When she was a seventh grader, Lori White knew Kenneth “Dobby” Lee as her school bus driver in Alliance, Nebraska.
She later found out that he had been a carpenter and mayor of the town before he began driving kids to school. After he retired at age 65, she attended the fall festival in the frontier town he was assembling with his son on the outskirts of her hometown in the Nebraska Sandhills.
When Lee died in 2009, White went to his funeral and mourned the passing of a man who had meant so much to her community. Then she read a disturbing story in the local newspaper.
At a community cookout, she says, Lee’s “son and daughter-in-law told us the problem—they couldn’t maintain the town on their own and asked for the help of the community. Well, after that, it was like a house afire.”
White, a “happy housewife,” jumped in as one of the volunteers who were adopting buildings to watch over. She and a friend adopted a two-room house constructed out of hay bales. White, who had not finished college because she refused to take one class, a required American History course, was now keeping history alive.
Others adopted the Lonesome Duck Saloon & Bordello. Still more took over the German Evangelical Lutheran church, built in 1912. Alliance—a town of about 8,500 residents—found citizens to adopt all 19 buildings that Lee had assembled for his two-and-a-half-acre town. “We’re a little town with a big heart,” White says.
After pledging their help, the townsfolk went several steps further. They created a board of directors, and White became president. They got the town designated a 501(c)(3), so they could accept tax-deductible donations. They also got a grant in 2014 for $3,800 to buy a John Deere riding lawn mower and to pay for new shingles on the 1888 Robert B. Anderson cabin—the first black-owned cabin in Nebraska. They proved what elbow grease can do—White estimates volunteers have contributed more than 20,000 hours to restoring, maintaining and operating the free-admission town.
“We’ve had visitors from all 50 states and 33 foreign countries,” she says proudly. “We get 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a year. And they don’t look into buildings from behind ropes; they get a hands-on experience.”
Dobby’s Frontier Town—now 26 buildings—does not have electricity, nor a paid staff, so the only expense is maintenance. “We get a dollar, we spend a dollar,” White says, noting that the town exists because of goodwill donations. She hopes to get funds to hire a caretaker, but if not, the good people of Alliance have so far kept this dream alive.
Dobby’s Frontier Town is open from April to October, seven days a week. The fall festival is still held here, in September, speaking to the spirit of a frontier town that still lives today in this piece of Nebraska.
Arizona’s Journalist of the Year, Jana Bommersbach has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.