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This sign on a shed along Highway 50 at the turn to Cook advertises one of the town's awards. (Robert Becker)

COOK — Anyone can say they live in the best small town in Nebraska. In the early 1990s, the citizens of Cook could back it up.

By the measure of the Nebraska Community Improvement Program, the Johnson County village of 333 stood out.

In 1990 and 1991, judges deemed Cook the best Nebraska community with a population below 50,000. In 1996, Cook won as the top community in its size category — populations below 500.

The town collected more bragging rights in 1992 when it won the “Best Small Town in America” contest run by the Jack Daniel Distillery.

The accolades caught the attention of then Gov. Ben Nelson, who swooped in on a helicopter and took a tour, just to see what residents were doing right.

But the little town with Nebraska’s only covered bridge wasn’t done.

In 1999, the Community Improvement Program named Cook the “Community of the 20th Century” in the under 500 category.

Nothing quite impresses the judges like widespread volunteer involvement, said Lindsay Papenhausen, program coordinator with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. Cook had volunteers coming out its ears.

“Cook, back then, really set the bar high for smaller towns,” she said.

But things have changed since back then.

For starters, a community that regarded itself as almost immune to population loss has gradually seen declines.

The 2000 Census counted 322 residents, 11 fewer than in 1990. The 2006 Census estimate says there were 300, for a drop of nearly 10 percent since 1990.

Enrollment at the school, a major source of community pride, fell faster than expected, prompting a merger with Tecumseh last year. The local school still teaches elementary and middle schoolers, but high school students now drive 10 miles south to Tecumseh.

The local economy has taken a harder hit.

About 10 businesses remain open and some essential goods and services just can’t be found in Cook. For example, the town no longer has a gasoline pump and the local grocery store struggles to stock the shelves.

Without local employment opportunities, the vast majority of working-age residents commute to Lincoln, Omaha or Tecumseh.

All of which contributes to another change in Cook — a decline in volunteerism. Cook won the community improvement competitions largely for having 14 service organizations that got residents involved with everything from scouting to recycling to the rescue squad.

Now just a few service groups remain.

Every small town struggles with similar challenges, but for many years, Cook seemed like it could beat them. For years, Cook went against the times.

Time seems to have pushed back.

“Most people would say time is the most critical and valuable resource people have, or don’t have,” said Jud Douglas III, president of the Farmers Bank of Cook.

Most of the volunteers who once did the running in Cook are ready to hand off the baton. But many of those who are young enough to take it are spread thin with work, commuting and family responsibilities.

Cook hasn’t entered the Community Improvement Program since 2000. It’s hard to say if the village could still compete if it did.

But this isn’t Cook’s obituary.

While the locals refer to their award plaques with pride, the laurels are not what defines the community. Not everything about a place can be measured, quantified and compared. Sometimes, the intangibles matter as much, if not more.

“As far as the spirit of the community, I think that’s still here,” said Howard McNiff, one of the driving forces behind the local community improvement programs. “When a challenge comes up, the people of Cook pull together to meet that challenge.”

Coming into existence was the first challenge, and the town’s founder knew there would be no town without a railroad.

So in 1888, John William Cook not only gave a right of way to the Missouri Pacific Railway Co., he also dedicated space for the village. He named the town in honor of his father, Andrew, who settled in the area in 1864.

Cook grew steadily over the years, but it never eclipsed a population of 400. Still, the residents supported a vibrant business community that included blacksmiths, banks, three grocers, a general store, a meat locker, a hardware store, a doctor, dentist, optometrist and so on.

The loss of the railroad and the paving of Nebraska 50, which moved the highway a mile west of town, meant Cook became a place someone had to get to, instead of happen upon.

The business climate gradually got tougher and stores gradually went away. But people adjusted — and they stayed.

John Effken, 80, formerly owned the grain elevator and lumberyard in Cook. He said the community has always come together for the common good. He told a story to illustrate his point.

In the late 1960s, a school consolidation between Cook and Talmage created the Nemaha Valley School District. The people of Talmage thought since Cook got the school, Cook residents should be willing to build a new football field.

So one afternoon, Effken and another local businessman started knocking on doors and asking for donations. By the time they finished that evening, they had collected contributions from all but one resident.

“And the next morning, he called up and said, ‘I want to donate, too,’” Effken said.

McNiff, who recently retired as director of the Five Rivers RC&D in Tecumseh, came to Cook in the late 1970s.

At the time, he and his wife, Bridget, had three young boys, so they wanted to build a safety fence around their yard. When he asked his neighbors about property lines, they asked a question of their own.

“They said, ‘Why would you want a fence?’ We got to looking around and there wasn’t a fence in the town. Our kids joined the 20 other kids running around in the street. Our kids just became town kids.”

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In Cook, knowing your neighbor’s kids, and your neighbor’s business, just comes with the ZIP code, said Jan O’Brien, who owns a local daycare, is president of the Lions Club and volunteers with the rescue squad and fire department.

“If I ever had the need for something, I would have the help,” she said. “If my home burned down, I wouldn’t have to go to a shelter.”

It’s a theme repeated over and over by Cook residents. They talk about how they notice if someone doesn’t show up for coffee. Or how  a woman with a flat tire doesn’t have to ask for help; a jack, lug wrench and someone to operate them just show up.

They talk about a feeling of safety, an insulation from urban problems because everyone knows each other. It’s as if the whole town is just one 300-person neighborhood.

And while no one would claim Cook is a utopia, people generally get along, said Devon Roesener, the village clerk. There have been a few controversies over the years, but no recalls or anything that divided the town. The monthly village board meetings rarely draw big crowds.

“The hot topic usually is dogs,” she said. “Dogs running loose or vicious dog complaints. That’s what gets people at meetings, or anything that has to do with raising taxes.”

And people still come together. They show up at town hall meetings just to talk and share ideas, for movies at the community center, for the annual Lions Club melodrama. And last year, people donated the equipment, materials and time to resurface the ball diamond, which saved the village $7,000.

Jennyfer Foss runs the Family Tree General Store in Cook. The business sells coffee, soft drinks, ice cream and a few groceries. She also prepares food daily for the local Meals on Wheels program.

Foss said the grocery end of the business is tough, especially because it’s hard to find suppliers who can deliver food to Cook at prices that can compete with stores in other towns.

But even those difficulties haven’t soured her on Cook, where she’s lived for five years with her husband, Glen, and their two middle school sons.

“You can ask people to help you and they won’t look at you like you’re crazy because they know who you are,” she said.

Delane and Sioux Baumgartner own a farm and run a trucking business just outside the town’s limits. They’re also parents of young children.

Living in small towns forces you to decide what’s most important, Sioux Baumgartner said. You trade a cineplex for a gorgeous sunset, a nightclub for a little tavern where you know everybody, a sense of anonymity for a sense of community.

“Maybe it is a little inconvenient,” she said. “But it in no way outweighs the beauty of living here.”

She and her husband are both members of the Lions Club. They’re doing what they can to keep the relay going because they’re vested in Cook for the long haul.

Why?

Delane Baumgartner didn’t have to think about it.

“Like the sign says, it’s the best small town in America.”

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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