Nebraska Businesses Take Historical Approach


April 24th, 2015


Sampter’s Clothing in downtown Fremont has been in operation since 1925. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

The National Register of Historic Places has more than one thousand listings in Nebraska. Things like old farmsteads, houses, bridges, prairies and parks. The list of historic sites grows even more when you take into account things that have local historic significance. In today’s Signature Story, NET News reports on how history is encouraging new economic investments.

Fremont, NE – On an acre and a half of mostly long grass just off of Highway-2 in southwest Lincoln, former Lincoln Police Officer Brian Podwinski described the future headquarters of his current endeavor, Blue Blood Brewing Company.


There were a few fallen trees, some trash, and around a dozen wooden posts marking where Podwinski plans to build his new brewery.

But he isn’t buying the land because of what’s above ground. Podwinski said he’s far more interested in what’s below.

Although blocked by a mountain of dirt, Podwinski lead me to the entrance of Lincoln’s folkloric “Robbers Cave.”

(Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson)

(Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson)

“For almost a generation now, it’s been off limits,” Podwinski said. “Obviously some have broken in, but legally it’s been off limits. So to bring that back and allow all of us who have been wondering ‘what’s the big deal behind robber’s cave?’ Now we’re going to know.”

Reports on Robbers Cave date back more than 150 years. There are local ghost stories about strange sounds coming from deep within the carved out sandstone, which originally formed from water erosion.

The outlaw Jesse James was said to have even visited the cave in 1876, after a bank heist in Minnesota. And strangely enough, the cave (consisting of multiple chambers) was actually used by a brewery in the 1860’s to store and age beer.

“If it was just a hole in the ground, no history behind it and no folklore, it would be really hard for us to justify spending more money to bring it back to life,” Podwinski said.

(Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson)

(Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson)

He continued, “In terms of the historical sense of this property, [the folklore] is what really makes it unique and something that we feel is necessary to bring back.”

But you don’t need ghost stories and gun fighters to turn a historic site into a business. About an hour and a half northwest of Robbers Cave, sits a one-room school house known as District 10.

Surrounded by nothing but cropland and built just four years after Jesse James supposedly played poker at Robbers Cave, District 10 served area students until 1970.

5 years ago, Mary Sohl bought District 10, and turned it into what she’s termed “a social gathering place.”

“I’ve had people who have lived here and moved away and have come back, and they sit down and they reminisce about days gone by,” said Sohl.

Complete with beer, wine, and a dunce cap (a crowd favorite), Sohl said her school house turned quasi-saloon attracts customers from across the country. Some of her regulars went to school at District 10. She even had a former teacher stop in for a drink.

“She was hired to teach the school here from 1940-1943. She made $24 a month; $12 of which went to her room and board,” Sohl said.

(Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson)

ABOVE: District 10, a former one-room school house turned “social gathering place,” was built in 1877 on the Powell Homestead. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson)

Sohl said she wasn’t sure what kind of business District 10 would become when she began restoring the 138-year-old building. However, she knew she’d maintain the historic significance of the building.

“It appeals to so many people. If only these walls could talk, you know? I think people need to have a reminder of days gone by, and their history, and where they came from,” Sohl said.

Whether it’s a cave in a city, or a school house in the middle of nowhere, capitalizing on history is proving to be good for the state’s economy. So much so, that for the first time since its inception, the State of Nebraska began issuing tax credits this year to businesses trying to refurbish historic sites.

Bob Puschendorf works in the Historic preservation office for the Nebraska State Historical Society.

“The problem we saw is people were trying to invest in these historic buildings, and when they put funds into them, their taxes were increased,” Puschendorf said, adding “This is a public good as we see it. We had to have a constitutional amendment changed to authorize the state law, and I think it was very amazing that 58% of the population voted for the tax incentive.”

The new law sets aside $15 million a year until 2018–money which is awarded in the form of a 20% income tax credit to businesses in the program.

“So if you put $100,000 into a building, you can get a state income tax credit of $20,000,” Puschendorf said.

46 projects have been selected this year for credits, representing $84 million in investment. Puschendorf said the bulk of the tax credits are going to people looking to revive buildings in downtown locations like Fremont, in northeast Nebraska.

Shannon Mullen is the executive director of Main Street Fremont, a non-profit tasked with preserving and promoting Fremont’s historic district. Mullen said more than 200 businesses make up the city’s historic district, which is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Our downtown improvement district, our city and the county find it to be a hub for entertainment and activities. We know that a healthy downtown means a healthy community,” Mullen said.

In addition to private investment, Mullen said Fremont also took advantage of state grant money in the form of a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to improve the facades around Fremont’s historic district.

In Lincoln, Brian Podwinski said Blue Blood Brewing will look to take advantage of tax increment financing programs from the city, to turn a seemingly non-descript location from urban folklore, to economic contributor.


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