Story and photos by Kristen Cart
When someone reaches their middle eighties intact and in good health, they can do whatever they want. It’s a reward that comes along with advanced age. Okay–it has to be within reason–say, within the budget, but there shouldn’t be any major obstacles, unless care-giving is in the picture. With my dad, Gerry Osborn, no such obstacle existed in 2019, before Covid-19 made its debut.
Dad and I had taken a western driving tour in 2018 to visit the house where I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, which he had architecturally restored from a sadly worn and altered state. It was a foursquare brick farmhouse with historic ties to early Mormon settlers. The current and longtime owner, Gundi Jones, kindly gave us a tour. We admired her finishing touches, which updated the mid-seventies decor as we had left it, to a European country style. It was beautiful.
We also took in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, before heading east for a stop at Mesa Verde, a marvelous place that captured Dad’s imagination. He was especially taken with its large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.
Then, on our way home, we stopped at the Nuckolls County courthouse in Nelson, Nebr. The place brought back old memories. Dad explained that when he was a young student, he and his friends would play a game where they collected sightings of Nebraska license plates, each identified by a number designating its county of origin, 1 to 93. Each county was assigned a number, to be displayed on the license plate, in the order of the number of automobile registrations extant in each county as of 1922. So the most populous county was assigned the number 1, and plates with the number 93 were quite scarce.
Dad and his friends raced to try to find a plate from every county. The hardest ones to collect were from small counties at the other end of the state from Dad’s hometown of Fremont, Nebr.
Now he said that he would like to find them all by visiting every county courthouse in the state. He also wanted to see each courthouse out of curiosity–he loved the old architecture.
I said, “Sure, why not?” It made perfect sense to me, since I was a collector of all sorts of things, with an irresistible impulse to complete the set, whatever it happened to be. License plates sounded like a great excuse to spend time with my dad, while setting the world in order by collecting them all.
Beginning in early 2019, we started our project. We decided to photograph Dad in front of each courthouse, while surreptitiously snapping a shot of a local license plate. He had great fun Google-mapping our routes and itineraries, and over the course of the year, we completed our mission, taking several day trips and a couple of overnighters. We didn’t research any of the courthouses before we visited the county seats. Instead, we saved our first impressions for later, so each courthouse would be a surprise. Sometimes we would gasp in awe as a magnificent courthouse came into view; other times, we would sigh in disappointment.
Dad and I covered the entire state during our courthouse expedition, and incidentally, we crossed paths with his father Bill Osborn’s travels when we stumbled upon some of his grain elevators. Bill Osborn was based in Denver for a good part of his career as a builder, but he got back to Nebraska a few times while building elevators for Joe Tillotson and later for himself as partner in Mayer-Osborn.
A few of those elevators we have documented in this blog, including McCook, Lodgepole, and Big Springs.
Dad recognized the name of one of the elevators we encountered shortly after we visited the courthouse in Rushville, the seat of Sheridan County.
The elevator at Gordon, Nebr. (a town along Hwy. 20) had the trademark Mayer-Osborn rounded and stepped headhouse, and it followed the plan of their other larger elevators. It also sported manhole covers embossed with the name of the builder, which confirmed Dad’s thought that his father had built it. What a happy find!
Its twin in neighboring Merriman, a town further east along Hwy. 20, had the same headhouse as the Gordon elevator and the same general plan as seen from the outside, but we couldn’t corroborate its origin, either by manhole cover, local attribution, or Dad’s memory. Yet we put it down as a strong maybe.
The elevator at Limon, Colo. had confounded us for a long time because of its resemblance to other Mayer-Osborn’s elevators, until we found that it was built after Bill Osborn had left the business. So there’s also a question mark over the elevator at Merriman until we can learn more.
Unfortunately our itinerary was pretty tightly planned, or we would have tried to track down someone who knew the history of the two elevators. We set the locations aside for a future visit. Now, years later, we haven’t been back, but we still have some photos to share here.