AINSWORTH — Sometimes small is just great.
Case in point: Brown County, which many residents would say is a great place to live despite having less than 3,000 people residing inside its borders.
But what Brown County may lack in quantity, it makes up for in the quality of its residents.
“In my childhood, I remember a few situations where a farmer had taken ill during harvestime and all the neighbors showed up with their combines and trucks and went and picked all of their crop, because if you don’t get the crop out of the field, you are done,” said Wade Alberts, a massage therapist who owns Wellness by Wade here. “That’s the kind of community that I want to be a part of — people who rally together when the chips are down and everybody is needed. This is a roll-up-your-sleeves area of the country and it’s unique in that.”
That willingness to help each other and to work together for the good of the many is a key to Brown County’s success. The Brown County Community Foundation Fund and several private entities, for example, have worked in many different ways to better the county and its quality of life.
“Everybody pulls in the same direction,” said Graig Kinzie, owner of KBRB radio in Ainsworth. “We’re all pulling in the same direction, especially the younger people.”
Great place to live
Brown County has many other positives in its own right. The Sandhills are considered to be one of the most beautiful regions of Nebraska, while others prefer the county’s insulation urban areas. The county also offers many other amenities, including a solid selection of restaurants and a hospital.
“I actually started coming up here in 1983 and I’ve been up for about 20 years full time,” said Greg Wilke, owner of GJW LLC. “It has good people, it’s a little bit more laid-back and not real hustle-bustle. (There are) a lot of good quality people and a lot of opportunities.”
Tate Schipporeit, a Brown County rancher and businessman, echoes Wilke’s sentiments.
“It’s the people, the way of life and the freedom for me,” Schipporeit said. “I’ve been in areas where you’re within the city and it’s tight. I’m the type of person who enjoys having a little more freedom.”
Kent Taylor is a fourth-generation resident of Brown County and is the chief executive officer of Farmers Ranchers Co-op, which is based in Ainsworth.
“It’s definitely a good place to raise a family,” Taylor said. “It’s a good community and a good school system. There are a lot of good opportunities — I’ve been proud to be a part of it and I am glad to be here.”
Even so, Brown County has struggled to maintain its population. From a peak of 6,749 residents at the 1920 United States Census, the county's population has declined steadily since then. A 2016 U.S. Census estimate has the county with 2,960 residents.
That population decline has had many different effects, from leading the high school football team to drop to the eight-man division and also creating a workforce shortage in the county.
“That is an issue that all of us have wrestled with,” said Bret Younkin, owner of Ainsworth Motors. “The quality of living is really good here, but we don’t have enough people to staff our jobs.”
But Younkin said he also believes that the county has many assets to encourage workers to move there, including a low cost of living — a two-bedroom residence, for example, rents for $250-350 per month.
“When I first moved back here ... it seemed like the jobs didn’t pay that well,” Younkin said. “We were a small, rural area and we didn’t have good-paying jobs — but that’s no longer the case. I think the jobs market here is above the level of anything that you can make working in eastern Nebraska or in any of your main metro areas.”
One way that Brown County has worked to enhance its quality of life, attract new residents and retain current ones is by collaborating.
“I think that people who live here, do their business here ... (do so) because rural Nebraska is important to them,” said Scott Steinhauser, chairman of the Brown County Community Foundation Fund. “(That) is the whole purpose behind the Nebraska Community Foundation. I think that rural way of life is great and we want to obviously make that great here in Brown County. But if we can help other people in other areas by what we do here ... to keep smaller towns vibrant and schools open and all those things, I think that’s just all the better.”
Kinzie returned to Ainsworth in 2009 when he bought KBRB Radio from Larry Rice, who now serves as Ainsworth’s mayor.
“The community has some very good development programs set up to help younger people come back and transition into ownership of businesses — or start businesses,” Kinzie said. “I’ve moved back and bought a business without a single dollar of my own money into it. I was able to have that opportunity that I wouldn’t have had in a community that I didn’t have ties to.”
Another example of pulling together was how community came together to save the Ainsworth Care Center — the city’s nursing home — when it was slated to close two years ago.
“Our community is probably one of the more giving communities I’ve seen in all the places I’ve lived,” said Philip Fuchs, treasurer of the Ainsworth Lions Club. “Not only do we have the Brown County Community Foundation Fund going, but a lot of them (also) contributed (to reopening) the nursing home and to the (workers there) who were not being paid. ... It just seems like whenever there is a need in our community, that people step up and really are willing to give what is needed to get us back to where we’re at.”
Agents of change
One major asset to the county is the Brown County Community Foundation Fund, which made its debut in 1995 and is an affiliated fund of the Nebraska Community Foundation.
“Up through last year, we have awarded $104,000 in grants to groups within the community,” said Al Steuter, an ex-officio member of the foundation fund. “With our increasing endowment, we’ve made $34,000 in grants just this last year. Because of the growth in the endowment, the payout is that much larger.”
The foundation fund does not limit itself to aiding projects in Ainsworth, though it has had a hand in many projects in the town.
“We’re pretty cognizant about making sure that we are a county fund,” Steinhauser said. “We’re involved in things in Long Pine and in Johnstown as well as in Ainsworth and rural areas. No matter what might be, we try to have a good representation ... that covers different places in the county.”
One example of that is the Palace gymnasium in Long Pine. Renovations on the building began in 1996 with the aid of the foundation fund and also its offshoot, the Long Pine Sub-Fund. Over the years, the building has had restrooms moved from the basement to the main floor, the concession stand replaced, new doors and windows and even a fresh paint job.
Because of those efforts, the Palace is still going strong.
“This building still needs a lot of work, but it’s been preserved,” said Linda Alberts, chairwoman of the Long Pine Foundation. “There have been a lot of historical buildings that have been torn down in Long Pine because they weren’t maintained — but we decided that this building was not going to get torn down.”
Another example is the work at the Brown County Fairgrounds in Johnstown. Over the last two decades, the main building has had extensive renovations and hosted more than 35 activities in 2016, including weddings, auctions, celebrations and Christmas parties.
The main arena at the fairgrounds has also received four grants from the foundation fund and just installed a major upgrade on the arena’s lighting this year.
“We’d like to think it has become a pretty good asset for the community,” said Dave Sherman, president of the Brown County Agricultural Society board.
Brown Countians also have helped their county in other ways.
Luke Witte returned to Ainsworth last fall with his wife, Danielle, to open the Local House 20 Restaurant, providing the county with a steakhouse — and they did so with a helping hand from the community.
“Without this small town, our business would not be open,” Danielle Witte said. “There were a lot of donations and community support to get our business up and running, because the community realized how dire of a need that a restaurant was to a community. There is a lot of opportunity and there’s a lot of community support.”