ASHLAND — Nearly 20 years after founding Cheri O’s, Cheri O’Kelly still rushes to work every day.
“I don’t know how many people can say that,” she said. “At my age and as long as I’ve done this business, it’s hard work, but I still speed to get here every time I’m on.”
It’s the customers — whom she considers part of her family along with her employees — who keep her coming back every day to the combination coffee shop and old-fashioned soda fountain.
Most regulars have their orders ready by the time they arrive. One customer, who passed away recently, came to Cheri O's three times a day, seven days a week.
“Morning, noon and night,” O’Kelly said. “And we knew when he was coming. When he sat down, we had his breakfast ready.”
O’Kelly’s experience is shared by others in the businesses along Silver Street in Ashland. The downtown street, which runs along the south side of town, has seen a resurgence in recent years, with vacancies nearing zero.
There is only one empty building along Silver Street, said Ashland Chamber of Commerce President Bradley Pfeiffer, and that is in the process of being rented.
Pfeiffer, who owns a business himself, NAPA Auto Parts, attributes the downtown’s growth to a revitalization process that took place around 20 years ago. Along with help from architect Marty Shukert, the city redesigned the curbing, brought in trees and rebricked the streets downtown.
“At that time, we were approximately somewhere between 35-40 percent empty in the businesses in downtown,” he said. “And I feel that, in general, since we redid the downtown and revamped it, that it brought more emphasis into the downtown area and brought businesses in.”
But the city’s location between Omaha and Lincoln, as well as its proximity to Mahoney State Park, makes the town of around 2,500 a sort of tourist destination.
O’Kelly’s decision to buy the location for Cheri O’s came on a whim. Three days after seeing the building for sale, she made an offer and soon began remodeling.
As well as coffee and ice cream, Cheri O’s serves gourmet-style lunches, such as chicken croissant sandwiches or chili in the winter. O’Kelly describes it as “old-fashioned service with old-fashioned, homemade food” and “‘Cheers’ without the booze.”
“I wanted something exactly what I thought was opposite of fast food,” she said. “Someplace where people could bring their grandchildren, no alcohol, build memories, sit down and take their time.”
Ashley Welch is newer to the Silver Street scene, having founded furniture store Salt Creek Mercantile in mid-August. The shop was an extension of her online store, Salt Creek Farmhouse, which launched three years ago.
After building a farmhouse in 2013 with her husband, Nolan, they were left with no furniture to fill it with. As a starting point, Welch decided to craft her own coffee table.
“So, we made a few other pieces; they turned out wonderfully,” she said. “Just through friends and family, there was a small buzz, like, ‘Hey, will you make me this?’ or ‘Will you make me that?’”
Welch started to sell furniture crafted in her garage on Craigslist and Facebook before launching Salt Creek Farmhouse on Etsy. Balancing her work with taking care of her children, she asked Nolan for help and eventually hired workers around town.
“I would take them up blueprints and the right materials and they would build it in their own garage, and then a few days later I would come pick it up,” Welch said.
Welch’s business expanded after she built a workshop on her property in January 2016, hiring five woodworkers to work at the location.
When looking into a physical store to sell her products, Welch initially wanted to renovate a property on the highway but decided against it when the project became too much for her. The property’s location was also a factor, as it was isolated from other businesses.
“I wanted to be part of the downtown community,” Welch said.
Welch found a location along Silver Street that she had been eyeing for a while, and asked the property owner earlier this year if they could let her know if they ever felt like moving out.
“And she texted me right back and said, You know what? You’re in luck,” Welch said. "The owners had just decided to leave the space to somebody that could do more with it than they had been able to."
While Salt Creek Farmhouse offers mainly wooden furniture, Salt Creek Mercantile also includes home decor, such as kitchen and bathroom items, floral options and wall clocks, which Welch said are extremely popular.
“Over the last three years, I have gone to some different market shows and conventions and kind of carefully handpicked different … items that I thought matched really well with the style that we have,” she said.
Mike Murman’s current business along Silver Street, Glacial Till Tasting Room, isn’t his first in downtown Ashland. His computer software company, Pen-Link, which he founded in 1986 and sold in 2013, at one point had a location on Silver Street.
But in 2009, Murman used his Ashland building for a far different purpose: a tasting room for his wine and hard cider.
“(With Pen-Link) I got the opportunity to travel all over the world, so I would take time when I traveled to places that had wine-growing regions to sample their wines, tour some of their wineries,” he said. “So I’ve always kind of had an interest in it.”
Murman had experience with winemaking and beer brewing, but stopped after having children. With the help of his sons, he planted his first vines in 2003 for homemade wine.
Five years later, it was time to start growing, Murman said.
“I was making so much of it that my basement was full and my wife wanted me to move that hobby out of the house,” he said.
What started as 20 vines has now grown into several thousand. With the help of his oldest son, John, who had graduated college and was interested in pursuing winemaking as a career, Murman built a winery by his vineyard south of Bennet. A year later, he established the Glacial Till Tasting Room on Silver Street.
The tasting room acts as an outlet for Murman to sell his wine and hard cider. The location also offers limited menu items and a space for private events.
Glacial Till is in the midst of an expansion from 3,000 square feet to 13,000, a project Murman expects to have finished this spring.
When Pen-Link was in the Silver Street building, Murman said the business was more independent, due to its dealing with people out-of-state. But with the winery, he said he’s seen more interaction with the people of Ashland.
“Being a good neighbor in their community is something that’s important to us,” he said.
Welch has also seen a connection with her fellow businesses, including Postscript, a paper boutique.
“I love going to the different stores and just shopping as much as we can locally,” she said.
Ashland’s status as the “best-kept secret in Nebraska” lies with the tight connection within the community, as well as Silver Street’s success, which isn’t slowing down, Pfeiffer said.
“It’s continuing to grow, and with more business coming into town on a bi-monthly basis, probably, different groups are popping up here and there wanting to do different things.”
O’Kelly said she often times hears customers comment on how much of a “hidden gem” Cheri O’s is. Some ask her why she chose Ashland instead of a location like Colorado.
But O’Kelly knows this is where she wants to be.
“We’re not a boarded-up community,” she said. “We are thriving, and people love that.”