Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer is a museum in Nebraska…not really near me because let’s face it, Nebraska is HUGE.
But it’s near enough that I’ve gotten there a couple of times.
It’s absolutely fascinating. A laid-out circle of buildings that have been brought it, that date to the 1800s.
I may write five blogs about it because there is SO MUCH. I could spend days there and just look and read and look and read.
But today I’m writing about the recreated Earthen Lodge built there.
In the early 1800s the Pawnee lived mainly in only a few towns. Six or seven.
In each town were 40 to 200 of these earthen lodges.
Each lodge held around 20 Pawnee and each village could contain from 800 to 3500 tribal members.
These were big towns.
The smallest one is larger than my hometown.
This first picture is a diagram of the lodge. It’s laid out to respect the power the Native people gave to the earth. It was called The Circle of Life. Both symbolic and literally the source of their family, their safety, their food, their shelter. Truly a circle of life for them.
For me, museums are most fun when there are lots of words. This picture above is for the Pawnee History that is celebrated with this earthen lodge. I hope you can read it. I spend more time READING in museums than looking at the objects contained there.
This is the side view of the lodge from outside. It’s exactly as you’d think it would be. A hole dug into a hill. Remember this is Nebraska. It gets cold! The insulation from dirt is excellent, though it still seems like it’s be a little cold to me.
Here it is from the front, this is the entrance. It’s full size and we were able to go inside.
This is the inside edge of the lodge. You can see there is a layer of grassy seating off the ground. The Pawnee would sit here, around the fire, and could sleep here at night. A single lodge could house dozens of tribal members.
Here you can see the tree trunks that support the ceiling, even though it’s inside an earthen mount it is hollowed out and they need to keep the ceiling up. Note the opening in the ceiling. A fire was built in the center of the lodge and it would warm everyone, the smoke would rise up through the hole, they could cook over it and heat water to wash.
Have you ever noticed how the setting of a book is an essential part of a story? There may be exceptions, but I don’t think you can pick up a story and drop it into another place—state, landscape, town versus farm. It just wouldn’t work well.
When I started writing JAMES, I decide to set it in Nebraska for several reasons. First, I needed the town of King’s Ford to be close enough to a mining area that my heroine could make the trip, but far enough away that it would be dangerous for her. Since there was gold mining in the Black Hills of the Dakota territory, I grabbed my atlas (yes, I still have one) and looked for the path she would have to take. It led me to a place near Chadron, Nebraska, a real town in the northwestern corner of the state.
The location gave me a wagon route to Cheyenne, Wyoming, that a wagon train might take, and a grassland that would support a yearly cattle drive to the railhead in North Platte. Perfect, I thought.
Now, I’d been through Nebraska once while on a tour with my college choir. We sang in Lincoln, then lit out for Colorado. All I really remember is that I could see the Rocky Mountains coming for hours and hours—it felt like days!
So, my memory of Nebraska is flat. Research, however, made me realize that wasn’t the case for the area I’d chosen. Back to editing.
JAMES is set in the rolling hills of northwestern Nebraska. And those hills come into play in the story. So does the weather, but that’s another blog.
What do you think? Do you care where a story is set or does it not really matter to you?
Leave a comment and you’ll be entered to win one of two electronic copies of JAMES.
After five years leading the Lord’s flock in King’s Ford, Nebraska, The Reverend James Hathaway is used to the demands on his time. But nothing could prepare him to find a baby in a basket on his front step. He always expected to marry before becoming a father. Then a young widow agrees to help him learn to care for the child and he wonders if he hasn’t found his future.
Widow Esther Travers is still reeling over the loss of her newborn baby girl when she’s asked to help care for another baby. Vowing to get the little one off to a good start, she doesn’t plan to fall for the very handsome preacher, too.
“Reverend! Reverend Hathaway!”
James heard Tad shouting long before he reached the cabin at the north end of King’s Ford, the town he’d called home for nearly five years now. The seven-year-old ran errands for many folks in town, though most often it was for the doctor. If Doctor Finney was sending for a preacher this early in the morning, it couldn’t be good news. James buttoned his vest and pulled on his frock coat then glanced in the small mirror hung beside the front door to be sure his collar was tucked in properly, then studied his face.
He looked tired. A wagon had creaked and rumbled past his home well before dawn and the noise had dragged him from a sound sleep. He’d been sitting at the table since then, trying to write his Sunday sermon, but inspiration hadn’t gotten out of bed with him. Ah, well. It was only Tuesday.
James glanced around his small home. The parsonage, if you could call the drafty, poorly lit cabin by so lofty a title, sat at the far north end of town. The church sat to the south of the parsonage, which meant the larger building did nothing to block the winter winds that howled down from the Dakota hills thirty or so miles away.
Deciding he wouldn’t scandalize any parishioner he passed, he lifted his hat from the small table under the mirror and opened the door. He was so focused on Tad that he nearly tripped over a basket left on his stoop.
“What on earth?”
“Yes, Tad, I see that. Who left it here?” He immediately thought of the wagon that had awoken him. “Why didn’t they knock? I’ve been home since nightfall.”
Tad crept closer, lifted a corner of the cloth covering the contents, and jumped back like there was a snake inside. “Baby!” Tad yelled.
“Don’t play games, Tad. Tell me what’s…” James didn’t jump away, though he wanted to. “Merciful heavens, there’s a baby in here.”
If you’re a history lover like me, there’s something fascinating about famous historical people. DEAD famous historical people. Nothing like visiting a grave to get my imagination juices going about the life they led, the death they may (or may not) have suffered, and what the world they lived in would’ve been like.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited Deadwood, South Dakota. Seeing the Mount Moriah Cemetery outside of town was a tourist must. First stop was Wild Bill Hickock’s plot. His burial was in 1879.
You can see how large his plot is and how well the community cares for it. He did, after all, put Deadwood on the map.
Nearby was Calamity Jane’s (Martha Jane Burke) grave. To this day, I’m not sure where her grave began or where it ended. It was quite a large retaining wall with the plaque bearing her name.
If you get a chance to visit Deadwood’s famous cemetery, you’ll see even more burial places of notorious characters from the Wild West. But I didn’t have to travel far from home to discover some fascinating graves right here in my own city.
Holy Sepulchre Cemetery is Omaha’s oldest, active cemetery. The first recorded burial was on June 6, 1873. Holy Sepulchre is special because many members of my family are buried here, the oldest being my great-great grandmother, Salvatarice Salerno, who emigrated to America from Carlentini, Sicily, in the mid-1800s. My husband and I have burial plots there, too. In fact, our marker is already in place.
It was extremely important to my parents, especially my father, to keep the memories of our ancestors alive. With his help, I wrote a map and detailed directions to each grave so we can “take the tour” every year and decorate the graves.
Last month, we took our daughters and grandchildren “on the tour.” Along the way, we found some pretty fascinating graves of some pretty fascinating people.
Have you heard of Edward Creighton? Along with his brother, John, he was one of Omaha’s earliest and most prominent businessmen who contributed substantially to our city’s growth.
One of his legacies is Creighton University.
Three of our four daughters attended college there, as well as numerous other family members. In fact, two daughters were married at the beautiful St. John’s Church on its campus. You can see it here in this aerial view of Creighton’s campus today.
I’m sure Edward is smiling in his grave at the legacy he started that is thriving today as a world-renowned educational institution.
Anyway, back to the graves. As a testament to his wealth and prestige, he and his family occupy a good chunk of land at Holy Sepulchre.
His obelisk is a landmark in the cemetery.
There are plain markers around the obelisk for various Creighton family members. I found them quite unusual.
Holy Sepulchre is home to many who once led very colorful lives. Vincent Chiodo was one of them. This is his mausoleum.
He was Omaha’s first Italian millionaire. He made his money in real estate and helped build homes for newly-arrived immigrants from his home country, which gained him their unwavering respect and honor.
Along with all the good works he did, though, his life was full of tragedy and drama. He was acquitted of murder twice, lost his fortune in the 1929 crash, and endured the death of his beloved son in his home. The death remains a mystery to this day.
But his mansion still stands. If you’d like to read more about him, here’s a recent article about him in our Omaha newspaper. Just click HERE.
Ah, but I’m saving my favorite for last. Again, thanks to an article in the newspaper, I learned about another famous person who rests at Holy Sepulchre. She was much less flamboyant than Edward Creighton or Vincent Chiodo, but her legacy endures today in a different way.
I, like millions of other little girls, loved my Barbie dolls. Charlotte Johnson was born and raised here in Omaha, but moved to Los Angeles where she became a fashion designer and instructor. In the mid-1950s, while working alongside Ruth Handler, who co-owned Mattel with her husband and is credited with conceiving the idea for the Barbie doll, it was Charlotte who designed Barbie herself, along with her glamorous wardrobe that so many little girls dreamed of having for their own.
I thought it was just the COOLEST thing she was in my cemetery!
Sadly, Charlotte never had a daughter of her own to play with the doll she helped create into an international sensation. She died in Los Angeles, but came back home to Omaha to be buried.
Tom MacKinnon rides up driving a wagon with a second wagon trailing him. He and his sister want to be hired to build windmills. They’ll ask for very little money and, in exchange heroine, Lauren Drummond, newly widowed mother of four nearly grown sons, will help them learn to survive in the Sandhills of Nebraska. What to grow, what to hunt, how to build a sod house.
Tom’s windmills will save her ranch. Lauren needs three windmills on this drought year or her growing herd of cattle is going to die of thirst. She agrees to teach him the ways of the Sandhills, and to give him fifteen head of cattle.
She’s not ready to think of another man. But Tom changes her mind. His little sister and one of her sons find love together before Tom and Lauren do.
Other books in this series are:
Texas Tears by Caryl McAdoo
These Great Gifts by Allison Pittman
Mail Order Misfire by Davalynn Spencer
Blizzards & Blessings by Samantha Bayarr
Spring of Thanksgiving by Liz Tolsma
All now available for preorder!
Happy….Thankgiving? In June?
Why not, then when we do Christmas in July it’ll seem really natural. 🙂
Before I was a romance writer, I was a voracious romance reader. My reading of choice in those early days was historical romance, particularly American-set historicals. There were two facets of American history that drew me more than any others — Colonial/Revolution and Westerns. So it wasn’t a stretch that the first manuscript I ever wrote was set along the Oregon Trail. And since my sister moved to the Northwest, I’ve taken opportunities over the years to go on road trips to see her instead of flying (which I don’t like anyway).
During one of these trips, I got to see with my own eyes several of the Oregon Trail sites that I’d researched and written about in that first manuscript. I was fascinated to travel in the steps of those brave men and women who headed out for a new life, who traveled into the largely unknown landscape that was filled with danger on a daily basis.
Nebraska and Wyoming are often considered flyover states, but there’s so much to see, so much history to be absorbed if you take to the roads instead. One of the famous landmarks Oregon Trail travelers looked for on their journey was Chimney Rock in present Morrill County, Nebraska. This geological feature made of a combination of clay, volcanic ash and sandstone has a peak nearly 300 feet above the surrounding North Platte River valley. Travelers along the California and Mormon trails also used it as a landmark. You can see it today from US Route 26 and Nebraska Highway 92. Learn more at the Chimney Rock National Historic Site website.
About 20 miles to the northwest of Chimney Rock, also along Nebraska Highway 92, is Scotts Bluff National Monument near the town of Gering. This collection of bluffs on the south side of the North Platte River was first documented by non-native people when fur traders began traveling through the area in the early 1800s. It was noted to be among the first indications that the flatness of the Great Plains was beginning to give way to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It’s named after Hiram Scott, a fur trader who died near the bluff in 1828, though the Native peoples of the area called it “Me-a-pa-te” or “the hill that is hard to go around.”
After crossing into Wyoming, another National Park Service site preserving trail history is Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which sits at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers. It has a rich history as a frontier trading post and then an Army post up until its decommission and transfer out of the final troops in 1890. The fort also has appeared in pop culture, including in the Oregon Trail and Age of Empires video games, the 1955 movie White Feather, and a 1950s CBS radio drama called, appropriately, Fort Laramie. You can learn more at the Fort Laramie NHS website.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things you can still see today along the Oregon Trail are actual ruts made by the thousands of heavily loaded wagons heading west. This physical evidence made me feel closer to those long-ago travelers than anything else. One of the places you can see these ruts is Oregon Trail Ruts, a National Historic Landmark near Guernsey, Wyoming.
To learn more about the Oregon National Historic Trail overseen by the National Park Service throughout seven states, visit their site. I hope to be able to visit even more trail sites in the future. I’d especially like to see Independence Rock in Wyoming and more end-of-the-trail sites in Oregon.
Have you ever traveled to historic sites you’ve either written or read about? What were your favorites? I’ll give away a signed copy of A Rancher to Love, part of my Blue Falls, Texas series from Harlequin Western Romance to one commenter.