Rushville resident Joan Colwell reflects on 90 years of life in the Sandhills

Rushville resident Joan Colwell reflects on 90 years of life in the Sandhills

By Hadleigh Hoos, Gordon-Rushville Journalism Student

Joan Colwell is a 90 year-old woman who has spent her entire life around the town of Rushville, Nebraska. 

As a young girl, Joan lived two miles east of Rushville on her parents ranch with her grandparents. Her grandmother was originally from Czechoslovakia and still spoke Bohemian in the household. 

“I truly regret not having her teach me Bohemian because I know she would have loved for us to learn the language as much as I would’ve loved learning it,” said Colwell.

She married her high school sweetheart, Mark Colwell at the young age of 17, just out of high school. The pair were wed on September 11, 1949.

After she married Mark, they moved north of Rushville near the Whiteclay area, where Mark’s family had lived and ranched. 

To this marriage, three girls were born, Connie, Nancy, and Laurice. When their girls were about the age of middle school, Mark and Joan moved their house to Clinton, Nebraska. 

All three of the girls then attended Rushville High School. 

They lived there until the girls were on the road for school and cheerleading so much that they had to move back into Rushville. 

After the girls graduated, Joan and Mark moved two miles east to Joan’s childhood home where the pair decided to build a log house up on the hill from the old homestead. 

They lived there for years before it burned down in a tragic fire which was started by a waterbed on October 31, 1996. 

“It is still chilling to me that the accident happened on Halloween,” Joan stated.

They soon placed another house on top of the preserved basement. Joan and Mark lived there for years, and their grandson had moved into Joan’s old childhood home with his wife.

As Joan and Mark watched their grandson grow his family of five, they decided to give up the bigger house to the growing family. The new house simply had too many stairs for the slightly aged couple as well, so they moved into a cozy house in the heart of Rushville. 

Looking back on her journey though life, Colwell can recall Rushville from times early in her life.

Joan recounts that when she was around 10, Rushville did not have many stores and was pretty dead. 

About the time she got to high school though, people and families started moving to Rushville and opening businesses. 

The Strike Zone, which used to be the Food Bowl, was the place that everyone would go out to eat Saturday Night. 

Joan stated she sees differences in high school as well. 

Girls were not allowed to  play sports except for Physical Education class. The teacher did not believe girls were strong enough to play basketball with the full court, so they would only play on half court. 

When she was in school, the Superintendent would teach all of the hard classes: chemistry and physics; much different from the way that schools are taught today. 

“Even though the man was short, none of the boys would ever try to sass him, as they would in other classes,” said Colwell.

Every Saturday night, people would go to the show at the theater, and there was always a dance in the basement afterwards. You could hear the music performers warming up, and soon everyone would be dancing with everyone. Boys would sit to the left and girls would sit to the right. 

She loved most the activities available to her as a child as well. 

After school, the kids would go to one of the many drugstores, which offered cokes, shakes, and candy, along with simply a place for them to hang out. 

But Colwell states that Rushville has gradually grown quieter after that point in her life, with businesses slowly dying or fizzling out after getting less and less customers. 

Colwell cites the differences in society and mindset were apparent between now and then.

“Everybody was kind of poor back then compared to now, but did not think they were poor, living life very happily and content with having everything they needed. My allowance was only 50 cents a week, which was more than enough to get by,” said Colwell.

The 1949 blizzard sticks out as the major event in her life that Colwell can recall with the utmost clarity.

“It snowed in for a month straight. You could walk over the fences from all of the snow and get to the highway,” said Colwell. 

“Mark got snowed in at our house as well and his dad was very mad because he couldn’t get home. When it finally started to settle down after a few days I rode in with my dad on the horses to get groceries. The National Guard had to come open the roads but they kept getting snowed shut again. Eventually my family rented a room at NebraskaLand Motel so we could go back to school after an entire month of not being present. Cattle roamed free behind our house with their eyes frozen shut. A lot of cattle and livestock died in that blizzard.” 

The tragic Blizzard of 1949 has made history books, as it is still a big talk of the Sandhills of Nebraska to this day. 

Colwell continues to watch Rushville grow and change, and hopes that one day it can be as lively as it was when she was in high school. 

Mark Colwell passed away in November of 2017, but Joan continues to live in the Rushville home as a very active member of the community. 

She plays accordion for the nursing homes in Hay Springs and Rushville, attends church every Sunday, is a part of a bible study group with a number of other women, attends her great-grandchildren’s sports events all the way from Junior Varsity football in Rapid City, SD,  rodeos at Chadron State College, to volleyball games in Gordon. 

Throughout the entirety of her life, living through the midst of close to a century, she has truly seen the ups and downs of this small town, and states that it has always been and will always be what she thinks of as home.

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