Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

by Bob Hoelscher 4. December 2012 00:45

Unfortunately, some extraordinary sites administered by our National Park Service are not very accessible. Among these is surely Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in northwestern Nebraska, even though it is not all that distant from South Dakota’s popular Black Hills resort region. 

The Monument was once part of the Agate Springs Ranch, purchased by James and Kate Cook from her parents in 1887. Strange “Devil’s Corkscrew” formations were first studied here by scientists soon thereafter, which were eventually identified as fossilized burrows of a prehistoric beaver-like creature that lived more like a prairie dog.

Here, around ancient waterholes, animals had apparently congregated and eventually died when supplies of the nearby grasses that they foraged, already drastically reduced by drought, were exhausted. The bones of hundreds and even thousands of several species were eventually covered under several feet of sediment. Mostly between 1904 and 1923, paleontologists from several renowned Eastern institutions worked these fossil beds, uncovering bones that are now found in outstanding museum collections around the globe. 

Today, in addition to displays explaining and exhibiting some of the fossilized bones, as well as complete replica skeletons, the Monument’s excellent visitor center also contains a video theatre and the Cook Collection of Indian Artifacts. Even by itself, the Cook family’s magnificent collection of Plains Indian cultural artifacts makes a trip to the Monument worthwhile. However two interpretive trails, the 2.7-mile round-trip Fossil Hill Trail to the University and Carnegie Hill dig sites, and the one-mile Daemonelix Trail, all contribute to a memorable visitor experience.

Red Cloud's ceremonial shirt in the Cook Collection of Indian Artifacts

Daemonelix in the "phone booth"

Mule deer viewed from the Daemonelix Trail

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Three lesser-known Midwest parks

Missouri National Recreational River

by Bob Hoelscher 4. December 2012 00:43

The Missouri, North America’s longest river, meanders from its headwaters in Montana and through the Dakotas, borders Nebraska and Kansas to the east, and Iowa and Missouri to the west, before crossing the “Show Me” State and joining the Mississippi just north of St. Louis.  Although it became an important commercial waterway as the U.S. expanded westward during the second half of the 19th century, the river remained treacherous going for steamboats of the era.

However, after a series of particularly devastating floods in the early 1940s, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944, a provision of which eventually resulted in six dams being built, massive reservoirs being filled and the end of regular seasonal flood destruction. But there are still two historic, free-flowing stretches of the Missouri along the Nebraska/South Dakota border that were preserved by Congress in 1978 and 1991 as the Missouri National Recreational River. The 39-Mile-District, downstream from Fort Randall Dam as far as Running Water (SD), offers visitor centers at both the dam itself and Niobrara State Park (NE), while the 59-Mile District, downstream from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park (NE), has a visitor center in the state park, as well as the major Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at the dam. 

In addition to splendid views of the river and Gavins Point Dam, the latter facility has numerous exhibits, a video theatre and a bookstore. Both districts offer a wealth of opportunities for water sports, fishing, hiking and picnicking.

Park facilities along the Missouri River

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center

Missouri River model in the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center

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Three lesser-known Midwest parks

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

by Bob Hoelscher 4. December 2012 00:38

A unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge makes a wonderful tour stop for groups traveling in Nebraska. Only about five miles off of I-29, DeSoto is one of over 500 refuges protected and managed nationally. However, DeSoto is much more than just a place to view spectacular flights of ducks, geese and bald eagles along a traditional flyway route. The refuge also offers beautiful indoor galleries overlooking DeSoto Lake during the spring and fall months.

The visitor center not only houses the galleries, but it is also the home of one of the most unusual historic collections in the country, the Steamboat Bertrand Collection.  Due to the numerous perils of traveling the Missouri, the river’s hazards exacted a heavy toll on early ships, with over 400 steamboats sunk or stranded between St. Louis and Fort Benton, Montana.  Among these was the Bertrand, which sank here in April, 1865 and was quickly covered completely by thick river mud. 

This time capsule of Civil War-era goods destined for the Montana Territory rested undiscovered for over a century, finally being unearthed in 1969. Unfortunately, during the summer of 2011, the rising waters of a major Missouri River flood threatened both the fabulous Steamboat Bertrand Collection as well as the DeSoto Visitor Center itself. As a result, the entire collection of artifacts was quickly shipped to a warehouse in Omaha as a precautionary measure.  A complete cataloging and re-cleaning of all items is now being completed in the Omaha facility. 

Happily, the collection will gradually be returned to and reinstalled at DeSoto beginning in early 2013, and the entire move is expected to be completed by next fall.  If you plan a visit, which I highly recommend, make sure to say ‘hello’ to Ken Block, the amiable, highly experienced and knowledgeable USFWS (and former NPS) ranger who helped make my visit in early November (I had last been here in 1984) a particular pleasure.

Wildlife exhibit

Historic artifacts from the Steamboat Bertrand Collection

Ranger Ken Block assists visitors

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Three lesser-known Midwest parks

Kauffman Center

by Bob Hoelscher 28. December 2011 01:32

September witnessed the opening of one of Missouri’s newest cultural and visitor attractions, the magnificent Kauffman Center of the Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City. Many years in the planning, the Kauffman Center not only replaces antiquated and inadequate venues for the city’s three major performing arts organizations, but also does so in truly spectacular fashion. 

From the north side, the facility approximates two giant oyster shells that some have compared to the famed Sydney Opera House in Australia. The Center was designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, whose other recent, and similarly praiseworthy addition to the Midwest cultural scene is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which opened its doors in November.

Inside are two splendid halls. From the main entrance on the south side of the complex, the 1,800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre, the new home of the Kansas City Opera and Kansas City Ballet, is on the visitor’s left. This facility will also be utilized for “Broadway” productions and traveling shows, such as the one-woman performance by comedienne Lily Tomlin that was scheduled for the evening of my visit in late November. On the right, and connected by a spacious and truly impressive “grand foyer” on two levels, is the Kansas City Symphony’s new 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall. Both the ceiling (roof) and the south side of the foyer itself are expansive walls of glass  To the south is a panoramic view of the city (but not the downtown area itself), looking towards the Crown Center, historic Union Station, the Liberty Memorial, which houses the National World War I Museum, and other sights.

My reason for coming to Kansas City was a Sunday matinee concert by the Symphony, an excellent orchestra that has come a very long way since it’s founding in 1982 from the “ashes” of the bankrupt Kansas City Philharmonic. Although based on the conversations I had, the word had likely circulated widely among the city’s residents, but I was immediately surprised how much the interior of Helzberg Hall resembles a slightly smaller version of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  Needless to say, however, the somewhat controversial exterior of the Disney facility, designed by Frank Gehry, is much different.  But the real test of any concert hall is its acoustics, and I am happy to report that here they are superb. Furthermore, the sightlines are excellent from seating areas throughout the hall.

I think my friend Roger Oyster, the Kansas City Symphony’s Principal Trombone, said it best in an e-mail to me after the hall debuted in September  I am happy...ecstatic, report that Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center is spectacular in nearly every way. Stunningly beautiful, sound is flattering on stage, you can hear yourself and your colleagues always no matter what the context---it is literally among the best places I've ever played, which include Symphony Hall in Boston and pre-renovation Carnegie (Hall in New York). I've had some chance to hear the KCS in the house, and while I haven't been in nearly as many great halls as a listener as I have a performer, the sound is absolutely stunning. The best news we learned this last weekend: it sounds even better with a house full of people. We're all beside ourselves with joy here.” Don’t miss it on your group’s next visit to Kansas City!

Halzberg Hall

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

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Three snapshots of the Midwest

Pea Ridge National Military Park

by Bob Hoelscher 28. December 2011 01:29

Looking for something different and well worth adding to your next tour to Branson and/or Eureka Springs? May I suggest one of two significant Civil War battlefields in the area that are administered by our National Park Service? 

In fact, there are three fine, but lesser known NPS sites that are inexpensive to visit and within easy driving distance of the Branson area. Both Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield and George Washington Carver National Monument are close by in Missouri, and Pea Ridge National Military Park is right across the Arkansas line, about 25 miles west of Eureka Springs and 10 miles northeast of Rogers. This March 7 and 8, the latter site will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the crucial battle that saved Missouri for the Union during the first year of the Civil War.  

Open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days, Pea Ridge features a visitor center with a theatre, bookstore and small museum, as well as a seven-mile tour route through the battlefield itself. Along the way, you’ll pass remnants of the original Trail of Tears, traveled by thousands of Cherokees and other Native Americans during their forced removal to “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma) during the winter of 1838-39.  You’ll also learn about the movement of the armies, some 16,000 Confederates and 10,500 Federals, which collided here in fierce combat. You can also visit the reconstructed Elkhorn Tavern, held at different times by each side.

Although the tide of battle turned several times, with both armies suffering significant casualties, the Confederates eventually withdrew when their ammunition ran low, leaving Missouri to remain at least politically neutral and a Union State throughout the remainder of the war.   

Trail of Tears marker

Cannons at the Leetown Battlefield

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Three snapshots of the Midwest

Circus World Museum

by Bob Hoelscher 28. December 2011 01:05

On my recent trip to the Midwest, I focused on three diverse attractions. The first attraction often overlooked by groups headed towards the nearby Ho-Chunk Casino and Wisconsin Dells to the north, or to the House on the Rock to the southwest, is the site of the one-time winter quarters of the storied Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Today, on the banks of the Baraboo River, the Circus World Museum preserves the history and traditions of the circus in America. The Museum, all buildings and exhibits are open annually from mid-April until late October, while live shows featuring a wide variety of circus performers are offered from the week before Memorial Day through the Labor Day weekend. I didn’t make my visit until late November, when they Museum itself was open, but the staff was also kind enough to allow me to wander the grounds by myself on a cold but sunny day. 

Within the complex are historic elephant, horse and animal barns, the Hippodrome (venue for the live performances), classic circus train cars, a carousel, sideshow facilities, and both the W.W Deppe Circus Wagon Pavilion and the C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center. The Museum building itself houses what is billed, in typical circus fashion, as “the largest collection of restored parade wagons, antique advertising posters and big top memorabilia in the world.” 

Here also is a theatre for regular showings of a circus movie, and displays that I found particularly interesting which tell the story of the Ringling Brothers themselves, as well as their extensive schedules of annual circus tours, performance and amusement innovations, plus the promotional efforts that they perfected. Groups with an interest in exploring a widespread form of public entertainment that was extremely popular before the days of movies, television and “virtual reality” are sure to enjoy their visits.

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Three snapshots of the Midwest

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