Pioneer Village in Nebraska, a blast from a highly inventive past


In Minden, Neb., take a side trip into yesteryear at Pioneer Village, right, to see artifacts of Americana. (Robin Soslow)
July 5

Good thing I’d pulled off the highway for gas in central Nebraska, or I would have missed a terrific side trip.

“Anything nearby worth seeing?” I asked the cashier. At the midpoint of my first cross-country trip years ago, I was eager to reach the Rocky Mountains five hours west. But my legs ached for a break from highway driving.

Head down Highway 10 to Minden and look for Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village, the cashier suggested. “Lots of amazing stuff!”

This detour took me to a time machine.

Highway 10, a.k.a. Harold Warp Memorial Drive, still leads to Pioneer Village, as I happily confirmed on a recent road trip. This isn’t some Williamsburg-like reenactor production, but a 20-acre wonderland of once mind-boggling and still mind-blowing testaments to American ingenuity.

Harold Warp knew about ingenuity. At age 20, in 1924, he patented Flex-O-Glass, a translucent weatherproof plastic he’d invented to enclose the chicken coops on his Nebraska farm. (Flex-O-Glass was the precursor to Plexiglas.) Success enabled him to acquire things — not status symbols, but machines, vehicles and other inventions that propelled industry and culture forward.

Warp made his first big acquisition in 1948: the one-room schoolhouse he’d attended as a boy, complete with desks and books. Five years later, he opened Pioneer Village. These words of his, displayed at the entrance, convey his goal and passion: “For thousands of years man lived quite simply. Then . . . man progressed from open hearth, grease lamps and ox carts to television, supersonic speed and atomic power. We have endeavored to show you the actual development of this astounding progress.”

Pioneer Village’s 28 buildings now hold more than 50,000 artifacts, from TVs to kitchen sinks, farm equipment to America’s first fighter jet, an 1822 ox cart to electronics from 1975. It’s billed as “the world’s biggest private collection of Americana.” Circling the grounds, I believe it.

Warp died in 1994. His great-nephew Marshall Nelson now manages the nonprofit pantheon and shares backstories as visitors wander, mesmerized, around the cavernous main building.

Pointing to a curious vehicle resembling a wood-slat sled with wheels, a steering column and bucket seats, Nelson says that it’s a 1916 Smith Motor Wheel speedster manufactured by A.C. Smith. It can transport two passengers at a speed of 25 mph. “When I was a kid, we rode it!” Nelson says. Long ago, he and his kin played with many priceless collectors’ items.

Overhead, a silver Curtiss Aeroplane dangles from the rafters. “It’s the first plane to carry air mail and the first to fly from New York to Philadelphia and back in a single day,” Nelson says. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss used the plane’s central framework and engine in his lighter Golden Flyer to win the speed prize at the 1909 Reims Air Meet in France.

A red Heath Parasol kit airplane was made in 1931 by Edward Heath of Chicago, the first person to produce a successful kit airplane. It was the only plane that could be assembled at home from a factory-built kit and be licensed by the FAA. This sleek Model V was popular, cheap to build and operate, and easy to fly. Too bad production ceased in 1935.

Different models of various inventions are arranged chronologically to show their evolution and effect on American life. Touching’s permitted. Well, within reason.

Some retired creations seem like they’d be useful today. The fold-up boat would stow easily between outings. The cherry-red 1964 Amphicar reached 70 mph on the highway and 7 mph in the water. Mirrors placed beneath the amphibious marvel reflect its propellers.

Shelves safeguard delicate glass lamps, miniature rocking horses and other antique yet timeless toys. Taking in the sea of mechanical piggy banks, musical instruments, cameras and other floor-to-ceiling treasures, my eyes spin like pinwheels.

Outside, authentic furnished period buildings ring the “Village Green”: a train depot with a hulking locomotive, a general store, a land office where early settlers filed homestead claims. The steepled prairie church, built in 1884, holds Sunday services.

One outbuilding shelters a late 1870s steam-powered merry-go-round with spectacular carved animals. Two-story super-sheds hold hundreds of vehicles plucked from farms and streets. Some motorcycles, cars, trucks and vans are in mint condition, others dusty and rusty; many are rare.

Warp’s invention, Flex-O-Glass, appears near a spinning wheel that Nelson’s late mother used for 40 years for on-site demonstrations. Other sightings hurtle me back into the past: the Bakelite radio, the 78 rpm phonograph, and the kitchen rimmed with metal cabinets could have come from my grandparents’ house.

American art is represented in bygone landscapes painted by “Picture Maker of the Old West” William H. Jackson and plaster “Rogers Groups” figurines mass-produced in the late 1800s by sculptor John Rogers for the nation’s rising middle class. I get delightfully lost in vintage postcards picturing costumed puppies and pastoral countrysides that you can still see here in America’s heartland.

It makes sense to find Pioneer Village in this heartland. It’s the midpoint of cross-country routes, including a modern interstate, historic Lincoln Highway, even the Oregon, Mormon, California and Pony Express trails. And there’s land aplenty for a citizen to create a 20-acre shrine to American ingenuity

It’s the kind of detour that turns into a highlight of a trip.

Soslow is an arts and outdoors writer based in Florida. She can be reached at rsoslow@gmail.com.

DETAILS:

Pioneer Village

138 East U.S. Highway 6

308-832-1181

Minden, Neb.

pioneervillage.org

Daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. $14; ages 6 to 12 $7; age 5 and younger free.

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