American Impressions, Chapter 36: Nebraska
The Curated Prairie
By the time I met 77-year-old Ravay Kleeb at the Custer County museum in Broken Bow, in the central part of the state, it was as if I had known her for a long time. Kleeb still considers herself a homesteader—she and her husband farm the 320 acres her husband’s Swiss ancestors claimed in 1887. “A woman is supposed to carry her own weight,” she said as she guided me through the sod-plows, the harnesses, the magnificent display of 80 types of barbed wires, all catalogued by year of patent. “A Southern Belle wouldn’t last long out here. . . . Truth be known, it’d have been better if we’d left it to the Indians. But somebody had to move someplace.”
As Kleeb showed me the more domestic byproducts of pioneer days—the very fine tatting on a shirt that must have taken months to complete, the sort of butter churn she had to use until just 15 years ago—she began sounding nostalgic.
”It’s a different sort of life. It was a closer family life because there just wasn’t the outside influences. There was no TV, no radio, no influences to take away from family like there is now.” But which life would you prefer? “Could we combine the two? I’d like to have the automatic washers and dryers and all that, but go back to the family life of back then.”
The rain didn’t follow the plow deep into the prairie, but artists did, and wish they hadn’t, at least for the first hundred years of scouring the grasslands for subjects to paint. The land seemed too vast, disorienting, featureless to eyes trained on the bucolic bumps and behaving hedgerows of European landscapes. If they painted the prairie at all (as did the likes of George Catlin, Karl Bodmer and Alfred Jacob Miller), they focused on the symbolism of buffalo skulls, fires, horsemen, sod houses or windmills.
That has changed. As the prairie became more manicured—and sometimes ravaged—by settlement, 20 th century artists tilled it for irony or redemption or contradictions. Shortly after the Dust Bowl and the New Deal, which reminded urban America that farmers existed, Texas artist Alexander Hague, in “Mother Earth Laid Bare” (1938), painted a rolling landscape with the distinctive features of a naked woman on her back, in the afterheaves of a rape by a man symbolized, in the foreground, by a sod-breaking plow. “Fall Plowing,” Grant Wood’s painting for the Iowa State Fair in 1931, also shows Mother Earth with a John Deere plow prominent in the foreground, but in this case she is covered in a bounty of colors and harvests. (The painting now belongs to the John Deere Art Collection in Moline, Ill.) One of my favorite plains paintings is Keith Jacobshagen’s “Havelock Elevator, Evening of Ash Wednesday, 1993,” which outlines, at the edge of a low horizon, an elevator made to look minuscule by the spread of fields around it and above it an immense sky, nine-tenths the size of the canvas, streaked in the unruly clouds of a storm’s remains.
For the most part those images, which don’t really shape our vision of the plains because they’re so seldom seen together, hang on museum or corporate walls anywhere from Nebraska to Cleveland, Washington or Tulsa, and virtually never in the small roadside or county museums I visited. There, because space, money and even history as local curators know it are limited, the museums pay homage to the pioneers’ work and tools, those tiny testaments of success against an ocean of isolation and uncertainty. The displays are a matter of minutiae, of the small, everyday wares and inventions that tamed small corners of the land, as if to say that the artists of the 19 th century had it right: grasping the whole picture is useless, it’s impossible. The plains won’t allow it. They don’t coddle artistic sensibilities because memory here is poignantly wedded to a melancholy of hardware, not art. That’s what gives the museums’ displays of cast iron endurance their immediacy—their intimacy—with a past that seems, in retrospect, to have been the plains’ best days.
At the Cage County museum in Beatrice, in southeastern Nebraska, every town in the county has its own window-size gallery and its own claim to the distinctive. Lanham, founded in 1882: a glass jar of rock candy. Ellis, 1887: the town’s pin-striped baseball uniform. Adams, 1882: the cane that belonged to the town’s founder. Barneston, 1884: a 2-foot-tall kerosene lamp that once lit a Barneston street. Virginia, 1887: An ice tongue made by Al Boyer, town blacksmith for 49 years. Beatrice itself has a roomful of claims. The county history is 1,100 pages long, with 756 pages devoted to “People Who Have Done Their Part in making Cage County”—and it was written in 1918, when Cage was younger than most of its contributors.
And on goes the trail of memory. But nothing prepares you for Carhenge.
Located in Alliance, an hour south of Chadron, the Stonehenge-like inner and middle circles of (exclusively American) cars upended like the menhirs of Salisbury Plain, including a half-buried Cadillac serving as the “slaughter stone,” started as a joke during a family reunion on Jim Reinders’ farm in 1987. The oil industry engineer, who now lives in Albuquerque, had been impressed with Stonehenge while living in England in the 1970s. He wanted a local replica. Cars had to do because stones were unwieldy, “and anyway there are none in Nebraska,” Reinders told a British journalist.
The site has developed its own cult following, including the Friends of Carhenge, created in 1989 to prevent the Alliance City Council from bulldozing what it considered to be a junkyard. Carhenge is now Alliance’s chief (and very nearly only) attraction, drawing 90,000 visitors a year, not counting solstice festivals. One day, members of the Friends will have their way and build a visitors’ center, bathrooms, a parking lot and a gift shop. They’ll ruin Nebraska’s best joke. Meanwhile, the cars rise out of gravel in the middle of cornfields, “Field of Dreams”-like, an ode to Detroit or to the Cosmic gods, or to family reunions. Whatever. Unlike the prairie around it, Carhenge accommodates any projection.
NEBRASKA IN BRIEF
Total area: 77,358 sq. miles (rank: 16)
Population (1997): 1,656,870 (rank: 38)
State capital: Lincoln
Economy: Agriculture, processed foods
Nickname & Motto: Cornhusker State; Equality before the law.
Entered union: March 1, 1867 (37 th).
Notable facts: For a state as sparsely populated and as nearly-distant from Hollywood as it is from New York City, Nebraska has produced a significant share of America’s actors and entertainers: Marlon Brando and Henry Fonda got their start in Brando’s mother’s playhouse in Omaha. Fred Astaire was born here, so was Nick Nolte, but above all: Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson.
Nebraska in quotes: “There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint bstarlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made . . . Between the earth and the sky I felt erased, blotted out.”—From Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.”
The books of Willa Cather that are based on her memories of the Nebraska prairie are all in print—“My Antonia,” “O Pioneers!” and “The Song of the Lark”—and available in paperback. So are the many books by Mari Sandoz, including “Old Jules” and “Sandhills Sundays and Other Recollection.”
* Willa Cather sites, including links: www.greatamericanwomen.com/cather.htm and www.willacather.org
* Custer County Historical Society: www.rootsweb.com/~necuster