VALENTINE, Neb. — This ranching town has already been named as one of the top 100 “adventure” towns in the United States by National Geographic magazine.
You can paddle a kayak down the Niobrara River, a national scenic river. You can bike down the Cowboy Trail. You can explore the Sand Hills at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. And you can view herds of bison and elk at Fort Niobrara.
There’s also a world-class golf course, the Prairie Club; some very good fishing on the refuge and Merritt Reservoir; and hunting opportunities aplenty.
But when two 30-somethings finished up college and decided to move back to their hometown, they wanted to kick the community up a notch.
So Kyle and Kurt Arganbright got some buddies together and started a microbrewery, Bolo Beer, and helped the town pass a bond issue to build a new public golf course (designed by PGA pro Tom Lehman) and construct a building for community college classes.
The brothers brought a Runza restaurant and a small Shopko store to town. And they are both part of a local group that launched a community bank in Valentine that has grown to 10 branches across Nebraska.
Kyle, 34, is mayor of this town of 2,800 and chief development officer at Sandhills State Bank. Kurt, 32, is a lawyer, manager of the family ranch, and on the town planning and golf course boards.
Both said their goal is to create a town where young people, and ultimately their own children, want to live, work and grow.
“We’re creating the things that people come to expect in a community,” Kurt said.
A brewery? Yep, according to Kyle, who was named one of the nation’s top “40 under 40” by Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. “There’s a certain feel when you’re in a brewery in a town. It’s sort of a seal of approval for younger people,” he said.
The storyline for many concerning rural Nebraska has been falling population, closed schools and empty storefronts. But there are many people like the Arganbrights who are fighting against that notion and winning.
The general philosophy: The better the quality of life, the more likely someone will move to or stay in your town, and maybe start or take over a business, even if it’s miles from the nearest big city.
For instance, they were able to attract an experienced brewer, Chris Hernstrom, from Bend, Oregon, in part because Valentine had a nice Frisbee golf course.
The new Frederick Peak Golf Course, carved amid some pine-studded canyons on the north edge of town, will provide an affordable public course for locals. But it also might give visitors to the pricey Prairie Club a reason to stay another day.
They said they’ve gotten plenty of help from others in Valentine, including their parents, Warren, a well-known attorney, and Sue, who helps with the businesses and the grandkids.
“This is a community story,” Kyle said.
What’s next? The brothers both said Valentine needs some kind of YMCA-like fitness center. So it’s back to work.
“If you’re not trying to get to the next step, you might find yourself on the one below you,” Kurt said.
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There’s some world-class trout fishing near Valentine, too, but you can’t fish it unless you’re a guest of someone who is in the private club that owns it.
Now, at least temporarily, you can’t even visit the stream, which includes one of the most scenic spots in the state, Snake River Falls.
Four years ago, a plan by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to buy the property fell through and a group of private investors/fishing enthusiasts bought it.
But the new private owners, the Snake River Preservation Group, had allowed people to visit the falls, the state’s largest, by leaving a small trespass fee of $1 in a mailbox. That ended about a month ago.
Dr. Mike Adams of Fremont, the president of the Snake River Preservation Group, said that littering had increased in recent months, and people disobeyed warning signs to stay out of the river.
“The final straw was when someone carved graffiti into the sandstone walls of the canyon,” he said. “They thought their initials would look good there.”
Adams said the club hated to close off access, but it is now working on additional signage and fencing to “make it clear what we expect,” with plans to reopen visits next month.
“We hope people will comply. If not, we will have to cut off,” he said.
To be sure, Snake River Falls is on private land. But there’s just something not right when you can’t even look at one of the most beautiful spots in the state. “It’s one of Nebraska’s jewels,” Adams said.
There’s a strong conservative streak out in the Sand Hills, and strong opposition to public ownership of land, particularly by the federal government.
That was an issue with the state’s purchase of Snake River Falls and is an issue again, as another scenic spot in the area, Rocky Ford on the Niobrara River, is up for sale. This time, there might be a different ending, as some folks are pushing a plan that would allow the Niobrara Council, an appointed group of ranchers and elected officials, to buy and manage Rocky Ford, rather than the feds or state.
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Bancroft, Nebraska, is a long way from the Bordeaux region of France or the scenic Colca Canyon of Peru, but earlier this month a 32-year-old student from Peru made the trip to northeast Nebraska to rediscover her roots.
Katia Llacho Huaranca of Chivay, Peru, was studying Native American culture at Bordeaux Montaigne University when she came across the book “Black Elk Speaks.” The book was written by John Neihardt, the poet and author whose first works were written in Bancroft, a farm town about an hour’s drive north of Omaha.
Llacho Huaranca said that the book led her to explore her own native roots. It also inspired her to travel to the U.S. to learn more about Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man who told Neihardt his stories.
“It reminded me of my own grandfather,” she said. “It reminded me of my historic side.”
Llacho Huaranca’s descendants were Collaguas. They were conquered by the Spanish and forced to give up many of their traditions, just like Black Elk’s Lakota Sioux Tribe upon their defeat by the U.S. Army.
While in Bancroft, she was able to meet with members of Neihardt’s family during the annual Neihardt Day at the John Neihardt State Historic Site on Aug. 7. Later, she climbed the newly renamed Black Elk Peak, formerly Harney Peak, in South Dakota and met members of Black Elk’s tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“I’m living a dream right now,” Llacho Huaranca said.
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