PILGER — Angela Denton misses the rustic charm of Pilger’s former downtown; Gene Willers misses the towering trees that spread their protective wings over the tiny town.
Both miss the people who were kicked out of their homes and businesses five years ago when Mother Nature unleashed its vengeance on the village and sent so many lives spinning out of control.
Although many of the buildings that lined main street, many of the historic homes and hundreds of the beloved trees are gone, Pilger is still alive.
That may be due to the tireless work of many people like Willers and Denton who realized that if Pilger was going to rise from the ashes, someone had to come up with a plan.
Willers, who was president of the Pilger branch of Midwest Bank at the time, contacted Joe Ferguson of Ferguson Development of Norfolk, who enlisted the aid of Milan Wall of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development and Craig Schroeder with the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, both of Lincoln.
Bob Dixson, the mayor of Greensburg, Kan., which had been nearly destroyed by a tornado in 2007, visited and offered suggestions and encouragement. So did Lowell Johnson, who was the city administrator at Wayne when part of that town was damaged by a tornado earlier.
“We got a lot of aid and assistance that allowed us to do things quickly,” Willers said.
Within months, committees were formed to address business, housing, public structure, parks and recreation, cleanup and restoration and other issues.
Residents attended town hall meetings to “dream,” said Denton, who operates a trucking company with her husband, Joe.
“We asked, ‘What do you want Pilger to look like?’ ” she said.
“People wanted to buy gas and a gallon of milk. We needed to figure out how to build a store. That was the biggest thing,” Denton said. “Then it was a community center. They wanted a place for all generations can come together.”
The community was given a boost when the Farmers Co-op of Pilger, Winside and Stanton and the bank chose to rebuild in town, Willers said. Both of the original facilities were destroyed.
“It would have been easy for our bank ownership to pull out,” he added. “I credit the businesses that decided to stay.”
St. John’s Lutheran Church also chose to rebuild. All that remained of its building was the bell tower.
The Pilger Pride Convenience Store opened in 2016, St. John’s Lutheran Church conducted its first worship service in its new facility in 2016 and the community center opened in 2017.
In addition to gas and snacks, the convenience store sells groceries and prepared foods, such as pizzas. The community center has a 24-hour fitness center and senior center and houses the town’s post office boxes.
“The village office is up and running ... and the pool, park and ballfields were all usable,” Willers added.
A number of other businesses have rebuilt, too, including the Dentons’ trucking firm and a commercial storage facility.
To help the recovery efforts, the Pilger Community Development Fund was created using financial donations received from people all over the world. It is governed by a board of directors.
Initially, the money was doled out to help with immediate expenses; now it’s being used to aid the recovery, Willers said, and is available to people who want to rebuild.
“If someone wants to build a home ... we have grants up to $10,000,” Willers said. “It’s a nice incentive.”
While Pilger has “come a long way” in five years, there is still room for improvement.
The population, which at the time of tornado was around 350, is around 250 now, Willers said. Of the 60 houses that were lost, only 22 or 23 have been rebuilt.
“A lot of older people aren’t going to rebuild,” Willers said. Many people who were renting homes just moved on, he added.
Plus, the town no longer has a school. The storm took out the 105-year-old building that housed the middle school, and instead of rebuilding in Pilger, the school was consolidated with the high school in Wisner.
“I hate to see a school leave a community,” Willers said. “But I don’t think in this case it was a knockout blow. In some ways, it’s united the district. We’ve got a good school.”
And, although coffee drinkers can gather at the convenience store, many residents miss the cafe and bar, Denton said.
For that reason, citizens try to have events at the community center every few months so people can gather, Willers said. Plus, the senior center serves noon meals.
“People need to socialize to build a stronger community,” Denton added.
While Denton is pleased with the progress Pilger has made, she’s hoping for more houses and businesses “to fill up the empty spaces,” she said. She knows that won’t be easy.
“In a small community, you can’t sit back, you just keep working,” she said.
Willers recognizes that he probably won’t be around when the 300 trees that were planted to replace the more than 400 that were lost reach maturity, but he’s confident Pilger will survive.
After all, Pilger has plenty to recommend it, including the easy access to Norfolk, Wayne and Wisner, the “top-rated” school system, the swimming pool, community center and small-town atmosphere.
“There are a lot of pluses,” he said.
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Coming tomorrow: As Pilger residents look ahead, what do they say their community still needs?