Emigrants’ Return: California Refugees in Plattsmouth, Nebraska
July 15, 2012
When you mention “Nebraska” to someone from America’s left or right coasts they will freely associate this term with the words “corn” or “CornHuskers” (the college football team), or perhaps tornadoes or blizzards. What is often forgotten is that Nebraska’s Platte River Trail was the emigrant superhighway of the 19th Century carrying travelers from the East to the West Coast destinations of Oregon and California. Back then traffic went exclusively from East to West; yet I’ve found that in our day the emigrants have been retracing their steps.
Founded in 1855 on the banks of the Missouri River near the mouth of the Platte, Plattsmouth is a fair-sized small town, still relatively vibrant even though it lies far off today’s interstate highways. Back when rivers were America’s highways Plattsmouth was a popular steamboat moorage and trading post. Its downtown streets were lined with merchants selling goods downriver while also outfitting westward emigrants on the overland trails. According to local historian Dale M. Bowman, “The area that is now lower main street was the staging point for the South Platte Trail of the Oregon Trail. For approximately 18 years an average of 12,000 pioneers per month headed west on this trail.” (Early History of Plattsmouth)
The business district of Plattsmouth looks much as it did a hundred and fifty years ago. The red-bricked architecture has been preserved and the red bricked side streets provide complementary color.
The storefronts are open. The old hotel — The Fitzgerald — is open for business as well.
The 1892 Cass County Courthouse towers above the streets of Plattsmouth like a Bavarian castle above its village. This grand and ornate style of architecture was common in its time; it provided small frontier towns with a feeling of strength and permanence.
Inside the courthouse, old black and white photographs document the town and county’s history. There have been numerous devastating floods.
By noon it was hot and I was hungry, so I found the River House Soda Fountain and Cafe and stepped inside. Obviously this old building was once a riverport saloon — there was a long bar, fixed barstools, and a pressed-copper ceiling. Riverboat captains had drunk here. So had emigrants — anxious to find their fortune in the West yet hesitant enough of the upcoming dangers to take one last draft in a civilized tavern before moving along.
But that was the past. The new owners had turned the River House into a combination antique store, sandwich shop, and soda fountain. Free wifi available. A dozen others were already being served as I sat down at the old oak bar. I ordered a root beer float and an Italian sandwich.
Looking around, I could see that the River House was run by a young mother with her two daughters. (The great majority of small town cafes I’ve seen are run by women, not men.) Mom was directing traffic. Her mid-teens daughter was the main waitress, enthusiastically taking lunch orders. Then there was a younger girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, scurrying this way and that, trying to help Mom any way she could.
I flagged down “Mom”, a youngish looking woman, and asked if there was a place where I could charge my camera battery.
“Sure, right here,” she said pointing to an outlet behind the bar.
“Thank you. That’s great.” I handed here the battery but added, “please don’t let me forget it here.”
“No, no of course not,” she assured me but added teasingly “this battery does look a lot like the battery I use for my camera. If you were to leave here without it…”
“I guess I’ll just have to take that chance,” I added playing along.
“So where are you from?” she asked.
“Colorado,” I answered. “Just travelling this week. Did you grow up here in Plattsmouth?”
“Oh no. I’m from California.”
“Ah, a California refugee,” I shot back.
She didn’t reply, but instead gave me a wistful smile which I read as ambivalence about having left the Golden State.
I went on. “There are a lot of Californians just like you moving back to the Midwest. I met a pair of California refugees in a small town in Kansas. They were an older, retired couple. They bought an old bank building and a cafe next door. They’ve turned it into a bed and breakfast and restaurant.”
She was interested. She asked me about the particular town. I thought for a bit and came up with “Oberlin. Oberlin, Kansas.”
We talked a bit more about how there were so many well-preserved towns in the Midwest before she had to attend to some other customers.
I had my sandwich and my rootbeer float which hit just the right spot. The food is usually really good in these kind of places and the River House was no exception.
I retrieved my camera battery, paid the bill, said thank you and headed back outdoors into the hot afternoon. I don’t know what brought them here to Nebraska from California, heading from West to East along the old California Trail. Perhaps there are no longer good opportunities in California. Or perhaps she wanted a small town atmosphere to raise her daughters. Perhaps taxes are too high or regulation too strong. Or maybe it was something else.
But logic tells us that whatever terrible thing the California refugee is fleeing, that thing must be more dangerous to them than Nebraska’s tornadoes or blizzards.
Other photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog: