Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 26, 2016

Highway 77 adventure

The drive between our home in Kansas and our cottage in Wisconsin takes 14 hours. While we've often been tempted to stop and explore, we'd quickly dismiss such notions. Side trips and stops for anything nonessential would just make the journey even longer.

But in recent years, we've divided the trip into two days. On our trip home this year, husband Art informed me we would be taking a route we'd never taken before and it would be "an adventure."

We spent the night in Sioux City, Iowa and, while we had seen different scenery that first day, I wouldn't rate the trip as an adventure. Sometimes I think he just says that to keep me amused. Once home, it would be back to work as usual for me and so, a little adventure was most welcome.

The next day, we picked up Highway 77 in Sioux City and followed that two-lane road south along the eastern side of Nebraska.

"Is this the same highway that goes by Burns?" I asked.

"One and the same," Art answered.

Burns, Kansas is my hometown and I drove Highway 77 south to Wichita or north to Manhattan many times over the years, but never as far as Nebraska.

Minutes later, we came to a historical marker. This was more like it. For many people, these might just be a place to pull off the road and use their cell phone or take a nap. But for history nuts like us, it doesn't get much better. And it whets our appetite when one pops up in a place where the fields of corn and soybeans seem to go on forever. The only thing of note was the large irrigation system keeping the crops watered. Everything about the area seemed to say, "nothing ever happened here!"

But it had!

We tried momentarily to pronounce the word at the top of the marker. Ton-wan- ton-ga or Ton-want-on-ga? There was no pronunciation help.

We were informed it meant "Big Village." It referred to an Omaha Indian settlement on nearby Omaha Creek. The earth lodge village was occupied intermittently for about 70 years beginning in 1775. At its peak in 1795, an estimated 1,100 people lived there. The Lewis and Clark expedition visited the village Aug. 13-19, 1804. Three hundred lodges were uninhabited when they arrived due to a smallpox epidemic in 1800-1801. Four smaller panels by the large marker added additional details about the life of the Omaha and included quotes from the expedition's journal.

We anticipated the next marker in the vast Nebraska prairie would also be about Native Americans, but the Combs School, built in 1857 and closed in 1964, was its subject. The sign referenced the frame schoolhouse in the background, but all we could see were railroad tracks and some trees.

A short distance farther south, we came to a third marker. It was about the Winnebago Indians. Art grew up next to Wisconsin's Winnebago county, so he was intrigued to learn that in 1863, the Winnebagos were moved from Minnesota and his native Wisconsin to a reservation in Dakota Territory and then moved again to the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. There, they purchased land from the Omaha. Behind the marker was a small herd of bison which, as per the sign, "contributes to the spiritual, cultural and nutritional needs of the tribe."

In the town of Winnebago, Art noticed a small street sign announcing a sculpture garden to the east. We turned, and after a couple of blocks, came to the center of a horseshoe-shaped drive. The circular plaza in the center had 12 larger-than-life-size figures of men evenly spaced about the edge and facing inward. They represent the 12 clans of the Winnebago: bear, water spirit, eagle, buffalo, snake, hawk, fish, deer, pigeon, elk, wolf and thunder. To the east of the circle was a large sculpture of a man with his hands raised and an eagle behind him.

According to tribal historian David Smith, whether in the tribal village, a ceremonial setting or a council of leaders, the position of each clan's representative was based on the four compass directions. The statues in the Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden mirrored that found in a council meeting.

A tribe often had different designations for neighboring tribes than the names those neighbors called themselves. White men frequently adopted these incorrect names, so while we call this tribe the Winnebago, they call themselves the Ho-Chunk.

Farther south, another marker alerted us to the Logan Creek archaeological site. Excavations there placed the earliest settlement at about 6,000 years ago.

By the time we continued on, we were "into" it and ready to visit anything claiming to be of historical interest. So a "historic cemetery" sign lured us east on a gravel country road.

We could see the cemetery, but it wasn't clear how to reach it. We went too far and stopped to turn around in a farm driveway. Two men in the nearby field gave us a puzzled once-over. Our friendly wave brought a somewhat half-hearted response. They were still staring at these strangers as we passed from view.

Turning north, we came to the cemetery lane. It was deeply rutted and I became a bit concerned as I heard the car rubbing on the ridge between the ruts. And once inside, we didn't see any special monuments or plaques. Art joked, "All cemeteries are historic - full of old dead people. Now if we can just get out of here without dropping through a shallow burial."

Yes, that would not be the kind of adventure I wanted!

Back on Highway 77, we continued to learn about local Native Americans and old settlements and settlers as we headed toward home.

While we took more time than had we stayed on the interstate, we were startled to discover that our adventure route was only eight miles longer. Our sometimes-tedious trip had turned into a good time. What more could we ask for?

Top-left: Art reading one of the side panels at the Tonwantonga site; lower-left: looking west at the statue plaza in Winnebago. Various businesses and tribal buildings are in the background; right: hawk clan statue seen in the lower-left photo at the far end of the plaza.

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