Thursday, July 30, 2015
Text Size

Site Search

Seneca Votes to Unincorporate

By Matthew Hansen / World-Herald columnist

It feels so long ago now, but the tiny town of Seneca used to get things done.

A little over a decade ago, the people here sold raffle tickets and organized fundraiser soup suppers. They got grants to fix the cracked ceiling, raised money to replace the wrecked windows, donated their free time to redo the bathrooms and refinish the wood floors.

They worked and worked, and after five years, the shabby old town gymnasium reopened as a shiny new community center, a place where people from all over this remote western Nebraska county meet to celebrate big events.

Wedding receptions. Family reunions. Funerals. And, lately, a series of increasingly hate-fueled Village Board meetings that have torn Seneca apart.

“We may be a one-horse town, but we can all pull together,” says Sandy Hansen, who moved here in 1964. “At least we used to be able to.”

Seneca can still get things done, but what it does now is the sort of thing that would make Norman Rockwell shake his head, pack up his paints and speed away down Highway 2.

In May, after a bruising campaign marred by allegations of voter intimidation and fraud, the village’s residents voted — by a single vote — to unincorporate their own town.

That’s right: A Nebraska town voted itself out of existence.

Unless two pending court cases change that outcome, the Village Board will be dissolved. The equipment the village uses to plow its streets and mow its ditches will be sold at auction. The streetlights may go dark. The water may be turned off in the city park.

And Seneca’s beloved community center? Barring unforeseen changes, it will be sold to the highest bidder by Thanksgiving.

“It makes me want to cry,” says Hansen, a longtime postal carrier who now operates a small museum and workshop in Seneca. “What I want to say about it is unprintable.”

You may be wondering why a town would choose to become a non-town.

Let’s start with the horses.

A year or so ago, some residents started to complain about six horses corralled in a resident’s backyard.

Horses themselves are nothing new in Seneca: In the summers here, the children ride horses like they ride bikes in suburbia.

But these particular horses were in too small a space, some people said. They were up to their knees in muck. The horses were in danger, they were sad to look at, and they were a bit of a public health nuisance to boot because they were corralled near a town well.

Larry Isom, a retired physician’s assistant who serves on the Seneca Village Board, decided to do something about the horses.

He and several others called state agencies. They called Thomas County officials. They called the Nebraska Humane Society. People at each of those places told Isom and his allies the same thing: This is an issue for the Village Board.

And so Isom began to mull introducing a town ordinance to ban keeping horses and other livestock within the city limits. The board discovered that an old town ordinance on the books did exactly that — it just hadn’t been enforced in decades. They chewed over the issue at several board meetings, in which Isom says the majority of residents in attendance — though certainly not all — supported a change.

And then the board voted unanimously to ban livestock in Seneca.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

You would think that the opponents of the new ordinance would respond by trying to get the ordinance changed, maybe by narrowing the wording so that it affected only endangered horses or livestock kept in a tiny area. Or you would think they would respond by waiting until the next election and then throwing the Village Board members out on their keisters.

You’d be dead wrong.

Instead, they circulated a petition in town that called for the unincorporation of that town. They got 13 people to sign it, enough to get it on the ballot.

Instead, they portrayed the Village Board as autocratic and rule-happy, though when questioned, many couldn’t name a single other bothersome ordinance that the Village Board had passed.

“We just don’t want people telling us what to do,” says Terri Hartman, a Seneca resident who grew up here, graduated from high school here and now lives with her mother in town. “It was bound to be this and that (from the Village Board). ... We just want to be left alone.”

The petition stoked red-hot anger on both sides. Conversations became yelling matches. Lines were drawn in permanent marker.

People who signed the petition think the Village Board and its allies condescended to them after those signatures became public and retaliated when they could. Hartman says she lost her job as a waitress at Cattleman’s, Seneca’s restaurant — a job she held for five years — in part because she signed the petition.

“There has been quite a bit of bullying,” says Hartman. “I love this town as much as anyone. It’s my home, too.”

Bring these bullying complaints to residents who want to keep the town a town, and watch their eyes bulge wide and their cheeks redden. They are trying to preserve a town that is cut into a picturesque valley in the Sand Hills, wedged between the beautiful, winding Central Loup River and the train tracks that once provided Seneca its jobs.

They are trying to save a town that has existed since the covered wagon.

And they are the bad guys?

“On some level, it’s like, ‘What do you want?’?” Isom says. “Look, there are speed limits in our world. There are stop signs. There are county laws, state laws, federal laws. Without a shared set of community rules, these rules that we have as a society, what you have is anarchy.

“And that’s just silly. It’s silly.”

On election night, the residents of Seneca drove their pickups and SUVs to nearby Thedford to cast their ballots. They watched the county and state election websites late into the evening.

And when it was over, 17 people had voted Seneca out of existence, while 16 people had voted to keep it a town.

Two court cases now challenge that vote.

One is a felony charge against Jacqueline Licking, the 80-year-old who circulated the petition, alleging that she didn’t witness all the signatures being signed on the petition, as is required by state law.

The other is a request for a delay on the dissolution of Seneca, as county officials investigate whether everyone who voted in the May 13 election was a legal resident of Seneca at that time. Even one incorrectly counted vote could swing the result of the election and keep Seneca a town.

As Seneca waits, many residents on either side of this civil war have simply stopped speaking to each other, which isn’t easy in a town that covers only one-eighth of a mile. When they pass each other in pickup trucks, they do not wave. And when they are amongst like-minded friends and neighbors, they throw around accusations that would make the most hard-edged D.C. operative squirm.

While in Seneca, I heard people on both sides say the following things about their neighbors: drug addict, drug dealer, welfare queen, verbally abusive, physically abusive, sexually abusive, creep, jerk and much, much worse.

The acrimony fogs everything, making it hard to see what Seneca once had and now what it stands to lose. It makes it hard to see that, even if the community center is sold to someone who gives it back to the local historical society — that’s a potential Plan B if the election isn’t overturned in the courts — and even if Seneca residents figure out how to pay for their own streetlights and plow their own roads, they will still lose something. Maybe they already have.

This town used to be the place that banded together and built something. Now this town is in danger of being the place that butchered off its collective nose to spite its collective face.

It reminds me of a miniaturized version of Congress. It reminds me of the worst of modern-day America, a place fueled by fury, where winning an empty argument always trumps the harder labor of searching for common ground. It reminds me that when we do this, we do lose something less tangible, yet still every bit as important as any streetlight or park or community center.

Watch Sandy Hansen on a recent weekday as she walks through her makeshift local history museum on the outskirts of town and talks excitedly to two visitors about the exhibits. Many of these things came from people in town, who before they died gave them to her to make sure they would be remembered.

Here are saddles used by area pioneers in the 19th century. Gray flannel baseball uniforms from the 1930s. Photos of two area brothers, both wounded in the same World War II battle.

And many of these things came from all across the U.S., mailed to her by relatives of onetime residents who figured the town would love these artifacts more than California or New Jersey or Texas could.

Here are old hats and old mugs and yellowed newspaper clippings, all sharing a common history and a common name.


“Some part of me has to believe they did not understand, that they don’t understand,” she says of the people who voted to end Seneca as she walks through this tiny Nebraska town’s history. “Because I cannot possibly believe that they understood exactly what they were doing and still voted.

“I wouldn’t want to think anyone in this town could be that ... wrong.”


From the World Herald News Serivce


CFDA Great Plains Territorial Shoot Results

Pictured are Nancy Storms, Dwayne Dubs, Mike McCoy and Dean Storms

The Sparks Nebraska Spurs hosted the CFDA Great Plains Territorial Shoot in Valentine Nebraska on June 20, 21 & 22.  The first time hosts were pleased with the new pavilion at the Cherry County Fairgrounds as it provided plenty of shade for the contestants with the temps getting to 90 degrees.

The competition was also hot Friday when the Category Shoot got underway.  Each age division has their own category to win bragging rights and a trophy goes to the top 3 in each division.  Shooting the categories also gives you a little practice   for the main match.

Category Results:

Billy The Kid: 1st Sandhills Slinger
2nd Kansas Tornado
Women’s Traditional: 1st Sunflower
Women’s 49’r:  1st Mother Nature
2nd Kansas Belle
3rd Nellie McGuane
Women’s Senior: 1st Boulder’s Babe
2nd Whipping & Spurring
3rd Lucky Lady
Ladies Super Senior: 1st Legally Loaded
Shootist: 1st Short Keg
2nd Red Lead Slinger
Golden Guns: 1st P.G. Taylor
2nd Frito Bandito
3rd Sundowner
Men’s Traditional: 1st One Shot Cody
2nd Black Bob
Men’s 49’r: 1st Beaver Creek Kid
2nd Hyde Hunter
3rd Sandhills Wildman
Men’s Senior: 1st Caleb
2nd Bounty Hunter
3rd Lucky O’Riley
Men’s Super-Senior: 1st Allelujah Ruah
2nd Short Fuse
3rd Marvin Slinger
Men’s Old Timers: 1st Buzzard Cooper
2nd Deacon
3rd Heart City Kid

The main event of the CFDA Great Plains Territorial began early on Saturday June 21 and ended on Sunday June 22 around high noon.  By then the smoke had cleared and the winners took home their new trophies and the nice shooters bags they had acquired over the weekend.  Trophies were given to the top 2 Billy the Kid, 15 women and 20 men.

Men’s Divison:
1st Marshall Cooper CA
2nd Short Keg NV
3rd Caleb ID
4th Boulder Vaquero SD
5th Buzzard Cooper ID
6th P. G. Taylor ID
7th Beaver Creek Kid SD
8th Short Fuse SD
9th Bounty Hunter ID
10th K.J. Kwik IL
11th Island SD
12th Hydehunter SD
13th Stanislaus CA
14th Silver Muzzle ID
15th Wildshot CA
16th Red Lead Slinger ID
17th Frito Bandito NE
18th Old Man River SD
19th Legend Hunter CA

20th Jailhouse Kid NE

Women’s Division:
1st Lefty Lipscomb CA
2nd Mother Nature NE
3rd Sunflower KS
4th Sagebrush SD
5th Kansas Belle KS
6th Miss Christy SD
7th Lucky Lady SD
8th Legally Loaded ID
9th Angel Lady KS
10th Nellie McGuane NE
11th Six Iron Butterfly CA
12th Whipping & Spurring SD
13th Prairie Star NE
14th IMA Em T NE
15th Boulder’s Babe SD
Billy The Kid:
1st Sandhills Slinger NE
2nd Kansas Tornado KS

The fastest times of the shoot were awarded a special etched shot glass.  The winner in Men’s was Marshall Cooper with a .319 of a second and in the women’s it was Lefty Lipscomb with a .498 of a second.

CFDA gives an entry into the “Fastest Gun Alive” Contest to each of the top shooters that live in the territory.  Those certificates went to Frito Bandito from Valentine, NE and Kansas Belle from Kansas.

The “Spirit of the Game” award went to Rich and Marla Mercure (Outlaw Rich and Outlaw’s Angel) from Valentine, NE for all the work and time that they put out to help the Sparks Spurs host the event.

The TOP Couple award went to Beaver Creek Kid and Mother Nature from Winner, SD.

During most shoots there are usually events to keep everyone busy.   Saturday evening a banquet with a costume contest sponsored by Young’s Western Wear was held at the Peppermill in Valentine, NE.  After the great steaks the group decided the winners by cheering for the top one.  Best Dressed Man went to Deacon and Best Dressed Woman went to Angel Lady.  Best Dressed Couple had Tomcat Charlie and Sunflower strutting up to claim the prize. Best Dressed Dandy went to Jailhouse Kid and Best Fancy Lady to Wine A Rita.  The Hard Working Cowboy prize went to Tuff E Nuff and the Hard Working Saloon Girl went to Legally Loaded.  The Most Unique or Original went to Sandhills Slinger and the 18 & under award went to Kansas Tornado.

On Sunday while the Main Match was winding down, the 2nd Chance Shoot was a fun event for those that were out of the Main Match.  Any of the money taken in for the 2nd Chance Shoot goes to charity. Our winners for the Men’s division were 1st Tomcat Charlie, 2nd Deacon and 3rd Lucky O’Riley.  In the Women’s Division it was 1st Lucky Lady, 2nd Six Iron Butterfly and 3rd was Whipping and Spurring.

The Assembly of God teens had the concession stand all weekend as they were trying to make money to go on a mission trip to Arizona.  The Spark Spurs donated half of the money received on the 2nd Chance Shoot to their cause.  The other half will go to the CFDA “Shoot for the Stars” Scholarship Program.

Teen Group from the Assembly of God Church


NPPD warns algae in Western Nebraska lake may be toxic

People are being urged not to swim in the Sutherland Reservoir in western Nebraska because there may be toxic algae in the water.

Nebraska Public Power District officials issued a warning about the Hershey Beach area Tuesday because blue-green algae had been spotted near the shore.

The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality is testing the water at the lake to determine whether the algae are toxic. But the utility that owns the lake wanted to warn the public because algae can be harmful to humans and pets in large quantities.

Skin exposed to the toxin can develop rashes and blisters.

Someone who drinks water containing the toxin is at risk for headaches, nausea and muscular pain.


Golf Course Committee Meets


The committee appointed by the Valentine City Council to spearhead the proposed development of a new community golf course met last evening. The group had a conference call with two golf architects to gather information about building the new course. The course would be paid for by using part of the sales tax money currently generated to pay for the swimming pool, along with private donations and some volunteer labor. The swimming pool will be paid off in 2016 and a portion of that money could be used to help pay for bonds to build the golf course. There would be no tax increase, only a change it what the one half cent would be paying for. The area selected for possible golf course development is city owned property surrounding the fish hatchery and the old landfill area. This would make sure there was good access for youth and the public. For more information about the sales tax, golf course, storm sewer infrastructure and Mid Plains college expansion go to Facebook page “A campaign for Valentine” or contact Kyle Arganbright, Bob Stetter or Mike Burge.


ED Board Meets


The Valentine Economic Development Board met last evening for a regular monthly meeting. The board reviewed progress being made on the new community golf course and the overall sales tax vote. Since the start of the city sales tax in 2007, retail sales in Valentine have increased 30%. The city's property tax request has decreased 19% during that same period. The sales tax rate is proposed to stay the same as it is right now with no increase.

The board discussed a new loan application which will be referred to the loan committee for further review. The economic development program guidelines allows the ED program to loan up to 50% of a business project and requires the applicant to have a minimum of 10% equity and financing from another source such as a bank.

The board also discussed a vacancy on the board with Billie Tinant recently stepping down. A recommendation will be made to the city council for an appointment at their July meeting.

The next regularly scheduled economic development board meeting will be on July 21st.


Page 33 of 111

News Sponsor