Day 3: Nebraska. Just . . . Nebraska.

Annette On The Road

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Western Nebraska: Guilty as charged. It’s flat. It’s mostly treeless. It’s . . . This. Admittedly, we’re somewhat responsible for the bug-spattered windscreen.

I'm not going to waste your time trying to persuade you that Nebraska is a greatly misunderstood state. Oh, sure, here are more hills, more rivers, more fun museums, more more than you have been led to believe, and that's before we even talk about the bright lights of Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city and . . . Is it the capital? {Googles} Ah, no, that’s Lincoln.

This isn't working, is it?

Look, I can guarantee you that if you only allow a day to drive across most of Nebraska, it will indeed be stunningly dull.

Sadly, that's what we did.

Last time we came through Nebraska, He Who Shall Not Be Named on the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti) and I had much more time to appreciate it.

Our Odyssey Across the West in the Before Times

It was quite the journey. In 2018, equipped with National Park Service guides and maps, published diaries, and historians’ accounts, we set out to better understand the trek of the 19th century Gold Rush migrants, before I created a children’s program and started my next novel. We flew into Kansas City, then drove to our starting place, Independence, Missouri, once the so-called “jumping off” point for migrants to the West, the place at which they traded railroads, stagecoaches, hotels, and restaurants, for covered wagons, tents, big bags of beans, and a store of fart jokes. In Independence, we paid too much for a short ride on a wagon that seemed so much longer when the driver shared his fascinating political opinions with us. This was followed by a couple of hours exploring the very good National Frontier Trails Museum.

Over the next two weeks, as we traveled West, we visited most Gold Rush/ Oregon Trail museums, some impressively professional (mostly operated by the federal government) and others endearingly and sometimes perplexingly amateur, like the one that seemed to be mostly about rocks.

We also saw lots more neat things besides, including plenty of actual wagon tracks and emigrants’ graves. In Wyoming, we rode three hours on the actual Oregon/California trail in a covered wagon driven by a teenager with two whole weeks experience. The package included an overnight stay in a tipi. No, I don’t know what the rationale was for that, since migrants didn’t sleep in tipis, but it was interesting, even though the advertised luxury glamping turned out to be a pile of sleeping bags of questionable cleanliness, from which we were urged to take our pick. We were also fed a dinner that was incompetently cooked by another sweet teenager, the wagon driver’s boyfriend.

In general we had an adventure, and Nebraska was very much part of that. But even with 14 days to spare, we only got as far as Salt Lake City, and had to complete the trip to Sacramento the following year.

This is not that trip. This year, thanks to other commitments, we have six days to get all the way from Wisconsin to Sacramento. This doesn't allow time to do much more than drive.

So this time around, it's very much catch as catch can as far as sightseeing is concerned. That’s why, although I had hoped to present more to you about the 19th century wagon trains, I’m going to save that for future posts based on the 2018-19 expeditions. There is no master theme to this trip. No plans. Just observations on our random encounters with the past.

I will say this much, though: Just as was true of the wagon folks, except that they never heard of Nebraska, Nebraska is the state where we first start to feel we're really in the West. Partly, this is due to a couple of major landmarks, one of which we hope to swing by tomorrow. And the other is, well, just look at the photo above: Big skies, no trees, and increasingly dry.

How Big is America?

If you don't live in the States, you may be very confused as you follow me on this journey to California. So pull yourself up a map, bearing in mind my warning that, unless you have crossed the USA, you still cannot possibly comprehend its vastness (and as I mentioned yesterday, maps deceive).

Who am I kidding, though? Most of us who do live here don't get how big America is, and especially not those who have never made the epic car journey. All I can say is that when I think of Ledyard and Margaret Frink in 1850, even despite the luxury wagon and expensive horses that allowed them to travel from Martinsville, Indiana to Sacramento in the very good time of just over five months, I am awed.

HWSNBNOTI and I are currently doing 75 mph (yes, thank you, that is the speed limit on the I-80 in Nebraska) and crossing the country in days, not months. Honestly? Had we gone with a wagon in 1850, Nebraska would have broken me.

Like the migrants, we are driving alongside the Platte River, and the Platte River Valley landscape is staggeringly enormous and monotonous. Sometimes, it’s like a sea of land, in which you can see all the way to the horizon. I guess we have interesting things to look at, like freeway signs and gas stations and fields of young corn.

The wagon folks, unlike us, didn't just sit in their wagons. They had interesting encounters with each other and with indigenous people, not all of whom they attacked. And I do mean that, since Indians were in far more danger from migrants than the other way round. They had wild fruit to pick, and a daily treasure hunt for buffalo poop for fuel for their campfires, since there are so few trees for firewood. (Here's a nice dry poo! I can just hear myself saying that).

But let’s be honest: As they struck camp each morning, and prepared for a long day walking, they must have thought, sometimes, that they had entered The Twilight Zone. Or they would have thought of it if TV and The Twilight Zone had not been a century in the future.

So, no, our experiences are not very comparable to theirs. I get to sit pathetically in a comfy passenger seat, and bemoan all the museums we don’t have time to visit (because there are lots of them, truly, like the Buffalo Bill Museum, and the Fur Trade Museum) while long-suffering HWSNBNOTI steers the Honda wagon.

But We Are Seeing Things!

We so are! Today's big highlight? Harold Warp's Pioneer Village, an amateur museum of breathtaking size that should be a museum exhibit itself. Founded in Minden, Nebraska, by, um, Harold Warp. He was a poor boy, son of Norwegian immigrants turned millionaire, thanks to his inventing Flex-O-Glass, a sort of pre-cling wrap plastic that he used to cover henhouses. He took his patent to Chicago, made his pile of loot, and starting buying up all the historical junque (as it then was and much of it still is) he could find. His company, by the way, is still in business in Chicago, and still owned by the family. Harold himself died aged 90 in 1994 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, having fled Minden, Nebraska, decades earlier. His family company is still in Illinois.

If any Warps are reading, have you considered taking a good look at what you can do for Grandad’s museum? Seriously?

Harold’s Pioneer Village opened in 1953, and it probably peaked in 1965. I'm not joking. It's now showing very sad signs of decades of neglect and decrepitude: The charming antique carousel advertised on the website is in a state of total collapse. The motel mentioned looks closed, and I am genuinely surprised to find it advertised as open (read the reviews carefully, and do look at the reviewers’ photos). Even the freeway signs that advertise the Museum are falling apart. The whole place needs painted, restored, and generally revived. Because right now, it feels like a metaphor for the nation, and maybe if you spruce it up, the goodness will spread throughout the land.

But who could resist this entrance? Not me. Check out that wagon on the roof!

© Annette Laing, 2021

Don't miss Harold's mission statement over the front door, either. It's so 1950s, and yet he's not entirely wrong: Things have changed a lot in the past few centuries (1830 is debatable as a landmark year). However, in light of what we know now, not to mention the fate of his museum, it's hard to share Harold's unadulterated enthusiasm for progress. Still, you have to love his optimism. Also, he gives you a heads up about what he has on display. It really is this huge. It is 28 buildings on 20 acres, 100,000 square feet of indoors stuffed with bric-a-brac, plus a few rescued old buildings.

© Annette Laing, 2021

To give you some insight into how huge, here's one very, very small part of Harold's automobile collection, a couple of very early Chevrolets. There are three hundred more antique cars on the premises. Three hundred. I didn’t count. I believe.

© Annette Laing, 2021

HWSNBNOTI enjoyed this bit. I'm not an old car enthusiast, alas.

Why's the Museum Called a Pioneer Village?

© Annette Laing, 2021

The heart of this museum is the circular courtyard at the center, the actual Pioneer Village of the name. It's not a real village, but it is home to several old buildings brought from elsewhere in Nebraska, including a church and an old store.

Sod It. Your House, I Mean.

Indeed, I came to Harold Warp's Pioneer Village specifically to see what was once a familiar part of Nebraska's landscape: A sod house, just like the one that Harold and his ten siblings were born in. Brit readers, fear not, the reference is not to the inhabitants. Sod means turf.

Here it is. Plus a picture of my finger.

© Annette Laing, 2021

Why build a house from dirt? After the Civil War, the US government offered millions of acres of land. FREE. The land really belonged to indigenous peoples, but the government didn't let that stop them from offering it free to anyone (except Indians) who showed up to claim it, including Europeans, many of whom leaped at the offer.

When immigrants arrived in Nebraska, they discovered that there are almost no trees here. So they dug turf from the prairie, and made houses from it, walls and roof, and yes, as you see, grass grew from the roofs. Inside this exhibit, it is small (two rooms) but cosy. I'm pretty sure they were not all quite so middle class, and since Harold grew up in one, a two-room sod house with 13 inhabitants, I suspect sentimentality may be in play:

© Annette Laing, 2021

Budget Rent-A-Horse

I was especially excited to see that the Pioneer Village is home to a livery stable, because I don't think I've seen one on show in an outdoor museum before. To explain, a livery was just like a car rental agency, only horses. Liveries became very popular with the rise of railroads, since it was a bit hard to take your horse on the train with you, and you needed transportation at your destination, then as now.

© Annette Laing, 2021

And honestly, don't you think this livery's set of commonsense rules was much more straightforward than the reams of terms and conditions you normally get from Hertz?

A Woman's Work

One building at The Pioneer Village carries a sign that's Exhibit A of why it's a good idea to consult historians when you’re creating a museum:

© Annette Laing, 2021

The sign reads, “Household Appliances Lessened Women's Work.” As historians will tell you, all those new-fangled electric appliances in the 20th century raised expectations for housekeeping standards, which meant women spent more time than ever on household chores. It wasn't enough to sweep the worst of the dirt under the rug: Vacuum cleaners demanded you use them regularly for the complete eradication of dirt. I must admit, though, we have become less picky in recent decades, even as the devices improve, so perhaps Harold wasn’t wrong: Ernie, my Roomba, does his best, and I raise my coffee cup to his efforts from the proper place for the lady of the house, the sofa.

I have to hand it to Harold Warp, though. He knew that some of us museum visitors would be entertained by looking at a large collection of old washing machines and stoves. I certainly was. Here's one of the first electric stoves, from the 1920s, when millions of mostly urban Americans got electricity, and rushed out to buy new toys. I saw a picture of the stove in FDR's Little White House in Warm Springs, and it’s similar. This one could also run on wood if need be, and, no, I have no idea how that was safe:

© Annette Laing, 2021

Harold Warp's extraordinary museum is not designed and maintained by a museum professional. It lacks narratives, meaning stories that engage. It's sometimes downright inaccurate, sometimes embarrassingly behind the times, shall we say, and it's utterly decrepit. It's hard to imagine it will be around in another sixty years, sadly, and I really do hope someone comes to the rescue.

But any eccentric museum that showcases thousands of objects ranging from a replica of the Wright Brothers plane to an iron lung (yes, really) is unlikely to bore the family.

This makes it a winner according to Laing's Criteria for Museum Superiority (Amateur Museum division, Museum Without a Coherent Story subdivision) Is it stuffed full of wondrous objects? Might it hook kids on finding out more about ye olden days? Yes? Bring it on.

An iron lung. Just one of the many unexpected items on display in Harold Warp's Pioneer Village. © Annette Laing, 2021

And how many museums can boast a view like this?

© Annette Laing, 2021

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