Old-Fashioned Egg Hunt

Hometown Heroes, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on April 5, 2009
Harland J. Schuster Don and Cleo Madden have hosted the annual egg hunt–along with their daughters Julie, Jenny and Janice–on their Martell, Neb., farm since 1961.

Toting Easter baskets and plastic buckets, hundreds of children cluster at the pasture gates at Don Madden's farm near Martell, Neb., and await the magic word.

Just as he has done for 47 years, Madden shouts an enthusiastic "Go!"

Kids swarm onto the surrounding fields searching for 3,300 colorful Easter eggs hidden by the Madden family. Annalese Talkington, 3, of Lincoln, stands and looks wide-eyed at the flurry of activity around her.

"Look over here. What's this?" prompts her mother, Holly Talkington. Annalese sees the egg under a clump of grass and scoops it up. "See," the toddler says, smiling and holding out her treasure.

Since 1961, children have flocked to the Madden farm on the day before Easter for an old-fashioned egg hunt-an event that Don started as a young father for his toddler daughter's Sunday school class.

"That first year about 25 people showed up," he says. "Then the other Sunday schools heard about it and I opened it up to them. Then I thought, 'Well, some kids don't go to church and I couldn't leave them out.'"

One year, nearly 700 children and adults attended the Easter egg hunt, which has grown into a two-day production for Madden and his wife, Cleo, both 72, their three adult daughters, and a dozen or so friends and neighbors.

Last year, the Maddens and their helpers spent all day Friday hard-boiling, dyeing and decorating 960 real eggs; filling 2,400 plastic eggs with 60 pounds of candy; and baking and decorating
500 cupcakes.

"The warmer the forecast, the more eggs we do," says daughter Jenny Carlson, 44, of Lincoln. The hunt has been postponed only once when heavy rain turned the fields into a muddy mess, but it never has been canceled because of snow or cold weather.

"Dad lit a bonfire one year so we could warm our hands," Carlson recalls.

Bundled up against last year's freezing temperatures, Carlson and her two sisters, Janice Oenbring, 49, and Julie Dixon, 33, also from Lincoln, loaded eggs into 30-gallon buckets and headed to the pastures Saturday morning to hide them across 22 acres.

To enhance the excitement, Oenbring used a marker to write "Prize Egg" on 30 eggs. Lucky hunters who find them get to select a toy from the prize table. Cleo shops year-round for bargains on fancy dolls, plush donkeys and other animals, toy farm sets, art kits and board games.

Ross Manley, 8, of Omaha, was last year's luckiest hunter. He found two prize-winning eggs. "I was crossing a little dry stream and I felt something on my foot," Ross says about finding one of the eggs. He redeemed the eggs for a toy airplane and a giant chocolate bunny.

Three generations of the Bob Vanecek family have fond memories of egg hunts at the Madden farm. Vanecek, 66, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, first brought his son, Tim, now 36, to the farm in 1975. Last year, Tim and his wife, Jennifer, of Mineola, Iowa, brought their 2-year-old twins, Anthony and Joely.

"Oh, man, it's amazing," says the elder Vanecek, watching the happy kids eat cupcakes and pose for photos with a costumed Easter bunny. "Don has a heart of gold."

After the hunt, some of the children wander to the backyard pens to admire the peacocks and fancy-plumed poultry that the Maddens raise.

One year, Don borrowed a lamb for the party.

By 4 p.m., the egg hunters have filled their baskets and bellies and headed to their cars and pickup trucks lining both sides of the dirt road in front of the Madden farmhouse.

"We've had such good people through the years," Cleo says. "The kids are so good about picking up their candy wrappers. They're polite and well-mannered."

Every year, people ask the Maddens if there will be another hunt next Easter.

"I don't look at it as how do you keep it going, but how do you stop?" Don says with a laugh. "You see these kids, how excited they are. How could I quit?"