Finalist for Nicest Place in America: Franklin, Nebraska
town of 1,000 people doesn’t sound like much, does it? It’s probably not a booming financial hub or a center of commerce, and it’s likely one of those places where everyone knows what everyone else is up to. But in Franklin, Nebraska, a town of 1,000, there is power in small numbers—and kindness to spare.
From the kind-hearted grocery store owner to the local pitching in $20 for the brain surgery of someone they never met, Franklin is nothing short than a town of 1,000 angels, but let their stories speak for themselves:
The Town of “1,000 Heroes”
“To this day I still don’t know how only 1,000 people raised $45,000 in one fundraiser,” said Franklin’s Michelle Bruce. “This was money many people probably couldn’t spare, but they did anyway.”
“To this day I still don’t know how only 1,000 people raised $45,000 in one fundraiser.”
Bruce’s son Holden was just 12 when he was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. He needed a delicate operation that insurance wouldn’t cover. In response, lead by a local high school teacher and a 4-H official, the people of Franklin sprang into action, organizing a fund drive that raised more than enough to cover the surgery.
That was back in 2013. Since then, Holden has grown into a healthy, handsome son of Nebraska: playing football, tinkering with cars, hunting deer and pheasant. He just graduated high school; now he’s working at a tractor dealership.
To his mother, it was a miraculous effort from a town of “1,000 heroes.” But to the locals in Franklin, stories like this are just business as usual. “It’s like a big family,” said Mike Ingram, a lifelong resident. “If you don’t look out for your friends and neighbors, who else will?”
This incredible act of generosity hasn't gone unrewarded. Bruce nominated Franklin for the Reader's Digest Nicest Place in America contest and it was selected among nearly 300 entries as one of 10 finalists. With enough votes, it could be named the Nicest Place in America—and it would be well-deserved.
The Movie Theater Saved By Its Customers
Ingram knows as well as anyone how isolated Franklin is. As a county highway official, his responsibilities include maintaining 11 miles of blacktop, and 750 miles of gravel roads. Nestled in the prairie near Nebraska’s southern border, Franklin’s downtown features one main street, one grocery store, and one gas station. The nearest small city is an hour’s drive away.
But small as it may be, every Saturday night, Nebraskans come to Franklin from drive miles around. The main attraction: first-run films at the Rose Bowl Theater for just $3 a ticket, courtesy of the families of Franklin.
“We’re the same price now as in 1990 when we opened,” laughed Ingram. “Tootsie rolls have gone up, though.”
Ingram is just one of a team of volunteers who run the 250-seat Rose Bowl. Like so many small-town theaters, at one point it looked doomed; the owners couldn’t afford a new roof and were ready to shut it down. But the town, eager to keep its Main Street alive, bought it and turned it into a nonprofit.
To make it state of the art, the people of Franklin raised about $250,000, “dime by dime,” said Ingram. “Businesses, bake sales, a lot of little school groups, the Lions Club. And families—a lot of families. It wouldn’t be here without the community.”
Today, nine families take turns running it on weekends: taking tickets, popping the popcorn, manning the projector and cleaning up after the crowds. If you grew up near Franklin, your first date was almost surely at the Rose Bowl—“up in the back, under the balcony,” Ingram said.
The theater is far from the town’s only volunteer effort. Every summer, volunteers manage the June Jamboree; every Christmas, it’s the Parade of Lights. There’s always someone raising money for something; this year’s causes include helping a local man hurt in a farm accident, and renovating the storm-damaged local museum.
It's this kind of teamwork that residents say gives Franklin its special flavor.
“Me and some other businessmen, we always say, why the heck are we here when we could be making more money somewhere else?” said Stu Willsman, owner of the local grocery store. “But it’s a way of life.”
The Good Grocer
Willsman himself is yet another example for the spirit of Franklin. His Rightway Grocery has been in his family for three generations. Like his father and grandfather before him, he takes his responsibility to the town very seriously.
“Whenever somebody needs something, he’s right there,” said Evonne Naden, who edits the local newspaper.
Someone’s raising money to help a family or support some other cause? Stu will donate. A local teen needs a job? Stu’s hiring. Some elderly resident can’t get a ride to the store? Stu’s making deliveries.
And some family’s fallen behind on their bills?
“There might be a little extra something in the bag,” said Ingram. “Stu’s always been like that. Any one of us could end up behind the eight ball.”
Being nice in a small place where everyone knows each other isn’t always easy, but by working together, the people of Franklin learn to get past their differences, Willsman said. “We have to get along,” he said. “My family always volunteered. Work with people and you learn about them—you have to get to know them on a different level.”
Franklin, Nebraska, may not be the most exciting place, but it doesn’t need to be. And if you ask Michelle Bruce, it will always be the nicest place in the world.
“Once in awhile I will see a faded ‘Team Holden’ T-shirt go by,” she said, “and I can’t help but smile.”