First National Park Nebraska’s Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park

Geese Taking Flight
Geese Taking Flight

I was going to save this for one of my And One More On the Way Posts, but it was just such a happy surprise that I can’t wait any more to share it. This park in the heart of Omaha, NE needs to immediately be added to people’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Dream trip list. First, a word about the name, no, the first national park in US history was NOT in Omaha, Nebraska. First National is the name of a local bank (a very common name for a bank to choose in the days before national banking chains). Apparently the person in charge of doing this for the bank, while very brilliant to either come up with or at least agree to fund this project, has a bit of a tin ear and didn’t see that considering a “national park” is a specific kind of a park, that calling something “First National Park” might cause confusion. Second, also confusing is that they built Omaha’s tallest building (which houses the bank) right in the center of it, additional bank owned buildings are around the campus centered on the park. So third, while apparently it is designed to be a public park, it is also a campus for their facility.

As further background I want to make sure to point out that what is now the Hilton Double Tree that I mention below was once the site of the famous trial of Standing Bear. He’s the one that in his native tongue originally gave the speech, now widely copied in popular culture, that went: “My hand is not the same color as yours. If I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you too will feel pain. The blood that flows will be the same color. I am a man. The same God made us both.”
Learn more about Standing Bear and his trial here:
http://www.pbs.org/program/standing-bears-footsteps

American Buffalo
American Buffalo

Now to the statues, they are a very easy thing to miss. I’d done the normal touristy checking before my trip to Omaha for the Association of Rural and Small Libraries last fall, but I only found this park because I pretty much literally tripped over it. No one gave me a heads up and I don’t remember a fellow Laura fan ever telling me to look out for it if I was in Omaha. The conference hotel was the Doubletree Hilton in Omaha, Nebraska (which I liked except for the horrible parking, but I’ve dealt with worse) and coming up into the very building of the hotel was part of the artwork that makes up the Nebraska’s Wilderness part of the art work in the form of statues of geese that seemed to be flying away from the American buffalo that seeming scared them from their place on the fountain in the park across the way.

I love interactive artwork like that and so I followed the geese back across to the park (spread over the entire space there are 58 geese statues over all), I enjoyed taking photos of the truly lovely statues of the animals as the light shifted in the late afternoon and then noticed the bison led me back around a corner. I followed, there was one partially coming thru a building, like they were ghost bison from before these buildings were here and didn’t pay it any mind. How could you resist that? So I kept following them backward. There were even some cute little calves. There are 9 animals in the herd I tracked back along the block. Then I turned again and almost dropped by camera. An entire city block had been refashioned into a park with a full wagon train complete with scout. A gentle hill had been refashioned into cliffs, wagons struggled through sculpted mud as they fought their way to the top. Women and children walked beside the heavily loaded, and richly detailed wagons.  The wagon train had scared the bison causing them to run and send the ducks flying. It was all one giant piece of art and you were suddenly in the middle of it.

Wagon 3
Wagon 3

Together, Pioneer Courage and Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness parks consist of more than 100 individual bronze pieces integrated within an urban environment that covers more than six city blocks. Individual sculpture pieces are 1.25 times life size and range in weight from 400 pounds to six tons.

The bison, I’m not so sure were really 1.25 times their normal size, I’ve seen real bison that looked larger than these and the geese I’m iffy about, but the people and horses definitely were 1.25 life size and it allowed you a wonderful glimpse of a wagon train (I’d have stuck to life size if it was me, but close enough.) In other words, except for being very hard to get a photo of without modern buildings behind it, which was probably part of the point of the meaning behind it, it is a perfect place to take a photo of yourself in full Laura Ingalls Wilder garb as part of a wagon train. There are four complete wagons as part of the train and more groups of people spread out along the manufactured dry “river bed” and trees on the hill. The scout’s hunt has been successful and he’s bringing back fresh meat for the train (feel free to flash back to Oregon Trail).

The official brochure (see link below) describes the wagon train this way:

The lead wagon, pulled by oxen, has just been freed from the mud and, with some pushing and guidance from the drivers continues on. The following wagon is drawn by a team of mules driving by the father, two children ride which the mother and daughter walk alongside. Four Belgian draft horses pull the next conveyance, which is accompanied by three women, a father, several children, and a milk cow. Farther back the procession is completed with another ox-drawn wagon and its family. The mounted wagon master falls behind, branding his hat to guide the rest of the train.

Wagon in the Mud
Wagon in the Mud

It’s the second wagon that I was immediately drawn to as a Laura fan. It could clearly be Ma and Laura and these two free standing statues are organized in such a way that you can walk into step with them and become part of the statue yourself. Other people might prefer the last wagon and the running girl with her hair streaming or even the boy on lounging on the second wagon for all the world like Almanzo riding a load in from the hayfield. Or maybe you’ll prefer the all female group, taking a short cut over the hill and under the shade of the trees. Look at all of them.

NOTE: This is probably unnecessary to stress for Laura fans, but just in case, they encourage you to experience becoming park of the wagon train and walking along with them, gentle touching shouldn’t be an issue, but they are NOT meant to be climbed on.

Wagon 2
Wagon 2 with Almanzo perched on Top

Visit their official website:
https://www.firstnational.com/site/about-us/in-the-community/sculpture-parks.fhtml

Find the brochure for the site as a whole here:
https://www.firstnational.com/assets/site/documents/about-us/communityfocus_parks.pdf

While I’m sorry I missed knowing about it before, I haven’t missed it all that long. The giant artwork designed to give a truly unique vision and experience to downtown Omaha was first conceived in the early 2000s. Statues were installed between 2005 and 2009 slowly forming the current complex.

Read details about the artists, dimensions, and composition of the artwork of Nebraska Wilderness here:
https://www.firstnational.com/assets/site/documents/about-us/son_facts.pdf

Read details about the artists, dimensions, and composition of the artwork of Pioneer Courage here:
https://www.firstnational.com/assets/site/documents/about-us/pioneer_facts.pdf

Learn more on the making of documentary’s website:
http://omahasculptures.com/index.html

Find more professional photos at the bottom of this page (and look for the link to take you to construction photos):
http://www.boodyfinearts.com/projects/firstnational.html

Laura and Me
Join in with the train for photos

An article about the history of the project and the design of the site as a whole:
http://www.landscapeonline.com/research/article/16263

If you go, they have an app to tell you about it and other public art around Omaha on your smart phone:
http://www.exploreomahaobd.com/locations/four

P.S. The real first, as in original, National Park was Yellowstone and it was signed into law by President U.S. Grant in 1872.
http://www.nps.gov/faqs.htm

P.P.S. If you are in Omaha anyway to see the statue be sure to stop at the incredible Durham Museum preserving one of the last great union stations built in a uniquely art deco style.

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

 

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trundlebedtales

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

6 thoughts on “First National Park Nebraska’s Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park”

  1. I almost missed this entry but am so glad I found it, Sarah! Definitely adding it to my list. I suspect I will need a few days in the area as I’ve never stopped in Omaha or Council Bluffs for anything more than a fill-up so far, and have been meaning to see the Durham for quite a few years. What do ypu recommend for Council Bluffs? I associate it with the Oregon Trail of course (both the historic route and the video game!); do you have a favorite place there?

    1. Council Bluffs has a beautiful town square park with statues of black squirrels. (Council Bluffs is famous for black squirrels.) There is a really cool railroad museum for the Union Pacific plus the Granville Dodge house. I’d also try to make a detour to Nebraska City if possible to tour the Arbor Lodge stuff. There is also a truly hilarious Underground Railroad site in Nebraska City.

      1. OK, you asked. The Mayhew Cabin is the original cabin, but the tunnel was identified by the family as a wine cave. Then the highway came through in the 1930s. So they moved the cabin and THEN they recreated an underground railroad tunnel with electricity and cement. And advertise it as an authentic Underground Railroad site.

      2. Yikes. And people wonder why I am working on a Master’s degree in Museum Studies. It’s sites like that which completely justify the need for my program.

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