“It’s Just a Weird Feeling Not Wanting Them to Come:” Nebraska City’s Tough Start to Its Tourism Season

June 4, 2020, 5:29 p.m. ·

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Arbor Day Farm is a 260-acre recreational and educational attraction with historic sites, walking trails, childrens’ play areas and orchards. “Arbor Day is the highlight of our year,” says vice president Austin Mackrill. (Photo by Megan Feeney, America Amplified)

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As part of America Amplified's rural spotlight series, Megan Feeney highlights the home of Arbor Day, Nebraska City, Nebraska. In late April, it had to give up an annual celebration that has been central to the town’s cultural identity for more than a century.


Nebraska City is a town of just over 7,000 people nestled on the Missouri River in southeast Nebraska’s Otoe County. This was once an open prairie. Now you can’t throw an acorn without hitting an oak or pine.

The change was intentional -- the result of its nearly 150 years of planting trees as the home of Arbor Day.

Nebraska City’s downtown usually bustles with tourists for the Arbor Day celebration. (Photo by Megan Feeney, America Amplified)

Its claim as the origin of the tree-planting holiday is a source of pride and a hook for tourism -- an important industry for the town’s economy.

“Usually, our entire community is buzzing with an awakening of spring and an aura of just pure celebration,” says Austin Mackrill, the vice president of Arbor Day Farm, a 260-acre recreational and educational attraction that’s usually central to the celebration. “Arbor Day is the highlight of our year.”

The annual festivities begin on the last Friday of April. If the weather is good, the three-day celebration can draw 20,000 visitors to tour orchards and parks and enjoy events like a fun run, a parade, and a pancake breakfast. There are also much-loved traditions, like the children’s program, where kids are taught about the town’s history and tree planting and sent home with a seedling.

But, like in many other states, COVID-19 precautions led to a statewide prohibition on large gatherings. Arbor Day Farm closed many of its facilities in early April.

BEHIND THIS STORY

MEGAN FEENEY produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Feeney explored the impact felt in this community after it lost a festival important to its heritage and economy.

Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?

Most people were very welcoming and wanted to speak about their community. A few worried they might sound “bad” on tape, or that they didn’t speak well in an interview. I don’t usually do this, but I took a cue from the editor at Harvest Public Media who suggested earlier in this project that I offer people the opportunity to listen to their comments if they felt afterward they had not represented themselves well. She told me this tends to put people at ease and helps them feel they’re more in control of their own stories. It also appeals to their sense of fairness. Ultimately, no one asked to review their tape. I think just the offering helped to build trust.

Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?

During the past month, I’ve spoken with many folks in this community. Quite a few of them have wept or become teary-eyed in the course of our discussions. It usually surprises them, but it doesn’t surprise me. We are all navigating an uncharted grief. I think people hunger to be seen and heard. When the emotions rise in others, I try to be fully present. I thank them for sharing their vulnerability with me.

Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?

I keep thinking about the artist Marina Abramović and a performance she did 10 years ago at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City called, “The Artist is Present.” One by one, visitors were invited to sit silently across from the artist for a duration of their choosing as she looked into their eyes. Some people smiled or laughed, many cried. Others in line could witness. The participants were part of the work, but also the beneficiaries of the artist’s pure presence. I think in our distracted world, where we’re all micromanaging and also distracted, there’s a lesson in that. That’s what I try to do with the folks I interview. Call it, “The Journalist is Present.” I’m incredibly lucky to be part of this project that allows me to do that--to develop relationships, to take things more slowly, rather than just being extractive or trying to fill holes on what I think the story should be.

By the end of April, when Arbor Day celebrations would be held, Otoe County had one confirmed case of COVID-19. There are now six confirmed cases.

Arbor Day organizers tried to find a way to still hold the parade. What if the floats parked along the side of the route and people drove by to look? Ultimately, they decided it was a no-go.

“We just had to cancel a lot of things towards the end because we couldn’t guarantee that a lot of folks wouldn’t come in,” says Bryan Bequette, the mayor of Nebraska City.

The news challenged a town that’s proud of its history and traditions.

“We did have one gentleman who's always in the parade, who has never missed a parade since he started his business, and he sent a picture to me on Saturday where he was sitting out on the street,” says Pam Frana, who works at Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce. “He was not gonna miss the parade,”

That gentleman, Gregg Dixon, says he did it to cheer folks up.

“Not only was I at the front of the parade. But I was also at the back of it too.

"It’s just something that I have always participated in,” he says.

Local businesses have also felt the loss. Kelly Bequette co-owns The Keeping Room, a home and apparel boutique with a cafe. About half of their business comes from out-of-towners.

“Our business does not do well when we don’t have that group. But also, you know, you’re trying to protect your community and you’re trying to protect your families. And it’s just a weird feeling not wanting them to come.”

There are already casualties. A local events hall, The Fox Center, hosts weddings and graduation parties. The facility was already up for sale but still running before the pandemic. It announced in early May it will not reopen.

Mayor Bequette hopes that when the virus is gone, Nebraska City can go back to what it was before.

“My biggest concern is that all of our smaller mom-and-pops, the boutique businesses, can weather this storm.”

Much of that may depend on whether the town’s other main tourist event, a fall harvest festival called Apple Jack that draws 80,000 tourists -- four times more visitors than Arbor Day -- proceeds as scheduled. Nebraska began loosening restrictions in early May.

For locals like Dixon, the losses elsewhere in the nation put things in perspective.

“We’re just being careful and carrying on, and then you stop and think about all these people that are suffering and it just breaks your heart.”

Nebraska City has been through hardship before. Last spring, historic floods forced the closure of a local highway, so tourist numbers were down. Nonetheless, both last year and this year, folks in Nebraska City still planted trees on Arbor Day.

Next year is the celebration’s 150th anniversary. There’s hope that things will be better.