BRANCHED OAK LAKE For two years now, there's been a historical marker in Area 6 of this Lancaster County lake.
It marks the spot where a little town once was, a town of fewer than 100 people that had a church, a school and a cluster of homes until the early 1960s, when its residents had to move to make way for the lake.
The marker reads: Crounse was once a small village named for Lorenzo Crounse, Nebraska Supreme Court justice (1867-73), congressman (1873-77) and governor (1893-95). The village had a school (1870-1962), post office (1873-1901), church, general store and creamery. Crounse School was the hub of the community. Classes met in homes until the schoolhouse was built on this site in 1873. Activities included picnics, bazaars, 4-H, and ball games. After the school closed in 1962, memories were all that remained of the community.
A committee of women who grew up in Crounse raised money for the marker. Pauline Alms, one of the committee members, said they had to submit several drafts of what they wanted the sign to say before the Nebraska State Historical Society approved it.
The first few drafts, she said, contained too many sentimental memories and too few historical facts.
But to Alms, the dates that the businesses were open and the accomplishments of Lorenzo Crounse didn't mean as much as the school softball games and track meets she remembers attending as a student of District 47.
They didn't mean as much as visiting her grandma's house, as helping her mom in the kitchen, as a way of life that for Alms faded as the lake filled with water.
The lake, which was built over 18 months in 1967 and 1968, was part of a Salt Creek flood control project, said Jim Carney, regional parks manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. In all, 10 lakes, including Holmes and Conestoga, were built in and around Lincoln to keep the city from flooding, he said.
It's common for farmers to be displaced when lakes such as Branched Oak are built, he said. A few towns besides Crounse have been, too, he said.
Still, he said, that's something the government tries not to do.
"Obviously, you're disrupting an awful lot of people," he said.
Like Alms, who watched pelicans at the lake on a recent rainy day.
"I have lots of fond memories of being out here," she said.
So do a lot of people who grew up in Crounse, which is why the same committee that helped buy the sign has also organized an annual community reunion.
This year will be the town's fifth, and also probably the last for a few years, Alms said. The organizers, she said, are busy, and throwing a reunion each year is a lot of work.
Most years, they have the reunion at the lake, in Area 6, right where the town used to be.
The reunions started with a small one, one in which four friends from elementary school got together for coffee more than three decades after their town disappeared.
The women Alms, Karen Kremer, Nancy McMeen and Cheryl Fitzpatrick had lost track of each other, even during high school, which was shortly after the town had been razed, said Kremer, the host of that first coffee.
And that afternoon, the four swapped the stories from their childhoods. They filled each other in on what had happened to them after they left Crounse.
"Going back all those years," McMeen said, "it's like you lived a different life."
For McMeen, that's somewhat true.
She grew up in a small home in Crounse with her mother, father and five siblings. They didn't have electricity. On Saturday nights, she remembered, they'd make fudge and popcorn. Soda was a treat.
It was the the 1950s and '60s, and McMeen's family was poor. There's a lot, she said, that she doesn't remember about living in Crounse.
But other things, she remembers: the swings in the playground where she went to school, playing on the foundations of the Crounse post office and creamery, both of which had closed years before.
She remembers that in 1962, the school closed, too. For a few years, she rode a bus to Valparaiso to attend classes there. She remembers that in 1966, when her family finally had to leave their home to make way for the lake, her father made her leave her cat behind.
McMeen finished high school in Crete. She took a job with a company in Lincoln, married a police officer, had children. She lives in the Lincoln Highlands now.
But she didn't leave Crounse for good. Three years after McMeen moved from the little town, she returned to the lake that had swallowed her home and her community. She went with a boy, a date. They went fishing.
From a rowboat on the water, McMeen tried to pinpoint where her home was, where the school and the church and the footings for the post office and creamery had been.
"You try to find landmarks," she said.
Cheryl Fitzpatrick doesn't need landmarks.
Her family was one of the few that didn't have to move. Their farmstead outside of Crounse was far enough from the lake.
She remembers almost everything.
She remembers the ramp at the back of the school, which was built for the district's polio victims who used wheelchairs.
She remembers singing songs, posing for a photograph on the teeter-totter, learning how to jitterbug and bunny hop as records played on the school's record player, taking naps on army cots in the back of the schoolhouse.
"I've got a picture in my mind," she said.
Fitzpatrick, who is a few years older than the other three women, graduated from eighth grade just before the schoolhouse closed. She was out of high school and married by the time the lake was finished.
But her parents hadn't moved, so she went back often to the area.
Her family got to know the new residents of Crounse, she said the Game and Parks employees who lived and worked nearby.
Her old friends and neighbors, though, moved to different towns and attended different high schools.
"Not moving, you lost touch with everybody," she said.
Alms stayed in touch with many former Crounse residents.
Her grandmother and aunts and uncles had made up much of the town's population.
Even now, she lives in the old church parsonage, which was moved to Malcolm after plans for the lake were unveiled.
Like the people who had lived there, the physical structures of Crounse scattered when the lake went in.
The buildings that weren't torn down were moved. Alms' grandmother's big old house was moved to a farm near Malcolm. Someone moved part of the school and used it as a shed.
Alms' brother inadvertently created the idea for the initial coffee when he bumped into Kremer at a Pleasant Dale restaurant and suggested she give his sister a call.
Alms was glad to hear from her. Growing up in Crounse remains a large part of her personality, she said. It was nice to talk to women who had the same upbringing she did.
And the same feelings about the lake.
"I wouldn't come here for years after they built it," she said. "I was so depressed."
And then, she did.
Now, she said, the lake is low enough that she can see the foundations to her uncle's corn crib. She can see the trees where the schoolhouse once was.
And if she closes her eyes, she can see the town.
It was as if no time had passed when the four women had that first meeting, Kremer said.
"I'll tell you what," she said. "You don't see their gray hair. You see them the way they used to look."
Never mind that Kremer, Alms and McMeen all had children older than they were the last time they had seen one another.
That first meeting, they were all little girls, Kremer said, remembering the games they used to play, the songs they used to sing.
Kremer remembered how her family used to board the school's teachers. She was particularly fond of one.
"Sometimes she'd invite me upstairs and she'd paint my fingernails," she said.
Her aunt was a teacher at the school, too, she said. Kremer became a teacher later on. She thinks her upbringing in Crounse had something to do with that.
That first coffee was so nice, she said. Everyone thought so. And they decided it would be nice if they could see other people from Crounse, too, she said.
The four formed a committee and organized that first reunion. More than 100 people came. Three former teachers were there.
Encouraged, the four women developed big plans for preserving the town. They wanted a historical marker. They wanted to build a picnic shelter that was shaped like a schoolhouse, which had been the heart of the small community. Two other women joined the committee, too.
They want people to know about the community where they learned to read and write, where they developed the values that they've kept all these years.
They'll dedicate their picnic shelter at this year's reunion, on June 11. It will be open, Alms said, even to people who never lived in Crounse, who haven't even heard of it before.
"We want people to know it's there."
Reach Cara Pesek at 473-7361 or email@example.com.
The Crounse reunion begins at 4:30 p.m. June 11 at the picnic shelter at Area 6 at Branched Oak Lake. For more information, call Pauline Alms at (402) 796-9509.
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