Town Story: Curtis
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Before being removed for highway improvements, signs at the edge of town assigned 832 residents to the community, but the 2000 census didn’t count the college kids. The 2010 census did, and the population officially is 939 today. In short, Curtis is stable and holding its own.
In 2013, the school, its alumni and more than 300 students will celebrate its centennial with much fanfare. But no anvils will be fired, at least on campus.
Down the hill at Ag Valley Co-op, Linda Pelkey greets the afternoon happy hour coffee crew arriving from little houses across town, from nearby Maywood and from other locales near Medicine Creek.
Twelve years ago Pelkey came to Curtis to visit a friend. She’s still here. “I got attached to Curtis – it’s a great place for kids, and there’s a lot of really good people in this town.”
Some of these good people – Cole, Stan Pilcher, Cloid Schmitz, Bob Furrow and John Roseberry – solve the world’s problems in between Styrofoam cups of dark roast and decaf. The store’s manager, Tammy Grunden, clued us in on something, “The ladies don’t have coffee here anymore; these old-timers sort of pushed them out. It’s the Men’s Club now.”
Today, the club’s conversation centers around Pilcher’s winter bobcat and badger harvest along Cut Creek, and how a cougar dragged off a trap; but seeing an opportunity to promote Curtis, Schmitz shared what he considers the community’s most important attributes.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place to live,” Schmitz said. “We’ve got scenic roads, lakes; we’re close to the Sandhills; there’s an Indian lodge up the road, and we’ve got the best-tasting water in the world. Everything we need is right here.”
Everything, that is, except a courthouse. The Frontier County courthouse is 10 miles away in Stockville, pop. 36. There were attempts in 1920, 1930 and in 1950 to relocate the county seat to Curtis. When we asked the “Men’s Club” about it, Schmitz said, “That’s still a sore subject.” Cole ended discussion on the topic by raising his hand and saying, “You don’t want to bring that up around here.”
Across Center Avenue, a 127-year-old newsworthy legacy shines from a storefront window. The newspaper simply named The News began telling all the news that was fit to print – while not shying away from controversial topics – starting back in 1886. Though it has had many monikers since then – The Courier, Curtis Enterprise and Hi-Line Enterprise – it’s known today as the Frontier County Enterprise. Editor Tori Willis’ intentional focus on Frontier County news is apparent when she says, “This newspaper has survived because we keep it local. If it doesn’t involve Frontier County, it doesn’t go in the paper.”
Willis and her husband, Bob, became local following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A company Bob formed in Colorado with five other computer programmers lost its contract with the Federal Aviation Administration, dooming the business. During his subsequent job search, Bob saw on the Internet auction website eBay that a newspaper in small town Nebraska was for sale. Tori, a Grand Island native and stay-at-home mom, dreamt of moving back to Nebraska to raise her family.
The couple with no publishing experience spoke to the newspaper’s owners and drove to Curtis for a look.
“At the school there was this long row of bikes – they weren’t even locked up,” Bob said. “I had no idea that places like this still existed. That’s when I knew we could live here.”
Away from work, Tori volunteers at the local theater. Bob is working with the city on a walking trail that will eventually surround Curtis. “The great thing about living in a small town like Curtis is that one person can really make an impact,” Bob said.
In addition to running the newspaper with her husband and three helpful employees, Tori also is the newspaper’s publisher, advertising salesperson, photographer, subscriptions clerk and bookkeeper. “When running a small-town newspaper, you wear a lot of hats,” Tori said.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE in this multitasking community is Mayor Brown. He was an electrician working for his family’s plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning, concrete, lumber and hardware supply store when he joined the city council in 1992. When the mayor resigned, Brown took over and has been at Curtis’ helm ever since. “When there’s something important that needs to be done, we stand up and do it,” Brown said.
A perfect example is Curtis’ Star Theater. Brown is president of the theater board, and when the community-owned facility was faced with either upgrading to a digital projector or sticking with old technology and not getting new films, the community responded, raising more than $100,000 for the machine in just three weeks.
A hefty $25,000 was donated by the Medicine Valley Economic Development Corp., and $10,000 came from a farmer whose children had watched movies at the theater. The rest came as smaller donations, and there were proceeds from bake sales, walk-a-thons and silent auctions supporters organized for the cause.
“One week we were showing films in 35 mm,” Brown said. “We were digital the next.”
Now, movies are shipped to Curtis on a hard drive and 50 dedicated volunteers work in exchange for a free soda and bag of popcorn.
The Friday and Saturday night showings are just $4 for adults, and 3-D movies are only $1 more.
As thanks for the community’s support, the Star recently gave away free pop and popcorn to everyone and showed a free film, too.
“It was a lot of fun, and Curtis deserved it,” Brown said. “We played Gone with the Wind.”
Taking advantage of a windless, warm afternoon, Kelli Wilson and her children were playing in the park as we left town. We stopped to say goodbye.
“It’s shocking moving from a place with millions of people you don’t know to a town of 700 where everyone knows you,” Wilson reflected. “Everyone in Curtis is so friendly. If you’re sick, people bring you food. And everyone waves. It’s comforting.”
CURTIS' EASTER PRIZE - To Curtis residents, their famous Easter Pageant is a golden egg, but not one they’re willing to hide.
Nebraska Gov. Charles Thone named Curtis Nebraska’s Easter City in 1981, yet the historic pageant depicting Jesus’ final earthly days dates back to the inaugural performance at the University of Nebraska School of Agriculture in 1958.
Seventeen scenes, including Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” the crucifixion and the resurrection, are performed by a volunteer cast of 65, and with music from a band of 50.
These unknown actors wear Hollywood props from famous movies. The pageant’s Roman soldier uniforms came from MGM Productions and were worn in the movies Quo Vadis, Ben Hur and Julius Caesar.
For 15 years, city councilman Brad Welch portrayed Peter in this Easter story.
“How this continues to come together is quite amazing,” Welch said. “It’s something we’re very proud of.”
(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)