Over the moon: An old-timey bakery is putting Cortland, pop. 505, on map

CORTLAND – It’s five days before the big day.

The Model A dashes down West Fourth Street. Its driver eases up in front of a brick storefront and strolls inside, jaunty as you please, dressed in his Sunday best.

The black-and-white scene turns technicolor, like a Gage County “Pleasantville,” as a brunette with cherry red lips leans in with a coffee pot and a wink.

Welcome to Paper Moon Pastries, the 1930s-style small-town bakery inspired by a classic movie – its introduction to the sweet-eating public set to the sound of tinny music from a bygone era, but captured with a drone and an iPhone. 

That spring night, the brunette baker heads home – a short tree-lined stroll away – and edits the footage into 38 seconds of nostalgia.

“It’s not a commercial if it’s not a little corny, right?,” she writes on social media. “Share the news!”

Lindsey Oelling is an actress, an artist, a baker, a therapist, a TikTok queen and history-loving small town revivalist. But she wouldn’t be any of this if not for a faulty ‘55 Chevy and a grandmother she’d never know.

On May 21, 2022, after years of dreaming, months of planning and a frantic, hopeful week of baking, Oelling retraces her steps to Fourth Street, crosses her fingers and opens for business for the first time at 7 a.m. 

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She unlocks the door with 100 cinnamon rolls, a pair of cakes, a tray of cupcakes, a batch of cookies and her best friend Sean Flattery – the fella behind the wheel of the Model A – on hand to pour coffee.

And when she does…

“The line stretched into the street and around the building and it stayed that way the entire time.”

She sells her last cinnamon roll at 8 a.m.

“Two hours later, we were out of everything.”

Lindsey Oelling selects a “Moon Bar” for David and Michelle Bloomquist’s 3-year-old grandson Camden as she helps customers at her bakery, Paper Moon Pastries in Cortland on Saturday Oct. 5, 2022. Lines to get into the bakery have sometimes stretched out the door and down the block.  Eric Gregory for the Flatwater Free Press 

It’s Friday: Kolache Day. 

It’s Oelling’s day off from her full-time job as a mental health therapist at Blue Valley Health.

The 31-year-old is wearing a flour-dusted apron in the Paper Moon kitchen, the glass front door dripping sweat from the heat of three ovens. 

It’s a scene out of yesteryear. Historic town photos. Nehi soda bottles. Penny candy in glass jars. There’s the mural Oelling painted on a long wall in the dining room with a look-alike-Lindsey-swinging on a crescent moon, a nod to the hand-painted advertisements on brick buildings of small-town America.

There’s the vintage radio and a tattered cigar box, like the one Tatum O’Neal toted in “Paper Moon,” the 1973 movie she starred in alongside her father, Ryan. The movie Oelling watched with her own dad, cozy on the basement couch, falling in love with the black-and-white charm and the chutzpah of the heroine.

“I loved the story,” she says. “And the father-daughter dynamic.”

Carol Niemeyer butters a freshly baked tray of kolaches at Paper Moon Pastries in Cortland on Friday, Oct. 4, 2022. Eric Gregory for the Flatwater Free Press

People have two questions when she tells them about Paper Moon Pastries – “The best sweet treats this side of 77.”

One: “Why would you move to Cortland?

Two: “Why would you open a bakery there?”

Easy. She was house-hunting in 2016, and found a place that checked all the boxes. Her mom grew up here, her childhood memories are laced with holiday visits to her grandpa’s and tractor pulls at Cortland Fest. She loved this town’s charm, its community spirit.

And why not a bakery in Cortland, pop. 505?

“I wanted to give people a place to go,” she says. “I’m a therapist and a lot of people are lonely – and they don’t like to say that.”

For years, as she plied her friends and fellow community theater cast members with “test treats,” she had a vision for her bakery: A place to slow down and make memories from food created with love.

Oelling talks as she shapes balls of dough into puffy nests, piping in the filling of Czech heaven. Apricot. Cherry. Cream cheese.

Beside her in the cramped kitchen, Carol Niemeyer peers in an oven, checking for the perfect finish. The Dewitt great-grandmother drives three times a week to this commuter town between Lincoln and Beatrice.

“My husband died and I need something to keep busy,” she says. “This has helped me a lot.”

Owner Lindsey Oelling (left) and assistant Carol Niemeyer bake kolaches at her bakery, Paper Moon Pastries in Cortland on Friday Oct. 4, 2022. Eric Gregory for the Flatwater Free Press

It’s helped Oelling, too. She’s built Paper Moon Pastrics on a shoestring without money for a commercial oven. 

She’s here until midnight all week making cinnamon rolls and cakes, cupcakes and cookies and her signature Moon Bars, frosting and decorating and preparing for Saturdays.

Monday morning, it’s back to her day job. Since the pandemic, she’s been counseling clients remotely from the mid-century gem she restored – posting the transformation on TikTok and gaining 65,000 followers. (She added bakery reno to her missmidcentury videos and two fans from New York stopped this summer to nosh on her goodies.)

Dad was the cookie maker growing up, she says. She inherited his chocolate-chip recipe. Mom bakes the Paper Moon pies.

Lindsey Oelling is the oldest of Kent and Lori Oelling’s three kids. 

She grew up near Roca in a house her great-grandfather built. She went to school at Norris. 

When she was 9, her little brother was diagnosed with leukemia and she and her baby sister spent lots of time with Grandma Jean – her dad’s mom – while their parents made endless trips to the hospital in Omaha.

“We’d wake up and make pancakes in the morning,” Oelling says. “And I’d help her make kolaches.”

Grandma Jean made cinnamon rolls, too, buttery crescent rolls and runzas. She used the same dough recipe, sweet and soft.

It’s the dough Oelling makes now; enough for 350-400 cinnamon rolls each week and just as many kolaches.

There wouldn’t be a Paper Moon without Grandma Jean, she says.

There wouldn’t be a Paper Moon without Grandma Lorene, either. 

***

It was Aug. 27, 1983.

Kent and Lori Oelling had been married just two weeks.

Lori’s sister and her family were moving and Lori was there to help unpack. Her parents were there, too – Lorene and Raymond Thomsen. 

Kent was on his way to their new rental house in Princeton, a tiny town three miles north of Cortland, to lend some muscle, but his ‘55 Chevy kept cutting out on the highway, so he turned around and returned to Roca.

After lunch, Lori’s mom told her to go home. You’re a newlywed, she said. You need to be with your husband. 

“She practically kicked me out,” Lori says. 

Lorene shooed her husband Raymond out, too. He had a sore shoulder and she didn’t want him to strain it. Go, she said. 

After they left, the house exploded. Propane leak. Four people were horribly burned. Lori’s sister and her sister’s husband and the husband’s mother, too. And Lorene, Lori’s mom.

Lorene Thomsen, who died in a 1983 house explosion that killed four people and nearly claimed the lives of her daughter Lori Oelling and Lori’s then-newlywed husband Kent Oelling. Seven years later, Lori gave birth to the couple’s first child: Lindsey Oelling. Courtesy photo

None of them would survive.

Seven years later, Lori gave birth to her and Kent’s first child, Lindsey.

A creative girl with a big heart, Lori says. “She’s an old soul in a young body.”

When her little brother got  sick, Lindsey Oelling started the Toy Box of Love Fund and convinced her fellow fourth-graders to make Christmas ornaments to sell at the annual craft fair. They raised $5,000 for toys for children hospitalized at Nebraska Medicine.

After college, she moved in with her ailing Grandma Jean to care for her. 

Oelling had her own health troubles. An autoimmune disease. Tumors on her thyroid. A blood test that pointed to cancer.

“She’s been through a lot,” her mom says. “Knowing I lost my family so young and her own scares, it put everything in perspective for her.”

Oelling says the same thing, on her feet hour after hour in her Paper Moon kitchen. 

“I’ve always felt like there’s not enough time,” she says. “That you shouldn’t wait for things to happen.”

You should make them happen.

Customers enjoy coffee and baked goods at Lindsey Oelling’s Paper Moon Pastries in Cortland on Saturday Oct. 5, 2022. Eric Gregory for the Flatwater Free Press  

Rich Douglass is Oelling’s landlord. 

Grandma Lorene was the bookkeeper for his uncle’s hardware store next door to Paper Moon.

The hardware store is now the Opry House, where Douglass and local musicians gather to play old time country music on Tuesday nights. (They’ve invited Oelling to join them and he can vouch for her rendition of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”)

Over the past year, the retired ag teacher has watched the young baker transform a shuttered hair salon – last in a line of failed businesses on the block – taking down walls, pulling up linoleum, stripping glue, painting walls and refinishing booths she snagged from an Omaha Schlotzsky’s.

The 1973 movie “Paper Moon,” is Lindsey Oelling’s favorite film.  She named her Cortland bakery Paper Moon Pastries after the film. The bakery’s decor follows suit. Also included: A photo of her Grandma Jean. Eric Gregory for the Flatwater Free Press

And then he watched the business blossom.

“I told her I’ve got a bet going to guess when there’s not going to be a line down the block.”

Even before the bakery opened, Oelling was a force for Cortland. 

Last year, she organized a chili cookoff, accompanied by her cinnamon rolls and raised $300 for the town’s community improvement fund.

In September, she pulled off the Over the Moon Fall Festival with 20 vendors, a dog costume contest, vintage car show and a second chili cookoff. The town flooded with people on a sunny Saturday. She gave away her homemade treats, and guests donated  $1,700 for Cortland.

“She pretty much single-handedly creates an event and gets people to be involved in it,” Douglass says. “She’s got the young guns.”

Devin Schroeder is one of them. The 32-year-old and his wife Jenny opened Homestead Convenience – gas station and homemade pizza joint — on the west side of Highway 77, a few months before Paper Moon opened and joined in her organizing efforts.

“We’re both trying to revive the town a bit; it was needing a boost,” Schroeder says.“Quite frankly, anytime we go to Paper Moon, we walk away and we’re so happy she’s here.”

Lisa Kohout, chair of the Cortland Village Board, walks away happy, too. (Although sometimes she drives by first to check out the line.)

Cortland is working to grow, Kohout said. The new bakery helps. 

“We have people from all over who drive in to go to her business. It’s just something we’ve been missing in town for a long time.”

Lindsey Oelling with best friend and co-worker Sean Flattery at the Paper Moon this summer. The pair wears clothing that fits the old-timey vibe of the pastry shop. Susan Larson Rodenburg for the Flatwater Free Press

West Fourth Street bustles on the second Saturday of November, nary a parking spot to be found.

It’s been six months since Oelling starred in that iPhone commercial.

Six months of cherry red lipstick and vintage dresses and Flattery in a white shirt and bowtie, serving coffee. 

It turned out it took more than two to run this sweet show.

The baker’s parents are here most Saturdays, and Niemeyer, the widow from Dewitt, and Ben Huenemann, Oelling’s too-good-to-be-true boyfriend washing dishes.

Customers enter Lindsey Oelling’s bakery, Paper Moon Pastries in Cortland on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2022. Eric Gregory for the Flatwater Free Press

It’s late morning when Oelling sells the last piece of Death by Chocolate cake. She admires the pink lipstick on a little girl from Roca and serves up a cherry-frosted chocolate cupcake to the girl’s 4-year-old brother. She boxes cinnamon rolls and pecan rolls and kolaches. She asks people where they’re from. How they’re doing.

This is her favorite day of the week.

Oelling will turn 32 in December. She’s starting a private therapy practice. She’s dreaming a bigger dream.

In the crowded dining room with its lookalike-Lindsey swinging on a Paper Moon, two Beatrice friends finish their pastries.

“It’s a cute little place for a get-together,” Mary Scherling says, and the only place she has ever found a Bavarian cream kolache. 

“It’s quaint,” Jolene Pike adds.

Then she leans closer and lowers her voice.

“It needs to be bigger if it keeps going this way.”

By Cindy Lange-Kubick

Cindy Lange-Kubick began her writing career at the "Malcolm News," penned on her popo's Mobil Oil invoices in her grandparents' home in the small Lancaster County town. She returned to journalism years later as a harried mother of three, and happily spent the next 28 years writing columns at the Lincoln Journal Star. When she cleaned out her desk in August 2021, she carted home her three prized possessions: The Robert T. Morse Award for excellence in mental health reporting from the American Psychiatric Association, the Great Plains Journalism Award for column writing and a handmade plaque from her cribbage partner Stan, in honor of a once-in-a-lifetime feat: a perfect 29 hand.

3 Comments

Excellent article as always! Thank you for shining a light on another story that needs to be told as only Flatwater Free Press can. I am going to have to take a trip to Cortland soon to support this wonderful place and the amazing people involved.

Sounds wonderful. My husband’s family and is third generation Gage County residents. There is lots of room to grow new ideas there and this is great.

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