During Christmas of 1984, I visited North Loup, Nebraska to spend the holiday with my mother and Great Aunt Ellamae along with her son Russ, her daughter Martha and the their families. Christmastime in North Loup was always a postcard: Tables overflowed with smoked turkey and candied ham and chokecherry jam smiled from hot slices of homemade bread. Santa Claus with his dancing reindeer kicked along rooftops while flickering colored lights reflected from rain gutters and downspouts.
North Loup is my mother’s home village (it isn’t big enough to qualify as a “town” in Census records). She and I would visit my Grandpa there often as I grew up. My Grandpa, Bill Vodehnal, was the village pharmacist and he and I would explore the village together in his old, slate-grey, Plymouth Fury II at a blazing two miles per hour. Every street, except for “Main Street” (which was really Highway 11) was paved with gravel. My Grandpa was long dead when I visited North Loup in 1984, but I always felt his spirit rumbling deep within me every time we pulled into town.
In 1984, I wanted to take down a visual diary of the village for a novel I was writing based upon the atmosphere and earthiness I knew only to exist in North Loup, Nebraska. The images you’ll tour in this article are the touchstones I committed to film that day. Even now, these images speak to me without having to listen or comprehend. These thoughts touch me on the dirt level of the soul where things silently grow and blossom into magical, emotional, things one could never comprehend in any intellectual moment.
While these photographs were shuttered during the dead of Winter, the atmosphere preserved looks rather hot and barren and, after 14 years, my first instinct was that these shots were taken in August. My mother reminded me they were taken in December. You can see in some instances, small pockets of dying, white, snow. These photos prove Nebraska isn’t always blanketed by blizzards for a white Christmas: Sometimes the weather can be clear and the land unburdened by the whims of a life on the winter prairie.
Behold the North Loup village limits! As you curve around Highway 11 to enter the village, North Loup comes slowly into view. The green sign counts the number of people who live in North Loup since the last Census. I understand that in the 14 years since this photo was taken, the village population has dropped to below 300. Notice the silvery water tower in the background? Growing up, I always thought it looked like a coffee pot and that the local Cafe would tap into that giant pot to get my Grandpa’s morning cup of java! You can see the North Loup water tower from miles around.
The Grain Silo
The big white tower you see in the background is the North Loup grain silo. That silo greets your entrance into North Loup along with signs from the Lion’s Club and the Seventh Day Baptist Church. The silo is where grain for money exchanges are made. Farmers bring in their grain, store it in the silo, and get paid for their product. Since North Loup is an agricultural community, getting paid for the land you sow is vital to the local economy. You can see wisps of snow where the creek bed meets the land bridge.
This is the entrance to the North Loup Jail and Police Department. I don’t remember anyone ever being arrested and put in jail. I don’t remember a police force, either. I do, however, remember the local Sheriff who would ride around in a bright orange pickup truck. He would always stop and chat with you, but he never arrested anyone I ever knew, and in North Loup, you know everybody.
This is Highway 11 and it splices the heart of North Loup, Nebraska as Main Street. Main Street is precisely one block long. My Grandpa’s house — the biggest and the best in the village — is directly left of the ice shelf.
Just off Highway 11, at the mouth of the village of North Loup, stands my Grandpa’s house. Strangers live there now. I don’t recognize the car in the driveway. Grandpa used to take me on tours of his yard in wheelbarrow rides. We used to grill “shorty” Ord sausages together on the screened in front porch. My cousins and I used to play on the sleeping porch (you can see it on the left jutting out from the house) — which had no steam heat — and we’d freeze our noses off in the wintertime! Snow patches sleep along the sidewalks and driveway ruts. The four, long, lances you see along the crest of the roof are lightning rods. They play an important role in deflecting the dangerous power of a plains thunderstorm by dissipating the energy into the ground via copper leads.
The “sunny side” of North Loup’s Main Street block starts here. Greenleaf Grocery (Flannery O’Connor wrote a telling piece of short fiction on folks named “Greenleaf” — let’s pray they aren’t the same people) is the corner mark of the main block (I stood near the steps of the North Loup Valley Bank as I shot this image). The posted speed limit down Main Street is 25 miles per hour. It looks like the Greenleafs (Greenleaves?) still give out S&H Greenstamps to buyers! You can see the fading residue of what used to be Hill’s Jack & Jill behind the Greenleaf sign. Hill’s Jack & Jill was owned by Aunt Ellamae’s husband, Mills Hill. I used to go to the store and kid around with Mills as chopped fresh pork chops for our dinner. He’d always let me pick a free toy from his toy department (a wall covered with hang toys). Between my pharmacist Grandfather and grocer Mills… the health and appetite of North Loup was controlled by those two good men!
Tap & Tackle
This is Francis Ward’s North Loup Tap & Tackle! I was never allowed to go in here, mainly because it was a dusky bar and I was always underage. The main window was always piled with junk and the front door was covered over with an opaque plastic. I’m told this was done so the women in town couldn’t easily track down their husbands by peering in from the outside. The sign in the window says, “Open Christmas and New Years” while the main white North Loup Tap sign atop the tin awning lists the following pleasures found inside: Hunting and Fishing Permits, Ice Cubes, Ammunition and Fishing Tackle. The North Loup Tap & Tackle was the only place around for 50 miles where you could — by purchasing the proper permits, mind you — drink a Budweiser and shoot a minnow all under one roof.
Vera’s Style Shoppe
If you needed a new pair of jeans or a new dress, you went to see Vera. Vera was always in the store and always delighted to see you and serve you personally. Vera’s Style Shoppe was the best place to find what you needed because she had everything in stock in all sizes and if, on the off-chance she didn’t have what you sought, she’d order it for you and you could pick it up the next day or so. The ceiling in her shoppe was embossed tin in intricate designs. Giant, electric, ceiling fans felt fantastic as they swooshed the cool air above down below you. Notice the Christmas garlands around the front window? An orangish gel shade was perpetually pulled down to protect her window displays from fading in the hot afternoon sun. As you can see, that made it difficult to see the real color of her display items, but maybe that orange shade made for a greater invitation to step inside to see the display closer up? Looking out that orange shade from inside Vera’s made Main Street look as if it were on fire — and with Grandpa’s pharmacy directly across the street, you can imagine my concern as a four year old! I’d show you Grandpa’s store, but it was torn down and remodeled in the late ’70s.
I took this photograph from the steps of the post office to mark the end of the sunny side of the Main Street block. Grandpa used to get his hair cut at the Scissors Shack. Directly next door (to your right) is the village Laundromat housed in an unpainted cinder block addition. My cousins and I spent a lot time in the Laundromat getting silly away from our parents as we washed load after load. There isn’t a single stoplight in North Loup. There are, however, stop signs everywhere.
I used to go into the North Loup Hardware store once a day to replenish my supply of copper BBs for my single-action Daisy BB-Gun. The hardware store never had an overhead light on. Black fans turned slowly from all corners. The floor was swept with sawdust. The whole place smelled of grease and gunpowder — a young boy’s heaven! With BBs in hand, I would then run behind Grandpa’s pharmacy and target shoot at empty medicine bottles. The colorful shards of glass were wonderful, sharp, and dangerous as they shattered across the alley! The sound of breaking glass meant Bill’s grandson was in town, and I wore that notice like a badge!
This is the alley behind my Grandpa’s pharmacy where I would take target practice with my BB Gun. The alley is changed now, though. Where there once were windows and a back door leading into the pharmacy’s storage area there is now a whitewash plaster wall instead. This “shadow alley” was a great place to spend time as a kid, because the hidden side of the world wandered by every afternoon as the sun bled red across a brittle blue enamel sky. Shades of Birds, bricks and barrels would bend unbound along the post-noon landscape until the moon came and set them all back upon their original purchase. North Loup — as anything in life — is best discovered by small things seldom noticed; for what is important and vital is buried in shadow or lurking beneath peeling paint or forgotten in rusting metal. Don’t look at the setting sun and wonder. Turn away from the sun and discover the beauty behind your back. You’ll find the secrets of what the sun sees and shines upon with blind love and adoring silence.
The red GMC truck you see here belongs to my second cousin, Russell. Like ole’ Russ, that truck may not have been the prettiest or the fastest, but it got the job done when it counted! Russ’ father, Mills, would use that truck to haul garbage and firewood for his neighbors. That fire engine red beauty still serves the Hill family and when you ride in it, you know you are in a being with guts, for it bellows and spews smoky evidence of its innards every time it sparks to life. Now it’s time to leave North Loup and visit Happy Jack Mountain just outside the village limits.
Happy Jack Mountain
This is Happy Jack Mountain and I wrote a long article about my experience here for Go Inside Magazine called Cathedrals of Chalk: Return to Happy Jack Mountain. That article details, in depth, my thoughts and feelings about this divine place. I’ve included Happy Jack and its rivulets of snow and railroad tie steps leading to the cross at its peak here for a reason: North Loup is bound to Happy Jack Mountain in spirit and tone. Notice the Christmas tree lights strung on the wooden cross?
When you arrive at the top of Happy Jack Mountain, you will discover the base of the wooden Cross has been marked with names. These etchings may be — to some — an affront to Christ and the Cross, but I find these modern hieroglyphs evidence of testimony from souls seeking to be bound to something greater than themselves. These cuts are not gashes on the body of Christ, but rather evidence of the spirit seeking eternal shelter in withering times.
Bureau of Reclamation
Looking immediately down from the etched Happy Jack Cross reveals this Bureau of Reclamation marker. This is the stone of solitude for all who visit Happy Jack Mountain for it is man’s mark upon the earth — proof our free thinking, a symbol of our common ancestry, and empirical evidence of the rock that uplifts us all.
Loup Valley River
Raise your head a bit from the Bureau of Reclamation marker and you’ll see the beautiful Loup Valley River bending below you. This gurgling river runs the divide and quenches farmland for miles in all directions. Water feeds crops and healthy crops feed empty stomachs. When the river runs low in the Summer, children wade into the water and play on sandbars pocking the river’s middle like cacti triumphant upon a dry, desert plateau.
Turn away from the Loup Valley river and on the other side of Happy Jack Mountain you’ll see farmland forever. Rows of alfalfa make moiré patterns upon the eye and excite the mind. This America’s heartland. This is America’s breadbasket. This is the American dream in amber waves of grain. Here the horizon is defined where the land meets the sky.
This trip through North Loup was bountiful in that in re-claimed my stake to the spirit and timbre of the village I grew to know and love more than my own hometown of Lincoln. There were no people in this 1984 photo memory of North Loup because North Loup — for me — isn’t its people. North Loup is a place of undiscovered secrets. North Loup is where the yearning to belong to the land becomes possible. I didn’t want my mother to sit on the front porch of her childhood home. I didn’t seek ole’ Russ to polish his red truck or Vera to pose with her sweaters. I didn’t need the Greenleafs to stand outside their grocery or Francis Ward to smile in front of the Tap & Tackle. People pass but places do not. And now, as I pull away from North Loup, the Scotia village sign comes into view — yet another invitation to stop and visit — and one more marker that North Loup is slowly getting smaller behind me.