Today I’m heading back to my second home, Nebraska.
Nebraska isn’t a place I ever imagined spending any time in. I grew up on a swamp in Florida, a quarter mile from the beach. Places like Nebraska weren’t on my radar screen as a kid.
When I imagined traveling the world, I imagined places like Norway and China, Brazil and France. I wanted to see the northern California coast, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes. Over the last decade I have visited all those places. But no place has taken my breath away quite like Nebraska.
People always ask me why I like Nebraska; what about the state keeps bringing me back? My answer is always the same - Nebraska is the most surprisingly beautiful place I’ve ever been. People don’t expect much from Nebraska - I know I didn’t - but the subtlety of the wide open spaces and endless skies is truly breath-taking.
I started spending significant time in Nebraska in 2013. That spring, Bill and I began working on a story that would eventually become one of the first videos for the Nebraska Project. The Nebraska Project itself didn't start as a concrete idea for a comprehensive web site on the state. It started as one story Bill wanted to tell - an ode to his mother, Agnes Roemmich Frakes.
Agnes was a lifelong educator, beginning her career at a one-room schoolhouse when she was 17. After she passed away in 2008, Bill found a typed copy of an unpublished story she wrote for Collier's magazine back in the 1940s on her experience as a rural school teacher.
Over the years, he had mentioned the idea of doing a video based on his mother's words, but it wasn't until we had a conversation with Kevin and Katie Morrow at an education conference that the story began to take shape. Kevin and Katie are great friends and Nebraska natives who live in O'Neill, NE.
Bill mentioned to Katie and Kevin that his mother had written a long essay on teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. He told them that he hoped to edit it down to a script one day and illustrate her words.
Kevin mentioned that there were several old one-room schoolhouses in Holt County, where they lived, and he was certain there were more around the state.
By the end of the conference it was settled, we were going to Nebraska.
When we got back to our office in Florida, we scanned the story into digital form - it had been typed out on a typewriter - and sent it to Katie. Within a week Katie had cut down the words to a manageable script and Kevin had sent photos and locations of several old one-room schoolhouses near their home.
The story started slow. We spent our time exploring abandoned school buildings, capturing the dust and cobwebs of untouched years. We ran overnight time-lapses. The beauty of an abandoned building in a fallow field is one of the many reasons I find Nebraska so surprisingly beautiful.
That first trip in 2013 taught us what we didn’t know. Mostly, that there was a lot of information out there on one-room schoolhouses and one week wasn’t enough to soak it all up. We ended up returning several times, always tying in a paying job to help cover expenses.
Everywhere we went we met a slew of kind and helpful people. It was my introduction to what I call “The Nebraska Name Game.”
Nebraska is a state of small towns. It’s the romantic America that we forget still exists. Everyone literally knows everyone else.
For example, on this one story alone, the name game went something like this:
We have a friend in Lincoln, Ted, who told us about his friend, Flip, in Thedford. Flip owns an exotic animal farm that happens to have a wonderfully refurbished one-room schoolhouse on it(only in Nebraska). After we visited Flip, he told us about a museum in Henderson with another refurbished schoolhouse. The woman at the museum in Henderson knew that all school records for Hamilton County - the county Agnes taught in all those years ago - were kept in the courthouse in Aurora. The folks in Aurora let us go through the records ourselves, leading us to find Agnes’ hand-written class records with the names of every student she taught. The people in Aurora then sent us to Farmer’s Valley Cemetery, where the Farmer’s Valley School - the one we were illustrating - once stood. In the Farmer’s Valley Cemetery we met a volunteer groundskeeper (he liked keeping the graveyard clean for visiting families) who knew a man that attended Farmer’s Valley School. That man knew the farm where the schoolhouse had been moved to and was being used as a tack shed. The family on that farm showed us a school project their daughter had done on the life of their tack shed, showing it in it's original form as a schoolhouse to where it now stood outside her front door. They then introduced us to Carmen who was involved with the local historical society. Carmen helped us find Arlyce Siebert who attended Farmer’s Valley School in 1942 and kept a portrait of her teacher from that year - Agnes Roemmich - as a bookmark in her Bible. Arlyce invited us to her house, agreed to follow us to a close-by schoolhouse for an interview, and became an unexpected introduction to the video.
The “Name Game” had taken us full circle.
That’s how “The Nebraska Name Game” goes. It starts with one introduction and a story, and ends in an abundance of hospitality and kindness. The people who helped us on this story - and for every story we’ve done in Nebraska - genuinely wanted to help. They were sincerely interested in what we were doing and it showed. They didn’t help to gain a favor; they helped because they wanted to.
In 2014 we launched the finished product, “A Teacher Remembered,” as one of the leading videos on our (then) new web site, NebraskaProject.com.