By Matthew Spencer
When America’s most famous travel writers moved across the Missouri River floodplains in 1804, they wandered perhaps a dozen miles west to a paradise of trees with fruit, nuts and berries, fed by the rich prairie soil of the Loess Hills in what is now southeast Nebraska. Lewis and Clark raved about a “perfect suitability of settlement,” and since 1882, one of those settlements has been Auburn, a charming Nemaha County city that suits its proud citizens just fine.
Amid Auburn’s pretty countryside you’ll discover historic architecture, elegant Victorian homes from the early 20th century, a rare pair of thriving downtowns and an eclectic array of restaurants that caters to this diverse and growing city of nearly 3,500 residents.
Neighborhoods include educators at nearby Peru State College and highly skilled workers from around the globe who take the 10-minute drive east from their Auburn homes to Brownville and the county’s powerhouse employer, Cooper Nuclear Station, which energizes the region with nearly 800 jobs.
Brownville is now an enchanting riverside tourist destination, but back in 1883, it fell victim to a power play by a pushy neighbor formed in 1882 after the northern town of Sheridan merged with Calvert to its south to create Auburn.
The upstart Auburn won a new vote to snatch Brownville’s county seat. Auburn kept both its Sheridan and Calvert downtowns, which now are connected by a 1-mile diagonal stretch of brick road known as Courthouse Avenue.
“I’m not sure we’ve been totally forgiven by Brownville for doing that, but you’ve got to put it behind you,” said Bob Engles, Auburn’s former mayor and owner of the Engles Agency, which specializes in real estate and insurance operations.
When he served as mayor from 2002 to 2010, Engles had to put the past behind after the city’s two leading businesses closed. He helped recruit Ariens, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of lawn tractors and snow blowers, which is the top job producer in Auburn, with 227 workers. Engles is a lifetime Auburn resident who remembers growing up in the 1950s when the downtown was filled with clothing stores and other retail businesses. Now those stores are gone and many of the small farms are no more. But with the growth of nonfarming jobs and a manufacturing base stirring the economic pot, Auburn’s four real estate firms are really cooking, he said.
“You can be as nostalgic as you want, but you better be looking at the windshield rather than the rearview mirror,” said Engles, who also serves as a trustee for his alma mater, Peru State.
Since taking on the challenges of mayor in 2010, Scott Kudrna’s biggest headache had to do with rearview mirrors that were in about 25,000 motor vehicles suddenly pouring through town. The mayor faced six months of honking complaints in 2011, when the epic Missouri River flood shifted the daily traffic onto Auburn’s serene downtown route of Highway 75. Instead of 6,000 motor vehicles, 25,000 were flooding through each day.
“It’s a federal highway so there’s not a whole bunch I can do,” he chuckled wearily. “I would have loved to have put a tollbooth on each end of town and paid for city services.”
But the mayor sees his city on the right road with growing businesses and a stellar school system. Kudrna’s day job is vice president at the Carson National Bank of Auburn, the oldest bank in the county with its roots dating back to 1857, but the part-time mayor has a 24/7 hope for his community. A concrete walking trail will wind through historic Legion Park and an interactive nature trail is in the works. The showcase project is a funding drive for a $6.7-million performing arts center near Auburn High that will seat more than 700.
“There’s big dreams,” Kudrna said.
Sweet dreams are growing at Auburn High School, where on Memorial Day its 437 students will celebrate the school’s 125th graduating class. There’s plenty to celebrate, with recent impressive academic testing scores for grades 9 through 11. The testing gains have been overseen by Dr. Nancy Fuller, who has two of the school’s shining stars as the student representatives on her 18-member advisory panel. Senior Julie Slama and sophomore Eli Kennedy brainstorm with teachers, parents and administrators.
These A-team honor students both make daily 15-minute drives from the country for school activities often lasting until 9 p.m. Julie already has been accepted at Yale and is active in sports, community service and attends national conferences as a state officer for the Future Business Leaders of America. Eli excels in math, science and computers, and when he’s not busy working on his family’s apple and grape orchards, he’s digging into other school passions, like the speech club, band and choir.
Julie admits to a little goofing around with squirt-bottle water fights in physics class, and trading places with her identical twin sister, Emily, for a prank on a new teacher. But there’s one day she really has her sights sent on.
“We have a tradition on the seniors’ last day of school, which I’m kind of looking forward to, where we all drive tractors and lawn mowers and weird stuff to school,” she said.
To keep hope growing, Auburn is learning to cope with the challenges of poverty. Nearly 50 percent of its students are getting free or reduced lunches, Fuller said. A community program also sends food-filled backpacks home on Fridays with 37 students.
Giving is something this community shares, especially at the St. Francis Gift and Thrift Shop. Lana Fulton has been store manager for nearly a decade, and more than 70 volunteers help her sort a flow of incoming appliances, furniture and household goods donated with the intention of being either sold or given to needy families. The money that comes from sold items helps pay rent, utility bills and other basic necessities for the neediest of families in southeast Nebraska. There is also a large food pantry where families can pick a supply of canned and packaged goods. Among the many helped was a single mother whose entire home is furnished with donations.
“When people donate or buy something, they know what the money’s going for,” Fulton said. “It’s just amazing the support that we get.”
Another business that is creating quite a buzz among locals is the Dutch Pantry grocery, where a Mennonite family is serving up meals from scratch, along with homemade desserts, soups, frozen casseroles and chicken pot pies, as well as a variety of sandwiches on their own baked breads. The only thing sweeter than their whoopee pies and sticky buns is the cheerful laughter of store owner Judy Jones and her loyal sidekicks, who also happen to be two of her eight children, 28-year-old Regina and 15-year-old Melody.
“We work hard, but we also play hard,” said Judy, who runs the store with her husband, Ed Jones.
“We should be cheerful, but that doesn’t mean we always are,” joked Melody, who also is home-schooled by a very tough grader – herself. “I don’t cheat.”
Ed and Judy moved to nearby Stella last year with seven of their children, joining about a dozen other Mennonite families who headed to the state after a split with their church in Sweet Springs, Mo. Recently the Jones team was put through its paces, baking for 16 straight hours in their white prayer caps and handmade cape dresses as they handled 150 sticky bun Christmas orders.
Regina also faces another tall order – keeping track of inventory that includes cookware, lotions, soaps and knicknacks, a total of 700 different items. The Jones family is hoping to buy farmland closer to Auburn to lessen their early-morning, 19-mile drive from Stella. Yet every day is a joy ride for Judy, who has been a cook at a restaurant and figures she’s baked thousands of loaves of bread in her lifetime. Owning her own restaurant has been her lifelong dream, and she’s able to do it in Auburn.
Auburn’s ambience is stirred by two separate downtowns. To the south in Calvert, the Courthouse Square business district is anchored by the public library and the limestone Nemaha County Courthouse, which was completed in 1900. To the north, Sheridan’s ultimate landmark is the Legion Park with stirring tributes to military heroes that shine with the Avenue of Flags. On patriotic holidays, more than 1,000 large flags are raised by the town’s volunteer firefighters and the Sons of the American Legion organization to salute every veteran in the county.
Randy Bennett has been Auburn’s volunteer fire chief of 40 volunteer firefighters for more than 30 years, just about as long as he’s run his auto body shop in town. Some of the proudest duties for the 56-year-old Bennett are when they battle the wind to place those large American flags into the ground. Often, motorists will pull over to lend a hand. Teary-eyed veterans reach out with gratitude.
“It’s just breathtaking, it really is,” Bennett said of the waves of stars and stripes.
This double downtown does not celebrate a city divided. It’s a community that comes together. There was the fire that destroyed Jeff and Chris Harvey’s home in the predawn darkness of a bone-chilling January morning a few years ago. Nemaha County Deputy Steve Bures was finishing up his shift, patrolling Auburn’s streets when at about 5:30 a.m. he drove upon the Harveys’ home and saw flames engulfing the garage. The deputy banged on the door and the half-awake Jeff said the deputy began barking out badly needed commands to shake them out of their slumber.
The Harveys’ 15-year-old son was staying at his grandmother’s house, but their 13-year-old daughter and the family’s golden retriever also had to be evacuated. But with Bures monitoring the advance of the blaze, the Harveys even had time to save some family keepsakes and documents, and Chris got to put on her shoes.
“He was definitely our guardian angel that morning,” said Jeff Harvey, a popular administrator at the Good Samaritan nursing home in town.
Harvey, and his wife, Chris, who is a hospice nurse, are used to helping people, but now, the people of Auburn returned the favor.
All sorts of home donations and clothing poured in, and that same day a rental house was loaned to the family by a fellow parishioner at the Harveys’ Methodist church.
The Harveys will rebuild the home. Their foundation remains solid, just like the rest of Auburn.