Sunday, June 28, 2009

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

June 28, 2009, Arapahoe, Neb: Travis Counsell, a student at Elon University, North Carolina, says goodbye to his host Toby tenBensel. Counsell and 28 other riders are part of the 4K for Cancer, which is a non-profit group raising awareness about cancer through this ride across America. Counsell is dedicating his ride to his grandfather, who died in 1997 from cancer. He is also riding for other family members and friends who have been affected by cancer. The team is riding from Baltimore, Maryland to San Francisco. The group spent the night in Arapahoe at their hosts' homes.

Anne Smedinghoff gets in more rest before breakfast and before hitting the road again. Riders had to be at the First United Methodist Church at 5:15 in the morning. They were fed breakfast there.

Shareef Ghanem (right) and Caitlkin Leach give each other a hug as the riders prepare to hit the road. The were to ride about 98 miles and stop for the night in Benkelman. The riders are at the half-way point in their journey to San Francisco.

Before each ride, the team forms a circle. They quietly dedicate the day's ride to someone they know has had cancer. They then get psyched up for the ride by cheering, singing and chanting.

The team is off to Benkelman. This is the third year the ride has been hosted by the First United Methodist Church. The church members feed them dinner and breakfast, and have host families for them to stay with overnight.

Additional photo by Kyle Bruggeman

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lovin' life

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

June 27, 2009, Arapahoe, Neb: "I woke up from surgery and was paralyzed," That was November 1979. Dennis Monter was 15 then. He had been in a motor vehicle accident.

I spent the morning with Dennis out at the 4-H trap shoot facility. "I just love working with kids," he said. He supervised the shotgun trap shooting.

Back in '79, Monter didn't think he had been seriously hurt when he pulled out from a stop, right into the path of another car. It hit him broadside. "I was more concerned with my friends with me in the car," he said. "I didn't think I was hurt too bad."

He was taken to the hospital in Kearney. He had a broken pelvis and a blood mass inside his chest. A doctor ordered him to Lincoln immediately.

That was before hospitals used helicopters. "My dad followed the ambulance down, told me later, at times we were going 130 miles an hour."

Lincoln doctors told him his aorta was damaged and needed surgery to repair it. They believe that a small piece of the damaged aorta broke loose and caused a stroke in his spine, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Now he's 44 years old, he works fulltime for a telephone company and handles the IT for its customers.

Back out at the trap shoot, "Pull!" one of the youngsters would yell. Monter had a hand-held device, pushed a button and out would fly the clay target from a concrete bunker located just a few yards in front of the shooters. Most of the time the youngsters would hit the saucer-like target, sending clay pieces flying out in different directions in the air.

After running all the age groups through their shooting competitions, everyone assembled inside for the awards. As kids, clutching their ribbons and medals, and parents shuffled past Monter to the door, many patted him on the shoulder and said "Good job Dennis. You're a good instructor."

"Thanks" he said. "Hope to see you back here next year."

Monter supervises shooters during the shotgun trap shoot competition.

Monter said he loves working with kids and teaching them to use guns safely and effectively for competitions.

In the clubhouse, Monter was constantly busy getting scoring sheets, meeting time schedules for competions and getting the kids to the right locations for the meet.

He said he loves to hunt and fish, believes his life is exactly the way it is supposed to be. After the meet concluded, he headed home to mow his yard. He has a remote controlled lawn mower. He said he gets a few people staring at it when they see it operating without anyone behind it.

Employed, unemployed and cream can

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

June 27, 2009, Arapahoe, Neb: Raffi Wartanian, 22, screamed, "I found out an hour ago I just got a job in San Francisco!"

Wartanian, recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in history, is participating in a bicycling trip across America helping to raise awareness about cancer.

The 29-member team, part of the 4K for Cancer, arrived in Arapahoe earlier in the day.
The First United Methodist Church hosted a dinner for the riders, church members, family and friends. The will spend the night in Arapahoe. Many Arapahoe-area families are housing the riders.

The cyclists left Baltimore on May 31 and hope to arrive in San Francisco on August 1.

Wartanian discovered a woman attending the dinner was from his hometown, Lutherville, Maryland.

Gail Morris, 67, who currently lives in Seattle, Washington, was in Arapahoe to fulfill her sister's last wishes. Her sister wanted to be buried in Arapahoe, where she and Gail spent their summers growing up with family.

Morris, who has been unemployed for a year and a half, is seriously thinking about moving to Nebraska, maybe in Arapahoe or Lincoln. "The low cost of living in a small town where people are friendly, I could live on my pension here," she said.

The ingredients are all cooked together in a cream can. The meal is corn, potatoes, carrots, sauerkraut and bratwurst. It is then all dumped in a trough-like serving dish. Diners can then scoop out what they want to eat and how much to eat. Toby tenBensel (left), 45, and Ted Downey, 37, pour in the next meal.

Room to feed

Photos and story by Kyle Bruggeman

To open a new business can be very stressful. Most new stores don't make a profit for at least a couple of years, and with the current economic stagnation one might expect that to be even more difficult. Not true for local restaurant owners Mitzi Urbom (left), husban Kevin Urbom and Lyndzie Holtze. After a little over a month of operation the new eatery is doing very well for itself.

Cunninghams Feed is a bakery, café, and grill all in one. Located in Arapahoe, Nebraska, this wonderfully refurbished location has as much history as it does great eats.

Before becoming a restaurant, Cunninghams was a grain feed store where farmers could buy livestock provision. Warren Urbom, 87, remembers when he moved to Arapahoe that the same one story building was operated as a grocery store.

Warren's youngest son Kevin has spent the last few years restoring the property to immaculate condition. "Almost every piece of wood had to be taken out and re-fitted" says Kevin. "I'm a lawyer by trade, but re-building this property has given me a lot more knowledge in carpentry."

Cunningham's is located at 603 Nebraska Avenue. The bakery is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Thursday, from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant has become popular among residents of neighboring communities as well, reservations are recommended.

Above left is the Cunningham's as a feed store, and right is how it looks today as a restaurant.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pin-up girls

Shirley Smith (center) rears back with laughter as she jokingly talks with her friends, Grace Faw (left) and Iris Upward, about raising money being calendar pin-up gals. The trio got together at the restaurant, Take Five, to celebrate Smith's 80th birthday.

Story and Photo by Bruce Thorson

June 2, 2009, Arapahoe, Neb: I met Grace Faw earlier in the day at Faw's Garage. Faw's is losing it Chrysler Dodge franchise, but it will not be closing. Her husband, Cal, is the owner and the garage will remain open for vehicle repairs and to continue to sell other vehicles. She mentioned that later in the day she was getting together to help her friend, Shirley Smith, celebrate her 80th birthday.

"That's what we do in small towns, take care of each other and look out for each other," she said.

That seems to be a recurring theme I'm finding out about Nebraskans as I journey along on this photo project.

When Grace mentioned the impromptu birthday party, I asked if I could attend. She said, "Of course you can come." All three women are native Nebraskans.

And all three women remember life's harder times from years past than what the nation is experiencing now. "Small towns are not as effected. We don't demand high wages like in the bigger cities," Smith said.

She went on to say, "We didn't have closets filled with clothes and toys like kids have today. It was always after the election, had to be after the election and not before, we'd fold the metal, politicians' signs like a toboggan and ride it on the snow. Those signs were much bigger then and not like the smaller, cardboard ones they use now."

“We used a fence to make into a teeter-totter, put a wooden plank over and we had a teeter-totter,” Faw said.

Nebraskans, the older ones anyway, found ways while growing up during life’s hard times to make do with what they had. They spent their days outside playing, no TV, no iPods and no computer, just their imaginations and whatever "toys" they could find, like a fence and a plank.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Update from the road: Arapahoe

Story and photo by Bruce Thorson

June 25, 2009, Arapahoe, Neb: "I’ve been broke twice in my lifetime," said Alton Bossung, 70. "I had to crawl on my hands and knees but I came back," he said as he mowed his front yard Thursday evening as the weather cooled. In the background is Faw's Garage, a Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge truck dealership. Faw's is losing its Chrysler Dodge franchise, but it will not be closing. Calvin Faw will continue to keep the garage open for vehicle repairs and to sell other vehicles. Bossung, who farmed for about 30 years, has worked the last six years for Cargill, dealing in fertilizer and grain. About the economy and its effects in Arapahoe, "We don't notice it right now in these smaller towns. Cargill has had the best year it ever had," he said as he chuckled a little.

Laugh and be resilient

Whitney Dahl, 20, with the family dog Zoey (left) and her service dog, Alfe, has the neighborhood all to herself. Several homes were destroyed in 2003 by a tornado. The residents left, deciding not to rebuild and leaving driveways to nowhere.

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

June 24, 2009, Deshler, Neb: I first met Whitney Dahl, 20, at Grandpa’s Crossing, a cafe in Deshler. Before this face-to-face meeting, after hearing about Whitney from a Carleton resident, I phoned Whitney to talk with her about being in the photo documentary project.

I told her I wanted to photograph her. She was born with cerebral palsy. She agreed to the photo shoot.

Two minutes later she phoned me back and said,” I have some pictures of me already. Can't you just use those, maybe scan them into your computer?" "No," I replied. "I have to have my own photographs of you and not from some other photographer." Whitney, like most of the subjects I photograph, doesn't like to have her picture taken.

Whitney is a charming and delightful young woman, full of humor, even if it is a little on the dry side. Her laugh is infectious. She’s going to attend University of Nebraska-Kearney this fall to study psychology. She wants to be a counselor.

And despite today's economic woes, she is hopeful her future job will still be there.

Her primary mode of mobility is a motorized chair. She can walk with the aid of a walker and walks about two blocks every day.

Doctors think she received her condition when, in the womb, her twin died at 12 weeks and from that her oxygen was cut off.

I think Whitney is resilient. A snafu came up with her college dorm situation, how she dealt with the problem and came to a resolution to it tells me that I'm right.

But what is remarkable is how she and her service dog, Alfe, a black lab, might have saved her family's life.

She and her mom, Paula, were in Washington, Kansas for a week. That was where she first met Alfe.

It was June 2003.

During that week, she and Alfe trained together. Alfe would perform tasks for Whitney such as picking up any objects she might accidently drop.

Her dad, Tom, and her two younger sisters drove down to see the new addition to their family.

While they were all away doing the meet-and-greet thing, a tornado struck Deshler, killing one resident. Their home, and four or five neighbor’s homes, was totally destroyed.

Alfe, now nine years old in human years, is being retired. He has arthritis but is still active, still goes for walks with Whitney.

When Whitney heads off to Kearny for college, it will be her first time without Alfe in about the last seven years. I could tell from the sound of her voice and the expression on her face, this separation will be tough.

Who knows what the "ifs" might have been had they not all been away greeting the service dog.

And who knows if keeping the family all away from the deadly tornado was maybe his greatest service of all.

Whitney (above) goes through all the emotions of spending two and half hours, four days a week, studying algebra, as she readies herself for college this fall at UNK. Her proctor is Cindy Mueller, a Deshler resident for 25 years and has known Whitney since the fifth grade.

A trainers life

Photos and story by Kyle Bruggeman

June 24th, 2009, Nora, Neb: Just about everything is sold on the internet today. That includes horses. You can buy a horse online from P.D. Jones, 61, or as he likes to be called 'Bud.'

Bud is a genuine and hard working man. He is albino and legally blind. Bud raises horses from a yearling, which is a horse of either sex that is between one and two years old, trains them for riding, and sells them when they are ready.

Bud was born in Superior, Nebraska but has spent a large majority of his life in Nora, Nebraska. Bud grew up on a farm where his grandfather was a horse trainer. He spent his days learning his trade and creating a place for locals to come and learn how to ride as well as participate in rodeos.

"Busines sucks" says Bud when referring to the last ten years, but as of today he's "glad to be sold out." Aside from selling horses, Bud also sells a horse-training-device called a Snaffle Bit Nose Piece that he uses while riding the horse.

Bud lives in a one person trailer with his dog Paris (pictured below). He likes living in Nebraska because he feels safe and it's where he can do his business best. See more of Bud's work on his YouTube channel at:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Aurora Co-op

Story and Photo by Clay Lomneth

June 22, 2009, Carleton, Neb.:  After emptying a tank of fertilizer, Doug Huber, assistant manager at Aurora Co-op in Carleton and Amanda Sykora from Deweese joke with each other before heading back to work. Huber said the fertilizer business has not been touched much by the recession, because of the success of the agricultural industry. Because of last year's high gasoline prices, fertilizer prices rose but have since fallen back to normal levels.

"When you start talking $1,000 a ton for liquid fertilizer...that's high priced," he said. "I would say the norm for the last 10 years would be...probably about $300."


Photos and story by Patrick Breen

June 22, 2009, Carleton, Neb: Pastor Jon Jensen travels from Carleton to Hebron to give services to the Blue Valley Lutheran Homes on every Monday and Thursday. He gives a service to those in a nursing home, an Alzheimer's unit and a care home for people with mental disabilities.

Jensen says he has enjoyed Carleton after being there for 16 years and the community is one that he loves. He said that they, like him are a bunch of characters.

Skimming by

Photos and story by Kyle Bruggeman

June 23rd, 2009, Carleton, Neb: Cattle (Bos primigenius) are abundant in Nebraska. They graze across a majority of the states pastures and are one of the biggest industries Nebraska has. A majority of that industry is in beef. However, there are a few farmers who raise cattle for milk exporting. Bob Beavers is one such farmer.

Beavers runs a farm just north of Carleton, Nebraska. There he raises cattle from birth to be milked for human consumption. Such an industry is facing some difficult times. Beavers once sold his milk to Meadow Gold in Lincoln, Nebraska until they went out of business.

Beavers also farms corn, soy and alfalfa, which he uses mostly to feed his cattle. "It's difficult work" says Beavers "there's not many of us left" referring to the fact that many farmers have left the milk industry due to high costs.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Musings...corn, fogging and bird strike!!!

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

June 20-21, 2009, DeWitt, Neb:

Corn--Farmers in the DeWitt area took a huge hit from the weather. The fields were pounded with hail, the size of golf balls and baseballs, for several times in one week; one resident commented that after the storm passed it was so white it looked like a winter scene. According to Swanton's mayor, Charlie Runty, the devastated acreage could be as high as 20,000. I saw many farmers on tractors out tearing up, cutting down and tilling over previously planted corn and soybean fields. Many residential dwellings were having the roofs replaced, as well. The grandfathers, the dads and the sons all had the same message, "We've never seen hail damage like this." Many of the farmers were replanting.

Fogging--It has been a very long time since I saw a fogging, that was back in Williston, North Dakota, probably about 1967. Communities do this to cut down on mosquitoes. That first time I saw it, well, I actually heard it first. A Briggs & Stratton engine makes a lot of noise, especially back in 1967 when engine design and technology didn't do much in the way of cutting down sound, and then throw on top of that a sprayer and nozzle that spews out a mist 20 feet into the air. It will catch your attention and that's what happened when I heard a somewhat familiar sound from our trailer perched at DeWitt's baseball field. Peering out the trailer's window, I spotted a clean, shiny-white Dodge truck, a fire hose-like nozzle extending at an angle that made it not quite vertical and a then that mist billowing into the air. I jumped into my Chevy suburban and caught up to the rig. Motioning to the driver I wanted to talk, he pulled over. He mentioned he did this about once a week or so, cutting down those mosquitoes. I already had close to a dozen or so itchy bites on my legs; don't how much good fogging does, if any. I asked the driver what the chemical was spewing into the air. He responded with some long word like phenyl-diclor-oxy-benz-hydro-zine-drine-cohol...I said sounds like cancer to me. "Oh, no," he said. "It's perfectly safe stuff now." Years from now if DeWitt turns out to be town featured in a Stephen King nightmaris-like novel, maybe we'll know why.

Bird strike!--I didn't lose an engine and I didn't have to ditch in the Hudson River. I do feel sorry for animals that end up as roadkill. I try my best to avoid taking them out, ending their life. These critters and feathered friends are all part of the land's environment and the land's health. I was driving back to DeWitt from Wilber; just picked up some groceries. I saw the bird fluttering out over the road, just about grill-high on my vehicle. My grip on the steering wheel tightened, thoughts raced through my head as I hoped it would "get outta the way!" I pulled my foot off the accelerator but I wasn't about to slam on the brakes. I like animals and birds but I'm not about to get in an accident trying to avoid them. I'll try slowing down to let them live another day but that's about it. The bird disappeared from my view as my vehicle's hood blocked my view. I quickly looked in my driver's side mirror. No bird visible. I hoped it had escaped the collision. I did not hear that familiar "thud" one hears when a soft-bodied animal or bird strikes a car. About an hour later, after returning to the trailer and I had forgotten about the possible bird strike!, Patrick Breen, one of the photo students on our project, was standing at the front of the vehicle. "You hit a bird," he said. I walked to the front of the car, already recalling the previous vision of the bird fluttering in the air as it hung out over the highway in front of my 60-mph car. And there it was, lying on top of the bumper with its body pushed up against the grill, eyes closed. I used a paper towel to protect my hand, plucked it off the bumper, dug a hole and dropped it in. As I covered it over with dirt, I noticed I must have disturbed an ant colony, as they were running like crazy all over the dirt. Then, I thought the ants must have been calling out to all their fellow ants, "Buffet!"

Monday, June 22, 2009

All in the family...and a friend, too

Story and photo by Bruce Thorson

June 19, 2009, DeWitt, Neb: I walked across the grassy field out beyond the outfield fence of DeWitt's baseball park where our travel trailer is parked. I had one camera slung over my shoulder and a notepad in my pocket.

I was headed a couple hundred yards to the residential neighborhood on the other side of the park, just past the water tower with the name "DeWitt" painted boldly and proudly on its side.

As I turned the corner walking on the sidewalk, I saw a large, white dog sleeping soundly on the driveway. Just at that moment, Roy Scherling, 53, gray and black, curly, frizzy hair and a gray and black beard, emerged from the garage, apparently heading across the street to check the mail.

He had strolled just past the sleeping dog, when the dog woke up, lifted its sleepy head, spied me and took off at full tilt, full bark, full set of canine choppers, and took the shortest distance between two points: me and him, which is the definition of a straight line but not an item that crossed my mind in this time sequence.

I froze, stood my ground and within a few moments the dog and I were getting acquainted in a friendly manner...whew!

I looked Roy straight in the eye and gave him the pitch paragraph about our photo project.

Roy read my lips, literally...You see, Roy is deaf.

His wife, Peggy, 52, deaf. Their oldest son, Jonathan, 25, deaf; second son, Joshua, 23, deaf; their daughter, Johanna, 14, deaf.

Oh yeah, that white, barking dog I was positive was a pit bull, yup, he's deaf, too. With the exception of the deaf dog, I knew about their disability before I met the Scherlings. I found this out through conversations with the locals.

Peggy wrote, "My mom is deaf. She also has two siblings that are deaf but their children and grandchildren are not deaf. I am the only one that was born deaf and then my children. My aunt and uncle don't understand why. My dad became deaf at two years old. Grandma doesn't know what caused his deafness, either by high fever or a strong wind. The roof fell down and hit him in the head; blood came out of his ears. Lots of questions in the past, but it didn't matter to me.

"On Roy's side, he's the only one deaf in his family."

It was strange feeling for me to be in their home, to see the communicating going on between two adults and two teenagers and hearing the silence. But what I saw and what I "heard" looked a lot like a very close and very loving family.

When I finished packing up the strobe light and other accessories that I used to take their portrait, Johanna, Peggy and Carly each gave me a big, big hug. Roy gave me the guy-to-guy-vise-grip handshake...ouch! my knuckles hurt.

As I left the Scherling's residence, there was another animal sleeping in the driveway, a cat. I pointed to the cat and asked Roy, "Is the cat deaf, too?" Roy grinned from ear to ear, laughed, and shook his head to say, "No."

In the photo above, Carly Weyers, 15, from Waverly, Neb., Roy Scherling, 53, Peggy Scherling, 52 and Johanna Scherling, 14. Carly is deaf and is a friend of Johanna. She was visiting from Waverly. The dog is Fuji. The little dog in Roy's lap is named Tuesday. She is the only one in this picture who can hear.

Pitch men

Audio story and photo by Bruce Thorson

June 20, 2009, Swanton, Neb: Mike Shesteak (left), 68, and Glenn Schwisow, 79, both retired farmers and native Nebraskans, pass the time on Saturday playing a game of pitch at The Corner Tavern. Shesteak says because he's retired the economy hasn't had an effect on his life.

To hear what Schwisow has to say about how the economy has affected him, listen to the audio below.

Audio recorded and edited by Bruce Thorson

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Larry Bartels

Story and Photo By Clay Lomneth

JUNE 19, 2009, DEWITT, NEB.; My nostrils can now recognize the difference between cow and pig poop. Cow has an overwhelming nastiness to it, the kind of stench that makes you roll up your window when you're driving by. What's worse is the after-smell, after you inhale all the way there is almost a bite to the smell that makes you wrinkle your nose against your will. Pig is a lot more subtle, you feel like you are standing downwind of it, even if you're standing right in it. It's a lot friendlier, but it does follow you around all day.

I didn't mean to learn this, it just happened. As my new friend Larry Bartels says: The world runs on, well, poo.

Larry works on Waldo Farms, one of the largest farms with purebred Duroc pigs in the world. The manager, Max Waldo, has hog farming in his blood. Max's grandfather started the Duroc population on the farm in 1895, and a lot has changed since then. They've branched out and begun to raise other pigs, like York and Landrunner.

The industry has narrowed, too. "At one time everyone had a few pigs," Max said. Farmers began focusing on one thing, whether it be corn, cattle or pigs. The Waldos do grow some of their own corn and soybeans, all of it going to feed the pigs. Larger operations like the Waldos tend to survive because of better management and funding. The smaller ones have slowly died out. "There's been a great decline in the number of hog farms," he said.

Part of the reason for this is how costly it is to run a hog farm these days. Max estimates that for every pig sold today, the hog farmer loses about $20. Ethanol is one of the main reasons. "Feed costs for pigs is about 65 to 70 percent of the total production costs."

Hog farming took an especially big hit, bigger than cattle or poultry. The H1N1 virus was the main cause for this. "People in Mexico almost stopped eating pork," Max said.

Life goes on and people still buy hogs. Henry Maendel from Rosebank Colony, Miami, MB drove from Canada to Waldo Farms to buy hogs. He's been buying from the Waldos for over 20 years now. "Very nice people, very honest," he said.

I watched as Henry saw hogs paraded in front of him and tried to catch on to what he was looking for. Three groups of as many as 16 hogs were shown, and Henry somehow saw through the crowd (and the noise and the smell) and picked out a handful of hogs that, to be honest, didn't look any different than the ones he left behind.

"Henry, this one's got a pinched nerve or something," Chad, a Waldo Farm employee pointed out. Sure enough, there was a pig among them that had a slight limp, something I don't think that even Henry would have noticed right away.

After the pigs were all loaded up, Henry called everyone around to show something off. He pulled a photo from his pocket, a photo of the very first pig he bought here, 25 years ago. Henry roared with laughter, everyone else shook their heads in disbelief and chuckled. Everyone was amazed at how much the pigs at the farm had changed, how much they have improved. "Just a bloody brick of meat!" Henry said. Just looked like a regular pig to me.

But the man who taught me the most about pigs was Larry. Larry has been working at Waldo Farms since he was 11, it was the first and only job he's ever held. He seemed a bit embarrassed to say how much he liked his job, but let me tell you: Larry knows his pigs. I doubt he could be happier.

Unloading recently-weened piglets into the nursery from an old school bus (there is a joke there somewhere, I just can't think of it), Larry worked with a speed that comes with 47 years is in the business.

Picking them up by their hind legs is misleading; it looks a lot worse than it is. It's a lot like picking up a kitten by the scruff of its neck - an easy, quick way to move it without harming it. Now and then Larry would get a squealer. The pig would complain until set down in its pen, where it proceeded to forget what it was complaining about and explored its new environment.

Larry was great, a lot of fun to be around. Despite being constantly worried about me being an undercover PETA agent or writing down every time he said the "s"-word, he later trusted me enough to take me for a ride in his 1930 Model A.

Cruising down the highway at a blazing 45 miles per hour (Larry was really excited about this, before he had thought his top speed was 40) I realized something that's been happening a lot on this trip: I made a new friend.

A brief history of Alfred Lisec

Photo and story by Kyle Bruggeman

June 21st, 2009, Swanton, Neb: In the sleepy little town of Swanton Nebraska lies a stretch of property with an old abandoned house, a chicken coup, and some rusty farm equipment used in times gone by. If your lucky, you may come across Alfred Lisec, 80, who moved to Swanton from Odell Nebraska in 1937. Lisec has been a county commissioner, the town mayor, and spent most of his life as a carpenter in which he built an auditorium and a church for his community.

Lisec has seen many changes to Swanton over the last eighty years. The town once had three grocery stores and three taverns, but today there is only one of each.

"The town has had a hard time surviving" Lisec said when referring to a flood that damaged the community in 1984 and forced the rail road company to abandon its tracks. Lisec was working at the grain elevators at the time of the flood. Now the grain is sent out through trucks to Plymouth and Dorchester, which has led to a decrease in population for Swanton.

Today Lisec is retired and spends his days raising sheep to sell in Palmyra. His favorite beer is Coors, but he drinks Coors Light when he visits with the local folks inside The Corner Tavern.

Update from the Road: Swanton

Duane Sutter and his son Nathan, sit on Duane's riding lawn-mower.

Audio recorded and edited by Bruce Thorson

Duane Sutter

Sutter mows lawns for the entire village of Swanton.

Photos and story by Patrick Breen

Driving into the small town of Swanton, Bruce Thorson spotted another small-town situation that seems to play out almost everywhere we go. A man driving his kid on his riding lawn-mower. Our plan was to head out to Swanton because we heard the residents had some mighty bad hail damage.

A few days before I had followed around Ryan Birkett and his family as he discussed the hail damage to their crops and the roofs of DeWitt. He said he lost close to half his yield and figured the damage close to $40,000. Birkett said that even with the rush replanting that he and his brothers did, he imagines he'll only lose a third of his total profit. Birkett said that these last few hail storms, which hit earlier this month were some of the worst he has ever seen. Now, one of Swanton's 100 or so residents was describing the hail damage done to local crops and his job of mowing basically the whole area of Swanton.

Sutter was hoping to finish mowing in the next few days so that by Thursday he could be up in South Dakota fishing with his son.

After talking to Sutter for awhile, we went down to the local bar, The Corner Tavern, in which we found some very interesting people. We were challenged to a game of pitch, if you don't know what that is, you, Bruce and I are in the same boat. Nevertheless, we played and enjoyed talking with the two older men.

Even the bar owner lost a garden he had planted. Whether it was small or large, the people of Swanton and DeWitt seemed to still have their smiles and cheer about them.

Life-changing day, part I

Audio story and photo by Bruce Thorson

June 19, 2009, DeWitt, Neb: Kayden Parry, 6, lives with his dad, Nick Parry, in a rural farm setting a couple of miles northeast of DeWitt. Four years ago the two went through a day that changed both of them forever. Kayden has a brother, Jarrod Parry, 11, and a sister, Sydney, 13.

Audio recorded and edited by Bruce Thorson

Life-changing day, part II

June 19, 2009, DeWitt, Neb: Nick Parry. Photo by Kayden Parry

Bruce Thorson and Kayden Parry do a little "arm" wrestling. Photo by Nick Parry

Story by Bruce Thorson

My arm was amputated in a motorcycle accident in 1971. I lost control of my bike going 65 mph. It was a narrow, winding and rural road in north San Diego county.

Going into an S-curve, I was going too fast. I was headed for the guy wire (a support cable) on a telephone pole. I struck the wire. The cable amputated my arm instantly, and I suffered a compound fracture of my right femur and broke both bones just above the wrist on my left arm.

Three years and over 15 major surgeries later, my doctor managed to put me back together.

After all that, I returned to Mammoth Mountain, California, where I had worked for a season prior to my accident, and started skiing again with one ski pole. I later became a ski instructor at Mt. Bachelor, Bend, Ore.

Going back to college some years later (I was an older, "non-traditional" student) I went into journalism and had a 25-year career in newspapers as a photographer, photo editor and director of photography.

Kayden, you'll do just fine. And Nick, happy Father's Day. You're doing a great job with your kids...Bruce Thorson

Friday, June 19, 2009

More stories from DeWitt

Photo and story by Kyle Bruggeman

June 19th, 2009 DeWitt Neb: Alan Epp, 76, on his farm land between Dewitt and Steele City, Nebraska checking his corn stocks for hail damage. Epp remembers the hard times he and other farmers had in the 1980's but says as of right now he's "able to make due."

Epp uses pesticide but does not irrigate his crops, which include corn and soy. The crops are sold to the nearest co-op and distributed for a multitude of purposes. Many farms around the area have had to re-plant due to weather damage. Epp was able to avoid such a situation, though a small amount of damage could be seen.

Photo and story by Clay Lomneth

June 19th, 2009, DeWitt, Neb: First there were 600 employees, and then there was one. Ron Hinzman is the last worker at the DeWitt Vise-Grip factory.

The Vice-Grip factory was the city's pride and joy. Perhaps the word "is" may still be appropriate in the previous sentence, as a sign welcoming you to DeWitt also proudly proclaims "Home of Vise-Grip".

And there's good reason. Have you ever used a Vice-Grip? Or, to be more specific, have you ever used the old kind of Vise-Grip, the kind they made before the factory moved to China? Bruce said his Vise-Grip was like his right hand. I had the pleasure to try and use one of the newer grips, made in Taiwan. The jaws didn't line up correctly and I think I broke it when I tried to open it.

The Vise-Grip factory was built in 1937, started by the Peterson family. At its peak, the factory was producing about 40,000 wrenches a day. The Petersons made millions those years in DeWitt making a quality product almost everyone had in their toolbox.

Then in 2002, Newell Rubbermaid bought the plant and the Vise-Grip name. Ron spotted trouble from the beginning. "I knew what would happen once they got it," he said. "It was going to China no matter what."

For a few years, Newell Rubbermaid still made the Vise-Grip wrenches with the same quality. They began making cutbacks and layoffs, and the company went from 600 employees to roughly 200. Still, they averaged 40,000 wrenches a day.

Rubbermaid made their millions quickly and then shut the factory down on November 30, 2008. They moved production to China, and produce only 13,000 wrenches a day. Wrenches that aren't the top-quality product one would find in DeWitt. Instead of a right hand, they're more like a weak pinky and a broken thumb.

Ron is the sole worker at the factory now. He walks the 376,000 square foot factory alone almost every weekday, making sure everything is still in place, checking up on leaks and doing some general maintenance now and again. After a sweep of the building, Ron goes back to his office at the corner of the building (he can look out his window and see his house) and checks his e-mail and waits for calls from people interested in buying some of the wrench-making tools. "They're just paying me to be here," he said.

The equipment that built the famous wrench is still there, and there's always something buzzing or whirring in a dark corner of the building. One gets the feeling all the workers are gone for the weekend, that they could just start making wrenches again tomorrow. I tell this to Ron, my guess isn't too far off. "You'd have to get some tooling people in here a month ahead," he said. "But they could be making wrenches in a month."

Some of Ron's friends at the plant were not as lucky as he was to have a fallback plan like him. A year after Newell Rubbermaid bought the plant, Ron and his wife Suzanne bought a bar across the street. "I guess if there were lucky ones, it was the ones that could retire," he said. "But we had a lot of them that were 55."

As he showed me around the factory, in addition to telling me what every piece of machinery did, he showed me what in the factory meant the most to him. There were still Halloween decorations left up, evidence that there were, in fact, humans in this ghost town of a factory. All adding to the feeling that come Monday morning, the machines would be up and running again. "I go by offices yet and I just expect people to be in there," he said. "You do something like that for that many years...everybody I knew in here like family.

"I go around here and see stuff like that, and I know the people that worked there. That gets you. Seeing some of that personal stuff...that's probably harder than anything."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Update from the Road: DeWitt

(Audio only; recorded and edited by Bruce Thorson)

This is a 60-acre lake located on Shawn Cole's property located several miles west of DeWitt.
(Photo by Patrick Breen)

Shawn Cole (left) and Charlie Partin
(Photo by Clay Lomneth)

Charlie Partin
(Photo by Kyle Bruggeman)

Story by Kyle Bruggeman, Clay Lomneth and Patrick Breen

June 16, 2009, DeWitt, Neb: It's been said Nebraska doesn't have a landscape. Instead, because the sky is such a dominating force in the state, people refer to it as a "skyscape", an un-interrupted beautiful spectacle of nature. And as the night grew darker, and a local named Travis became more and more intoxicated, the night Nebraska skyscape was lit by a small fire and entertainment.

A campfire. Sitting around a campfire is a pre-historic pastime. It's been done by every culture throughout every part of the world for as long as we've been able to harness the flame. A place to share stories and sing songs. A place where you don't mind getting dirt between your toes as the fumes from burning wood permeates your clothes.

The night started the same way others had for us on this trip. We would head into a local bar and meet more Nebraskans. They would tell us a story or two and we would get names and numbers for future stories. By the end of the night, we were invited out to the side of a lake. Bruce told Clay once on a trip to Kosovo: "If you think you'll regret not doing it, just go ahead and do it." And we couldn't pass up an opportunity like this.

Ignited by a douse of diesel fuel, the night began.

Two men sat outside the flames and had the perfect ingredients for a campfire euphoria. Guitars. Bongos. And beer.

But this wasn't a typical boy-scout campfire, for singer and songwriter Shawn Cole, the spiritual song of Kumbaya is not exactly a favorite. Cole would rather sing his own blue grass songs about love, liquor, and everyday life. A true Nebraska story.

The one man band was joined by long time friend Charlie Partin, a retired brick sculptor and architect with a love for playing a banjo.

Alongside the men, the 6-acre lake sat peaceful and quiet. Together they sang a few tunes and drank a few beers and spoke of days gone by as the Milky Way shimmered above their heads.

The Milky Way was gorgeous. And there wasn't anything to interrupt its beauty. No mountains, no city lights, no houses. No sounds of the interstate, no neighbors arguing in the street. We were a long way away from anything else, but a song and a smile stayed near.

Partin, who is moving to Canada said to Cole, "I'm sure gonna miss jamming with you this summer." Cole agreed.

There wasn't a single tear shed, but we knew it was true. We knew these two friendly musicians were going to miss each other's melodies.

As the stars seemed to grow brighter, and the fire seemed to dim, Cole lifted his guitar and Charlie, his bongos, and another song drifted into the early morning sky.

The life and times of Harriet Peterson Fort

Story and photo by Kyle Bruggeman

June 18, 2009, DeWitt, Neb: Most people hope to live to an old age, yet most of us never conceive of getting near the century mark. But for Harriet Peterson Fort, that conception is a reality. At age 99 she's as sharp as a tack and as lively as a teenager.

Fort was born on January 21st 1910 in Axtel Nebraska. She grew up in various places until finally settling in DeWitt, Nebraska. She was a school teacher for a few years until she began marketing an all purpose wrench that her father invented in 1920.

The wrench would become world renowned as the Vice-Grip. It would be in the 1930's that Harriet placed a large emphasis on direct sales organization. Small ads in Specialty Salesman and Opportunity magazines helped attract direct sales agents.

Fort's book The Pioneer Story of Bill & Ane Peterson: And The Evolution of the Vice-Grip chronicles her family history and explains how one invention would help sustain an entire community through the hardest economic times of the United States.

An excerpt from her book gives a great example of how life was like in her community during the depression.

It must be borne in mind that the depression was deep upon the land. People were without money. Corn was selling for ten cents a bushel and it was often burned for fuel. Some of the stories that come to mind from those early sales efforts were amusing in their sadness. Farmers were good prospects because they could readily see that one of these tools would perform a multitude of jobs on the farm. Sometimes when a farmer wanted a Vise-Grip badly but had no money he would propose a barter–some chickens for a wrench. The salesman would make a deal and would then pack up the chickens and deliver them to the local produce station where he would convert them into cash.

Today Fort lives in DeWitt and is a philanthropist for the community. She has donated to several projects to help the community, including a recent donation to KC's Grocery. A store that opened this week in De Witt that will allow the community to get their goods without having to travel to the nearest town.

Fort and her family will continue to help their community and are a great example of what makes Nebraska; the good life.


The Pioneer Story of Bill & Ane Peterson: And The Evolution of the Vice-Grip

by Harriet Petersen Fort

ARTCO, INC. Lincoln Nebraska © 1996

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Update from the road: Dorchester

Story and photo by Patrick Breen

June 15, 2009, Dorchester, Neb: Collyn Brummett, 6, climbs a railing at a Dorchester softball game on Monday night as his friends, Austin Seeman and Ridge Hoffmin sit along the back of the railing.

I'm growing accustomed to this trailer, these guys and missing home.

I am sitting in the trailer trying to come up with something insightful and witty, but seem to just fade back into wondering, "Did I eat two lunches yesterday?" I think the answer is yes.

Our days in Dorchester have been better than anything I could describe in words. Everyone here greets us with a big smile and a few stories. Yesterday, Kyle and I went into the local Dorchester Grocery to see what he had to say.

His name was John Bruha and he owned the store for three years as of today. He had a lot to say about the economy, but most of it was focused around Walmart. One of the things that small communities do well is support each other. Or at least that is what we were finding in other towns. The only difference here in Dorchester was that there was a Walmart nearby in Crete.

He said, people would drive the extra time and use about $5 in gas, which might make-up the difference in their bill.

He is right. Walmart brings down small businesses like his. He said that times are tough, but he hopes it gets better.

And so do we.

Story and photo by Kyle Bruggeman

June 15, 2009, Dorchester, Neb: Jordan Inderlied, 18, shoots a game of pool while adults sit at the bar and watch the College World Series in Joe's Place in Dorchester Nebraska. Small town bars have a much different attitude than those of larger cities. In Lincoln, for example, one must usually wait in a line just to get in. Once you've finally made it to the bar your battling another line of people to get a drink.

Joe's Place is not anything like the situation described above. Here you can get in easily and the bartender asks you if you need anything before you get to the counter. It's a friendly place where the entire family is welcome and price of a cold beer on tap is only a dollar. A great price during these economic times. The lyrics to the old television show Cheers describes it best: where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.