Friday, April 27, 2012

Rural Education and Workforce Dilemma

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Governor's Conference on Rural Development. There were a lot of interesting workshops and presentations, all of which touched my heart because of my love for rural Nebraska.

One topic in particular struck a chord because of its implications for the future of Nebraska, our young people, and the nation as a whole. Richard Baier, former director for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and now the Executive Vice President of the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce and spearheading their Forging Nebraska's Future project, spoke, among other things, about Nebraska's education and workforce.

According to Richard, 30% of Nebraska's graduating high school seniors don't go on to college. Now here's another statistic Richard quoted: In the near future, 66% of Nebraska's jobs will require a college degree. I'm not exactly sure how the experts would say these statistics fit together, but in my mind, it underscores the fact that we need our high school seniors (at least a portion of them) to graduate high school with a marketable skill because not all of them have the need or desire to go on to college.

Nebraska's vocational education program for high schools is almost non-existent. There isn't even a college in Nebraska that trains teachers to lead a vocational education program. We are doing a disservice to those students who don't have the desire to go on to college, and we are crippling our local communities that need the skills those students have to offer.

In rural Nebraska, laborers, skilled and unskilled, can make a good living. In our rural communities, the local auto mechanic and construction worker live right next door to the local banker, accountant and lawyer. They socialize on an equal playing field - both are vital to the community. Their kids go to the same school. At one time or another they will probably share coaching responsibilities for youth sports. They probably go to the same church. They serve on the same committees.

Many of these skills could be learned in high school, followed by on-the-job training or an apprenticeship program. Or, it could be followed up by a certification program or vocational degree at a local community college.

Unfortunately, this approach is seen as "alternative" to a college education.

If we are going to continue to enjoy the lifestyles that all of America has come to expect - good roads, solid dams and bridges, electricity at the flip of a switch, new homes and businesses with plumbing, hvac systems, solid roofs and walls, we are going to have to accept the fact that skilled and unskilled labor isn't "alternative", it is essential.

Rather than penalize students who are attracted by the prospect of working with their hands by requiring unwanted and unnecessary classes (and the expense that goes along with them - just how much does a degree hour cost at Nebraska's two- and four-year colleges?), we could be preparing them to make a good living at their chosen careers at the time they graduate from high school.

No student loan burdens, no years of waiting before they contribute back to government (local, state and federal) with income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes, AND we, as a society, would benefit from having an adequate workforce to maintain and expand the infrastructure we all depend upon.

Organizations like Mike Rowe Works (yes.. the Dirty Jobs guy), Skills USA, FFA, and a host of other private and public companies and organizations are working to encourage and provide resources for skilled and unskilled laborers. It is past time for Nebraska's educational system to do the same.

There... my soap box stand for the week.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Pretty Is..."

It's been awhile since I've featured a guest-post from the editor of the Courier-Times, the hometown newspaper of Paxton, Sutherland and Hershey. Today she shares her thoughts of what makes 'pretty.'
When I was a little girl, I remember my grandmother’s using a phrase that still rings true today… “Pretty is… is pretty does.” My grandmother valued good manners, good behavior, humility and friendliness, and those qualities are still valuable today.

I had the opportunity to go out of town last week, and in the course of my journey, I found myself in a city that a few years ago was voted, “Most beautiful city in the U.S.A.” It really is a pretty town. It has picture-perfect buildings and well-landscaped streets in every nook and corner… Do you hear a ‘but’ coming?

OK, here it is. The most common complaint among those who live in this beautiful town is that the people are somewhat rude.

I personally met some really nice folks there, but I also can confirm that the general social atmosphere in this beautiful is not so beautiful.

When I first moved to western Nebraska, one of the things that struck me as incredibly wonderful was how nice everyone is. It was a part of the culture shock of my move… that people can generally be trusted and that they truly care about one another. I deeply appreciate the fact that they made me feel welcome even though they didn’t know me – and even after they got to know me. If you’ve lived here all your life, this may not make sense to you, but to someone who is looking for a new place to live – or just a nice place to visit… believe me… one of the best assets we can have is how we treat people… especially strangers.

Over the next couple of years, you may see a lot of things happening in our local towns.
  • Clean up projects are being spearheaded in Hershey, Sutherland and Paxton, in their own respective ways. We can each contribute our own efforts toward this worthwhile goal.
  • Downtown revitalization projects are being considered.
  • A new viaduct and pedestrian walk are coming in the very near future for Hershey.
  • We hope extra visitors will be coming into Sutherland for the 75th annual Rodeo this year, and plans are being made for a special celebration.
  • Extra visitors will be riding through all three of our local towns in 2013 for the Lincoln Highway centennial celebration that will also take place around July 4th.
Cleaning, repairing, redesigning, and other physical improvements are a good thing, but there is one other thing we can all do. Each of us can be our own ‘chamber of commerce’ our own representative of the community. If people are met with pretty surroundings but feel unwelcome, that doesn’t make the communities very pretty after all.

My grandmother was right. “Pretty is… IS pretty does.”

The most beautiful tourist attractions we have are our people. Genuineness, friendliness, joy, peace, care and concern for others are the adornment each of us can wear from the inside out.

It doesn’t cost money, but the results are priceless.
Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Red House on the Niobrara

From Amazon:
This is a lavishly illustrated narrative that takes you right to the heart of the Great Plains landscape. Fascinated by the writing of Mari Sandoz (1896-1966), British writer Alan Wilkinson had visited her home state a dozen times over twenty years. He read a great deal about the early days on the Nebraska frontier, but wanted to know more. What would it be like to live on the western Great Plains for a season? Could he still get a sense of what those pioneers went through, a century ago? When a ranching couple offered him the use of an hundred-year-old hunting lodge, built by settlers on the banks of the Niobrara river, he shook hands on the deal before they could change their minds.

The week after he moved in he was hit by an April blizzard. A month later his road was washed away by a thunderstorm. Determined to act out a part of the pioneer experience, he planted a garden. The first was wiped out by hailstones, the second by grasshoppers. He spent the spring and summer hiking the hills, exploring the riverside and digging into the history of the Danish immigrants who graduated from a dug-out to a sodhouse, then built the little red house that was now his home. He socialised with local ranchers, hit the bars and the rodeo, rode the range with Department of Agriculture surveyors, worked on the spring round-up and cut hay. In between he re-considered the life and work of his heroine, Mari Sandoz, re-visiting what remains of her home and camping out at her gravesite.

This is a thoughtful work, a lyrical appreciation of place that remains firmly rooted in the author’s elemental relationship with a unique landscape, one peopled with a cast of genuine western characters, living and dead.

Update: If you download the ebook on a regular Kindle (not a Kindle fire), you obviously aren't going to get the full effect of the wonderful photography. To accommodate those ereaders, Alan has placed all of the photos on a website, in the order they are found in the book. They are wonderful to enjoy on their own too!
You can find them here.

Alan Wilkinson has been a freelance writer since the 1980s, working mostly in non-fiction. He's written everything from TV soaps to ghosted biographies to newspaper features to company histories. He currently co-writes the Now Then Lad series (Hodder) with Mike Pannett.

I have downloaded Red House on the Niobrara to my Kindle and will be reviewing it just as soon as I get it read.

Thanks for stopping by. Download the book for yourself, pour a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tree Huggers

It's only right for the state that brought us Arbor Day that trees are such an important part of our ecosystem.

The early pioneers on their way to California and Oregon found no trees in the Platte River Valley, and there were few trees in all of Nebraska. The poor pioneers used "buffalo chips" to light their fires at night, and settlers built their houses out of sod.
Above is a tree near Potter's Pasture that has been used for winter feeding by an Opossum. That just looks weird... how about Possum.

Now we have the largest hand-planted National Forest in the U.S. and the red cedars that choke the canyons are considered a nuisance.
Trees are an important habitat for wildlife. Above is a Heron Rookery just south of Jeffrey Lake.
I don't know if there has always been as much Beaver damage along the route of the Platte River that we generally kayak, but our March 31, 2012 trip revealed that there are definitely some "busy beavers" out there now.
Just look at the size of some of those trees they have been tackling! I also have countless pictures of smaller ones that they had actually managed to topple. I guess it's one way to clear out the excess trees.

Thanks for stopping by. Go out and enjoy your coffee under some shade.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The list is long

The list is long... and detailed. But before we got down to all work, we started our day with a little play.
We visited the site just south of Gothenburg where a tree-lined berm that was the original 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway still exists in picturesque glory.
We heard from our Bobby Koepplin, the chairman of the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway and Peer Adviser to our Byway about how to interpret the site, improvements that could be made, how signage should be handled.

Won't it be great some day in the near future (our goal is 2013!) to have visitors from coast-to-coast know they're traveling the Lincoln Highway Byway (or be able to get off I-80 and enjoy the route at least for a portion of their trip) and have signage letting them know where they can see sites like this as well as other historical sites, attractions, great places to eat or enjoy Nebraska microbrews and wines, unique shops...

With the slower pace of the Byway plus everything there is to see and do... how many back roads will they have to travel and how many sites will they have to visit before they spend an additional night in one of our small towns, or at least enjoy a meal?

From there, we detoured along the "stair step" portion of the original route to Brady. In 1913 America's first transcontinental highway was simply a series of dirt and gravel roads interconnected to get travelers from one coast to another. It was only after the designation was made that the efforts to make it hard-surface from coast-to-coast would be begun. Locally the north side of the Platte River Valley was too sandy to make firm roads, while on the south, the existing farm-to-market roads were in good shape, so the Highway followed these roads - hence the "stair step."
From historic churches and frontier cemeteries, sites that can be recognized from diary descriptions of early Highway travelers, Oregon Trail monuments and Pony Express stations to
sites that are important to Nebraska's Public Power heritage, this portion of the original route is filled with "points of interest" that will be showcased to travelers.

Then it was back to Gothenburg and a stop at their wonderful Pony Express Station (they are the Pony Express Capital of Nebraska, you know) that attracts more than 30,000 visitors to Gothenburg each year!
Again, the visit was a learning opportunity, where our adviser Bobby Koepplin discussed interpretive signage with us.
Our meeting room for the day is in the wonderful Nebraska Salt and Grain corporate offices in Gothenburg. Not only do they have beautiful offices, they have developed an inviting meeting space that is used by the entire community.
Now it is time to go to work and make THE LIST.
The Lincoln Highway Nebraska Scenic and Historic Byway has A LOT to accomplish:
  • Update Bylaws
  • Create Articles of incorporation
  • Become a corporation under the laws of the state of Nebraska
  • Develop 501 C3 application and become a 501 C3
  • Create a Corridor Management Plan
  • Start with a Sign plan and have it implemented by 2013
  • Develop a presentation and "take the show on the road" in counties and communities across the 400 (or 450 or 500 or whatever) miles and 14 counties encompassed by the byway
  • Inventory attractions, amenities and points of interest that fit into Byway intrinsic qualities in each county along the Byway - Archaeological, Cultural, Historic, Natural, Recreational and Scenic.
  • Generate new members with the goal of a member a mile within five years.
There are a lot more tasks, assignments and objectives under the major goals in that list, but I won't bore you with the details. HOWEVER, if you would like to become a MEMBER and help with any one of them, you are more than welcome to contact one of the Executive Board members!!

Before long it was time to break for lunch at Gothenburg's very unique Pizza Hut restaurant.
Bobby went above and beyond the call of duty when he agreed to continue on to North Platte on the stair step AFTER the formal meeting had adjourned. We traveled Highway 30 to Brady, then south - backtracking our trip of the morning.

The first site we reached was Conroy's grave - an unfortunate soldier from Fort McPherson who was killed by natives while cutting grass a little too far from the Fort.
Bobby explained how a point of interest or an interpretive site could be handled in the area. Further on is the statue of a soldier commemorating the flag staff on the parade grounds at Fort McPherson.
The Byway can be such a force for good for historical sites such as these, bringing like-minded people together to ensure that preservation and proper interpretation is done for future generations.
One of the major take-aways for me from this meeting is the power of one. As a member of the Byway, when I see sites that need improvement - mowing, spraying, painting, straightening - just DO IT!

A major attraction along this historic route is Feather River Vineyards. In a very polite way, Bobby critiqued their signage efforts and suggested ways they might be improved - for their benefit as well as for the benefits of travelers along the Byway.
Then it was a whirlwind tour of North Platte's attractions and points of interest along the Highway 30 route of the Byway, then a chicken gizzard dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken and back to Gothenburg so Bobby could begin his TEN HOUR drive back to North Dakota.

Thanks for stopping by. There is going to be a lot of coffee drinking done on this project.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Nebraska's Lincoln Highway - now the real work begins

We have a mission.

We have a vision.

Actually, since the byway first took its baby steps back in the 90's as the 87 mile long "Platte River Scenic Byway" encompassing Lincoln and Dawson counties, we've had a mission.

However, now it's written down. It's our marching orders.

Unofficially, it is to be the transportation route of choice for travelers across Nebraska. And it's to be the best... the best byway in Nebraska, and the best section of Lincoln Highway across America. How's that for setting the bar high?

First, let me tell you about our meeting space in Columbus. It was on the third floor of the beautiful Evans House. Dr. Evens came to Columbus in the late 1800's on his way to a lucrative practice in Colorado. However, there was a smallpox epidemic and the town begged him to stay. After he imprisoned the priest who was spreading the disease by going from victim to victim, he nursed the town back to health, met the love of his life and settled down to stay.

The house was placed on the national registry in 1991, and celebrated it's centennial anniversary in 2011. The current owners have done a wonderful job of restoration, keeping alive the legendary history of the house, and filling it with vibrant businesses.
It made a very appropriate place to meet, as the original alignment of the Lincoln Highway in 1913 passed nearby.

Officially our mission and vision statements are:

The mission of the Byway is to educate, promote and preserve the scenic and historic Lincoln Highway through Nebraska.

The Lincoln Highway Nebraska Scenic and Historic Byway’s vision is to inspire travelers and communities along the corridor to find value in the byway.

Short, sweet and simple, huh? But they are more powerful than they seem at first glance.

Let's take the little town of Duncan for example. Just west of Columbus, Duncan has a population of 351 and a history dating back to 1871 when the first townsite was laid out, though it wasn't incorporated as a village until 1913.

The Lincoln Highway, then a very narrow ribbon of dirt road passed between the two rows of trees that have been preserved in the above photo and in the one below.
The town is understandably proud of it's heritage, and the association with the Lincoln Highway.

However, what if they and the visitors to their community saw real VALUE in the Byway, and the Byway was active in helping to inspire them and preserve the historic and scenic qualities of their community - and helped to educate on why the route, their town, their visitors AND preservation were important?
Wouldn't things get better for everyone involved?
A little further down the road is the excellently interpreted historical site of the Gardiner Station and Bridge.
It obviously was the site of one of Nebraska's one-room schools and an important bridge along the Lincoln Highway. The Byway could help in encouraging the responsible parties to make the site even more appealing by adding gravel and adjusting the placement of some official signage that mars the "viewshed" for photography.
We might also be able to help by traveling the Lincoln Highway route with a classic car collection (I'll go! I'll go!) and creating a photo library of sites like this for use in promoting the route, the sites, the small towns along the way and the state of Nebraska.
Interpreting the important historical sites along the trail is obviously of utmost importance, and the Nebraska State Historical Society has done a fantastic job. This site near Central City is a great example.
The markers are well placed and interesting, there is a great pull-out and picnic area to give weary travelers an opportunity to get off of the road... that is, if you weren't rear-ended because the signpost along the highway telling of the marker was RIGHT THERE - at the entrance, and unless you were driving 45mph in your Model T, you may have rolled your modern SUV trying to make the turn at 60.

That is something the Byway organization can help with. Evaluating the placement of signage and what can be done to improve the experience of the visitor.
For the most part, the Lincoln Highway through the eastern and central regions of Nebraska (I'm sure the western region is fine too - we're just currently traveling the eastern & central regions) is in very good shape - the towns are quaint, a little dilapidated, but not too run down, the right-of-way well maintained and clean. Every once in awhile, though, there is the evidence of the changing times shown by buildings that won't be with us too much longer.

But you know what? That's OK too. Within reason, it helps to underscore the evolution of agriculture and the economy of Nebraska - the ups and downs that is inherent to rural living.
And now we get to the Seedling Mile - this again is the one in Grand Island. Without these seedling miles, the road probably wouldn't have been completed - they inspired investment and were vital in getting local support for a transcontinental highway - a model of how to generate excitement to get a project completed, I might add.

The approach to the seedling mile is marked with the unique painted utility poles. This way of marking the route was used nearly since the beginning and automatically evokes a sense of nostalgia - plus it gives the travelers the confidence that they're on the right track!
Our little tour group braved the cold and the wind to hear the story of the effort it took the Grand Island Historical Society and their partners to preserve the Seedling Mile and the future plans they have for the site.

Below is a quick shot of the Lincoln Highway Signs along Route 30 letting you know you're on the Lincoln Highway at the entrance to the site of the Seedling Mile.And now to one of the jewels of preservation along the Lincoln Highway - the Shady Bend in Grand Island.
This iconic Lincoln Highway amenity has been loving restored by the SAME FAMILY (now on the 5th generation) that has owned it since the 1920's. Oh, the stories they can tell! Plus they serve delicious Italian food and are wonderfully warm and welcoming. Make it a point to stop if you're traveling the highway.

Which is another value the Byway can bring to businesses and communities along the highway - more customers!
It's on to Shelton now, where local activists have restored an historic billboard that graces the side of one of their downtown buildings.
And to the official visitor center of the Nebraska Lincoln Highway Association (not to be confused with the Byway...). Lovingly run by the Shelton Historical Society, the visitor center offers a wealth of artifacts and information.
Like this photograph taken at Central City, Nebraska on October 8, 1913 - where the official proclamation creating the Lincoln Highway and declaring the route was signed.
And a collection of historic signs like this one that was placed by the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1915, marking the route from coast to coast.
By this time it's nearing the end of a long day, and a storm front is moving through. We managed to reach our hotel in Gothenburg (the excellent Comfort Inn) before any real weather hit.
A short night and we'll be at it again in the morning!

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee's always on. May be laced with Red Bull or Five Hour Energy this morning.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nebraska's Lincoln Highway - making something good better

Let me tell you about the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway in North Dakota. It was one of the first three byways in North Dakota, designated in 1997. It's 63 miles are now a National Scenic Byway and is:
  • 2.7 million dollar project
  • 2 county governments
  • 4 municipalities
  • 9 state & federal agencies
  • 40 interpretive panels
  • 10 map kiosks
The chairperson of the byway committee, Bobby Koepplin made the trip down to the Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway as part of the Peer Advisor Network of America's Byway Resource Center. You see, the Center, vital for the state byway programs as well as national byways, has been "defunded", and they want to do as much good as possible before they go away.
The first day of our gathering, we met at the Clarion hotel and Wilderness Conference Center in Fremont, one of the eastern-most towns along the byway. The Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway in Nebraska is 400 miles long... or 450 miles long... or 500 miles long. We're not really sure!
What we are sure of, is that the Byway can be a driving force behind economic development and tourism visitation in the rural areas and small towns through which it passes. Similar to our counterpart in North Dakota (though it has national designation and we do not), our byway can help to improve the "product" along the byways - the historic sites, recreation areas, attractions and events. This will help the other product - the private owners of restaurants, gas stations, hotels, as they begin to see the impact of more visitors traveling the byway.
A good example of how the byway can "take charge" of improving the product is the Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area. This beautiful site has a wonderful interpretive sign telling the story of the Great Platte River Road. However, the entrance isn't all that inviting, the historical marker notification signage isn't placed properly for a 60 mph heavily traveled road.
There needs to be a more inviting area to stop and read the interpretive panel, and there is a lot of sign clutter at the entrance to the SRA. All of these could be addressed by the byway, either using volunteers to do it ourselves, or a little gentle encouragement to the superintendent of the area.
The same was true at many of the sites we passed on the way to Fremont. Historical markers with inadequate signage, small or no turnouts, small towns whose dilapidated buildings are on the verge of becoming eyesores.

Remember, we're getting ready for company! 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway - America's first transcontinental highway. There are going to be a lot of visitors coming. Let's clean up, spruce up, paint up... Cleaning up the junk along the highway, a quick coat of paint on some buildings, signs in the windows that say "This building isn't empty... it's full of opportunity." Small things like this can make a real difference.
Of course, as with any gathering of tourism folks, it isn't all work and no play. After all, we're all about play! Right along the historic 1913 route of the byway through Columbus is Duster's, in the historic Gottberg Motor Company Building. We enjoyed a delicious dinner there, as well as a sampler of the microbrew offerings from the Gottberg Brewing Company housed in the same building.
And since that wasn't enough, some of us hardy souls made us way over to Glur's Tavern - the oldest continuously operating tavern west of the Mississippi! Now that's definitely a unique attraction along the byway - and they have a good selection of Nebraska microbrew beers too!
It was founded in either 1876 or 1879 - no one seems to be too sure of the exact dates, but as you can see, little has changed over time. Still a local gathering place for old friends, business people and visitors. Word has it that Buffalo Bill once stepped up to the bar and slapped down a $100 gold piece and told everyone to drink until it was gone.
This final photo was taken on our way to Fremont the morning of the meeting. It is the historical marker for Grand Island's "seedling" mile, the second to be completed across the entire transcontinental route of the highway in 1915.

You see... as hard as it to believe the highway was only a series of gravel roads and dirt tracks for many years during it's early existence. Local towns would raise money and pave a mile of the route to inspire folks how wonderful it could be if the entire route was paved. These seedling miles eventually grew into an entire hard-surfaced road coast-to-coast.
It's quite an accomplishment made by people with vision and a willingness to work very, very hard. Let's continue that work by making the Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway a route that is traveled by thousands each year.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.