The last autumn leaves cling to cottonwoods, elms and sugar maples, signaling the conclusion of another harvest. Farmers work the fields in combines converting corn stalks to stubble and raising dust clouds that fill the air with the scent of earth. Motorists can follow the changing foliage of fall as its patchwork quilt spreads along U.S. Highway 136.
Known as the Heritage Highway, the road stretches nearly 240 miles across 10 Nebraska counties, starting at the Nemaha County village of Brownville on the Missouri River and ending near the Furnas County village of Edison in the Republican River Valley. The route spans southern Nebraska on a two-lane highway, providing stunning seasonal views and insight into the state’s pioneers.
Most travelers begin the journey today as 19th century pioneers did, on its eastern edge along the banks of the “Mighty Mo.” Riverboats rather than automobiles were once the primary mode of transportation in Brownville. You can learn about them at the Museum of Missouri River History, housed in a massive dredge boat that once worked to keep the river navigable.
Today, visitors can cruise the Missouri on the working steamboat Spirit of Brownville or spend the night at the River Inn Resort, an 18-room, floating bed and breakfast that looks just like the riverboats of yore.
“You can Google it, and you won’t find another hotel like this in the United States,” said River Inn owner Randel Smith.
The inn might call to mind a Mississippi steamboat, but the open-air top deck is pure Nebraska: The deck is covered with artificial turf recycled from the Cornhuskers’ practice football field.
Landlubbers less inclined to paddle the river can hike the Steamboat Trace Trail along the river’s shore for leisurely leaf peeping.
Westbound on the highway, fall foliage flourishes in Auburn, Nebraska’s original Tree City U.S.A. Northeast of Auburn and south of Brock is peaceful Coryell Park on the site of an early Nebraska homestead. The park features a playground, reconstructed log cabin, an on-site chapel often used for weddings and a shrine encircling a stone brought from Solomon’s Quarry in Jerusalem.
Back on the highway, drivers cross into Johnson County and the city of Tecumseh, the county seat. In Tecumseh’s center is a town square occupied by a stately courthouse lined by oaks with leaves tinged in shades of late autumn red and orange complementing its brick facade.
The post office has a mural honoring the city as the 1896 site of the first Rural Free Delivery mail service in Nebraska. The nationwide RFD system was the brainchild of Tecumseh’s Emanuel Spiech.
“At that time, it was really something to have your mail delivered,” said Judy Coe, a Tecumseh resident and president of the Heritage Highway Association. Farmers at remote homesteads who previously had to ride many miles to town to get mail were connected to the world thanks to RFD, Coe said.
For the rest of the story see the September/October 2017 issue of Nebraska Life.