Nebraska as it’s known today arrived in pieces.
Ice age winds lifted fine silt particles and carried them southwest where the sediment rested momentarily in the Sand Hills before going airborne again, eventually landing in the plains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The accumulating silt created Nebraska’s rolling loess hills where the fertile soil eventually served as a Beaver Crossing canvas for Leona Ihde’s green thumb.
In life, Leona cultivated a beautiful garden at her home in southwest Seward County. Her legacy – an endowment that’s grown to more than $3 million—cultivates a rich future in Beaver Crossing and neighboring Friend in Saline County, just a 10-mile drive straight south.
Many were likely surprised to learn Leona, a former employee of Alpo Products in Crete, had created a gift of $1.8 million to benefit the places she called home.
“If people saw her walking down the street, they would not have paid her any mind,” said Leona’s cousin, Charlie Vossler, who lives in Friend. “She was not a social person. She worked, tended her garden, and kept to herself.”
A major gift
The Leona Ihde Donor-Advised Fund—an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation—started issuing grants to the two communities 10 years ago—the first batch included $3,200 to the Village of Beaver Crossing for a Christmas lights display and $8,000 for a long-term study of elderly care options for the City of Friend. A humble beginning for a fund that’s since granted more than $900,000.
According to her attorney, Brad Barrows, Leona’s love for watching things grow played a part in arranging her legacy as an endowment, rather than a one-time gift through a bequest.
“When considering her options, Leona liked the idea of a permanent endowment because it could grow like her garden,” Barrows said.
The twin communities of Beaver Crossing and Friend now serve as gardens for Ihde’s legacy. Grantmaking decisions are made by a Fund Advisory Committee (FAC) composed of relatives, friends and residents committed to improving their hometowns and enacting her vision.
“We care about our community”
Leona’s legacy made it possible to grant $20,000 to reestablish trees after the 2014 Mother’s Day tornados damaged nearly every building in Beaver Crossing and uprooted trees older than many residents. Seventeen tornados tore through central Nebraska that day, and news reports in the days following the tornados tallied up 227 damaged homes in Beaver Crossing, with 16 outright destroyed. Members of the Nebraska Army National Guard were called in to assist with the recovery effort.
The grant from the Ihde Fund assisted in planting more than 175 trees and shrubs.
“All the support of the park has been the most meaningful for me,” said the late Larry Paxson, a former FAC member. “It just shows we are welcoming, and we care about our community. Replacing the trees from the May 11, 2014 tornados was very meaningful for our community.”
Down the road in Friend, Leona’s impact is just as tangible. Grants from the fund have helped pay for volunteer fire equipment, city tennis courts, and playground equipment among other improvements—all working to build a bright future for Friend. One of the most significant projects bolstered by the fund, however, looks to bring the past back to life.
Local volunteers with the Friend Historical Society (FHS) are doing the work to restore and rejuvenate a local landmark for future generations, and the Leona Ihde Donor-Advised Fund has awarded numerous grants to boost the effort.
A tour of the Warren Opera House in downtown Friend is a trip through time. After ascending a flight of narrow stairs, the auditorium – bathed in sunlight through stately windows—comes into view. In combination with the San Carlo theater, the Opera House made Friend a prominent stop for the “best troupes on the road,” according to a 1913 article in the Friend Sentinel. Beyond performances of Romeo and Juliet, The Night Before Christmas and other plays, the opera house hosted political speeches, educational lectures, club meetings, Memorial Day services, and even high school basketball games. Presently, the first floor houses a bistro, community activity spaces, and a business rental. The second-floor auditorium looks as it did when live performances ceased in the 1920s.
The FHS is ready to “move up” to the second-floor renovation, said member Mary Losh.
“A major priority is to make structural repairs so the building can continue to serve as a community resource,” Losh said. “The Leona Ihde Fund has provided financial support for much of the structural repair. The structural work has included foundation repair, tuck pointing and brick repair. These projects would not have been possible without the Ihde Fund. We are very thankful for their assistance.”
The Ihde Fund plunged into other community projects in Friend, including the effort to replace the municipal pool. Built in the 1930s, the original pool was thoroughly octogenarian by the time passionate locals decided to invest time and energy into either its renovation or the construction of a new pool. Through grassroots organizing and educating, the Friend Pool Committee demonstrated the importance of the effort to their neighbors—so convincingly that the community approved both a bond and a sales tax increase in a November 2019 special election.
Construction on the new pool began in late 2020, and the community celebrated its grand opening in June 2021. The Ihde Fund donated $100,000 to the $2.68 million project.
The garden keeps growing
The work of community-building often unfolds over years, with projects and relationships accumulating like grains of silt on a windswept prairie until one day the conditions are right for growth. For gardeners like Leona Ihde and those continuing her legacy in east-central Nebraska, it’s the perfect environment to create a bountiful community garden.
In Friend and Beaver Crossing, that garden continues to grow, Charlie said.
“If Leona was driving through Friend and saw her impact, she would feel proud.”