When the sun rises just right, the homestead where Gordon Howard was born 78 years ago in a two-story sod house is touched by the shadow of Chimney Rock. The iconic landmark that served as an important milestone to roughly half a million westward pioneers in the 1800s has been a part of his life ever since.
And it’s been a full life. With a spry step and a mischievous smile wrapped around a soggy Swisher Sweet cigar, Howard glows like that sun-drenched rock. He’s full of life, protective of the past, and sees a bright future ahead.
“Twice a year, Dad would get all of us up early and we’d watch the sun come up over Chimney Rock,” Howard said. The Howard family’s affair with the rock that has appeared on everything from license plates, T-shirts, hats, and collectible miniature spoons, predates those early morning excursions by a generation.
Howard’s grandfather, James Nautilus Howard came to the area in 1885. With a slip scraper and a team of mules, he built a pass through the hills just west of Chimney Rock. He was also a freighter on the Sidney to Deadwood trail, hauling whiskey to miners in South Dakota, and hauling back lumber. The trailblazer went on to build the first school in the area and the first church. He also started Castle Rock Irrigation. “He worked hard,” Howard said. “And it rubbed off on my dad and me.”
After farming and ranching for many years, Howard created a job of his own in 1976. He’d always had an interest in history, so after receiving the blessing of his wife of 58 years, Patty, the Howards started the Oregon Trail Wagon Train. Tourists and adventurers could sign up for a three-day, four and a half-day, or a seven-day wagon train experience. Thousands did.
“They wanted it real,” Howard said of his customers. “If they wanted to walk, I let them walk. But I didn’t wait for them.” There were gunfights, chuck wagon cooking, songs around the campfire and Indian attacks.
When an appraiser from Nebraska seriously undervalued the land around Chimney Rock as it came up for sale in the mid-1980s, developers began planning a subdivision, but Howard saw no logic in that. “It had been for sale for five years. I didn’t want it, but didn’t want it to be covered with a bunch of houses either,” Howard said. “I wanted to buy it to preserve it. But I was broke.” Luckily, Howard’s negotiating skills shone through – he got a loan and saved Chimney Rock from becoming a housing development.
Years later, the Howards donated an 8-acre chunk of that land for the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor Center.
“As for the rest of it, it will probably go to my kids when we’re gone,” Howard said. “But they know we want it protected.”
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