At least in Eastern newspapers , there are fewer references to Nebraska than to any other state in America . Back in 1970-71 , when the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers won consecutive national football titles under Bob Devaney , the state did get some ink but, since then , it seems to have fallen off the map.
I began my exploration of Nebraska by checking how the state got its name and why Nebraskans are known as Cornhuskers.
Nebraska is a variation of Nebrathka ,a Otoe Indian word meaning ” flat water ” , a reference to the Platte River. The Platte is an extensive river system , an important source of water but too shallow for navigation ; it has been memorably described as ” a mile wide and an inch deep”. As for the term Cornhuskers , it was initially used to describe Iowans, corn being the primary crop in Iowa. Nebraskans were originally known as Bugeaters ( after the bull bats that infest Nebraska’s plains) and one can’t blame them for wanting a change . Iowans preferred the name Hawkeyes and, around 1900 , Nebraska began to be known as the Cornhusker state.
Nebraska is one of the Southern Great Plains states : though , when I hear of the Great Plains States , it is Kansas and Oklahoma that come to mind , not Nebraska .Likewise, I don’t associate Indians ( i.e Native Americans) with Nebraska. In fact, several Indian tribes including the Pawnee , the Sioux and the Blackfeet ranged all over Nebraska. Beginning in the 1840’s , the flood tide of emigrants overwhelmed the Indian tribes . Ravaged by smallpox , their food source( bison) slaughtered almost to extinction , their lands expropriated (” bought” by the U.S government for an average 10 cents an acre), the Indians were confined to reservations . Attracted by the prospect of virtually free land, land hungry pioneers crossed the Great Plains annually in thousands of wagons . Many of them pushed on to Oregon and California , but some settled in the great Plains . The Oregon Trail goes latitudinally across Nebraska and many of those who settled there came from Pennsylvania via Ohio, Indiana and Illinois . Europeans ( Germans , Ukranians ) also added to the mix , the Germans from Russia being particularly welcome because they were used to farming grasslands.
My virtual trip through Nebraska begins in Omaha .
Not owning any Berkshire -Hathaway stock , I can’t attend native son Warren Buffet’s annual shareholders meeting . No matter. There are several other places in Omaha that I’d like to visit, chief among them the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium . I’m not a big fan of zoos ; they evoke childhood memories of seeing sad-eyed animals ceaselessly pacing their cramped cages. Modern zoos are different though and the Henry Doorly is one of the best. The main attractions for me are the Lied Jungle ( showcasing wildlife from the world’s rainforests) , The Desert Dome ( the worlds largest indoor desert housed under the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome ,with desert life from South Africa , Australia and the Sonoran desert ) , Operation Madagascar ( featuring the Lemur Walkway ), Kingdoms of the Night ( the world’s largest Nocturnal Exhibit), Hubbard Gorilla Valley, Hubbard Orangutang Forest and the Scott Aquarium ( featuring a 70 – foot Shark tunnel that we walk through as the Sharks swim on the other side of the glass overhead). The Henry Doorly is spread out over 130 acres so we take a break at the Lozier IMax theater and watch a 3D presentation , Dinosaurs Alive .
Pleasantly tuckered out , we’d drive to The Drover , a steakhouse-restaurant famous for its whiskey soaked steaks. Steaks are marinated for 15 minutes after the order is placed ,so we sip on lemon drop martinis while we wait . My 14 0z. Whiskey Soaked Rib Eye and my wife’s 7 oz. Whiskey Soaked Strip Steak are excellent , reminding us why Omaha is famous for its steaks. However , as a suburbanite accustomed to buying neatly packaged meat in supermarkets , I am uncomfortable with the thought that ,not far away ,live cattle are being auctioned off at a price per head roughly equal to that of our two steak dinners .
Our next day in Omaha is busy . We start out by driving to Boys Town , SW of Omaha. It was founded in 1917 by a young Irish priest , Father Flanagan , who grew discouraged with his work with the homeless in Omaha. He started out with a single boarding house orphanage that became Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys but has since grown into a national organization that has helped over 700,000 children . Father Flanagan and his cause became famous thanks to the 1938 movie ” Boys Town ” starring Spencer Tracy in an award-winning performance. A CD driving tour does an excellent job of educating visitors on the history of this wonderful organization .
Our next stop is the Durham Museum on S. 10th Street where we make a beeline for the original soda fountain in the Union Station exhibit . Fortified by a malted and an all-beef hot dog we stroll through two exhibits of particular interest . The first is the Baright Home & Family Gallery ,cut-away exhibits of typical homes during the period 1880-1940. The other is the Davidson Gallery with its exhibits of railroad cars , steam locomotives and Mack trucks . Seeing the old stem locomotives brings back memories of waiting at railroad crossings , listening to the long drawn out whoo- whoos as the engines went by pulling a train of railroad cars . Today’s Acela is sleek and fast and infinitely cleaner than those old coal driven monsters but it doesn’t evoke a sense of fondness. With fewer and fewer of us travelling by train , I wonder what today’s kids think about an exhibit like this.
Pressed for time , we nevertheless spend a couple of hours at the Joslyn Art Museum downtown . It has an excellent collection of masterpieces by Renaissance artists ( Titian , El Greco, ,Veronese , Van Ruisdael et al) , Impressionist painters ( Pissarro, Renoir and Monet ) and American artists ( AlbertBierstadt, Thomas Hart Benton , Grant Wood , Jackson Pollock and others). Wandering through gallery 16, I am brought up short by a sculpture by Subodh Gupta , an Indian artist. His untitled work is a wall mounted montage of stainless steel tiffin carriers ( dabbas) and kitchen utensils jammed into a circular frame . Who says Omaha doesn’t move with the times?
That evening , our last in Omaha , we stroll along the cobbled streets of Old Market . After we have had our fill of quaint shops , we repair to the Twisted Fork Bar and Grill for a brew ( Moose Drool draft , Trout Slayer Ale) and a brace of Chuck Wagon Chicken Pot Pies. And then back to the hotel to plan our trip to Lincoln and points west before we nod off.
Afterthoughts : 1)We who have always lived in cities tend to think of the heartland as bland and uninteresting . Two days in Omaha have already taught me that ‘s simply not true.
2) Isn’t it amusing how focused we are on being ” The World’s Largest ____”? At the Henry Doorly Zoo , there were no less than three attractions that bill themselves thus .
NEXT : Lincoln , Grand Island , Scott’s Bluff and points west