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Travels in the Heartland: Exploring Kearney’s history by wagon and car

Antique cars at the Classic Car Collection.JPG
Posted at 3:04 PM, Mar 10, 2022

KEARNEY, Neb. (KMTV) — Known as the home of the sandhill crane, Kearney is a city for all seasons. With a combination of historical and cultural attractions, the central Nebraska city makes for a fun day trip or weekend adventure. Here’s what to check out when visiting Kearney.

The Archway

The Archway

You can't miss it. The Archway stretches across Interstate 80, tracing the history of the Old West, as European-Americans headed westward along the California, Oregon and Mormon Trails. Seeking a better life, people packed their possessions and headed across the Plains. Unfortunately, as you'll learn through interactive exhibits, they experienced turmoil, loss and death. Trails became a landfill, as people dumped worldly possessions — from pianos to armoires — to lighten the loads within their covered wagons, which got bogged down in mud and soft soil.

Exhibits offer a look at key events and places people encountered over the trails, such as seeing Chimney Rock, signifying they were nearing the foothills to the Rocky Mountains. Even tragic events, such as the Donner Party, are covered.

The Archway also features a different look at westward movement, with a gallery centered on US Highway 30, aka the Lincoln Highway. It was the nation's first transcontinental highway, connecting both coasts and running through 17 states. With the advancement of modern transportation, Highway 30 opened America to new experiences, and the museum examines camping, drive-ins and malt shops.

The museum includes children's attractions, too, with a small fort play area outside. After exploring The Archway, head to the nearby trail for a short walk and to view waterfowl on the Archway’s small pond.

Nebraska State Firefighters Museum

Offering a look at the history of fire departments in Nebraska, the Nebraska State Firefighters Museum and Education Center shares the roles of firefighters and EMS personnel with the public. Finding a permanent home was important to the state's firefighters association after having two temporary homes before moving to Kearney in 2009.

With firefighting equipment from the early 1900s, including horse-drawn hose carts, to modern equipment, the firefighters museum features an array of classic trucks.

Outside, you'll find a memorial honoring more than 100 Nebraskans who dedicated their lives as firefighters or Emergency Medical Staff responders, as volunteers or in professional roles.

Museum of Nebraska Art

Museum of Nebraska Art

The Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) is one the coolest museums we've visited. It all starts with the building. Located inside a century-old former post office, the building was designed in the classic Art Deco style, seemingly prophetic for its later life as an art museum.

Inside, you'll find paintings, sculptures and other works by Nebraska artists, or artists with Nebraska connections. The galleries are open, allowing easy movement from one exhibit to the next. Of course, you'll find paintings and photographs of sandhill cranes, but they're alongside pieces highlighting the state's geography, people and wildlife. Landscapes, cityscapes and agrarian scenes come to life over three floors.

My favorite part of the MONA is the Cliff Hillegass sculpture garden. Named in honor of the Midland University alum and founder of CliffsNotes — yes, the CliffNotes that a lot of us used in school when we didn't have time, or the interest, in reading some of the classics for class. The garden features unique pieces, such as a man and woman playing basketball, wildlife and even a sculpture of Hillegass, sitting on a bench with a copy of CliffsNotes in hand.

The MONA is undergoing a major expansion, which will nearly double its space. Work is expected to be completed in 2023.

Classic Car Collection

Classic Car Collection

It's so easy to spend hours at the Classic Car Collection. Appropriately located on Highway 30, the museum's collection exceeds 200 vintage vehicles, with most coming from Bernie and Janice Taulborg. The rest of the vehicles have been donated by other car enthusiasts or are on loan from other collections.

As the Taulborgs aged, they sought to find a home for the vehicles, ranging from antique trucks to Corvettes, rather than have them sold piecemeal. In 2011, they agreed to donate 137 vehicles for a new museum in Kearney. They later donated six more vehicles. As the museum has grown, it's added classic cars and trucks.

The museum is a fun walk through history. From Model Ts to Ford Thunderbirds, visitors experience an impressive story of the automobile. Exhibits tell a story, whether it's with photos from certain eras or scenes, such as an old-fashioned drive-in theater, gas station or vintage downtown setting.

Fort Kearny State Historical Park

Explore a blacksmith building, parade grounds or maybe toss a misbehaving member of your group in the stockade at Fort Kearny State Historical Park. Along with a shell of an 1800s military fort, the reconstructed buildings offer a glimpse into life on the prairie for cavalry soldiers.

Established in 1848, Fort Kearny served as a stop for Pony Express riders and offered protection for settlers traveling along the California and Oregon Trails, as well as gold prospectors. Soldiers also provided security for workers constructing the transcontinental railroad.

The fort was decommissioned in 1871, its buildings torn down and the land sold as part of the Homestead Act. In the early 1900s, the land was purchased by a civic group and later became a state park in 1959.

Home to special exhibits focusing on its history, Fort Kearny is also an excellent spot for sandhill crane viewing during spring. A state parks permit is required and can be purchased on-site.

Fort Kearny State Recreation Area

With more than 180 acres, the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area offers camping, fishing, hiking or the opportunity to just spend time in nature. With a paved trail, it's excellent for walking, running or bicycle riding.

With several sandpit lakes, the recreation area includes swimming in a park lake, as well as the Platte River. Fish the waters, or check out the wildlife viewing, as the state area is yet another nice spot for sandhill crane viewing during early spring.

Modern and primitive camping is available at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area. The park requires a state parks permit for entrance.

G.W. Frank Museum of History and Culture

Built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, the Frank Mansion was an example of affluence when it was constructed in 1890 for George and Phoebe Frank. Originally located outside of Kearney, the mansion was built using Colorado sandstone, and was among the first in the western United States to have electricity installed as it was built.

The G.W. Frank Museum of History and Culture features a look at the Frank family, as well as other exhibits highlighting Kearney's history, such as an exhibit recalling when tuberculosis patients were cared for on the mansion's third floor in 1912, during the "White Plague."

While Kearney makes for an excellent day trip from Omaha (about a two-and-a-half-hour drive), you may want to spend a weekend and check out additional attractions, such as the Kearney Area Children's Museum and the Trails and Rails Museum. Kearney also features outstanding dining options for a unique weekend excursion.

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