ASHLAND – A wandering chunk of granite that once marked a pioneer trail has finally found its permanent home on the grounds of a notable local building that preserves the area’s history.
The Ashland Historical Society built a permanent base last summer for a large granite boulder that once marked the “Old Government Trail.” The monument rests at the Ashland History Museum, located in the former public library building.
After the base was completed, the original bronze plaque was reattached to the boulder, completing a project that began last year when a local author contacted local historians as he was researching a book on historical markers in Nebraska.
In 1927, a local women’s service organization marked the site of the “Old Government Trail” with a large granite boulder and a bronze plaque. For decades, the one and one-half ton rugged, red granite boulder, pulled from the earth of the P.A. Peterson farm two miles south of Ashland, sat along Highway 6. It was fitted with a bronze plate that read, “This native stone marks the Old Government Trail. Erected by the Ashland Woman’s Club. 1847 – 1927.” A covered wagon pulled by an ox team topped the bronze plate.
In March 2019, historian/author/speaker Jeff Barnes contacted the Ashland Historical Society about the marker as he was researching his latest book. Barnes, who grew up between Ashland and Yutan and went to school in Yutan, had seen a reference to the marker in a booklet published by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1951. It was also mentioned in books written by the late local historian Alice Graham about Ashland area history.
Barnes wanted to include the marker in his book, “Cut in Stone, Cast in Bronze: Nebraska’s Historical Markers and Monuments, 1854-1967,” which was recently released and is available through the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation.
A handful of local citizens remembered the massive monument when Barnes started asking questions, but no one knew exactly where it was. Barnes contacted the Ashland Historical Society and was put in contact with Marilyn Wright, a member and an expert on local history who has worked faithfully with the rest of the organization to document, catalogue and preserve the history of the Ashland area.
“That’s where the bug was planted,” Barnes said.
The marker was originally placed on the west side of Highway 6 across from where Porter Ridge Veterinary Clinic now sits. But it had been gone from that spot for years. With Barnes’ project as her inspiration, Wright took up the case.
“I was determined to get to the bottom of what happened to it,” she said.
Wright made a phone call to a former highway department head, Jerry Johnson. Johnson told her that the marker had been moved to an area near the Greenwood Interchange on Interstate 80 when Highway 6 was widened many years ago.
Johnson told Wright he wasn’t happy when the marker was taken from its original home. So he had it moved to Ashland City Hall shortly thereafter.
But few people knew that the piece of granite that sat at city hall was actually of historic value. As city officials came and went, the story of the boulder sitting out by the picnic table was all but forgotten.
Former city employee Dee Bassett tried to keep the story alive. She had helped Johnson move the boulder back to Ashland. She was the one who made sure the bronze plaque was returned as well. She brought it to city hall, where it stayed for an unknown length of time. But it was later moved a location where it was eventually forgotten.
Bassett thought the plaque was possibly stored in the attic at the city maintenance shop at 18th and Silver streets. Her instincts were right – Public Works Director Shane Larsen found the plaque there in late March 2019. The bronze plate was given to Wright for safekeeping and maintenance.
Articles in The Ashland Gazette document the monument’s provenance. On Aug. 17, 1927, the marker was unveiled and dedicated in a ceremony led by Ashland Woman’s Club President Mrs. Guy Ziegler. The U.S. Army 11th Medical Band entertained the crowd.
The Gazette said the project began after State Historian Addison E. Sheldon had given a lecture to the club. The Ashland Woman’s Club wanted to “designate the California or early government trail which crossed Saline Ford at this point and proceeded westward thru (sic) what is now the J.H. Granger farm.” The marker was placed at the point where the trail crossed Highway 6, then known as the DLD (Denver/Lincoln/Detroit) Highway.
“It is here that the caravans crossed after leaving the creek. In wet seasons they took the higher ground west. When Dennis Dean built his mill the government crossing was abandoned as business houses were built on either side of Salt Creek at the mill site,” the Gazette article said.
At the height of the trail’s use, Ashland was a busy freight depot. The rock bottom crossing allowed tons of heavy freight to cross Salt Creek on the trail from Plattsmouth and Nebraska City heading west to Fort Kearny and beyond.
The marker calls the trail the “Old Government Trail.” The Gazette article also used the name “California Trail.” Local historical books also refer to it as the “Ox-Bow Trail,” a variant of the Mormon Trail.
Once the marker’s history had been established and documented, it wasn’t enough that it became a page in Barnes’ book. Wright and the rest of the Ashland Historical Society wanted to make sure the historic monument had a permanent home that commemorated its significance in area history.
Larsen and his crew moved the boulder to the lawn of the Ashland History Museum, which is housed in a former Carnegie library building. The City of Ashland leases the building to the historical society and city crews help maintain the facility.
Once the marker was at the museum, historical society members knew it needed to have a more prominent and permanent home on the lawn. They voted in June to hire a local contractor, Eric Rosenboom, to pour a cement base. Once the boulder was placed on the cured concrete, Mark Pentico and Jaret Hendrickson of Chestnut Memorials in Wahoo were hired to put the bronze plaque back on the boulder.
Pentico said they ground the stone smooth and drilled holes in the rock, where two bronze pegs were used to attach the plaque to the boulder with epoxy.
As a company that typically creates monuments for cemeteries, working on a historic marker was a unique task for Pentico and Hendrickson.
“We don’t do that stuff all the time,” he said.
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