Long forgotten buildings get new life in western Nebraska attraction

Posted: Tuesday, August 03, 2004

ALLIANCE, Neb. Across the vast plains of Nebraska sit small, time-worn buildings, long abandoned by the state's diminishing rural population.

Swiftly succumbing to rot and wrecking balls, these buildings have inspired a rare devotion in 82-year-old Kenneth ''Dobby'' Lee.

Since 1988, Lee has spent his money and retirement years moving more than a dozen of these small buildings most slated at one time for demolition onto four acres near his home on the edge of town.

Called Dobby's Frontier Town, Lee's creation blends authentic Americana with whimsy and is the master work of a man who still has a curiosity for western history and a 12-year-old's giddiness for gadgets.

''My dad one time, he says if I ever retired, find something to do because if you don't, you die,'' Lee said. ''So I found something to do.''

His mission started with trips he took as a bus driver for student athletic teams competing around the state.

''I'd see old buildings. And I'd love that building. Ya know, it's one of those things,'' Lee recalled. ''Then the next time maybe that I'd go to take a bunch of kids to these different towns and things them buildings would be gone.''

A stocky man with white hair, Lee ambles through his village, blue eyes sparkling as he excitedly tells the story of how each building found a home on his property. He's quick to point out which don't appear in the original state.

He renovated his first building a turn-of-the-century milk house moved to his property from the nearby village of Berea in 1988, the first year of his retirement from his construction business. It was transformed into a country post office, circa 1885, complete with authentic post office boxes and a mailbox out front sealed shut against unwary letter senders.

Other buildings soon followed, including a bank, funeral home, laundry, general store and gas station. But Lee doesn't back off from the bawdy including in his collection a re-created saloon, still house and bordello.

Many of the buildings came to Lee through donations. A building that was once home to a beloved local hamburger shop will soon be moved to Lee's land at the expense of the city of Alliance. And a group of local farmers recently bought a nearby schoolhouse so that it could be preserved by Lee.

A little over a decade ago, Lee began a search for one building in particular. He'd heard that a cabin once owned by the man believed to be the first black homesteader in western Nebraska, Robert Anderson, could still be found in the region.

Through state records, Lee located Anderson's ranch land and persuaded the owners to give him the long neglected cabin, which was close to tumbling to the ground.

''So it was a mess, but I enjoy messes,'' Lee said.

Once Lee and his son, Dennis, finished restoring the cabin and furnishing it with memorabilia from the frontier days, Lee took a book of photos of the cabin to Anderson's widow, Daisy, who was living at a home for the elderly in Denver. She was just 22 years old when she married Anderson, who was in his 80s.

She was in her late 80s when Lee met her, and she became a source of information about life on the frontier.

Lee said Daisy Anderson, who has since died, was pleased with the restoration of the cabin home but a bit perturbed at his use of another woman's picture above the bed. He had displayed the picture merely as decoration.

''The first thing she said to me, she said, 'Who's that woman's picture above my bed?''' Lee said. ''And then I explained it to her and she said, 'Well that's all right then.'''

Each of Lee's buildings is furnished and decorated from his extensive cache of the little-known and wacky items of America's near-past that he keeps stockpiled in an old barracks on his property. Over more than a decade, he and his late wife, Coralee, also amassed a collection of fascinating and obscure objects, including a pair of iron jail cells, a collection of coffins with viewing windows and five cannons.

''The farthest we've shot a bowling ball is three-quarters of a mile,'' Lee explained casually, noting that he and Dennis also experiment with shooting 120-pound anvils into the air.

Dobby's Frontier Town has become somewhat of a tourist attraction over the years. The village draws about 20 to 30 tourists each week during the summer months, and about 650 people show up on each day of his two-day Fall Festival a free event that features historic re-enactors. This year's event is scheduled for Sept. 11-12.

While museum villages are common, they are rarely the result of one person's efforts, said Dwight Young, a spokesman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The most notable exception is car maker Henry Ford, who created an impressive museum village in Dearborn, Mich.

Though Lee's rough-around-the-edges little town can't and shouldn't be compared to the creation of an empire builder, there is at least one village that got its start as a small, private endeavor.

Louisiana State University's Rural Life Museum began as a collection of plain, local-style buildings saved from demolition by a local landowner.

Becci Thomas, director of the Knight Museum in Alliance, said Lee has been an asset to the community. He often redirects tourist traffic to the museum and even passes along donations of clothes or other items that wouldn't survive in his buildings.

Despite having been moved and sometimes converted to new purposes, Lee's buildings can be valuable as a setting for teaching hands-on history, said Janet Jefferies, a member of the Nebraska State Historical Preservation Board.

''And that's pretty nice in this day of high tech games and short attention spans,'' Jefferies said.

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