Article: Mary Ellen Goodenberger

A History of the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival

In 1987 Frank Popper, chairman of the urban studies department at Rutgers University, and his geographer wife Deborah came to the conclusion that the arid Great Plains will lose almost all of their people within the coming quarter-century. By 1990 these land-use experts had refined their theory. Using measurements that included population loss, scant population to begin with, poverty, and a paucity of economic activity, they identified 109 at-risk counties in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. These counties make up about one fourth of the Great Plains, cover 139,000 square miles, and contain 413,000 people. This area, said the New Jersey professors, should become a massive ecological reserve which they would call “Buffalo Commons.”

When the Poppers went on the road to promote their thesis, they encountered a pattern of outrage they called the Four Responses: Pioneer Gumption (Don’t underestimate our determination and hard work”); Dollar Potential (“Plains food production can feed the world”); Eastern Ignorance (Self-explanatory): and Prairie Zen (“Our landscape is a powerful source of spiritual renewal”).

On a warm Saturday evening in April, 1990, the Peppers’ McCook, Nebraska audience primarily followed this pattern. Though there were some who viewed the Easterners’ presentation as a wake-up call, they were not about to give up on their beloved heartland, having faith in conservation practices and cooperation. Other listeners questioned the research techniques used in the study. They felt the data were not current, were commercial rather agricultural. The over-riding sentiment was that the Peppers should return to New Jersey and let Southwest Nebraskans pursue their persevering ways.

The metropolis of the area, McCook did not need Deborah Epstein Popper’s assurance that it epitomizes the self-contained population center favored by her computer for long-term survival. It already had a strong sense of “linkage,” of ties to Lincoln and Omaha on the east, Denver on the west. Musical and dramatic artists got off the train and performed here on their way between cities. McCook hosted the Chautauqua. It produced a widely acclaimed band. This miniature city boasts a number of firsts: the first junior college in Nebraska, the first delivery of a daily newspaper by plane, the first house calls made by an airborne doctor, the first YMCA in a community as small as McCook.

Patriotism and politics connect McCook to the rest of the state and the nation. Buried in its cemetery are veterans of our country’s conflicts, from the Civil War to Viet Nam. McCook was home to George W. Norris, Congress’s “gentle knight” who fathered the Tennessee Valley Authority Rural Electrification and the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature. Three Governors of this state have come from McCook, as did a national Comptroller/General. From the airbase north of town, skilled young pilots went overseas.

McCook and its nearby neighbors are also linked to the first Americans and to the white settlers who decided to make the Great Plains their home. Lying some 20 miles to the west is Massacre Canyon, the site of the last battle between Native American tribes – the Sioux and the Pawnee. Trail markers – Oregon, Texas-Ogallala – are up and down the highway. Outstanding museums in McCook and Trenton take children and adults on a trip back into the past. For years Trenton’s Pow Wow has celebrated the Native American linkage. McCook has an annual Heritage Days event; Indianola provides an ‘Old Settlers’ picnic; other communities have Harvest Festivals.

An agricultural location does not mean isolation. Railroad, paved road, and information highway – these keep Southwest Nebraska linked to the rest of the country and to the world. Local inventions that ic- prove farming operations and everyday living are manufactured here and are shipped across the nation. Our grain and meat products sometimes cross the ocean. A large and impressive Valmont plant will soon start producing pivot irrigation systems. 1999 has seen the birth of a number of new businesses in McCook and area towns. The oil industry–once a major employer in Red Willow and Hitchcock Counties–has shrunk; but for a number of years it provided considerable impetus for growth.

A critical area, which transcended politics and ran a close second to the REA was the matter of flood control and soil conservation. Harry Strunk, original publisher of the McCOOK DAILY GAZETTE, aligned himself with other environmentalists and with those who could enable their efforts in Washington. The Bureau of Reclamation became a guiding force; soil conservation districts promoted windbreaks, terracing, pasture dams and ponds. Irrigation was encouraged. Man-made lakes appeared along the length of the Republican River. Saving the land provided a double blessing in the form of recreation: boating, fishing, and hunting.

This corner of Nebraska has sent many successful students to the State University and colleges. They graduate with honors, go on to become educators, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and financiers. Some accept positions in other states; a good many stay in the area or return after being disenchanted with life in the high-pressure lane. These students-turned-adults appreciate the fact that there have always been cultural enclaves within their towns: professional and service organizations, local arts councils and community concert supporters; literary and music clubs; art groups such as landscape, still life, and china painters; crafts creators and quilters.

Yes, McCook and its neighbors took it personally when the Poppers implied that this part of the country should never have been settled. The town leaders itemized their assets, just as has been done above, and decided it was time to “accentuate the positive.” One McCook slogan had been “It’s All Here!” The most recent one is “The American Experience.” The Southwest Nebraska tale deserved to be told, it was agreed. What better way to do it than through a storytelling festival? These were popular in other parts of the country. Were those locales really as multi-faceted as this special segment of the Great Plains? And, as a final rebuttal to the Poppers, why not call this event the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival?

The theme of Festival 1997: A community’s greatest gift is the evolving history of its people, their stories, their symbols, their enduring sagas. Its major sponsors were the Nebraska Tourism Office, the Nebraska Humanities Council , and the McCook Arts Council . The featured storyteller was Roger Welsch. The Festival was named the Nebraska Department of Tourism and Travel Industry’s Outstanding Event of the Year.

In 1998 the headliner was Nancy Duncan of Omaha, founder of the Storytelling Festival of Nebraska. The program paid tribute to the prairie peoples who “have been imprinted by the land’s horizons, its deep roots, rivers, canyons, and loess hills. It is a place where ordinary men and women live extraordinary lives.”

Comedienne Juli Burney captivated the crowd in 1999. Baseball stories were added to the agenda. A local veterinarian who is Lakota Indian told the stories of his people. The 2000 featured storytellers will be Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, two of America’s best known folk musicians, and Awela Makeba, a nationally acclaimed teller of tall tales. Mason and Ungar, the composers-in-residence at the Catskill Center in New York, are frequent guests on Garrison Keilbor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” They gained international notice by composing and performing the theme for the Grammy Award- winning sound track of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. Makeba, who learned the art of storytelling from such family figures as Bigmama Alice and Gran’daddy Joe, is based in Oakland, California but tells her stories throughout the United States and foreign lands.

The initial format of the festival was so successful that only minor modifications have been necessary. The retired teacher who leads the workshop on family history gives the following reasons for collecting personal anecdotes:

1. All human stories are interesting. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

2. Family history supplies a foundation for children’s lives. When they are moved from school to school, community to community, they need some constant, something unwavering. Given the anchor of family history, they have an undergirding We, not a fragile Me to sustain them.

3. Each family’s story is a piece of history – and we help make history.

She points out that we need to celebrate the unsung heroes, the mythmakers, within our families, reminding her audiences that Joseph Campbell tells us mythology defines and guides our lives as individuals and as a culture.

It has been important to collect our tales of the rails from throughout the valley. McCook, as a division point, has been home to many “railroaders” and their families. Their efforts and adventures have been a seminal part of the area’s growth and development.

Along with other stewards of the soil, the cattlemen have played a crucial role in the development of western Nebraska. Who better to pay tribute to them than the cowboy poets? Saying or singing their narratives, they bring that era back to life.

From the 1935 Republican River flood have come many hair-raising stories of survival. Marlene Wilmot’s BLUFF TO BLUFF is a timely collection of these accounts.

Baseball was a major fore of recreation in our good old days. Expense was minimal, and the camaraderie was incredible. Men would ride 50 or more miles on horseback to play ball. Many of them wound up with hands permanently bent at the first joint. These old-timers were thrilled to have their very own semi-pro team, the McCook Cats.

A Year 2000 addition to the program will be stories about the veterans from the “Greatest Generation” and as well as about those who preceded and followed them.

As mentioned earlier, these Festivals feature a workshop approach to its “Tall Tales from the Short Grass Prairie” and have offered college credit to teachers who attend a seminar at McCook Community College.

The local chapter of a women educators’ honorary does a remarkable “Kids in the Park” session which involves children in the art of storytelling. The Friday night ghost stories have drawn a crowd. Folk singers and local bands are on hand to entertain festival goers. Nebraska’s state poet, William Kloefkorn, is an active participant. Historian Robert Manley, who is acquainted with all the skeletons in Nebraska’s closet, will be in McCook for the upcoming festival. Awards are given for the tallest tale and to the Storyteller of the Year. Vendors provide souvenirs, food and beverages in the park. A Saturday night reception closes down the festival.

The inhabitants of this part of the Buffalo Commons agree with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. about the significance of a story told by George Norris–the story of his widowed mother asking him on a warm spring afternoon to plant a seedling.

She dug a hole and she wanted the boy to hold the tree upright while she shoveled the dirt in around its roots and packed it all tightly in. George looked up at her and saw all the sweat running down her face, and he looked and saw how worn she was and how tired she looked, and he asked her finally, “Why do you work so hard, Mother? Why do you care about planting this seedling? We have more fruit already than we can possibly eat. You will be dead long before this tree comes into bearing.” As he recalled it many years later, her answer was slow to come as she measured her words. She finally said, “I may never see this tree in bearing but somebody will.”

Two of our Festival’s brochures make this statement: “We believe that, next to God and family, stories are our greatest treasures.” So we’re planting our stories, passing on our heritage, teaching our children and grandchildren to be storytellers, strengthening them for the future.

by Mary Ellen Goodenberger, Buffalo Commons Storyteller Dec. 1999