Whenever I visit with people about the future, several questions come up. Do I believe that history repeats itself? Or, to put it another way, do I believe that what goes around, comes around?
These are not easy questions to answer because in most cases I find that the persons who ask the questions already have their minds made up. Yes, history does repeat itself. And what goes around, does come around.
I’m not sure that it is quite that simple. But I do believe that there are recurring patterns in history. There are problems and issues, which we never solve, and every generation has to deal with them. For example, crime, drug addiction and financial crises.
And we must understand something else. Every generation focuses on the changes taking place around them. Innovations and new ideas capture headlines and are the lead stories on the evening TV news. Millions of dollars are spent in advertising new products and convincing consumers that they absolutely must have the new products. Away with the old; in with the new!
Unfortunately–or fortunately, depending upon your point of view–it doesn’t work that way.
Take the history of the railroad in southwest Nebraska. A century ago the residents of this region hailed the iron horse as the solution to all their economic problems. For example, in January, 1892, when the branch line opened to Wauneta, the editor of the McCook Tribune declared that this was the “most momentous event” in the history of Wauneta. “The advent of that indispensable factor in civilization, progress and prosperity, the locomotive” had come to Wauneta, that “promising little burg at the falls of the Frenchman.”
Within a few years, however, the residents of the “little burg” were bitterly complaining about the railroad. The owners of the line had failed to deliver on their promises as far as service and rates were concerned. The railroad had not solved their problems; it had created a whole new set of problems, not the least of which was getting a powerful corporation, owned by eastern capitalists more interested in profits than service, to listen to their complaints. And they were angered by the railroad’s domination of local politics, and by the way it influenced local decision-making, particularly when it came to locating the county seat in Chase county and Red Willow county. Today, I doubt that there are many people in Wauneta and the Frenchman valley who consider the locomotive to be an “indispensable factor in civilization, progress and prosperity.”
Will it be the same with computers and telecommunications? Right now all sorts of claims are being made for computers. Twenty years from now, however, I’ll bet that people will look back and. wonder what all the excitement was about. By then the computer will be an accepted part of our lives, and it will not have solved all our problems.
The problem is that as we focus on change we overlook the fact that old ways of thinking and acting aren’t going to disappear. Tradition is powerful and has a way of exerting its influence in every generation. Human nature is the culprit. History demonstrates over and over again that coming up with new ideas is easy. It’s getting rid of the old ones that is hard.
I would argue, however, that some elements of the past deserve to be preserved. Previous generations contained men and women who were as smart as we are. They must have done some things right.
The job you face today is to accept the best of the new and to figure out how to keep the best from the past. The best of the new–the best of the past–that combination gives you a future worth thinking about.
NAMES ON THE LAND
As I travel southwest Nebraska I’m constantly reminded of the pioneers who settled this country and how they looked to the future.
That confidence is often revealed in the names they selected for the towns and counties they founded. For example, take Chase County. It was named for Champion Chase an early mayor of Omaha and Nebraska’s first attorney general.
But Chase was also known as a great “boomer” of southwest Nebraska. He missed no opportunity to spread the good news about southwest Nebraska. One day, he declared, the region would be a land of productive farms, ranches and towns.
Chase County is named for Champion Chase, a man who believed in the future of southwest Nebraska.
Hitchcock County is named for Phineas W. Hitchcock, a United States Senator from Nebraska. In 1872 he introduced into Congress the Timber Culture Law which gave settlers 160 acres of free land provided they planted 40 acres of the claim to trees.
We must remember that in the 1870s southwest Nebraska was pretty much a treeless country. And that meant the country would never be settled by farmers. Where there were no trees there would be no fuel, no fence posts, no logs for cabins and barns. Settlers simply could not survive in a treeless country.
But with Senator Hitchcock’s bill, settlers would be encouraged to plant trees. The wasteland would soon be covered with forests, and settlers would pour in. Hitchcock County was a name that urged settlers to look ahead to a glorious future.
McCook was named for a Union general who served in the Civil War. The first settlement at this spot was known as Fairview, a pleasant name. But the Burlington Railroad, which laid out McCook, wanted a name that would appeal to the thousands of Union veterans who wanted to come west.
The name “McCook” advertised the fact that Union veterans would find a welcome in southwest Nebraska.
Then there is Indianola, just one of many Nebraska towns named for Iowa towns. Why would town builders select Iowa names for their new towns? Because the names carried the message that one day these towns in southwest Nebraska would be as prosperous and lively as the Iowa towns which the settlers left to go west.
Take time to notice the names on the land. These names show that pioneer town builders were always “thinking about the future.”