There are always pioneers among us. A pioneer is a visionary, a trailblazer. Out of the dream of a better life, maybe out of desperation, a pioneer takes risks. All pioneers rely on Lady Luck, yes, but successful pioneers do their research — studying, listening, looking, paying attention to change, thinking things through.
On a perfect summer day, I turn past an old Model L Case Tractor and into the driveway of Burchell’s White House Farm Inn in Minden. It is my fourth time here. Twice, with my husband, the Inn has been a base for visits to the nearby Rowe Sanctuary to see the great migration of the Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies and blinds are not far off. Most recently, I chose the Inn for a writing retreat. With its restaurant and beautiful grounds surrounded by working farmland, the Inn is a place you want to come back to.
I am greeted by Buster, the Inn’s friendly dog. Then, wearing his chef’s hat at a jaunty angle, Bob Ard comes out of the barn he converted to a restaurant and event space and gives me a hearty welcome back.
“Linda’s just finishing up the mowing,” he says.
And here she comes, crossing the lawn from where she’s parked the mower by the barn, joining me in the shade of a huge old Silver Maple —Linda Burchell Ard, a fourth generation pioneer, wiping sweat from her brow, greeting me with an appraising gaze and a ready smile. “Just give me a moment to get cleaned up,” she says.
Moments later we are sitting at a table in the farmhouse, poring over maps, articles, brochures, photograph albums — family history which she is still collecting. We start with her great-grandfather.
You could say that Thomas Webb Burchell was a pioneer before he left Ireland for America in 1865. He had already proven his grit, traveling to Dublin to train in the navy, returning to the western coast of Ireland to work as a builder and help haul the trans-Atlantic cable ashore.
What brought him to America? For one thing, he didn’t want to be conscripted to fight in Great Britain’s wars. For another, he wanted more opportunity and land than he could have in Ireland. He lived in Chicago for the first ten years in America, building houses before and after the Great Fire. He paid for the passage of his favorite sister and, later, his brothers. But he still had that dream of land. He saved money. He studied homesteading.
In 1874, when Tom took the Burlington & Missouri from Chicago to Lowell, Neb., he brought a train car full of tools, lumber, animals, furniture, seed and other things needed for homesteading. He expected to find a land office in Lowell. He didn’t. Study won’t tell you everything you need to know, especially when things are changing fast. Lowell was a short-lived boomtown. The land office had moved to Bloomington, 50 miles away. A minor setback for someone who has crossed the Atlantic! Soon, Tom would help his younger brothers travel from Ireland to join him in homesteading.
Fast forward to Linda’s grandfather, Joe Burchell, who bought the farmhouse in which Linda’s father, Alvin, was born — the house in which Linda and her siblings were raised. Joe was another kind of pioneer — an inventor. His three patents included the Canopy Top Installation for the Model L Case Tractor. Before rural electrification, Joe Burchell electrified his house with jar batteries in the basement. He devised a system for raising water to the second floor. His family had running water and inside toilets long before others.
Linda’s father, Alvin Burchell, is remembered by Linda for his humor and hopefulness. His balance was impaired by childhood polio, but he was an uncomplaining man, engaged in his children’s activities and supportive of his wife’s career. Linda’s mother, Marjorie Bishop Burchell, was a school teacher and a gifted writer. Her cameo stories about her family, past and present, are collected in Listen to the Song of the Windmill. The prose has the lucid beauty of a Laura Ingalls Wilder, with its own distinct voice.
Speaking of windmills, speaking of innovation, Linda and Bob moved that old windmill to their current yard, repurposed it, mounting the Inn’s Wi-Fi receiver at its peak.
In the long afternoon light, Linda drives us to the site of the Burchell homestead. We go to White Hill Cemetery and Liberty Cemetery where relatives are buried. We stop and ponder places where there was once a boomtown, a house that burned down, a dugout, a church, a timber claim, a windmill, a cement livestock tank in which Linda’s father was baptized. There is something sad but also beautiful about knowing, as Linda knows, the life that happened in these places. Sometimes there are traces, sometimes not — only history, and the recollections of a few people.
Linda is a good storyteller. It is a privilege to ride with her and listen. She talks about the risks her ancestors took, the successes they enjoyed, and the tragedies they endured. There is a dark story of a claim dispute and a double murder. But Linda doesn’t dwell in the past. She brings me up to date. We pass different parcels of land that her family’s partnership manages, including one on the Tri-County Canal. She talks about her brothers and sisters as supportive, if a tad skeptical, of Linda and Bob’s ‘retirement project’ of the B & B. The family keeps up to date with current farming practices, water conservation innovations, and commodities markets in the county and beyond.
After her degree from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Linda moved to Texas, following her first husband, who was in the service. (Sidebar question: how much does Nebraska benefit from those who move away to stretch their horizons and then move back?) While raising three children, Linda returned to school, got her master’s in education, and completed most of a PhD program—all but dissertation. In Corpus Christi, she had a career as an educator, state program developer and college administrator. That’s where she met Bob, her second husband, at Del Mar College, where Linda eventually became chairwoman of the Education and Human Services Department, and Bob taught restaurant management and led the Hospitality Department. Linda knew how to do research and how to write a grant. The farmhouse, which she had owned since 2001, had been rented out for years. Could she find a way to move back? To start a business with Bob? Nebraska’s Bed and Breakfast industry was in its infancy, or maybe just its conception. As Betty Sayers of Holdrege, the founder and editor of “Nebraska Rural Living,” says, “They took a risk!”
In 2007, Linda and Bob renovated the old farmhouse. In 2008, they opened the Inn. There are four comfortable and beautifully decorated guest rooms with their own baths. Portions of the farmhouse have radiant heat. In winter, you step out of the shower onto a warm floor.
The 1954 barn was remodeled to become Bob Ard’s restaurant and event space. The homemade food is delicious! The specialty of the house is meat that Bob smokes himself. Another barn houses equipment and the Inn’s working farm cats.
At the wheel of a golf cart, Linda drives me around the pond where ducks rest in the shade of trees. The gardens include flowers, herbs, and plots for the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project. She shares a photo of herself with Deb Echo Hawk, the Keeper of the Seeds for the Pawnee Nation. https://www.facebook.com/pawneeseedpreservation/
We drive to the east end of the property, following paths through native grasses and under trees that cast cool shade. Birdsong is everywhere. We spy scarlet tanagers, many forms of orioles, red-headed woodpeckers, and, of course, meadowlarks.
Burchell’s Farmhouse Inn is one of 17 Beautiful Places To Stay in Nebraska. But Linda and Bob Ard offer guests more than a beautiful retreat on working farmland, birdsong, a pond, legend maps and other information for exploring the area around Minden. They offer more than winding paths, lovely rooms, shady porches, a good breakfast, and homemade dinners on weekends. They offer a model for entrepreneurs in Nebraska.
The past and the future share something in common: we have to go after them, we have to be curious! How did people live? How will people live? Not just get by, but thrive in the face of change. The Burchell brothers from Ireland built their first house in 1873. That house burned down. They lived in a dugout until they had another house, and they kept going. Their ancestors were and are innovators, risk-takers who get an education and do their homework.
Linda and Bob offer Nebraskans a vision of how things could be, going forward. One of Linda’s nephews farms the family land. She and her family keep up with local farmers, entrepreneurs, The Center for Rural Affairs. She knows that tourism is an important part of Nebraska’s future. Linda has served on the board and as president of the Nebraska Association of Bed and Breakfasts, updating standards and writing grants for marketing efforts.
When it comes to rural Nebraska, let’s stop with the either/or. It’s not about Buffalo Commons or profitable farmland and stable town economies. It’s not about practices driven by commodity markets and past infrastructure investment or entrepreneurial strategies driven by current data on climate, tourism, more varied crops. It’s not about country vs. city. We need each other. Do good environmental practices have to be at odds with farm profit? Maybe in the short run. But not likely in the long run. These are false dichotomies, or will soon be, if Nebraska is going to thrive. Read “Farmers Lead the Way in Addressing Climate Change.” It’s not easy to change! But Nebraska can embrace change—the pioneer spirit of combining up-to-date education, smart science, and a big vision for the future of Nebraska’s children. Pioneering strategies for economic viability, healthy air, water, land, and sustainable communities.
The last thing Linda shows me is in the entrance to the restaurant: a centennial quilt. 1915 — when Joseph Burchell bought the White family farmhouse — to 2015. The work of four generations is represented in a basket design quilt started by Lillian Berger Burchell in the early 1900s. The youngest quilter is Allison, eight years old at the time she made her square. Each square is made by a different family member, representing their identity as a Burchell. Standing in the quilt’s presence, I feel the past being honored, and the vibrant lives of Burchells going forward.