Gordon Howard, Western Nebraska's Rock
When the sun rises just right, the homestead where Gordon Howard was born 78 years ago in a two-story home is touched by the shadow of Chimney Rock.
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(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
WHEN THE SUN RISES just right, the homestead where Gordon Howard was born 78 years ago in a two-story sod house is touched by the shadow of Chimney Rock. The iconic landmark that served as an important milestone to roughly half a million westward pioneers in the 1800s has been a part of his life ever since.
And it’s been a full life. With a spry step and a mischievous smile wrapped around a soggy Swisher Sweet cigar, Howard glows like that sun-drenched rock. He’s full of life, protective of the past, and sees a bright future ahead.
As our 5-seater Maule M-7 makes a second attempt at turning Howard’s cattle pasture into a runway, we circle Chimney Rock again, only to be blinded by a pickup truck with a yellow paint scheme brighter than any airport beacon.
Fortunately for those who cherish Nebraska’s most famous historic landmark, we avoid by a large margin hitting the base of the rock, and sending its 120-foot-tall spire tumbling 325 feet to the ground below. We roll across Howard International, bouncing over dried cow pies while the ornery Ambassador of Chimney Rock gives hand signals that only a cowboy in his eighth decade could understand.
That big rock in the background has been an important part of the Howard family for more than a century. “Twice a year, Dad would get all of us up early and we’d watch the sun come up over Chimney Rock,” Howard said. The Howard Family’s affair with the rock that has appeared on everything from license plates, T-shirts, hats, and collectible miniature spoons, predates those early morning excursions by a generation.
Howard’s grandfather, James Nautilus Howard came to the area in 1885. With a slip and a team of mules, he built a pass through the hills just west of Chimney Rock.
He was also a freighter on the Sidney to Deadwood trail, hauling whiskey to miners in South Dakota, and hauling lumber back. The trailblazer went on to build the first school in the area, and the first church. He also started Castle Rock Irrigation.
“He worked hard,” Howard said. “And it rubbed off on my dad and me.”
Growing up, Howard, the second youngest of the family’s seven children who survived infancy, learned hard work at an early age. He helped his father, William Oliver Howard, raise acres of sugar beets, corn, alfalfa, beans and oats. And, he milked 30 dairy cows, twice a day.
“I’d milk until I couldn’t squeeze that teat anymore,” Howard said. “My arms hurt so bad that I’d bawl. Then I’d rest a while and milk again.”
“My dad and I milked cows early so I could go to school. If I went to school that is,” Howard laughs.
But when it was time to graduate from high school in nearby McGrew, Howard’s orneriness caught up to him.
“I missed 72 days my senior year,” Howard said with a grin. “The great outdoors was more important to me.”
When the superintendent told him he wouldn’t receive a diploma, Howard tried to reason with him. “I said to him ‘Think about it, I don’t want to be here now. And if you hold me back for another year I’ll miss even more days. Let’s just get this over with,’” Howard said.
Nothing else was said and graduation day arrived for the small class of McGrew High School seniors. The four boys greatly outnumbered the class’s one female student. “Gaylee Wood, she was tough, and knew how to handle herself,” Howard said.
In a cap and gown, and feeling a little nervous, Howard wasn’t sure that he would actually receive a diploma. “The president of the school board handed me that folder and stuck out his hand as everyone watched,” Howard said. “I didn’t take his hand, I opened the thing up. When I saw that it was in there and it was signed, only then did I shake his hand. I don’t know if the superintendent cooked the books or what, but I graduated.”
Soon the student became the teacher. He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and served stateside, teaching new recruits about weapons, ammunition and explosives. After two years of service Howard came home and worked in the oil industry.
“I’ve seen a lot of oil wells in Western Nebraska where the cores were just oozing oil. But those wells are plugged,” Howard said. “Building a pipeline through Nebraska won’t bring jobs. We have an oil industry here that we haven’t tapped yet. I’m amazed that we aren’t in there opening up those wells. That would create some jobs.”