More than 50 years ago, a young man in Nebraska advertised hand-tied fishing flies, 12 for a dollar, in a nearby newspaper. He got one bite. In an "if at first you don’t succeed" mindset, Dick Cabela changed his modus operandi to a "FREE Introductory Offer: five for 25 cents" in national outdoor magazines. Soon, orders from across the country were jamming his mailbox. In each shipment, he mailed a mimeographed catalog of other items he and his wife, Mary, had added to their product line. His brother, Jim, joined in.
Many American sports enthusiasts know where it went from there. The kitchen table business now occupies a 250,000-square-foot building in Sidney with 2,100 employees on site (and growing), plus thousands in its current 64 stores. Cabela’s produces almost a hundred different catalogs a year and manufactures many of its own items. Its stores include education centers and wildlife museums. And every new store opening means another 20 to 30 new "back office" employees in Sidney, according to city manager Gary Person.
Sidney is also home or a base of operations for at least 12 major employers, including warehouse, trucking and rail operations, as well as a branch of the world’s largest birdseed manufacturer, Pennington Seed, and now a branch of the Bell Lumber & Pole Company, America’s largest utility pole manufacturer. Some of these operations are housed at a 23,000-square-foot industrial park. Person also reports that $300 million worth of new community-benefiting construction is underway.
The industries have resulted in throngs of hungry workers, not to mention visiting business representatives and travelers taking time off from their drives along nearby I-80. So far, 28 restaurants and cafés are ready to accommodate them.
Person notes that Sidney’s population has grown almost 20 percent since 2000 to its current 7,500, but the influx of area day workers translates to a daytime number more like 15,000. "This reflects a community much larger than (the population suggests)," he adds. "Sidney is an extraordinary community with a lot going on." Still, in keeping with its small-town image, a central gathering area, Hickory Street Square, is undergoing a $1.2 million facelift to enhance its ability to act as a public area for outdoor events. In addition, the Cheyenne County Community Center is a recreational sports hub with programs for both kids and adults.
The healthcare community has also taken note of the population surge.
A new $53 million Sidney Regional Medical Center complex, with adjacent physician clinic and administrative buildings, is due to open soon. The new structure will maintain the same bed number (25) as its predecessor, and continue to serve a seven-county area. The current medical staff consists of a general surgeon, urologist, four family practitioners, some 20 visiting specialists and six physician assistants. But more are coming - and more will be needed, according to recruiter Janell Wicht. "With so many new young families," she notes, "we’ll also need more OB/GYNs."
Calvin Cutright, M.D., a family practitioner with the medical center’s Physicians Clinic and a seasoned member of the community, summarizes the rising population phenomenon this way: "As far as Nebraska is concerned, Sidney is one of the few small towns in the U.S. that is growing rapidly - and growing younger at the same time." The main reason, of course, is the expanding job market.
Cutright was born in Bakersfield, California, but arrived in Sidney with his family when he was 11. Aside from studying at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, training at Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln and a two-year hiatus in Japan as an Air Force physician, he’s chosen to stay in a town he considers perfect for his needs and those of his family. That includes high-quality schools.
Besides academics, Sidney High School also incorporates instrumental and vocal music and has 20 student clubs focused in such areas as drama, art, auto, chess and mock trials. Nine sports are part of the mix, including football, basketball, volleyball and golf. Thanks to the influx of jobs, the school system’s 1,300-plus students include newcomers - students and teachers - from all over the country, according to Superintendent Jay Ehler. He also say that almost 80 percent of Sidney graduates go on to college. One is conveniently located - a branch of Western Nebraska Community College.
As for its seemingly remote geography, the city, as Cutright points out, is not exactly isolated.
Founded in 1867 by the Union Pacific Railroad as a stop along its westbound route and named for Sidney Dillon, a company attorney, the new outpost soon hosted an Army fort built to protect the rail workers. Settlers began arriving. Among Union Pacific services was a northbound route to the Black Hills gold fields and the feisty town of Deadwood. Today the railroad is used by companies like Bell Lumber & Pole. The city is also at the confluence of four major highways: I-80, one state and two U.S. routes. For serious medical cases, Denver hospitals are about 150 miles west, and the big city is a major venue for serious culture, major league sports and sophisticated dining.
Cutright points out that serious skiers can be in heaven on the Rocky Mountain slopes near Denver. Hunting and fishing opportunities abound closer to home.
When all is said and done, Wicht, the hospital recruiter, has a simple summary for today’s life in Sidney: "We’re a small town in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Nebraska - but the town still has that Cabela’s spirit! When my doctor candidates come to visit, they can’t believe how friendly everybody is. It’s ’Leave it to Beaver’ here, and at the same time it’s progressive."