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Rusting ski lift remains as sign of once-lofty plans for Devils Nest
A faded sign welcomes visitors to Devils Nest, a multimillion-dollar recreational development that never took off in Nebraska's Knox County. Some of the original property has been sold, the rest, as the sign indicates, is for sale. (Staff photo by Jerry Mennenga)

LINDY, Neb. -- Through the tops of the bushy cottonwoods and evergreens, the cable and chairs seemingly emerge from nowhere.

Rust spots spackle the green-white-and-blue steel poles holding up the long-dormant ski lift. Trees grown through the lift cables would make impossible a trip up the hills overlooking Lewis and Clark Lake.

An empty Busch Light can, some Bud Light bottle caps and a few faded Marlboro cigarette packs litter the hillside on which skiers were expected to congregate and swoosh back downhill.

The scene begs the question: What is a ski lift doing in Nebraska of all places? Though the hills and canyons abutting this Knox County section of the Missouri River are steep in places, they won't soon remind anyone of the Rocky Mountains.

The answer: the lift was one of the centerpieces of the failed multimillion-dollar recreational development named Devils Nest. The contraption of rusty cables and decaying chairs is a reminder of the lofty plans developers had for the area some 35 years ago. Look closely among the hills, the remnants of those plans remain.

Small, weathered signs mark dozens of lots that line the narrow paved roads now crossed with weed-filled cracks. Each lot was expected to be the site of a fancy resort home with a spectacular view. The view is still there. The houses never materialized.

"If they were doing it right now, it might have a better chance. I think it was just the wrong time," said Chuck Rasmussen, owner of Rasmussen Realty & Auction Company in nearby Bloomfield, Neb.

The market for recreational property is better now, he said, than it was back in the 1960s and '70s, when investors sunk their money into Devils Nest.

Western roots

The area's history runs deep in Wild West lore. Jesse James and other outlaws are said to have used the rugged terrain to hide from the law. As the story goes, the leader of a posse emerging from the area after an unsuccessful search for James said he would never go back into that "devil's nest."

The name stuck, and Devils Nest developers incorporated the western theme into their promotions. On signs that went up in the early '70s, a bow-legged raccoon in boots, chaps and a cowboy hat welcomed visitors and potential investors.

The raccoons rode into the sunset long ago. Signs no longer exist along Nebraska Highway 12 to the south to point visitors toward the resort. After traveling the roughly seven miles of gravel road from Lindy, one sign, sans raccoon, remains at the entrance. It displays the telephone number of a Grand Island, Neb., real estate agent.

"There's lots of interest in it. It's gorgeous real estate," the agent, William Baker, said.

Driving the winding roads through the hills, the natural beauty can be breathtaking. With the bluffs along the South Dakota shore of Lewis and Clark Lake in the distance, the hills are covered with cottonwood and evergreen trees. Sumac and goldenrods line the roads, which are still maintained, their shoulders mowed regularly.

$100 million plan

First proposed in 1962 by Devils Nest Development Co., led by Lincoln investors Don Dixon and Robert Guenzel, Devils Nest was a $10 million idea to turn some 3,000 acres into a private, year-round resort area and housing development that would feature a 25-story hotel, ski and hunting lodge, campgrounds, golf course, marina, bridle path, tennis courts and other recreational activities. Financing delayed construction until 1970, when ground was broken on the project, which by then was touted as a $100 million development.

By 1972, skiers were flocking from as far away as Omaha and Lincoln to try the dozen slopes. According to a Sioux City Journal story at the time, eight houses plus an equestrian center and the yacht club, a fine dining and dancing hall, had been built.

That was as far as the development got. Developers blamed poor lot sales and a declining economic climate for their misfortune. In 1974, the Nebraska Secretary of State dissolved the Devils Nest Development Co. for nonpayment of corporate occupation taxes. Banks foreclosed on the property the following year, and the property was sold at auction to satisfy judgments in 1977.

Clifford Ruzicka, who grew up near the area in Verdigre, bought 1,700 acres of Devils Nest in 1981 and announced plans to resurrect the resort. A year later, Ruzicka said in an Associated Press story that economic conditions were preventing him from implementing his plans, which never were carried out.

It was the last time anyone tried to turn the area into a recreational attraction.

"At one time I had thought about coming back and completing it," Ruzicka said in a telephone interview from Lakeport, Calif., where he owns Ruzicka Associates, an engineering firm.

Ruzicka said he no longer has the energy to undertake such a project. The '80s just weren't the right time to try developing Devils Nest.

"The right time might be coming up. There's much more interest in recreational property and second-home property now," he said.

Interest remains

There's still interest, but it's mostly simple curiosity.

"I do get quite a few tourists that come through here to look at it," said Tamralynn Self, owner of the Lindy Country Club restaurant, which has several old newspaper clippings about the development on its walls. "They come from all over Nebraska. They go through all the stuff I have."

That traffic has slowed over time. Once the signs along Highway 12 disappeared, so did a lot of the interest, said Janet Eckmann, a free-lance writer from the Lindy area who has written numerous stories about the area.

Most of the traffic to and from Devils Nest involves the few people who have homes there and those who maintain the water treatment plant, which Eckmann said was the most important result of the failed development. The plant had been built to treat Missouri River water to feed the snow-making machines. After years of sitting unused, it was converted in 1981 for use in a rural water district that serves thousands of people in northeast Nebraska.

Some still believe the area could become a viable recreation destination. Underground water, sewer, electricity and telephone utilities were installed to serve homes that never were built. The equestrian center remains. The yacht club is boarded up, but has an equipped kitchen. The barn-like ski lodge housing the snow-making machines is still there.

Real estate agents give conflicting prices, ranging from $1.7 million to $2.25 million, on the 1,075 remaining acres. Ruzicka wouldn't comment on the price.

"I think we have to wait for the right person to come along," he said.

Maybe half a dozen investors show interest in the area each year, said Baker, the Grand Island real estate agent. He said two local potential buyers currently are interested. Ruzicka would prefer to sell the property in one piece, Baker said.

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However, two lots were sold last fall. Rasmussen, the Bloomfield real estate agent, currently lists a couple more on his Web site.

Many of the original buyers of lots in Devils Nest still own their property, but never built there, said Rasmussen. His opinion: relax the building covenant restrictions and development might occur.

Eckmann, who also once served on Knox County's zoning board, isn't quite as sure.

"The lots are so tiny, those would never pass today," she said.

Public access to the sandy beach along the lake would help, she said. A nice public marina or some type of place to put boats into the water also could lead to more interest in building at Devils Nest. But a full-scale resort as originally planned?

"I think we're more realistic now," Eckmann said.

A landmark

In reality, the ski lift is an outdated, weather-beaten machine that probably would cost more than it's worth to refurbish if anyone ever wanted to restart the ski operation.

Reopening the slopes would be a crazy, money-losing venture, Baker said, because the lack of adequate snowfall ensures that any owner would continually have to make snow to provide the depth needed for skiing.

"I don't think anybody in their right mind would ever start that again. That was never meant to be anything more than an amenity to help sell lots," Baker said of the lift.

Ruzicka has never considered tearing it down.

"I thought somebody would do something with it. If they choose not to snow ski, they could use it as some other attraction," he said.

So, it sits, no longer ferrying skiers up the hill as it once did, briefly, years ago.

"Everybody kind of likes that sitting up there as a landmark," Baker said.

It remains as a testament to big dreams that never came true. A tribute, of sorts, to the entrepreneurial spirit. Or is it a blunt reminder of failed plans?

The answer, much like the desperadoes who at one time called Devils Nest home, lies somewhere within the hills.

Nick Hytrek can be reached at 712-293-4226 or nickhytrek@siouxcityjournal.com.

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