WINNEBAGO, Neb. - It used to be that travelers couldn't drive through Winnebago fast enough. Now the tribe is inviting visitors to stop and smell the roses.
Years after tribal council allocated a small budget to beautify the cemetery; Winnebago now prides themselves on how clean their village is. They also quietly boast about how the area is visually appealing as well.
Along Highway 77, that's the village's main street and leads to Lincoln, painted garbage cans are placed every couple of hundred yards. Because of the convenience for litter disposal, one is hard pressed to find loose trash that is so much of an eyesore in other urban areas.
Overseeing the beautification is Winnebago's physical resource director Mick Armell. Noting the high visibility the reservation has with up to 5,000 cars passing through daily, Armell said the village has received numerous compliments about how pleasant it looks.
"We hear good and positive comments from the community members and different people traveling through town," Armell said.
Winnebago had its problems with unsightly trash until eight years ago when the tribal council lit a spark, allocating $1,200 to fix the cemetery. Leading the gravesite project was Charles Aldrich, now the village's head groundskeeper. He noticed how nearby Sioux City was undergoing its beautification process and there was enough for flowers to be planted and a sign erected.
"I saw other towns that had everything uniform throughout, mostly the signs," Aldrich said about what inspired him.
With a change of attitude starting, the impetus towards Winnebago's present state occurred when the village created a position for Greg Bass who was hired after his landscaping job at the tribe's casino, WinneVegas was noticed. A hands-on manager, Bass was seen constantly in town crafting and filling flowerboxes. And for an added touch, he also built swing sets to create mini-parks right along the highway.
Five thousand dollars was set by council to initiate spring and summer clean-ups that continue to this day and Bass created neighborhood contests to get the entire town involved.
"If we can take care of the main street and Highway 75 (another significant road) where all the traffic comes through, there will be a ripple effect," said Bass about the specific areas he targeted.
At the time there were two full-time employees whose job was to clean up litter throughout the reservation that spans 108 square miles, including the areas to the east where the pow wow grounds, Big Bear Park and the casino are located. Another part-timer was hired by Bass to plant and care for the flowers in the spring and summer, many of which are in the boxes and beds along the main street.
Councilor Kenn Mallory notes it was Bass' approach that really put Winnebago on the path to cleanliness.
"When he was the facilities director, he didn't like to sit in his office and push paper," the seven-year tribal council member said. "He liked to get out into the community and exercise his physical abilities."
Though Bass has since changed jobs, Winnebago has maintained this beauty and continued its litter purge. There are three full-time groundskeepers and during the semi-annual clean-ups, Armell coordinates the responsibilities between the various departments. He talks about self-respect and how it starts with individual effort.
"Before you'd find litter along the highways and nobody really did anything in a cooperative manner. Since this has started, we pick up trash and anything else you can name," Armell said.
The latest project is the creation of a half-acre parkette at the crest of the town's hill across from the school. In the circular shape of a turtle that symbolizes long life, trees, rocks and a sidewalk will transform this corner into a multi-purpose area.
"We want the whole town to be uniform so that it will be a nice place for our kids," Aldrich said.