NIOBRARA, Neb. — When a deluge of floodwater and thick blocks of ice bulldozed through her small-town cafe two months ago, Laura Sucha figured that the Country Cafe was toast.
Only a couple walls of the concrete-block structure were left standing, the roof was pushed 3 inches off of center, and Sucha’s collection of antique tables and decorations were a muddy and ruined mess.
When her son insisted that the cafe could rise again, she just shook her head.
But a crew of customers and relatives, a cavalry of carpenters from Lincoln and a billionaire from Omaha had other ideas.
By this weekend, the Country Cafe will look like a running business again, with new walls, new steel siding and the cozy, rustic barn-wood interior that customers loved.
Once ovens and refrigerators are installed, and once the village’s sewer system is up and running, the cafe will reopen, perhaps in time for the busy Memorial Day weekend.
“We feel blessed,” Sucha said.
This is a story of the persistence of family and friends, the strong bonds built between customers and cooks over plates of homemade biscuits and gravy and roast beef sandwiches, and the love for a town’s only cafe.
It’s just one of the examples of how neighbors and strangers have stepped up to help those affected when a combination of rain, snowmelt and thick river ice washed out the 29-foot-high Spencer Dam, sending a wall of water, ice and debris rolling down the Niobrara River, eventually plowing through businesses in the lowlands near this village, where the Niobrara dumps into the Missouri River.
Volunteers arrived to clean up local ranches, search for missing cattle and replace damaged fencing.
A “hay drive” organized by the sale barn in nearby Verdigre garnered bale upon bale of donations.
In Lynch, townspeople manned a canteen that provided bottled water and clothing.
Up and down the river, locals walk the banks of the river, still searching for a man swept away during the March 14 dam collapse.
“The community involvement and willingness to offer help, it’s just been outstanding,” said State Sen. Tim Gragert, who represents the Niobrara area and is a longtime customer of the cafe. “I can’t hardly grasp the word to describe how much help people have been willing to give.”
Sucha, who owns the Country Cafe with business partner Diana Eckman, said she saw “nothing but ice” when she crested the hill near the restaurant the morning after the flood.
Ice chunks the size of pickups, and piled as high as the roof, bulldozed through the walls of the cafe. A steel storage shed behind the business was flattened, its contents mixed amid the ice. Nearby Quonset huts were twisted and mangled like they were made of putty.
A huge backhoe was needed to dig a 250-foot-long path through the ice and mud before Sucha could even get to the cafe.
Three-fourths of one wall. That was all that was salvageable.
Enter her family, friends and customers, like Joe Pinkelman, a retired carpenter, and Larry Vanderlei, a farmer from nearby Springfield, South Dakota, who was such an early morning regular that Sucha gave him a key and put him in charge of opening up and firing up the grill.
Her son-in-law Patrick Hoesing first used an excavator to clear away the ice. Then, over about a month, a crew that included sons Nolan and Nathan, husband James Sucha, and locals Mark Reynolds, Kevin Rose and Duane and Gordon Fulton, cleared away the block walls and built a new frame of wood.
“I didn’t even ask them,” Sucha said. “They just kind of took over.”
Amid the framing work, the roof was lifted and moved back into place. (“Do you know how much a roof costs?” Sucha asked.)
Then, a crew of cousins, Wade and Spencer Frederick, and friends Alan Pischel and Saul Compert installed a new shell of steel siding, the same tan and black colors as before. It all had to be done precisely, Vanderlei said.
“Joe (Pinkelman) is very particular,” he said. “He always says, ‘Perfect is good enough.’ ”
On Monday, the carpenter cavalry from Lincoln arrived in the form of a convoy of three pickups from Brester Construction, towing trailers full of equipment, tools and materials. The mother of the company’s owner is Sucha’s cousin.
Chris Brester said he tries to promote a spirit of “giving back” among his employees, giving them 48 hours a year of paid leave to volunteer for efforts ranging from disaster relief to coaching little league baseball.
So after the flood hit, he sent out an email asking workers if they had friends and relatives affected.
The flooding spared Lincoln, so there were only a couple of responses. So Brester sent another message: “I kind of feel selfish, but my mom’s cousin lost everything ... ”
Sucha told him that if he could donate some materials, that would be great. Brester, who hadn’t seen Sucha in 20 years, said no way, we’re coming up to install it.
The crew from Brester paneled the interior of the cafe last week, and graded and smoothed the still waterlogged parking lot.
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
“It’s easy to say we’ll just give some dollars,” said Brester’s general superintendent, Mac McInerny. “It’s important to us to have an impact.”
But money was important. Sucha had no flood insurance. Federal disaster agencies will provide low-interest loans but no cash, and she still owed on a mortgage on the cafe, which she has operated, on and off, for 25 years.
“I was praying for a miracle,” she said.
Then her phone rang. The caller said he was Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of Omaha-based TD Ameritrade and the father of Gov. Pete Ricketts, who had trudged through the mud to visit the gutted cafe shortly after the flood.
“I thought it was a prank call at first,” said Sucha, who had already encountered an ambulance-chasing attorney the day after the flood.
But a check soon arrived (she wouldn’t say for how much), and donations also were sent to two nearby businesses leveled by the ice and floodwaters and to the Niobrara golf course, which was covered by ice, mud and debris.
“Bless his heart,” Sucha said. “He said he was all about small business.”
By Thursday afternoon, the Brester boys had completed the interior rebuild and headed home. Installing the kitchen and moving in tables and chairs is next.
Once the village of 370 people gets its sewer system up and running again (it awaits some parts), then the Country Cafe will be back in business.
Sucha said she can’t wait to see her regular customers again, as well as the turkey and duck hunters, truckers, and fishermen who swing through town.
It will be months before the area gets back to normal. The bridge just west of Niobrara on Nebraska Highway 12 washed out, and a temporary bridge won’t be in place until August or so. One family is shuttling a student across the river there by airboat until classes at the Niobrara school end for the summer.
Still, Sucha is optimistic.
“It will be good one way or another,” she said. “It will be good.”