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Skip and Alice Cruse had never stopped in Neligh before Saturday, much less even heard of Old Mill Days. After what they experienced, they couldn't stop raving about the community.
“Enjoy what you have here. Never let it go,” Skip said. “I’ve lived all over the country - Omaha, Houston, Conroe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Tokyo, Miami, Dubai, Hong Kong. No place has the community that you have when you come into Neligh.”
The couple, who is celebrating their first wedding anniversary, moved to Omaha late last summer from Miami. Skip is a security architect for First Data, a credit card processing company, and Alice creates new styles of embroidery, needlework and crochet items.
Omaha is the smallest city either has ever lived, which is why they were utilizing the Nebraska Tourism’s passport program and planning to spend the holiday in O’Neill. The historic Golden Hotel is one of the stops of the program.
The couple was in Norfolk on Friday at Kuper Farms and first heard about Neligh’s annual celebration. While Alice said it sounded great, they planned to celebrate in O’Neill and continued their route. Once they arrived in Holt County, they were told again that Neligh was the place to be on Independence Day.
“We asked what was happening in O’Neill, and everyone said to go to Neligh. They said to come back for St. Patrick’s Day,” Skip said with a laugh. “I asked four random people in O’Neill what to do on the Fourth, and they all said they were going to Neligh. So we came to Neligh.”
They arrived around 11 a.m. and stopped at Cubby’s gas station. They bought a couple bottles of water and asked where the parade was. Much to their surprise, it was a block away. Even a bigger surprise was to be given the OK to leave their car in Cubby’s south parking lot. Of course, there was no fee to park either.
Skip and Alice then walked to the corner of Third and Main and watched the 80-minute parade beside Heritage Bank. He took photos and she simply took it all in.
“I found myself honestly emotional during the parade today because I’m from the suburbs of the country’s third largest city. We don’t do this stuff,” Alice said. “The whole town came to support the community and everybody was here. Half of the town participated in the parade, and the other half of the town was standing there watching and cheering them on. It was so nice. I don’t have any other word than that - it was nice.”
Both had been part of high school homecoming parades, but not a Fourth of July parade and not anything like this. In Miami, Skip said his homecoming parade was in the school while Alice said her parade in Houston simply consisted of various high school groups.
“This is the whole town, nobody was left out. It was just nice. That’s nice with a capital N,” Alice reiterated.
After the parade, they walked another block, this time to the American Legion for hot dogs. Another surprise for them - it was a free-will offering. They gladly dropped a $20 in the jar and joined the locals for lunch before walking a couple of blocks to the afternoon activities.
“I was a little nervous this morning that it would be us intruding on everybody who knew everybody,” Alice said. “I thought it would be like ‘We’ve never seen you around here, why are you here?’ But instead it was ‘Welcome, have fun, nice to see you.’ ”
Everything was new to the couple, especially the kiddie tractor pull and turtle races. They loved every second. New this year to the celebration was a beer garden next to the courthouse, right beside the homemade ice cream social and food stand from the Lutheran youth group. It was a great place for them to socialize and learn about the town.
“This was the biggest Fourth of July I’ve seen,” Skip said. “I’ve had 27 Fourth of July’s in numerous other places, but this is the biggest I’ve done. Everywhere else you struggle to find parking, you have a 20-minute fireworks display where everyone does their oohs and ahs, then you go home. That’s it. This is a whole day event.”
They met dozens of people, including Clay and Debra (Lyons) Haley of Carroll, Iowa. Debra is a 1996 Neligh-Oakdale graduate and, like many others, returned home for the celebration. In between the afternoon activities and fireworks, the new friends ventured to the Antelope Country Club for a round of golf.
Skip and Alice enjoyed the day so much, they plan to come back at the end of the month to experience the Antelope County Fair. They can’t wait to see Montgomery Gentry on July 31 and to take in the Demo Derby on Aug. 1.
“We’re coming back for the fair,” Skip said smiling ear to ear. “It’s only a two hour drive. In Miami, going to visit my parents was the same thing, and we were there every week. Two hours is nothing.”
And will they tell others to check out Neligh?
“Oh, definitely,” Alice said.