Years ago my father suggested that I meet a conservation-minded man named Tom Sherman who owned land on the Platte River near Marquette. At the time—in the late 1970s—my wife, Jan, and I had moved back to my hometown of Aurora and were becoming more interested in conservation. I only vaguely remember Tom driving me along his pasture and river lowland meadow. I had not yet developed an eye for the subtle beauty of Hamilton County’s Platte River Bluffs, much less an ecological appreciation and detailed knowledge about the area where I grew up. From that outing, I did, however, remember Tom’s attachment to, and pride in, his land, as well as his desire to take good care of it. That was the extent of our association until the late 1990s when Tom called me to ask if I would be a part of the Bader Park board. Subsequently I saw him more often at park meetings. I still did not know him well but through the park work grew to appreciate his strong fundamental sense of community service, thrift, and pragmatism. He was a steadfast supporter of Bader Park and a smaller park near his land, Tooley Park, which he oversaw for many years. In fact, he was responsible for the creation of Tooley Park as a Hamilton County commissioner in the 1990s (he was also on the Central Platte NRD board in its early days).
Only later, probably around 2008 or 2009, did I finally understand what made Tom Sherman tick. I learned a great deal about his character upon reading his book, which he signed and gave to me. Written in the 1980s, Seek, Strike and Destroy: A history of the 636 Tank Destroyer Battalion, is about his World War II experience. About the same time, when I would see Tom at park meetings, particularly as he was closing in on the benchmark of his ninetieth birthday, I could hear desperate frustration in his voice when he wondered out loud what he could do with his land. He said on one of those occasions that he’d give it away but wanted to treat his three kids fairly, so he’d have to sell it. Finally, at one park meeting in 2010 Tom expressed once again his desire to leave his land as a legacy to the community. This time I countered his statement with a question: “Would you consider a formal proposal from Prairie Plains to help you do this?” He said he would. I then drafted a proposal whereby Tom would grant Prairie Plains Resource Institute a purchase option to buy his land after he passed away. If we could raise enough to buy it within eighteen months, we would manage the land as a working conservation area/ranch and allow public access for recreational use that would be compatible with our conservation and prairie management goals. Tom talked it over with his kids, then after about six months sat down with an attorney to create the necessary estate planning and purchase option documents. These were signed in June 2011. We could then proceed with a huge challenge—fundraising to buy the land. If successful, we then were obliged to honor his life and wishes for his land and to tell his story.
I was fortunate to spend quite a few hours with Tom over the past four years touring the property in order to show it to members and prospective donors. Tom looked forward to us driving up to the house for a tour. He would freely talk about his life, the people who would come out to hike or ride horses, or how he cleared the accretion ground to create a large wet meadow. Frequently, he remarked that he never bought green bananas, in reference to his ninety-plus years. Tom was accepting of the fact that his time was ending. He often expressed how he felt he’d never make it past the age of twenty-two. Leaving his home along the Missouri River in Peru, Nebraska, in 1942, he spent six hundred days in combat as part of a tank destroyer unit in Africa, Italy, France, and Germany. His aforementioned book details many of the events and people of this experience, and he liked to talk about the experience rather than keep it closed in. Like so many returning veterans, it was the formative life experience that tempered him. He survived the war, went to college on the GI Bill, and became a county extension agent. In 1962 he fell in love with this piece of river land the moment he saw it. A day or so after a disappointing call from the real estate agent saying it was not available, he received another call saying it was his if he wanted it. He was able to finance the purchase and some cattle with FHA loans. He and his wife, Louise, raised their family of three children on those 650 acres of rangeland and small croplands. During tours of his land, Tom repeatedly expressed his deepest feelings that he so appreciated what he had received in life and wanted to give something back. No doubt this motivated his actions as a community public servant. His generosity of spirit extended into the idea of making his land available to people in the future so that they could enjoy his prairie bluffs and riverfront long after he was gone. Tom’s life was not particularly easy, and I doubt that he ever had what one would call a lot of money. One couldn’t even come close to raising a family now on a small piece of hard-scrabble rangeland and cropland acreages, and it wasn’t easy in the 1960s either. But it was enough, and looking back, Tom Sherman was satisfied. Much of this comes out in a seventeen-minute video on YouTube by our friend Larry Molzyck, “Thomas Sherman on the Land.”
When the inevitable news came in late May of 2014 that Tom had passed away, we were saddened, yet thankful for his long and active life. The good fortune for me and others on the Prairie Plains staff was the time we were able to spend with Tom and to have had the opportunity to know him better. This is a rewarding part of our work that often is overlooked—yet is really what it is all about.
The realization that Prairie Plains was entrusted with making his wishes for the land become reality suddenly took on a new dimension. We were now the stewards of Tom Sherman’s story. Prairie Plains is also entrusted by its mission and history as a conservation and education organization to preserve the scenic beauty, history, and natural diversity of the Sherman Ranch. Both Tom and Prairie Plains had complementary, yet somewhat different, motivations to do this deal. In the long run, however, we were both clear in our intentions to benefit people—to give back to the community—through the experiences that a beautiful Platte River prairie area could offer.
Sherman Ranch Features
Hamilton County, Nebraska irrigated farmland rivals Iowa’s corn and soybean productivity. Travelers on I-80, US 2-34, and Nebraska Highway 14 would never believe that the county contains sizable remnants of the vast historic prairie ecosystem, or that there is anything but pancake-flat land in the area. These same people, like so many area residents as well, are not familiar with the eroded bluffs running along the Platte’s south edge between Central City and Grand Island. The rugged look of these bluffs is similar to the Loess (rhymes with “bus”) Canyons south of I-80 between Cozad and North Platte, and the Central Nebraska Loess Hills where towns such as Broken Bow, Sargent, and Arnold are located. The reason for this similarity is that Hamilton County is on a level plain formed from the same material, the yellowish clay and silt deposited by centuries of wind (loess refers to wind-deposited sediment). The northern edge of the county along the Platte is a system of bluffs formed by runoff water eroding the loess as it flows northward to the Platte.
The very existence of the Sherman Ranch is unusual given the agricultural land use of the area. The property is also unusual in that it is one of the largest remaining, and arguably most scenic, single-ownership parcels of native grassland on this stretch of river bluffs. It is part of an undivided native prairie bluff area comprising more than two thousand acres, including another Prairie Plains preserve, Griffith Prairie, located a mile west, and several adjoining private lands. In addition, several areas along the river in the locale have been seeded to high-diversity prairie as part of the Wetlands Reserve Program on private lands. Finally, Sherman Ranch is unusual in offering the awe-inspiring character and scale of a more western-looking landscape but located in east-central Nebraska, little more than an hour away from the metropolitan area of Lincoln.
The 650-acre Sherman Ranch includes bluffs, rolling hills, canyons, and lowlands along a mile-long Platte River frontage. These varied land forms comprise a rich variety of wildlife habitats, wet to dry, which support many species of native plants and attract important migratory birds, including waterfowl, shorebirds, and nesting prairie birds, as well as invertebrate life. The property is located within a designated Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Legacy Program Biologically Unique Landscape, underlining the importance of its loess hill mixed prairie, Platte River main channels with dynamic sandbars and mudflats, accretion shrub land, and wet meadow prairie habitats. The property is a sizable area for monarch and regal fritillary butterflies and a number of other species of regional conservation concern. Its natural diversity also makes it an exceptional natural area for outdoor education, covering everything from soil and groundwater to fish, plants, and microscopic life.
Any place that is this naturally diverse and scenic is also attractive to people. The lay of the Sherman land will entice visitors to roam and explore throughout the year. Few will tire of repeated visits because there is so much to see and it is always different. Aesthetically, the land has the power to transport a person into another realm—again, one notably more western. One can be surrounded as far as the eye can see by beautiful unbroken prairie under a 360-degree dome of sky. Connecting to the history of this place, visitors can easily seclude themselves in a rugged canyon or stand on a promontory and gaze north across the wide Platte Valley—the historic Platte River Road—to and beyond the Lincoln Highway (US 30) and the Transcontinental Railroad (UP), still in plain sight in their modern forms.
Prairie Plains Goals for the Sherman Ranch
Sherman Ranch added to Griffith Prairie will total 1,040 acres with 1.6 miles of river frontage. Together this will create a large and more diverse field laboratory, which will be used for a multitude of educational programs and events about nature, land resources, water, agriculture, and arts for K–12, college, and graduate-level students, researchers, and interested people of all ages. The Charles L. Whitney Education Center on Griffith Prairie will be the coordinating center for this future programming.
Acquiring Sherman Ranch will make possible many more miles of recreational trails, winding through the prairie hills and canyons and along the Platte. They would simply be mowed through the prairie—an easily maintained type of trail that can occasionally be moved and is pleasant to walk or run on. Eventually Sherman trails would be linked to a major rail trail to the Dark Island Trail (under development) from Central City to Marquette. It includes a long Platte River trestle near Central City. There will also be other recreational offerings that will be compatible with conservation goals, such as wilderness camping, hiking, canoe and kayak launching, horse trail riding, and others.
Adding this property as a preserve within the Platte Corridor will add to the quality of life in central Nebraska. It could become a contributing factor to the regional economic viability of this area. Sherman Ranch is a keystone project in a new citizen-led initiative for the Platte River Lone Tree Corridor between Grand Island and Clarks. The goal of this broad initiative is to develop the natural Platte River into a community development asset. The challenge is how to protect and restore the unique parts of the corridor—historic and cultural, natural, scenic, etc.—for the future benefit of the community at large. Furthermore, how can we develop education, conservation, traditional grazing, agricultural, recreation, and commercial purposes in a complementary way? This has tremendous economic and social/cultural implications for the future.
Our Urgent Objective
If we are not able to purchase the Sherman Ranch, it will most likely go on the open market and be sold to an individual or private consortium. As recreational land, it will probably be overpriced for the agricultural market. The buyer(s) will get a special place of their own to enjoy and share with their family and friends. Their values about nature, built improvements, and management are likely to differ from ours. Over time, the native grassland and wildlife species would be negatively impacted as the land is carved up into smaller parcels, and traditional grazing agricultural gives way to the steady, long-term accumulative impacts of urbanizing river development. Also lost: Tom Sherman’s wishes and legacy—another example of the erosion of basic cultural values and the accumulated hard-earned wisdom of our particular place and its inhabitants.
What really needs to be considered at this juncture is the loss of opportunity for the greater community if we do not succeed. In my experience with Prairie Plains, if one follows a dream and finds opportunity to carry out that dream—or even just a piece of the dream—two things happen. One, the reality of each success turns out to be far greater and more interesting than what had been imagined. Two, doors open to new and unforeseen opportunities that were never imagined before. This has to guide our development process; it’s not just about economics but includes how we as citizens create good places to live.
Prairie Plains has until November 25, 2015, to notify the trustees of the Sherman estate the intent to execute the purchase option—i.e., that we have the funds secured and are able to buy the land at a cost of $1,882,390.
At this time we have secured $1,271,246 and have approximately $611,000 remaining to raise. The following is a list of commitments thus far: Nebraska Environmental Trust, $450,000; Ducks Unlimited, $350,000; J. A. Woollam matching grant, $100,000; Cooper Foundation, $20,000; Hamilton Telecommunications in Aurora, $25,000; Hamilton Community Foundation, $12,976; a family memorial contribution by a Prairie Plains member, $150,000; Prairie Plains members and friends, $163,450. In addition, the Farr Foundation in Aurora will grant $50,000 if that amount will reach the end goal of $1,882,390.
For more information on the institute and to learn how to contribute to the Sherman Ranch funding, visit www.prairieplains.org. Click on “Chance of a Lifetime.”
Prairie Plains Resource Institute has been celebrating the land and its people since 1980. A nonprofit educational land trust, PPRI is dedicated to creating opportunities on the land for people of all ages. The institute offers a full calendar of events on its seven Nebraska prairie preserves, consultation for landowners and agencies regarding high-diversity prairie restoration, an award-winning nature day camp for elementary students, and a calendar full of opportunities for volunteers.