MR. WILLIAMSON: This is Dayle Williamson and I have the pleasure of interviewing former state senator Loran Schmit, who came to the Legislature in 1969 just two years after the original NRD law was passed. And this is part of a natural resource district's oral history interview project for the State Historical Society. This interview is being conducted on February 19th, 2014, and we're in Mr. Schmit's office. Loran, I first met you when you were working on the Bellwood Watershed, and we think that was in the early '60s after a big storm up there, so give me a little background before that. You were farming and your background education and why you got interested in the Bellwood Watershed. And then after that, we'll skip to your work as a Nebraska State Senator. So, Loran, it's all yours.
MR. SCHMIT: Well, thank you, Dayle, I appreciate this opportunity to speak and to talk to you a little bit about the Bellwood Watershed and my small part in it. I was born in the Platte Valley east of Bellwood seven miles, and of course, that is an area of abundant water supply. And there was, at that time, 1929, just the start of the real serious drought. So, I lived through the drought of the '30s and remember it well, and remember the very few irrigation systems that were available. Most of them were surface water systems, so we didn't have much irrigation. We speculated about the possibility of someday having irrigation, but we didn't think it would be feasible in our area. But I grew up, went to a country school, graduated from Columbus High School, and graduated from University of Nebraska in 1950. I was also involved in teaching various agriculture classes in 1950, and so I was exposed to a group of young men who had been overseas and around the world and had seen a lot of different kinds of agriculture and I got a kind of a good education in world economics and world events just by visiting with the people. And I always kind of marveled about how these men and women had been around the world and had come back to those small farms and taken up farming again and farmed with John Deere tractors and that sort of thing after having been --
MR. WILLIAMSON: The old flywheel hand crank.
MR. SCHMIT: Exactly right. Kind of brings to mind the old song, “How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?”
MR. WILLIAMSON: Yeah.
MR. SCHMIT: But they were good guys and they taught me a lot. And I farmed -- began farming for myself in 1950, and I farmed on the tableland, we called it, which is west of David City about seven or eight miles. And the water supply there was abundant, but it was much deeper than the valley. And early '60s, we had a huge rain, and it virtually inundated the entire village of Bellwood. Prior to that time, we'd had a few downpours, but nothing that was as devastating as that. And there's a gentleman by the name of Bob Bell who lived in Bellwood. His grandfather had founded the town of Bellwood and Bob was a really good, civic-minded person, and he spent a lot of time devoted to local and community activities. And his son, today, continues that tradition very excellently. But anyway, Bob said, “We've got to do something about this. We can't afford to have a loss throughout.” Fences were washed out and topsoil was washed away. So, he and Dr. McNally (phonetic) and Pete Beringer (phonetic) and Cheryl Brickell (phonetic) and a number of people came to see me. I guess at that time, I was one of the few individuals around there who had been to the University. And I don't know just who got the idea of contacting the State, but eventually, we did and Dayle Williamson came out along with Warren Fairchild and I know there were other people also. But we discussed the possibility of putting together a Bellwood Watershed and see if we could control those kinds of floods. Of course, no one knew what a Bellwood Watershed was. Kind of a little side story, one of the high school teachers was talking about how -- some young girls in town said there was a shortage of young boys in that community, but when they built the watershed, they hoped there'd be some young boys come to town.
They expected the watershed to be a huge building or something. Anyway, the procedure began to organize it. Bob was in charge, became the leader of that. And as I recall, there wasn't a lot of assistance available except in a technical way. And the old soil and water conservation people helped some and they were cooperative, but they, again, had no money. They gave us technical advice. And I can't really recall how much actual progress we made toward the construction of dams and that sort of thing, but we did maintain an active entity. I was on that board. And then, I'd been active in Republican politics and had run for office a number of times in both '60 and '66. And decided in '68 to run for the Legislature. I did so and was elected. And first couple years, with the first biennial session, 1969, and Senator Maurie Kremer and Gerald Burbach were very actively promoting the creation of the natural resource districts. I've been very well pleased with the assistance we received from the old soil and water conservation districts. I was imbued with the idea that we did not need another organization, which would be another taxing entity. I listened to the old-timers and they said it would just be one more drain on revenue. And so, as a result, we had a lot of -- let's just say, very intensive discussions about whether or not we really needed the NRDs. Senator Kremer was adamant that he had this idea well thought out and he was convinced that he had the, I guess you might say, complete lesson plan, you might say, put together, and that it would be a feasible thing that he could do. We had serious discussions at that time, and
(Off the record.)
MR. SCHMIT: Anyway, the issue was really debated extensively. 1969 was the last biennial session. Lasted 165 days. So, there was no sense of urgency. We'd drag that legislation out and discuss it, and thrash it around, and then we'd pass over it and come back to it. And if you wanted to describe Senator Kremer in one word, you'd have to call him tenacious. He had his idea and he stuck with it. At that time also, there was getting to be competition between two Democrats, Jules Burbach and Jim Exon to run for governor in '71. And so, Jules Burbach was a co-conspirator, you might say, with Maurie Kremer on the creation of the NRDs. Governor Exon, as I recall, wasn't sold on them. And that became kind of a campaign issue between those two. Might have been the defining issue, because Governor Exon was nominated by about 2,700 votes. And so, I think, to a certain extent, Jules Burbach always thought that the NRD thing was a factor in his defeat in that primary. And it's also kind of interesting that the bill had been passed and the NRDs were a fact. But in 1971, I was elected chairman of the Ag Committee, and the legislation then was debated in the Ag Committee. And Senator Kremer, as an example of the kind of a man he was, came to me and said, “Loran, I'm going to step aside as chair of the Ag Committee. I want you to be the chairman. But,” he said, “I want to be on the committee to protect the NRDs. Is that a deal?” And I said -- you know, I was brand new. Burbach was supportive of me and Rudy Kokes and Elmer Wallwey and those guys were all supporting. So, I said, (indiscernible) for you. And so, Maurie Kramer, Bill Waldo, myself, were the main people, then, that had to argue about the NRD legislation. I still wasn't convinced, to be very honest with you. And I actually vigorously opposed the idea for a long time. I told Senator Kremer, I said, “You know, Senator, I'm concerned that if you create this NRD, that it will not be for soil and water conservation. It will become 24 miniature Games and Parks groups.” And I said, “You build a dam, somebody's going to put a boat on it, and then somebody has to build a dock, and some of the (indiscernible) have a gravel road, paved road.” And “Nope,” Maurie says, “If we build a dam and there's water by the dam and some fisherman wants to throw a boat in there, that's fine with me. But we will never condemn a property for recreational purposes.” And I believe that was in the original legislation.
MR. WILLIAMSON: It probably was.
MR. SCHMIT: I think that was a very specific fact, because although there's strong support for the NRD idea, there was concern that the cities would run the show. And there was also considerable concern about the method of electing the natural resource directors, and the method that is in place today was fashioned by Senator Kremer. He said, “Loran, that's been tested in the courts and been approved.” I said, “That's true, Senator, but the day will come when the Legislature will no longer be rurally friendly and it will be a one man vote deal.” And I was active in drawing the maps. And I thought I was pretty smart when I drew Fremont in the Lower Platte North, because it gave a lot of valuation to that district. Well, if and when they ever elect the director on the one man vote basis --
I think about three fourths of the directors will come out of Fremont. But those are things to be considered, I guess, in the future. The idea, I think, that we could make it work, didn't take a hold right away, but guys like Kokes and Burbach, who were Democrats, they were very convincing, because at first it was looked at as just kind of Senator Kremer's wild idea and kind of a bureaucratic exercise. And I was just sort of along for the ride, because I had been a Johnny-come-lately to the Legislature. And it was a -- it became a political deal in my district, because there was some very strong opposition out there by several individuals who had their own political aspirations. And so, the NRDs really became a fact in the '71 session. And, of course, Senator Kremer was very instrumental in making it work and getting it in place. And I was always a little bit reluctant because I did not really believe, I guess, that we needed to have that kind of a taxing entity. And I, to this day, I think the NRDs have done a lot of good work and I think mostly because they've been very selective in the people that they put to work. We don't have -- and I've met dozens of people that have been on the boards and managers, and most of them have the fire in their belly for conservation. And the people who have those jobs are there not because they fit a certain profile, but because they have qualifications. And I've had to say that I've been generally pleased. I'm a little concerned that my good friends up in the Papio might be inclined to lean a little bit more toward building dams that might lend opportunities for builders to provide waterfront access. And I had some discussions with board members up there about that, who I don't think I convinced, but I didn't think they were adequately being compensated for waterfront lots. And, of course, if Maurie Kremer were alive today and could see the trails and those sort of things -- before he died, he called me and he said, “Loran, come out and see me sometime.” So, I just want out to see him. And he's, “Well, Loran,” he said, “you know, I still think the NRDs were a good idea.” And he said, “I think they've done a lot of good and we ought to be proud of the fact that we've got them. But,” he said, “you had some objections because of the concern that they might be developed into Games and Parks competition.” And he said, “You're going to have to watch that.” And he said, “There's going to be a lot of pressure from the urban areas for recreational opportunities.” He said, “I'm not so sure that they're not entitled to that.” But it was kind of interesting in view of the discussion we're just having today that he said, “If those urban areas want to do that, then that ought to be the function of the property tax system in that NRD.” And he said, “We've given the NRDs more authority and responsibility and they'll have more, as things go along.” He predicted the water shortage. He said, “There's going to be competition for water one of these days.” And he said -- at that time, it was kind of interesting, because there wasn't much conversation at that time about endangered species and minimum flows and that sort of thing, but he predicted that there would be a time. “You know, when I first came to the Legislature,” he said, “I could have, no doubt, introduced a constitutional amendment that would have given Nebraska landowners the same rights that they have in Colorado, the heaven and hell theory. The farmer owns all the water below him to hell, and” --
MR. WILLIAMSON: And Texas, too.
MR. SCHMIT: But he said, “Now,” he said, “the water's too valuable. We couldn't get that done.” And he said, “The water in Nebraska belongs to all the people. And there's going to be big fights about water.” And he said, “You know, you just really have to understand that rural Nebraskans are going to be way outvoted, and you're going to have to elect people to the Legislature who not just want the job, but who can do the job.” And I thought about that lots of times when people come to me and say, “Well, I'm going to run for the Legislature.” And I tell them today, “Can you stand on your feet and debate and discuss things? Are you willing to become informed? Are you willing to spend the time that's necessary? Now, you can't go down there January 9th and walk in there with your hands in your pockets and think it's going to be beer and pretzels. It doesn't work that way. You better, by God, be briefed, and you better have” -- I said, “You know, people are concerned sometimes about someone having an agenda. I'd have darn sight rather that you had an agenda to come into the Legislature than to come in there with no agenda at all.” And the most dangerous person in politics, someone once told me, is a well-intentioned dummy. And we've seen that happen in some instances, and not to brag about people I worked with, but we had a lot of good people that I worked with, smart people. And they understood the importance of hiring smart people. And I think if the NRDs have any claim to fame, it's because they did hire qualified people. And if they have problems, it's because here and there they might not have had the kind of people they should have had in the right spot.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, thank you, Loran, for sharing all that afterwards. And just a little quick story about your good friends that you mentioned, Senator Maurice Kremer, Senator Jules Burbach, and Senator Rudy Kokes. You know, things were tough before you came to the Legislature in '69, in the '67 session to get this passed. And once in a while, Maurice would come to our office. I was with the Natural Resources Conservation Commission -- Soil and Water Conservation Commission, I should correct that. And Maurice would come up and say, “You know, I don't know if we can go forward with this. It's just too many things.” Maybe an hour later, Senator Burbach would come up and say, “Hey, we got to go forward,” you know, and he'd have some plans. And then, maybe in another hour, why, Senator Kokes would get the word. And Rudy was really kind of concerned about the whole thing. And as you remember, Rudy had a very shrill voice and was very emotional. And he'd come into our office, I was with Warren Fairchild, and that's right, Loran, just hit the desk. He'd hit the desk and our coffee cups would fly and he'd be shouting, and our administrative assistant, her name was Marsha, she'd come in and think we were having a fight in the office.
MR. SCHMIT: I can believe that.
MR. WILLIAMSON: It was funny. But I tell you, later on, after Rudy Kokes got out of the Legislature, he became a Natural Resource Commission member. And he just loved the job and he was so proud of what we did. And so, that was really a good story.
MR. SCHMIT: I can tell you a little story about Senator Kremer. And Senator Kremer had the patience of Job.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Yeah.
MR. SCHMIT: He was the kindest, most genteel Christian person I think that I have ever served with. He was just a top-notch guy. And he would explain and explain and explain. And my good friend Senator Nore was a little bit like myself. He was apprehensive about this.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Right.
MR. SCHMIT: You know, he owned a lot of land and he and Tom Kennedy used to say, “Well, you know, this is going to raise our taxes quite a little.” And so, Senator Kremer had to walk Senator Nore through the procedure a number of times. And Senator Nore kept asking more questions and more questions, and then he got up and made a little speech about how he wasn't convinced. And finally, Senator Kremer was at the limit of his endurance and he said, “Senator Nore, if you'd get your head out of the sand and listen when I speak, you'd know that I answered that question.”
Senator Nore popped up from his desk and he turned around and started back towards -- he said, “If you were a Christian gentleman, you wouldn't say that.” Senator Kremer started toward him. I was telling you, I had seen five or six confrontations on the floor, others I wouldn't tell you about, but I said, the two most mild gentlemen probably I ever served with, were so intense at that time to actually take a couple steps toward each other and then realize how ridiculous it seemed and they kind of laughed. It broke up. But that will tell you a little bit about --
MR. WILLIAMSON: Yeah, it was emotional. Senator Herb Nore.
MR. SCHMIT: Yeah.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Nice guy as well.
MR. SCHMIT: He just pushed Kremer to the absolute limits that day.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Boy, that's good. Now, and maybe you don't want to comment on this, but you mentioned about really good people working with the NRDs and so on. And your NRD, you kind of hired a different type of manager up there. So, a lot of the NRD managers actually came from the conservation business and so on. But you hired a local landowner and got things underway.
MR. SCHMIT: Well, Al Smith was a (indiscernible) man. He and I had many differences a lot of times, but we always remained good friends.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Good.
MR. SCHMIT: We are to this day. And it doesn't mean we didn't have a lot of knock-down, drag-out conversations. And he had no educational background in this area, and he really -- he actually asked for the job, as did one of my good friends who I went to the University with, Glen Forey (phonetic). Glen had an ag background. He had ag education at the University of Nebraska. And he'd worked in financial areas up there. And they both interviewed for the job. And if I would have been on the board, I probably would have voted for Glen Forey. But Al kind of appealed to these people. They're rugged, tough individuals and good backgrounds, and they liked Al's approach. And Al was the kind of a guy that was, I guess, might say, unorthodox. And he didn't believe in paperwork and he didn't believe in a lot of that stuff. But one of the kind of things of measure, he was able to talk. You know, he could sell the ice box to an Eskimo, if he had enough time. But some of those guys he couldn't even get next to. Well, there had been a railroad derailment in David City, and a boxcar load of barbed wire was derailed and scattered all over the city block. And Al, being the entrepreneur that he was, and knowing they were building some dams and some structures and that sort of thing, bought the whole darn carload for a few bucks. And the NRD guys was loading up that barbed wire. And Al never went out to talk to a farmer that he didn't take a pickup load of barbed wire along. And he'd tell them, now we're going to build that dam there. And it's not going to cost you nothing. He was always thinking (indiscernible) money. He says, “(indiscernible) will give you this (indiscernible) barbed wire, and you'd have some left to get that dam fenced off with this here wire.” He got guys to sign up for a pickup load of barbed wire today you'd pay tens of thousands of dollars for. And I don't think Al ever paid a dollar to a farmer for anything. He convinced them, as we were all in those days, anxious to have a dam.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Sure.
MR. SCHMIT: And he convinced them that he was doing them a favor by locating that dam on their property. Now, sometimes when they actually came out there and started to bulldoze around, “Wait a minute, now.” Al said, “You signed an easement.”
But, Al is still alive today and hasn't changed a bit. I kind of marveled that he might have come in yesterday for that hearing if he'd known about it. I should have invited him, but I didn't know if that would do any good or not.
But he did a lot of things. And he had some tough going in those early days. But he got a lot of the work done for the money. And I think if you go back in those early days, you'd probably find a lot of guys like that. But not many like Al. But he built those dams and he built waterways. And he bought a farm up there and it was called the NRD farm. And the guy that owned it was a nice guy, but he didn't want to build a dam, so Al bought the farm and used it for dam construction and all kinds of terrace construction, sold the farm and made money on it, a lot of money. And so, he had -- and he had the ability to get his board to go along with him. So, you know, I've met a lot of the NRD managers over the years, and I think that with very few exceptions, it was John Turnbull out there and those guys, and John Miyoshi now, they do good work. I get a little bit perturbed once in a while, when I see John out there wanting to build water -- rural water lines and that sort of thing. I'm not sure that's the best idea, to build a water line from David City to Bruno and couldn't get any water out of it. Well, that was (indiscernible) problem. And I don't know -- now we're talking about a water treatment plant for Bellwood. It'd only cost $1,600,000. And I spoke to Mike Mosteck, he's an environmental lawyer, and a smart guy, good guy. And he said, now they have a problem because they've discovered that as they take the uranium out of the -- from (indiscernible), they can't use it and dump it into the Bellwood Lagoon, so they don't know what they're going to do with the uranium. And I said, “Well, maybe we should find somebody to market it to the atomic energy people, I don't know.” But, you know, one problem leads to another. And depends upon who you believe. The local people in Bellwood would insist that the State insisted 20 years ago that we drill the Bellwood well through the rock layer into a lower strata. After that, we drilled through that rock and they claim, and I believe the State admits, that that rock layer bears uranium. And so that contaminates the water. And during the Clinton administration, some fine person back in D.C. decided that it was no longer permissible to allow 50 parts per billion of uranium in drinking water, that 10 parts would be the maximum allowable. Well, Bellwood ranges from six to 12. So, in order to save our lives, and my grandpa only lived to be 92, my great-grandpa was 96, we decided we have to treat our water. Unfortunately, there's almost as many people live in the Bellwood Lakes and Brandenburgh Lakes in Bellwood, but they're not regulated. So, they're all condemned to death. You know, all the farmers are going to die. I will be the only survivor of the deal.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Living in Bellwood.
MR. SCHMIT: Lucky me, right?
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, thank you very much, Senator Loran Schmit. I tell you, a great interview. Loran has done so much for the State of Nebraska, and here he was in 1969 when the NRDs were started. Well, they didn't start until July 1st, 1972, so he had a lot of work to do with his fellow senators doing that, making sure that they got underway. It's been a tremendous interview. And as we sit here in his office today, he's still a very busy man. We call him the Father of Ethanol in the State of Nebraska. He's done so much for that. He's a helicopter pilot and all kinds of things. Outstanding farmer, outstanding legislator. And it's really been a pleasure to have you take your time today to have this interview. And if you have any closing thoughts, we'll wrap it up.
MR. SCHMIT: Well, Dayle, you're very generous. I should have had you as a campaign manager. I might still be in the Legislature.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Those term limits.
MR. SCHMIT: The term limits would take care of that, I guess. It was a pleasure to be there. And as I look back, I can remember, after much debate about the NRDs, and I finally one day got up on the floor and I said, “Well, gentlemen, I've explained all my reasons why I think we might not need this legislation, but it's obvious to me that there's support for the legislation. And I am not going to try any more way to block some legislation. And Senator Kremer has the votes and he can pass the bill.” And when we broke for lunch that day, Bob Crosby, former Governor Bob Crosby, who was my friend and a strong supporter of the NRDs, came to me. And, of course, always being the diplomat, he said, “Loran, you're a real statesman.” He said, “You surrendered, but” he said, “you surrendered with grace.” And I said, “Well, I knew I was whipped. And so, I'm going to try to help make it work.” So we worked with Senator Kremer and any other relationships after that to make it work. And as that is said, we are unique in Nebraska to have the NRDs, and we're entering a new stage today with Senator Carlson's bills, Senator Schilz's bills, and we're giving the NRDs a lot more responsibility. And the Legislature is responsible for maintaining the controls they need. I think they'll probably do a good job of it. I have a lot of confidence in the legislative system, and a lot of confidence in the Nebraska State employees. It's always good sport to complain about public employees, but I drove to Lincoln for 24 years every morning from Bellwood, and not one morning was I unable to get there, because of bad roads or anything else. I was always able to get there. I always got there at 6:00 in the morning. There were always people working when I got there. And there were people working when I left. And so, there are always going to be some people that are less ambitious or less capable, but there's a lot of good people working day and night to make the system work, and I'm pretty proud of the State of Nebraska and their employees.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, that's an excellent statement to wrap this interview up. And thank you again for an excellent interview for scholars that may be listening to this 100 years from now. Thank you very much, Senator Loran Schmit.
MR. SCHMIT: Thank you, Dayle.