Jul 21, 2020 – “Nebraska was Not Always a Bed of Roses”

Last year, we followed key historical events of the Civil War on our travels through South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi. This year, we followed the Indian Wars during our travels through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas and Alabama.

Our campsite at Fort Robinson State Park gave us a view of Nebraska’s wide open spaces. Fort Robinson at one time was a K-9 corps training center. The training of war dogs in this country began during WWII. About 5000 were trained at Fort Robinson. Dog food was made in that building.

Standing outside the RV on a hot and windy July evening, the eerie whistling of the stiff winds through the trees sparked my imagination of a wintery cold night as anything could. I gazed upon a Nebraska great plains scene from our Fort Robinson State Park campsite and thought about the feeling of freezing temperatures whipped up by the wind, knowing how it can cut you to the bone like a steely knife. I thought about that after visiting the Fort Robinson Museum and learning about the massacre that took place on these grounds in the winter of 1879. Contributing to my dark feelings were the comments from a park employee concerning the common sound of the wind through the trees that are thought to be spirits crying in the night.

An aerial view of Fort Robinson State Park. Our campsite was in Red Cloud Campground (full hook ups).

What spirits? On March 29, 1874, Camp Robinson was established as a military post within the U.S. Red Cloud Indian Agency, a parcel of land designated for the resettlement of 13,000 Lakota Indians. The agency was created from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 as were many other agencies or precursors to Indian Reservations. Camp Robinson was set up to protect the Agency and became the location of Crazy Horse’s murder, and soon after a massacre of Cheyenne Indians.

A window reflects the Crazy Horse Memorial. The building is a replica of the one Crazy Horse was led into when he came to Camp Robinson under a flag of truce.
A memorial to Crazy Horse where he died. Four large granite stones surround it in all four directions, a Lakota traditional design.

Following the battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S. Government ramped up its war on the Native Americans. After suffering several defeats, the Indians began to drift into the agencies and surrender. Crazy Horse himself, the victor of Little Bighorn was convinced to return to Camp Robinson and give himself up. On September 5, he was taken to the guardhouse where something happened that caused him to bolt out the door. In a split second he received a fatal bayonet wound from a sentry guard. Hours later, Crazy Horse died from his wound on September 5, 1877.

An artist’s account of the fatal wounding of Crazy Horse.

Approximately one year and four months later, a band of captured Cheyenne led by Dull Knife broke out of Camp Robinson where they had been starved of food, water, and wood for heat as an attempt by the U.S. military to force the Indians into submission. The goal of the military was to make the Cheyenne return to Indian Territory in Oklahoma where the band had fled earlier in attempt to return to their land north of Nebraska. The consequence of Dull Knife’s group of about 150 men, women and children breakout was the massacre of all but 60 of the escapees who were captured and returned to Camp Robinson on January 22, 1879.

Replica of the barracks where Dull Knife’s band were imprisoned with no wood for heat, or food & water.

While camped at Fort Robinson State Park, the horrors of those days can be easily forgotten on the park’s friendly grounds where visitors can leisurely bicycle or walk around while taking in the historical sites. Horse back riding is a common activity here and one can enjoy a modest meal at the park’s lodge. In the days before Covid-19, hayride and chuckwagon cookouts were provided as entertainment. In the evening, Fort Robinson’s campgrounds are a familiar site with campers sitting comfortably outside their RV or tent, grilling and chilling. We had two days, so we assigned one day to immerse ourselves in Fort Robinson history and the second day to explore the surrounding area where we continued our Great Plains education.

A couple miles from the state park along Highway 20 is Staab’s Drive-Inn, the most active scene in Crawford. As many times as we passed by it (and stopped in one time), we never saw it without costumers waiting in line.

Nebraska’s 200-mile Bridges to Buttes Scenic Byway (highway 20) bisects Fort Robinson State Park. It was along this highway that we explored the history of northwest Nebraska’s great plains beginning with the very small town of Crawford. It is one of hundreds we have seen during our travel; a once thriving rural community, now a skeleton of dilapidated buildings, some with a hint of life in them. We imagined growing up there and what might convince a young person to stay on past high school. The prospects look dim and from what I could tell Staab’s Drive-Inn (not a typo) is the only lucrative business that employs local teenagers. Crawford once thrived when the railroads reached Fort Robinson to bring in supplies to the soldiers. It became the entertainment center for the soldiers and fur traders, gaining quite a reputation as a wild frontier town as you can imagine. Oddly enough later in our travels and far away from Crawford, we met two RVers on two separate occasions who were born and raised in Crawford, NE, current population of 1116.

I’m sure it’s somebody’s favorite bar, but it definitely has seen better days on Crawford’s main street.

We continued driving east to the larger and more robust community of Chadron, home of Chadron State College. Chadron began as a fur trading post in 1841. Railroads led to its growth as did higher education that was brought to Northwest Nebraska in 1909 with the founding of Chadron State College. There we ate our packed lunch at a beautiful city park (Wilson Park) where a few others seemed to go to escape their office cubicles for an hour. Nearby was the college campus where we visited the Mari Sandoz High Plains Visitor Center.

Iron metal cut outs & their shadows run along the outside walls of what was once the Blaine Hotel, the starting point for the 1893 Chadron-to-Chicago horse race.
A statue of Nebraska’s author, Mari Sandoz stands among wild grasses and flowers in front of the visitor center.

The Mari Sandoz High Plains Visitor Center is more than that; it contains exhibits and is an active research facility containing ecological, geological and sociological collections relating to the great plains, with some art thrown in for show. An author of dozens of books, Sandoz was born and lived much of her life in the great plains, of which is the focus of her books. She wrote about Crazy Horse and the Sioux, she wrote about the fur traders, she wrote about the cattlemen, and she wrote about the buffalo hunters. Her detailed research makes each of her books an historical account of high plains life, especially relevant when coming from a woman who grew up there in a family of immigrant pioneers.

Author of many books, it seems Sandoz wrote every story there was to tell about Nebraska’s high plains.

To round out our Great Plains education, we visited the Museum of Fur Trade, located a few miles east of Chadron. The museum is where over 6000 authentic artifacts are displayed to help tell the stories and history of the North American fur trade. Do not underestimate this distinctive attraction – it presents an interesting view of American history.

About 3 miles east of Chadron along the scenic byway. The sign is small relative to the large red-roofed building that is the museum.

The trade industry was huge back in the day and the museum touts it as the first business in the New World. Fur trade was a significant means for Native Tribes to acquire many things, including firearms to resist the U.S. Government. There is so much going on here, that a quarterly journal is published through the museum. For the film “The Revenant” the producers relied on the Museum of Fur Trade for its authenticity.

The museum houses an extensive collection of Native American artifacts and clothing.
This museum contains a comprehensive collection of historical artifacts from the fur trade era, including furs!
In the museum, a room is devoted to an obsessive compilation of firearms that were made exclusively to sell to American Indians. It is the largest collection of these rare firearms.
You learn something every day! River travelers in their canoes carried personalized canoe cups for drinking water.

Vivian and I never imagined the rich history that we would be exposed to during our visit to northwestern Nebraska. While planning, we basically lumped together our travels through Nebraska and Kansas into one segment – great plains states with a history but largely void of iconic national parks and archetypal landscapes and wildlife. To the contrary, both Nebraska and Kansas are full of surprises that transcend the prevailing flat farmlands. Stay tuned as we take you further into it, next time.

PS The title of this blog is a quote from Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need, 1991.

Jul 13, 2020 – Two Artists, Two Monuments

Even from the highway, these two monuments stand large.

Our RV was parked in the Black Hills of South Dakota for two weeks. The history and legend of these hills, not the least of which is that they constitute sacred land to the Lakota Sioux people did not escape us. After a long and drawn-out conflict between the U.S. government and the Lakota, the government seized the land in 1877. From that point on, the Black Hills have experienced mining, logging, recreational uses, and two monumental stone carvings, both of which we came to see.

The bust of the Mt Rushmore artist is on display at the entrance of the Avenue of Flags at the Mt Rushmore National Monument.
A painting of Crazy Horse Memorial artist Korczak Kiolkowski is in the American Indian Museum.

Our visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial was a way to pay humble respects to Native American history and to learn from it. Unfortunately, undertones of shame were difficult to ignore. And while our visit to Mt Rushmore was to pay respects to our national parks, it came with subdued pride for our democracy. Nevertheless, the tug-of-war between pride and shame dissipated when we were stopped in our tracks and stood in awe of the extraordinary human accomplishment of such massive stone carvings. Instead of immersing ourselves in Crazy Horse’s story (this will come later in our travels), we found ourselves paying more attention to the life and work of Korczak Ziolkowski. Instead of reflecting on each President’s accomplishments and how they shaped our American democracy, we could not stop thinking about John Gutzon Borglum.

The entrance to the Avenue of Flags gives you a full on view of the monument.
Outside the American Indian Museum, a mock up of the completed Crazy Horse Memorial serves as a foreground for the unfinished memorial.

To put it as bluntly as possible, each monument is the creation of an egotistical white man with visions of grandeur. Initially, the Mt Rushmore project was the idea of South Dakota’s historian Doane Robinson to promote tourism to the state. Robinson wanted to pay tribute to the great American West by way of a stone carving that would include the likeness of a Lakota Chief and famed explorers Lewis and Clark, among others. He invited nationally renowned American artist John Gutzon Borglum to do the work. Interestingly at the time of this invitation, Borglum had begun a project in Georgia with a different take on American democracy.

Lincoln’s head proved to be the most challenging to carve because of his beard. I guess Roosevelt’s mustache was no match.

Borglum was an opportunist – a worthy trait for an artist and a necessary one to become nationally renowned. He was also quick tempered – not uncommon among opportunistic artists, I suspect. And he was racist – also not uncommon among white Americans during his time. He once said, “I would not trust an Indian off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.” Each of these traits worked together to bring him atop Stone Mountain in 1915 and eventually to Mt Rushmore. It was Borglum’s national reputation (and perhaps his racism?) that led him to Helen Plane of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan.

On June 9, 2020 Mississippi relinquished its confederate state flag. At the time of our visit to Mt Rushmore, the flag had not yet been replaced. Consequently, along the Avenue of Flags was one empty flag pole. I am sure by now the new magnolia flag waves proudly there.

Plane invited him to carve a 20-ft bust of Robert E. Lee on the 800-ft face of Stone Mountain. Borglum suggested her idea would amount to nothing more than a postage stamp on a large stone face, so he conceived a monument of grander scale. His vision included Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson riding their horses, followed by artillery troops. To honor the major financial backers of the monument, the KKK, Borglum agreed to build an alter to them when offered the following proposal from Helen Plane, “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”

Along the Avenue of Flags, 49 of our 50 states were represented. I wonder what the four presidents would think about that.
The Presidential Trail winds through the forest along the base of the mountain giving visitors a closer view and varying perspectives of Mt Rushmore.

Within a year’s time, Borglum’s headstrong will clashed with the financiers of the monument and came to a violent head when the artist smashed his clay and plaster models. He left Georgia permanently and ended his tenure with the KKK, which was likely prompted by Doane Robinson’s more lucrative invitation. Borglum discarded Robinson’s original idea and came up with his own vision to include four presidents representing his personal symbolism of America – birth (George Washington), growth (Thomas Jefferson), development (Theodore Roosevelt), and preservation (Abraham Lincoln). The carving commenced in 1927 and Borglum devoted his remaining 14 years of life to the 60-ft tall profiles that would emerge from Mt Rushmore. His son Lincoln finished it for him after he died in 1941.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson. It was truly a good start in the right direction.
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.” George Washington. He never told a lie, right?
“Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.” Abraham Lincoln. I believe Lincoln saw the forest through the trees.
“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” Theodore Roosevelt. Two of my favorite three presidents seen here.

Meanwhile, Chief Henry Standing Bear had a vision to counteract the newly created monument dedicated to the United States of America. Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” This was written to another well recognized and highly accomplished American stone artist, Korczak Ziolowski. It took Ziolowski a couple years to mull it over and create some designs for this monumental work of art. But like Borglum, Ziolowski never met an opportunity he didn’t like.

“I will return to you in stone.” Crazy Horse

Ziolkowski set out to design the Crazy Horse Memorial, ultimately to become the world’s largest stone-carved monument. And unlike Mt Rushmore, it would be created three-dimensionally from one side of the mountain to the other. One can imagine Ziolkowski’s motivations to take on such a project that he expected to complete in 30 years. Perhaps his difficult background growing up in abusive foster homes gave him a deeper sensitivity to the Sioux Nation’s plight, or perhaps it was being in the shadow of Borglum during his stint as an assistant on the Mt Rushmore project. After all, Chief Henry Standing Bear offered Ziolkowski an opportunity to outdo the other famous stone carver. Or maybe it has nothing to do with Borglum or the Sioux Nation, rather it was simply an opportunity to do something no other had done or was willing to do. Perhaps none or all the above. Whatever his initial motivation, Ziolkowski blasted away the first pieces of Thunderhead Mountain in 1948 and commenced to dedicate the rest of his life (and his family’s) to carving it.

A pictorial timeline of the progress made on Crazy Horse Memorial.

Approximately 17 miles from Mt Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial on Thunderhead Mountain. The completed head of Crazy Horse is 87 ½ ft, much larger than a president’s head on Mt Rushmore. The entire completed memorial will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Although the memorial is unfinished, the vision of its completion looms large beyond the detailed and completed face of the Lakota leader. The Crazy Horse Memorial came into existence to counter the nearby monument to America and it is probably for that reason it remains unfinished with no end in sight. Indeed, funds from the U.S. Government have been refused numerous times. Regardless of its relationship to Mt Rushmore, the memorial to Crazy Horse was inspired by the spirit of the Sioux Nation, while the stone carving itself is the mega-vision of one artist.

Artist paintings of American Indian Chiefs. Below are more photos of art and handwork displayed at the American Indian Museum.

So, what did we come away with from our visit to these great monuments? The obvious take away is that together they represent a large piece of American history, both bright and dark. For that reason, we recommend anyone traveling to South Dakota to visit both monuments. But mostly, we learned the stories behind two amazing stone carvings. We learned the motivation behind the extraordinary creation of each monument began with the work of one artist. Mt Rushmore National Monument and Crazy Horse Memorial – two artists, two egos, two visions, two lives dedicated, two immortal stone-carved monuments. That is quite a legacy.