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On the Back Roads of America With Onceawriter

Casual Elegance & More in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Marie BartlettRemember the days when summer camps were idyllic places on the lake; soda shops served real ice cream while you spun on the bar stool; racing cars was a normal pastime; and small town meant lots of friendly faces?

That place still exists at Elkhart Lake, in eastern Wisconsin, located in the beautiful, glacially formed heart of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee. (Kettle Moraine refers to the geology formed by buried glacial ice that left depressions in water-filled “kettles” that dot the moraine.)

The Osthoff Resort

Elkhart Lake calls itself “a legendary getaway,” which isn’t something most small towns can truthfully get away with, but Elkhart has managed to build its reputation as a prime destination for those who flock to the region from Milwaukee, Chicago, Green Bay and other Midwest areas, as well as outside the region.

That’s because Elkhart Lake’s history and natural beauty are legendary. Once a gathering place for gamblers and gangsters, it was attracting renowned athletes and race car drivers by the 1950s, which in turn led to it become a popular tourist attraction that now brings people from all over the world.

Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Lake Elkhart

I arrived on a crisp fall Sunday afternoon as the village of Elkhart Lake, population around 960, was still slumbering. I checked into one of the town’s three major resorts, the Siebkens, a towering, turn-of-the-century giant encased in white, wraparound balconies that overlooks beautiful Elkhart Lake, a spring-fed, crystal clear body of blue-green water 120 feet deep. Swimmers, boaters and picnickers were already out enjoying the mild weather. It’s no wonder Native Americans, who arrived first, called the lake “the chosen spot,” for its healing waters.  

The Siebkens resort is a towering, turn-of-the-century giant encased in white, wraparound balconies that overlooks beautiful Elkhart Lake.

My “room” at the Siebkens was actually a spacious two-bedroom condo with a full-sized kitchen. Purchased in 1916, the hotel is still family owned and has been renovated in the style of lake view condo units, each with an open floor plan, fireplace, granite countertops, built-in laundry and underground parking. For details, go to the resort's website.

Strolling along the town’s paved sidewalks, the first thing I noticed was the pristine charm of the village, with each small business proud of its distinct look and flavor. An early influx of Scandinavian and German immigrants is evident in the village architecture and loving attention to detail.

Gesserts  Aspira Spa

Gesserts Ice Cream and Confectionery, left, and Aspira Spa, right.

I stopped in at Gesserts Ice Cream and Confectionery simply because it looked interesting, and met two young women, Megan Waage and Eliza Myers, who explained the old-fashioned soda shop was owned by a family whose surviving member still lives across the street. Current owners are Ryan and Michelle Moeller.

A trip back in time at Gesserts.

Featuring more than 20 different flavors of hand-packed ice cream with the highest butter fat content the law allows, Gesserts has been luring customers in since the 1920s.  

Today, the shop retains its retro charm by making its own its own fudge and waffle cones on site from a special family recipe, and offering up everything from Caramel Collision and Malted Mountain ice cream to traditional banana splits. Step to the back of the shop for a brief journey through time as you view the artifacts on display that made soda shops so popular in their prime.

I took a moment to stop in next door at Nordic Accents, full of Scandinavian imported items owned by Pirkko Jarvensivu, who like nearly everyone in Elkhart, was more than happy to chat. She offers Norwegian goods that run the gamut from Nordic sweaters to Danish iron. It’s also Christmas year round in her place of business (you’ll see Santa and decorations galore).  

Off the Rail, the original Elkhart Depot.

On one scenic street corner sits a barn red Depot Station (trains once stopped in Elkhart to and from Milwaukee) with a cozy café nearby called Off the Rail, the original Elkhart Depot. Locals say it’s a great spot for breakfast and lunch, with a family friendly atmosphere. But it was closed, so instead, I ventured on to the Vintage Wine Shop and Tasting Bar, a wine and fine foods shop that carries more than 250 wines from around the world, in addition to olive oils, cigars, local cheeses, craft beer, gifts, candies and locally made gelato.

There are more than a dozen different places to eat in the little town (and a surprising number of businesses owned by women) so I went to Lola’s on the Lake at The Osthoff Resort. I chose to sit by the window so I could gaze at the sparkling glacial waters while dining on fresh chicken salad and fresh baked bread from the restaurant’s award-winning culinary team.  

The Osthoff Resort's General Manager Lola Roeh.

The Osthoff Resort, built in 1885 by an industrialist who wanted his wife to heal near the Elkhart waters, was beautifully rebuilt in 1995 following a fire. It is the second of the three large resorts at Elkhart Lake I was able to visit.

Travel & Leisure named it among the 500 World’s Best Hotels in 2014, and it is managed by Lola Roeh, who says, “Our mission is to deliver the best resort experience in the Midwest, with a casual, friendly elegance. The world is no longer stiff and formal as it used to be. People can come here in their jeans and casual attire; yet still find an elegant atmosphere, along with an authentic friendliness. We can’t teach our employees how to be friendly to guests – that’s just how they are. We consider ourselves real people serving real people.”

Click here to learn more about the Osthoff Resort.

I was treated to two of The Osthoff’s unique amenities firsthand: Aspira The Spa, a premier onsite spa that specializes in holistic and organic treatments, many related to Native American traditions (photo above), and the French cooking school in which even borderline cooks like me can learn a few trade secrets from a world class chef.

First, The Spa: “Aspira” means “infused with spirit,” meant to enhance physical, mental and spiritual well-being. I was pampered with a one-hour “Biodynamic Facial” that provided anti-aging treatments and included a luxurious face, neck, shoulder, hands, arms and foot massage. While you wait for the ultimate in a spa experience, reflect in the quiet of the Meditation Sanctuary, or get refreshed at the Spa Café. There are also a Yoga Room, a Finnish sauna, a whirlpool, relaxation rooms and the Spa Boutique where I purchased a travel-sized lotion called “Morning Mint” that brings compliments every time I wear it. Visit the spa online to see its menu of services.

Chef Scott Baker heads the L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School.

At the L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School (no, I couldn’t pronounce it either), located inside The Osthoff Resort, Chef Scott Baker – his real name – exudes utmost patience with his cooking students, many of whom, myself included, can’t tell the difference between a crepe suzette and a crepe fabric.

We began the class at 9:30 a.m. a group of six, each assigned a specific task, with the ultimate goal to have a six-course, delectable French meal prepared and ready to eat 3 1/2 hours later.

Two-Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden is owned by Pat (shown) and Karen Robison.  Getting started at the L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School.

Pat Robison, left, owns the Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden with his wife, Karen; I get started with my tasks at the L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School.

My job – I soon realized considered a punishment in the military – was to peel the spuds, wash and slice them into thin layers. Nonetheless, I ended up making raspberry vinaigrette dressing from scratch, learned how to select and cut a thick beef tenderloin, how placing a casserole dish in a pan of water more evenly distributes the heat, and how NOT to slice off your finger when using super sharp cutting instruments.

At the L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School inside The Osthoff Resort.

The beef tenderloin finale at the Osthoff Resort's L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School.

After our sumptuous meal – including French baguettes, fresh creamery butter, melt-in-your-mouth Wisconsin cheese puffs, French onion soup, fresh vegetables from the Resort’s garden, tossed salad with poached egg, and beef tenderloin, we were invited to the Lake Street Café two blocks away for another sumptuous meal.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts at the Lake Street Café.

An eclectic café serving California Bistro style fare, the Café serves homemade soups and desserts made from scratch. I was so stuffed I could barely enjoy the delicious menu items. But owner Lynn Shovan insisted I try the Roasted Brussels Sprouts, above, and I’m glad she did. They are prepared with lemon, Parmesan and capers for a light, tasty blend even non-veggie lovers like. Dessert was Jack Daniels Chocolate Pecan Pie, a local favorite. Check out the menu for the Café.

After dinner, I toured the last of the three resorts – the Victorian Village – which is owned and operated by Judy Salzwedel, a vivacious woman whose enthusiasm for hospitality is contagious. The resort features 12 luxury condos, among other accommodations that vary from quaint to charming. Judy loves, among other things on her property, the Barefoot Tiki Bar set near the water’s edge at Elkhart Lake, and the century-old theatre open for family reunions, weddings or retreats. Judy also owns the nearby Back Porch Bistro, offering breakfast, dinner and lunch daily. Visit the website for more on the Victorian Village Resort and Bistro.

Road America

The Go-Karts Track at Road America.

Don't be fooled by all the eating, cooking, spa pampering and general lifestyle at the Elkhart Lake Resorts. Just 3 miles from the village's center is one of the country’s largest and most popular racing venues. Set on 640 acres, Road America – think National Park for speed buffs – brings some of the nation’s best known race car drivers to train on its 4-mile, 14-turn track, as well as thousands of visitors and speed freaks every year to road race, ride go karts and ATVs, set up camp, watch professional races, or participate in corporate team-building events. Though families love it, it’s not just for children.

The village banned street racing back in the 1950s.

Opened in 1955, Road America was born as an open road race circuit after Elkhart Lake Village banned street racing for safety reasons. (You’ll still the signs in the village where public roads were used during the 1950s for organized races.) Visit Road America for details and a full list of year round events or call 1-800-365-7223.

Back in the Elkhart Lake village, stop in at Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden, where owners Pat (photo above) and Karen Robison will kindly teach you how to sculpt with clay, as well as provide garden tours, workshops and a showcase of their Fair Trade handmade products from around the world. Open year round, you can visit the gallery online.

Think Elkhart Lake with its Wisconsin winters is strictly a summer resort? Think again. Holidays are among the best and busiest times of year in the village, especially at The Osthoff Resort, with festivities that begin around Thanksgiving, and carry through Christmas (don’t miss the European Christmas Market with vendors specializing in Old World tradition, ice skating, sledding, brunch with St. Nick’s reindeer and Breakfast with Santa, plus more). For a full list of holiday activities, click here.

Finally, learn more about the year round “legendary getaway” of Elkhart Lake by contacting Tourism at 1-877-355-4278 or going online.

Find Pure Mountain Charm in Waynesville, North Carolina

Marie BartlettLook up “charm” in the dictionary and you could just as likely see the small mountain town of Waynesville, North Carolina. Its Main Street Historic District is on the National Registry of Historic Places due to more than 35 of its architectural buildings. And its population – all 10,000-plus – don’t seem to mind a bit when non-natives stop in to browse for local crafts or peruse its folksy shops that specialize in everything from nostalgia to fine art.

Waynesville courthouse

street scene in Waynesville, North Carolina

Situated near the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains in Haywood County, the county seat Waynesville is less than an hour’s drive from Asheville, another favorite western North Carolina tourist destination. Asheville was ranked among the Top 3 places to visit in 2015. But with less traffic and an easy-to-stroll downtown district, Waynesville is a nearby daytrip that should not be overlooked.

Start at the small but friendly Visitor Center on Main Street (look for the big blue awning) and have a chat with the helpful folks who distribute maps, answer questions and love to share their fondness for the surrounding beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Walking tours, or “Volksporting,” designed to improve health, cover the 6.2 miles that comprise the downtown are encouraged, as are scenic drives.  

downtown Waynesville, North Carolina

Just across the street from the Visitor Center is Mast General Store, circa 1883 (the original still stands in Valle Crucis, near Boone, North Carolina). The two-level replicated store, one of eight in North and South Carolina, is an old-fashioned hub for all things nostalgic, including 500 ole-time candy favorites, Victorian toys, oil lamps, cast iron cookware, clothing and footwear. The initial owner, W.W. Mast, called it a place for “Quality Goods for the Living, Coffins and Caskets for the Dead” in 1923.

But the quaint little independent shops can hold their own when it comes to local treasures. Don’t miss Cat in the Attic Treasure & Treats, Affairs of the Heart, the Moose Crossing Burl Wood Gallery, the Olde Brick House (teas and spices), the Cheddar Box Country Store, Pleasant Places, Mountain Favors, and Ellie May’s Fine Resale Store, among others. A stuffed Santa greets you year-round outside the Christmas is Everyday Shop. Inside, German cuckoo clocks and ginger cottages will make you smile.

Ellie May's

Pet-lovers frequent the no-nonsense-named Dog Bakery for special canine treats, or bring their furry friends inside to visit. In fact, Waynesville is the kind of town in which you are just as likely to hear neighbors swapping stories of their pets as you are to hear them talk about the weather.

moonshine on display  Dog Bakery

At the south end of Main Street is the stop-in for sweet lovers at the City Bakery, where flaky cinnamon buns are super-sized and both breakfast and lunch is served. Artisan breads, pastries and organic coffees are local and tourist favorites alike.

City Bakery

Waynesville, like many small towns across America, loves it local heritage and culture. Folkmoot U.S.A., an international dance festival, is held here each year in July. Special events and performances take place May through December in downtown, ranging from the Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration to the Apple Harvest Festival to “Treats on the Street” on Halloween.

The Twelve Days of Christmas run December 13-24, with caroling, music, luminaries, parades and more to create magical moments for resident families and winter tourists.

If you appreciate the art of quilting, the Haywood County Quilt Trails, a regional project launched in 2009, celebrates rural heritage using colorful blocks on barns and buildings, each with its own unique story. The first quilt block was installed on the historic Shelton House in Waynesville, now home to the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts. 

sculptures made from reycycled industrial products

Any mountain town worth its salt is chock full of talented artisans. Waynesville is no exception. Take “A Walk through Art,” along Main Street and the nearby Historic Frog Level to see the best of the best in handcrafted pottery, furnishings, jewelry, framing and fine art at several studios and galleries.

Just a few blocks away from downtown you’ll find the celebrated Hart Theatre, where local talent is showcased through plays and musicals that have garnered national attention.

Bogart's Restaurant & Tavern

It’s always good to know where the locals eat, but in Waynesville, it’s difficult to choose. Bogart’s, at the south end of Main Street, is a fine bet, with its popular ribeye sandwich, country-sized portions and Southern-style iced tea. For something unique, try Renee’s chicken salad made with fresh cut celery, onions, mayo, pecans, raisins and a dash of cinnamon that gives it a sweet flavor.

I went quasi-healthy with the Spinach Fajita-style Chicken Wrap and steamed veggies.

steamed veggies and spinach wrap at Bogart's

But there are no shortages of incomparable places to eat in Waynesville. The Sweet Onion comes highly recommended (don’t miss the Wild Mushroom Ravioli or Blue Crab Tuna Nachos) as did Blossom on Main (Thai), the farm-fresh Chef’s Table, and the Frog’s Leap Public House, which offers a unique farm-to-fork experience.

Craft beer breweries are gaining traction throughout western North Carolina, including Waynesville, so for a casual meal and a local beer, stop in at Boojum Tap Room on Main Street, at Pub 319 with 12 tap microbrews and burgers, or at the award-winning Tipping Point Brewing, with eight crafted brews and pub fare served during lunch and dinner.

If you’re an out-of-towner looking for a place to stay, begin with the Downtown Waynesville Association that provides a full list of B&B lodgings, and mountain inns. Choices range from log cabins to the Waynesville Resort and Spa.

Call 800-334-9036 for lodging in the area.

summertime beauty  ASAP - As Southern As Possible

Waynesville, North Carolina: as an Appalachian resident and lifelong mountain lover myself, I like to think of it as pure mountain charm at its best.

Contact Information:

Waynesville, North Carolina, a Main Street City since 1986.

Haywood County Tourism Development Authority

The Waynesville Visitor Center, 828-456-3517

Sights and Sounds of Chattanooga, Tennessee

Marie BartlettDespite the recent tragic news from Chattanooga, Tennessee, this mid-sized town on the Tennessee River is well worth a visit, as evidenced by the thousands of tourists who are drawn to its state-of-the-art Aquarium, historic Civil War significance, revitalized downtown, scenic riverfront and pure natural beauty.

View of Chattanooga and Tennessee River

A view of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.

The town has grown substantially over the past decade with easy access from just about anywhere. I took my two teenage grandsons for a weekend get-away and found that we ran out of time before we ran out of things to do (no easy feat with teens).

Entrance to the Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater

The entrance to The Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater.

As you’re heading south to Chattanooga, an easy 90-minute drive from Knoxville on the interstate, be sure to stop off at Sweetwater, Tennessee, seven miles off the Interstate for a visit to The Lost Sea Adventure, featuring America’s largest underground lake, 140 feet below ground level.

The boys, 13 and 16, loved the idea of exploring this registered national landmark by climbing into a boat to glide across an eerily beautiful underground lake. It’s about a three-quarter-mile walk round-trip through the caverns, but the paths are wide and we were gifted with a knowledgeable guide who explained unique rock formations, dates burned into the cave by Confederate soldiers, the “Moonshine area” where white lightning was brewed, and how, why and where the rainbow trout are fed at the underground lake.

Remnants of the “Moonshine still” used by locals remain inside the Lost Sea Cavern.

Remnants of the “moonshine still” used by locals remain inside the Lost Sea Cavern.

Our guide also explained how best to remember the difference between stalactites (cling “tight” to the ceiling) and stalagmites (“might” grow up from the ground), as well as pointing out the one-of-a-kind formations throughout the cave. The rare and colorful Anthodites, for example, are found in only a few caves worldwide (photograph below left).

In addition to the guided tour, you can step back in time to the Old Sweetwater Village, walk the nature trail, check out the Red Ruby Gem Mine, visit the General Store, or enjoy a simple picnic on the grounds. Open year round, the Lost Sea Adventures can be reached by calling 423-337-6616 or by visiting the website.

Stalactites and Stalagmites   Inside the historic Read House Hotel

Once we arrived in Chattanooga, our first stop was check-in at the historic Read House Hotel (above right). It’s a great location, close to nearly everything downtown, but hotels are pricey in Chattanooga, especially during mid-summer, so shop around. The Read Hotel offers no microwaves or refrigerators in the room, nor is breakfast included in the price. However, just across the street is the awesome City Café, open round-the-clock and featuring a huge breakfast selection not to mention “mile-high” pies and cakes.

Then it was off to one of Chattanooga’s premier attractions, the Tennessee Aquarium, rated among the top aquariums in the U.S. for overall satisfaction. Plan to spend at least two hours checking out the facility’s two main sections: Ocean Journey, where you’ll meet sharks, stingrays and other sea creatures, and River Journey, which follows a single raindrop as it flows from a mountaintop to streams, swamps, lakes and rivers, where alligators, turtles, ducks and thousands of fish are on display.

Tennessee Aquarium

The Tennessee Aquarium is among the top aquariums in the country.

In addition, there’s an IMAX Theatre and a separate River Gorge Explorer trip aboard a high-tech vessel that takes you on a two-hour ride into the scenic Tennessee River Gorge from downtown. Led by an Aquarium naturalist, you’ll hear all about wildlife and points of interest along the way.

Kids love the gift shop at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Naturally, the Aquarium gift shop is a favorite among youngsters, even teens who can’t resist a colorful reptile.

World’s largest turtle

For details on the Tennessee Aquarium, call 800-262-0695 or visit its website.

Among the oldest, yet most popular attractions are Ruby Falls, Lookout Mountain and Rock City. Lookout Mountain rises above Chattanooga and is just 10 minutes from downtown. Take in all three attractions for one price, or explore each separately. We chose to go underground to see the majestic Ruby Falls (where temperatures remain 58 degrees year round) discovered by a local cave enthusiast who named the falls after his lovely wife and opened Lookout Mountain Cave to the public in 1923.

It’s a good hour-long trek down to the falls, but well worth it, as lights glow and music plays to announce your arrival.

Majestic Ruby Falls   View of Chattanooga from Ruby Falls

Majestic Ruby Falls (left) and the view of Chattanooga from Ruby Falls.

Above ground, you can see seven different states from Rock City, take a ride on the Incline Railway, or if you have an adventurous teen along, go zip lining. (There are at least three zip line companies in Chattanooga).

For details on Lookout Mountain attractions, call 800-825-8366 or visit the website.

Zip lining is popular in Chattanooga.

Zip lining is popular in Chattanooga.

Ruby Falls Zip Stream Aerial Adventure can be reached at 423-821-2544 or at the company's website.

As you’re leaving Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls, plan a ride down to the riverfront for some of the region’s best seafood. Though Chattanooga is known for its diverse foods – you can find everything from sushi to fried cheesecake – and was named among the “Top Summer Destinations” for the food-minded traveler, we went to the Boat House Restaurant to enjoy the river view.

The Boat House by the river

The Boat House Restaurant by the river.

Not only is the seafood fresh and scrumptious – I had wood-grilled salmon, sourdough bread and just-made coleslaw, the wait staff make a point of memorizing first names for personalized service.

Wood-grilled salmon with the fixins’

Wood-grilled salmon with the fixins’.

After dinner, take a stroll along the 13-mile Riverwalk as a paddle boat steams by, or arrange to hop aboard the Southern Belle Riverboat offering dinner and sunset cruises.

Paddle boat steams by

There’s much more to Chattanooga, so go to the website or contact the Visitor Center at 800-322-3344 and request a current Visitors Guide for complete area listings.

Post, Texas: Small Town, Big Past

Marie BartlettNext time you sit down at the breakfast table to eat a bowl of Post cereal, you can thank one man for his vision to establish a town in the high plains of west Texas that not only carried his name, it enriched its local citizens.

Post, Texas, in Garza County, was founded in 1907 by cereal magnate, inventor and “father of advertising” Charles W. Post, of Battle Creek, Michigan. On his way to Fort Worth in the early 1900s, he stopped by the region and saw, not hardscrabble Texas land, but a “utopia” he could colonize and develop.

Welcome to Post, Texas C.W. Post, founder

What Post had in mind was to create a debt-free model farming community. He bought a ranch and adjacent land that covered nearly 225,000 acres, then financing, supervising and building the town of Post, he hoped settlers to the region could have ownership far below the cost of land sold elsewhere in Texas.

What he left behind were agricultural innovations to help farmers become more productive and a railroad depot that would open the region to newcomers. He reportedly paid the Santa Fe Railroad $50,000 to ensure a depot would be built before his death, and it was built, in 1910. (Post died in 1914).

Today, the depot is home to the Post Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. Post, “the cereal man,” is honored with a life-sized statue on the lawn of the county courthouse and his name known to everyone in town.

Finding Post From Lubbock

A favorite day trip from Lubbock, you can find Post by following US Hwy 84 south. It’s less than 45 miles from Lubbock, at the crossroad of US 380. The drive is pastoral and scenic, with plenty of farmland and Texas-sized oil wells along the way. And you can be back in Lubbock in plenty of time for dinner.

street scene in Post, Texas

Visit on “Trade Day,” the first Saturday of each month from February to December, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., an event that brings all types of vendors to the town’s Main Street. Then shop around for antiques, jewelry, home décor and fashion. Downtown, there’s a book store, several art galleries, a historical museum, a Christmas store, a 400-seat theatre featuring a live Biblical drama, and my personal favorite – the Plum Crazy shop owned and run by the warm and friendly Donna Degan, where she advertises “lots of class and a little bit of sass.”

Old West lovers come to town in early August for the three-day Post Stampede Rodeo, for a taste of all things authentic cowboy.

Plum Crazy Shop on East Main Street

Among the many finds in Donna’s shop are unusual gift items that beckon customers at least long enough to take a peek and ask where she finds her treasures.

“Everywhere and anywhere,” she says. “That’s the best part of the job.”

Among Donna's treasures in Plum Crazy

More finds in Plum Crazy

Christian gifts and books are available across the street at the Lord’s Vineyard, and the Christmas Gallery is open even in the high heat of summer. The Main Street Mercantile is where “old meets new,” and children’s western-style clothes can be found at KDs@Twins’ on East Main Street. Texas Treasures offers authentic Lone Star gifts from belt buckles to hand-crafted western sculptures.

I stopped in at the Post Public Library to ask about places to eat and found a neighborly welcome by the local librarian, who suggested George’s, a Greek-style restaurant that’s a favorite for locals and truckers coming through. (Other than fast food chains, there are few places to eat in Post, the only downside to the trip.) But George’s has a homey feel, is super clean, and customers rave about the fried mushrooms and potato salad.

The best burgers are found at Holly’s Drive-In, established in 1977 near the city park, just outside of town on Hwy 84S. At the park you’ll find a playground, pool and cooking facilities. Two lakes are within an easy drive, White River to the north and Lake Alan Henry to the south. Hunting is a huge sport in the area, with local ranches offering dove, quail, deer and a few exotics to gun sports enthusiasts.

The Great State of Texas where even the waffles stand out

But what Texans, and the people of Post, seem to love most is their history. Though Post is small and quaint by Texas standards, it has five blocks of historic district, with many of its original buildings still standing.

A 1912 sanitarium houses the Garza County Historical Museum, which offers a glimpse into the past, and artifacts from the life of Charles W. Post. Rare items from his private office and personal art collection are part of the exhibit.

For a full list of attractions in Post, Texas, contact the Post Area Chamber of Commerce at #1 Santa Fe Plaza, Post, Texas, 79356, call 806-495-3461, or visit the chamber's website.

Women Ranchers: Faith & Grit

Marie BartlettFlip through the contents of any history book that paints an accurate picture of the sturdy women who left the comfort of their 19th century homes, both in the U.S. and abroad, to head to rural areas in America during our nation’s development and expansion.

You’ll soon discover how much courage and fortitude it took to secure property and help build a life on barren plains where wind and dust ruled the day, in the heated deserts, along indomitable snowy mountain ranges, and in the sandy, rock-strewn, or clay-layered soil that ultimately resulted – through sheer grit – in a productive ranch on which a family could begin to make a living.

Near the tiny town of Brewster, Nebraska (population 17) is the 5,000 acre Sandhills Guest Ranch, where visitors can tour the property and try their hand at cattle ranching.

Near the tiny town of Brewster, Nebraska (population 17) is the 5,000-acre Sandhills Guest Ranch, where visitors can tour the property and try their hand at cattle ranching.

In Carmen Goldthwaite’s informative book Texas Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie (History Press, 2014), she explains, “Texas wouldn’t be Texas without the formidable women of its past.” When ranching began to change in the West, she adds, many women led that change, suffering through droughts, low cattle prices, the loss of husband and children, yet continuing to do whatever they must in order to hold onto their land even after their loved ones were gone.

Some went on to become astute ranchers in their own right; others, if widowed, quickly remarried and rebuilt lost wealth and status. They also built communities, schools and churches, rescued the less fortunate, both beast and man, and defended their homes when needed. All were women of sturdy constitution with a determination not just to survive, but to thrive.

When asked if she considers herself a ranch hand, a ranch wife or a rancher in her own right, Beverly says “all three.”  Lee, 77, a cattle rancher for nearly six decades, tours the property almost daily, explaining retirement is not for him. The ranch offers off-road tours of the Sandhills and tanking and canoeing on the North Loup to supplement their income.

When asked if she considers herself a ranch hand, a ranch wife or a rancher in her own right, Beverly says “all three.” RIGHT: Lee, 77, a cattle rancher for nearly six decades, tours the property almost daily, explaining retirement is not for him. The ranch offers off-road tours of the Sandhills and tanking and canoeing on the North Loup to supplement their income.

The same is still true of modern ranching today. It takes a strong woman and a lot of grit to make the ranching life work. Meet Beverly DeGroff, wife of cattle rancher Lee DeGroff and mother to their four adult children. They raise quarter horses, about 300 Angus cross-bred beef cattle and, for extra income, run a bed-and-breakfast accommodation on their property in the eastern Sandhills of Nebraska, a region that lends itself to grasses rather than farm produce.

“I grew up ranching,” says the Nebraska native, “and I’ve been doing it for more than 50 years. So it’s all I’ve ever known. The only way we had to make money when I was a kid was from milking cows and selling the cream.”

She likes the autonomy of being her own boss and working alongside her husband, Lee, and they both like to stay busy. “There are always cows to feed, chores to do and guests to take care of,” she says, smiling. “Vacation time is when everyone wants to come here.”

Located in Blaine County, Nebraska, about 100 miles from the nearest large city, North Platte, the Sandhills Guest Ranch Bed & Breakfast has been in business since 1999. But it was a cattle ranch long before then, with ranch hands, hundreds of cattle and the numerous daily details that go into maintaining a working ranch.

“Ranching was always a hard life,” Beverly says. “It still is. But it’s a good life too. You just have to like isolation and being able to fend for yourself. For recreation, I go to the river, watch the birds, or look for wildlife. Because I love nature, I never get bored.”

Her husband of 40-plus years is a former cowboy and rodeo champion.

One of the couple’s grown daughters, Rhonda Haynes, says most of the younger generation has moved away from the region. The 2015 student body of high school graduates, combined from three different counties, totaled only a dozen teens.

“It takes a lifetime to learn the business,” Rhonda says. “So unless the land is passed along from one generation to another, there’s no reason to stay here. As for my parents, they will likely never retire. Besides, Dad says he can’t think of anything else he’d ever do.”

Accommodations include this two-story house with three bedrooms and two full baths. Beverly also serves breakfast and offers dinners by special arrangement. LEFT: Accommodations include this two-story house with three bedrooms and two full baths. Beverly also serves breakfast and offers dinners by special arrangement.

The family has undergone hard times through the years, but Beverly says, “We never gave up.

“It’s the grandkids I worry about most. We’ll live to see ranching continue, but our children’s children will have to worry about whether or not it will survive. Our ranch used to hire men to work but now, with new equipment and technology, the same number of jobs is no longer there. Lee and I do most of it ourselves these days.”

The biggest misconception she hears involves how they raise beef. “People don’t realize we never give our cattle anything that’s bad for them,” Beverly says. “After all, we eat the beef too.”

Her best advice to any woman contemplating the ranch life in the modern world: Pick your life mate carefully as you’ll often be working side-by-side; be sure you don’t mind being alone when your spouse is gone; be prepared to make big decisions on your own; stick with it good or bad. Moving on is not an easy option when you’re invested as a ranch wife.

Guests are served Black Angus beef burgers alongside homemade potato salad, cucumber salad, baked beans and fresh pie or cobbler.

Guests are served Black Angus beef burgers alongside homemade potato salad, cucumber salad, baked beans and fresh pie or cobbler.

Black Angus cattle and their offspring block the ranch trail as rancher Lee DeGroff tours his guests by motor vehicle.

Black Angus cattle and their offspring block the ranch trail as rancher Lee DeGroff tours his guests by motor vehicle.

I asked Beverly if she had a chance to be young again and start over, would she have chosen a different career path. “I don’t know,” she says. “Life is good … right here.”

A Navy seal leaves his well wishes in the bunkhouse skylight, as well as visitors from Russia, China, and Malaysia.

A Navy seal leaves his well wishes in the bunkhouse skylight, as well as visitors from Russia, China, and Malaysia.

For an authentic working ranch experience, contact Bev or Lee DeGroff at Sandhills Guest Ranch Bed & Breakfast: P.O. Box 13, Brewster, NE 68821, call 308-547-2460, or visit the website.

Farmers’ Stock Tanks and Grain Bins Find New Life in Nebraska

Marie BartlettNebraskans’ are known for a lot of things – the Pony Express route, birthplace of the 911 emergency systems, Warren Buffet (who resides in Omaha), the Cornhuskers, and a typically friendly hospitality and down-to-earth nature. But it seems they’ve also cornered the market on good ole all-American ingenuity. Where else but in Nebraska will you see river adventures take place in cattle ranch stock tanks?

The unusual sport is called “tankin” – in which round, metal livestock tanks are used to float down the calm waters of the Middle Loup River near Mullen, Nebraska. American Profile Magazine named it “one of America’s great rafting trips” in 2013.

 

Leave it to the resourceful Nebraskans to find a way to utilize farmers’ stock tanks. “Tankin” began in 2004 on the placid Middle Loup River. The largest tanks are 9 feet in diameter and hold up to eight adults.

Leave it to the resourceful Nebraskans to find a way to utilize farmers’ stock tanks. “Tankin” began in 2004 on the placid Middle Loup River. The largest tanks are 9 feet in diameter and hold up to eight adults.

Prepping for the ride. Cattle once drank from these used stock tanks.

Prepping for the ride. Cattle once drank from these used stock tanks.

Though the idea is beginning to spread in certain farmland areas where stock tanks are more commonly found, it’s still unique to Nebraska as a family adventure, says Mitch Glidden and his wife, Patty, owners of the Sandhills Motel and Glidden Canoe Rental, which offers a number of river recreations, including canoeing, kayaking, tubing and tanking.

While the Gliddens say experienced canoeists and kayakers love to navigate the nearby Dismal River with its swift current and winding channels, it’s the calmer Middle Loup that provides some of the best scenery and relaxing rides. Mitch added that not every river can be safely navigated by inexperienced canoeists or kayakers, but “tankin” is easy, fun and safe for any age. Tankers range from toddlers to grandparents, all of whom seem to enjoy a lazy float down the Middle Loup in the metal tanks.

Waiting on fellow passengers in a tank designed to hold eight. Benches inside the tank make it easy for families to ride together, making “tankin” a social event.

Waiting on fellow passengers in a tank designed to hold eight. Benches inside the tank make it easy for families to ride together, making “tankin” a social event.

I was there in late May, when the weather can still bring rain and chilly winds across the Sandhills Region. Temperatures dipped into the 30s at night, high 50s in the noonday sun. We brought sandwiches and a cooler too, turning the half-day ride into a river picnic.

Off like a herd of turtles.

Off like a herd of turtles.

Surprisingly, since Nebraska is part of the Great Plains and often thought of as dry, the state actually has more miles of river than anywhere else in the U.S. In fact, says Muriel Clark, assistant director of the North Platte Lincoln County Convention & Visitors Bureau, water is “everything to Nebraska.” Not only does it allow for diversity in agriculture, wildlife, botany and lay of the land, it provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities throughout the mixed-grass prairie.

The Sandhills Region, with elevations reaching up to more than 3,000 feet (highest level in the Great Plains), overlays and anchors about 20,000 square miles. Thought to be the largest dune field in the western hemisphere, comprising about one-third of the northwestern part of the state, the Sandhills were designated a National Natural Landmark in 1984. It overlays a shallow water table that extends under portions of eight different states, supplying drinking water for about 80 percent of people who live on the Plains.

The scenic Sandhills Region of Nebraska. Nebraska has more miles of river than other state. (Courtesy of Nebraska Tourism)

The scenic Sandhills Region of Nebraska. Nebraska has more miles of river than other state. Photo: courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Choose between a two-hour and a five-hour tank trip, then sit back and relax. Tanks are stable enough to provide a smooth ride (similar to tubing). The only obstacles we encountered were fallen trees that had embedded into the mud during recent heavy rains but a push and a shove by fellow passengers was all it took to get unstuck.

A fallen tree in the distance is one of the few obstacles to overcome on the Middle Loup River. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism)

A fallen tree in the distance is one of the few obstacles to overcome on the Middle Loup River. Photo: courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Along the way, you’re likely to see white tail and mule deer, muskrats, beaver, pheasant, grouse and wild turkey, as well as occasional local ranch horses.

Besides tankin, the Gliddens offer bird-watching, wilderness river adventures for canoeists and in off-season, the Polar Bear Tank Race, a local fundraiser held the first Saturday in March.

Trips include equipment and shuttle to and from the river. For details call 888-278-6167, or visit the website.

Grain Bins Find a New Home

About 70 miles from Mullen, in North Platte, is Grain Bin Antique Town. Here, owners Pat and Lori Clinch decided to purchase and restore 15 historic wooden and octagon-shaped granaries, another staple once found on Nebraska farms. Pre-fabricated structures provided to Midwestern farmers by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, the bins were brought to Nebraska to store grain in order to build up a surplus in the event of a world war.

The Clinches moved the granaries onto their property in the hills south of town, built a rustic boardwalk, and invited vendors to fill them with antiques and collectibles for sale.

Everything from decorative iron to full-on antiques fills these bins. The boardwalk, more than a century old, was salvaged from an elementary school.

Everything from decorative iron to full-on antiques fills these bins. The boardwalk, more than a century old, was salvaged from an elementary school.

A peek at what’s inside one of 15 grain bins at the Grain Bin Antique Town in North Platte, Nebraska. Owners Pat and Lori Clinch are hoping to acquire more.

A peek at what’s inside one of 15 grain bins at the Grain Bin Antique Town in North Platte, Nebraska. Owners Pat and Lori Clinch are hoping to acquire more.

Pat Clinch says he got the idea for Grain Bin Town because he loves to restores old things and appreciates the history behind the bins. Besides, he says, it’s just plain fun to have them onsite.

Which may help explain why Nebraska – among its many other attributes – is a place where some of the most contented people in America live, according to a 2013 survey of “Top 10 States with the happiest residents.”

Waste not, want not is the mantra at Grain Bin Antique Town, where this farmer’s funnel was recycled to create a one-of-a-kind lamp.

Waste not, want not is the mantra at Grain Bin Antique Town, where this farmer’s funnel was recycled to create a one-of-a-kind lamp.

For details on the Grain Bin Antique Town, visit the website or call 308-539-7401. For more on the state's attractions, visit the Nebraska Tourism Commission's website.

Small Nebraska Town Serves as Nation's Largest Volunteer Effort of World War II

Marie BartlettIt was only 10 days after Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and many of the generous folks of North Platte, Nebraska, had arrived at the train station to hand off Christmas presents to their loved ones who had volunteered for the Nebraska National Guard. But when the rail cars pulled in, none of the men from Company D were there. Instead, it was the Kansas National Guard.

Undeterred, one person stepped up and offered her gifts to the troops. Her name was Rae Wilson, a local store clerk, and it was her idea to begin what would soon evolve into the country’s largest and most unique volunteer war effort of its time.

 

North Platte Canteen
Welcome sign at the entrance to the North Platte Canteen, a replicated site at the Lincoln County Historical Museum.

By Christmas Day 1941, dozens of community volunteers, spearheaded by Wilson, were handing out baskets filled with cookies, fruits, cigarettes and magazines through the train windows. Due to security, the men were not allowed off the train as yet. But before long, with more and more trains coming through filled with troops heading east and west to their respective military bases, they were allowed to  disembark for a much needed break so a larger site was needed to provide the warm welcome and refreshments. Wilson contacted the head of the Union Pacific Railroad, North Platte resident William “Bill” Jeffers, and asked if her volunteers – who would soon represent 125 different communities – could use the depot’s vacant lunchroom.

Jeffers said yes and the North Platte Canteen was born.

Hey soldier
More than 3,500 troops came through the canteen daily on 24 different trains between 1941 and 1946, with no charge to the soldiers and no train ever missed. Mostly older women and young girls (though some men worked there too) volunteered to serve sandwiches and drinks, provide baskets, and stand at the platforms to wave a friendly greeting.

As a travel writer on the back roads of America, I had the privilege of meeting a surviving member of the canteen volunteer staff who was only 18 in 1941. Now 92, Waneita May Schomer (her maiden name was Anderson) retains fond memories of her years at the canteen, handing out sandwiches, cookies and cakes, and serving hot and cold drinks. At the time, she lived in Maxwell, a tiny town of less than 500 residents, about 13 miles from North Platte.

“Everyone around here stepped up to help,” she says. “If a farmer got sick and needed his feed put away, other farmers came to his aid. If someone needed food, even though butter, coffee and sugar were rationed, we all made do and helped each other out.”

Waneita
Now 92, Waneita May Schomer recalls her days as an 18-year-old volunteer at the North Platte Canteen.

Still sharp as a tack, she can rattle off the list of items served daily to the men going off to war: 36 birthday cakes, more or less, 20 per day on average; 75 fried chickens; 1,000 bottles of milk; thousands of boiled eggs; 30 pounds of ground beef; 2,000 buns; 90 dozen cookies; 23 pounds of butter; 16 pounds of coffee; three grates of oranges; and eight bushels of apples.

“I keep a list,” she says, smiling, “because no one believes how much food and how many drinks were provided each day, or how many troops came through.”

Eggs rule
With eggs more plentiful on the local farms than other staples, the Canteen volunteers found creative ways to serve sandwiches and snacks.

Schomer also laughs at the memory of the soldiers carting their coffee mugs with them as they dashed to their departing trains.

“When the trains returned to the depot, the conductors brought us boxes of dirty coffee cups to wash.”

At night, she and her mother, with no electricity on their farm, would take turns beating eggs by hand and baking angel food cakes, up to six or eight at a time. Some of the other young girls made popcorn balls, and if they were brazen enough, placed their name and address inside to give to a parting soldier.

Popcorn balls
One young volunteer ended up marrying the recipient of her popcorn ball. They had four children and were devoted to each other for more than 40 years.

What did Schomer get in return for her years as a volunteer at the Canteen? “Thankfulness,” she says. “We were all very grateful for what they did for us.”

Following the war, the depot canteen was torn down, but its remnants and its rich history remain at the Lincoln County Historical Museum: 308-534-5640. Stop by and visit next time you’re in North Platte, or contact the North Platte Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau; 308-532-4729.

Lloyd at the piano
A young sailor during World War II, Lloyd Synovec of North Platte would entertain the troops at the piano during canteen stops. He still loves to play and continues to say, “Nebraska has the best cooks in the country, who, despite rationing, managed to come up with something good over and over. Best quick food I ever had.”