back together again and virtually picked up where they left off before World War II,”
Denny said. “Dad was never a loner, so that really helped keep him going.” His new wife really helped keep things going at Frontier Town, joining him on all sorts of journeys for antiques. Each trip brought another tale to tell and a new building to create. One time, father and son brought back a sturdy piece of wood and realized after looking at the holes in the corners that they actually had bought an embalming table.
Carl Reinders, one of the founders of Alliance’s Carhenge, donated another milk house, and after the Lees purchased some old wooden coffins, Dobby created a replica of Alliance’s funeral home from more than a century ago.
There were all sorts of madcap adventures, but the one that still coughs up some cackles from Denny is when they traveled to Lexington to pick up an old jail cell. When they arrived, Dobby asked Denny to also start bidding at an auction for a cannon, and that’s when the fireworks began.
“I started bidding on the cannon and Dad was poking me in the ribs: ‘Keep going, keep going,’ ” Denny recalled. “When it reached $8,000, my wife about passed out, and when it hit $9,000, Corky about passed out. Then Dad stopped poking me and I put my hand back in my pocket. We later found out that the guy who bought the cannon was willing to go as high as $20,000.”
Dobby kept running about with all these priceless adventures, but the fact his legs were able to take him anywhere is the most incredible story of them all. He had been crippled since birth by a mysterious ailment, but a miraculous accident during the Roaring ’20s brought about a life-changing cure.
He was sitting on his mother’s lap during a family drive when the vehicle hit a pothole. The 2-year-old was catapulted from his mother’s arms and sent flying. He landed head-first on the ground, but the fall somehow awakened his spinal cord. After that, he never stopped moving, and his great-aunt came up with Lee’s lifelong odd nickname, saying he was always “dobbying” here and there.
The spirit of that little boy never left him and he kept moving forward with his dream, even after his beloved Corky died in 2000 from a rare blood disease. The man who never wanted to be a loner later was joined by his final girlfriend, Dorothy Waldron. She is 85 now, and has her own exhibit at the village called Dorothy’s Fine Fashions. Dorothy is the oldest volunteer at Frontier Town, and recently she had the first ceremony in the village’s restored 1912 German Evangelical Immanuel Church when she was joined in a Celebration of Commitment with her companion, Dobby’s 81-year-old brother from Colorado, Don Lee.
The ceremony hit home for Lori White because it was her dedicated work that helped with the restoration project of the church. She relied on carpentry skills she learned from guys at the local lumberyard years ago when she decided to save money on home repairs after her divorce. When she became president of Frontier Town, she was in awe both of the things Dobby had done as well as the stuff left undone. She and some other fierce female helpers used pickups to haul 54 loads of collectibles out of the church that Dobby had turned into a warehouse.
What’s new? That was the phrase Denny heard every day from his dad, and there apparently are symbols of Dobby’s phrase in almost each of the 24 buildings he worked on. He would rescue a miraculous old building, but in the middle of his restoration project, Dobby was anxious to move onto to something new. Perhaps that’s why White says they’ve discovered a trail of 32 handsaws throughout Frontier Town.
“He was one of those guys that started a project here, and then moved onto something else,” she chuckled. “He would just drop the tools, and he moved to something else."
“His not finishing up gave us something to do,” added White, whose organization was officially deeded Dobby’s Frontier Town on May 21 by Dennis and Liz Lee. “What he did was tremendous. How he ever acquired all this stuff is just mindboggling. There is so much out here.”
This mind-boggling stuff has had folks from as far away as Australia coming to Frontier Town, which in a rare tourist twist allows visitors full access inside all the buildings. In the spring of 2011, celebration was in full bloom at Dobby’s when the guest book was signed by residents of Maine, which had been the only state not to have one of its citizens explore Frontier Land.
White still is in awe at how the Lee crew brought home all these doorways to the past. There was the old Texaco gas station that Dobby rescued from Chadron State Park, hauling it away just before it toppled over on a ravine. But Denny says the most difficult move was bringing home the 19th century Sheridan County District #100 School that was eventually restored after the heavy lifting.
“We finally got it on the ground after three years,” he said. “They had put sand around it and it rotted. I got her up in the air, but there was hardly anything left to set her down.”
Dobby kept up working on his Frontier Town until illness grabbed hold of him when he was 87. Denny and Liz had moved into his home to care for him, and one day Dobby sat down on his favorite chair to share something with his son.
“Well, it’s all yours,” he said. Three days later, he was in the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, S.D., struggling with full-blown pneumonia. Even in his final hours, Dobby left another story to tell.
Dennis said his father was always a cheerful guy who would make plans for the next day. But on that final day, on April 15, 2009, he suddenly told the nurses he didn’t want to make plans for the next one. He died within hours from a massive heart attack.
There’s still work to be done and more tales to be told at Dobby’s Frontier Town. Two more buildings have been built, and a couple more moved in for restoration. It is one of the ultimate ironies of this ironic tale that the historic quest is led by White, who didn’t finish college for 25 years because she refused to take a required history course.
“It’s bizarre,” she said with a laugh. “That was what I did not want to do, and that is what I live for now.” How truly bizarre. How truly Dobby.
(This article originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)