Omaha, Gateway to the Plains

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By Gene Benedict

 Not that long past, a couple weeks or so back, Anne and I went to Omaha to visit family. Anne wanted to be there in the fall of the year. That was part of the plan, to see Omaha and the plains and farmland as winter approached.

One morning, Mike and Brian and Anne and I went south out of Omaha to Lied Lodge a few miles down the Missouri River. Lied Lodge is made of wood, rustic at that, with heavy crossbeams of pine and maple, supported on long trunks of Douglas fir.

Brunch was presented buffet style, people dishing their own food. Locally processed and grown fall apple dishes were emphasized. The food was of nature as was the Lodge.

The large outside porch overlooked a deep, wide draw, widening further as it approached the Missouri River. Nearby land on both sides, drained rains from flat areas along its course. And by flat, I mean flat. The Great Plains start here, stretching across the prairie. Lewis and Clark’s journeys came through here.

From the porch, colors were mainly gray, brown and yellow. Most of the trees in the area were cottonwoods with leaves of yellow. A bit of color came from planted maples, oaks and pines.

Across the draw and up the slope, you could see at some distance a white columned house, on the estate of the Mortons. J. Sterling Morton and his childhood love, then his wife, Carrie, first came to the Territory of Nebraska for a government land grant, living in a small log cabin house near other pioneers about two hundred years back.

Mr. Morton noticed the absence of trees and predominance of head high grasses. He imported trees and planted them in groups. They were arranged in groups referred to as “arbors”. Growing these trees became his life’s work. 

Morton encouraged tree planting through out the Midwest. He gave trees to everyone he knew, those close, and those passing through on their way west. He was the original founder of the Nation’s Arbor Day.

Morton accumulated considerable wealth through multiple enterprises. He and Carrie expanded their small house, building outward and upward, eventually creating the current Arbor Lodge mansion of 52 rooms.

Gradually, the arbors grew into forests. Orchards of apples and grapes were planted. All the lands adjacent to the Estate were developed into woodlands and farmlands.

Mike, Anne and I toured the estate and the grounds in a wagon pulled by a large John Deere tractor down lanes and paths not used by cars. We were struck by the height of grasses on the prairie, gray and dusky brown in color containing thistles about six feet high and milkweed four and more feet high, their pods opening up to the wind to spread their seeds across the landscape.

On the western expansion, Conestoga wagons, “Prairie Schooners”, pulled by pioneers‘ oxen and horses, stood high on large wheels, towering over the head-high tall, rough, harsh prairie grasses.

As we looked out across this expanse I could imagine the problems, the original farmers of the plains turning over the soil, tilling the ground of matted roots thousands of years old. What rugged people they must have been.

The Mortons had four ingenious sons. One of them developed a laundry and all-purpose starch, Argo Corn Starch. The other found an ingenious way to treat granulate salt into a moisture resistant table salt. Morton’s Sterling Salt; “When it rains, it pours.”

J. Sterling Morton and his sons revolutionized their worlds for a good while. They along with Morton’s wife, Carrie, were larger than life.

Now, I understand better the brown, gray, and yellow colors, the woodlands along the Missouri River, and the orchards of the plateaus of the Great Plains of the United States.

Gene Benedict can be contacted at tnckgebe@yahoo.com.