In my travels I have visited a number of local history museums. The quality ranges from those that look like somebody’s attic to professionally curated, well-organized collections. All are valuable in telling their stories but every once in a while, I’ll encounter a real stunner. The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, Nebraska, is one of those.
Sitting on a spacious 200-acre site, the museum has a lot to offer – and lots of room to expand. Three main buildings are the Stuhr Building, the Edgar and Frances Reynolds Research Center and the Gus Fonner Memorial Rotunda – and an impressive number of smaller structures. Visitor guides suggest spending four hours in the complex.
I was on a press trip where everything is abbreviated, like the Readers’ Digest condensed version.
We started with the Stuhr Building, a striking, white building – concrete covered with a mix of plaster and marble chips – whose roofline echoes the surrounding, flat prairie. The square building sits on an island in a small lake that surrounds it like a moat. A lengthy walkway and bridge lead up to glass doors. The architect was Edward Durell Stone, who designed the Kennedy Center and was a premier proponent of what we now call Mid-Century Modern.
Inside, the spacious foyer features four square pools with simple fountains and a massive double staircase leading to the main exhibits. Several exhibits tell personal stories about early residents of Grand Island. Another area illustrates styles and décor through the decades. Recordings of news casts and radio shows share the sounds of earlier eras.
The decade of the ‘20s included a “flapper” dress sparkly with beads and sequins. On the wall were two enlargements for Sears’ kit houses – comes complete, just put it together. We were in Nebraska during the crane migration period – February to April – so pieces from the annual Wings over the Platte art show were on display. Each year there is a featured artist plus works by dozens more local and regional artists inspired by life on the Platte River.
The Edgar and Frances Reynolds Research Center houses books, newspapers, genealogical records and much more. It is a primary source for anyone seeking historical information about Hall County and central Nebraska.
The Gus Fonner Memorial Rotunda is named for Nebraskan Gus Fonner, born in 1873. He traveled all over the West and was particularly interested in Plains Indians. He was made an honorary member of a number of tribes. His collection of Native American artifacts is housed in the Memorial Rotunda.
These buildings are open year-round although hours and days closed vary through the year. Some parts of the complex are closed in winter. Railroad Town, a re-created 1897 town, comes to life in the summer. Costumed historians represent townspeople who are happy to talk about their town. Children love it because it gives them a chance to try out the toys and games of an earlier era. They can learn to roll a hoop or walk on stilts or play in a playhouse.
Even though it was March – and village activities were closed for the winter – our hosts opened three of the more than 60 buildings in the town. We were treated to a hat making demonstration in the Millinery Shop in Railroad Town. It is very unusual to have an active millinery shop in a living history museum. It takes about 30 hours to complete a hat. You can watch a demonstration – and then buy a hat if you see one that catches your fancy. We also were able to tour the planing mill. We learned about the machinery and watched a woodworker crafting beautiful items from wood.
Almost all of the buildings are original – having been moved to this site. A few of the buildings were re-created from blue prints. The majority of buildings would have been found within a 50 mile radius of the museum.
The Milisen House, the largest house in the town, was built in the late 1800s and was located at Fifth and Pine in Grand Island. Lighting fixtures in the house accommodated both gas lighting and electric lighting – an interesting transitional feature. One of the smaller houses, also moved from Grand Island, is the house where Henry Fonda was born in 1905.
Businesses in the town include the livery stable, flour mill, blacksmith shop, hardware store, bank and mercantile. The jail, depot, doctor’s office and telephone exchange are among services in the town. This is one of the most complete living history collections I have seen.
Looking back, I’d say that four hours is not enough time to spend. We missed the 1860’s log cabin settlement, the antique farm machinery and auto exhibit, the Pawnee earth lodge and several dozen other historic buildings. In summer the gardens glow with color.
Take a picnic lunch or plan a stop at the Silver Dollar Café in Railroad Town. Give yourself plenty of time to stroll and see everything. Parking is available in several different locations – otherwise you’ll do a whole lot of walking.
Grand Island is just over 400 miles north of Edmond – an easy day’s drive. The museum is located at the corner of US 281 and US 34 -- only a few miles north of I-80. Start your visit in the Stuhr Building. Adult admission is $8 in summer, less in winter. For complete information: www.stuhrmuseum.org. Upon admission, you’ll receive a map and a description of the day’s special activities. Prepare to enjoy one of America’s best living history institutions.