Harold Warp's Pioneer Village
"For thousands of years Man lived quite simply. Then like a sleeping giant our world was awakened. In a mere hundred and twenty years of eternal time Man progressed from open hearths, grease lamps and ox carts to television, supersonic speed and atomic power."
- Sign over Pioneer Village entrance
Harold Warp was born poor, in a Nebraska sod house -- but by the time he was 50 he was a plastics-manufacturing millionaire. Did he fritter away his millions? No sir. He bought his hometown's one-room schoolhouse, its church, its train depot -- a dozen buildings in all. Then he moved them to an artificial town square and opened it as an attraction, Harold Warp's Pioneer Village, in 1953. The Warp Family sod house was long gone, so a replica was built of real sod and placed only a few feet away from America's oldest merry-go-round, perhaps fulfilling one of Harold's childhood dreams.
Warp surrounded his village with exhibit halls -- 16 of them -- packed with over 50,000 historically significant items, everything from trolley cars to President Lincoln's sugar bowl. The Village doesn't try to wow you with fancy displays. It is all about stuff.
Today we arrange songs, photos, information however we like. But in 1953, Harold Warp's vision was linear. "Mr. Warp wanted to show progress," said Marshall Nelson, the Village's general manager. "He wanted to show everything in chronological order."
The Village remains faithful to this edict, sorting its collections into themed buildings -- cars, farm equipment, home appliances, etc. -- then displaying them in their sequence of development. You can see the evolution of washing machines, fishing lures, lawn mowers, cash registers, pocket watches, bathtubs, outboard motors. There's even a building that showcases progress in America's living rooms and kitchens from 1830 to 1980.
The overstuffed nature of Harold Warp's Pioneer Village is part of its charm, and sometimes makes for happy chaos. At one point we found ourselves looking at a 1967 Aquacar in front of a display case of old globes next to a gallery of cowboy paintings beneath a stuffed sailfish and vintage Navy helicopter suspended from the ceiling.
Scattered among the various buildings are Grover Cleveland's presidential desk, the first consumer cordless phone (a 1980 Uniden), and a piece of tinfoil from Thomas Edison's original phonograph. You can see America's first jet fighter (1942), Chicago's last gas street lamp (1954), and a pouch with undelivered letters from a dead Pony Express rider.
The Village also displays Harold Warp's personal airplane, car, barn, and color TV, the contact lenses worn by his wife in 1949, and his son's hail-dented 1972 Ford Pinto. Warp's yacht, which visitors can climb aboard, was one of the few privately-owned vessels that sank a U-boat in World War II.
Inspirational maxims attributed to Warp appear on plaques throughout the Village:
Coupon clippers can't build a nation, It takes sweat and toil and planned creation.
For decades Warp himself wrote all of the often-extensive descriptions that accompany each item. This prodigious output has been preserved for posterity as a 508-page book, A History of Man's Progress.
The Hobby House, the only building officially exempt from Warp's chronological fiat, displays massed collections of salt shakers, ashtrays, pencils, buttons, liquor decanters, mechanical banks, fountain pens, spittoons, nightcaps. Each could support its own museum in a small town.
There's a point at which you simply can't absorb any more at Harold Warp's Pioneer Village, and it has a solution for that; simply stay at the Village's motel or campground, and you can visit the attraction as many times as you like for your one original admission price. "We have people who spend four, five days visiting us," said Marshall Nelson. Open year-round, the Village would make a fine extended refuge during an off-season blizzard.
What Marshall called "the glory and the uniqueness" of Harold Warp's Pioneer Village is that it has never sold or bartered or thrown away anything that it's displayed -- which means that as progress rolls on, its density only increases. Already it seems as if 28 buildings are not enough, yet the timelines must be extended.
"We add to the collection every year," said Marshall, ticking off a list of recent acquisitions. "An American No. 8 road grader, 144 Barbie dolls, a 1934 Harley-Davidson, a first generation iPad...."
Harold Warp, whose Perfect Attendance certificates are proudly displayed in the one-room schoolhouse, would be delighted.