Nebraska, where the “True” West began
ABOVE PHOTO: Brownville Trolley
By Renée S. Gordon
“All in or you’re not in at all.”
--John Henri Kagi
Nomadic hunters initially inhabited the region that is now Nebraska, according to archeological evidence, more than 10,000 years ago. Indians who established villages and grew crops followed them and eventually the Pawnee and Arikaras who populated the region the longest, as well as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Chippewa, Delaware, Lakota Sioux, Omaha, Otoe, Ponca, Potawatome, Sauk and Winnebago, would migrate into the area. It is estimated that approximately 40,000 Native Americans resided in “Kansas” when Europeans, in the person of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, arrived in 1540 and 1724 when Etienne de Bourgmont claimed the land for France. www.native-languages.org/nebraska
Horses, once indigenous to the New World, vanished around 10,000 years ago but the Spanish in the 16th-century reintroduced them. The Native Americans quickly obtained horses, adapted them to their lifestyle and became expert horsemen on the battlefield and in hunting the buffalo.
The Mallett Brothers, who traveled through the plains in the early 1700s, were the first documented nonindigenous settlers. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase added Nebraska to US territory for 42 cents per acre and Lewis and Clark’s expedition reached the area the following year. It was not until 1854 that the Kansas-Nebraska Act separated the Nebraska Territory from Kansas. This act also allowed settlement and the states to decide the issue of territorial slavery. On March 1, 1867 Nebraska became the 37th state. The name, “flat water” in the Otoe language, was used to refer to the Platte River the region’s most important waterway.
Nebraska has always been ideally positioned to be in the forefront of America’s second wave of history. As settlement moved westward Nebraska was the location of the major routes including the California, Military, Mormon, Oregon, Trapper’s Trails and Pony Express. The state offers visitors outstanding dining and entertainment venues, a variety of lodgings, unique outdoor experiences and an unparalleled history that is stunning in its diversity.
Brownville is a great place to begin a tour of the southeastern portion of the state. Brownville founded in August of 1854 by Richard Brown and became the biggest town and one of the most significant steamboat landings on the Missouri River as well as the location where wagon trains began their overland journey westward. On January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman filed the first registered homestead claim in the nation here.
The people of Brownville realized that steamboats were being replaced by trains in the 1860s and mortgaged everything to build a railroad. The builder, after only 10 miles of track, provided the town with a demonstration, pulling the track up as he went. Many of the people, disenchanted and destitute, deserted the town. In the 1930s, WPA workers took up residence and voted for a new school. The school bankrupted the city and more people moved on. In the 1960s, much of the property was sold at auction because no taxes had been paid since the 1930s.
Modern Brownville is a gem of such historic significance that the town was designated the Brownville Historic District more than 40 years ago. There are more than 32 historic structures and a number of homes and museums are available for tours. www.brownville-ne.com
Richard Brown built the Italianate Brown/Carson Period House in 1860 with a second story wooden addition by John Carson, a Pennsylvania native who established the first bank. Many of the furnishings belonged to the Carsons. Although Brownville was strongly Union Brown was a slaveowner and legend has it that he was run out of town because of his stance.
The John Didier Log Cabin was constructed in 1854 on his 120-acre farm and was relocated to Boettner Park in 2008. Didier lived in the two-room cabin for 63 years, many of those shared with his Sioux wife Mary. The main floor is 15’ x 15’ with a loft that is 7’ x 15’ and a 7’x15’ porch.
The Brownville Historic Society is located inside the 1877 Captain Bailey House. Bailey reportedly haunts the brick structure. He returned from the Civil War with a bride to the dismay of his next-door neighbor. She was so distraught she poisoned him.
Brownville Depot and Railroad History Museum interprets the story and impact of the railroad on the region. It opened in 2009 in the preserved 1875 depot. An exterior exhibit features a caboose.
An 1884 American Prairie Gothic church is the site of the new Flatwater Folk Art Museum. The museum showcases vernacular and outsider artworks by national artists.
Brownville is one of only three official “Booktowns” in the country and is a mecca for bibliophiles. The Antiquarium and the Lyceum Bookstores are musts when you are in town. Each store is an adventure. The Antiquarium also features artworks and the Lyceum is complete with a café. www.theantiquarium.webs.com
Brownville is a perfect getaway destination. Visitors can tour the town by horse-drawn trolley, sip wine at Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard or eat in one of several eclectic dining establishments. www.whiskeyruncreek.com
You can end your evening with a narrated dinner or sightseeing cruise on the Missouri River aboard the Spirit of Brownville. Best of all, adjacent to the riverboat is the River Inn Resort, a floating boutique hotel with all the amenities including wireless and gourmet breakfast. www.river-inn-resort.com
On July 15, 1830 the Treaty of Prairie du Chien designated more than 125,000-acres for use by the landless children of Indian mothers wed to traders and trappers, then known as Nemaha Half-Breed Reservation. One such individual, Joseph Deroin, moved into the area in 1842, established a trading post and helped lay out a town on the Missouri’s shores. The area is now part of the 3,052-acre Indian Cave State Park. Visitors can tour the cave that features the only known petroglyphs in the state as well as the reconstructed town of St. Derion. www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov
Twenty-two miles from Brownville is Nebraska City the site of the original 1847 Fort Kearney. The fort, merely a blockhouse, was quickly abandoned and replaced by John Boulware’s ferry service. Boulware is responsible for the first home in the city in the early 1850s. Shortly thereafter Julius Sterling and Caroline Morton arrived.
The Mortons moved to a 160-acre farm on their honeymoon so that Sterling could serve as the editor of the Nebraska City News. In 1855, he constructed a four-room L-shaped home that was subsequently expanded to a 52-room neo-colonial mansion that replicates the White House and was considered the finest house between the Rocky Mountains and St. Louis.
Arbor Lodge was built by 250 craftsmen and has been featured in “America’s Palaces.” A 13 minute orientation film is shown in the solarium. It is filled with original furnishings and artworks including a painting of “Table Creek Treaty” in the entry. Highlights of the interior include the Red Library with walls that reflect the sunset, a gold ceiling representing the sunrise and a mirror backed with diamond dust. The Brunswick bowling alley on the lower level is the nation’s oldest in a private home. Caroline allegedly haunts the mansion. www.stateparks.com/arbor_lodge
Sterling Morton planted more than 270 types of trees, to alter the flat prairie landscape, on his property and encompassed his farm with pines. Morton felt that planting trees was so necessary to the state that he proposed the creation of a special day. The first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872. It is now celebrated internationally. www.arborday.org
In 1923, the estate was donated to the state of Nebraska and is a 72-acre state park. The property includes an arboretum, trails, fishpond, carriage house and tack room and stables.
The 260-acre Arbor Day Farm is a destination complex featuring Lied Lodge & Conference Center and the Arbor Day Foundation. The more than 1 million foundation members are responsible for planting more than 15 million trees annually. The lodge offers 144 modern guest accommodations, meeting rooms, spa, indoor Olympic-sized pool, gift shop and comfortable public areas each designed with a different type of wood. www.liedlodge.org
There are more than 20 exterior experiential areas designed to create an understanding of the natural world and explore it using all five senses in creative ways. Highlights of the farm experience are the Discovery Ride, a guided tram tour through the orchards, a Fuelwood Energy Plant Tour, Birding, 50-ft. Canopy Treehouse and the Woodland Pavilion and screening of the 90 film clip video “Trees in the Movies.”
This is an outstanding adventure for children and adults that give access to nature up close and personal. You will never look at trees the same way.www.arbordayfarm.org
Your Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail & Visitor Center experience begins before you enter the two-story facility. On the grounds there is a 55-ft. long and 8.4-ft. wide replica keelboat. The one used by Lewis and Clark was constructed in Pittsburgh and seated six men on each side. The center’s focus is on the scientific information and more than 300 flora and fauna discoveries attributed to the Corps of Discovery.
A sculpture of Thomas Jefferson examining specimens brought back in 1805 greets you. It was Jefferson who authorized the military expedition and contrary to popular belief the men wore military uniforms most of the time, not buckskins. Originally $2,500 was requested from Congress for the 4,000-mile trip but ultimately $40,000 was spent. Displays include dioramas, maps, artworks, replicas and a 32-minute orientation film. A replica Plains Indian earth lodge is situated in the rear of the center. It is fully outfitted and is used to tell the story and depict the lifestyle of the Native Americans they met along the route. www.mrb-lewisandclarkcenter.org
From 1879 to 1991, the Kregel Windmill Company manufactured agricultural equipment. In the 1940s, they were forced to cease production of windmills because of restrictions on wartime materials but it remains the last intact historic windmill factory in the country. Tours are a step back in time to 1939 with the factory appearing as if the workers just stepped out for a break. Visitors start counterclockwise and stop at a series of touchscreen and interactive kiosks. www.kregelwindmillfactorymuseum.org
Nebraska City’s Underground Railroad Trail consists of four locations. Freedom seekers would most often take the Nebraska Trail when escaping from Missouri and then travel across Iowa to make the more than 400-mile journey to Chicago. And Canada.
The Alexander Majors Residence was the office of the Russell, Majors and Waddell Freighting Company in late 1858. Majors, a pious individual, gifted each man in the company with a Bible while owning six slaves. All of them, four women and two male teens, escaped on the UGRR in 1860 and reached freedom.
The Old Freighters Museum relates the history of the people and trails that passed through Nebraska City as well as the importance of freighting from 1846 through 1870. The company was responsible for organizing the Pony Express in 1860.The three-story building was erected for use by the quartermaster whose duties, transporting government supplies, were transferred to the freighting company. In the 1860s, the company transported more than 40 million pounds of goods. www.nebraskacitymuseums.org
The state’s only UGRR site listed on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom is the Mayhew Cabin & Historic Village and John Brown’s Cave. The cabin was constructed in 1855 for Allen and Barbara Mayhew. Barbara’s bother, John Kagi, resided there for a brief period. He became an UGRR conductor and often used the Mayhew cabin as a station. In 1857, Kagi met John Brown and was convinced to join him in his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He would become Brown’s Secretary of War and would die at Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859.
Tours of the cabin showcase the UGRR in general and Kagi specifically. A display on one of Kagi’s more dangerous exploits is shown in a miniature diorama and there is a gallery of artworks that interpret the life of John Brown. Visitors can walk through the tunnel on the property that took fugitives to a place near the Missouri River ferry. www.mayhewcabin.org
You may think you know how the West was won but do you really know where, and how, it all began. Nebraska has the answers. Plan your visit now. www.visitnebraska.gov
I wish you smooth travels!
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