North Platte Town Story
North Platte sits at the center of its own western world.
(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
NORTH PLATTE is your land, North Platte is my land, from Buffalo Bill Cody to the Miss Nebraska Pageant, from railroad wonders to the veterans memorial’s glory, North Platte was made for you and me.
For more than 150 years, a song from this gateway to the west has echoed out to millions of travelers, from the great pioneer trails to the nation’s super highway, Interstate 80, where 1,500 hotel and motel rooms await curious visitors to this city of about 24,700 folks. North Platte’s song played to the beat of wagons on the constant drive westward. It was here in 1847 that a couple of Mormon pioneers invented an early version of the odometer by hooking a contraption to a wagon wheel to measure their journey. So many journeys. So many stories.
In 1822, the great Lakota chief Red Cloud was born just east of here where the North and South Platte rivers become one. Decades later, he posed at Wild West shows with North Platte’s most famous resident, Buffalo Bill, years after Col. Cody staged the nation’s first rodeo here on July 4, 1882. Famed bandleader Glenn Miller played his first songs here as a child, plucking on a mandolin long before his golden notes sounded on the jazz trombone. U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel was born here, and North Platte High football stars Danny Woodhead and Nathan Enderle now carry on their school glory in the NFL. Even Henry Hill, the infamous gangster portrayed in the film classic Goodfellas, crash landed here in 2005, stirring the pot as a cook and becoming part of the city’s notorious criminal folklore that dates back to the 1920s when North Platte was known as Little Chicago.
But the steady, pounding drumbeat throughout North Platte’s song is the sound of trains rolling on the tracks. The trains delivered North Platte Rail Town USA, with the Cody Park Railroad Museum, and the eight-story Golden Spike Tower that watches over Union Pacific’s 8-mile-long Bailey Yard, the largest railroad complex in the world. In September, thousands are expected for what may be the biggest party train ever, when UP celebrates its 150th birthday at the town’s annual Rail Fest. The railroad also brought over 6 million GIs here during World War II, when thousands of volunteers greeted them with refreshments and hospitality at the beloved North Platte Canteen.
Yet the railroad wasn’t always so kind. When the village of North Platte formed in 1873, its dirt streets had already been tenderized for years by millions of longhorn cattle stampeding to the railroad stockyards. This followed the nasty beginnings of the settlement when the UP track was laid down in 1866, and a rough-and-tumble crowd joined in to earn North Platte its first nickname: “Hell on Wheels.”
“We’ve always been home to extraordinarily rowdy people,” said Sage Merritt, the spicy news editor of the North Platte Telegraph. “It’s the kind of place where people gather together to cause a lot of trouble and then eventually settle down to make babies, and it has continued to be that place for 150 years.”
Now 28, Sage returned home at 24 to North Platte to take on the news editor’s post after a savant-like academic fast break that saw her head off to college in Virginia at the age of 15. Armed with tattoos and a lip ring, Sage is in perfect harmony with both the newsroom, and a head-banging rock show. She’s honored to follow the footsteps of the late Keith Blackledge, the paper’s former editor and beloved community leader, but Sage also was a singer with heavy metal bands for three years, and that helps her tune into news sources.
“It pretty much introduced me to everyone in town under the age of 40 and made my job real easy,” Sage said. “Here, we would get 300 people in a tiny little bar for our show because we’re members of the North Platte community and they wanted to help our band succeed.” Sage gets a proud hug in the coffee shop from her beaming mother, Trudy Merritt, and the unbiased journalist hugs her back with equal pride over her mom’s accomplishments as a fitness leader in town. The longtime aquatics director was inspired to get her fellow citizens motivated about exercise after a state report concluded there were too many husky Huskers.
The mother of four, and wife of rancher Roger, plunged into the mission. In April of 2002, she started a mini triathlon, and that event has grown into the Platte River Fitness Series. Twelve events throughout the year welcome 1,500 enthusiastic participants ranging from jogging toddlers to runners in their 80s. Many have conquered obesity. Others have used these challenges to run through grief, or physical and emotional struggles.
“For whatever magical, wonderful reason, these events seem to really resonate with people,” Trudy said. “We’ve created ways for people to be welcomed into these sort of events in the least intimidating forum possible. It’s a movement.”
Trudy is also proud that her daughter failed to heed mom’s urging to move on to fame and fortune as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times.
“She stood her ground and reminded me, ‘why not North Platte?’ ” Trudy marveled. “Where is it written that because it’s in a bigger city it’s better? As someone who loves this community, I couldn’t argue with her. She was absolutely right.”
But some proud boosters admit this is a city with challenges. There are concerns over parking and school funding. Business owners yearn for downtown to be re-energized.
“I think our downtown is going through a transition right now,” said Alan Hirschfeld, chairman of the Downtown Task Force.
“There’s some very good businesses down here, but there’s a few open spots, and we’re working with the task force to get those things taken care of.”
When he’s not meeting with Mayor Marc Kaschke trying to fashion the downtown facelift, Hirschfeld is busy operating his downtown men’s clothing store, a 90-yearold family business where three generations of owners have dressed up North Platte’s male population. While shoppers are casting about Hirschfeld’s clothing line they’ll notice a cash register that punched in the store’s first sales in 1917.
NORTH PLATTE HAS SO much to sing about. In June, the city hosted its 44th straight year of NEBRASKAland Days. The monster bash hosts the famed Buffalo Bill Rodeo, and rolls on with an antique car parade, ultimate barbecues, sandcastle contest, and a concert headlined by country superstar Toby Keith. There’s also the summer oasis at Lake Maloney, and fascinating exhibits in the Lincoln County Historical Museum, where you can stay cool while learning how North Platte businessman Jack Wilson invented the walking sprinkler in 1930. History soars at North Platte Regional Airport Lee Bird Field, where a mural shows how the airfield had the nation’s first night landing on Feb. 21, 1921, with fuel-burning barrels guiding the airmail relay ride from San Francisco.
North Platte’s tourism sings out from Scout’s Rest Ranch, with Buffalo Bill’s house, barn and Wild West Show exhibits wooing herds of history buffs to the state historical park. Across town is North Platte’s most breathtaking landmark, the 20th Century Veterans Memorial. This beacon at the I-80 and Highway 83 intersection is a majestic array of bronze statues and a 15-foot-high, bas-relief mural, while thousands of bricks donated by local citizens line the Walk of Honor pay tribute to veterans of America’s five major conflicts in the past century.
The journeys continue, from planes, trains … and skateboards.
In Brandon Raby’s downtown Caravan shop the walls are mounted with skateboards splashed with rainbow colors worthy of a modern art exhibit. Teen boys hang out. Two play chess, while another strums a guitar. They all nod that 33-year-old Raby is an extremely cool guy. Just don’t tell Brandon that skateboarding is extreme.
“I don’t like the association with extreme and skateboarding,” says Raby, who is working with civic leaders to upgrade the city’s skateboard park. “That’s kind of like the mass media’s perception of skateboarding, but it’s pretty inaccurate.
“Skateboarders are more free and independent and artistic and expressive
and athletic,” Raby added. “They just aren’t interested in following typical groups from high school or society.”
Raby doesn’t seem like a follower either, and he vows to lead North Platte into becoming the Bailey Yard of skateboarding. “I’m staying true to our skateboard culture,” he says. “The east side of Nebraska has a lot skateboarding potential, but there’s not much out to the west. So I’m kind of the gateway toward Colorado.”
The confidence rolls as smooth as his tight half-pipe rides and Raby boasts he has the state’s top skateboard DVD collection. “Hands down,” he says. “There’s huge skateboard shops in Lincoln and Omaha and I got them beat easy.”
Raby moved here from the state of Washington when his traveling musician father decided to stop traveling when he reached North Platte. While he may look like ex-Seattle grunge, he plays music for a fan base closing in on AARP. Brandon plays guitar for Blue Swing, a band performing gypsy jazz, a style pioneered in France in the 1930s by Django Reinhardt.
“Oh man, it’s the most phenomenal music,” Raby gushes.
Across the street, more beautiful music plays as an employee tunes a piano with a bit of Beethoven at Kittle’s Music. For 50 years, the store was known as Murphy Modern Music, but then Rob Kittle bought it in 1999 after attending a musical instrument repair school. In 2001 he decided that if he owned the place he might as well own the name as well. The business that occupies this 10,000-square-foot building has shifted from the heavy lifting of piano sales to music lessons from 11 teachers and about 100 students a week, as well as tuneups for all kinds of instruments. Much of Kittle’s time is devoted to woodwinds and brass.
“You’ve got to know what it should sound like and you’ve got know what it should feel like,” says the veteran musician, who once was a hardcore rocker.
The touchy oboe is considered the most difficult instrument to repair, but one of Kittle’s personal favorite fixes is the saxophone. “To totally redo a saxophone you’ll take all the keys off it,” Kittle says. “In fact, I can show you one upstairs that’s naked.”
Besides undressing saxophones, Kittle has played 5,000 guitars in his quest for purchases at trade shows. Although Kittle says the business has many happy notes, dealing with the downtown blues isn’t exactly music to his ears, though he and many others are working hard to make it brighter.
Inspiring songs sing out from city landscapes in a project by the Creativity Unlimited Arts Council where 1,500 residents painted 300 tiles on each of the 8-foot-tall sculptures in city parks. North Platte’s canvas of community spirit is also found at the community college, St. Patrick’s High School, and the expanding Great Plains Regional Medical Center, where more than 80 physicians cared for about 150,000 patients in 2011. The caring canvas also includes a bank.
On May 14, 1998, three North Platte banking executives, backed by $3 million in revenue from six shareholders opened NebraskaLand National Bank, bucking the trend of national banks devouring small-town institutions. Kim Schroll was one of those three bold pioneers, and 14 years later, she’s the executive vice president of the city’s largest bank, with over 80 shareholders and $430 million in capital. Schroll says NebraskaLand’s success has been aided by community volunteerism encouraged by the bank’s founder and CEO, Mike Jacobson. The bank also sponsors its namesake two-week June festival.
“I’ve been on the other side where the decisions were made in a different community,” Schroll said. “I so enjoy this because we’re able to decide what we want to be involved in and what we want to be passionate about.”
Beyond directing banking operations, Schroll, the mother of two young boys, may be spotted teaching a financial education course to teens, or serving hot dogs from the bank’s 8,500-pound grill. You might also see her checking out a mountain of dirt near the I-80 exit, since that’s where the bank will reach a higher summit with a new headquarters in 2014, once the 60,000-square-foot, 3-story building is complete.
“Local shareholders, local owners, local decisions,” Schroll says of her bank’s happy song.
A few blocks away the music sounds beautiful for Ken and Connie Bible, owners of The Pink Poodle diner, a delightful blast from their past, where 1950s music in a classic jukebox plays from breakfast through dinner. While records spin, the chocolate malts blend, and the burgers sizzle, patrons gaze at all of Connie’s memorabilia from that Teen Angel era, including Howdy Doody ventriloquist dolls.
Waitresses in vintage pink poodle skirts take your order, while a soda jerk stands ready at an old-fashioned soda fountain. At any moment you expect John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John to dance in off the movie Grease. It’s an endless Happy Days rerun as teens hang out with grandparents who hung out the same way decades ago.
“One lady came in and told me, ‘I left all my troubles at the door and I’m not going to pick them up for about an hour and a half,’ ” Connie said. Since the diner opened last year, the music of her dreams plays on like it did when she was a teen in the 1950s, dancing away to American Bandstand in McCook.
Teen employees go by stage names like Stormy, Donnie Boy, Shakes and Soda Pop. They leave behind their worries, and their cell phones, storing them in lockers while working.
Connie started the diner so her husband of nearly 50 years could get a break from standing for hours in their nearby screenprinting and embroidery business. But Ken doesn’t take things sitting down. After all, he brainstormed the concept for Rail Fest over a cup of morning coffee with Connie. His collection of 35,000 records also keeps the place rocking.
“She tells me where to go and what to do,” cracks Ken with a playful moan.
“He’s my king,” Miss Connie says.
But Miss Connie has another King. Anything from Elvis is as valuable to her as Pink Poodle’s bar, purchased at auction, and said to be where Buffalo Bill sipped sarsaparilla in town at the Alamo watering hole. Miss Connie had a hunk of burning love for Elvis.
“He was on top of my bedroom wall,” she croons.
In an emotional tribute to The King and Connie, we decide on a hearty breakfast with The Elvis Sandwich, grilled with bacon, bananas and peanut butter. A meal fit for a King.
“The secret is the right kind of peanut butter,” Connie said.
And an owner to spread the joy.
The good times have continued since Duanne and Dixie Gaedke opened Cody Go Karts in 1981 for highway drivers to pitstop in a place with two cool go-kart tracks, a massive water park and a unique miniature golf course. Most amazing is that Duanne, with the help of his ever-industrious wife of 42 years, built most of this park, including planting the magical garden and enchanting forest of towering trees.
“When we bought this property there wasn’t a tree or shrub on it,” Duanne said.
“It was pretty much just sand and sand burs from here to the road,” Dixie adds.
“There’s no other facility like it,” said Duanne, who says folks from Denver to Chicago gather here for family reunions.
Yes, Duanne’s name comes with two n’s, because his mom liked the character in a Zane Grey novel. Unique family names are nothing new for the Gaedke tribe. His late father was Theodore Roosevelt Gaedke, and it was at TR’s farm near Wellfleet that Duanne learned to make things. While I’m waiting for him to show me the top-secret powder he created for silly spinouts on the Challenger Slick Track, I head to the game room and take on the Bird Brain booth chicken for the world championship of Tic-Tac-Toe. It thought I was another pigeon, but when I’m just the middle X away, the champ chickens out.
Duanne brings over the Slick Track’s Bluestone powder, guarded by three loving German shepherds, including a Czech version that looks like he just swallowed Rin Tin Tin. “It takes three tablespoons to do the entire track to make it so slick it’s like driving on ice,” Duanne says.
“He’s also a plumber,” says Dixie of her inventive husband who designed the water filtration system for the water park that runs through 2,000 gallons of water per minute.
If he isn’t recruited away by NASA, Duanne hopes to complete within two years the Taj Mahal of miniature golf courses. The building looks like an aban
doned mine shaft, but will feature 17 waterfalls, a botanical garden and hologram of an old miner. The course hit a sand trap when Duanne got stuck placing bricks in the deep wishing well he dug.
“He’s a perfectionist and that’s not always easy to live with,” chuckles Dixie, who charged to Duanne’s rescue with a tractor and pulled him free.
Thanks to Dixie, Duanne and the wishes live on. So if you see a plane suddenly taking off from a North Platte garage, that’s just the Barracuda aircraft Duanne’s been building since 1978.
BOB MCFARLAND TAUGHT biology for 37 years at North Platte High. This retired football coach also has the most unique gridiron connections in the city. He not only was coach of Danny Woodhead, but as a backup defensive back at the University of Nebraska, McFarland covered the Huskers’ legendary Heisman Trophy Winner Johnny Rodgers in practice. While UNL recruiting scouts overlooked the 5-foot-8 speedster, Woodhead became the little engine who could, with a fabled career as a running back at Chadron State, and now the Mighty Mouse favorite for New England Patriots fans.
“I’m probably one of the very few people who can make an actual comparison between Johnny Rodgers and Danny Woodhead,” said the former North Platte defensive coach. “Both of them had small size, exceptional quickness, exceptional speed, but Danny was a better football player because Danny was a lot stronger.”
But before setting his own records as a sprinter, McFarland was part of perhaps the most unique sports event in North Platte history. On Aug. 27, 1967, he was a 12-year-old water boy for an exhibition game at the high school between the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders. Some local boosters arranged the game by paying each team just $25,000.
Dubbed the Centennial Bowl in honor of the 100th anniversary of Nebraska, the Broncos won 21-17, but the Raiders made it to Super Bowl II that January. Thousands of bleachers were brought in for the anticipated overflow crowd, and while only a modest attendance of 6,000 was reported, that wasn’t what a wide-eyed boy saw serving drinks to future Hall-of-Famers.
“The place was packed,” he said. “I was in awe.”
We were in awe after coming across one of the world’s wildest souvenir shops at the Fort Cody Trading Post, and later our trail hit a fitting end. He steps into the vis
itors’ bureau in knee-high cavalry boots, long silver locks flowing from under his cowboy hat onto a buckskin jacket.
“I’m Colonel Cody,” the majestic voice flows. “Is Major Spencer in the territory?”
Buffalo Bill marches to his truck. His secret identity revealed as Bruce Richman, a longtime local Realtor and auctioneer, but a few years after longtime Buffalo Bill impersonator Charlie Evans passed away in 1996, Richman’s beard and mane carried on the tradition as a volunteer for parades and other special events.
We head to the Richman family ranch, where he puts a bridle on his favorite white horse, Rock. Even though they were just horsing around, he once saddled Rock and on horseback performed an informal wedding ceremony.
The “colonel” trims his striking beard monthly, and has cut about 3 feet off his locks over the past decade. When he visits schools and curious kids doubt the hair is his, Richman tips his cap and offers them a playful tug. Nearly 64, with the same bulky 6-foot-1 frame as Buffalo Bill, the resemblance is eerie.
“A lot of people ask me if I’m a descendant,” he says. “I’m just trying to keep the tradition alive.”
Yes, tradition rides on in North Platte, and that song of hope still echoes across this land.
(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)