Hansen: A one-of-a-kind place in the untamed northwest corner of Nebraska is headed to auction
They are selling off a little slice of Heaven in northwest Nebraska this fall.
The auction, which will take place on Wednesday afternoon Oct. 10 down at the Crawford Community Building, seems teeny-tiny by the normal standards of a land sale in ranch country.
Forty acres. Fourteen buildings, most of them small. A 13,000-gallon swimming pool, six guestrooms, one two-bedroom cabin, one restaurant, one old windmill and an unknown number of wandering, half-tame cats.
But the square footage of the sale doesn’t even begin to adequately describe the heartbreak, the hope or the importance of the event.
They are auctioning off a place that defies easy description, a place that is not quite a bed-and-breakfast, not exactly a guest ranch and not completely a restaurant, either, but rather all of those things and many others, too.
They are auctioning off the prettiest single spot in the entire state of Nebraska, according to me.
They are auctioning High Plains Homestead to the highest bidder. I’m praying that the winners are one-fourth as wonderful as Mike and Linda Kesselring, who have run this oasis in the untamed Nebraska Badlands for the past 20 years.
“It’s time,” Mike told me recently. “We have such high hopes that we can find a group of folks that will buy it and carry on the tradition.”
What’s your sales pitch, Mike?
“Little-known fact,” he says. “Livin’ in the Badlands is great for your complexion.”
For the past two decades, Mike has cracked jokes and cooked steaks and buffalo burgers over a giant flame. Linda has pretended to laugh at his jokes and made what is quite possibly the state’s most delicious pie.
Together, first with Mike’s parents and then with a rotating band of relatives and friends, the Kesselrings have somehow built a successful guesthouse/restaurant/Old West attraction that’s 18 miles of gravel roads from the nearest town — the booming metropolis of Crawford, population 969.
Together, they have built more than a business. They have built something that feels to me very much like a Nebraska treasure.
Last year, the High Plains Homestead had what was easily the best year in its existence.
This year, Mike says, guest occupancy and business are up 10 percent from that record. Which is fantastic, until you consider that Linda and Mike are retirement age, have faced some serious health problems and have been quietly trying to sell and semi-retire for two years.
“We have laid the foundation,” Mike says. “But now it will be for someone else to take it over and take it to the next level.”
Whoever buys the place can do whatever they would like with it, obviously. It is, after all, a free country.
But Amy Johnston, marketing director for Lashley Land, one of two real estate companies helping with the auction, hope that the buyer builds upon what the Kesselrings have already built.
Maybe more weddings, she says. Can you imagine an old-time chapel on the property? Maybe more catering, she says. Mike and Linda turned down multiple catering requests from nearby Chadron and nearby Fort Robinson.
An enterprising younger couple could organize trail rides, serve as an outdoors outfitter, guide hunters and host church retreats. They could also expand — High Plains Homestead is at 90 percent occupancy this summer, Johnston says.
There are some built-in advantages to High Plains Homestead, namely that is it a truly singular place that sits right next to Toadstool Geologic Park — a Mars-like environment of rocky valleys and peaks — and right next to the Oglala National Grassland, which is nearly 100,000 acres of pristine, nearly untouched high country prairie. You can hunt fossils here, or hunt turkeys, or wander over to Fort Robinson or simply sit on the porch and watch the blazing-red sun dip over the horizon.
There are also some built-in drawbacks. Like the fact that you will live 18 miles from the nearest town, most of it gravel road. And the fact that if there is something that needs to be built, repaired or otherwise altered, you are probably gonna need to do it yourself.
“As Mike says, ladies that like high heels are probably not going to feel at home doing this,” Johnston says. “But if you are a couple or a group of people who view themselves as homesteaders at heart, why this would be a perfect lifestyle.”
I have been traveling to High Plains Homestead for years, and will most likely go once more before Mike and Linda hang it up for good in November.
And I think I speak for every regular when I say that the auction fills me with a jumble of emotions. I’m happy for Mike and Linda. I’m scared that the High Plains Homestead will change, and I don’t want it to.
I’m hopeful that someone will buy it and build upon the Kesselrings’ crazy dream — make it even better while keeping its untamed soul intact.
And I’m praying that whoever buys the High Plains Homestead does one more thing, a thing that is absolutely essential to its continued success:
Beg Linda Kesselring for her pie recipe. Beg her until she agrees to share.
“A gathering place,” Mike Kesselring says when I ask him how he defines High Plains Homestead. “That’s the best word I can put on it.
“It’s a community gathering place. And I hope it continues to be that for a long, long time.”