KEARNEY — Commodity markets are down, ethanol plants are idled and uncertainty swirls from a global pandemic.
It’s a year when there’s not much for farmers to celebrate, but the Kearney Hub is honoring a family that has been celebrating for five decades with old-fashioned hog roasts that attract hundreds of family members and friends.
This year marks 50 years since the Noller family’s first hog roast.
The early August event at the Noller Farm northeast of Kearney was Ed Noller’s idea. He and his wife Kathleen saw three of their four sons drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, so when the last of the sons, Wayne, returned from his hitch as an infantryman in Vietnam, Ed figured it was time to celebrate.
Each of the hog roasts since the first one in 1970 has been memorable in its own way, and each required loads of planning and preparation — part of the reason the Nollers are receiving the Hub’s Freedom Award for outstanding voluntarism in agriculture.
The family is award-worthy, said Mike Knispel of Minden, who nominated the Nollers, because for years the family has provided the setting and roasted pork for an event that exemplifies Nebraska’s neighborly traditions. While the Nollers provide the roasted pork and the location, everyone else supplies tasty side dishes.
“There’s table after table to choose from,” Knispel said. “And there are lines of friends a half-block long on both sides of the tables greeting and reuniting, while dozens still wait in their lawn chairs talking about the past and waiting for their turn in line.”
The hog roasts have become legendary during their 50-year run, and through trial and error, they’ve been fine-tuned and grown to as many as 400 people.
All of the events have been down-to-earth affairs, especially the first.
The Nollers butchered a hog for the 1970 event and roasted it over a wood fire with volunteers rotating the meat on a spit.
“Nobody who turned that meat had any hair left on their arms because they were so close to the fire,” said Tom Noller.
In that first year, Ed and Kathleen Noller were thankful to have their sons back home so they invited folks to share their joy. The Noller boys included Wayne, Kirk, Tom and Bill.
Tom and Kirk served in Germany during Vietnam. Wayne was in the middle of the fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. As a point man, he was at the head of the column of soldiers as they patrolled the thick jungle, knowing they could be ambushed at any moment.
Wayne survived the war, but he suffered PTSD and died from symptoms of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant that’s been blamed for the deaths of thousands of Vietnam veterans.
The youngest brother, Bill, was 12 in 1970. He didn’t serve in the military, but — as the story goes — he made a significant contribution to the success of the first event when the animal he planned to enter in the county fair unknowingly was butchered for the roast.
“I wasn’t too set on showing pigs at the fair anyway,” Bill said last week, but it felt good to have his brothers back from the military. “I was worried about all three of them.”
Kirk Noller said he’s not convinced the annual hog roast qualifies for a voluntarism award. “It is merely an avenue for anyone who wishes to attend a family oriented, picnic style, outdoor party, complete with a great meal, lots of laughter and socializing.”
He said many contribute to the hog roast’s success, including family, friends and neighbors.
“Over the years many of our neighbors have donated hogs and their time to help make a grand evening of festivity. This award belongs to everyone who helps, including the families who show up with their favorite side dish to share. This award belongs to everyone who tells stories, sings, plays music, enjoys the games and socializes.”
The Noller event revolves around the meal, but there are many activities and opportunities to renew friendships. They include volleyball, horseshoes, cornhole, bolo toss, live music and a sing-along. There’s a fenced area with a sandbox, swing set, slide and tepee where the smallest children can play safely.
A covered wagon ride runs through the woods on the Noller farm and stops only when the supper bell rings.
“One of the bigger attractions is the 16-foot wide tree swing, which usually has 12 people on it,” Kirk Noller said.
About 50 volunteers arrive on Thursday night to butcher hogs. The meat soaks a day or so in water, then it is put over the fire around dawn the day of the hog roast.
The cleanup after the Saturday hog roast begins at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. Breakfast is served, and “by noon everything is picked up, cleaned up and put away. Some of us go home for an afternoon nap,” Kirk Noller said.
Bill Noller said his favorite part of the hog roasts is working with his brothers to tidy up the grounds and butcher the hogs. “It’s nice, at least once a year, to get together with your brothers getting ready for the hog roast.”
Depending upon coronavirus concerns, Kirk Noller said it’s likely the 50th annual event will be the last of the Noller Hog Roasts.
“We were party animals 50 years ago,” he said, “but everybody has gotten older and some are gone, so now it’s time for something else.”
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