Letter 6

At the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer–an elegant, modern-style museum in Grand Island, NE–I encountered an “American” history that to me had always seemed foreign. In grade school, I had learned about the pioneers and even played a version of the iconic game The Oregon Trail. Still, my understanding of the real lives of the pioneers was moderate at best. While coal and steel history had always been familiar to a Pittsburgh kid, the pioneers embodied the opposite: A distant group living vastly different, rustic lifestyles. With my time in Nebraska though, my sense of the intrigue and importance of this pioneer history to contemporary communities has expanded. This sense has propelled my understanding to another level: Contemplating its relevance moving forward.

Grand Island in its modern form originated as much of Nebraska did–as a railroad-pioneer town. The cultural importance of this identity was prominent to me as I rode west from Omaha. I enjoyed the prominence of railroads, waving to conductors as they passed (and eliciting more than one train whistle of support), then again as they passed me a second time after they had stopped in a town to pick up the local crops. Each town rose up from the sea of corn and soybeans at regularly spaced intervals, which I would later learn resulted from the rhythm of railroad construction. So, when I arrived at the Stuhr Museum, I knew there were many secrets to learn.

I promptly asked a docent a myriad of questions, about railroads, about the museum, and about Grand Island. She graciously answered all, and I made mental notes of the exhibits she suggested I explore. As I visited the galleries, I was immediately stunned by their peculiarity and local pride. Stuhr originated as the Hall County museum, and, despite its expanded purpose, it still retains that local uniqueness as an institution. Several galleries featured Willa Cather (one of my favorite writers, from Nebraska) in one way or another, including the ground-floor exhibition of the filming of the movie adaptation of My Ántonia–one of Cather’s signature novels–which was shot in Grand Island.

Then, I had another question to ask the docent: What was it like in Grand Island during the filming, with the famous actors (including Neil Patrick Harris) and scores of locals used as extras? She described the unifying, festive effect the film had on the town, and how many citizens were direct descendants of the homesteaders who founded Grand Island and so took pride in the culture displayed. This added a sense of proximity to the pioneers that I hadn’t felt back East. The direct heritage was a fascinating element, but it raised a more nuanced question–how to identify the relevance of this history to newcomers to the area.

I asked her, and she confirmed what I had already observed: Grand Island has a significant Hispanic population. She estimated that 50% of the 50,000 residents would be Hispanic by the next census. A teacher during the school-year, she works directly with Hispanic students. She related how the longer an immigrant spends in Grand Island, the more relevant the pioneer becomes. As she further elaborated, she has hope for future generations because of this–increased exposure and familiarity will breed mutual understanding. I could tell that she was delighted and somewhat puzzled by the depth of my questions. But, when she read the phrase on my Kenan shirt out loud, she understood: “Expand Your Perspective.”

As I’ve gone through the summer, I have steadily improved at a crucial skill: being able to push a conversation further. When you have spent the previous week burning thousands of calories biking across the state and now find yourself talking to a lady you have never met, a million excuses to end the conversation come to mind. Being too tired; convincing yourself that the other person doesn’t want to talk to you; or, simply, that it just feels too awkward to keep asking questions. But with each next question, there is a chance of establishing a greater connection. And, as is the case in Grand Island, Nebraska, that connection has textured many of the most interesting questions of how to define community.


John Benhart, T’19, is the 2019-2020 Kenan Postgraduate Fellow. As an undergraduate, he was a 2018 Kenan Summer Research Fellow and a participant in the Institute’s Citizenship Lab.

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