Blue sky prosperous for Harlan County rental cabin business
Debby Dornhoff had always wanted to live on a lake, so it was a quick, “Let’s buy it!” the evening her husband came home and said a rental cabin business was for sale at Patterson Harbor on Harlan County Lake.
“I’ve always, always, always dreamed of living at a lake,” Debby said. “We used to go to Kearney and see those sandpits by the river. I used to think, ‘Someday I want to live right there on the water.’”
With a fresh empty nest, Debby and her husband, Steve, had just placed their seven-bedroom home in rural Holdrege on the market with no definite plans for what would happen next.
Debby giggles as she remembers that night nearly 10 years ago when Steve came home with the news about the cabins. They drove to the lake (about 30 miles away) that very night with their flashlights in hand like kids getting a sneak peek at their Christmas presents.
The cabins were in need of some TLC, but they were immediately interested.
“I just knew he could make them good,” Debby said of her husband and his carpentry skills.
Steve worked as a contractor and had honed his talents building and remodeling homes over the years. Debby had spent most of her career as a dental office receptionist making patients feel welcome with her friendly smile and bubbly disposition.
Together, their skills and personalities meshed perfectly for the hospitality business.
On Valentine’s Day 2007, the Dornhoffs placed an official bid to purchase the cabins. That very same day, a buyer made an offer on their Holdrege home.
On April 1, they took over as new owners of the rental cabin business, which they renamed Blue Sky Cabins, not for the beautiful blue skies at the lake but because of a childhood memory of Steve’s.
Steve’s parents owned a cabin at Patterson Harbor and when Steve was in high school, the Patterson Harbor marina was for sale and his dad considered buying it. However, him mom was against the idea saying it was too expensive and mostly just “blue sky.”
His parents never bought the marina, but Steve and Debby now own their own piece of blue sky at the lake, and it has turned out pretty good for them and for their customers.
“I didn’t dream big enough because those sandpits are nothing like this,” Debby said. “Look where I get to live now! This is so fantastic.”
Doubling the Business
The Blue Sky Cabins property is located in Patterson Harbor on the southeast side of Harlan County Lake, the second largest lake in Nebraska with 13,000 surface acres of water and nearly 75 miles of shoreline. The property includes six cabins that can sleep up to four people and five cabins with kitchenettes that can sleep up to six people.
Guests enjoy lazy days at the Patterson Habor beach (just a quick walk or golf-cart ride away), boat rides (Blue Sky has two boats to rent), fishing, tubing down the nearby Republican River or just relaxing by the campfire. The Dornhoffs suggest a daily visit to the Patterson Harbor lookout point with a breathtaking view of nearly the entire lake.
The first year the Dornhoffs took possession of the property, they didn’t have time for updates. They delved into the hospitality business and started learning. The summer business was steady, but the 11 cabins were full just one night the entire summer.
Over that first winter, they began making upgrades and have improved the property a little each year, replacing everything from beds to shower heads. In the winter of 2012-13, they tore down the cabins and built new ones in the same footprint with log-cabin siding, new windows and new heating and air units. They replaced all the full-size beds with queen beds and this past year, they put Onyx showers in the kitchenette cabins.
During that time, Debby continued to work in Holdrege at a dental office and in Alma for a few years. She “retired” from her dental office career in September 2015.
The Dornhoffs focused on providing clean, updated rooms and offering excellent customer service.
Their efforts have paid off as the number of guests who stay at Blue Sky Cabins has more than doubled since they started, and it keeps growing each year. They are typically at full occupancy every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day and even sometimes during entire weeks in the summer and during deer-hunting season in November.
Cabins are often booked a year in advance, and many guests reserve rooms for the next year when they check out from their current visit.
While Steve is hoping that the major construction projects are now completed on the property, Debby is hoping for at least one more improvement — an outdoor landscaping project complete with a firepit.
Enjoying the Lake Life
After guests leave, Steve and Debby tackle the room cleaning together with her cleaning and him making beds. There’s always bed sheets to launder and preparations for the next guests.
They work as a team to make sure everything operates smoothly, and they have no outside employees.
They enjoy “entertaining” guests and making their stays enjoyable.
“It’s nice to let people who haven’t been here get a little taste of what this lake is like, because it’s so fantastic,” Debby said.
Summer guests typically come from Nebraska and Kansas, and they more visitors from Colorado. The tourists come to the lake for summer family vacations, reunions, hunting trips, wedding receptions, bachelor or bachelorette parties or just for a night of relaxation and fun with friends at the lake.
During hunting season, which begins around Oct. 20 and lasts until Thanksgiving, the Dornhoffs host visitors from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Tennesee, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Utah.
In addition to maintaining the cabins, Steve also has been hired out by private cabin owners at Patterson Harbor to build decks, replace siding and shingles and other construction projects.
Steve also serves as president of the Harlan County Lake Association, which consists of businesses who pool their money to promote lake activities and encourage visitors.
Recently, the lake is starting to draw more visitors during the spring bird-watching season. Tying in with Kearney’s Crane-watching activities, the lake association encourages bird-watchers to make the hour-long trip south to the see the pelican migration in late March and early April. Steve and Debby both gave boat rides to bird watchers who visited last spring, including a tour bus from Iowa.
“One time on a boat ride, they saw 38 species of birds that day,” Steve said.
Between entertaining and cleaning, the Dornhoffs do find time to enjoy their life at the lake with sunset cruises, daily trips to the scenic overlook and fun memories with family and friends.
“I am happy,” Debby said. “It’s a dream life, and it’s fantastic. I can sometimes be in a kitchenette cleaning a toilet and just have to stop and look out and think this is why I do it. Look at this! I get to see it every day.”