Monday, February 20, 2017

Crescent Lake NWR Road Trip

It’s not many days in February that are predicted to top 70 degrees, and while that didn’t quite happen yesterday, it was still a pretty nice day. Much too nice to sit inside or even putter around the yard. It was a day for getting out and exploring Nebraska!

So I packed a lunch and filled the car up with gas and headed out to explore. I’ve been wanting to do this route for years, and it was all I had imagined it would be! I will confess that I had loaned my “good” camera out, so all of the accompanying photos are taken with my cell phone. Don’t let the poor photo quality prejudice you against this road trip! Take it for yourself and you’ll experience just why no photography can truly do it justice - though most will do a better job than these.

My first stop was Lewellen, Nebraska, and what an absolutely lovely little town it is! Yes, it is tiny - 224 at the 2010 census (down from an all-time high population of 532 in 1940) - and its population does continue to dwindle, but it has so much going on! You’ll find The Most Unlikely Place here, the Ash Hollow Art Gallery at Blue Water Gallery, 17 Ranch Winery, Lewellen Lumber, a bank, watering hole and a host of other businesses.
West wide of Main Street Lewellen Nebraska
Then my travels took me on to Oshkosh, Nebraska. In the 2010 census, the population of Oshkosh was listed at 884. The 2015 estimate is 828, down from an all-time high in 1970 of 1067. As you can imagine from this trend, there are a lot of empty storefronts on what was once a thriving main street. However, it is obvious that the remaining residents take great pride in their community. One thriving business is Mark Ferrari Specialty Coffees. It might be unusual to find specialty Kona coffee in Oshkosh Nebraska, but the locals certainly support it. I should have made my road trip on President’s Day instead of Sunday, as it was closed.
Downtown Oshkosh Nebraska

 From Oshkosh, you go straight north on Second Street out into the Sandhills. The road is a combination of pavement, gravel and single-lane oil, and in places very rough, but it is so worth the drive. You’ll meander through some of the most stunning Sandhill scenery you’ve ever experienced. It’s about 30 miles, but Google maps indicates it will take about an hour. On a beautiful day, it will take much, much longer as you’ll want to stop at every incredible vista for photos.

Besides the National Wildlife Refuge, there is also a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Crescent Lake Wildlife Management Area. The WMA was opened in 2011 and allows primitive camping, the only overnight accommodations outside of “neighboring” towns of Oshkosh or Alliance. The Refuge itself encompasses nearly 49,000 acres, and the WMA adds another 900. Hunting is allowed September 1 through January 31. All other times are open to recreational use such as hiking, photography and birdwatching. I would recommend loading the kayaks! If you’ve never visited, you really do need to put this on your Nebraska bucket list. And, don’t do like I did, make a quick drive-through! If at all possible, camp overnight at the WMA and spend a day or two hiking in the serenity of the beautiful Nebraska Sandhills!
Crescent Lake WMA and NWR north of Oshkosh Nebraska

From Crescent Lake it’s an 18 mile drive north to Highway 2, the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway. From there I turned east to Whitman, exploring the tiny towns of Ellsworth, Bingham and Ashby along the way.
The Spade Ranch Store today, and the marker commemorating the historic Spade Ranch
Ellsworth, Nebraska is an unincorporated community that began life as the headquarters of the Spade Ranch. Founded in 1888 by Bartlett Richards, the ranch was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. At its peak size in 1905 with open range grazing and ready markets for cattle, the Spade encompassed over 500,000 acres with a herd of 60,000 cattle.
The Spade Ranch Store as it appeared in 1900.
 You’ll still find everything you need for ranch life (or motorcycle riding) at the Morgan Store in Ellsworth
Bingham Nebraska
East of Ellsworth is another tiny unincorporated community, Bingham, Nebraska. Not much history is available online for Bingham, but I believe it was founded in 1888.
Ashby Nebraska
Ashby Nebraska lies between Bingham and Hyannis. It is another unincorporated settlement, but it holds a special place in the hearts of many Sandhillers for the hours of enjoyment experienced at the dances that used to be held regularly. Today, you’ll find Calinda's Pot Shop & Art Gallery on main street.

I admit I skipped Hyannis, only because I’ve visited it several times before, and when you had kids in wrestling over the years, you spent many hours in the community, at least at the school. Just some facts, though: The 2010 census lists the population of Hyannis at 182, while the 2015 estimate lists 192, which is great news! It is down from a peak population of 449 in 1940.
Empty BNSF coal train heading back to Wyoming.
All of Highway 2 following the Burlington Northern rail lines makes for spectacular train spotting. The hills, curves and dramatic backdrops give lots of opportunity for photography. 
Though tiny, Whitman residents undoubtedly have pride in their community
Next up is Whitman, Nebraska. If you look closely at the photo in the upper right, you’ll notice that the tavern, now closed, is the famous “Wet Spot”.

If you look closely at the image below, you may recognize some storefronts that are still standing. 
Whitman Nebraska in 1910.
Backtracking just slightly west on Highway 2 and you’ll find the South Whitman Road that will wind its way through some of the most beautiful Sandhill scenery to Highway 92 between Arthur and Tryon. This road trip takes you past many Sandhills Playa lakes, havens for wildlife and birds. Please note, though. All of the land along the South Whitman Road is private land, not open to the public! Look, but don’t wander on unless you take the time to reach out to the landowners!
South Whitman Road
From here it was a short drive east on Highway 92 to the Diamond Bar road, then south to Sutherland. The end of an incredible road trip.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Know Nebraska: Feather River Vineyards in North Platte, Nebraska

Feather River Vineyards is a gem located in the beautiful Loess canyons south of North Platte. North Platte is a large trade-center for central Nebraska. The community is holding steady in population, showing 24,733 in 2010, with the 2015 estimate at 24, 194. It does face its challenges, but with a large regional medical center, community college, Union Pacific Railroad's Bailey Yard and the Wal-Mart Distribution Center as major employers, it has a good base to build upon.

Feather River is one of Nebraska's largest vineyards with 37 acres under cultivation. The first vines were planted in 2001, with the variety of grapes including Edelwiess, Seyval, Reisling, LaCrosse, St Pipen, Marechal Foch, Frontanec, St. Croix,  and Marguette. The owners, Jeff and Connie Brittan are very hands on - Dr. Brittan when he has the chance, and Connie acting as the wine maker. Jeff is an acclaimed stained glass artist, and you will find displays of his art in the tasting room, as well as used on the wine labels.
Since 2010, their wines have consistently won awards from competitions all across the country.
They have a wonderful, cozy tasting room that overlooks their harvesting, aging and bottling floor. The employees are longtime family friends who know their wines intimately and are more than willing to share their knowledge, as well as their warm regard for the owners and the business they are running.
Of course, in addition to their regular hours for wine tasting and purchase, they host regular special events, are open to group tours and is a wonderful site for weddings, receptions and all kinds of celebrations.

When you go: The address is  5700 East State Farm Rd., North Platte, NE 69101. It is just south and east of North Platte with good signage at the entrance off of State Farm Road. Check their website or their Facebook page for their regular hours. You can call (308)696-0078 or email for more information.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Know Nebraska: Eustis Pool Hall in Eustis, Nebraska

Eustis is a rarity in Nebraska - a thriving rural community! The high population was 497 in 1930, but it has held its own, with ups and downs, boasts a population of 401 at the 2010 census. The village has a proud German heritage which has been kept alive by many customs, foods and celebrations. On Jan. 8, 1993, Eustis was declared the "Sausage Capital of Nebraska" by the Nebraska Legislature.

The Eustis Chamber of Commerce lists 35 members, including the cornerstone businesses of the Eustis Body Shop (with locations in Eustis, Cozad, Lexington, Kearney and Grand Island), and the world-famous Village Pie Maker. The signature community event is Wurst Tag, always the Second Saturday in June- "A German heritage celebration similar to an Oktoberfest, Wurst Tag is a family celebration. Some of the events include the early morning Volkmarch and Road Race. During the day there are heritage contests, games, demonstrations and displays. The day concludes with a large German dinner, Polka dance and American street dance. Two large beer tents provide seating and shade during the day."
Our reason for visiting was to enjoy the incredible Eustis Pool Hall. I have been visiting the Eustis Pool Hall since the early 1980's, when their Mexican food was a favorite.
The Eustis Pool Hall doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it is one of those local taverns we travel for. The staff is warm and friendly, the food and drink is delicious, and the decor shows pride of place, including the incredible cedar slab bar hand made from wood harvested locally. The other decor, including the windmill fan chandelier also tells a local story.
 The story of the Eustis Pool Hall is the story of what it takes to be a local entrepreneur. Though very popular locally, the Pool Hall had been closed for two years during 2013-2015. A local decided it was just too sad to have a hometown with no restaurant, so enlisted the help of her friends and family to reopen the restaurant and tavern. The opening day was on the Saturday of the Wurst Tag celebration in 2015.

Owning a bar and restaurant anywhere is a herculean task, but in a small town in rural Nebraska, especially so, as the labor pool to draw from is extremely limited. It can mean a work week that can easily be more than double the standard 40 hours.

In September of 2016, owner  Katrina Oaklund announced a merger with  Steven Frazier and Lonnie Labens, owners of Sweets and More in Cozad, with the end result to be the closing of Sweets and More and the purchase of the business by Frazier and Labens.

We haven't visited the Eustis Pool Hall for quite some time, but judging from the Facebook posts, the new business proposition is working out just fine, so it's time to make another road trip! Just as we did on our last trip there, locals and visitors are enjoying great food, great drinks and great fun.

When you go: The Eustis Pool Hall is located at 112 E Railroad St, Eustis, Nebraska, 69028. They have regular hours, opening six days a week at 11:00am. They are closed on Sundays. Call at (308) 486-5333.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Know Nebraska: 3 Brothers Vineyard and Winery in Farnam, Nebraska

Farnam is another small town situated along the HiLine - Highway 23 in south central Nebraska. The population was 171 at the 2010 census, down from the all-time high population of 462 in 1910. It is a typical small town in rural Nebraska. Quiet residential neighborhoods, many with unpaved streets, a closed school, and a few, very few, main street businesses operating in historic buildings dating from a more prosperous time.

Our reason for visiting Farnam was to enjoy the 3 Brothers Vineyard and Winery. A delightful find in a small town. 3 Brothers is located at 812 Lincoln St., in the northwest corner of the community.
3 Brothers is located in an unprepossessing building that belies the warmth of the interior.
According to their website: "Three Brothers Vineyard and Winery takes its name from the three Wach brothers Hermann Julius, Friedrich Wilhelm and Otto Rudolph.  Two of the brothers, Hermann and Friedrich, were born in Worms, Russia in 1879 and 1884 respectively, while Otto was born in Hayes County, Nebraska in 1889 after the family homesteaded in the area.  They are among 15 children of Friedrich Hermann Wach who was born in East Germany, but immigrated to Russia in 1852 to seek his fortune as a maker of leather harnesses.  Russia, under the Czar, was inhospitable for Germans, so at the age of 54 he moved his family to America arriving on the same day as the Statue of Liberty, June 18, 1885.  Family folklore says the family arrived on the same ship as the many crates that were carrying the statue.

Traveling by train to Sutton, Nebraska to meet family, the Wachs soon homesteaded in Hayes County, 50 miles west of 3 Brothers  Vineyard location.  Later, these three brothers married three sisters from the Schultz family.  Hermann married Anna Karolina in 1909.  Friedrich married Emilie Elisabetha in 1912.  Otto married Johanna Frieda in 1919.  Friedrich and Emilie Wach are the grandparents of the vineyard and winery founder, Gary Wach.
 The pride in their German/Russian heritage is evident. According to census data, 29% of Farnam residents claim German heritage, while 13% report Irish.
3 Brothers is a wonderful find in rural Nebraska. The small tasting room and adjacent outdoor patio provide the perfect setting to enjoy a glass with friends. They have a selection of Nebraska reds and whites, plus, if you're there at the right time, you can enjoy appetizers or a meal.
Though it is important to call ahead to make sure they are going to be open, and because they produce small batches, they may be out of some of their wines, you will enjoy a good time at 3 Brothers. Be sure to visit their calendar on their website to take part in their regular special events. (Note - this photo of the special events is for February/March of 2016, not current)
When you go: The street address is 812 Lincoln Street, Farnam, NE  69029. Because this is a family-run operation, be sure to call ahead, even if you're planning a trip during the open hours listed on their website, (308) 569.2501, cell phone (308) 320.0020 or the house (308) 569.2443, or email

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Know Nebraska: Lazy RW Whiskey Distillery in Moorefield, Nebraska

Moorefield is a tiny town! You pretty much have to go there on purpose to find your way there. It is located on the "HiLine", which is Highway 23 across south central Nebraska, just east of Curtis and west of Farnam. It's easy to pass right by it, as it's super tiny - just 32 people in the 2010 census.

Our reason for visiting Moorefield was to do a tasting and purchase some whiskey at the Lazy RW Distillery. If there's one good reason to find your way to Moorefield, it is to go to this incredible distillery.
 Thankfully the distillery has a new lighted sign. Early in 2016 when we made our visit there, we drove by the former Moorefield school several times before realizing that it was the home of the Lazy RW Distillery!
It is worth the effort to find your way inside! What an incredible story of rural entrepreneurship! According to their story on their website: "Lazy RW Distillery was founded in August of 2015, by father and son team Bill and Todd Roe.  What started out as a fascination with old journals from a Great Uncle, who operated a still on the Niobrara River in prohibition days, has now become a fully licensed whiskey distillery located in Moorefield, Nebraska.  We are very proud of the slow process we use to make our whiskey the quality product we produce.  With Nebraska corn, Nebraska vendors, and three featured products (Straight Corn Whiskey, Cinnamon Flavor Whiskey, and Lemon Flavored Whiskey) we have followed our Uncle's notes to a tee.  We are a small distillery with huge standards of quality.  We look forward to providing a high-end product for many years to come."

One of the things that I love about local businesses is the pride they have in their home towns, and the value they bring to their communities. Yes, entrepreneurship is important everywhere, and a small business in Lincoln contributes to their economy, but a small business in a town of 32 people has an out-sized importance!
Not only do they provide economic stimulus, but they provide a special place for locals to gather together - doubly so if the business makes and serves whiskey!
You will notice throughout this blog post you won't see any photos of the actually distilling room. Though we were able to tour the room, Photos of stills aren't allowed per whatever federal agency governs such matters!
Lazy RW makes three products: Frontier Straight Whiskey, Cinnamon Flavored Whiskey and Lemon Flavored Whiskey, all as close to the original recipe created in the 1920 prohibition era bootleg culture of the founder's great-uncle.
Be sure to call ahead so that you have the opportunity to enjoy a formal tasting with the founder.
He is justifiably proud of the products they create.

 And they love their tiny community of Moorefield!

When you go: The actual street address is 519 South Ash St., Moorefield NE 69039. Look for the former school and the new lighted sign. Call ahead! You don't want to miss out on your chance for a tasting! 308-660-2728​, 308-530-1800 or you can email