An August 2004 trip
to Chadron by btwood2
Quote: We came to Chadron to see the Museum of the Fur Trade but found much more. The ponderosa pine forests of Pine Ridge in the Nebraska National Forest provided a serene camp setting. Another unexpected treasure-trove museum and some good places to eat rounded out our visit.
We stumbled onto Dawes County Historical Museum south of Chadron when driving towards town from our campground. We spent the entire afternoon enjoying all it has to offer, and that’s a lot. There are three large rooms inside the 9,000-square-foot museum, and outside, a restored log house and barn, an 1890s schoolhouse, pioneer church, and old caboose.
Pine forests in Nebraska? Nebraska isn’t all flat plains. The northwestern corner of the state is somewhat a continuation of the forested Black Hills and badlands ecosystems similar to southwestern South Dakota. Although rather than on hills, the ponderosa pines grow on jagged buttes, bluffs, and in canyons of a 100-mile-long, 1,000-foot-high escarpment called the Pine Ridge. North of the ridge lies the White River Valley, and south of it begins the High Plains. Most of the towns here lie along the White River; Chadron 5 miles southeast of it. Originally on the river, the whole town (then named O’Linn) up and moved when the railroad came through a few miles away. The name changed to Chadron, derived from the fur trader Louis Baptiste Chartran who ran a trading post nearby.
Beautiful downtown Chadron: A 2.5-mile walking tour (brochure available at Dawes Museum) is a good way to learn about Chadron at the turn of the century. The well-written brochure not only describes architectural styles of the buildings, but also tells about the lives of some of Chadron’s prominent and more interesting citizens, such as "Billy Bear" Iaeger, an actor in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. When he wasn’t acting, he was a clerk noted for his perfect penmanship; quite a feat because he’d lost most of his fingers in a blizzard as a youth.
Watch out for the weather! It can get hotter than blazes in the summer, especially in open areas such as Toadstool Park and the Oglala Grasslands. Strong winds and thunderstorms can appear out of nowhere; check weather forecasts and be prepared when hiking, biking, or tent camping.
Fur Trade Days take place every July to celebrate traders, buckskinners, and Indians and feature a Rendezvous and World Championship Buffalo Chip Throw.
Getting around while there is most assuredly easiest in a car. You can Rent-a-Wreck right in Chadron at the Blaine Hotel.
The mountain man who turned us on to Chadron mentioned Chadron State Park as a "real nice campground." We called that park before heading down and found out it would cost us $16 ($13 camping, $3 use permit) a night to stay there. Would we have been planning to spend lots of time inside the park, it would have been well worth it. RV sites have electric hookups and a dump station, plus there are cabins and tent spaces. Amenities include showers, laundry, swimming pool, and a trading post. You can paddleboat on a lagoon, and fishing is supposed to be quite good. This oldest of Nebraska’s state parks contains miles of hiking and nature trails on its 974 acres that straddle the Pine Ridge and are surrounded by Nebraska National Forest. Horseback riding and jeeps are allowed in the state park, but motorized vehicles aren’t permitted on National Forest trails.
Since the weather was great (we wouldn’t need air-conditioning), and the scenery was similar at Red Cloud (a mile down the road), and we were planning to mostly visit places outside the park, why pay $16 when we can stay comfortably and quietly for free? At Red Cloud, the roomy campsites have tables and grills and are shaded by stands of ponderosa pine. A small playground with rustic log swings and teeter-totter stands near the entrance. Built by the Civilian Conservation Core in 1967, it used materials donated by Chadron Women’s Club (as explained on a wooden sign). Climbing up the piney hill above the campground, I could view ranches on adjoining private land. National Forest land boundaries follow somewhat of a checkerboard pattern here, interspersed with state and private lands. We’re hoping the Forest Service finds some way to keep this tranquil little campground open.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 29, 2005
Red Cloud Campground
125 North Main Street
Chadron, Nebraska 69337
Chadron isn’t exactly overflowing with restaurants. We’d let time get away from us, and as the midsummer sky was darkening, we worried it would be closed already. But entering downstairs into the restaurant section through the bar, we found ourselves in the dining area with diners still seated and enjoying their meals. It’s a casual, comfortable place, walls hung with floral and Western paintings, a large stone fireplace taking up most of one wall. We chose a booth next to a gurgling wishing well/water fountain.
As it was late in the evening, we got right to the meat of the issue, meaning, in this case, ordering a shared prime rib dinner. It turned out to be a big hunk of tasty meat, but with lots of extra fat. In our prime rib experiences at other restaurants, we’ve found that the presentations are in one of two ways: cut off the fat and the piece is smaller but pleasingly lean, or include the fat and risk having fat-phobic customers be grossed out. Olde Main obviously adheres to the second policy. To my absolute delight, though, and completely redeeming themselves for the fatty cut, the vegetable of the day was sugar snaps. Flashback to my beloved Santa Cruz, California, vegetable garden, where the sugar snap vines grew in tangled productive profusion. And these were cooked just right, steamed till tender-crisp and served simply with butter. A big baked potato came with the meal, and prior to it, we’d each had fresh tossed green salads. It only set us back $20 (for the shared meal and separate salads).
If we weren’t camping, Olde Main would be our first choice for accommodations in Chadron. There are three suites and six rooms, charmingly furnished in turn-of-the-century style, for reasonable rates ($60-85). Unusual for a bed-and-breakfast, pets are allowed (with notice). And breakfast is included in the room rate, of course. Not a bad deal! For more pictures and information, check out their website.
Olde Main Street Inn
115 Main Street
Chadron, Nebraska 69337
Chadron is a college town, and it became evident by the wall and shelf decorations as we entered the little diner that the folks at Donald’s are boosters for their Chadron State College (CSC) Eagles. Just under 3,000 students attend this small but highly acclaimed college, which was founded in 1911. It’s the only institution of higher learning in western Nebraska that grants both baccalaureate and graduate degrees. The college also houses the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center featuring rotating and permanent exhibits, with free admission.
The two young women who were working were trying to stay busy during the afternoon lull, but it didn’t look like there was a lot left to do, as everything inside was clean and sparkling. Our order of two hamburgers and a couple of soft drinks wasn’t all that challenging either. While the burgers were being grilled, we learned that the girls were CSC students working during the summer. In no time at all, the burgers were ready and we retired to a table in the indoor dining area. A covered patio was available for outside dining as well.
The burgers were respectable and tasty pre-super-sized-era burgers made of superior Nebraska ground beef and served with the appropriate additions of lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle. One was a tease, two could be sufficient, but it would take three of them to really put you into burger-bliss satiety. What did we do? Though tempted to order more (it was midway between lunch and dinner after all), we settled for just one apiece to whet our appetites for the pork chops Bob was planning to grill that evening at the Red Cloud Campground. And you know what? I think those pork chops actually tasted even better with that Donald’s-burger appetizer. Besides, it was fun to sample the local flavor at a Mc-less Donald’s, of which (as far as I know) there’s only one in the world.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 29, 2005
Donald’s Drive Inn
448 E. 3rd Street
Chadron, Nebraska 69337
Inside, the museum is divided into three sections: a history of the North American fur trade hall, textiles hall, and guns room. The displays are sectioned off behind glass, and each highlights a different geographical region or trade epoch. These include many beautifully handcrafted items by indigenous peoples of North America. Many are beaded, from clothing to containers to tools such as gun holsters and ax handles. We learn that the brightly colored European glass "seed" beads used were obtained by trade. Prior to European contact, shells, stone, bone, and dried plant seeds were used to decorate; many of these earlier items are also on display. A rain parka made entirely of seal intestine is in the Inuit display. These were sold by the thousands to Russian hunters in Alaska. Trade-silver displays show the pieces that were produced in large quantities specifically for trade to Indians as wearable art between 1750 and 1850.
Less attractive but oft used items include all shapes and sizes of animal traps, tobacco leaves and rolls, and empty booze bottles.
Some of the more intriguing items in the museum’s collection are objects held sacred by their tribe. As much as I like to view and learn about these, the pleasure I gain from this is far outweighed by the violation of their tribes by exhibiting objects never meant to be placed on public display. For example, Haudenosaunee medicine masks, labeled as "false face masks" at the museum, are considered living beings, and the sole responsibility for their care and use lies with their secret medicine societies. They ought to be returned to their rightful guardians.
Outside is every bit as interesting as indoors. Here, you’ll find the reconstructed Bordeaux trading post, living quarters, and warehouse, rebuilt in 1956 on the original foundation and filled with trade goods. The price of goods was measured in bison robes, a monetary value, and it’s about $3 a robe. Five robes bought a flintlock gun while one robe a knife, 5 yards of cotton, or 2 pounds of beads. The well-used robe press in front of the trading post pressed as many as 1,000 bison robes every winter. Beside a red-topped tipi, an Indian garden flourishes, growing precious old varieties of corn, beans, and squash. Seeds are for sale in the well-stocked gift shop.
See website for admission, hours, etc.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 30, 2005
Museum of the Fur Trade
6321 Highway 20
Chadron, Nebraska 69337
As we entered, two friendly volunteers greeted us. We trod upon floors laid in tri-color memorial and donation tiles naming those who have contributed to this museum. One wall of this room contains an extensive collection of research materials, including newspapers and legal records. Visitors can take these to study them seated at tables provided for this purpose. I also found some excellent brochures and papers about the area in a corner of the museum that serves as a mini-visitor center.
Another large room is also laid in donor tile floor edged with glass display cases and collections. Old TVs look like they came straight out of my childhood. A medical collection includes a portable iron lung. Here are pianos, elaborately wood-carved organs, and phonographs with big listening horns. A small-scale 1930s matchstick church is surrounded by other miniature buildings. Three rows of old typewriters have found a home here. In one corner is an old-fashioned farm kitchen; in another, farm tools, including saws and scythes, are arranged artfully hanging on the wall.
Round another corner and you’re in yet another room with glass cases and World War II military clothing and memorabilia. Very worn leather pilots’ jackets lie next to crisp military dress uniforms that look like new. Here are photos and a scale model of the USS Chadron commissioned in 1942. Displays of weapons range from arrowheads to pistols to rifles.
Walk outside and enter the schoolhouse, where a school marm manikin stands lecturing by her desk behind the woodstove. A color-coded map of the "countries and their colonies" hangs on the wall. Walk over to the fully furnished settlers’ cabin and climb the stairs to the slope-roofed bedroom, where child manikins stand between beds and cribs, chamber pots underneath. Behind the cabin, a small barn contains a shiny, life-sized black-and-white cow and more farming implements. A local craftsman made and donated unique stained-glass windows to the old schoolhouse/church building to give it more of a churchy feel. Though most of the windows illustrate religious themes, the black steam engine stands out. Coveted railroad access meant survival for these outpost towns.
In the row of old farm equipment, robust weeds grow up through long-unused tractor blades, cultivators, and potato diggers. The museum grounds stand on the former farm of the pioneer Card family, who had lived there since 1910.
There’s no admission charge, but donations are accepted. The museum is open from 10am to 5pm weekdays and Saturdays and 1 to 5pm Sundays from Memorial Day to October 1. Call 308/432-4999 for further information.
Dawes County Historical Museum
341 Country Club Road
Chadron, Nebraska 69337
Rodeo, New Mexico