Happy birthday Nebraska! Looking good for 150

Chimney Rock is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Nebraska.

Happy birthday Nebraska! The cute little state in the middle of the United States turns a youthful 150 years young. Nebraska became the 37th state March 1, 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War.

I wondered how to write about the state’s sesquicentennial. Should I discuss the history of the state, dating back to prehistoric dates? Should I explore the role Native Americans played before the arrival of white settlers?

As I thought about it, vague memories of celebrating the state’s centennial in 1967 as a 5-year-old came to mind. I recall celebrating it during a program at the small school in my hometown of Kennard. I recall my parents taking us younger children to a Brandeis department store in downtown Omaha to shop for “western” wear for school. My nickname was “Cowboy” as a kid in Kennard, since I wore cowboy stuff almost daily. We found my outfit, I remember. A hat, vest, new holster and pistol were things I remember getting.

The night of the school program, I recall my kindergarten class (yes, I started school during the 1966-67 school year) performing western songs while situated around a covered wagon prop. That was apparently how we celebrated Nebraska turning 100 years old. I don’t recall what my older brothers’ or sister’s classes did. I’m sure the whole school did something. Mind you, our school was small. Kindergarten had its own room, but the rest of the classrooms consisted of two grades each up to eighth grade. High schoolers attended Blair or Arlington at that time.

The old bell is the only item left from where the Kennard school once stood. The school was destroyed in a fire years ago. Students attend school at Arlington.

So, how did I decide to celebrate our 150th birthday? Well, I didn’t run out and buy a cowboy outfit (I outgrew that by about sixth grade).  Instead, I thought I’d share some of my favorite things about being a Nebraskan.

What does it mean to me to be a Husker? Well, there’s the actual Huskers. When I grew up, it was rare that people rooted for any other college football team but the Nebraska Cornhuskers. My first memory of Nebraska football was my dad winning a pool as NU beat LSU in the Orange Bowl for its first national championship following the 1970 season. After that, I started listening to games on the radio (RIP Lyle Bremser, the best play-by-play announcer in the state’s history) and watching when they were on televison. The first Husker game I attended was the 42-33 win over UCLA in 1987. My first Oklahoma game (always a tough ticket to get at the time) was 1991, a 19-14 win during a cold and rain-soaked game the Friday after Thanksgiving.

A Nebraska football tradition is to release balloons from Memorial Stadium following the Cornhuskers’ first score of the game.

Nothing goes better with Nebraska football (or anything else) than a runza. A runza is a bread pocket consisting of beef and cabbage. Runza is a cherished statewide restaurant chain and must-have for Nebraskans when they return home from travels or if they moved away. Runza also has amazing chili and cinnamon rolls.

Everyone has to try a Runza at least once in their life. It is a Nebraska favorite.

On a more serious note, Nebraska offers some of the most beautiful views in the country. Chimney Rock in the panhandle has been around for centuries. It served as a distance marker for early travelers and pioneer trails during the 1800s. It took me more than 50 years before seeing it in person. It was breathtaking to see it close up.

Close-up view of Chimney Rock near Bayard.

The Sandhills have been described as both an ocean and a desert. As the wind blows the prairie grasses growing tall over acres and acres of rolling hills, it can resemble the waves of an ocean. It also depicts a desert with the open spaces. Regardless, it provides beautiful scenery in western Nebraska.

Nebraska’s Sandhills are beautiful.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument near Harrison provides a look into a part of Nebraska’s early history, dating back 19-21 million years. The area was believed to be a watering hole for several mammals. Agate likely resembled Africa’s Serengeti. The watering hole eventually dried up, which led to the deaths of the animals in the region. The Agate find consisted of some of the best fossils of mammals in one area. Many were found at two dig sites, a short distance from each other. They are now marked with conical hills.

Fossil replicas of animals that once gathered at the watering hole at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.

Fort Robinson State Park offers visitors a variety of recreational and historical attractions. You can take horseback rides, stagecoach rides, as well as fish and camp at the park. While the park has beautiful scenery, I like the historical attractions. The fort served a variety of roles during its lifetime, from an outpost during the Plains wars to a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers during World War II. It’s also the site of the killing of Crazy Horse, considered the greatest warrior of the Sioux Nation.

A marker at Fort Robinson State Park recognizing Lakota warrior Crazy Horse.

Nebraska has been home to great writers and celebrities, including Willa Cather (Red Cloud), John Neihardt (Bancroft), Henry Fonda (Grand Island), Johnny Carson (Norfolk), Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire (both Omaha). Cities have ensured their stories remain alive through a variety of measures, from memorializing childhood homes and other buildings to museum exhibits to street names.

Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud.

Buffalo Bill Cody called North Platte home for the latter years of his life. His ranch is a popular state attraction. The city remembers him with a city park, as well as other attractions.

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Scout Ranch in North Platte.

Nebraska is known around the world for the annual springtime northern migration of the Sandhill crane. The prehistoric birds have been using the Central Flyway – a 100-mile stretch between Grand Island and North Platte (centered by Kearney) – each March as they make the way to nesting areas in the northern United States (including Alaska), Canada and Russia’s Siberian region. Thousands of people flock to the state to view the birds.

The annual Sandhill crane migration is a must-see experience.

When Nebraska became a state, the capital was moved from Omaha to Lincoln. The capitol building is one of five in the United States built as skyscrapers. Lincoln was originally Lancaster, but the name was changed in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

The state capitol in Lincoln.

The state was the first to have a homestead following the approval of the National Homestead Act in 1862. The homestead was staked near Beatrice and is home to the national homestead monument.

Beatrice is home to the first homestead in the United States.

With Nebraska opened for settlement, it attracted people from around the world. Nebraska has a great diversity of ethnic groups and cultures. Native Americans were here first, of course. Among the European cultures settling Nebraska were the Czechs, Germans, Scandinavians, Polish and eastern Europeans. Later, Hispanics, Asians and others relocated to Nebraska. With Nebraska an anti-slavery state during the 1800s, African Americans settled here.

Wilber is the Czech “capital” of Nebraska. It hosts a parade as part of its annual heritage festival.

Nebraskans love their steak. And I’m no different. After all, we’re home to Omaha Steaks, which offers the best steaks in the world. The finest steakhouses around the country serve Omaha Steaks. Omaha has a few classic steakhouses remaining, and one visit to them shows why they separate themselves from chain restaurants.

Steak samples at Gorat’s in Omaha.

Our family has lived in Omaha for 30 years. And I love it. In the past, people would complain there wasn’t anything to do here. Now, it’s difficult to plan a weekend because there’s so much to do. From one of the best zoos in the world to a world-class air and space museum, the Omaha area has much to offer. A person can walk around the Old Market every week and discover something new.

An orangutan playing with a box at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Henry Doorly is annually rated among the world’s best zoos.

People are surprised by the beauty and attractions Nebraska and its communities have to offer. Nebraskans love the slogan “The Good Life.” We feel we live it and live among it. Visit us and you’ll see why I’m proud to call myself a Nebraskan. Happy birthday Nebraska! And I wish you many more.

To check out Nebraska’s attractions, please visit www.visitnebraska.com. For the Omaha area, please visit www.visitomaha.com.