Pilger Residents "Reinventing" Village's Future

March 3, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

Heavy equipment works to breakdown what is left of Pilger's damaged buildings. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Listen To This Story

The village of Pilger in northeast Nebraska continues to make progress in its recovery from last summer’s tornadoes, but there have been setbacks. Last month, residents received word the Pilger Middle School would not be rebuilt. Despite the news, people in Pilger don’t stay disappointed long.

In a field where houses once stood, a bulldozer moved mounds of concrete rubble while another mechanical beast, a backhoe, loaded bolder-sized chunks into a giant grinder.

A large grinder breaks down boulder-sized pieces of concrete and brick into useable gravel. Bob Muhlbach of H.L. Muhlbach Construction said Pilger's debris piles don't constitute the largest job he's worked on, but it is the first time he's had to "grind up a town." (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

The scene was like a scaled-up version of a child’s sandbox, but these machines are no toys. They were literally crushing most of what is left of Pilger, Nebraska, a village decimated by twin tornadoes last year.

“We’re making a reusable product out of the bad, damaged concrete,” Bob Muhlbach said. He is in charge of breaking down Pilger’s broken buildings.

“When we started it was the first part of January, it was pretty cold. But the nice warm weather we’ve had--across the street they put a building up, and they did that in one week,” Muhlbach explained. “And there’s some houses getting framed. Things are slowly making progress and as the weather changes, I think they’ll be more.”

The debris piles Muhlbach was hired to clear stood like monuments to the town’s destruction for nine months, and residents said they’re ready to begin writing the next chapter in Pilger’s history.

With this goal in mind, around 150 of Pilger’s remaining residents recently gathered for a town hall meeting, which had to be held eight miles away in Wisner.

Like most meetings, the first few items discussed were more or less administrative. Village Clerk Kim Neiman spoke about how the municipality of Pilger is handling various aspects of the rebuild.

“The sidewalks down Main Street, we’re working on getting requests for proposals out for them,” Neiman said. “The streets, before we get proposals we have to get some specs on the bid because it’s over half a million dollar project, so we have to get specs.”

Streets, water meters, fire hydrants…They’re the types of things a city needs before new buildings can be built, the types of things tornadoes destroy.

A new farm supply store is being built on the west side of Pilger, along Highway 15. A new storage facility will also be built in the same area. Angela Denton, a third-generation Pilger resident, said it's taking longer than some would like to rebuild Pilger's downtown. But Denton said because the community is basically starting with a clean slate, it will take time to decide where the best place will be to build, or rebuild, a business. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

To date, Pilger has received just over $721,000 in federal help to pay for some of what the storm destroyed. How much individual home owners receive depends on their insurance.

A new storage facility will be built on the west side of the community, as well as a new farm supply store.

Some things won’t be rebuilt in Pilger, like the middle school and the grocery store at the farmer’s coop.

“The coop was probably one of our most damaged businesses in town," said Angela Denton, a third-generation Pilger resident and business owner. "They have a lot of priorities, and have just asked for some help from others to see what’s going to be our best option for the new Pilger.”

Denton was vocal in her support of rebuilding the Pilger Middle School, but said she, like the town, must accept what is best for Pilger’s future isn’t necessarily a return to the way things were before.

“We don’t have Pilger anymore,” Denton said, “and if we have this opportunity right now to rebuild a new Pilger, what do you want to see in Pilger? What’s the most valuable to you? [We need to] make those check lists and make sure there’s something in Pilger for all generations, for everybody.”

Last fall, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Architecture began working on a land use plan for Pilger, and residents have been actively consulted in the process.

Since rebuilding the middle school is no longer an option, Denton said the next best thing could be a multi-purpose facility, which could house a distance learning center, daycare, rec center and more.

Samantha Siebrandt, a high school student who plans to stay in Pilger after graduation, liked where the plans are headed, but wanted more support for rebuilding the town’s social ties.

“I want to see more activity around here, I don’t want to just see little areas where we can go to learn something. I also want to see the town get together and actually know who lives here and what we’re about,” Siebrandt said.

Bryan Peterson is a high school student at Wisner-Pilger High School and lives in Pilger. He said he likes the idea of Pilger building a multi-purpose, multi-use facility. He said instead of a rec center though, what Pilger needs is some type of distance learning center where older students can take classes they wouldn't otherwise be able to take. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Eva Peterson has called Pilger home for 50 years. She said she’s also eager to have some sort of gathering place again.

“I’d like to see a gas station and a convenience store and some kind of eating establishment. Even if it’s just in the convenience store, some place where people can meet,” Peterson said.

Not every idea in the land use plan was well received—a proposed roundabout in the center of town drew some sharp criticism—but the mood of Pilger’s residents remained upbeat.

That’s important, said Bob Dixson, the mayor of Greensburg, Kansas.

Dixson was in office when Greensburg was destroyed by a tornado in 2007, and is uniquely qualified to offer support to Pilger, both logistical and emotional.

During his talk at the town hall meeting, Dixson showed a picture of his grandkids, and said they are the reason to make things better.

“They’ll never know what Greensburg was before, because the oldest one is five-and-a-half. They don’t know what old Greensburg was. They were never in grandma and grandpa’s old house. It’s their town now,” Dixson said.

Barb Wolverton, a paraprofessional who works with the district’s middle school students, said she needed to hear Dixson’s message.

“I haven’t cried for a long time about this, but I could not shut my tears off,” Wolverton said, eyes still puffy from crying. “It was tears of joy, too, not just tears of sadness. It was tears of joy that we can do something. We can get better, we can grow from this and improve our community and have a better place to live.”