Heritage Nebraska highlights Hidden Treasures and Fading Places for 2010


Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

By J. L. Schmidt

Just in time for your short Nebraska-based “staycations “ or extended weekend outings, Heritage Nebraska has released its 2010 list of Fading Places and Hidden Treasures. The Fading Places are those endangered places that are suffering from neglect, inappropriate or inadequate use or economic or environmental factors out of control. Hidden Treasures are those gems that you won’t find advertised on the tourist brochure racks at the Interstate 80 rest areas or the local tourist attractions, but they are worthy of mention just the same.

This is the second year for the list from the statewide historic preservation organization, which is affiliated with the Statewide and Local Partners Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This year’s list includes the recurring themes of old schools and old churches.

The Fading Places

Bethany Presbyterian Church, in Carroll. In continuous use since 1918, this church is representative of churches in small, often rural communities that face declining membership and resources to maintain them. This northeast Nebraska church lacks indoor plumbing and parishioners rely on rainwater collected in a cistern. Church women still fellowship and quilt in the basement.

Other churches are also fading. The First Baptist Church (1884) in Red Cloud was the church of Willa Cather’s youth and described in several of her books. Fundraising for maintenance and repair is ongoing. The Little Church of Keystone (1908) near Lake Ogallala in Keith County is a National Register property that needs funds for upkeep and marketing. The church features pews that flip to a Protestant altar in one end and a Catholic altar in the other. The Pioneer Chapel (1870) in the Cesky Bratri Cemetery near Milligan is the first permanent house of worship in Fillmore County.

Burton Bank Building in Orleans was built in 1885 and is significant for its architecture and community history but is suffering from years of neglect. The two-story structure on a prominent downtown corner is owned by the Orleans Development Corporation and needs a new owner with money and a vision. Pieces of the ornate tin cornice have blown off and been stored for use in a future renovation. The building, last occupied by a thrift store, has been vacant for 10 years.

Carnegie Library Building, Schuyler. This building served as the public library from 1911 until the mid-1970s when it became the local historical museum. A water pipe break 10 years ago forced the Historical Society to move out. The building is in poor shape. Repairs and a viable reuse plan are needed.

Historic grain elevators statewide are disappearing at an alarming rate, usually at the hands of well-meaning but misdirected volunteer firefighters who say they need the practice. These structures, built from the 1880s to the 1920s, range from poor to good condition and are often destroyed to “get rid of the eyesore” without much thought to adaptive reuse. Referred to as “prairie cathedrals” because of their towering size on the treeless plains, they were constructed of wood and covered with metal. Their steeple-like towers were necessary to accommodate buckets on vertical conveyor belts that hauled grain from the dumping pits to the upper-level storage bins. This could be an important player in the attempt to change the teardown mentality.

Industrial Arts Building on the University of Nebraska’s proposed Innovation Campus. Built in 1913, this grand exposition space faces demolition as the university seeks to make way for the campus that could be 20 to 25 years in the making. The university has given developers until July 1 to present plans to use private funds to save the building and make it a viable part of the campus plan. The building once housed an airplane factory where the airplane that Charles Lindbergh learned to fly was constructed. Later, Cushman motor scooters were also manufactured in the building, which housed everything from agricultural product displays to equipment expositions during many years of Nebraska State Fair activity. This building is also one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States.

Interstate 80 bicentennial sculptures, statewide. Of the eight originals—Hans Von de Bovenkamp’s Roadway Confluence near Sidney—has been dismantled and stored. The unique project in 1976 launched the public art careers of several of the artists. It drew national attention as Charles Kurault of CBS, standing in front of Erma’s Desire at Grand Island, pointed out, “It’s not likely that tolerance will soon break out in Nebraska.” Several of the structures are in need of repair and ongoing maintenance.

Lodgepole Opera House—another great piece of Lincoln Highway (U.S. Highway 30) lore, the 1911 structure has been the setting for a number of social gatherings and cultural events through the years. It is currently owned by a local farmer who uses it as a repair shop. Village Clerk Tammy Sherman says the foundation is good on this National Register Property but the building needs to be restored.

The Old Stone House, between Orleans and Stamford in Harlan County, is rapidly deteriorating and in need of restoration. Believed to be one of the earliest homes in the county and built of stone from a nearby Indian memorial to a battle, preservation plans call for making it a Native American Art and heritage center.

The Hidden Treasures

Bassett Lodge and Range Café is a National Register-listed two-story streamlined Art Moderne style hotel and café built in 1949–1951 as an anchor to the south end of the three-block-long downtown commercial core of this agricultural and ranching community in the north-central Nebraska Sandhills. It is historically significant in the development of cattle auctions in the Plains states.

Bess Streeter Aldrich House and Museum—located in Elmwood, the house is an excellent example of 1920s craftsmanship and still retains most of its original exterior, woodwork, lighting and fixtures. It reflects the rich history of this nationally famous Nebraska author who wrote nine novels and more than 160 short stories of early settlers. Her family had the prairie-style home built in 1922 and lived there until 1946.

Downtown Scribner, organized in 1871. Many original old buildings line the brick streets and Main Street Boulevard. The buildings have seen few “modernizations” over the years that would detract from the look of the original town. The Musbach Museum (1884) is a repository for much of the town’s history and the Old Hotel (1901) is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Downtown Sidney is a well-preserved Panhandle community that boasts a National Historic Register Downtown District featuring buildings from the late 1870s through the 1950s. The original wooden buildings constructed in the 1860s fell victim to fire and aging during an era when the community was a hub of activity at one end of the major trail to the Black Hills Gold Rush. Today’s thoroughly modern community celebrates that era with well-preserved and maintained historic buildings and activities.

Flag Creek Bridge, on Highway 136 (“The Goldenrod Highway”) near Orleans, is unique because of its four light pillars. The lights are working again and Orleans Village Clerk Mary Anne Lehmer is going to raise money for a historic plaque and for landscaping the approaches when she retires this summer. The bridge was built in 1924. A Transportation Enhancement grant four years ago paid for the rewiring of the lights, which had not worked for 40 years.

Mars Historical Area, near Royal. This represented the first settlement in the region and opened the area for pioneer settlers. While the original town of Mars has faded away, many of the original dugouts and wagon trails are still visible, as is an old livery stable. Historical tours are provided and camping is available. A book, “The Hills of Mars,” has also been written about the area.

Meadow Grove Federal Credit Union is located in the old Security Bank, which was built in 1905 and has remained in use as a financial institution since. When the bank closed in 1929, everything was left “as is” in the vault, which is where it remains today. The original teller cages and original vault are still used. Restoration of the property is ongoing, and the next project involves revealing the old tin ceiling that is still there. Stepping inside the building is like stepping back in time.

Oak Ballroom, Schuyler. A 1937 WPA project, built of native oak trees and rock, this is an original dance hall still in use. The building rests in a park-like setting with lagoons dug by workers waiting for more lumber to arrive. A new maple floor was installed in 1954, and booths went in during the early 1950s.

Old Great Western Sugar Factory Dormitory in Mitchell was built in 1926. Of the several such dormitories built at sugar factories in the Nebraska Panhandle, this one was the only one to also house German POWs after World War II. It later served as a boarding house and then a nursing home until 1995. David McKibbin of Fort Collins, Colo., and his sister Marcia Wright own the property and are developing it into a hostel, restaurant and health club with several other businesses, incorporating it into what is called Mitchell’s Busy Corner at the Intersection of U.S. Highway 26 and State Highway 29.

Pavelka Farmstead, Bladen. Built in 1905, this was the home of Anna (Mrs. John) Pavelka, the character for whom Antonia was named in Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” The house and the “fruit cave” mentioned in the book still exist on this property. The property, owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Pavillion Hotel, in Taylor. The Victorian-era structure was built in 1887 and lauded as the finest hotel between Rapid City and Grand Island. It is located in the state’s eighth most popular tourist area (Calamus Lake, Burwell Rodeo, Ft. Hartsuff) and the owners see it as a model for heritage tourism as outlined in their 40-page business plan, which they hope will lead to the total restoration as a lodging and reception event center. Owners Loren and Marah Sandoz have opened the National Register-listed property to visitors as they continue working on the old hotel as time and money allows.

Thorpe Opera House, David City. Built in 1889, the 1,000-seat second-floor auditorium was the largest west of Omaha. Performances included political debates, traveling theater acts, magicians and vaudeville. Old playbills and stage curtains with advertising of businesses from the past remain. The Butler County Arts Council occasionally books touring groups to play in the facility. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

UNL Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum, located on the East Campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was the first state and national testing facility when it started in 1920. It was designated in 1980 as an Historic Landmark of Agricultural Engineering by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. It is located next to the Nebraska Tractor Test Track and the current Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory, and remains an important and unique facility that is still recognized nationally and worldwide.

Old Schools, hidden and fading

Continuing a theme from our first-ever recognition in 2009, Old Schools have come up again. Spurred by consolidation dictated by declining population and enrollments, many schools have been abandoned and are falling into disrepair.

Others have been rescued, such as the Yost Farm School, near Red Cloud. The tin-roofed 1887 schoolhouse was formerly North Star District 81. It was restored in 1989 and is part of the property owned by John and Ardis Yost. School is still held for visitors to the farm who want to see what it was like back then. Truly a Hidden Treasure.

Fading Places include the Prairie Queen School District 48, where vandalism has hurt this 1930 building near Milligan. It needs a new roof and window repair. The school district dissolved in 1953 and merged with another. The brick building has a very unschool-like front porch and is located near Highway 41 in Saline County.

Out in the Panhandle, Broadwater School, built in 1909, is one of the oldest buildings in town. A separate gymnasium sits adjacent to the school building, and the gymnasium walls are leaning and the roof leaks. The facility is in need of a reuse plan.

Several of last year’s Fading Places have been rescued and are on the way to being restored to fruitful use. The old Hastings Junior High School has a new owner who is remodeling the building for office and meeting space and planning a number of three-story condominiums. The Starke Round Barn near Red Cloud is receiving a new roof that will stabilize the structure. The crumbling west wall of the Aurora Apothecary and Knights of Pythius Hall in downtown Aurora has been repaired, and the building is awaiting ownership change to a developer who is making reuse plans. Camp Lookout in Sidney has been purchased by the city and inappropriate additions have been removed, the site has been cleaned up and a new roof is being installed.


Immigration in Nebraska