What began as a weekend project a dozen years ago and grew into the iconic wedding gift amongst a group of friends, now lives and breathes as a successful evolving local business. Hometown boys Michael Stepp and Matt Dennis built copper mugs by hand in the hours before and after work for years, keeping pace with growing demand around Nebraska and, eventually, the United States.
“We decided to build a website and pursue this as a business endeavor”, Matt says. “An article in the Omaha World Herald launched a wave of excitement early on, and the support from our hometown and state, ever since, has been incredible,” Michael adds. “It really goes to show that coming back here to raise our families has been the best decision we could’ve made."
Both 2004 graduates from O’Neill High School, Dennis and Stepp left Holt County to pursue college degrees. They each graduated from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and spent their first five years in the ‘real world’ in Omaha and Lincoln, respectively. The allure of rural life and small community brought them back, eventually. “We both had successful family-run businesses that served as an opportunity to move ‘back home’ to raise families here” says Matt.
Michael speaks eagerly about his sentiments regarding his hometown. “That sense of community is a welcomed one. I think we all like to feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. That small town, midwestern friendliness can feel nostalgic, like a step back in time from the hurried hustle of the city. The old saying ‘it takes a village’ applies to more that just raising a family; I think we all benefit from being surrounded by folks who genuinely care – who’ve got your back.”
Handlebend’s latest endeavor must be rooted in that very same emotion. In April of 2019 Matt and Michael purchased the familiar Shelhamer Building here in O’Neill. Built in the early 1940’s, the red block building has a storied history.
“If a building can be charismatic, this one certainly is. We are told, every day, of memories that come from this old place. Members of our community are constantly sharing stories with us of trips to the parts store with Dad, or Grandpa, lunch or ice cream at noon in the café, helping carry groceries out on a busy weekend night, or sweetheart dances for teens in the basement armory. These bricks are older than us, and far more storied. The Shelhamer Building has stood over main street, O’Neill, Nebraska for the better part of a century, and it still has good bones. We think it’s got a lot more years and a few more stories to tell.”
It has been a whirlwind of a year for Handlebend. Keeping up with the copper has proven to be a formidable task, when coupled with the Shelhamer Restoration Project. Handlebend has grown slowly but steadily over the last handful of years, and now leans on the help of new local resident “Mo”, their full-time coppersmith, as well as supplemental part-time help from other O’Neill talents.
“Mo has been the supporting cast, for sure” Michael says. “It’s been a busy, crazy year and she’s done really well.” “And She knows everyone” he adds, “She had more friends than me in 2 weeks of living here, and I’ve been here my whole life!”
“In all seriousness, we are surrounded by home-grown, rural Nebraska talent. The girls at the Clover Collab (Handlebend’s photography half), Mo, and our supporting cast at the copper shop; it’s incredible the skill sets and level of creativity that are right here in our hometown. I think that speaks a lot for the kind of people that a small-town upbringing can produce. We are very fortunate.”
According to Matt and Michael, Handlebend found traction early-on in some well-timed connections. “The statewide response and enthusiasm really spurred our confidence to keep pushing forward” Matt says. Michael smiles and adds, “It’s been like a big hug from our hometown and the state of Nebraska, and we’re excited to keep going”.
And moving forward, they are. These boys aim to rally the community and restore the days of old; the Shelhamer building was only the start. “We want to resurrect it’s old habits of bringing people together; of making neighbors and friends out of perfect strangers. We want to protect the sense of Nebraska warmth and hospitality that has made passers-by feel like locals for a hundred years” Michael explains.
The Shelhamer building seems to be a good start at just that; housing multiple businesses including Douglas Street Coffee Company, The Clover Photography Collaboration, The Village Flower and Gift, and soon, Handlebend Tap, the spirit of community has begun.
“It’s been a process. It’s a work-in-progress, working through the more complicated details of sharing space on a business level” says Matt. “Yep” reasons Michael, “but we all feel pretty strongly that we’re better off together; so we’re gonna figure it out.”
Partially open since November, the group is working towards a building-wide grand opening on Thursday, February 6th. A Ribbon cutting will be held, along with special guests at 1 pm. The building will be open and each business will hold an open-house throughout the day. See the detailed flyer on any of the business’ Facebook pages for scheduling, or check out “Handlebend Building” on Facebook for all building-associated events.
“In today’s world of technology, everything seems to be ever-faster paced” says Michael. “We’re really interested in providing shelter from that. Folks, in general, don’t spend time sharing stories or visiting like they should. We want this building to be a place to stop. It’s a place to sit down and slow down, and to enjoy each other’s company. It’s been going on within these brick walls for decades – ever since the Shelhamers put it all together…we just want to help bring that back.”
Follow along with, and become a part of Handlebend’s story @handlebend on social media, and at www.handlebend.com!