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Published: November 8th 2015
After thoroughly enjoying a week at the Farm Island Recreation Area in Pierre SD, I headed for the Lincoln NE area to, ta-dah, visit the state capitol among other attractions. The drive was longer than I was willing to make in a single day (457 miles and almost 10 hours with the Pilgrim in tow and stops for fuel, food and necessary breaks), so I made an overnight reservation at Wacky West Travel Park in Valentine NE. The manager had a spot long enough for the Ram with the Pilgrim attached (so I would be spared from uncoupling the trailer from the truck) and also had travel information about the Valentine area which I found appealing. I just might stop for 3 or 4 nights my next time through the area.
Resuming my journey on Thursday, September 3, 2015, I made a stop at a Ma and Pa eatery in Broken Bow NE for a late breakfast. I ended up leaving my travel mug sitting on the counter when I dug a tip from my pocket and grabbed the bill to take to the register. About 20 miles down the road, I realized my error and almost turned around to
retrieve it. Like the girl in the Liberty Mutual commercial, I loved Joe. “We’d been through everything together….” Two trucks, one divorce! But, alas, Liberty Mutual never called, so Uncle Larry never broke into his happy dance. I arrived at Pine Grove RV Park in Greenwood NE without further incident.
Greenwood is about 25 miles from Lincoln and about 40 miles from Omaha NE so it is not conducive to sightseeing; however, and unfortunately for this tourist, September 5, 2015 was a football Saturday. All the RV parks more proximal to Lincoln were full for at least one night during my visit, so I end up making a reservation in Greenwood. I suppose if one were planning to take in the sights in Lincoln and Omaha from the same stop, it would be a good choice.
On “schoolless albeit football” Saturday, I headed for the Lester F. Larsen Tractor Museum
in Lincoln. The museum is part of the Biological Systems Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln which had its genesis in 1904 as the Farm Mechanics Section of the Mechanical Engineering Department. By 1909, the school had become the Agricultural Engineering Department and adopted its current name in 1990.
Biological Systems Engineering Department! That sounds like some sort of DNA manipulation program hell bent on creating a Jurassic Park. In my next life, I’m gonna get one of those jobs where I’m a member of a brain trust that sits around developing those fancy names and titles that say nothing and are strictly adopted as a means to confuse! I wonder, do I have to become a lawyer first?
The steam engine was introduced in the late 1800’s primarily for pulling plows and providing power for threshing machines using flat belts. Although the internal combustion engine began to replace steam traction engines starting around 1900, production of steam powered farm equipment continued until about 1930. As more tractor choices became available and manufacturers’ claims became more embellished, the Nebraska Tractor Test Lab was legislated into existence and began operation in 1920. The Nebraska Tractor Test Law stipulated that any tractor sold in the state of Nebraska must have its advertised claims verified by a Test Board of three engineers through tests conducted by the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory.
The record number of tractors tested was 69 in 1920; however, during WW II no new tractors were designed
so the laboratory was closed. When it re-opened in 1946 Lester F. Larsen was named the Engineer-in-Charge of the Nebraska Tractor Test Program, a position he held from 1946 to 1975. Larsen became known internationally as a man of integrity whose data on the performance of agricultural tractors was accurate and unbiased. Although the law had jurisdiction only within the State of Nebraska, the results became the standard of performance so tractors were submitted for testing from around the world to prove that the manufacturer’s advertising was credible. Starting from one tractor in 1946, the program built up to a peak of 56 tractors tested in 1965.
My docent and tour guide was a retired professor in the Biological Systems Engineering Department. He provided interesting anecdotes of events that had happened during some of the power tests. Interestingly, the testing process is uninterrupted and finds students swapping positions to attend classes or for other emergencies. He had interesting narratives about the various iterations of tractors on display and highlighted some of the positive and negative attributes of each. After growing up in a farming environment and after earning my first regular income on a hay wagon (when coupled with
my interest in “engineering stuff”), I thoroughly enjoyed the museum but many would find it utterly boring.
From the tractor museum, I headed for the Nebraska State Capitol
in downtown Lincoln. As noted earlier, I had learned it was football Saturday but nobody mentioned the football stadium was about four blocks from the capitol. Reasonably priced parking was non-existent! Plan B found me heading back to the RV park to watch the game on TV, but schooless Sunday found me back at the capitol. I wasn’t surprised to find a large group awaiting the tour; however, nobody was discussing the exciting, last minute 33-28 loss to Brigham Young.
Westward migration and a call for a trans-continental railroad prompted President Franklin Pierce to sign the Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854, creating the Nebraska Territory. Almost immediately, a factional divide between North and South Platters arose over the question of capital location. Much to the chagrin of the South Platters, Acting Governor Thomas B. Cuming, selected the small northern village of Omaha City for the seat of government. Since Cuming was from Iowa and since his political allies were investors in the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company, selecting Omaha City as the
capital would be beneficial to his political career; however, realizing that the more heavily populated South Platters would be able to legislatively move the capital to the south, Cuming rigged the territory’s first census thereby giving North Platters greater political power and a higher likelihood of keeping Omaha City as the capital.
The first territorial capitol had been a modest two story brick structure donated by the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company while the second territorial capitol was a large “Federal Style” brick structure. In 1867, the Legislature voted to move the capital south of the Platte River to the western edge of settlement in the new state. The new capital city was to be home to Nebraska’s Capitol, the University of Nebraska, the Nebraska State Penitentiary and the Nebraska State Hospital. Following a scouting trip to select a new capital site by the three members of the Capital Commission, the village of Lancaster was chosen. The small community was renamed Lincoln, and construction of the first state capitol was begun.
The first state capitol in Lincoln, a two story native limestone building with a central cupola, was constructed between 1867 and 1868. Poor construction and inferior
building materials caused this first state capitol to quickly begin to crumble. In 1881, the first wing of a second state capitol was completed and the entire building was finished in 1888. This second capitol also suffered from poor construction and was settling structurally when talk began in 1915 of building yet a third state capitol. In 1919 the Legislature passed a bill to provide for the construction of a new capitol, including a provision for a Capitol Commission to oversee the construction. Ya think? Both of the previous structures have been razed.
The Nebraska State Capitol, the product of a nationwide design competition won by a New York architect, is described as the nation’s first truly vernacular state capitol. I had to look it up, but Encarta says, “architecture – the local architecture of a place or people, especially the architectural style that is used for ordinary houses as opposed to large official or commercial buildings.” Who would I be to argue? The present building, the third to be erected on this site, was the nation’s first statehouse design to radically depart from the prototypical form of the Nation’s Capitol and to use an office tower. Constructed in
four phases over ten years from 1922-1932, the building, furnishings and landscaping was completed at a cost just under the $10 million budget and was paid for when finished.
Clad with Indiana limestone, the capitol base is in the plan of a “cross within a square,” creating four interior courtyards and is emblematic of the quarters of the Earth and the historic course of human experience. I guess I don’t partake of sufficient mind-altering substances to glean those esoteric interpretations on my own, so I am grateful that somebody lays out those explanations for me! The square base is 437 feet on a side and three levels in height. From the center of this base rises a 400 foot domed tower, symbolizing the heavens and a more abstract concept of life derived from historic experience. If they think so, I’m just the reporter. The tower is crowned with a 19 foot tall bronze figure – “The Sower.”
The balustrade flanking the main stairway is ornamented with bison inscribed with American Indian poems. The ornamental interior features numerous marble-columned chambers with vaulted polychrome tile ceilings, marble mosaic floors and murals depicting the natural and social history of Nebraska’s Native
American and Pioneer cultures. Over the entrance is a gilded frieze showing the "Spirit of the Pioneers." Other exterior sculptural ornaments include a series of friezes depicting the history of law from the Ten Commandments to a celebration of Nebraska's statehood. Ten great lawgivers – Minos, Hammurabi, Moses, Akhnaton, Solon, Solomon, Julius Caesar, Justinian I, Charlemagne and Napoleon are depicted emerging from pylonic masses. The eight ideals of culture are represented by Pentaour (dawn of history), Ezekiel (cosmic tradition), Socrates (birth of reason), Marcus Aurelius (reign of law), Saint John the Apostle (glorification of faith), Louis IX (age of chivalry), Isaac Newton (discovery of nature), and Abraham Lincoln (liberation of peoples).
Inside, bison, corn, wheat, sunflowers and wild native animal motifs are repeated throughout the building with a central theme of nature and the cultivation of the prairie. The doors to the East Chamber are a product of master craftsmanship, weigh more than 750 pounds each and took more than six months to carve. They commemorate the cultural contributions of Plains Indians. The architect designed 20 recessed mural spaces for the main hallways of the capitol. In May 1933, under the ever-worsening economic conditions of The Great Depression, the
Nebraska Legislature re-appropriated the Capitol Commission’s unexpended budget. With depleted funds, the Commission resolved to terminate its own existence, leaving the mural project incomplete. In 1951, the Nebraska Legislature created the Capitol Mural Commission which held a series of competitions to select artists for the remaining murals. I’m convinced – it truly is a vernacular state capitol!
Although the presentation didn’t seem spontaneous and appeared “canned,” either from a very well-memorized script or from dozens upon dozens of repetitions, our tour guide was exceptionally interesting. During the tour, I learned that Nebraska is the only unicameral legislature in America. I suppose that if all states adopted that format, hundreds upon hundreds of lawyers and a couple dozen teachers, farmers, scientists, homemakers and sundry other occupations would have to return to the workforce! The Nebraska State Capitol is not the most ornate or majestic capitol I have seen, but the art is beautiful and the architecture is unique. That, in addition to the fact it is a seat of state government, is enough for me to endorse the attraction.
My final stop of the day was the Veterans Memorial Garden
located in Antelope Park in Lincoln. A walk will take the
visitor to more than 21 military monuments. In 1923, the Lincoln Women's Club planned and developed Memorial Avenue and planted 93 trees along the avenue to recognize 91 men and 2 women from Lancaster County who died in World War I. General John J. Pershing participated in the dedication of Memorial Avenue on April 2, 1923. A bronze marker inscribed with the names of those 93 veterans was mounted on a large boulder and 93 trees were planted along Memorial Avenue. Since 1923, the memorial has, sadly, grown substantially.
The final stanza of a lengthy poem inscribed on a bronze plaque at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial reads as though one of the names on The Wall is speaking, "Oh, brothers and sisters, no longer weep for me. I am at peace ... as God meant it to be. Leave the anger and pain behind, be the best that you can be. Live life to its fullest ... Please make it count for me." Sometimes I think I have reached that place. At other times, not so much. Very nicely done and highly recommended.
Unfortunately, the Museum of Nebraska History
was closed for renovation during my week in Lincoln and is expected
The Park Is Nicely Done
Veterans Memorial Garden - Lincoln NE
to be closed throughout 2015. There were another half dozen attractions I would have visited, but marginal weather and laziness kept me from dragging myself from the Pilgrim to make the half hour drive to Lincoln. I guess they’ll have to wait until my next stop – when I can visit the Museum of Nebraska History. After all, Lincoln can easily be included on an itinerary from Illinois to points west. It’s hard for me to assess Lincoln. The city appears to be much larger than what I anticipated, but the only day I visited it was a sea of “Go Big Red” and that can hardly be used as a representative means of comparison. My only advice would be that if you are considering a visit in the fall, make your reservations for a “football Saturday” months in advance.
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