It came to me some years ago as I steered the car off the Interstate and onto one of Nebraska’s secondary roads. I was doing it as much for me as for my two young sons in the back seat of the station wagon.
I don’t want these kids to grow up and think that Nebraska is an endless stretch of four-lane highways, rest areas and fast food restaurants, I told my wife. I want them to see and remember the places and things that we experienced as kids.
That’s the story behind Heritage Nebraska’s third annual listing of Hidden Treasures—those out-of-the-way places that aren’t featured on the brochure racks or in the tourism magazines—and Fading Places—the iconic structures that are facing destruction through abandonment or neglect, or perhaps even some nefarious plot to tear them down.
Thus it is that Heritage Nebraska has released its 2011 Lists of Nebraska’s Hidden Treasures and Fading places in honor of May, which is National Preservation Month.
This year’s lists include nine Hidden Treasures and five Fading Places.
The Hidden Treasures are
Coryell Park between Auburn and Johnson: Richard Coryell moved from New York to Wisconsin, where he married and then moved his young wife and baby more than 600 miles to Nebraska in a wagon pulled by mules. They lived in the wagon box in 1867 as they began their homestead that eventually became a small community that eventually became a park in 1934. The chapel is often used for weddings, and several other buildings on the grounds host community and family gatherings. The entire campus represents a slice of life from birth to death and all the celebration in between.
Carnegie Library in Beatrice: Built in 1904, this building is getting a new life in Charles Park, which sits on the north edge of downtown. This was the third Carnegie built in Nebraska and the oldest surviving. Two were built in Lincoln in 1899 and a fourth was built in Fremont in 1902, but they were all razed in the 1960s. This is one of the few Carnegies built in the Beaux Arts style popularized by the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha.
Ames Avenue Fire Station in North Omaha: Built in 1938 at 2204 Ames Avenue, this WPA project of the New Deal program was one of a few art deco buildings in Omaha. Habitat for Humanity is the current occupant of the building, which needs some maintenance work to help maintain its original character but is otherwise strongly reminiscent of the era in which it became a strong symbol of safety as the neighborhood fire hall.
Historic Brownville: Most of the buildings in this Missouri River community were constructed in the 1850s and current residents have made sure that visitors experience authentic history. Arts, entertainment and educational opportunities abound. Just being in Brownville is an experience, but the opportunities to do your own thing are endless. Books, music, drama. Arts and crafts, food and fun. That’s Historic Brownville.
Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park near Burwell: This 1870s prairie fort boasts nine restored buildings and nearly year-round events recognizing a glimpse of the life that was part of westward expansion. Without many trees available during construction, the fort is a collection of concrete-like buildings made from a mixture of the abundant limestone and gravel. It is considered to be among the most complete forts of this era anywhere in the country. You’ll quickly lose track of your daily grind as you stroll into this historic settlement and catch a glimpse of the life of the pioneer defenders.
Warbonnet Montrose Site in Sioux County: This is a multi-component historic site on the Oglala National Grassland in northern Sioux County in the Nebraska Panhandle. It was the site of the first substantial battle (the Warbonnet Skirmish) after the Little Bighorn a few weeks earlier. The 1887 Montrose Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church are on the site and represent the lifestyle of the first German Catholic settlers in the 1880s. Just being in the elevated northwestern part of Nebraska and experiencing the wind-swept grasslands is worth the trip.
Deer Creek Norwegian Church near Holbrook: This is a 140-year-old church and cemetery north of Holbrook that represents an ethnic pioneer community centered around church and cemetery. The cemetery clearly illustrates the effects of a 1918 flu epidemic. These hardy pioneers settled along Deer Creek in Furnas and Gosper Counties in 1875. The current church building was dedicated in 1904.
Warren Opera House in Friend: Built in 1885, the 30,000-square-foot building was home to the opera house and about 10 residential rooms on the second floor and six businesses on the first floor. The stairway to the second floor was wide enough that a baby elephant was once taken upstairs to perform in a circus. The Warren is said to be one of only 27 Nebraska opera houses in exceptional condition and one of only two that have a solid horseshoe balcony that still exists. This building represents a time when such structures were as important as retail centers as they were entertainment venues.
Saints Philip and James School in St. James: The stucco mission-style school was built in 1918 just north of Highway 12 in north-central Nebraska’s Cedar County. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and currently houses the St. James Marketplace, which pays a fine tribute to the school’s original intent as a community gathering place and the site of numerous plays, dances, wedding receptions and funerals over the years. When the parish closed and declared the building surplus, five farm wives bought the property to carry on the tradition.
While Heritage Nebraska only picked five Fading Places, the smallest list in three years, don’t think that means there aren’t any more endangered places out there. These five are examples of larger groups of such structures and places that dot the state.
The 2011 Fading Places are
Superior City Auditorium: This 1936 WPA project is another art deco beauty that has been the site of its share of community and civic events for many years. Supporters have a plan to phase in repairs to keep the building from falling into further disrepair and possibly see use again as a community gathering place. This building is symbolic of similarly situated municipal auditoriums worthy of attention.
Madison School District #48 and endangered rural schools statewide. This 1877 building is the last one-room schoolhouse in Madison County and has been moved to the county fairgrounds. It is representative of rural schools, which we have recognized every year as consolidation and shifting population demographics have left more of these buildings vacant. The school was donated by its owners and just moved last month. It will become a focal point of a display that is intended to give visitors a glimpse of a pioneer settlement.
Teachman Graveyard near Lincoln and historic rural cemeteries and burial places statewide: This again is representative of places that are threatened by neglect and vandalism. Teachman is in rural northeast Lincoln, and there are others. They are on land that is often owned by out-of-state residents or in such remote places that they are out of the public eye and public mind. They are often the last resting place for Civil War-era soldiers and sometimes other prominent residents.
Lee Card Barn near Chadron and farm and ranch barns statewide: This is a huge barn in northwest Nebraska that is now owned by the Dawes County Historical Society and may find continued life as a working hay and horse barn. But these structures are often considered “in the way” and sometimes are taken down for their weathered barn siding, which is used in decorating or burned for volunteer firefighter training. Some, like one in Pawnee County once owned by Larry the Cable Guy’s parents, have been moved to “living history areas” for display.
DuPee Music Hall and Franklin Academy in Franklin: Located in what is now Franklin City Park, this is the last remaining building of the Franklin Academy, which was one of six Congregational Church academies in the Midwest in the early 1900s. It was a college prep school and its presence helped put the south-central Nebraska community of 1,000 people ahead of other area small towns. It represents a time when more than 10,000 people lived in the county in the 1920s.
I don’t know if I can get my boys—both in their 20s now—to accompany me on a road trip to these places. But I can bet that others might take their families to celebrate these treasured places close to home.