Book Review: Nebraska's Family History

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
A new book tells the story in words and photos of the Cornhusker State's counties.

Farming and ranching are in Nebraska's DNA and they play a large part in the new book "Nebraska: 150 Years Told Through 93 Counties." The book is a project of the Omaha World-Herald, which assigned one of its top reporters, David Hendee, to the story in anticipation of the state's 150th birthday this year. Part coffee-table photo book, part history book, part road-trip book, "Nebraska" is a delight even if you're not a Cornhusker.

Hendee structured the book, as the title suggests, as a view of the whole state as seen through its parts. Counties -- 93 of them -- were the building blocks laid side-by-side and stacked to create Nebraska, and Hendee visited them all. The goal, he writes, was a hybrid: "This is neither a history book, nor a travel guide. Rather, it is a collection of some of the monumental moments and incidental episodes of the statesmen and scoundrels who came to this land -- along with the American Indians who were, of course, already happily here."

Some of the "monumental moments" are really monumental, like Hendee's story of the ash bed in Antelope County. When a volcano exploded 12 million years ago in what is now Wyoming, it covered part of Nebraska in ash. Hendee calls it "a prehistoric Pompeii." It created an ash bed that preserved hundreds of grassland animals -- rhinos and camels among them -- and is now a draw for tourists and paleontologists alike.

Some moments are not so monumental, like Hendee's observation about Boone County: "There was so little mail at the county's first post office that no space was rented for a building. The postmaster's coat pockets became the post office -- and they were big enough."

Or how about Deuel County's starving artist? "For two bottles of whiskey in the 1960s, he [now well-known artist Aaron Pyle] painted a mural in Dude's Steakhouse [in Sidney]."

Cowboys and farmers played a large part in the founding of Nebraska's counties. Western and northern counties are too dry for much cropland, but grass drew cattlemen. Eastern and southern counties get more rain and attracted sodbusters by the thousands. Their ancestors farm in counties like Seward, where Hendee describes modern-day corn detasslers as, "armies of young people [who] march five to 10 miles a day ... July-morning dew soaks jeans. Mosquitoes buzz around heads. Mud sucks shoes from feet."

Helping Hendee tell these small stories are dozens of photos. Some are historic black and whites that depict early settlers and scrubby little towns. Some are modern, taken from a photo project by the Hildegard Center for the Arts. Some are creations of staff photographers from the newspaper. If I have a complaint about the book, it is that the publishers didn't find it necessary to give photo credits to the all contributors.

In partnership with Hendee's graceful prose and sense of humor, these photos create a book that will be at home on your coffee table or your lap.

Price is $29.95 from the World-Herald store at…



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