I love Nebraska for so many reasons, but mostly because you can never quite figure our state out. Just when you think you’ve seen everything Nebraska has to offer, something new, wonderful, and unexpected pops up. Such was my experience last month traveling to a triangle of three rural towns in southeastern Nebraska: Beatrice, Tecumseh, and Lewiston.
I’d been tipped off to this secret corner of the state by my friend, Nicole, who grew up on a farm near Lewiston, Nebraska. It all began with a Facebook post Nicole shared of Eric Biehl, the “painting pastor” of Tecumseh. Eric was a featured story on a Travelogue series produced by a Lincoln news station. I watched it, loved it, and said just that to Nicole.
“That’s not all we have in my neck of the woods,” she said proudly. Really? My curiosity piqued, we planned a day trip to a part of rural Nebraska I’d never visited before.
Our first stop of the day was Cedar Creek Pottery, an extraordinary establishment housed in a 121 year-old church seven miles east of Beatrice. Located in the country, I pulled in beside the white clapboard church, half expecting Laura Ingalls to step around the corner. You could feel the history of the building as you approached it. I love old structures and couldn’t wait to get inside. Entering the foyer, I laughed at a note taped to the door: “Yes the gallery is open. Go inside, turn on the lights, I’ll be over shortly.” Only in rural Nebraska.
We pushed inside, flipped on the lights, and whoa! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t a floor to ceiling store of thousands of pieces of glorious pottery in all shapes and sizes. I stood gaping, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of inventory. I began to wander, amazed that one man made all of this. I heard Nicole chatting with the artist and owner Ervin Dixon up front, but I wasn’t ready to stop browsing yet. Ervin’s pottery was not only a feast for the eyes, but it was priced reasonably as well. As I meandered the museum-quality, salt-glazed clay work, I had to give myself a stern reminder not to exceed my spending budget for the day.
After finally selecting a gorgeous honey pot, I went back up front to talk to Ervin. A quiet man, he seemed the sort that prefers to be out of the spotlight. He talked of the history of the church and his love of pottery. Several more customers entered the store, so I paid for my selection and resolved to come back at the soonest opportunity!
Look for the house
It was getting to be lunchtime, so the second stop on our rural field trip was a restaurant all the locals recommended Jeannie’s Place.
We headed down the road to the tiny town of Lewiston, population 66. As Nicole and I drove around, we grew increasingly perplexed that we couldn’t find the restaurant in such a tiny town. She phoned her mother to get further instructions and was informed we were to look for the restaurant in a HOUSE. Ah.
We soon found the residence and could smell good cooking before we even entered. Owner Jeannie Tegtmeier built the restaurant onto the back of her hundred year-old farm house. Entering the side door, we found ourselves in an inviting wood-floored dining room with five tables. Meals here are served in the old tradition of the boarding house. The lunch offering for the day was hot beef sandwiches, mashed potatoes, seven-bean salad, cheesy cauliflower, orange marshmallow whip, and pie. One TripAdvisor reviewer summed it up perfectly:
“Great place to have a casual lunch with friends! The atmosphere is unique; it is like restaurants used to be where the owner/cook serves and visits with the customers in a very casual and intimate setting. The food was not fancy but was excellent, just like mom used to make. And the pies, Jeannie’s specialty, were to die for.”
Oh, the pies. After our wonderful lunch, Jeannie asked which kind of pie we’d like for dessert. The day’s selection was cherry or coconut cream. In unison, Nicole and I chorused coconut cream! Jeannie went back into the kitchen and returned with two mammoth slices of pie, still hot from the oven. There are no words to describe how delicious this pie was, so I won’t even try. Let me just say, it was TOTALLY worth blowing my diet for and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
Lunch over, it was time to pay. Grand total for two meals and drinks: $16. I asked Jeannie if she’d forgotten to add on the desserts. “Nope,” she smiled. “Lunch is $8.” Eight dollars? Only in rural Nebraska.
The painting pastor
We pulled into Tecumseh, a charming small town northeast of Lewiston, population 1,644. We’d already visited one business in a church that day, so I was fully prepared to do it again to visit Eric Biehl, aka The Painting Pastor.
I was a little surprised when we pulled up in front of a neat medical office on the downtown square. “His gallery is in here,” explained Nicole.
We entered the modern, professional office and were greeted by a pleasant receptionist. When we explained why we were there, she laughed, and pointed to the walls. “All his stuff is hanging up. Feel free to look around. I’ll give him a call.” Indeed, beautiful artwork hung everywhere in the office…in the waiting area, down the halls, in the offices themselves. The staff didn’t seem bothered in the least by people milling about viewing art.
Pastor Eric arrived and we sat down in the waiting area to chat. A pastor for 24 years, Eric first picked up a paintbrush in 2014 following the death of his mother. With no prior training, he suddenly felt the need to paint. “My goal was never to sell my art. I was just painting for myself,” he said.
It might not have been his goal to sell his work, but sell it did. His paintings soon developed a following and word spread. Although he’s passionate about his new pursuit, he is a pastor first and foremost. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the business end of things, so the women of the medical office stepped in to help. “We don’t mind selling his art for him,” said a secretary. “He does so much for all of us, and we’re proud of him. I just wish he’d remember to put prices on things,” she laughed. Only in rural Nebraska.
The Mozart of Steinauer
By now it was late afternoon, almost time to wrap up our field trip. We had one more stop: a visit to a young, up-and-coming composer Chad Rinne. Talent can be found and fostered in the most unlikely places, and rural Nebraska is no exception.
A farm kid growing up in the nearby town of Steinauer (population 76), Chad was introduced to the piano when his parents brought home an old upright in the back of the family pick-up truck. Chad developed an instant passion for the instrument, so his mother found him a local instructor. Nine years later he began taking lessons from Stanley Capps, a nationally known piano instructor in Lincoln. Capp’s unique approach taught the chords first, notes second. He believed this method freed pianists and opened up a world of possibility to them. Chad was so inspired by this approach he began composing his own music at age 16.
Now 26, his music career is blossoming. He’s been hired to compose original songs for the American Radio Theater and local art councils. In addition, he gives lessons and plays for various civic organizations. At present he is working on his first orchestral piece.
I asked if he’d play me one of his original songs. “What kind of music do you like?” he asked. I was in the mood for something fun. With a grin, he sat down at a beautiful old upright and played me a delightful piece called Mayberry Skunk Jamboree. It was amazing! As his fingers flew over the keys, I wondered how long it would be before he was writing musical scores in Hollywood. Only in rural Nebraska.
Sadly, it was time to take leave of southeastern Nebraska and return home. It had been a glorious day. I couldn’t believe we’d found so much talent concentrated in one area. Then again, it is rural Nebraska so I shouldn’t be surprised!
If you’re thinking of paying a visit, here’s their information:
Cedar Creek Pottery
27639 S. 80th Rd.
201 Miles Ave
Eric Biehl Paintings
Chad Rinne Original Compositions