Road Trip Through History: Legacy of the Plains

The first thing we saw as we drove into the parking lot of the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gehring, Nebraska, was a half dozen Longhorn cattle that were milling around, while a man who looked nothing like a cowboy waved his arms and tried to shoo them back into their pen.

It turned out to be the perfect introduction to the museum, which turned out to be the perfect counterpoint to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The Center of the West described itself as being about the Wild West, and in fact focused in broad terms on cowboys and Indians.  The Legacy of the Plains, previously the Ranch and Farm Museum, tells the story of settling the west from the perspective of, well, ranchers and farmers, broadly defined. And it was absolutely fascinating. We spent the better part of a day there.

The first rooms of the museum are deceptive. They look like many other local history museums, with a collection of stuff displayed with little sense of museum craft. Some of the objects had a story attached. Some were displayed with no explanation at all.* Interesting enough, but nothing special.

Then I walked across the hall and through a closed door and found myself in a different museum all together. The first room is an long darkened space where an introductory video plays continuously above a series of interactive panels that introduce themes that are developed more fully inside the main museum, which is an impressive professionally designed space with well-done audio visual displays and interactive exhibits.**

The main museum explores a lot of topics that we had seen discussed in less depth in smaller museums or on historical markers over the course of the trip. Here are the big picture themes that caught my imagination, with some smaller details:

1. The first exhibit after you enter the main hall looks at the region as a historical crossroads: Beginning with the peoples who traveled the plains during the Paleolithic period, the exhibit then looks at the development of generations of routes and roads based on well-established Native American trade routes. Fur trading routes developed into emigrant trails, such as the Oregon Trail, beginning in the 1830s.*** The railroads followed, finally reaching the North Platte Valley at the end of the century, and eliminating the older trails and trading posts in the process.  Railroads in turn were challenged by the arrival of paved highways after World War II. ( My favorite quotation from this section? “Railroads made the Oregon Trail obsolete. Automobiles brought it back.”  Personally, I think this theme was a very smart way to cover a lot of historical ground.  So to speak.

2. Several sections of the exhibit look at the history of settlement in the area, notably homesteading and immigrant groups who settled in the region. Here are a few stories/fact-lets from these sections that caught my imagination:

  • The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed single women and African-Americans to claim homesteads—and they did. This was huge.
  • The first homesteader was Daniel Freeman, who reportedly claimed his 160-acre tract in Nebraska ten minutes after midnight on January 1, 1863, the day the act went into effect. (My guess is that this is comic-book history at its finest. ) The Homestead National Historical Park is located on the site of his claim.
  • Freeman made history a second time thirty years later when he tried to stop the local schoolmarm from teaching the Bible in the classroom. After the school board brushed him off, Freeman took the case to court. He lost at the local level, but won when he took the case to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
  • The last homesteader was Ken Deardorff, a Vietnam veteran who filed a claim for eighty acres of land in Alaska in 1974.
  • Most of the immigrant groups described in the exhibits were variations on the usual suspects, but one took me by surprise: the area around Scottsbluff had a substantial population of Japanese immigrants. Beginning around 1900, Japanese came to the area to work on the railroad and then found jobs as laborers in the area’s growing sugar beet industry. By 1913, some 200 Japanese families had established themselves as sugar beet farmers in their own right. In World War II, a number of the Japanese families were able to avoid the internment camps and stay in Nebraska, sponsored by local families. (The volunteer on the desk claimed that most of them were not interned at all because they worked in an essential industry. The exhibit did not corroborate this, but I surely wish it were true.)

3. A large portion of the museum dealt with farming. Much of it focuses on farming in a semi-arid climate, which was all new two me. It discussed the differences between dry-farming and irrigation and the conflicts between farming and cattle ranching. **** (Cattle herds arrived from Texas in the 1860s, after the buffalo herds had been almost demolished. The Nebraska sand hills were rotten farmland, but they turned out to be ideal for raising cattle. ) The exhibit includes lots of examples of vintage farm equipment, with descriptions of how they work and how they changed over time. (Not just plows and harvesters, but specialized equipment like bean cutters and beet harvesters.) I must admit, my favorite part of the farm section was the interactive quizzes about farm animals, in which I demonstrated that I know a lot more about pigs than I do about sheep.

The museum also includes an 80-acre working farm, complete with those Longhorn cattle. The museum sells calves to help finance it’s programs and holds a Harvest Days festival in the fall at which visitors can see antique farm equipment in action harvesting the year’s crop and harvest potatoes from a “pick your own” patch. Big fun!

*I really wanted to know more about the non-electric portable piano from the early 1900s: a keyboard in a box, about the size of a modern electronic keyboard, with folding legs and a handle. I cannot imagine how it worked since it did not appear to have room for strings. I haven’t been able to find anything like it. And I wasn’t bright enough to take a picture.

**The volunteer at the front desk told me that they hired a museum professional from New York to design the space, but they provided the information and some sweat equity in building the exhibits. For example, a group of women created the realistic-looking sugar beets in this wagon out of styrofoam:

*** I don’t know about you, but I had no idea these westward trails were called “emigrant trails” until I saw this exhibit. I’m prepared to believe that it is a term of art since the National Park Service also uses it in its series of articles on settlers heading west.

****I spent the rest of my time in the museum with this playing in my head:


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