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“Free Land?” Chautauqua is here June 25-29

June 24, 2014

I am such a geek.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the book “Roughing It” by Mark Twain at a garage sale for a buck. It’s in part an account of Twain’s stagecoach journey to the Wild West and his experience in mining boomtowns in the 1870s. Not done reading it yet, but it has a couple of witty gems, like this description of an overly chatty stagecoach passenger:

The fountains of her great deep were broken up, and she rained the nine parts of speech forty days and forty nights, metaphorically speaking, and buried us under a desolating deluge of trivial gossip that left not a crag or pinnacle of rejoinder projecting above the tossing waste of dislocated grammar and decomposed pronunciation!

It also contains a description of Mark Twain sighting a Pony Express rider near Scotts Bluff:

We had had a consuming desire, from the beginning, to see a pony-rider, but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to streak by in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows. But now we were expecting one along every moment, and would see him in broad daylight. Presently the driver exclaims:


Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so!

In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—sweeping toward us nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined—nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear—another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!

So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all, maybe.

We rattled through Scott’s Bluffs Pass, by and by. . . .

And now, here Mark Twain is again at the pass at Scotts Bluff, having just autographed his book for me:

mark twainGiven that time travel is not currently known to be possible, you’re probably guessing that this is not actually a photo of Mark Twain.

You are correct.

This is actor-scholar Warren Brown, who is at Legacy of the Plains Museum this week as part of the Humanities Nebraska “Free Land?” Chautauqua.

Don’t know what a “Chautauqua” is? Here is a definition from the Humanities Nebraska website:

With origins in the late 19th century, Chautauqua combines oratory and lectures with literary readings and musical entertainment. In the past, these touring groups would entertain and inform people living on the plains about political and cultural happenings. The name itself comes from a resort community in New York State where in 1875, a summer program of lectures, sermons, and music attracted such enthusiastic audiences that within a few years similar programs sprang into existence for the public in other parts of the country. Today, Chautauqua upholds the tradition of offering entertainment, education, and community-based heritage. Attendees gather under the “big tent” and enjoy scholars-in-residence presenting first-person portrayals of some of our most important historical figures along with a variety of activities for all ages.

At this Chautauqua, which runs June 25-29 here in Gering/Scottsbluff, Mr. Twain will introduce several other contemporaries whose lives intersected Nebraska history in some way.

nebraska chautauqua

From left, other than Twain, in words mostly borrowed from the “Chautauqua Reader“:

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver lived in an era of great change, from slavery through the first half of the 20th
century. In a research and teaching career that spanned nearly 50 years, Carver created countless products that improved the quality of life for many in America and abroad. His work with sweet potatoes (sweet potato
bread, in particular) in a wheat shortage during World War I and his efforts to promote peanut milk in the Belgian Congo are just two examples of the breadth of his work. He instituted the first extension program in the South and developed industrial uses for farm wastes and byproducts.

(Portrayed by Paxton Williams, who, like G.W. Carver and Bugman and I, lived in Ames, Iowa)

Laura Ingalls Wilder

When Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing the series of books chronicling her life, she had no way of
knowing the tremendous popularity these books would enjoy. Fondly referred to as the “Little House” books, the stories of Laura’s experience homesteading in the American West have endured through the decades and continue to hold a place dear in the hearts of American readers. The books have been immortalized in film, television and musical theatre. But, a further study of the life of Wilder indicates that her significance surpasses these much beloved novels

(Portrayed by Karen Vuranch)

Standing Bear

“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.” Ponca Chief Standing Bear won an 1879 ruling in an Omaha U.S. District court that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law” and have the right of habeas corpus.

(Portrayed by Taylor Keen)

Grenville Dodge

In 1866 Grenville Dodge became chief engineer for the Union Pacific and went immediately to work, examining terrain and planning the Union Pacific route to the west, where, according to the Pacific Railway Act, it would meet the Central Pacific line then building eastward over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. As his survey parties pushed westward, Dodge planted division points and divided the land into lots. When the graders—and later the work crews—followed, many of these locations quickly became towns. Some faded quickly, but others, such as the beginning of the Union Pacific route in Omaha and other Nebraska cities of Fremont, Columbus, Grand Island, Lexington, and North Platte, along with Cheyenne, Wyoming, became permanent.

(Portrayed by Patrick E. McGinnis)

Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s life, along with the lives of millions of Americans, was transformed by three pieces of legislation passed in 1862, more than a decade before she was born. Thanks to the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and 20 years of railroad building, it was possible for the family to go 11 miles by wagon, board a train in Winchester, Va., and ride 1,250 miles to the depot in Red Cloud, Neb. Six of her 12 novels and several short stories were set in Nebraska, although she sometimes tried to disguise Red Cloud.

(Portrayed by Betty Jean Steinshouer)


Check out the full schedule, come down to the museum, and check it out.

PS – If you want to read “Roughing It,” the full text is available online through the Gutenberg Project. NB – there is some blunt racism and stereotyping in the book.

Copyright 2014 by Katie Bradshaw and other copyright holders

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2014 1:15 am

    Great post! Every word is true… How many think that’s true?

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