Sunday, August 2, 2009

Czech fest

Christy Kessler (facing camera), First Runner-Up of Miss Czech-Slovak US 2008-09, waits to compete in this years Pageant.

Story and Photos by Kyle Bruggeman

August 1st 2009 Wilber Neb: Americans are a proud people. Proud to be American and also proud to belong to a specific culture that came to America years ago. The Czech culture is one such culture to have spread its roots and spans across the entire country. The majority of Czechs have been farmers, yet those same farmers were also writers, musicians, and really good bakers.

E.J. Kopic, 83, has been coming to the annual Czech Festival for most of his life. He is proud of his culture, but is worried that the younger generations will not continue with their traditions.

Wilber Nebraska is considered the Czech capitol of the world. The town holds an annual Czech festival that brings Czech culture together. The town even has its own band called I Love My Band and includes people either from Wilber or those married to people from Wilber. During the festival the band travels from bar to bar, pushing their way through shoulder to shoulder traffic. Once inside the bass drums start pounding and the music begins. They play classic Czech music. One song that really gets people going included lyrics about drinking beer. The crowd gets more rowdy when the band plays the University of Nebraska varsity fight song. It is an event to behold in itself.

I Love My Band plays in a local bar during the later hours of the festival.

Frank Duba, 87, has lived in Wilber for the last few years after retiring his farm life just a few miles north of town. On July 31st Frank and his wife LeVerne struck up a conversation with Dennis and Rose Sulak who drove all the way from Texas to be a part of the event. The two couples spoke in Bohemian and instantly became good friends.

Frank Duba (left) his wife LeVerne, Dennis and Rose Sulak enjoy each others company just moments after meeting.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Deere souped

These turbo-charged monsters drag a sled down a dirt drag strip.

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 30, 2009, Wayne County Fair, Wayne, Neb: Tractor pull. I'd never seen one of these events before. Theses souped-up tractors, of all makes and models, pull a weighted sled down a dirt drag strip and pull it more than 300 feet, in some cases.

Noisy? Yes, they are and the crowd loved every minute of it. I'm not a fan of racing, drag racing or tractor pulls, but it doesn't mean I can't enjoy it for what it is. The crowd there, the drivers and the pit crews are all very into what they do.

I had a good time and I might, at some point in the future, return again to a tractor pull to make more pictures.

Kelly Grone (left, front), Stuart Lubberstedt and Kelly's daughter, Kayla, and others in the crowd, covered their ears during the 5700 modified class event of the tractor pull. This tractor class is very loud.

Carol Conner went to get three funnell cakes. She came back with six and wasn't sure how that happened. Her son Mitchell is helping to carry a couple of the drinks.

Pit crews and other spectators watch the tractors during the pulling events.

There's a lot of smoke that belches out of these tractors while they pull the sled down the track.

A perfect day

Deon LaPointe (left), 30 and his brother, Don, 42, had a few nibbles on their lines but no fish to show for their efforts.

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 30, 2009, Missouri River, Santee Sioux Reservation, Neb: I first met Don LaPointe, Jr., when I arrived at the tribe's governmental offices. I went there to get permission to take photographs about the BIA workers checking the prairie grasses on the reservation.

After talking with him for a few minutes, I discovered he is the director of the Santee Parks and Wildlife department. One of his jobs is to go out on the river and fish. Wow, great job!

The next day, out on the river we went. His brother, Deon, came along. He, too, works for the agency.

As for the economy, Don noted that income for the tribe through hunting and fishing revenues are down. He said that started less than two years ago. With last summer's high fuel prices, it kept customers away. And now with the economy where it is, "Folks are just not showing up," he said.

Back out on the lake, Don noted that he also writes a fishing report. With no fish to put on the stringer, Don thought I must pretty bored, and then when the motor wouldn't start he thought my day was ruined.

I replied that I'm in a boat, on the water, the sun is shining and I'm taking pictures. That for me is a perfect day.

Don said, "Without any fish I guess my report will be pretty short."

Thank you Don and Deon. I had a great time and met two nice guys. Hope to see you again.

After pulling up anchor, the boat's motor wouldn't start. Fortunately Don had taken the boat upstream and Deon used the oar to steer the boat while the current powered the boat. Shortly, another boat of fishermen showed and up they towed us back to the dock.

Don gets the boat loaded on the trailer and he said he was taking it straight back to the mechanic who had just looked at it the night before. Of course, it ran great while in the shop.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Burning grasses

Story and photo by Bruce Thorson

July 29, 2009, Santee Sioux Reservation, Neb: On a hilltop overlooking the Missouri River, Larry Thompson (left), 56, heads downhill to roll up the tape measure while Nathan Reece, 28,
full-blood Ojibwea, and Luke Schneiders, 21, part Santee Sioux, identify the grasses growing on the Santee Sioux Reservation. All three work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and are working on a burn project that began in 2002. According to Thompson, "Fields need to be burned to help them be healthy."

He went on to say that with all the fire fighting efforts over the past few decades, the natural burning of the fields has stopped. As a result, the weeds and other plants are choking out the good grass. This project is designed to see if burning the fields will reverse the process and allow the good grass to flourish.

The tribe uses this land to graze more than a thousand head of cattle and about 40 head of buffalo.

Two rivers and a canal

Story and photo by Bruce Thorson

July 29, 2009, Niobrara State Park, Neb: Getting up this morning at 6:30, this was my view from the trailer. The Mormon Canal is in the foreground, the Niobrara River just slightly visible in the upper center of the photo and the Missouri River (the river itself is not visible) is located all the way in the background beneath the ridge on the horizon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Capone's mirror

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 28, 2009, O'Neill, Neb: The Golden Hotel, opened in 1913, was a thriving business in the 1920s. The rooms were modern in its day, offering telephone service in the room, hot and cold water and some rooms had a private bath.

Christine Carman and her son, Jake, purchased the hotel three years ago this month. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I asked Christine what was so historic about the hotel. She said, "The rumor is that Al Capone stayed at the hotel." Chicago's most famous mobster had brothers that lived in the area, according to Christine.

"The mirror," she said, "was reportedly installed at Capone's request so he could look out his room and see who was coming up the stairs."

Another famous man moved to O'Neill. William Froelich, born in Stromsburg, moved into a home just two blocks north of the hotel. Froelich worked for the U.S. Attorney General's Office in Washington D.C. and took part in prosecuting Capone for tax evasion in 1931.

Not always pretty sights

During my travels I've camped in some places with interesting and scenic views. This dumpster had an overload of garbage and the flies to go with it. Fortunately the wind was always blowing the right way. It stunk. Another aspect of these small towns is free camping. Located right next to the rodeo arena, the campground had full electrical and water charge! The dumpster really was the only unpleasant item in the campground. The rest of the place was well-groomed...Bruce Thorson

Here's your sign

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 27, 2009, Bassett, Neb: When I first drove into Bassett, I couldn't help but notice the zebra house. The next day I went and knocked on the door. Kindra James is the owner of Here's Your Sign, and that's what it is, a sign business. She makes vinyl decals, business cards and offers embroidery. Most of her business is with truckers. They are required to have specific transportation and vin numbers on the door of their trucks. "The state has been cracking down on truckers in this area. So, my business is good right now," she said.
I asked her where the affinity came for zebras. "I don't know for sure but I've always loved horses," she said.

Driving further down the Bassett main street, I couldn't resist this shot. There are two vehicles I wouldn't mind restoring. They are 1957 Chevrolets. My first car was one, a two-door convertible, three on the "tree" with overdrive and spinner hubcaps. I rebuilt the motor in it, my first-ever rebuild. It ran great and I successfully rebuilt another seven or eight motors, on various cars I owned. They all ran great, too.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harvest in Rushville

Max Two Crow enjoys a view of Rushville atop an 86 foot high grain bin on July 17th, 2009.

Note: This image contains multiple photos placed together through Photoshop.

Photos and story by Kyle Bruggeman

July 19, 2009, Rushville, Neb: Farming is mostly a year long job, but never is it more exciting and more exhausting than during harvest. A time where all the hard work and dedication to the fields pays off by the truck loads.

Dennis Marcy, 48, knows the rewards of raising farm land, but for him it is easier to rent his land to other farmers to do the dirty work. Marcy can then spend his days freely and just wait for harvest to come around to collect a check. Last year he spent time in Russia while others looked after his land.

Dennis Marcy enjoys a cigarette at the Rushville Nebraska grain bin on July 17th 2009.

Most wheat and corn is hauled to a grain bin where it is sold and stored. Rushville's bin can hold grain by the tons. It is operated by a team of four people who test the grain for moisture, weigh the trucks load, and get the grain into the bins.

It is impossible to know when the farmer is going to arrive with his newly cut crop. Thus the bin crew is often waiting around. They kill that time by listening to the radio or by giving each other a hard time. Sometimes they go on top of the 86 foot high grain bin and look over the town.

Delayne Blacksmith scrapes out the few remaining wheat kernels from a late night drop off at the Rushville grain bin on July 18th, 2009.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Beyond riches

Reverend Bill Stovall (left) and other attendees join hands at the conclusion of the morning worship.

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 26, 2009, Taylor, Neb: Loup County is the poorest county in America, according to recent published statistics. There are 207 people, at the 2000 census, living in Taylor, Loup's one and only town. The county has a total population of 712.

Driving in the day before, I went up and down its residential streets, which took only a few minutes. I spied Taylor's Calvary United Methodist Church, worship at 9:30 in the morning.

That's where I decided to go Sunday morning. Once again, these dang Nebraskans: warm and friendly.

I even got two jars of wild plum jam. Too bad I don't eat bread. I'll figure something out.

The reverend is Bill Stovall. He had just been installed as reverend there a month earlier. He thought maybe that's why I showed up to take pictures.

When I mentioned to several attendees I was there because Loup is the poorest in the nation, I was given the best "the glass is half full" answers. They went on and on about how living in a small town you get to know everyone, how you can count on them for help, how friendly they all are and just how quiet and uncongested a small town is. One woman noted that with all that, if she died right now, she'd be the wealthiest person in the world.

It's all about perspective...

Rob Dockweiler (left) reads the scripture while his son, Tory, 5, snuggles his stuffed animal during the morning service.

Gettin' tanked!

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 23, 2009, Mullen, Neb: Mitch Glidden loves to get other people tanked. That's as in stock tank, and he uses them for people to float down the Middle Loupe River. Once again I met another friendly and outgoing Nebraskan. I asked him if he had anyone floating down the river in a tank and would it be OK to take pictures. He said, "Yes, you can do that."

Mitch owns the Sandhills Motel and Glidden Canoe Rentals. He bought the motel in 1993 after a windstorm wiped out his efforts at hog farming. He added the canoes in 1994 and the tanks came in 2003.

The economy has made the motel business somewhat spotty. Right now it's about two-thirds full during the week because the railroad has work crews staying there.

The number of people riding the tanks, however, has been increasing every year since he started them.

From May until about the end of September, his work day starts at 7 a.m. and ends when it's dark.

Tankers have to get flat in the tank as they pass beneath a steel bridge.

Gordon, NE

Story and photos by Clay Lomneth

July 18, 2009. Gordon, Neb: To give you an idea of how this day started: I woke up and found a drunk driver had taken off my passenger-side mirror and left a huge dent above the wheel. "I thought I heard something in the middle of the night," Kyle said. Great.

Being of a cynical nature, I assumed the rest of the day would only get worse. Man, I was wrong.

Kyle and I drove into Gordon from Rushville, wheel scraping against the dent every time I made a sharp turn. We cruised the streets for a little bit until we hit a gold mine: there were people setting up for a wedding in the park.

I've shot a lot of weddings in the past. They're a lot of fun, great moments, people are in a good mood (most of the time) and they generally have better things to worry about than being camera aware. I've developed a certain style of shooting weddings, which is different from, say, how I would shoot an assignment for a newspaper. 

Shooting documentary photojournalism is completely different from shooting for newspapers and wedding clients. We have to show more of the environment, we have to show something that's only seen in a small town. 

I can't stress how welcoming and generous and accommodating everyone we met on this trip was. They were a photographer's dream. They let us into their lives, let us take photographs of them doing what they do, and on top of that, offer to feed us. If there's one thing photographers as a group love as much as photographing, it's probably getting free food.

The wedding we stumbled upon was that of Cole Fancher and Carmen Walton, both of whom had lived in Gordon their entire lives. After talking to them both and getting permission, Carmen and Cole let us hang around the whole day and shoot their wedding. Kyle and I could not believe our luck. 

Without trying to stress him out more than he already was, I talked to Carmen's dad Casey about paying for a wedding during the recession. In addition to being the father of a beautiful bride, Casey owned an auto parts store in town and had a ranch nine miles north of Gordon. 

"Everyone talks recession, but Gordon, Nebraska has been in a recession for 10 years," he said. People here have learned to live with their paychecks and not spend any extra, so the recession had little to no effect on most people in small towns. 

Most everything, including the decorations in the park, was done by friends of the family. The official wedding photographer was a friend of a parent and the couple grew up with just about everyone in the wedding party. Casey said that at the reception, most of the town would show up, even if it was just say hello and congratulations.  

The view from my front door

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 24, 2009, Calamus Reservoir, Neb: I've always loved camping. Most of my life I have tent camped. So, having a travel trailer to live in is almost like having a motel room. It is very convenient to live this way. Not all of the places we've camped on this project have been the most stellar for views, but some have. Over the last couple of days I was at Calamus Reservoir. There's some great scenery here. I enjoy sitting, sitting and looking and taking in the day. I find it interesting that other people go to great expense and travel to get to a place like the Calamus. There's great stuff to look at here. And what do some of these folks do? They set up their Dish TV. I'm comfortable in the trailer but I wouldn't want to spend time in it watching television. With the exception of the times being in a restaurant or bar that has a television, I've not watched it since June 3 when I left Lincoln.

This is a great project!

July 20, 2009, Spade Ranch, Neb: Sometimes I don't have to go far to find an interesting image. Here's one that was literally right out the camper door. While camping at the Spade Ranch, I was right next to the chicken coop. Those birds really help keep the yard free of bugs. They even cleaned my car's bumper. It was covered with dead bugs and they went around in front and behind it to peck away at the bugs smashed there. There was even a live grasshopper on the bumper. As soon as it jumped down on the ground, it was a goner. A chicken was all over it, picked it up in its beak and down to the stomach in a matter of seconds.

Sandoz Ranch

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 21, 2009, Sandoz Ranch, Neb: Celia Barth, her maiden name is Sandoz, poses in front of the home of Jules and Mary Sandoz. Celia, the first grandchild for Jules, owns the ranch where Mari Sandoz, one of Nebraska's foremost writers, grew up. She died in 1966 and is buried on a hillside overlooking this valley.

I bumped into Celia as she and her husband were cutting the grass around the old homestead. Back then, she said Sundays were busy days here at the Sandoz Ranch. Cars would come down the road, over the hill directly across from the home. The road is gone now, but during those days there would be lots of people at the ranch. "We had parties, dances and rodeos here at the ranch," she said.

The home also housed a store and post office.
As for the economy, Celia said, "People need to know the difference between earned money and credit. If people learned to live on earned money, which is the money you have on hand now, there wouldn't be the problems they have," she said.

She let me poke inside the home. It still has photos of the family members in a corner hutch and a lively photo of Mari from a happier time.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Air Ranching

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 20, 2009, Spade Ranch, Neb: Clay Bixby, 20, pilots his plane low over the Spade Ranch, formed in 1888 and one of Nebraska's oldest ranches, as his father, Brett, and brother, Mace, watch. Clay's mother, Colleen, thought it better to duck.
Nestled in the sandhills, the Spade offers grazing to horses and cattle.

Clay Bixby untangles the rope used for the dinner bell.

Clay Bixby drives a horse team pulling a steer so that Mace Bixby can practice his roping technique.

Chickens roam during the day eating the bugs and keeping those pests down.

Auctioned off

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 18, 2009, Chadron, Neb: Auctioneers take bids for tools as the career of Bob Retzlaff comes to a close.

With almost every item in his shop gone, Bob Retzlaff and his wife Lois pause at the front door to his shop before departing for the last time. After 25 years in the agriculture repair business and a mechnic for over 40 years before that, Bob is venturing into retirement.

Lois Retzlaff kisses her son Verlin after the auction ended and all the tools and equipment had been sold.

Wayne Speer (left) and John Wentworth were sticking around the auction waiting for the toy tractors to go up for bids. Both got tired of waiting and left before the toys were sold off.

Boyd Hoffmeier carts off with his prize possessions from the auction.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sloooooowwww internet...

...out here in the Sandhills the connection to the internet has been slow. I'll get more stories and photos posted as soon as the connection speeds up...Bruce Thorson

Friday, July 17, 2009

You gotta know Jack!!!

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

July 16, 2009, Crawford, Neb: It was a serendipitous moment in time. I met Jack Pelren as I was about to make a u-turn. We were looking for the local newspaper and I knew we had passed it. Before I started spinning the steering wheel to the left, I saw this man on the sidewalk in boots, blue jeans, with the cuffs rolled up, white T-shirt and a sky-blue cowboy hat.

Jack, 74, told us where the newspaper office was located. I gave him the quick version of our project. Kyle Bruggeman, one of the UNL students on the project, asked him about bumper sticker on his truck advertising the fiddle contest and did he play the fiddle. Jack said no but he could sing.

A moment later, Jack cleared his throat and sang a smooth rendition of an Eddy Arnold song. Then, he sang the same song in the manner of Ernest Tubbs. He was smooth, very smooth.

I asked him what he did for work and replied he has worked on Harley Davidson motorcycles just about all his life. I told him we were going to the newspaper and than I'd come see him see him a little later.

Leaving the newspaper office, I spotted Jack walking along the sidewalk. I asked him if he'd show me his machine shop where he works on the motorcycles. He was reluctant at first. "I need to clean it up first," he said. As a photographer, I hate it when people say they want to get their shop, home or office cleaned up before I can see it. I like seeing people and where they live, work and play as it really exists and not in the form of how they want it ready for pictures. That to me is fake.

Jack opened the screen door to his shop and I stepped in. The smell of cat urine hit me in the face like a cast iron skillet being swung by Barry Bonds for a home run.

He told me about the cats he has. "I take care of about 30 cats," he said. "The cops in town have been rounding them up. Then, they're killed."

Jack loves the cats he takes care of. Just about everywhere I looked about his shop and inside his tiny home, I saw bags of food. The cats looke healthy, too. But that urine smell...geeeeeesh!

He told me to come back tomorrow and he'd have it cleaned up. I came back the next day and got hit with the skillet again. "It smells better, don't it?" I replied no. He said he'd probably need to mop the floors.

Jack has been a Harley Davidson mechanic since 1964, had shops in Scottsbluff and in Crawford. He's retired now but still works occaisionally making repairs for special customers. At the time he was rebuilding a 1964 two-cylinder engine.

He has about 20 or so cats living in his shop and another "special" cats living in his home, which is attached to his shop. The more domesticated cats get to live in the house; the wilder, less friendly cats, ones are in the shop.

As for the job the president is doing to fix the economy, Jack said, "He's one of the worst ones we've had. Bush was one, too, but this is the worst."

Jack was about finished rebuilding that engine and when I left him he was filing away, smoothing off the edges of a valve cover bracket that was just a little out of whack.

At 74 years old, Jack might be a little out of whack, too, but he is a cat lover, a kind-hearted and friendly man.

We should all know Jack. I hope we meet again.