Nebraska January 18, 2018
The Tiny Farming Town In Nebraska That Survived Against All Odds
There are several towns in Nebraska that have, at one time or another, been called “the town that was too tough to die.” We Nebraskans are a tough breed, and we don’t give up easily. But there’s one town in particular that has survived – and even thrived – against all odds.
Pilger is a tiny rural Stanton County village of around 350 people.
The town's slogan was "The little town too tough to die" well before tragedy struck. It was born of a casual remark in the 1960s and it stuck throughout the years. Residents would end up proving it true.
Life here was quiet and calm ever since Pilger was founded in 1880.
It was a scrappy little town that resisted the forces that have killed off so many others of its size. Outward migration from farming communities to cities has turned many into ghost towns, but not Pilger.
Then, on June 16, 2014, a nightmare struck - a twin nightmare, in fact.
That afternoon, a massive EF4 tornado ripped through the town. A second, smaller tornado passed through the outskirts of town just to the east. As the sky blackened and the winds howled and roared, residents took cover in basements, in commercial walk-in coolers, and anywhere else that was secure enough to protect them from the raging storm.
When it was over, the village was all but decimated.
Later evaluation would find that more than half of the buildings in Pilger were completely destroyed or severely damaged. The school, the bank, nearly all of the businesses - everything was gone. Two people died and 20 more were injured. It was one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike northeastern Nebraska.
For most communities of this size, such an incident would have meant the end. Not Pilger, though.
After the initial shock began to wear off and the residents surveyed what was left of their hometown, something truly magical happened. Instead of resigning themselves to move away and start over, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and resolved to rebuild.
Volunteers poured in from across the state and beyond. They helped to clear the rubble and begin the restoration plans.
Then-governor Dave Heineman visited the town and declared it the worst disaster he'd ever seen. Some residents were skeptical that Pilger could survive, but others never lost faith. Some even saw the tornado as a blessing in disguise - a chance to build a brand new Pilger.
In the following years, massive efforts saw many of the town's homes and businesses rebuilt.
The residents refused to give up. Some did move away to start over elsewhere, but most stayed put and resolved to help the town heal. New businesses were born, a new community center was built (pictured above), and church congregations continued to meet - all despite the obvious challenges.
Although the town has yet to fully recover, it is stronger than ever and growing every day.
The town's new sign is a testament to the rebirth efforts. On its side, Roman numerals spell out "6-16-14" - the date of the tornadoes that threatened to destroy this tiny community. What Mother Nature couldn't destroy was the determination and dedication of Pilger's tough-as-nails residents.
Pilger will undoubtedly never be the same, but residents don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. The “new” Pilger is stronger than ever and growing every day. New businesses are moving in and the town is actively encouraging new home construction. Even now, more than three years after the tornadoes, you can still see the town’s scars. But they’re fading every day.
We Nebraskans all tend to be very hard to break. Need proof? Here are
9 reasons we’re unbelievably tough.