One or two steps into the Washington County Museum’s new north gallery exhibit is a photo of Stephen H. Long, the man who once referred Nebraska as part of a “great American desert” unusable for those dependent on agriculture.
A few more steps into the exhibit are photos of some of the men, women and families who made their lives in a county where Nebraska’s rise to key U.S. agricultural state began.
“It’s so funny because within a few years there were several hundred acres under till at Fort Atkinson,” said Julie Ashton, executive director of the Washington County Historical Association.
On Nov. 14, the Washington County Museum in Fort Calhoun will host the grand opening of, “Washington County: 200 years in the making” nearly two years after the initial idea for the exhibit.
“The whole idea is to have the development of Washington County seen through the eyes of agriculture, which started with the Stephen Long exhibition,” Ashton said. “We’re showing over 200 years how this is certainly not the great American desert.”
The open house event will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. with food and beverages offered to attendees. Admission is free and will continue to be through Nov. 23.
People will get a chance to walk around the renovated gallery where walls of photos and writing depict and discuss the beginnings of county agriculture at Fort Atkinson to the development of today.
As people continue walking the winding gallery, they will see displays about the people who lived in the area. Some displays depict toys and games people played, explain the beginnings of area government and services and feature people who lived in the county, such as Ruth Allen.
“She was the first schoolteacher in Washington County,” Ashton said. “So, her story is told through here, too. The Allen family, they came in the 1850s … their family story is interwoven with the story of the development of Washington County.”
The Allen Cemetery Association, a local organization of Allen family descendants, was a major benefactor for the exhibit. Their family history is one of the first displays in the exhibit, set across from a wall of “early pioneers.” Some of these pioneers were families — Lippincotts, Neales, Sladers and more — who first called Washington County home.
“We wanted to tell the story of some of the earliest farm families who’ve been here, who’ve lived here and are still in the area. Or had an impact on the area,” Ashton said, referencing plaques of frontiersman Hugh Glass and the first Native American doctor Susan La Flesche Picotte.
In addition to funding from the Allen Cemetery Association, the Blair Area Community Foundation provided grant money for audio and visual hardware, which will accompany the exhibits soon, and Humanities Nebraska provided grant money for what will be the audio and video recordings.
An exhibit designer from Omaha was also hired to help renovate the gallery from small exhibits for each county town and a collection of artifacts to a guided walk through history. Many more helped write paragraphs for each display, including Cargill for one agricultural display near the end of the gallery titled “Into the Future.
As attendees walk past, they’ll again be reminded of the people who moved to and worked the land once deemed unfit for crops. A slideshow and music cap “Washington County: 200 years in the making.”
“I think most people don’t realize the rich history,” Ashton said. “We want to tell those stories of the people who have been part of the development of the county. The people who came here and farmed.”