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Long-time resident keeps history alive
May 07, 2015 Jerry Purvis   

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Photo by Jerry Purvis/Gering Citizen - Longtime Valley resident Lillis Grassmick smiles at the camera from her living room at The Village in Scottsbluff. Grassmick has made significant contributions to the preservation of our area’s history.

Established in 1963 by President John Kennedy, Older Citizens Month is observed in May to honor the nation’s senior citizens for their contributions that make for strong communities.

Although she now lives in Scottsbluff, a familiar face in Gering is Lillis Grassmick, who’s made her own mark on the town’s history.

“I was born on the northwest corner of the Gering Civic Center parking lot in my grandmother’s house,” Lillis said. “I have one brother, Donn Conn, who lives in Loveland. He’s an artist and a writer.”

So after she was married, Lillis referred to herself as an “ex-Conn.”

The back yard of Lillis’ home, near Legion Park, had no grass, but it did have flower and vegetable gardens.

“I was the only girl in the neighborhood,” she said. “All of us kids had more fun in our backyards. We dug ‘caves’ that was just a hole with boards laid over it. One of them we called our ‘cussing cave’ where you could only go in if you sat in there and cussed.”

Of course, curse words back then were very mild. “One time, my father had to call in two men with a team of mules and a wagon to bring in dirt to fill on all the holes in our yard,” she said.

“Kids don’t have near as much fun today as we had,” Lillis said. “We played marbles. We hiked to the monument once a week during the summer. We’d all gather in Legion Park in the evening and played Capture the Flag. Today, kids just sit in front of a computer screen.”

Oregon Trail Days was always a special time for Lillis, as the main parade came right by her house. And after the parade, she said everyone went to Legion Park for a picnic.

She also remembers summer for when the Hugo Players would come to town. The family would set up a tent at what is now the Dollar General parking lot. They’d perform a number of different theater shows, from mystery to comedy to drama during their stay of three to four nights.

“I remember Mrs. Hugo would be out in front selling tickets dressed in a Japanese kimono,” she said. “She always wore that so no one could see her costume for the show ahead of time.”

And of course, movies were important to kids. Live performances and perhaps a melodrama were also featured at theaters back then. And kids would make a stop at the Sugar Shack for penny candy prior to the movie.

Later in life, Lillis became involved in Oregon Trail Days and its organizations. She started out judging the kiddie parade in the late 1950s. She served as general chairman, was a member of the Half Century Club and also hono red as the Old Settlers Vice President.

Also during that time, she had a business with partners Nancy Haney and Becky Simpson. “One day we went to an auction in Scottsbluff that had racks of vintage clothes. That was when vintage clothes became popular again. We thought we could sell those things, so Nancy started bidding.”

That turned into the business Reflections, which sold vintage clothes and also presented historic fashion shows. “We really didn’t have a store until we rented some space on the second floor of the old Courier building,” she said. “We were in business for about 11 years. We didn’t really need it to make a living. We were just having fun – more fun than three women should have had.”

During that time, Lillis also organized a program she called “Of Human Bondage,” a history of ladies’ undergarments. The bondage term came from the Victorian period, when women who wanted the ideal 18-inch waist would cinch themselves into corsets. They would always carry a bottle of smelling salts so they could be revived after passing out from the tight clothing.

After Reflections sold, Lillis took a part-time job heading up Scottsbluff-Gering Clean Communities Commission, the forerunner of Keep Scottsbluff-Gering Beautiful. The knowledge she gained from attending seminars at the national organization in Washington. D.C. helped in the next step – director of the North Platte Valley Museum.

“That was a dream job for someone like me,” Lillis said. “I stayed there for the next 11 years.”

During her years at the museum, Lillis also helped organize a chapter of Questers, a group of antique enthusiasts. Two more chapters have since formed in the community due to increasing numbers of members.

Questers also involve themselves in restoration and preservation projects. Members volunteer frequently at Legacy of the Plains Museum and helped move the displays of the North Platte Valley Museum into the merged Legacy of the Plains.

Lillis moved from Gering to The Village in Scottsbluff last summer, but still remains active. Each month, she gives a history presentation to her fellow residents. Last month, she talked about the numerous theaters that have opened and closed over the years in Scottsbluff.

“We started what we called the History Circle, and people talk about their own history and experience,” she said. “I’m also learning more new things from the group.”

In addition to preserving our cultural history, Lillis plays in three bridge clubs and is active in her church.

Lillis said her son was right when he told her that when it comes to friends, she’s a billionaire.
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