Nebraska Gothic

Gothenburg, NE
– There isn’t much to Nebraska, at least along the I-80 corridor, which stretches clear across the state. Its sheer length and monotony is in and of itself a head game. Mile upon mile of flat, endless farmland that before long causes the eyes to go out of whack, as if you’ve stared too long at a fixed point. No amount of blinking or shifting around can bring the world back into focus. It’s nearly as bad as driving at night. Pulling over to stretch and gather your bearings is the only remedy.

After fighting my eyes over dozens of miles en route to Denver I pulled off in Gothenburg, Nebraska, home of college football hall of famer Jay Novacek and, according to Golf Week Magazine, America’s best golf course under $50. But there’s another little gem. Tucked behind the Shell gas station just off the exit was a big red barn with a windmill and a cloth-covered pioneer wagon. It’s an ode to Nebraska’s way of life after the Indians had been driven out and the government began doling out free plots of land. Inside sat a diminutive elderly woman who, judging from how her face lit up upon seeing me, didn’t get many visitors.

“Well hello there,” she said, setting down her crochet hooks. “Welcome to the Sod House Museum. Where are you from?”

“Pennsylvania,” I lied, only because people often seem very confused when I tell them Wisconsin then later they notice my PA plates. I like to avoid explaining things over and over, which is why I could never be a tour guide.

After explaining the nuts-and-bolts of the operation, the woman made me an offer. “How about I give you a guided tour? It’s free and if at any time you get bored you can tell me to shut up. How does that sound?” she asked with a big megawatt smile.

“Sounds great,” I replied, hoping I wouldn’t have to ask her to shut up. It was a hopeless thing to hope, I feared, considering she was going to be talking about Nebraska, a place you couldn’t pay me to live. But even unappealing things sometimes have interesting back stories so I let the woman run with it.

She didn’t disappoint.

In old pictures, bird cages hang just outside the front door of many sod houses. The birds provided women with companionship while the men hunted.

The museum consists mostly of reprinted photographs taken by a man named Solomon Butcher, who produced roughly 3,000 glass-plate negatives of settlement life beginning in 1886. This came more than 25 years after President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which drew thousands of European immigrants to the plains with promises of free land.

“They came with big ideas,” the woman said.

Problem was, the woman explained, the soil was pretty crappy. Even worse, there were so few trees and stones on the plains that houses had to be made of sod, like those built by the natives who occupied those lands previously had built. Those who could afford it purchased enough lumber, delivered via railroad, to accommodate door and window frames.

Life was hard for these homesteaders who, under the law, had five years to improve the land and file for a deed of title. Problems with the soil were compounded by a lack of water. Few were willing to undertake the dangerous work of digging wells. Even if they were, many didn’t have the money to build the windmill needed to bring the water up in buckets. Their sod homes, built inexpensively, were prone to insect infestations and needed constant maintenance due to rain.

The woman pointed to the sod house behind the museum. “There’s a lot of damage to it from the all the rain we’ve gotten,” she said.

I looked out and could see the exterior sagging. The museum’s owner, who was on vacation, was going to be displeased with the damage, according to the woman. She says he’ll make the repairs himself. It must’ve been a constant struggle for settlers to protect their homes from the elements. A single thunderstorm could turn a sod house into a mud hut.

The woman finished her tour, leaving me to check out the damaged sod house on my own. It is a lot like you’d expect: grassy, damp and dusty. The air inside was very cool, and each step kicked up a plume of dust from the dirt floor. I couldn’t imagine a full family residing inside, enduring the brutal winters together, hemmed in by the elements with nowhere to escape. The disappointment must’ve hit hard these homesteaders, whose dreams had led them to a barren, virtually useless wilderness. More than 60 percent of the of 1.6 million who made land claims failed to meet the five-year requirements and lost the land they’d sacrificed so much for.

From what I gathered Nebraska hasn’t much improved since 1862. The Indians are still gone, as are the buffalo. So are most of the sod houses. More than 90 percent of the state’s surface area is tied to agriculture and 89 percent of its towns have fewer than 1,000 residents.

While its corporatized farms produce tons of corn, soybeans and beef we also have Nebraska to thank for Kool-Aid, CliffNotes and the second-richest guy in the world, Warren Buffett, a.k.a. The Oracle of Omaha.

Nebraska is also where the west begins. You can feel – about halfway across – the air shed its humidity to become semi-arid. It’s true. Even the sun shines differently.

And let’s not forget the Sod House Museum.

After strolling the grounds a bit, taking in the life-sized barbed-wire buffalo and Indian horse rider sculptures, I returned to the gift shop. The woman, who I learned was a retired charter pilot, asked some questions about Pennsylvania. She had never been there, a realization that seemed to surprise her. “We never had flights there, I guess.”

I decided there wasn’t anything gift shop junk I wanted to buy, but felt a little bad that I didn’t have any loose cash to plug in the donation box. The woman was a great tour guide, charismatic as hell and full of interesting deets, insofar as Nebraskan deets are interesting. I apologized for having nothing to give. She assured me it was okay and I believed her. I thought I’d stop by on my way home from Denver, as a way of demonstrating the fundamental goodness of humankind, but that didn’t happen either.

I detoured around Nebraska instead.

1 Trackback

  1. By Headin’ West: Day 3 | Willow's Cabin on August 27, 2013 at 9:46 am

    […] information about the museums of Gothenburg, Nebraska: Sod House Museum Trip Advisor Reviews Nebraska Gothic (an excellent review of the Sod House Museum) Pony Express Trip Advisor Reviews Gothenburg […]

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