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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After farming and ranching for many years, Howard created a job of his own in 1976. He’d always had an interest in history, so after receiving the blessing of his wife of 58 years, Patty, the Howards started the Oregon Trail Wagon Train.
Tourists and adventurers could sign up for a 3-day, 4 1/2-day, or a 7-day wagon train experience. Thousands did.
“They wanted it real,” Howard said of his customers. “If they wanted to walk, I let them walk. But I didn’t wait for them.” There were gunfights, chuck wagon cooking, songs around the campfire and Indian attacks.
And there was Cactus Jack, who after some criminal escapade, would suffer frontier justice and end up hanging from raised wagon tongues. “Sometimes it got so real I had to be careful or I’d get a tear in my eye,” Howard said.
As research for a role, Hollywood movie star Tom Berenger of Oliver Stone’s Platoon fame rode the trail with Howard. Twice. And he’s had several film crews along for the ride, including a documentary crew from National Geographic. “I never asked for publicity, they just showed up,” Howard said.
During one documentary ride, Howard hovered in a helicopter just over the top of the rock. According to Howard, there are some Indian tales of braves being challenged to climb to the no-man’sland at the top of the chimney, but there is no proof that anyone has ever actually reached it.
Determined to be the first and only man to do so, Howard stepped on to the chopper’s skid briefly before the pilot pulled him back in. “He said the change in weight in the helicopter if I had stepped off could have sent the chopper crashing down,” Howard said. “The way I look at it, that still qualifies me as having been further up the rock than anyone else ever has,” Howard said proudly.
Safely back on solid ground, Howard has found clues to the people that traveled the trail for real a century earlier, and the proof is in Howard’s living room.
In a corner display case there are metal buttons, Indian beads and arrowheads, safety pins and spurs. All found along the trail. And, there’s the bill of a cavalry soldier’s cap, and old shell casings, too.
One day, Howard stumbled upon a grave. He’s found several over the years, but this one was odd. There was a skeleton, but the skull was missing. “One out of every 17 adults on the trail died somewhere along the way,” Howard said. “We reburied this guy, and put down a marker.” But for thousands of others lost along the trails, there is no trace.
The Howards created other jobs. They ran a canoe outfitting business and a famous restaurant, too. A smile creases Howard’s face, long since relieved of the long beard he wore during the wagon trail days, as he recalls the place, Country Prime Rib. “It’s an art to make a great prime rib and we had a reputation like you wouldn’t believe,” Howard said. “People came from miles around for our food. Even Governor Johanns said it was his favorite place to eat!”
While running a 1910 living history farm, the Howards found that potatoes were much more important than steak.
“The school-kids would show up and digging potatoes was their favorite thing to do,” Patty Howard said. The farm was a popular destination for field trips and there were only so many acres of potatoes. “We’d have to rebury the potatoes so there would be some for the next group,” she said. “At the end of the season, the potatoes had no skin left on them!”
Howard’s own tough skin was cut last February when a bad aortic valve in his heart had the keeper of the rock feeling down. “When they butcher your heart, they really mess up your head,” said Howard of the surgery that replaced his failed valve with one from a specially raised donor pig.
Even during hallucinations that lasted four days, Chimney Rock was never far from his mind. In one vision, Howard was out of the hospital and back in the shadow of the rock. He was home, looking out a window, and found that the water in his swimming pool was on fire.
Never mind that he doesn’t have a pool. When he yelled “FIRE,”the nurses came running. “It’s crazy,” Howard said. “It must have been the chemicals.”
You might think you’re seeing things too when Howard smiles, but that really is a flock of Canada geese tattooed to his upper teeth. And, yes that is a horse-drawn wagon on the bottom set of choppers. Both are courtesy of his son, Dan, a dentist in nearby Morrill. “Every time I open my mouth I hear a goose honk or a horse fart!” Howard exclaimed.
Even though he’s not doing the backstroke within view of the rock, the house Howard spent 12 years building has one of the best views in the entire state. Chimney Rock is his backyard.
Howard’s 2,000 square-foot castle isn’t far from Castle Rock, Pregnant Lady Rock, or Biscuit Rock, all named as such because their shapes seemed familiar to the settlers. Before migrating pioneers gave Chimney Rock its more common name, the area’s Native Americans, whom had never seen a chimney, also named it after something they recognized — the anatomy of a bull elk.