Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The monster of Alkali Lake

by Larry Miller

As a kid, hiking through the pine hills just south of Chadron, my buddies and I would sometimes play "war."  An imaginary enemy would be lurking somewhere near Paradise Valley or perhaps back near Blue Rock Cave.

From atop King's Chair rock, we could survey the countryside for friend or foe.

Occasionally, our hyperactive imaginations would choose battling monsters over mere mortals.  We sometimes spent our time stalking -- or being stalked by -- a sabre-tooth tiger, a giant lynx, or some other heinous beast too frightening to describe!

So, it was with a bit of amusement and nostalgia to learn that even grown-ups of bygone days liked to engage in a bit of fantasy.

This item comes courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society.  Although it's not a Dawes County story, I suspect many northwest Nebraskans have driven the back roads of Sheridan County, oblivous to the danger that lurked nearby.  I feel somewhat cheated to have missed ever trying to pursue the beast in my younger days.

During the early 1920's, Alkali Lake near Gordon was the reputed residence of a sea monster. Reports of the giant creature said, "Its head was like an oil barrel, shiny black in the moonlight." 

"When it rears and flips its powerful tail, the farmers are made seasick." "It eats a dozen calves when it comes ashore and flattens the cornfields." An Omaha man who saw the creature said, "the monster was 300 feet long and its mouth large enough to hold the Woodmen of the World Building."

In 1923, the Hay Springs News called for an investigation of the lake, proposing to drag the lake and capture the monster. A few months later, the paper reported, "The Hay Springs Investigating Association has, after due consideration, practically given up the idea of dragging the Lake in an effort to locate the monster. Land owners want 4,000 dollars for three mont's lease, and certain percent of exhibition money if the animal is found. Considered excessive, the Association concluded to go no further."

Newspaperman John Maher, known for his hoaxes, was probably responsible for this tall tale, too.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rising from the rails: Crawford, Nebraska

by Larry Miller

The rugged buttes overlooking the meandering White River in western Dawes County saw more than just a few hostilities between white settlers and the indigenous Sioux tribes in the 1870s.  

In 1873, the old Red Cloud Agency was relocated from along the North Platte River to a site near the pine-speckled buttes above White River.  The U.S. government authorized creation of a military post at the new agency site the following year.

Originally known as Camp Robinson, it was renamed Fort Robinson in January of 1878 in honor of Lt. Levi Robinson, who'd been killed earlier by hostile Indians.  Fort Robinson  played a key role in the so-called "Sioux Wars."  It was there that Chief Crazy Horse  surrendered in May of 1877, and it would continue to play an important role in efforts to maintain some tranquility in the region for several years.

Early Crawford photograph courtesy of  M.M. Mizner
That fact was not lost upon local and regional businessmen who also observed that the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad was extending into western Dawes County in the Spring of 1886.  A new maintenance roundhouse had been built by FE&MV the previous year in Chadron.  Establishing this rail route to serve the fort offered great opportunities for those quick enough to take advantage of it.

According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, Omaha Bee correspondent  William Edwards Annin and his brother-in-law Benjamin Paddock had partnered some years earlier to conduct business at the agency.  And the two apparently had acquired land in the vicinity of Fort Robinson -- land that was then purchased by the railroad. 

In June of 1886, Annin would write in the Bee that the newly platted town of Crawford, "has already put on the airs of an old settlement.  Four thousand dollars worth of lots were sold the first day and the purchasers are now busily at work erecting buildings.  Thirty business houses are already on the ground and nearly as many more are said to be on the road coming to locate."

"A bank, two lumber yards, four general stores, a furniture store, meat market, blacksmith shop, a wheelwright, livery stable, two restaurants, three drug stores, a hardware establishment and flour and feed emporium, with several saloons...."

"Fort Robinson lies only three and one-half miles distant, and a large trade with its garrison is reasonably expected by the merchants.  The purchasers of the lots promptly saw that the nearer they could locate to the military post the better for their business...five weeks from now will see a well built up street, and a bustling town, where three days ago not a house was visible," wrote Annin.

These entrepreneurs, and the railroad that bought their wares to the county, are memorialized by streets named for them:  Annin, Paddock. and Fremont.  In nearby Whitney, adjacent parallel streets still carry the names, Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri.  The street nestled along the north side of the seldom-used rail tracks is names -- appropriately -- Railroad Street.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Monday, August 13, 2012

A blast from the past - COLACINO'S

Note:  We wrote the following story on January 10, 2010, and the Chadron Golden Age Courier newspaper picked it up for their August 2012 edition.  So we're resurrecting the story here -- with a few additional notes and corrections.

Ask almost anyone who grew up in northwest Nebraska in the mid-20th century about Colacino’s, and you’ll see a smile emerge – along with lots of memories!

Really old-timers will recall when the place was known as Kelso’s Pavilion. It was located along U.S. Highway 20 about two miles east of Chadron.

No one seems to know for sure when the pavilion was built, but it was likely sometime between World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930s by Art and Nels Kelso. And it wasn’t just a single-story, frame dance hall. There once was a swimming pool, a bath house, observation deck, and even a boat pond!

We first remember the popular dance hall from the late 1940s, when Tony and Nancy Colacino bought the pavilion, according to their son, Dick, who now lives in California. By that time, the pool and pond were gone, but the pavilion was still a jumping place with lots of live entertainment – bands that came from all across the region, and eager patrons that would drive in from across the panhandle, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

A lot of soldiers came up from Fort Robinson,” remembers Colacino.

Nancy and Tony Colacino had operated the White Lunch café in downtown Chadron for several years after World War II. That business was located on the west side of First & Main Street, just south of where a Safeway store had once been located. In the late 1940's or early 1950's -- we don't know exactly when -- Colacinos opened up a supper club adjacent to their dance pavilion east of town.   That's when Louie Apa took over operation of what became "King Louie's White Lunch," which remained at that location until at least 1955.  We well remember Louie relocating his restaurant business to a new location on the north side of West 2nd Street for several years.  That's about the same time that H & R Block moved in to the old King Louie's location at Second and Main. 
An aerial photograph of the Colacino Supper Club, taken in 1953, is shown above.

In its day, the supper club was a one-of-a-kind in the area, and it was a very popular place. Among their regular customers was prominent banker C.F. Coffee and his wife. We’re told that sometimes the club would open early, just for them. In any event, Colacino Supper Club established its own large clientele – somewhat different customers than those who showed up on weekends for a good, sometimes even rowdy, time at the pavilion!

We’ve posted a few higher resolution photographs of the pavilion and supper club in our Early Chadron gallery. Our thanks to Dick Colacino and his daughter and son-in-law, Tina and Kevin Stopper, for giving us access to the aerial photograph of the old Colacino business.

After her mother died, young Mary Colacino operated the supper club with her father, and the business continued uninterrupted until the summer of 1965.

That’s when Colacinos sold the business to Harold and Norma Miller, who had previously owned the 120 Bar in downtown Chadron.  
The property was later owned by the Nixons. A 1985 news story in the Chadron Record suggested that the supper club was "torn apart."  However, Colacino's niece, Bunny Nitsch, advises us that the Supper Club was not torn down, but still exists as a home.

In later years, the pavilion was painted pink and was popularly-known as the Pink Panther. It continued to be a site for weekend dances. By the mid-1970s, Gil and Roger Nitsch owned the property, and they converted the venerable old hall into a pig barn.

Alas, in 1985, the roof collapsed and the structure was tore down. Colacinos was no more.

No more dancing, no more squealings;
we’re left with just nostalgic feelings.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Remembering Coach "Fuzz" Watts

GORDON “FUZZ” WATTS was one of those rare individuals who seemed endowed with natural talent for just about anything he pursued. 

A group of Watts' students, led by John McDowell, organized a tribute gathering to Coach Watts on Saturday, July 14, 2012, at the American Legion Club in Chadron.  More than 50 people attended the event and shared some moving stories.  We'll have a bit more about that event in the next few days.

Born in Denver in 1928, “Fuzz” Watts grew up in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he graduated from high school. After a tour in the Pacific as an Air Force cryptographer, he went to college at the University of Wyoming, but soon transferred to NSTC at Chadron, where he was a three-year football letterman.

He married Bonnie Haun in 1951; they had four children: #1-Patti; #2-Debbie; #3-Mike; and #4-Bill. After graduating from college in 1952, Watts signed a contract with Chadron schools and would change the fortunes of Cardinal football – leading the 1954 team to the first undefeated season for Chadron High since 1927. During his 11 years at the helm of the football program, his teams racked up a 79-17-4 record. They won conference crowns nine times and were undefeated in 1954, 1956, 1960 and 1962.

As Athletic Director, “Fuzz” Watts was credited with initiating a very successful high school wrestling program and a popular elementary grade school basketball program. Many players on the 1961 Class B Championship team began playing together in the 3rd and 4th Grades.

For the thousands of students whose lives he touched, “Coach Watts” was a master at motivation. He left CHS in 1965 and worked as a construction boss for several projects and was also Superintendent of Buildings & Grounds at CSC.

Watts died of natural causes on June 18, 1984. He was just 55 years old. Shortly after his death, veteran writer Con Marshall penned this poignant piece about Gordon “Fuzz” Watts for the Chadron Record.

These fellows were a few the athletes at Chadron High School who played for Coach Gordon "Fuzz" Watts.  They were among the crowd of men and women who gathered at the American Legion Club last weekend (7/14/12) to pay tribute to the talented coach. For another shot of this group -- and names -- visit our Chadron Schools Gallery.

Friday, March 23, 2012

All in the family

Our friend Don Matthesen of Spearfish, South Dakota was kind enough to pass along this clipping from the Sundance (WY) Times of 1 March 2012.  It was part of their "Peek at the Past" features, which seems to be a popular feature in most newspapers in these parts.

Here's the story from the Sundance Times on March 3, 1897:

Bartlett Richards of Chadron, Neb., who will be remembered as one of the pioneer cattle kings of Crook county, was married to his niece, Miss Inez Richards at Berlin, Prussia, on February 1.  Quite a bit of romance attaches to this wedding.  The laws of America forbid the marriage of blood relations, and as Bartlett was determined to marry his niece and her parents offering no objections, they went to Berlin, accompanied by the lady's mother, resided there a sufficient length of time to acquire citizenship and were legally married.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

That old football spirit comes back to life!

by Larry Miller

Former Chadron State Eagle Danny Woodhead’s passion for football and – to steal a line from the U.S. Army – “trying to be all you can be,” has been an inspiration for many.  Your’s truly included.

As a one-time high school athlete now collecting Social Security and nursing my poor, worn-out flat feet, I must confess that the pursuit of other interests – including working at a career in broadcasting – pulled me away from my early love of sports for most of my adult life.  

Even as recently as a 50th high school class reunion last year, I wrote this about what I learned at Chadron High School:  “…that there’s more to life than sports…that teamwork is just as important in the rest of life as it is on the field or on the court…that growing up in a small town was a pretty good thing….”

Not that my bride and I haven’t followed sports.  You can’t grow up in Nebraska without being at least a closet fan of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.   In Oklahoma, we learned to love the OSU Cowboys (usually in the shadow of the OU Sooners!)  We particularly enjoyed basketball games in Gallagher Hall, and many years later would follow our Black Hills State University “Yellowjackets” exploits at the Donald Young Center in Spearfish.

But the truth is, until our grand nephew, Chance Galey, started playing for the Chadron State Eagles back in 2005, I was not a big football fan.  But as we began watching the Eagles play more often, we started getting caught up in the game again.

And then, there was Danny Woodhead.

Woodhead and Chance played together on some terrific Eagle teams.  And while Chance collected several honors for his performance as starting center for three years, it was Danny Woodhead who made an indelible impact upon the record books at Chadron – and in the NCAA.  He set a rushing record (at that time) within either Division I or II of the NCAA and was the recipient of two Harlon Hill trophies, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman trophy.  And there's a litany of records he established in his college career while also winning academic awards on his way to earning a degree in math education.

Like so many other CSC alums, we followed Danny’s career as he first went to the New York Jets. Despite an injury and some bouncing around between the Jets and their practice squad, Danny Woodhead persevered.  Finally, he was released by the Jets, and some of us wondered if perhaps Danny may have finally come to the end of his journey in professional football.

Obviously, we didn’t fully appreciate the commitment that this young man had and continues to exhibit as one of the most unlikely success stories in the NFL.

Danny’s skills appeared to fit nicely with Bill Belichick’s strategy at New England, and none of has looked back since!  Despite the Patriot’s loss in the Super Bowl, Danny Woodhead again displayed the kind of commitment and dedication he has to the game, and to his teammates.  And that fact certainly has not gone unnoticed by Patriots fans.

Even back at Chadron State, we watched Danny and the Eagles play with “heart,” and we have little doubt that he’ll continue to inspire us all.

While he’s not a “star” in the same sense as Tom Brady, Danny’s hard work is paying off.  His pay was bumped up to about $700,000 (still a far cry from Brady’s $13.2 million, and even wide receiver Wes Welker’s $4.1 million) and now endorsement opportunities are blossoming.   Last summer, Danny was tapped for a two-year deal to be the athlete promoting the Sketchers fitness footwear collection.

That sort of thing comes with the “turf,” but only for those who’ve achieved remarkable success.  We thought it was telling that Sketcher’s president Michael Greenberg  astutely observed that “Danny athleticism and dedication are truly inspiring.”

I’ll bet those could have been the very words that veteran Chadron writer Con Marshall might have used in assessing a younger Danny Woodhead shortly after he took to the field for the Chadron State Eagles in 2004.

I’m a believer that such “heart” comes largely from nurturing  parents and family members, as well as early friends and mentors.  Danny’s parents, Mark and Annette Woodhead of North Platte, should take a bow.

And now, for the first time in decades – maybe ever – I can hardly wait for next football season!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Chadron native made most of life after being disabled

A Chadron native who made the most of her life after being disabled in an automobile accident a few months after she had graduated from high school died last week at her home in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Janet Kohler, 69, died on Monday, Dec. 26, just two weeks after it was determined that she had cancer.
CHS Class of 1960
She was born and raised in Chadron and graduated from Chadron High School in May 1960. That summer, she and a classmate, Lois Poppe, worked as aides at the Crawford hospital.  They were returning from work on Sunday, Aug. 7, 1960 when Poppe lost control of the nearly new Ford Falcon she was driving about 10 miles west of Chadron on “old” Highway 20.   
The car began to whip, crossed the centerline, went into the left ditch and rolled end over end several times, according to the news story in the Chadron Record.  Poppe died before the ambulance reached the Chadron hospital, and Kohler was paralyzed from the waist down.
Both women had been busy high school students. Poppe was a percussionist for the band and the piano accompanist for the choir and the all-school musical, “Carousel,” that had been presented in the spring of 1960.  She and her younger sister, Laurel, had acted out “The Lord’s Prayer” in sign language at the community’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant the last week of July.
Kohler played the flute in the band and was “the life of the party” type who had a keen sense of humor.
Her sister-in-law, Sherry Weymouth Kohler of Troy, Ill., called Janet, “A great gal with loads of personality. She had a wonderful way of putting everyone at ease with her disability. She always made us proud to be a part of her family.”
Her older brother, Bill Kohler of Chadron, said, “She made the best of her predicament and was upbeat clear to the end. She was always real independent.”
She had talked to both of her brothers by telephone just a day or two before her death.
After a year of rehabilitation following the accident, Kohler attended Chadron State College in 1961-62. The handicap did not slow her down. She joined the Chadron State Players, a drama group, was a member of the Anokasan (annual) staff and belonged to Zeta Alpha, a social sorority.
However, because it was much more handicap accessible, she transferred to the University of Missouri the next year and earned both a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and a master’s degree in social work there.
Her first job after she earned the master’s degree was at the Butterfield Boys Ranch at Marshall, Mo.

Kohler spent most of the rest of her professional life working for the California Mental Health Department.   Her positions included director of patients’ rights, regional director of mental health programs and southern California director of forensics.

She received several honors for her work. Among them was a commendation resolution passed by the California senate for her service to the state. She also earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California, helping her attain the administrative jobs that she held.

After retiring in the mid-1980s, Kohler was a volunteer for the Assistance League of Huntington Beach and also helped Latino youths through the El Viento Foundation.

A Chadron High classmate, Guyla Harrison Armstrong, now of Allen, Tex., remained in close contact with Kohler the last 50-plus years, and visited her in California last summer.  

“We became best friends when we were 12 years old and both of us were seventh graders,” Guyla remembers. “I enjoyed her and appreciated her friendship a lot. She had a hard life because of her disability, but she never complained and kept the sense of humor that she had when we were kids.”

The friendship became especially close in the mid-1980s after Armstrong and her family moved from Kearney to Fullerton, Calif., where she taught in colleges.

“One of our daughters was an outstanding swimmer and her coach lived in Huntington Beach,” Armstrong said. “It was about a 20- to 25-minute trip from our house. Nearly every day for several years, I drove her to the pool where she practiced and then visited Janet. That was after she had retired and was living in her nice condominium that is about a half mile from the ocean.

“Later on, we met often for lunch in a little restaurant halfway between our homes. We always had a lot of fun.  She always had a car and had no problems driving in the traffic.”

Armstrong and family members recall that Kohler’s father, Bill, who owned an automobile dealership in Chadron, rigged up the hand controls for the first car that she drove after the accident.

Janet Kohler is show with one of 
her dogs a few years ago.  They
were named Willie and Gracie after
her parents, Bill and Grace Kohler.
Armstrong said Kohler confided to her that doctors, after examining her spinal injury, marveled that she was not a quadriplegic.

“I think it was God’s doing that she was not completely paralyzed,” Armstrong said. “Janet was the perfect social worker. She had that kind of a heart and helped so many people.”

One of them is Eric Isaker. They met in 1997, through one of the agencies where she was a volunteer. He was in his 20s and had fallen on hard times. He had a low-paying job and had lost his place to live. She had an extra room in her condo and invited him to move in and help take care of her.

“I planned to stay just a year until I got back on my feet,” said Isaker, who is now a veterinary technician.  “But we got along so well that I never moved out. She was really good to me and I tried to help her all I could.”

Kohler reportedly left her possessions to Isaker.

Although it wasn’t always easy, Kohler loved to travel. She and her brother Jim went to Hawaii  once and Isaker and her returned several times in recent years, he said.

Jim and Sherry Kohler also took her with them on two trips to Europe. They recall that in 1988 the three of them were leaving a hotel in Paris when a man recognized her.

“He told us he’d know that smile and red hair anywhere,” Sherry related. “She had taught him while he was in a prison relief program in California.  He thanked her several times for the help she’d given him.”

Sherry also noted that after the obituary appeared in the Orange County Register last week, two special comments were posted online by others she had befriended. 

One noted they had met through the Huntington Beach Assistance Program and thanked her for helping make the El Viento program succeed.  “You’ll also be greatly missed by the gals at bunco,” it added. 

The other said, “You always had a kind word and an encouraging smile. The world has one less caring soul today.”

Thanks to good friend Con Marshall for sharing this story