I saw the red square that indicated a Mari Sandoz State Historical Marker on scenic Highway 27 last year in northwestern Nebraska when Ruth and I were exploring scenic Highway 2. We weren’t taking Highway 27 and usually state historical markers aren’t very interesting. There seem to be fewer of them each year, but this one intrigued me. “Why is an old marker a tourist attraction?” I asked myself and, more importantly, “who is Mari Sandoz?” Now I know.
Driven in 2 ways to find this old historical marker, Ruth & I took Highway 27 this year and found it. It was just down the road from the Japanese Balloon Bombs marker, which was in far better shape and far more interesting. During World War II, it informed, Japan built about 9,000 hydrogen-filled paper balloons. They used them to drop potentially fire-setting bombs. In 1945 a ranch worker named Ken Hamilton saw one floating over this very lightly populated part of Nebraska. It began smoking, dropped to the ground, and became one of 5 recovered in this Midwestern state. The 285 balloon bombs that made it to North America caused 6 fatalities. Mari Sandoz’s marker needs to be replaced.
Mari Sandoz was a writer. She was one of 6 children of a Swiss immigrant who settled in this Sandhills region on a homestead south of Hay Springs on the Niobrara River not too far from the town of Chadron in 1910. Mari was 14. Four years later she married Wray Macumber. The marriage lasted for 5 years. Mari taught school, moved to Lincoln, got some education, and tried to sell some stories. She saw lots of rejection letters until 1935.
Mari’s father, who was a difficult and sometimes violent man, was dying when he asked her to write his life story. Old Jules resulted. She must have been shocked by this request and Old Jules is said to be candid. Her writings, according to Alan Bartels, suggest that he settled in this difficult place because it was all the further his money would take him and his family. Old Jules, which became one of six books in Mari’s Great Plains Series, won prizes and became a bestseller that led to 22 published works before she died in 1966. She moved to New York in 1943 but never forgot her tough origins and the people of the High Plains who were often the subject of her books. Her most famous book was Cheyenne Autumn. When it was made into a successful movie in 1964, she cowrote the screenplay.
A Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center was developed on the campus of Chadron State College and opened in 2002. This center in an old college library has a small museum devoted to Mari, a reading room, historic exhibits, etc. Ruth & I visited it in Chadron and really like it. Samples of her writing are abundant there. One I really liked was a letter to students which read, “If I could endow every young person in Nebraska…with two things…I should choose not beauty or fame or power or riches. I should choose…courage and a love for reading.”