By Kerri Rempp
Discover Northwest Nebraska
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” –Mike Kesselring
Anyone who knew Mike Kesselring heard that refrain often. Who else’s obituary would remember him as the “biggest tall-tale teller of our time,” and a “bullsh*tter?
“He was so good with a bald-faced lie or the raw truth, that sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference,” said Jenny Nixon, a Nebraska Extension Educator who knew Kesselring for decades. “(You) can view the evidence of that at the 2020 Harvest Moon Fall Festival in Chadron at the Liar’s Contest. Mike won hands down and probably did not even have to work very hard to come up with his story.” (Watch it at https://youtu.be/vIm3t671ADs)
Kesselring passed away May 13, leaving behind many stories and memories across a several industries and organizations (including in his book detailing stories of the Homestead, titled, of course, “Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story”).
A native of Minnesota, he moved to Sioux County permanently in 1998, settling in the Nebraska badlands to work at and ultimately run High Plains Homestead and Drifter’s Cookshack, a replica frontier town, with his father Merlin and Roberta Kesselring.
“Only good people travel gravel roads,” was another favorite “Mikeism” he repeated as he described the allure of High Plains Homestead and its remote location.
In an interview with The Chadron Record in 2018, Kesselring said the attraction began with a dream of showcasing Merlin’s antiques in an original setting. The family lived in tents, huts and campers during the earliest days as they built the Homestead.
Along with the antiques and frontier town, they launched Drifter’s Cookshack, serving up what, in Kesselring’s mind, everyone wants, “a thick steak and a good piece of pie.”
His wife, Linda, said they loved meeting all the people who visited High Plains Homestead, often making lifelong friends.
“Every breakfast, Mike would be out front visiting,” Linda said. “He would be telling them stories. They’d really eat that up.”
Visitors who spent any appreciable time at the attraction, were treated to more stories as Kesselring grilled steaks outside over a wood fire.
“Everyone had to come talk to him at that grill,” Linda said.
“Mike was one of the rare individuals who accomplished his big dreams by sheer determination. He worked hard and expected you to do the same,” recalled Karyn Snook, who first met Kesselring while working at the Chadron Chamber of Commerce. “Mike lived his life believing that if you focused on doing one thing well, you would succeed.”
During her time at the Chamber, Snook realized how serious Kesselring was about tourism and promoting the region to potential visitors.
“Mike also believed that the Chamber had the answer to everything,” Snook said. “Mike didn’t believe that I didn’t have Senator Al Davis’ cell phone number, a direct line to Congressman Adrian Smith or a direct connection to the governor.”
Later, Snook went to work for the Kesselrings, joining the “Drifter Cookshack family.”
“And just like the mafia, once you’re family, you’re family for life,” she said. “Who knew at age 50 that I had been cutting bread incorrectly for my whole life? I eventually redeemed myself and was allowed to cut bread for sandwiches. And I knew Mike was talking about me when I heard ‘who the hell wrote this ticket?’ I finally found my niche washing dishes in the kitchen and was pressed into service to carry plates out to customers every Friday and Saturday night.”
The Cookshack crew often took to the road, catering events around the region, setting up a cook wagon at Agate Fossil Beds for the solar eclipse and grilling up steaks for the Governor’s Pine Ridge Turkey Hunt.
While Kesselring usually had a snappy retort ready to dish out, Snook recalls the one time she left him speechless.
“(We) were catering the annual Turkey Hunt supper at Chadron State Park. It was cold and rainy. Mike was having a hard time keeping the fire going. I proposed the use of a tarp I always carried in my car just in case. We rigged up a protection for his portable grill, and I even had an umbrella in the car to keep Mike dry. The requests continued: Did I have a screwdriver? How can we do this? Then came the request for a corkscrew. Mike just shook his head when I pulled out my Cabela’s multi tool which not only had a corkscrew but a bottle opener. And the liquor was served.”
Kesselring’s level of involvement around the region and across the state and the advertising scheme behind High Plains Homestead and the Drifter’s Cookshack put the attraction on the map. For those who worked there, like Nixon’s daughter, Mike and Linda came to be significant influences.
“They taught her how to treat guests with a top-notch level of hospitality and how to let off steam afterward,” Nixon said.
“People work hard all year to be able to take a vacation. And in some cases, they might even be robbing from the electric bill to do it, so we owe them hospitality,” Kesselring said in that 2018 Chadron Record interview.
Kesselring became a promoter, not only of his own business, but of Sioux County, Northwest Nebraska, Western Nebraska and the state as a whole. He was a founding member of the Western Nebraska Tourism Coalition, which united counties, cities and private business and attractions in a single focus of promoting the western half of the state. He also helped lead the charge in legislative efforts to make the Nebraska State Tourism Commission a stand-alone agency and served on the commission once that was accomplished. In 2014-2015, he worked with officials in Dawes and Sioux counties to increase the lodging tax and offered support for the inter-local agreement that created Northwest Nebraska to promote both counties as a single visitor destination.
“I first met Mike when he came to the Cookshack to work with his dad. It was so remote, but I loved going there,” recalled Stacy Swinney. “We talked a lot about road and bridge issues affecting access to his always-growing business. When I became a Dawes County commissioner in 2011, followed by the fires in 2012, I talked with him a lot about fire recovery and the importance of tourism to our Northwest Nebraska area. I served on the Dawes County tourism board then, and his ideas were crucial, and over the next short time he was able to make things happen. He was truly a communicator, a promoter and a visionary, not only for our area, but far beyond.”
Throughout his time at High Plains Homestead, Kesselring served as a substitute teacher in Crawford and also worked with water and wastewater departments in Crawford, Hemingford, Whitney and Chadron.
“Mike is a huge loss from several points, and one area that I am not sure how many people realize that he was a huge part of several water and wastewater systems,” said Chadron City Manager and former Utilities Superintendent Tom Menke. “He worked tirelessly to assure communities had safe water to drink and assure the proper disposal of wastewater. His institutional and overall knowledge throughout his lifetime will never be able to be replaced. I had several opportunities to work with Mike on several issues and found that I learned more and had a better understanding of my system during our conversations.”
Mike and Linda sold High Plains Homestead in 2019, relocating to Harrison. He went to work as a salesman for Chadrad Communications, using his experience has a promoter to work with local businesses to increase their exposure. He became the top-selling salesperson in the radio station’s history.
He remained involved in community efforts as well, still serving on the Sioux County Travel Board, playing an active role in the Harrison V.F.W., leading an alcohol recovery group, playing Santa at numerous community appearances, and serving on the Harrison Village Board of Trustees. He was an enthusiastic participant in the annual chili cook-off, the annual salsa contest and worked with the committees to organize the Chadron Ag Banquet and the Country Christmas in Northwest Nebraska promotion. He was also an active member of the Harrison Bible Church, serving on the worship team.
“I will always remember how Mike worked to accomplish something in community work. He always knew what outcome he wanted to see and generally did not accept anything else,” Nixon said. “He was very direct and blunt, stating just what he thought, usually involving a bit of humor. There was never any question about where he stood, or where you stood with him. It took some getting used to, but once you did, it was refreshing to have no elephants in the room.”
After moving to Harrison, Kesselring was afflicted with Guillain Barre syndrome, a peripheral nerve disease, that landed him in the hospital for nearly two months and left him partially paralyzed. He was determined to recover, and put the same determination that made High Plains Homestead a success into his physical therapy. He recovered the ability to walk with canes and resumed his active lifestyle, plowing snow for neighbors, mowing the Harrison cemetery and taking a vested interest in the appearance and success of Harrison’s Coffee Park in Sowbelly Canyon. When he came upon a task that he couldn’t accomplish on his own, he wasn’t shy about inviting neighbors over and putting them to work, after all “it would just take a few minutes,” and in his own words, “I love company!”
“Mike was like a big, loud uncle,” Snook said. “He listened, advised and gave a hug. You always knew exactly where you stood with Mike. He never minced one word about your current level of idiocy, but he also showed how much he cared and how much you were loved.”
His direct approach translated to phone conversations, too.
“When he had said what he wanted to say, he wrapped up with a very quick and perfunctory, ‘OK, bye.’ If you had something else to add, you had better be quick,” Nixon said.
In that spirit, Northwest Nebraska bids Kesselring farewell.