This article appears in Omaha Magazine July/August 2015.
Nebraska’s pioneering spirit shines brightly along the I-80 corridor, which follows the vast open spaces of the Great Plains. If travelers hurriedly passing through the state thinking, “Yep, this is Nebraska,” took the time to veer off the well-beaten path and steer the car northwest, they would discover a landscape unlike any other and a lifestyle steeped in the tradition of the frontier.
Heading up Nebraska Highway 97 just above North Platte, the topography changes dramatically. The flat farmland graduates into clusters of enormous sand dunes—miles of them. Anchored by a variety of prairie grasses and etched by relentless winds over thousands of years, the all but treeless Sandhills rise up like waves of an ocean—a phenomenon not seen anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.
Blue sky, dotted with puffy cotton balls of clouds, stretches as far as the eye can see before dipping down and hugging hills on the distant horizon. Under this protective dome lies nature at its purest, virtually untouched by civilization. This, too, is Nebraska—western Nebraska, where life mirrors the land: simple, unaffected, and humble.
The bloodlines of the Sandhills run deep in Joel Jacobs, going back five generations. The 34-year old Omaha investment manager grew up where Route 97 meets Highway 2 in Mullen, the only town in Hooker County (named after a Civil War general), and, by default, the county seat. It also serves as a center of commerce.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, known as “Mr. Buffett’s train” by the locals, roars past the house Joel grew up in every 10 minutes or so, 24 hours a day, carrying car after car of coal eastward from Wyoming. In a town of less than 500 people in a county with a population density of one person per square mile, the sharp blast of a train whistle represents employment, not a nuisance.
But small town doesn’t mean small time. Like many young people in Mullen, Jacobs excelled in sports, quarterbacking his high school’s eight-man football team (the salvation of deep rural areas) to a state championship in 1998. He continued to make a name for himself as a tight end at the University of Nebraska-Kearney—a Division II school—resulting in a free agent contract with the NFL. He spent the bulk of his pro career with the New England Patriots and NFL Europe.
When injuries cut his football dreams short, he and his wife, Megan, moved to Omaha, a city big enough to launch a successful financial career, yet only five hours, 334 miles, and one time zone away from the land he loves—and a town that still thinks of him primarily as
Jodi and Kirk Jacobs’s son.
“I grew up with the feeling that no matter how bad things can get, everything’s going to be okay,” says Joel, finishing the thought with the flip side, “But no matter how good things are, you’re no better than anyone else.” Humility ranks high on a wish list for his three young children. “That’s why I like to bring them here as often as I can. I want them to know this kind of stability.”
For Jacobs, stability includes spending time with his grandparents, Jake and Bunny Jacobs. The couple, celebrating 70 years of marriage in August, still live independently on the 3,000-acre ranch just south of town where Bunny, born Berneice (e before i) Taylor, grew up.
“My father bought this land in the early 1930s during the Sand Bowl,” says Bunny, sharp as a tack at 91 and, with a rollicking sense of humor, referring to the Sandhills’ version of the Dust Bowl. Like most settlers in the valley, her father quickly realized crops don’t grow in sand. Raising her index finger a couple of inches above her thumb, Bunny says, “The corn only grew this high.”
But cattle could thrive on the prairie grasses, providing Bunny, who inherited the ranch, and Jake a means to support a family. Until the family grew.
“By the time they had four kids, my dad went to work for Consolidated Telephone to bring in some more money,” explains Kirk Jacobs, referring to another big employer in Mullen. Kirk also holds a customer service job with Consolidated while maintaining the day-to-day operations on the ranch. Work never ends in the Sandhills.
On a wickedly gusty Friday, two cattle haulers drive onto the ranch, each carrying 50 head of Angus cows and their new calves. “They’ll graze here for the next five months before going back to a feed lot in Kearney,” says Kirk in his understated way.
With the bovine visitors safely grazing in their new digs, Kirk and Joel head out to the east pasture, checking miles and miles of barbed wire for gaps. Stopping at a well on the property, Kirk fills a water bottle. “Freshest water you’ll ever taste,” he says. “We’re right on top of the Ogallala Aquifer.”
For people who exhibit no pretensions, life flows in a natural rhythm, like the waters of the Middle Loup River where the Jacobs family gathers for a twilight “tanking” adventure. Floating down the river in a large, round, metal water tank normally found in pastures to water the livestock provides family fun at a reasonable cost—nothing. Joel’s wife, two older children, mother, sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids sit side-by-side in the tank as he and his father navigate the swift current with oars, dodging tree limbs and driftwood obstructing their path.
Amid the gales of laughter as the tank bounces off canyons of sand that form the riverbank, Joel’s mother and sister, Kelly Marsh, pass around homemade, individually-wrapped ham and chicken paninis, miniature quiches, and pickle bites wrapped in salami and cheese. Taking care of her family brings Jodi Jacobs joy.
“I always wanted a big family and Kirk and I have four of our own,” she says softly, cradling a grandchild in her arms. “I love to cook. I love to entertain. And I love it when the kids come home.”
That passion recently led to the fulfillment of a dream: Jodi opened a restaurant, The Nebraska Pantry, conveniently located next to the town’s only grocery store along Mullen’s main street. She rises at 4:30 every morning to make bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and daily lunch specials for her many regulars, adding credence to the belief that hard work and low stress can trump cholesterol any time.
Jodi’s culinary talents extend beyond Mullen. She makes a line of Nebraska Pantry gourmet dip mixes, sold in Omaha at Scheel’s Sporting Goods and Sugar Bakers gourmet store. In addition, Jodi somehow finds the time to work in the pro shop of the Sand Hills Golf Club, one of two top-rated, private golf courses located in Mullen (the second being Dismal River).
“I’d say about 75 percent of the current PGA has played here at Sand Hills,” says Joel, as he surveys the wind-swept, Ben Crenshaw-designed course nestled deep in the sand dunes. “It’s ranked number one in the country and number 11 in the world. Players come here to enjoy their game in privacy.”
Standing on the portico of the starter’s cabin nicknamed Ben’s Porch, Joel takes in the magnificent scenery so familiar to him. “Life here? It’s a beautiful gift,” he says, almost to himself, as he anticipates the return trip to Omaha.
The land and the serenity it brings will lure Joel back again and again. And his children will someday discover what their dad already knows: some of the richest lives on earth are lived in tiny Mullen, Nebraska.