(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 NL issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
TWO SHORT BURSTS from the horns of slowing locomotives signaled passengers that they were approaching Long Pine. The tracks are gone, but travelers follow the same route today, chugging along at a much slower, quieter pace on the Cowboy Trail. It passes through Long Pine on its 321-mile journey across the state, providing hikers, horseback riders and bicyclists the most scenic of routes. When the wind is just right, motorists on Highway 20, which runs parallel to the trail, are treated to the scent of the pines drifting from tree-filled canyons a mile or more before reaching the sign that says “Welcome to Long Pine, Beauty Spot of Nebraska.”
Sandra Clark remembers day-long adventures to Hidden Paradise, the creekside community of cabins nestled together in a deep canyon a stone’s throw from town. “We’d float along on our tractor tire tubes all day,” Clark recalled. “It was quiet and relaxing. In the evening the aroma of food would float through the valley, cars would pull in, and then we’d hear the music.” The music came from the famous Hidden Paradise dance pavilion that Carlton Pettijohn built in 1912 against a sheer cliff called Chalk Mountain near Long Pine Creek.
It quickly became the gathering spot for seasonal Hidden Paradise residents, citizens of Long Pine and tourists from across Nebraska and surrounding states. It was the hub of a resort that included the cabins, a heated indoor bathhouse, a slide called “The Plunge,” a carousel and its own orchestra. As a child, Clark was forbidden by her parents to go inside. Instead, she would peek through the windows. “I remember seeing people dancing, lots of cowboy hats and Christmas lights,” she said. Entertainment heavyweights such as Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk lit up the always-full house. The Big Band era and that of the Pettijohn pavilion waned. After years of decline that included a hand-fed family of rafter-dwelling raccoons and a roof support that buckled during a dance, the business folded. Sandra and her husband, Barry, now own the forbidden pavilion of Sandra’s childhood and are working steadily toward its eventual reopening.
Kim Hansen’s 1,400-square-foot log home, built a year after the pavilion, is one of Hidden Paradise’s oldest cabins. It sits near the base of the steep road that drops visitors into paradise from Long Pine and the towering Sandhills above. Hansen’s place is still known as the Girl Scout Cabin to locals and longtime Hidden Paradise vacationers because of the trainloads of Omaha Girl Scouts who ventured here each summer for many years. Hansen hadn’t heard of Hidden Paradise until detouring into Long Pine in 1991.
Upon discovering the pine-covered canyons and clear creek bursting with trout, the Hooper resident was surprised such a place existed. Four hours after finding paradise lost, Hansen bought a cabin. He sold it two years later and purchased the Girl Scout cabin, what he calls his “lil’ bit of paradise.”“There’s a list of people wanting property along the creek,” Hansen said. His is in a trust for his five grandchildren. “Otherwise, you have to beg, borrow or steal to get a spot down here,” he said.
On a golf cart tour we met Webb McNally, who, according to Hansen, is the unofficial mayor of Hidden Paradise. McNally was born above the canyon rim in Long Pine in 1930. He attended high school in Norfolk, graduated in 1947 and hit the road selling office supplies for his father, Charley, who founded Western Office a decade earlier. Today, the office supply company has seven locations in three states. McNally hits the road to paradise whenever possible, often with his wife, Hazel, his “Long Pine gal” of 61 years.
The red, two-story retreat the McNallys built in 1978 replaced a Spartan-brand trailer they moved in when they bought the property in 1966. McNally points out that the company built Air Force bombers before diving into the trailer business. If McNally wanted to take a dive into Long Pine Creek, he could do it from his own bridge. The cabin also has a covered porch, a balcony and a rec room. The cabin is no dive.
McNally is a lifelong angler, but today he’s content to show his secret spots for lunker rainbows, browns and speckled trout to his grandson, Matthew, in exchange for a few quiet hours relaxing on his deck. “Once the tubers arrive, there won’t be any fish to be had along here until September,” McNally said. Subscribe to Nebraska Life Magazine and receive thoughtful stories and beautiful photography featuring travel, history, food, nature and communities of Nebraska.
Subscribe to Nebraska Life Magazine Now