Who could miss the unique “Sapp Bros” truck stop signs that stretch across Nebraska? They rise above the horizon, like the water towers in every small town in the state, beckoning travelers home.
For some, the “Sapp Bros” name goes beyond the truck stops. As Husker fans hit the road to Lincoln every fall, the Sapp brothers become as familiar as the voice of Matt Davison on their radios.
Every Husker touchdown scores a donation from the Sapp brothers to the Future Farmers of America. In the spring, Husker baseball homeruns earn the same.
We all know the “Sapp Bros” name, but do we know the Sapp brothers?
The Sapp Brothers’ Story: Tough Times, Teamwork & Faith is their answer to that question. A rags-to-big-rigs memoir, it reminds us that today’s uncertain economy isn’t the first, or the worst, America has weathered.
The “tough times” begin on small, hardscrabble farms in eastern Nebraska as the four Sapp brothers – Bill, Lee, Ray and Dean, along with three sisters — grow up.
Narrated by Bill and Lee – Ray and Dean are gone now – Lee begins with his birth. “According to the midwife and the chicken scale, I weighed a hefty 14 pounds,” he jokes.
It was 1929, the year the stock market crashed, and, he adds, “the year my dad went broke feeding cattle.”
That was no joke. The resulting depression nearly sank the large Sapp family. Struggling to make a living on rented farms, they moved every March. Finally, they were forced to appeal to the Works Progress Administration for government welfare.
Other than the occasional fistfight at school, the Sapp brothers took being “WPA kids” in stride.
“We learned early that waxed cartons work better than newspapers to plug up shoes with holes in them,” Bill writes.
As five-year-olds, the boys milked cows. In their early teens, Lee and Ray worked for a neighbor for a quarter a day, shocking and stacking hay. They were to keep half their wages and give half to their father.
“When the time came, Dad took his 12 and a half cents, and then he took about six more cents because he needed the money,” Lee writes. “Well, at that time I thought he was the meanest man in the world, but he wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination. He just needed the money.”
Although they moved often, the situation rarely changed. The houses were heated with firewood and lacked running water.
“We had to go out to the windmill and pump the water to fill our pails and then carry them to the house,” Lee writes. “I saw my mother out there so many times pumping water that it made me feel bad.”
Their mother, Emily Hubka Sapp, the “prayer warrior” of the family, was a family-loving, hard-working woman of Czech origin. Both brothers praise her.
“There’s an old saying that most Czech women could outwork their husbands,” Bill writes, “and that appeared to be true.”
“My mother did all the cooking and washing, and then she’d help with the field work, too,” Lee writes. “She would help shock the wheat, shock the oats, haul the grain with a team of horses to the granary on the farm, and milk the cows.”
Educated at Peru College, Emily Sapp encouraged her children to get an education, too. Three of the four boys went to college. All four served in the military.
Then, in 1960, all four brothers converged on a Ford dealership in Ashland and bought it out.
But, as Lee writes, “Once we opened our doors for business on that lovely June day, the only real problem was that none of us had any experience actually selling cars. Ford didn’t especially care for that fact when they found out about it.”
Too bad. By the time the Ford Motor Co. got around to putting the brakes on their dealership, the Sapp brothers were already in overdrive.
“We had probably sold more cars in the short time we had been open than the previous dealership had done in three years, and we were doing more business than the biggest dealership in Lincoln,” Lee writes.
Their secret? Honesty. They gave the buyer a copy of the manufacturer’s invoice showing their cost, an innovative move at the time. And they traded for anything, including combines, trucks and cattle.
“I attribute a lot of our early success to our being honest and trustworthy,” Lee writes. “That’s how we went from Ashland to Blair to GMC to the truck stops to petroleum, and right on down the line.”
“Right on down the line” is currently 16 family-oriented travel centers and the largest petroleum jobber and propane distributorship in Nebraska.
And that big coffeepot in the sky? The first was originally a water tower at the Armour meatpacking plant in south Omaha.
“The water tower was not planned in the beginning,” Bill writes. “I was traveling along Q Street in Omaha and a voice within me told me I needed the old black Armour water tower.”
Having long ago learned the value of a dollar, they purchased it for the price of the used iron. “Tough times, teamwork and faith” turned it into gold.
First published in the May 16 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.