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Plains and Cranes

Article & Photography by Ron Paquet

Placed in the heart of America, Nebraska has boundless grasslands, which is used for the major industries of the state, beef, pork, corn and soybeans. Farming and ranching engage most of the some 2 million residents, but there are many other reasons to visit this Great Plains state.

As beef farming is a major industry in Nebraska, all local restaurants serve copious amounts of beef steak for very reasonable prices. With so much choice, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but must highlight Alley Rose in Kearney, where their 16-ounce prime rib can be had for a mere $18. The town of about 30,000 is known for the trains that cross through the downtown area every seven minutes, for a total of 190 trains over a 24 hour period!

Our trip took us to McCook, in the far western region of Nebraska to view the Prairie Chickens. They are difficult to find in the wild and it is quite a procedure. You have to climb out of bed before dawn to settle into one of the blinds, which is basically a horse trailer with portholes, to view the chickens. It is quite a ritual, as the males puff themselves up, strut, fight and dance on the lek (the traditional display ground) and begin trying to attract a mate. There is usually only one female for every 10 or more males, so they all have to flaunt their best. This show goes on for a couple of hours and lasts for several months.

However, the real highlight of Nebraska tourism is viewing the Sandhill Cranes, which draws upwards of 30,000 people each year to reserves like the Crane Trust Sanctuary in Wood River near Grand Island, and the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon near Kearney. Crane season lasts for six weeks from the beginning of March until mid April, and the very shallow Platte river features the largest gathering of Sandhill Cranes in the world during their Spring migration from wintering on the Gulf Coast to their summer time breeding grounds in Northwestern Canada and Siberia.

For a mere $35, you can spend three hours watching over 400,000 cranes as they all chatter in unison before taking off in great groups headed for surrounding corn fields.

They spend their days eating corn left from harvests of fields near the river, building their strength for the long flight north; at night they sleep islands in the river perched on one leg. Before dawn, the murmuring begins and thousands of Cranes begin filling the skies as they head off for a day of feeding.. Flash photography and talking is not permitted in the blinds (viewing stations) as this will scare the birds away.

The Audubon Row Sanctuary and the Crane Trust Sanctuary (both charitable organizations) offer the best viewing opportunities with blinds located very near the birds. The Crane Trust offers overnight packages priced at $1,000 a night, including a private cottage, all meals and multiple Crane viewings.

Devoted bird watchers will also enjoy a drive south from Kearney to the Harlan Reservoir near Republican City to see the White Pelicans who are also returning to the state at this time of year.

Once the bird viewing is over there are numerous heritage museums dotting the countryside where you can view early 19th century history with all its artifacts.

Indigenous peoples lived in the region for thousands of years before European exploration. Once European exploration, trade, and settlement began, both Spain and France sought to control the region. Artifacts from the periods are found in small museums throughout the state, but there are all sorts of interesting stops.

Kearney hosts a classic car collection of some 200 vintage and modern cars, including the 130 cars automobile collectors Bernie and Janice Taulborg donated to the museum. It includes a wide range of gangster and vintage cars, including a one of a kind 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith Limo, two rare Locomobiles and three Pierce Arrows. Also on display are two rare Lincolns from the Full Classic era, a 1930 Convertible by LeBaron which is one of only 80 produced and a 1930 Dual Cowl Phaeton, which is one of only 20 manufactured worldwide. These are accompanied by similarly rare models from Packard and Cadillac, Buick and LaSalle. There are many rare brands, including some that most of us have never seen before, like Moon, Gardner, Maxwell, Jewett, Gray and Metz. Among these you will also find wonderful models from Studebaker, Hudson, Mercury and Chrysler.

The collection also showcases exquisite and over the top 1950’s cruisers, from the huge tailfins on a 1959 Cadillac to the stylish overload of an exquisite 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser and 1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk, and of course, the timeless Thunderbird. Their Muscle Car collection includes several rare Mopar cars made by Chrysler, a very rare supercharged Shelby Mustang GT 350 developed by Carl Shelby, and early Pontiac GTO. Other rare sports cars are also on display from Ferrari, Porsche, DeLorean, Lancia, Bricklin, MG and Triumph. Our 1930 MG Boattail Roadster, with its wood framed, fabric covered body is a wonderful look at the origin and history of the sports car.

A trip through Gothenburg will let you visit a piece of transportation history by seeing an original Pony Express way station. They promised mail delivery to the West within 10 days; however, the service was discontinued in 1891 after a year due to the introduction of the transcontinental telegraph!

To obtain a sense of America and how it grew requires a drive to Pioneer Village in Minden which includes 28 buildings, showcasing more than 50,000 objects from the second quarter of the 19th century. It features household appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, washing machines and bathtubs, the development of lighting, firearms, money, radios and televisions.

The museum also features the largest collection of farm tractors and other farm machinery in the world, more than 350, beginning with a 1897 steam car. Other historic vehicles include an ox cart, a prairie schooner, a stagecoach, horse-drawn street car, electric trolley, and all varieties of buggies, carriages, coaches, and carts, along with bicycles and even airplanes!

Another exciting visit to be had is the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, which brings you back in time to the 1890s. The museum is home to over 100 buildings devoted to this time period. You can view a 1901 steam locomotive, an 1871 coach and a 1912 caboose.

It also features some 200 antique horse drawn carriages, steam-powered engines, tractors, threshers and trucks that represent the birth and evolution of the state’s agricultural heritage. There are sixty 100 year-old shops, homes, and other structures and a seven-acre rail yard depicting the history of steam railroading in Nebraska. A real trip down memory lane!

Unique to North America is Nabraska`s Great Platte River Road Archway which spans high across the I-80, resembling a covered bridge between two towers. Within its towers you can revisit 150 years of American history.

Finally, it is worth mentioning some of the exceptional restaurants throughout the plains of Nebraska. The Coppermill Steakhouse and Lounge Restaurant in McCook is worth a visit to enjoy a great Nebraska steak dinner. Another incredible dining experience can be found at the Chances R restaurant, featuring one of the largest salad bars in Nebraska with a variety of cold meats and vegetables.

From bird watching to visiting unique museums and fine dining, Nebraska offers something for everyone. The annual Sandhill Crane migration, one of the ten great animal migrations in the world according to internationally famed naturalist Jane Goodall, who comes every year, is the perfect reason to make the trip.


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