40 Years of Center HistoryBy Melissa A. Marsh
It all started in Paul Olson’s kitchen.
In the mid-1970s, several UNL faculty members met in the UNL English professor’s home to discuss creating a regional center dedicated to the study of the Great Plains. The talks bore fruit in 1976 when the University Board of Regents chartered the Center for Great Plains Studies. Under the leadership of six directors – Paul Olson, Brian Blouet, Frederick Luebke, John Wunder, James Stubbendieck, and Rick Edwards – the Center has become one of the largest and oldest interdisciplinary regional centers in the nation. And now? We’re celebrating 40 years!
The Center had a humble beginning in offices housed in the Center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s City Campus, in Oldfather Hall. Despite this location, the Center was founded as a four-campus entity, serving UNL, UNO, UNK, and UNMC.
But the founders knew we couldn’t do this alone. Early on, we started a Fellows program by which we connect, support, and gain help from Great Plains scholars across the country. By 1979, we had 39 Fellows (Fellows are University of Nebraska employees). Today, we have 217 fellows, 193 associate fellows (employees of other institutions), and 48 emeritus fellows in multiple disciplines, from agriculture and geography to communications and political science.
Our first symposium, “Cultural Heritage of the Plains,” was held in 1977 and since then, we’ve held more than 40 other symposia on a vast array of topics. We’ve covered Native American issues, women in the Great Plains, immigration, drought and climate change, environmental conservation, and much more. We even held one titled “Death, Murder, and Mayhem on the Great Plains.” Symposia are really a time when we can highlight interesting, timely topics that matter to the Plains.
Dr. John and Elizabeth Christlieb’s generous donation in 1980 of their collection of western art, plus a library of western Americana, created an exciting new adventure for the Center: The Great Plains Art Collection. First housed in Love Library, the collection grew to incorporate Native American art as well as other historical and contemporary art from the Great Plains.
In 1981, the first issue of the humanities-based academic journal, Great Plains Quarterly, premiered. The journal has published groundbreaking essays, articles, and book reviews for the past 35 years. And in 1991, another journal, Great Plains Research, was launched. This journal focuses on natural and social sciences research. Both journals were originally produced by the Center staff, but starting in 2013, the University of Nebraska Press began producing and distributing both. In addition, the journals’ reach widened substantially with its availability on the web through Project MUSE.
By the late 1990s, it was clear we’d outgrown our quarters at Oldfather Hall and in late 2000, we moved into a newly-constructed building at 12th and Q streets in downtown Lincoln. And yes, we actually like being attached to the Que Place parking garage, because there’s always plenty of parking. The new building not only had lots of office space and room for growth, but the Great Plains Art Collection had a new home. It was renamed the Great Plains Art Museum, and now occupies the main and lower level. The main gallery was christened the Christlieb Gallery after the original donors. Today, the Museum collection is ever-expanding and includes artwork from not only noted Plains artists, but nationally and internationally known artists. Artists-in-residences, the bi-annual Contemporary Indigeneity exhibit, and First Fridays are only some of the great programs the museum offers.
During our 40 years, we’ve also developed and published some truly fantastic projects including the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, the See the Great Plains ecotourism posters series, homesteading research, and much, much more. In 2012, we started the Graduate Fellows Program to help support graduate students studying Great Plains-related topics, and it’s been a great to see this group of interdisciplinary scholars grow and share their passion for the Plains.
Through the use of such wide and varied programs, publications, scholarship, collaboration with other groups, ingenuity, and boundless creativity, the Center has shaped the way we understand and perceive the Great Plains for the past 40 years.
And we’re not done yet! The spirit of community, passion, and integrity from those early conversations in Paul Olson’s kitchen continues to inspire, challenge, and motivate us to do better and think bigger.
We can’t wait to see what the future brings.
In 1981, noted historian Frederick C. Luebke edited the first issue of Great Plains Quarterly.
40 Facts You Might Not Know About the Great Plains
To celebrate the Center for Great Plains Studies’ 40th anniversary, we’ve compiled 40 facts about the Great Plains, compiled from the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains edited by Center Fellow David Wishart.
- The term “Great Plains” only gained wide acceptance in the 1930s.
- Paleo-Indians settled on the grasslands 12,000 years ago to hunt bison, mammoths, and mastodons.
- There are at least 50 published Great Plains maps, all with varying lines.
- More than a quarter of a million people used the Oregon Trail to head west starting in 1824.
- The Union Pacific rail line formed many towns known for ruffians called “Hell on Wheels” towns, they include Kearney, Neb., and Cheyenne, Wyo.
- Far from Motor City, early car companies on the Great Plains sometimes gave free driving lessons as well as the chance to help build your own car.
- In 1873, the federal government encouraged settlers to plant trees, hoping to turn the Plains into a garden. (Didn’t work).
- The first African American newspaper in the Great Plains was the Herald of Freedom in Wakarusa, Kansas Territory.
- In July 1832, Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied contracted painter Karl Bodmer for an expedition to paint Native Americans along the Missouri River.
- The Plains are the setting for many grand Hollywood films like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
- Only three National Forests fit totally within the boundaries of the Great Plains, totaling more than 4 million acres. It’s a drop in the bucket to the 187 million acres nationwide.
- Covered wagons like the ones driven by Plains pioneers in the mid-19th Century could carry 2,000 to 3,000 pounds.
- Roswell, NM, (yes that Roswell), is a Great Plains town famous for flying saucers.
- “Plains strawberries” is an old funny term for beans.
- Only 1/20th of the Great Plains is flat.
- Missile fields are scattered across the plains in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana. They’re spread out so a single attack could never hit them all.
- The first center pivot system was created in 1948.
- Indian Country Today is the most widely circulated Native American newspaper, started on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1981.
- Five Great Plains states claim the Western meadowlark as their state bird.
- The Great Plains holds the geographic center of the continental U.S. within its borders in Smith County, Kansas.
- When Native Americans were moved to reservations by the mid-1870s, Mexican-American settlements began to fill the agricultural vacuum in New Mexico and other southern states.
- Canadian plains provinces were the first to allow women to vote, starting in 1916 in Manitoba.
- Food franchises that began in the Great Plains: Pizza Hut (Wichita, Kan.), White Caslte (also Wichita, strangely), Taco John’s (Cheyenne, Wyo.), Sonic (Shawnee, Okla.).
- The Great Plains’ most mythical animals it the jackalope. Douglas, Wyo., has a statue to honor the rabbit-antelope hybrid.
- Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, founded in 1882, is the largest city in Saskatchewan, and the most fun to say.
- The origins of Great Plains ranching can be traced to Spanish vaqueros as early as 1500.
- The Great Plains slopes up from east to west. It’s lowest at a line from Winnepeg to Kansas City at 1,000 feet and highest in New Mexico at more than 6,000 feet.
- The Nebraska Sandhills are the largest area of sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere.
- Plains Indians used more than 120 native plants for food – but we only use a small number today including wild plums, chokecherries, and wild grapes.
- Horses weren’t widespread on the Plains until the Pueblo Indians revolted and the Spanish vacated New Mexico, leaving their horses behind. The Pueblo started trading the horses throughout the Plains.
- The Ogallala aquifer covers 177,000 square miles.
- Tornadoes occur more frequently and more intensely in the Great Plains than any other place on earth.
- Calgary, Alberta, is the only Great Plains city to host an Olympic Games (Winter, 1988).
- Only three parts of the Great Plains are both flat and level: Platte River Valley (Neb.), Arkansas River Valley (Kan.), and former glacial lake beds (SD, ND).
- The North American bison is often mistakenly called a buffalo. It’s actually a separate evolutionary line.
- The Dust Bowl was an area of extreme erosion and drought in the southern Great Plains that extended 300 miles east and west and 400 miles north and south.
- Humans lived on the Plains as early as 8,500 B.C.
- Six-man football was created by a Nebraska teacher in 1934 as a way small schools could play the sport.
- Armadillos, historically located in South American and far-south Texas, have been extending their territory north in the last century reaching as far north as Nebraska.
- The Northern Great Plains is home to 17 Indian reservations.