In 2020, I was lucky to tag along on a film shoot to highlight Nebraska Game and Park's Historic State Parks. My wife, Stephanie Arne, hosted this one hour NETV/PBS special for the 100th anniversary of the Nebraska Game and Parks. Here is a 30 second preview of their documentary.
As we traveled from park to park, I painted an animal in each location that is connected to that place's history.
I arrived with my camera in-hand, took a reference photo, and started painting. Other times, my subject animal was extinct, or thousands of miles away, and there was no way I was getting a photo. Each animal in this series has a place in Nebraska's history, some are still shaping the state we know today, others had an impact long before humans stepped foot on the prairie.
Being from Nebraska, I was lucky to have parents that introduced me to the local species from an early age, and a state park system that allowed us so many great opportunities for hiking, hunting, fishing, and camping. As a kid, I remember being fascinated with animals, like the ornate box turtle in the painting above. Like the ever-shifting sand hills they roam, this place continues to change as time goes by.
And, in my opinion, there is no better lens to explore the history of a place than through the animals that lived there.
- Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
Nebraska’s hasn't always looked the way it does today. During the time of the dinosaurs, it was under the ocean. While you can find marine fossils near Lincoln from over 65 million years ago, Nebraska’s most famous paleontological site dates back just 12 million years ago, when the state looked similar to the Serengeti plain in Africa.
The teleoceras is a now extinct rhinoceros species that was around during a volcanic eruption in the Yellowstone area. Ash poured from the sky and blanketed animals searching for water in the aftermath. This ash perfectly preserved their remains and is, today, one of the most remarkable dig sites in the country.
While the skeletons on display are amazing reference material, I took a shortcut and used a bronze sculpture by artist and friend, Gary Stabb, as the inspiration for this teleoceras approaching the watering hole. Since the site today is a joint operation between Nebraska Game and Parks and the University of Nebraska, I thought it was appropriate for the sky to be a bright, Husker Red, in this apocalyptic scene.
- Ash Hollow State Historical Park
A single cave can be a home to so many over time. In Ash Hollow, people for thousands of years inhabited a cutout in the cliffs overlooking a freshwater spring in the otherwise sparse prairie. Excavations revealed the earliest inhabitants hunted and ate mastodons. Later, Native American tribes inhabited the area, with the Dismal River People, ancestors of the Plains Apache, being the last before white settlers. Today, you can still see wagon wheel ruts from the Oregon Trail that passed through the hollow.
With this history, the pronghorn seemed like a fitting animal. They have roamed the area for millions of years and evolved alongside the American Cheetah to become the second fastest land animal.
- Bowring Ranch State Historical Park
In modern times, cattle and their human caretakers have changed the state more than any other animal. Today, this historical park is still a working ranch as it has been since 1894, it’s former residents, U.S. Senator Eve Bowring and her husband lived here.
So when we visited the home of the Bar 99 Hereford, the choice about what animal to paint was easy. This hereford overlooks one of the many windmills that dot the sandhills in Western Nebraska, pumping pristine water from the Ogallala Aquifer below.
- Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park
Buffalo Bill might be one of the most controversial celebrities in U.S. history, but no one can deny that this showman helped put “wild west” culture on the world stage. Today, he would be on-par with Clint Eastwood or Tom Hanks. His home in North Platte, Nebraska is a time-warp to the early 1900’s, and still has a few “buffalo”.
While Buffalo Bill influenced American culture for a few decades, the bison shaped midwest culture for thousands of years beforehand. The native american tribes, some of whom appeared in Bill’s wild west shows, were dependent upon bison herds and centered their lifestyle around this species.
- Fort Atkinson State Historical Park
One of the first settlements in Nebraska, Fort Atkinson is an amazing place to get to know what life was like in Nebraska when this fort was an outpost on the western frontier.
Re-enactors frequently dress in period costumes and demonstrate various roles in the community, from shooting cannons, to cooking, cleaning, building barrels, and blacksmithing.
I visited this park in high school many times growing up because the local high school holds their annual cross country meet at the fort. This time, I noticed something new upon returning - a new pollinator garden in front of the fort. The first animal I saw was a monarch butterfly, a fitting ambassador for pollinators. And since this fort “pollinated” the seed for the future state of Nebraska, it seemed like a perfect animal to represent this site. Note, there weren’t as many stars on the U.S. flag in 1820.
- Arbor Lodge State Historical Park
Originally built in 1855, and expanded significantly since, this lodge was home to J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day. Today the park has some of the biggest trees in the state and a mansion full of historical artifacts.
If you’re in the area, visit during the AppleJack Harvest Festival at the end of September. AppleJack is a stronger version of cider, and was consumed widely in the 1800’s. The Mortons planted a whole lot of apple trees for this beverage, and several varieties of apples we know today began here.
Not more than ten minutes after we arrived, I caught a squirrel on video making off with an apple. I thought he was a fitting animal to represent this bit of Nebraska History.
- Rock Creek Station State Historical Park
During the years after the California gold rush and before the trans-continental railroad was completed, the fastest way to get a letter to the west coast was via the Pony Express. Rock Creek Station was a relay point on the trail, and every summer, reenactors put on a heck of a demonstration of this iconic bit of American history.
- Fort Kearny State Historical Park
This fort, like others, dates back to the early days of the state’s history, but more importantly, this area is home to one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet. Every spring on their northward migration, sandhill cranes stop and mate here in the Platte River valley just behind the fort. This influx of 600,000 cranes (plus hoards of migrating snow geese) is a sight to behold.