Stops near Interstate 80 reveal the pioneer lifestyle, the Lincoln Highway, and more modern cultural history.
By Lazelle Jones
Fifteen hundred miles or so west of New York City, and a similar distance east of San Francisco, three Nebraska cities claim their spot in the heartland of America: Kearney, Hastings, and Grand Island.
The cities grew up along or near the Platte River, which flows east across Nebraska before emptying into the Missouri River. Between 1840 and 1869, three pathways of frontier migration were like highways across America. During this period, a half-million pioneers and immigrants from around the world headed west on the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails, seeking to claim their piece of the American dream. In 1860-61 came the Pony Express Trail, followed in the late 1860s by the Transcontinental Railroad. Around 1915, automobiles began motoring along the Lincoln Highway. The late 1950s saw Interstate 80 arrive. All of these pathways follow the Platte River across Nebraska, more or less.
In the big picture of how the West was won, Grand Island, Hastings, and Kearney offer portals through which America’s settlement can be appreciated. Each is rich with its own history, splashed with natural and man-made beauty, and subtly laced with the amenities of a modern world.
An excellent place to begin immersing yourself in the pioneer experience is Kearney, the westernmost of the three towns. There, spread over Interstate 80, is The Archway. Resembling an old-fashioned covered bridge, it’s actually a state-of-the-art museum complex.
The story of humans traveling west across this country is beautifully told at the museum. And shoppers will find a delightful assortment of items in The Archway store. An outdoor park includes an earthen lodge like those built by local Plains Indians. Motorhomers will like the fact that they can stay overnight at the site for free (dry camping only). For further information: (308) 237-1000; www.archway.org.
Four miles south of Kearney is its namesake, Fort Kearny, now known as Fort Kearny State Historical Park. (For those who note a spelling discrepancy, the extra “e” in the town’s name was a postal employee’s error.) The original fort buildings are long gone, but the locations of many important sites there have been marked as archaeological studies continue. A blacksmith shop can be toured, as can a museum/store. This fort helped protect people headed west between 1848 and the late 1860s; its story is explained by exhibits and knowledgeable park rangers. Intriguing bits of history can be uncovered, such as how, during the Civil War, Confederate POWs were given the choice to go to a Union prison camp or volunteer to man frontier posts like Fort Kearny.
About a mile from this historical park is Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, which accommodates RVers nicely with a large campground and offers fishing, boating, hiking, and other activities. For details: (308) 865-5305; www.stateparks.com/fort_kearney_state_park_in_nebraska.html.
Whether you are an auto connoisseur or only casually interested in cars, the Classic Car Collection just east of Kearney on U.S. 30 is a must-see. Housed in a 50,000-square-foot building are 130-plus restored vehicles from the late 1800s through the age of muscle cars. Inside you may find the car your dad and mom or your grandparents drove, and perhaps even a twin of the vehicle you cut your teeth on when you turned 16. It’s a superb collection that can be enjoyed by taking a guided tour. For details: (308) 234-1964; www.ccckearney.com.
Drive from Kearney to Grand Island on U.S. 30 and you’re following the old Lincoln Highway. A century ago, Carl Fisher (one of the builders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a manufacturer of automobile headlamps) and several others recognized that the age of the automobile had arrived. They believed that a single highway between New York City and San Francisco also was an idea whose time had come. It was called the Lincoln Highway, and the midway point was Kearney. To pave the highway, a marketing idea called “Seedling Miles” was hatched: Towns along the Lincoln Highway were encouraged to pave a short section of the road outside of their city (sometimes just a few hundred feet); when motorists transitioned from the dirt ruts onto a short paved section, they would be so enamored by the speed and smoothness that they would support paving the entire highway. The last stretch of the highway finally was surfaced in the mid-1930s.
Between Kearney and Grand Island, the town of Shelton hosts the Lincoln Highway Center, a treasure trove of history about the road. The collection is open on Sunday afternoons (2:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.), Memorial Day to Labor Day.
In Grand Island, the Kensinger Service Station, along the Lincoln Highway, offers a bit of nostalgia as well as fuel. Walk around behind the station and see the old service pit, which was commonplace before hydraulic lifts were used to work on automobiles. A Lincoln Highway stretch of Seedling Mile — several hundred feet of it — is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Grand Island was named after a huge island that once sat in the middle of the mile-wide Platte River, back when the depth of the water might be only a few inches, depending on the weather. Today the channel is deep and the Platte is narrow.
The most renowned point of interest in Grand Island is the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, a complex with living history exhibits, collections, and more. At this writing, the main visitor building was being renovated, but with so much else to see, you will not be disappointed. Stuhr also features many original pioneer cabins; a building with antique farm machinery and more than a dozen historic automobiles; a railroad exhibit with engines and various cars; a garden/arbor section; a representative Pawnee earth lodge and teepees; plus a live buffalo display and original wagon wheel ruts that were carved into the ground by pioneers headed west. For more info: (308) 385-5316; www.stuhrmuseum.org.
This heartland city also offers sandhill crane watching at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center. Each spring and fall, a half-million of the birds stop here and elsewhere along the Platte River to rest and feed as they migrate south to Texas and Mexico, or north to the Arctic and as far away as Siberia. At the Crane Trust center, bird blinds enable visitors to watch the cranes’ activity. For details: (308) 382-1820; www.nebraskanature.org.
Grand Island is a mecca for both the casual and the serious antiques shopper. In fact, West Third Street has earned the sobriquet “Antique Avenue.” Those who enjoy fine art and photography will want to tour the Prairie Winds Art Center, a co-op that features the work of Midwestern artists (www.prairiewindsart.com). While on West Third you can indulge in gustatorial delights, too, such as those offered at the Chocolate Bar (308-675-0664; www.thechocolatebargi.com).
Off the beaten path and a few minutes south of Grand Island is Hastings, a small town that holds hidden treasure. The Hastings Museum is a trove of historic artifacts and exhibits tied to the museum’s “Natural and Cultural History” tagline. Part of American culture is the fact that many of us grew up drinking Kool-Aid or frequently made it for our kids. Hastings is Kool-Aid’s birthplace and, correspondingly, the bottom floor of the museum is dedicated to telling the story behind childhood’s fun drink and the impact the company’s success had on this community. For more information: (402) 461-4629; www.hastingsmuseum.org.
A must-try Hastings eatery is Back Alley Bakery. Each day a different menu of entrees, sandwiches, soups, salads, and artisan breads is featured online. Bread is baked in a homemade brick oven in the back of the restaurant. Information: (402) 460-5056; www.backalleybakery.com.
From Hastings, literature lovers will want to take a morning or afternoon jaunt to Red Cloud, 40 miles south (and 5 miles north of the Kansas state line). Willa Cather, one of America’s great novelists, spent her childhood here during the 1880s. Like Steinbeck and Mark Twain, she was shaped by America’s West, and it is reflected in the characters of novels she wrote, such as My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Tours of her childhood home and other notable sites are available. For details: (402) 746-2653; www.willacather.org.
While touring these gems in central Nebraska, it’s evident that the legacy of those who settled the land continues to this day. We may not leave wagon wheel ruts in the ground, as they did, but we can appreciate the beauty of America’s heartland.
Adams County CVB
Grand Island CVB
Kearney Visitors Bureau