ASHLAND, Nebraska — Criss-crossing the country each summer while driving to the Finger Lakes and back to California, this 2,500 population town in Eastern Nebraska, wedged midway between Omaha and the state capital of Lincoln, always draws me like a magnet to slow down and spend a few days.
Usually, I camp at nearby Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, tour the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum next door, visit the town’s one winery and wander the small downtown.
Ashland resembles many Finger Lakes communities with its mix of old and new homes, friendly and helpful people and a downtown business district struggling to remain economically viable.
The town is in the early stages of dealing with a growth in tourism. Short-term vacation rentals aren’t even part of the equation yet, despite the location near pristine water and unmolested acreage. After watching the tourist boom in the Finger Lakes, this place seems charmingly innocent.
A quick stop at a local auto parts store last year stretched into a 45-minute conversation with the store’s only on-duty clerk about the town, schools, and how the town was struggling to keep viable with big-box stores in Omaha and Lincoln only 30-plus miles away.
The fact that not a single other customer wandered in during that entire time didn’t bother the clerk a whit. He seemed happy just to chat.
On my first swing through Ashland several years ago, I drove by an auto repair shop that seemed right out of a scene from the 1960s television program “The Andy Griffith Show,” set in the fictional town of Mayberry in rural North Carolina.
Two mechanics were sitting in the shade, sipping sodas from long-necked bottles with straws.
Like the auto parts store, they were sans customers but obviously enjoying the day, chatting animatedly about each vehicle as it passed their shop. They gave me a hearty, hopeful wave as I drove slowly past.
This year it seems like some of that small-town, Mayberry-like patina might be about to wear off.
A reconstructed bridge across a fast-running creek has made access from a nearby state highway into Ashland a little more direct, seeming to bring in more — and faster moving — traffic. A few miles away a cluster of partially constructed houses on one- and two-acre lots is taking shape. Survey stakes indicate more homes will be there soon.
And the downtown seems more lively this year than in the past, sporting some new businesses — and tourists.
The well-read regional Ashland Gazette newspaper moved its office to the nearby town of Wahoo this year, a space occupied immediately by another business. But the long-time Gazette editor opted to keep a spot in the Ashland Public Library to hold office hours where she can keep up on community news and an eye of things.
But perhaps the biggest sign things are about to change in this Midwest Mayberry happened last week when word began to spread that a new real estate office is likely to open on the main street, just doors away from a popular corner breakfast and lunch restaurant.
It’s likely the real estate firm wants to be in position to handle a growing market of buyers and sellers in an area where median homes sales prices are approaching $300,000.
You can’t blame the locals for the excitement in their hometown area. But having watched the sudden growth in the Finger Lakes region, it doesn’t come without impact.
But for now, sitting with the locals and treasuring my riverfront view, it’s easy to understand how places like these get discovered.
Who wouldn’t want to live here?
Or in the Finger Lakes?