Ben Nelson’s childhood home joins museum complex highlighting politicians from McCook

December 24, 2017

LINCOLN — When his family decorated graves on Memorial Day in McCook, Ben Nelson said his father would always note the resting spot of U.S. Sen. George Norris, the father of Nebraska’s unique one-house State Legislature.

“My dad would always point to it and say he was the greatest U.S. senator ever,” said Nelson, a former two-term U.S. senator and two-term Nebraska governor.

Now, an important piece of Nelson’s life in McCook will join the nearby Norris home as part of a museum complex.

Last week Nelson donated his childhood home in McCook so it could become part of Heritage Square, a complex of structures in the southwest Nebraska community that highlights the politicians who grew up there.

“I’ve been blessed by growing up in McCook, and this is one way I felt I could be helpful,” Nelson said. “I believe in giving back.”

The square includes the George W. Norris Home, which is operated as a museum by the Nebraska State Historical Society. It sits on Norris Avenue, a street named for the progressive Republican, who served 10 years as a U.S. congressman and then 30 years as a U.S. senator before his defeat in 1942.

Norris, one of eight senators profiled in John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” was known for his fierce independence and advocacy for the common man and the common good. He is considered the father of public power, as well as Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, which he considered a more open and efficient legislative body that would be less influenced by lobbyists.

Other features of Heritage Square include the final family home of former Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison and the Frank Lloyd Wright “Sutton House,” one of the few homes west of the Mississippi River designed by the famed architect.

Nelson, who retired from the Senate in 2013, said the idea of donating his family home in McCook came from a tourism study calling for additional development of the community’s political legacy.

The home, which will be open for tours, is filled with memorabilia from Nelson’s career as a governor and U.S. senator, including political cartoons and videotapes of television interviews and appearances.

“It’s a pretty extensive library of videos,” the former senator said, describing it as including videos of “swearing in and swearing at.”

Nelson’s foundation, which is being run through the Omaha Community Foundation, will also fund three scholarships for students at Mid-Plains Community College in McCook.

The students, Nelson said, will serve as docents at the Nelson Heritage Home and produce research about the history of southwest Nebraska. Nelson has funded a series of Nelson Scholar scholarships at the community college in the past.

Besides Norris, Morrison and Nelson, former Gov. Ralph Brooks — who was McCook’s school superintendent when Nelson was a student — is from McCook.

Nelson has maintained his childhood home for years, moving it from its original site, along U.S. Highway 34/6, to Norris Avenue about a decade ago.

In the past, the senator would stay at the home on occasion. In 2010, a bronze sculpture was erected in front of the house that depicts Nelson receiving his Eagle Scout badge from his mother, Birdella, as his father, Benjamin Earl Nelson, looks on.

In more recent years, a pipe broke in the home, necessitating extensive repairs, Nelson said. All the windows and kitchen cabinets have been restored since, and the home recently got a new roof.

“So it’s all set up and ready to go,” he said.

Carol Schlegel, the executive director of McCook/Red Willow County Tourism, said the Nelson home will add to the community’s political heritage, and serve as a reminder that someone from a prairie town of 8,000 people can serve in the Governor’s Mansion and U.S. Senate.

McCook’s famous politicians, she said, may not provide the “romance” of Buffalo Bill, but their contributions were “much more significant to our everyday lives.”

Nelson added that he hopes his home will enhance local tourism as well as McCook’s political legacy.

“This isn’t about me,” he said, “it’s about helping my hometown.”

paul.hammel@owh.com, 402-473-9584