Signs of German Valley

Even though there is no water tower or “Welcome to German Valley” sign, German Valley is alive and well today.

(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

MAPS CAN BE MISLEADING. Road signs too. As I turn north, passing through Brewster on Highway 7, crossing over the North Loup River and pushing further into the Sandhills, I pass a sign stating that it’s 43 miles to Ainsworth. That’s good to know.

But there’s nothing to inform travelers when they enter German Valley. It’s not even on my map. Maybe it doesn’t need to be – there’s no post office, no stores, no hospital or dentist, no school and no town. In a green meadow, a huge white cross dominates the skyline. Tire tracks through the roadside grass show that it’s a shrine of sorts, or at least a place for motorists to stretch their legs and maybe take a photo or two.

I wonder – who made this cross? Is it the towering billboard of a devout rancher living nearby? At its base, a large bible reads, “Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is.” After years of crossing through this area and always wondering about it, I know it’s time to learn the story of German Valley.

Something about the Schipporeit Ranch sign has always captivated me. It’s not the unique German name, or even the sign’s construction that sparks my imagination. Yes, it’s a beautiful name and a beautiful sign, but what has always amazed me is the date on it, Homesteaded 1883. It has to be one of the oldest ranches in all of Nebraska.

Nailed to the fence is a sign I hadn’t noticed before, a very small sign that reads German Valley Cemetery. Now we’re getting somewhere.

As I drive down the narrow sand trail, a mixture of grassland and water birds flush from the sand reed, bluestem and cattails flanking the road. Mallards and bluewinged teal keep a watchful eye on me as they paddle away, while meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds claim fence posts and boldly object to the intrusion of my vehicle scraping bottom as I straddle waterfilled ruts. Frogs dive for cover, wildflowers sway in the breeze and garter snakes bask on the sunlit trail as a cranky windmill spins a hundred miles an hour.

Having heard the growing commotion of steel undercarriage on sand, gravel, and mud from his house, a man is waiting for me near a fork in the road.

I inquire about the location of the cemetery and whether or not this low rider can make it there. He points the way and assures me that the cemetery road is a good one. Nearly as good as the road I just rode in on.

“Dad mows it, I do the digging,” says the man, Eric Schipporeit, of the cemetery he and his father lovingly tend. His ancestors were the first white settlers to homestead the valley and as the sign says, it was in 1883. Like the wave of immigrants that followed, they were Germans from East Prussia.

Barely 80 graves occupy the scenic resting place surrounded by endless Sandhills prairie. The oldest interment I could find belongs to a Schipporeit.

As he drags a water hose toward some task, Schipporeit suggests that I walk next door and speak to his father. “He’s the county historian.”

A sign near the back door reads: “A VETERAN LIVES HERE WITH HIS COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF.”

With the exception of time spent in the Navy rescuing downed pilots and outwitting submarines from his PBM seaplane during the Korean War, Al Schipporeit has lived his entire life in German Valley.

His commander in matrimony, Marilyn, hales from California, and the couple met at an April 1955 wedding where his best friend was marrying her best friend.

Al and Marilyn were engaged in May, and married in September. “It was quite a culture shock coming here,” she says. “I didn’t know where Nebraska was.”

“I made sure she didn’t have much money when she got here,” jokes Schipporeit. “I was afraid she might try to get a plane ticket home.” She stayed grounded in Nebraska and the couple raised three children in the valley, including next-door neighbor, Eric, whose son, Thomas, is the sixth generation of Schipporeits to live and work this land.

Al and Marilyn worked together for three years, spending hundreds of hours interviewing residents and compiling information from the first days of settlement to the present day for their simply titled book, Blaine County History.

The name Schipporeit literally means “ship builder,” and Al’s great-great-grandfather, Christian Schipporeit, his brother, Jacob, and a family friend, William Schlingman, signed on to a freighter, cruised to America and on to Omaha in 1876 after learning that the Nebraska Territory had been opened to settlement.

“They didn’t have the means to move out west,” Schipporeit says. “But while toiling in Omaha the men saved, and in 1883 they had enough money to begin looking for land.”

“They were heading toward Brownlee when they stopped to spend the night on a homestead at Almeria,” Schipporeit said. The settler there had just returned from a deer hunt and regaled the traveling trio with tales of valleys of lush green grass, plentiful herds of deer, and endless flocks of ducks and other wildlife. Perhaps it was a sign from above.

The next day, the three struck out toward the heavenly valley.

Finding the land north of the Loup as described and to their liking, the men located the survey stakes and signed the necessary paperwork to claim their own one-quarter section of free land. There may have been no sign, but German Valley was born. The men returned to Omaha, readied their families, and moved west. Settlers with names such as Kaiser, Crone, Jochem, Fetherston, Marvel, Burke, Schneidereit and others followed.

In 1886, Reverend Moessner of Grand Island began taking the train to Dunning, and then the remaining 25 miles to German Valley by wagon to preach in settlers’ homes. 

“All was well until 1888, when Jacob Schipporeit died,” Al said. “Now they needed a cemetery.” Being the fair-minded individuals they were, the German Valley Cemetery was established an equal distance between homesteads.

After nearly two decades of occasional home-based church services, a proper facility, the St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, was built in 1904 in the heart of German Valley.

Then, in 1907, the Scheding Post Office was established. Fred Schipporeit was the postmaster for the community and so everyone would know it, he hung a wooden sign on his front porch that simply read “Scheding,” the post office being named for the pastor serving St. John’s at the time.

Scheding Post Office was short-lived. By the time a new church was dedicated in 1948, it had been gone for over 20 years. Still, the congregation of St. John’s was growing and a new blacktop highway was planned. Progress was coming. It was a sign of the times.

Across the valley, one of Ivan Schneidereit’s cows is showing signs of distress. She’s one of a few first-calf heifers left to drop their calves and she’s in trouble. Ivan holds his 3-year-old son, Zane, under one arm, and with a calf puller under the other heads to his pickup, calm but determined.

After a short ride, Schneidereit reaches for his rope as he steps out of the truck and the mother-to-be makes a quick run for it. A loop flies through the air and around the cow’s neck.

In a display of cowboying like this writer has never seen before, Schneidereit lowers the rope so it touches the cow’s front leg. The cow reacts and turns slightly. A slight turn from Schneidereit causes the cow to turn more, and eventually the animal has tied herself up to the point where she slowly rolls over.

The cow whisperer anchors the rope around a fence post and positions the animal, hooks up the calf puller and slowly wrenches the calf toward daylight. The exhausted mother cow offers no resistance.

Ivan alternates between prying, pulling and resting before the wet, shivering animal hits the ground 20 minutes later. Thankfully, the calf that Schneidereit estimates at 40 pounds heavier than most, is breathing. It’s a good sign. The calf lifts its head and the cow meets it muzzle to muzzle.

It’s a learning experience for Ivan’s young son and myself, but all in a day’s work for this old-school cowboy.

There isn’t much in the way of shiny, new equipment on this ranch. “My theory is that if a tractor isn’t as old as I am, then it hasn’t proven itself,” said Schneidereit, which explains his inventory of experienced but reliable machines.

The Schneidereit ranch itself dates to 1885 and Ivan and his family live in the grand, four-level home built by his great grandparents, Ferdinand and Augusta. The mansion is built of handmade blocks made from Sandhills gravel and sand, mixed with cement that took three days to get to German Valley via train from Grand Island. The cornerstones, which have a lighter color and smoother texture than the rest of the blocks, were made with sand taken from a blowout southeast of the ranch.

The neighboring Kaiser family, with help from Ferdinand and Augusta and their kin, built what Schneidereit calls a “sister house,” a slightly smaller dwelling with a similar floor plan, made of the same handmade blocks, a few miles away.

“Mr. Kaiser would put bottles of whiskey in cream cans and ship them to Grand Island during Prohibition. They got busted and that’s how they lost the place,” Ivan said. “They were just trying to get by.” The well-built structure is still being lived in today.

When two of Ivan’s uncles, both bachelors living in the larger home, passed away, Ivan was able to buy the home at auction. It dates to 1916, but not everything here is antiquated.

In January 2011, Ivan’s wife, Amy, gave birth to twin girls, Henrietta and Augusta. As Ivan and I sipped good Sandhills water at daybreak, the twins, and brother, Zane, slept while Amy prepared a beautiful breakfast of puffy pancakes topped with homemade chokecherry jelly. 

“When we got married and I made these for the first time, Ivan remembered them from his childhood,” Amy said. “He said ‘Those are German pancakes.’ They are also known as French pancakes.” On this cool Sandhills morning, I dub them Sandhills pancakes. The Schneidereits nod in agreement.

I look up after digging into mine and notice Amy and Ivan, each with an arm outstretched toward me. Embarassed and with full cheeks, I take their hands and Ivan says grace, his German lineage clearly noticeable in his voice. A handwritten sign on the wall above him reads, “Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good for His mercy endureth forever.” Amen.

The first youngster to stir from slumber is not a Schneidereit, it’s Begaim Karymshakova, a 17-year-old exchange student from the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. She’s already graduated from high school, but chose to come to the United States for a year to improve her English.

“We probably taught her a lot of slang,” says Ivan with a smile. “How many ways did we teach you to say ‘yes’? There’s yep, uhhuh, you bet, OK, darn tootin,’ alrighty....”

Yes, the Kyrgyzstani who attended Sandhills High School in Dunning learned a lot during her stay in Nebraska. Like how to ride a horse, tend a garden, gather eggs, move cattle, and pull calves. She’s also been a big sister to the Schneidereit children and to Amy’s other children, Megan, 18, Andrew, 13 and Russell, 11, and is a big help to the Schneidereits when one of them has to fly toward a struggling calf or other ranch emergency.

When Amy isn’t on the ranch, she might be flying above it. She pilots four-engine KC-135 air refueling tankers for the Air National Guard.

“It’s quite a contrast to work cattle on this historic ranch one day, and then drive four hours to Sioux City and fly military aircraft the next,” Schneidereit says. But the airplanes she flies, like Ivan’s tractors, are older than she is. “It’s a dream job,” Lt. Col. Schneidereit says.

In a salute to his wife, Roberta, known as Birdy to local residents, Carl Schneideriet, Ivan’s late father, made one of her dreams come true.

“When she was young, she had a dream once that one day she’d marry a guy that kept a giraffe in the front yard,” Ivan said. “So Dad made her one as a sign of his love for her.”

The life-size, anatomically correct creature is just down the road one-eighth of a mile from Ivan’s home and is made from the same Sandhills sand. It’s a real head turner when the occasional tourist wanders by, but by that time they’ve already passed the bison, male African lion, a couple of deer and the black bear.

In the yard of Ivan’s late parents, near Birdy’s giraffe, and across the road from the ornate Schneidereit Ranch sign, is a cage. Built for criminals as Brewster’s Blaine County Jail, a repaired section is evidence of a successful escape attempt long ago when someone slipped the inmate a hacksaw.

Carl Schneidereit had an interest in wildlife and when he heard that a gas station owner in Ainsworth had traded baby bobcats for baby bear cubs and needed to find a home for one of them, Carl bought the young bear. The jail had a new inmate.

When Carl and Roberta were first married they didn’t have much. But they had a bear. So, after the wedding, the now adult bear, who was simply named “Bear,” found himself free of steel bars and ended up as an entree near the salad bar during the reception.

Ivan says the cement bear sculpture is actual size, and, the matrimonial bear skin hangs in memorial in what Schneidereit calls “The Shed.”

Not really a storage shack, the building is actually a large community center with a reception hall, game room, and full kitchen, as well as rooms available for lodging by travelers. It’s an unexpected jewel in the middle of nowhere and hosts many graduation and wedding receptions, church picnics and hunting parties.

While the cement bison stands stoically at the base of the dunes behind the shed, the giraffe, deer and bear graze eternally near a homemade Ferris wheel, human-powered merry-go-round, motorized planes, swings and even a UFO.

Carl Schneidereit created the Carl-nival in 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. “Since they ran on gas engines, I didn’t get to ride them often,” Ivan said. “But when there was company, Dad would fire it up.”

The inventive Schneidereit was always tinkering, always building. Several experimental windmills supply water on the ranch years after his death, and while preparing for an estate sale, what had to be a homemade jet engine was found among his creations. He built a semi-tractor by combining a Ford Thunderbird and a pickup, and a well-known implement company stole Carl’s design for a mechanized hay stacker, Ivan said.

Today, the Ferris wheel is the most popular attraction and several of the rides have been converted to run on electricity, which comes in handy during the church picnic and family renuions.

Past the cement zoo and Carl Schneidereit’s wind-ravaged Dutch windmill, the road twists in a three-pronged fork – one to Ivan’s house, one through the hill and lake country to the north, and one to the Rooney Ranch.

When Bob Rooney was growing up in Clifton, N.J., he could see the New York City skyline 13 miles away on a clear day. Still, the city boy longed for the wild.

He studied forest management in Colorado and during summer break, Rooney took a job with a house painter whose wife was related to the Schneidereits. “When they came to visit they would bring me along and I’d help Ivan’s parents on the ranch,” Rooney said. “They were in need of help at the time, so I eventually decided to forgo school and came out to help them full time.” That was in 1977, nearly a century after the valley’s first homesteaders arrived.

Every evening, after milking the Schneidereits’ cows and before milking his own, Rooney would fish for bluegill and largemouth bass in the waning daylight at the Schneidereits’ pond. Almost every night, a local girl, Karen Schneidereit, whom Rooney had seen at the scenic little church along Highway 7, would appear.

“She said she was just taking her evening walk but her timing was perfect each night,” Rooney said. “I had been praying about meeting someone and starting a family. Some call it happenstance. I call it God’s plan.”

In 1982, Bob and Karen’s hearts were joined in matrimony in the church that is the heart of German Valley. He and Karen have raised five children here.

Rooney, who is signed on with the nearby Pennypoke Ranch, enjoys life here, living on the same homestead where his wife grew up. The pristine Sandhills surroundings fuel Rooney’s love of photography and he’s never without his camera. As we stare into an amber and blue Sandhills sunset worthy of any gallery, the photographer and ranch hand recalls his early days away from home in the remote Sandhills.

“I think about where I started out sometimes and feel fortunate to be here, but it was hard the first few years,” Rooney reminisces. “I was packed and ready to go home. Carl set me down and said I should stick it out a while longer. There are friendly people back home in the city, but not like here. When Carl and Birdy took me in, it was like I was family.”

(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

Rooney has been a hard-working fixture in German Valley for 35 years, but considering the long history of the valley that is more than 1,500 miles from where he grew up, this settler from New Jersey is a relative newcomer.

St. John’s pastor, Paul White, drives 98 miles from his home church in South Dakota to serve St. John’s small congregation. On this Sunday, a dozen parishioners turn out and spread out through the tiny building’s 14 pews. Only the Rooney family pew is full today. A pillow left in one pew, and a pair of reading glasses in another stored on a bookmarked hymnal, reveal the reserved seats of some of St. John’s regulars.

Following the sermon, plans were discussed for the next church picnic, summer bible school, and the planned church anniversary celebration.

Even though there is no water tower or “Welcome to German Valley” sign, German Valley is alive and well today.

Years ago, intent on getting to know these people, I drove the 2½ hours from my home to the church on a Sunday morning, and was there early for the 10 a.m. service, just like the sign said.

After waiting for an hour a passerby stopped to let me know that the church service wasn’t until 2 p.m. that particular Sunday. I couldn’t stay. Even when there are signs, you can’t always believe them.

Finally having attended St. John’s, on my way down the steps it occurs to me that the church sign in front of St. John’s looks a lot like that monumental cross standing along Highway 7.

I mention this to Ivan. With a humble smile he says, “My dad made the cross. And he made this sign, too.”

(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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