Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Carving Out a Legacy

Jim Johnston has always had an interest in and an aptitude for art. He takes great pleasure in working with wood and with his hands, not only carving and painting birds and models of their environment, but also enjoying the craftsmanship involved in building Mandolins and the artistic aspect of designing the instruments and adding decorative inlays.

Johnston was born in Osceola, NE, moved to O'Neill in 1963, graduated from O'Neill High School in 1968, and is employed by Car Quest.

Jim began carving around 1976. By 1994, he was entering state level competitive carving shows in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Montana, wining many blue ribbons in various class levels. Jim is mostly self-taught, but has also studied books and the work and techniques of other wood carvers---however, he does acknowledge that his talent is God-given. He states that "the downside of being self-taught is it's trial and error", however this way, "one can develop their own style." He has had the privilege of attending a weekend seminar in Iowa taught by Bob Guge, who is a world champion bird carver, although Jim admitted that his primary reason for attending was to "learn the painting skills." Jim's goal and dream is to one day enter a carved piece in the Wood Carving World Competition in Salsbury, Maryland.

A few years ago, Jim was on a trout fishing expedition in Montana, and really not having much success. He was becoming quite frustrated and decided to sit down on a log and take a little 'time out'. As he sat, a Western Tanager landed next to him, close enough that Jim could have reached out and touched it. Jim felt that this was God's way of saying, 'chill out'. That experience provided the inspiration for the carving of his piece entitled, 'Respite on the Boulder'.

Curly Maple, European Spruce, and Ebony from Africa are the woods Jim has used in the construction of his standard, blue-grass type, Florentine style mandolin. Mother of Pearl is inlaid in the peg head, and abalone shell is inlaid in the fingerboard. This hand-built mandolin is "easily in the thousand dollar class". Naturally, with more inlay and the use of top quality wood, the price would increase.

I asked, "Would you rather build mandolins or carve birds?" Jim answered, "Both." As for the mandolins, he says he "enjoys the challenge of building them." "It's neat to make your own music on an instrument you built." He adds, "I build them better than I play them...hopefully the next one won't have as many wrong notes on it."

Jim is an incredibly talented individual. My photos do not do justice to his creations; one would need to view them in person to fully appreciate the extraordinary quality of his work. O'Neill is currently raising funds for a community center, and in this writer's opinion, I think it would be an honor for our citizens to have a special display of Jim's work in a prominent location in the finished project. What better way to represent 'community' than to include 'one of our own'?


Friday, July 17, 2009


It's always great to see new faces in town, and summertime is the season for tourists and visitors...

O'Neill is currently being explored by a wonderful family who have driven all the way from their home in Fairfield, CA... Steve and Vivian Linder and their four sons, Everest, Calvin, Trevor, and Stevenson (ages 17, 15, 13, and 7), along with Vivian's mother, Maru Barhart (a resident of Vacaville, CA), have been visiting relatives for the past week, and were gracious enough to spend a few moments with me to share their thoughts and ideas about our town and even a suggestion or two.

Steve, (who originally hails from Minnesota), is a Chemical Engineer specializing in water treatment with boilers and cooling towers. Vivian is a sales representative for a clothing line and a fitness instructor. Steve (who returned to California early for his job and is not in the photo) commented that O'Neill reminded him of the small town he grew up in.

From all accounts, it sounds as if they are enjoying the activities O'Neill and the surrounding area has to offer... The 'Tanking Trip' on the Cedar River out of Atkinson seemed to be at the top of their list, with Stevenson commenting on the frogs and turtles he spotted. Maru also expressed enthusiasm for the experience.

They were especially intent on taking in the Summerfest activities, enjoying the sidewalk sales and rodeo, although Calvin was a bit disappointed that the Mud Drags had been cancelled... The Cowboy Trail is another hit, as they had brought their bikes with them and have been making use of this scenic path. Vivian commented that in past visits, they had visited Ash Falls and everyone raved over the delicious and generous helpings at Green Gables Restaurant in nearby Orchard.

When I asked what was different about our town as opposed to theirs, the entire family commented positively on the grocery store carry-out courtesy, our volunteer fire department, no traffic, how no one seems to be in a real hurry, everyone waves (even going down the road) and seems to know each other. Vivian suggested a full scale farmer's market similar to what she has experienced in her town--she says it becomes an event with blocked off streets and even a live band.

As I see various family members walking or biking through town, they seem to be enjoying our little corner of the world...and we're happy to have them here!


Thursday, July 16, 2009

'Eggstra! Eggstra! Read All About It!'

When Brian Katzor and Brooke (his wife) first met on line in the year 2000, he made it perfectly clear that there would be 'no pretense'; he's a man who doesn't pretend to be anything other than what he is---decent, trustworthy, quiet, honest, and down to earth.

Brian was born in San Paulo, Brazil to missionary parents. He speaks fluent Portuguese (his voice still has a trace of an accent) having lived in Brazil up until the age of 15, when he moved to Ohio to live with his maternal grandparents. After graduating from Hesston College in Kansas, a two year college of The Mennonite Church USA, he moved north of O'Neill to live with his fraternal grandparents who raised chickens---and that is how Brian came to know and understand the business of selling eggs.

Brian and Brooke (married for 8 years) and their three children (Nathan age 7, Kaleb age 5, and Zoe age 3) live in a secluded , peaceful country setting where colorful Sweet Pea flowers grow tangled in the fences, clucking chickens dart in and out of thick tree growth, and the children run barefoot, happy and free. Upon arriving at their home, I was reminded of how completely different it is living in the country--one can feel as if they have stepped into another world.

'California Whites' (white shelled eggs), 'Gold Stars' (brown shells), and 'Americana' (light green shells) are the three breeds raised on this family farm...and just for the record, a brown shelled egg is no healthier than a white shelled. When I asked how many chickens he has, Brian replied, "I don't keep a head count...", but he estimates the number between three to four hundred. These are 'free range' chickens in the sense that they are outside, but they are contained in pens during the day and a hen house at night for protection from raccoons.

A good laying hen will produce one egg a day, and with nearly 400 chickens, Brain is able to keep up with his steady customers; a local supermarket's in-house bakery (their goods are outstanding), a restaurant, and regular customers around the area wanting those good tasting, bright yellow-yolked country eggs for their own eating and baking needs. Brian commented, "All environmental challenges affect egg production." If the temperature drops, egg production goes down. To offset winter's lull in egg production, the hens are provided with 14 hours of electric light per day. "Lights make a huge difference." Brian sells his eggs within 7-10 days of laying, but I was surprised to learn that an un-refrigerated egg will 'keep' for nearly 30 days if the air temperature does not rise above 80 degrees, although, an egg with a weak shell would spoil sooner.

Brian says factors such as the price of corn (he purchases it once a year), and even our current economic situation has effected his business, but raising chickens and selling eggs is something he has always done and will continue to do. He does it simply because he 'likes it'.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

She 'Speaks' a Universal Language

'Mesmerized' is the word Heather Jergensmeier uses when she describes the feeling she had upon first seeing a Middle Eastern Dance performance.

Heather grew up in O'Neill, but as a young child, her world became 'deliciously' broadened by her travels with her father who delivered bulk health foods to communes and restaurants throughout the United States and Mexico. It was at these locations that she first became aware of the beauty and mystery of the dance she refers to as "an expression of your soul"..."a universal language". She explains that one can be anywhere in the world, and communicate through this dance despite the language barriers.

When I first met Heather, I could sense that this was a woman who was unique and interesting. She has her own sense of style which is reflected in her dress, jewelry, and presence. The home she shares with her husband and two children, is decorated in warm, spicy colors with exotic elements that convey a Middle Eastern atmosphere --- imagine a mysterious Moroccan setting with luxurious fabrics and strange sights and fragrances, and Heather would very comfortably be in her element!

Her dancing skills are a combination of self-taught, and what she has gleaned and learned from other dancers in her travels. She has also studied under the Zafira Dance Company based in Pittsburgh, PA, that has traveled in India and lived and studied with the Gypsies, and Fat Chance Belly Dance from San Fransisco, CA, who are known for their American Tribal style of dance. The different styles of dancing --- more commonly referred to as 'Belly Dance', are: Egyptian, Turkish, Arabian, and World Fusion which is Tribal mixed with Tango and other dance styles.

An equally important element of this mode of dance, are the beautiful fabrics and beaded and shiny adornments that are worn and displayed by the performer. Heather created a hand-embroidered belt and a hand-beaded costume top as part of her striking outfit.

Dancing is part of who and what Heather is...she calls it her "oasis in the middle of the dessert". She states, "I'm the type of person who decides to make the best of wherever I am living...I bring my love of culture wherever I go." She emphasizes that this style of dance helps women build confidence, self-esteem, and is a great toning exercise. She herself has performed for wedding celebrations, and at various conferences and ethnic festivals in Kansas, and Lincoln, NE. She has been teaching for six years, and currently instructs a class (which includes balancing an actual curved sword on her head) here in O'Neill two nights a week.

After observing a class performance, I was impressed by Heather's skill and the gracefulness and sense of intrigue this dance conveys. I admire Heather for her dedication in learning and practicing, and sharing her art --- we are fortunate to have her in our community.


Photo credits: Full costume shots by Heather Jergensmeier.

Friday, July 10, 2009

In the Carpenter's Hands

Steve Randolph could be viewed as the 'whole package'... The combination of his varied skills, talents and gifts has brought him to where he is and what he is today. Throw in a great personality, and his ability to work with others in a caring way, and I'd say you have a citizen that any town would be proud to claim.

Holt County (Atkinson/Chambers/O'Neill) has been home to Steve for 40 years. After graduating from Chambers High School, he found work as a ranch hand training horses, then deciding to continue his education at horseshoeing school in Oklahoma City, OK. After completing his training, he returned to the area to work his trade. He and his wife Anne Michele, along with their two sons, Matt, age18 and Clay, age 16, now make their home here in O'Neill.

Randolph is from a farming/ranching background, having had experience training and breaking horses, and working with cattle. He says he knows "nothing about living in a city", and that is just one of the many reasons he feels more comfortable in a rural area.

Steve has been on staff as Associate Pastor with Faith Community Church for three and one-half years. As an added perk to that position, you'll find that he's a well-rounded man with interests in hunting, art, drawing, building construction, writing and singing music, playing his guitar and his 5-plus years of experience in furniture building. Steve says, "God has allowed me to combine all these interests and skills for the body of Christ."

Steve sees a correlation between his furniture materials and construction, and the way that God can take a person and shape them into something that reflects His beauty. Steve says, "God takes us the way we are; with all our flaws, imperfections, and perhaps a sense of worthlessness. The world may not see our potential, but God sees so much more..." "He sees what we can become, not what we are now." "We might be like some of the horses I have worked with; dirty, unkempt, a bad attitude, but God can take those unappealing aspects and change us into a beautiful creation."

Cottonwood, cedar, pine and oak are the woods Steve uses for his creations, preferring to mix several different woods in one piece---in fact, he feels that adds to the character. Old corral boards were used for this storage cabinet, and hand crafted cedar serves as door handles.
As a 'nod to Steve's love of his family and background, he applies his Grandfather's brand to the back or underside of each piece.

In reference to needing a particular piece of furniture, Steve states, "If I can't make it, I don't buy it." He's also a businessman when it comes to marketing; he offers his work through Click on the 'Rustic Creations' button.

When asked "Why O'Neill?", Steve replied, 'It's just home." "I enjoy the wide open spaces, the rural community where people are associated with's a friendly place with friendly people." He adds, "We're kind of like a big family. If we're out of town and see a '36' county license plate, we think, 'family'!"


Monday, July 6, 2009

Purple Martin Territory

He may be a mild-mannered UPS driver during the day, but this hometown fellow's passion is being a Purple Martin Landlord. He's on a mission to educate and inform others as to the enjoyment of providing a sanctuary for these unique birds.

Dick Wallace was born and raised in Papillion, NE, graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1977. He moved to O'Neill that year, farming until 1984 when he became employed by United Parcel Service.

Wallace first became interested in Purple Martins while still living in Papillion. He said his parents tried unsuccessfully for years to attract the birds, and since he "loves a good challenge", he first decided to try his hand at attracting them in 1992. It took five frustrating years before two pair finally took up residence in his backyard, as Dick informed me that the birds have to come from an already established colony. At present, Dick has 24 gourds (for nesting) and one Purple Martin house. He also has helped approximately eight other town residents install plastic nesting gourds in their yards and jump started residents in six surrounding towns with their own Purple Martin nesting sites.

Purple Martins winter over in Brazil and their migration progress in the spring is avidly followed by enthusiasts who log onto . Maps record sightings as the birds migrate northward to the previous year's nesting sites. Generally, the Purple Martins arrive in our area around April 1st. After the breeding, hatching and fledging is complete, the birds meet up with other area groups with a final departure by September 15. They do not nest in Brazil, rather that time is spent for molting.

Wallace frequently lowers the houses for inspection and to aid in his record keeping. He records the sex of the birds, what gourd they are in, number of eggs and how many successfully hatched, sex of babies, etc.

Tracking numbers on each bird's leg band enables researchers to track migration patterns.

We marveled at the ingenuity of the nesting material. Wallace provides the straw, and the birds line the nests with these fresh, green leaves. Experts believe the leaves aid in keeping the egg shells moist. Below: Female with newly hatched babies.

I asked Wallace, "Why Purple Martins?" He wasn't quite sure how to describe his admiration for the birds, but he said, "I am intrigued by their migration patterns---how they fly all the way up here from Brazil; they are graceful, soothing, and calming." "I enjoy just sitting and watching them."

And the final question: Why O'Neill? Wallace says we have a 'community atmosphere' here. "Everyone knows everybody, people wave, and the New Year's baby is born in July..." He said he "wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life" and this town has a "more laid back, more friendly atmosphere." He feels that there are lots of opportunities here for employment--"not a six-figure income, but jobs that will put food on the table."