The last stretch of road into my wife’s hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska is the eventful little two-lane State Highway 136 that leads from I-29 north of St. Joseph, Missouri into Beatrice. Beatrice, by the way, was the birthplace of the actor Robert Taylor (though the locals knew him as Spangler Arlington Brugh) and the poet Weldon Kees (whom the locals called Weldie). When I say the locals I mean my mother-in-law, who has lived in Beatrice all her life.
Turning west from I-29 onto 136, you come almost immediately to a bridge that will take you into Brownville. (If you are coming from St. Louis, this will be the third time you cross the Missouri River.) Often the center of these little towns is worth the out-of-the-way few blocks you must go to reach it, and Brownville is no exception. Technically a village of fewer than 150 souls, Brownville boasts some fine historic buildings on Main Street, and on the river, a floating bed and breakfast. A few miles farther west is Auburn, which always calls to my mind the opening couplet of Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”:
Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheer’d the laboring swain….
Unlike Brownville, Auburn is not a village but a city of 3500. Its first sign is an airport where are there are two intersecting turf runways, the only one of its kind I’ve seen. Auburn’s graveyard is on the highway and called Sheridan Cemetery, but as we leave the city we find its annex: on rolling turf easy to mistake for a golf course a very few headstones are visible, and gates that proclaim this as “Sheridan West.”
Not much farther, at Spring Creek, you’ll see a working bison farm, with its feed lot and pasture wrapped around a house on the south side of the road. The last time I passed there were dozens of buffalo within a few yards of the highway, a startling sight more common on these plains two hundred years ago. The next creeks form an interesting contrast of names. The first is Brewer’s Branch, calling up for me southern associations of “branch water” that always seems to be linked to alcohol—paired with bourbon or used for brewing. But the next crossing is Yankee Creek.
Almost immediately we are in Tecumseh, where we do one of those mysterious ninety-degree turns followed by another ninety-degree turn back to course a few blocks later; this is a fairly common occurrence in Midwest driving where roads avoid a parcel of land some farmer resisted giving up to the right of way. And the next town is Beatrice.
What strikes an observer about the streets of this town is the number of trees throughout the city. They are more numerous than in any other of the towns spread across southeastern Nebraska. Yet the locals will tell you (my mother-in-law again) that before the advent of Dutch Elm Disease that killed almost all of the fine American Elms in Beatrice, there were twice as many trees here. Beatrice boasts the very first homestead, applied for shortly after midnight on the day Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act went into effect. The Homestead National Monument is on the other side of town. To the north is Beatrice’s airport, where you can depart on its runway 36 and fly straight without a course change the thirty-three nautical miles onto runway 36 at Lincoln. I know; I’ve done it.