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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Unlike those stone monoliths, Howard’s home is made of straw. But even the Big Bad Wolf couldn’t move this house made of 8-foot-long bales of straw covered in a heavy plaster mixed from the western Nebraska dirt.
Thirty-eight of those 8-foot-long bales, $1,200 worth according to Howard, were used in the home. And the naturally insulated walls are so thick, 32.5 inches to be exact, that Howard can’t reach in far enough to open the windows. “Nobody can tell you how to build a straw bale house,” Howard said. “You just got to be logical.”
And when an appraiser from Nebraska seriously undervalued the land around Chimney Rock when it came up for sale in the mid 1980s, prompting developers to begin planning a subdivision, Howard saw no logic in that.
"It had been for sale for five years. I didn’t want it, but didn’t want it to be covered with a bunch of houses either,” Howard said. “I wanted to buy it to preserve it,” Howard said. “But I was broke.”
Howard went to see his banker. “I told him, ‘I just bought the section around Chimney Rock’,” Howard said. The banker said “That’s great Gordon, I can’t think of anyone better to have it.”
The banker asked how much he paid, and how much he could put down. “I reached in my pocket and pulled out a dime and dropped it on his desk,” Howard said. “I couldn’t put anything down.”
The banker said “Oh, no Gordon, I can’t do that, the board will have my job.” Howard replied “Oh, you know you’re so much a part of this bank that they’ll go along with whatever you say.”
Just like when it came time to graduate high school, Howard’s negotiating skills shone through. There may not have been any cooked books, but he got the loan and saved Chimney Rock from becoming a housing development.
Years later, the Howards donated an 8-acre chunk of that land for the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor Center.
“As for the rest of it, it will probably go to my kids when we’re gone,” Howard said. “But they know we want it protected.”
Soon my ride home banked hard around Chimney Rock and rolled up to gate 1. As I climbed into the airplane, confident that this historic symbol of the untamed American West would remain just that, another Nebraska icon slipped some
things into my hand.
One item was a cigar. The other, a Nebraska state quarter in a small display case, just one of thousands he’s given away.
Howard was on the committee that designed our state quarter. “The mint called and said it was the best one of the 37 they had done up to that point,” Howard claimed proudly.
As we gained altitude over Chimney Rock and headed east over the Sandhills, one thing was clear: the man who claims to have been higher up on Chimney Rock than any other man, is still on top of his rocky world.
Howard Family Rattlesnake Recipe
NOTHING RATTLES Gordon and Patty Howard, not even the 52 rattlesnakes he killed with a friend in just a halfhour one afternoon after buying the land around Chimney Rock in the 1980s. “We’ve got them thinned out now, I’ve only killed four or five in the last two years,” Gordon said. Even so, Patty looks out for striking snakes.
“Gordon’s hearing aids won’t pick up the sound of a rattler rattling,” she said. “So he really needs to look out.”
And she had a close encounter last spring with a thick snake when one of the survivors was sunning itself outside her kitchen door. She held it down with a shovel until Gordon could wrangle it out of the way. Now she watches the ground whenever she leaves the straw house. And none of the snakes go to waste – the Howards fry them in bacon grease.
1. Kill the snake
2. Cut off the head a couple inches back from the end of the skull
3. Bury the head
4. Skin and gut the snake
6. Cut meat into 1-1 ½” chunks
7. Fry in bacon grease until just barley brown
8. Be careful of the fine bones
(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)