Sidney: Soaring on the High Planes

Sidney shines out from the High Plains as an early 21st century triumph for Western Nebraska. Its population has risen above 6,800, and unemployment is almost as low as Cheyenne County’s grassland condos of burrowing prairie dogs.



(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine - Don't forget to check out our companion video, "Sinful Sidney!")


THERE'S EVEN MORE optimism rolling about than the freight trains from the three railroad lines constantly moving through town. But the trail of Sidney has had many twists and turns, starting in the 1870s when the most feared desperados of the Wild West lurked here. The community’s journey seems a lot like the breathtaking bluffs and wild canyons that surround this city. High hills of hope and valleys of deep despair. Things didn’t seem like they could get much lower than in 1968.

It was a year after the Sioux Army Depot had closed, which was the final blow in a decade of hard knocks. The 19,000-acre complex of igloo-like ammo bunkers built during World War II triggered the biggest boom in Sidney history. Oil was discovered here in 1949. Jobs poured in, new housing grew as fast as the region’s wheat fields, and the population swelled to an all-time high of 10,000.

Then the 1960s came, and prosperity galloped out of town. The oil wells dried up, the region’s missile industry burned out, and hundreds of jobs vanished with the depot’s 1967 demise. Housing foreclosures came in droves, and people blew out of Sidney as fast as the notorious wind would race in from Colorado.

“It was a scary time,” said local businessman Jerry Steffens. “There were a lot of empty houses. That was disheartening for Sidney. It took a lot of years to come back from that.”

The amazing comeback was led by Cabela’s, which by 1969 had moved its growing sporting goods business into a downtown warehouse. The multibillion-dollar company now employs 2,100 workers at its Sidney headquarters and generates a modern gold rush in local revenue each year when 1.2 million outdoorsmen and tourists flock to the expansive store to shop and take in the array of mounted wildlife displays. After a tour by road-weary travelers, 550 Sidney lodging rooms beckon.

Besides Cabela’s legendary impact, there are many other stories of people who refused to quit on Sidney. Two of them were Jerry Steffens and his wife, Diann, who believed in taking on life’s challenges in a hurry.

Jerry spent his early childhood living in an apartment that used to be the officers’ quarters at old Fort Sidney and is now a museum complex. By the grizzled age of 16, he married his 17-year-old Sidney sweetheart. A year later, their first of three daughters was born, and the Steffens’ entrepreneurial spirit was unleashed during Sidney’s struggling 1970s. Now, 42 years after those wedding vows, they are the owners of 26 apartments in Sidney with 16 more on the way. Their downtown partnerships include stores for home interiors, appliances, a women’s boutique and a Sam & Louie’s pizzeria franchise where Jerry still occasionally tosses some dough.

Both had practically hopped out of the cradle rolling up their sleeves. Jerry was selling night crawlers to bait shops by age 9, and as a young girl, Diann had her own baby-sitting business.

“I guess we understood that if we were going to make something of ourselves, we were going to have to work for it,” Jerry said. “So that’s what we did. But it’s easier to make things happen when people are behind you.”

The Steffens are among many local entrepreneurs whose business endeavors have been eased with the willing partnership of the city, led by Sidney’s City Manager Gary Person and his energetic sidekick, Community Development Director Megan McGown. Person still is amazed at the determined spirit Sidney showed after losing several of those bread-and-butter employers.

“I think it was that spirit of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps when they figured out the goose wasn’t going to lay the golden egg anymore,” Person said. “There was the same kind of spirit in the community that maybe the homesteaders had.”

Sidney is going against the statistical grain in rural America, with a spike in the younger grade-school population spinning faster than tosses at Sidney’s disk golf park. With two young daughters, McGown and her husband, James, a principal in Dalton, have a close-up view of this growth spurt.

“Western Nebraska is a rapidly aging population, and in Sidney we’re bucking that trend,” McGown said.

Wendall Gaston has been Sidney’s upbeat mayor for six years and took the job knowing a bit about politics, since his father and brother were both mayors in his neighboring hometown of Potter.

During his terms as mayor, Gaston has found most of the public feedback to be good. Sometimes too good, like when Gaston judged a pie-eating contest. The mayor couldn’t wait to dig into those 1-inch slivers, but pretty soon they started adding up.

“You almost eat three feet of pie,” Gaston said. “By the time you get done, that little sliver looks like a whole pie in itself. Then you have to try to remember and choose between all the pies that you ate.”

The mayor’s most dangerous campaign stop was a visit to a canyon where he encountered a village of slithery constituents. It was Sidney blacksmith-artist Jerry Spiker, who has spent many of his 60 years hunting rattlesnakes, who took the mayor there. Spiker fired a shot from his pistol down at a rocky slope, and the hillside moved with snakes. Gaston moved quickly for higher ground.

“Wendall decided to just stay on the top of the car and watch me from there,” Spiker said. “He figured that was a lot safer.”

Spiker never had a close call tracking rattlers in the hills and rocky canyons that ring Sidney. He started as a small boy, on patrol with his dad, Keith, walking about the family farm northeast of Sidney on land settled by his great-grandfather in 1907.

He’s killed hundreds of the reptiles and made stylish belts and hatbands from their hides. But his real adventures as an artist began about three decades ago with an anvil and forge.

The mighty blacksmith often can be found at his Prairie Wolf Forge on King Street near the downtown home where he resides with his wife, Barb. He’s hammered and chiseled projects for clients across the United States, Canada and even Australia, but some of his proudest creations are just blocks away. He laced the archway at Sidney’s Greenwood Cemetery with iron grapevines and roses, and he created the ironwork for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

Jerry’s father died in 1993, but the family’s snake-hunting tradition continues when Jerry’s own son, Ryan, visits from Colorado.

 

SOME HUMAN SNAKES slithered here soon after Sidney was formed in 1867 and named after railroad attorney Sidney Dillon. Union Pacific built the settlement near a military garrison, which by 1870 was moved to the south side of the tracks near the world’s longest creek, Lodgepole, and then renamed Fort Sidney. When gold was found in the Black Hills, gunslingers and railroad roughnecks made Sidney their stomping grounds before riding off 267 miles on the trail to Deadwood, S.D.

Today, the city has 21 houses of worship, but back then, it was notoriously known as Sinful Sidney, with 85 liquor establishments, joined by gambling dens and brothels. Bodies were dropping almost as fast as whiskey bottles emptied, and victims were planted in the Boot Hill Cemetery that is now a kinder and gentler tourist site, complete with mock tombstones.

The cleanup of Sinful Sidney was said to begin in 1881, when the town’s vigilante group tried to hang all the bad actors, but when the first giant thug took a half hour to hang, the town decided to simply issue a proclamation to get rid of the lawbreakers. It was J.J. McIntosh who supposedly led the charge to boot out the troublemakers. He then became Sidney’s first mayor in 1884.

That’s the story 82-year-old Kay Kahl always heard about her great-grandfather, but she admits some locals think McIntosh might have been a bad apple. She chuckled about not having a clue as to how the former railroad buffalo hunter came up with $5,000 as one of six founding investors of Sidney’s first lending establishment, American National Bank.

“He sometimes played poker with a gun in his lap,” she said. “I don’t know whether that was to intimidate people who were cheating or whether that was just to intimidate people, period.”

Kahl, a retired schoolteacher and mother of nine, got most of her stories from her grandmother, Rose, the maid who eloped with J.J.’s son, J.L., a prominent lawyer. Rose could talk her father-in-law into just about anything, Kahl said, including donating the high altar to St. Patrick’s Church before his passing in the 1920s.

Even Kay’s husband of six decades, Duane, has his suspicions about the mayor, but the retired farmer admits to his own devilish moments. His mother died when he was a year old, and his father let him run wild on Sidney streets until he was 12.

“We had a housekeeper, and she didn’t care where we were as long as we weren’t in the house messing it up.” he said.

One of the 84-year-old’s most fiendish stunts came on Halloween night with a couple of high school buddies, including the sheriff’s son. They found an outhouse in Gurley, loaded it into their pickup and dumped it in downtown Sidney at 10th and Illinois streets.

“That thing sat there for two days before they finally got it moved,” said Kahl, who married his wife “after a month of freedom” when he returned from the Korean War.

He grew mostly wheat and millet birdseed on his 2,200-acre farm for nearly five decades and said his biggest challenge in farming came just before permanently parking his tractor. That’s when 21 tornadoes blew across the county in 1999, including seven that twisted over the farm.

For Kay, who taught many years at rural schools and St. Patrick’s, her stormiest days came trying to raise nine children. When the tribe raised Cain, she had an exit strategy.

“There were days I’d leave home and run out and sit on the irrigation pipe in the middle of the cornfield so they couldn’t find me,” she said.

Life in Sidney back then wasn’t easy, but mom plowed through it all.

 

SIDNEY HAS REAPED bushels of community spirit. Gene and Margaret Lienemann are a volunteer couple for all seasons. Gene had literally been a strong voice in the community for years, broadcasting high school sports games in the 1950s and later serving as master of ceremonies for decades at public events. Then, in 1994, just months after retiring from the rural electric industry, much of that voice was lost. Gene had half his vocal cords removed during cancer surgery.

“You just adjust,” whispered Lienemann, 85, who still delights residents with his hobo clown character at parades. His community efforts soared when he married Margaret in 1999 and she moved into town from Alliance. All her volunteer efforts have made it a happy move for Sidney as well.

“Everybody seems willing to step forward and help do things,” Margaret said.

Several companies are helping Sidney take some giant steps. One business leader literally on the move is Adams Industries, where the company’s president, Don Adams, has revitalized the old Army Depot with an industrial park that houses this emerging transportation titan. His family’s 1960s trucking business now delivers an array of products by truck, rail, plane and ship.

Other players include Pennington Seed, which reportedly operates the world’s largest birdseed plant at Sidney. There’s also a lot to chirp about at TE Connectivity, where the workers and longtime plant manager Tim Ryder are part of the comeback spirit of Sidney.

Ryder moved here in 1993 with his wife and three children to work at telecommunications cable manufacturer Prestolite. There was a merger, a record high of 300 workers, and a doubling expansion to 328,000 square feet. Then the dot-com bubble burst in 1998.

The company shrunk to 90 workers, and in 2001, Ryder had to look dozens of his neighbors in the eyes and tell them that they would be let go. Many who lost their jobs actually tried to console Ryder. “I don’t think these people went home and wrung their hands,” Ryder said. “I think they got back up and at it.”

The comeback began and picked up steam in 2010 after the sale to TE Connectivity, which decided to move its copper production center to Sidney. Now, the plant is back to 170 employees.

While there’s a growing appetite for investment in Sidney, many good-eatin’ joints make sure folks don’t stay hungry for long. One of those landmark restaurants is Dude’s Steakhouse & Brandin’ Iron Bar, where for decades, locals and travelers have stopped in for the prime rib, steaks and a taste of the Wild West. The barroom opened in 1952, and the restaurant followed a decade later. Both were started by the late Deward Jelinek, a local rancher whom everyone knew as Dude.

The Silver Dollar Bar and Grill gets plenty of votes for the best cheeseburger in town. There’s also the old-fashioned home cooking at Grandma Jo’s Cafe, and the grill sizzles at the Buffalo Point Steakhouse & Grill next to the lake on Cabela Drive.

Downtown at The Book & Coffee Corner, owner Cindy Rohm has a sign hanging inside where her two stores join. Ravenous readers and latte lovers cross by these words: Enter as a stranger. Leave as our friend.

Welcome friend. You’re in Sidney.


(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine - Don't forget to check out our companion video, "Sinful Sidney!")

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