“Westward Ho!” was the cry heard in 19th century Nebraska. Trails leading west began in or traversed the state. But, for many, a little house on the prairie was their dream. Ironically, modern-day Nebraskans are also living their dream. Visitors to the Cornhusker State should take in both the past and the present.
The Homestead Act of 1862 dangled Nebraska in front of land-hungry men and women. The United States government gifted 160 acres of free land in 30 states to claimants who were willing to develop it. More than any other state, people claimed 45 of Nebraska.
To travel back to that time, trek along the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, a 200-acre prairie of restored tall grass and 19th-century structures. Start at the Visitors Center to view an introductory film and exhibits of pioneer life. Then exit for a better understanding of that era in the Palmer-Epert cabin and the old Freeman School.
Not all homesteaders stopped in Nebraska, but thousands of wagon trains rolled through it. Important along their route were rustic stations where supplies could be bought and sold. The crude “road ranch” served as a Pony Express relay change, a rest stop for stages and freight wagons and passengers along the Oregon Trail.
Rock Creek Station, located in Beatrice, made a name for itself when, in June 1861, an event occurred that gave rise to a legend. The station master, James Butler Hickok, had an altercation with the owner, David McCanles. Hickok shot and killed McCanles and two other men. McCanles’ son escaped but was considered too young to testify at the trial. As it turned out, Hickok was acquitted on a self-defense plea. Afterward, he was dubbed “Wild Bill Hickok,” and went on to become a gunfighter, a lawman, a gambler and an actor. But he died by the gun when he was assassinated in 1876 in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D.
Visit Rock Creek Station Historical Park and walk the deep furrows left by the many wagon wheels. Explore the reconstructed buildings, examine the covered wagon and feel the wind as it waves the tall grass.
The past and present meet at Nebraska City’s Lied Lodge and Arbor Day Farm, a unique property that sits on 260 acres of natural and cultivated land with woods, orchards, domestic crops and vineyards. The lodge offers all the same amenities as most upscale resorts: great dining, spacious guestrooms, golf, an indoor pool, a spa and sauna, an exercise room and a conference center. What makes it unique is its devotion to nature, especially trees.
The farm once belonged to J. Sterling Morton, who, because of his love of trees, founded Arbor Day in 1872. The luxurious lodge has adopted a tree theme with tree trunks being a major feature in the décor – even serving as columns in the guestrooms. Several other structures on Arbor Day Farm are dedicated to trees and nature. Woodland Pavilion displays the importance of trees with interactive exhibits, as well as an entertaining film, “Trees in the Movies.” Other activities include woodland trails, tree houses and riding tours through the orchards and vineyards. Stop by the Apple House and Pie Garden Café to taste wine, apple cider, apple pie or apple slushies and sit down for a quick bite and/or purchase Arbor Day Farm products.
Learn more about J. Sterling Morton and his impressive accomplishments at his former estate located in the adjacent Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. See where his four-room cabin expanded into this elegant mansion (which is also said to be haunted by his wife, Caroline). Other than the fact that he was a zealot for planting trees, you’ll also discover that his son, Joy, founded the Morton Salt Company.
Although Morton Salt comes out of Chicago, the city of Lincoln (Nebraska’s state capital) once was the hub of commercial rail transportation. That area has been transformed into the Historic Haymarket Landmark District. Former warehouses are now part of a revitalized center for shops, restaurants, condos, offices, entertainment, and sports. One of the new venues, The Yard, is an open-air plaza which features festivals, farmer markets, giant-screen movies and concerts.
You’ll never forget seeing Lincoln if you get onboard the Group Therapy Bike Tour. The vehicle is powered by each passenger who’s pedaling while eating, drinking and being merry. Choose from a lineup of tours that feature stops at pizza parlors, pubs, coffee shops, art galleries, the University of Nebraska or just a good ol’ time.
Lincoln is a Place for all Tastes
The Museum of Speed focuses on American racecars and racecar engines. But the massive collection also includes children’s cars, tiny toy cars, LP album covers with racing themes, pedal airplanes, taxicab memorabilia and automobile-shaped cookie jars.
Architecture enthusiasts will love visiting the Nebraska State Capitol, known as “The Tower of the Plains.” Crowning the tower is a bronze statue of a farmer sowing grain that represents Nebraska’s agriculture prosperity. The interior is ablaze with colorful mosaics and murals on the floors, walls and ceiling.
The Children’s Zoo will delight families. Exhibits are at kids’ eye level, and they are invited to get up close and personally touch gentle creatures.
The outdoor sculpture garden at the University of Nebraska showcases 38 pieces by renowned contemporary sculptors, such as Claus Oldenburg, Jun Kaneko, Gaston Lachaise and Jacques Lipschitz.
And for foodies, Lincoln’s dining scene is exciting and diverse. Issara’s offers a fusion of Thai and other Asian cuisines. Owner Malinee Kiatathikom strives to present patrons with innovative dishes of fresh seafood, beef, pork and duck. The menu is as sleek and modern as the décor. Chef George Kazas grew up eating traditional Greek food at home and in his father’s restaurant. He’s brought his ethnic culinary skills to his own taverna (Greek for “café”), the Parthenon. Diners nosh on a full menu of authentic Greek dishes, such as Lamb Souvlaki, Moussaka, Avgolemono, gyros and more. Billy’s Restaurant celebrates the state’s past. Housed in the charming 1887 Nobles-Dawes home, chef Nader Farahbod has named his establishment after a famous Nebraska politician, William Jennings Bryan. Coincidentally, Lincoln’s politicos have elected to frequent Billy’s regularly. Farahbod has made American staples and international favorites his own. Chow down on Moroccan Chicken, Havarti Bleu Burger or the dish called “New York” – a 12-oz. cut of Nebraska beef, accompanied by sautéed jumbo shrimp. To satisfy a sweet tooth, head to Historic Haymarket’s Licorice International where you’ll find licorice goodies imported from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, in addition to carrying American-made licorice.
There’s much more to see and do in Southeastern Nebraska. For more information, go to VisitNebraska.gov.