Tag Archives: Arapahoe

Arapahoe To Lincoln

Did so much and learned so much while here in Arapahoe. Met so many wonderful people, all welcoming and happy to talk about life in the area.

Driving around, saw the long trains that opened up the region and still make it viable. As Cathy noted, they are vital to life out here, both carrying grain away and bringing goods into the area.

Passing through the Swedish community of Holdrege triggered a discussion of the people who settled the area. Largest group was German, but there were also significant numbers of Czech, Irish, English, Swedish, Hispanic, and African American settlers, with a good number of Asians and even some Pacific Islanders in the mix. There are also around 15,000 Native Americans in Nebraska.

Knowing that I’d be heading back across Iowa, Cathy explained that farms in Iowa are prettier than those in Nebraska, because in Nebraska, your taxes go up every time you improve the farm. Paint the barn, pay more taxes. That said, Nebraska is one of only a handful of states that are actually not broke, so at least they appear to spend the taxes wisely.

Then, after a lovely roast Sunday dinner, it was time to head east again, back to Lincoln. We drove across seemingly endless farmland—flat, fertile, and thirsty for rain.

Reached Lincoln by about 5pm. Even before heading for Jane’s house, we stopped at the city’s lovely Sunken Gardens. Always nice to see how other towns create beauty and interest.

Entering Lincoln's Sunken Gardens

Entering Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens

Jane’s son, Dan, joined us for dinner at their favorite Italian spot. Then back to Jane’s, to prepare for my departure tomorrow.



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Barbed Wire

There’s an old poem that begins, “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For the want of a horse, the rider was lost.” And so on—the point of the poem being that little things can make a big difference.

A bit of twisted barbed wire on Cathy’s farm reminded me that one of the little things that made a big difference on the prairies and Great Plains, when they were first being settled, was barbed wire. Fencing was fairly easy in the east, as trees were abundant, but out on the treeless plains, it often cost more to build fences than to buy the land. Plain wire fences had been attempted, but cattle easily broke through simply by leaning on them.

As with most inventions, lots of people were working on a solution, but one person came up with the idea that gained traction. In 1873, Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, IL, designed a simple, sharp, wire barb that was locked into a double-stranded wire. Glidden applied for a patent, which was issued in 1874. The acceptance was swift and international, and the impact was huge. On the Great Plains, it ended the era of the open range. Barbed wire also soon found other applications, besides farming, and by the end of the 1800s, it was widely used by the military worldwide.

Amazing what a difference a little twist of wire can make.


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The View from the Bluffs

From the high bluffs that overlook the Republican River, we had a view of a broad stretch of land that was not merely picturesque but that also summed up both history and present reality for the Great Plains, and indeed for much of the rural Midwest: farms, grain elevators, trains, and water for transportation and irrigation.


The sky was hazy with heat and dust. The wind was hot, insistent, and more than a little haunting. The sound of it coming across the prairie evoked for me tales of pioneers, early settlers, and drovers moving across the land.

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Finding Space for All the Corn

In recent decades, advances in agriculture have led to steadily increasing yields. Demand for corn continues to increase, but since field corn is all harvested at about the same time, it needs to be kept somewhere until it’s needed, whether for the animals that eat it or the processors that turn it into whatever is needed, from biofuels to cornmeal. Or, if prices are too low, kept until prices rise to a level where the farmer makes enough money to pay his bills.

Here are two possible solutions: really big grain bins or airtight polyethylene tubes or bags. I saw both as I toured the area around Arapahoe. There was a third that I didn’t see, because it only appears as it is filled: a giant bin that “inflates” as corn is pumped in. It is one of the largest corn storage units in the world. Jane pointed out the spot where it would “grow” as corn continued to come in. Considering how large the metal bins were, it’s almost hard to imagine how big the new structure will be when filled.


The storage tubes are essentially “emergency” storage, when the crops overwhelm the ability to move them all to other storage facilities or processors. They are not just used for corn, and they are not just used in the United States. They give farmers worldwide the ability to store more in a good year, so it’s there when the inevitable bad year occurs. In a world where demand is growing but land is often vanishing, being able to store grain, soybeans, and other crops on the same land that grew them can make a huge difference in making certain nothing goes to waste.


And here’s a tube not yet filled, just to show that it really is corn—classic yellow Corn Belt dent corn.


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Not Just Corn

Rivers are easily identified in dryer areas by trees and scrub that grow along their banks, especially here on the Great Plains. The Great Plains are pretty much defined by not having trees, because the almost constant wind and regular brush fires kept trees from growing even before this land was converted to farms. But the trees would grow near rivers, where adequate water made holding on easier.


While corn had become the favorite grain of the early colonists, newcomers spreading across the prairie in the mid 1800s wanted wheat. Wheat was what rich people ate. Wheat needed good soil to grow well. In Europe, the poor lived on marginal lands, where rye, oats, and millet would survive, but not wheat. So wheat became part of the mix on the Great Plains. It never came close to competing with corn, as far as acreage and importance, but still it has a significant presence. The gold of the ripening wheat is beautiful, especially in the wind, which makes it ripple like the sea.


Other crops in the area include milo (grain sorghum), hay, and alfalfa. But still, corn is king. (And if you’d like to know more about sorghum, I did a post on it on my World’s Fare site: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/sorghum/.)

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Rural Joys

There are many joys out here. Of course, the people are wonderful, but I’ve already mentioned them. While wandering about the farm or driving through the countryside, I have seen deer and wild turkeys. The barn swallows are constantly swooping around the house—beautiful little birds, dark blue and peach, with long, distinctive, forked tails.

Going outside at night is remarkable. The silence reminded me how unusual it is to ever have silence even in the suburbs of a big city—not silence like this. Even the wind has quieted down. It is a deep, peaceful quiet. And with no lights nearby, the stars are unbelievable. This was not the first time I was able to see the stunning fields of stars that are so often made invisible by “light pollution” in heavily populated areas. My travels in the Australian outback had offered me views as astonishing—and yet it had been a while. I was delighted beyond measure with the great, sparkling universe made so visible by the darkness and so unobstructed by the flat land with no buildings besides the farmhouse. Just wonderful.

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Barns Old and New

I didn’t realize it until I returned home and went through my photographs, but despite being made of aluminum, rather than wood, Cathy’s barn looked remarkably like the 1900s barn at the Living History Farms in Iowa. (See the January 14 post.)


A paper placemat from a restaurant visited a little later in my trip made it clear why. There are a substantial number of different barn styles, and about sixteen of the most common were pictured on that placemat. The style of a barn reflects one or more of several possible influences, such as where it was built (terrain and weather often dictating what is practical), the background or ethnicity of the family that built it, when it was built, what it would house, and materials available.


Both the barn in Iowa and here in Arapahoe were Western Prairie Barns (top row, center, in the photo above of the mentioned—and saved— placemat). This was a particularly common style on the western and southwestern prairies. Farmers and ranchers had plenty of space for storing hay and grain for livestock, and the barns were big enough to house the livestock, too, if that became necessary. This style of barn was traditionally constructed of wood and was built throughout the 1800s, as agriculture moved westward. It was interesting to see the old style reproduced in a newer material.

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Cathy and the Farm

The town was founded in 1871 by a group of men known as “The Arapahoe Town Company”—and with great foresight, among the first things they staked out was the park that is still at the town’s center.

Among those to arrive in 1871 was Dominicus Hasty, who raised corn, of course, but also became a surveyor and pioneer of irrigation in the region. He was also the great-grandfather of my friend Jane, and Cathy’s grandfather. Cathy’s roots are deep here – which is probably why she ended up as president of the Arapahoe Historical Society.

A lot of the farms in this area practice what is known as dryland farming. That means not using irrigation, despite being in a fairly arid region, relying on a combination of rain and drought-resistant crops. Unfortunately, during a drought, this can hurt farmers. However, when the droughts get bad, even irrigation may not help, as the water one is allowed to pump out of the ground is limited.

Cathy’s property has both dryland and irrigated fields. There hasn’t been rain for a long time, and the unwatered fields look sad. The corn has come up, but it is already mid-June, and it’s clear that it’s not going to be “knee high by the fourth of July.”

Daytime temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees, and the hot, dry wind steals what little moisture is left. People watch the weather report with the intensity of listening for a serious medical diagnosis. Will it rain? Will it rain in time? The weather report is followed by a special feature on how long this can go on before it’s too late for crops to recover. Corn plants with crisp, curled leaves can still come back, but not if they go too far.


The irrigated fields look better, but will the drought mean water is rationed?


I’m reminded of an old saying: “Humankind, despite its artistic pretensions, sophistication and accomplishments, owes its existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains!” But when there is no rain…

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Arapahoe, NE

Thanks to Jane, I have a refrigerator magnet (proudly displayed) that declares, “You haven’t been anywhere until you’ve been to Arapahoe, Nebraska.” So now my list of worldwide destinations seems more complete, because I have, in fact, been to Arapahoe.

Downtown Arapahoe

Downtown Arapahoe

Arapahoe, located in the southwest of the state, is a busy rural community with a population of just over a thousand. While a lot of the population of Arapahoe lives on the surrounding farms, the tidy, little town is still bustling and well supplied with schools, stores, restaurants, newspaper office, library, parks, churches, and a lovingly cared for little museum, recounting the area’s history.

I would spend three days exploring the area with Jane and her mom, Cathy. In that time, not only would I learn a great deal about the history and reality of farming in the region, but I’d also come to really respect and love the people here. They are as open and honest as the land, friendly, energetic, and happy to share. As Cathy would tell me later, “Transparency and honesty are vital in an area where everyone’s life depends on helping one another.”

And speaking of things in town, one night we enjoyed dinner at Cunningham’s Feed, an old feed store that has been wonderfully restored and turned into a terrific little restaurant. The wood floors and pressed-tin ceiling were preserved, and the décor reflects both a sense of the past and modern sensibilities in the handsome space. The menu is surprisingly varied and pretty ambitious, and the things we had off the menu were excellent (I particularly liked the truffle fries with asiago cheese). Homemade bread. Salad bar was simple but perfectly fresh. Not on the menu is BBQ, but someone comes in once a month with a smoker and produces pulled pork, ribs, and brisket. I had the brisket. Nice smoke ring and good flavor. Our meal was enhanced by the opportunity to meet just about everyone who came in, as they are all friends of Cathy’s. It’s easy to like Arapahoe!

Cunningham's Feed

Cunningham’s Feed

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