If the Cowboy Trail could talk, it would tell hundreds of stories across its nearly 200 miles. Trails can’t talk though — at least not with a little help. That’s where Professor Lorene ‘Jake’ Jacobsen comes in.
Jacobsen and some of her University of Nebraska at Kearney students have come together to produce a documentary called "Stories from the Cowboy Trail."
Portions of the film will debut during a special presentation at the Platte Valley Performing Arts Center at Western Nebraska Community College from 7-8:30 p.m. on Sept. 7. The event is free.
Jacobsen’s journey on the trail began when her colleague, Keith Terry, wrote a book called "Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail: A User’s Guide." He invited her to bike the trail with him.
“We went from Norfolk to O’Neil,” Jacobsen said. “As we were going, he’d stop and say things like, ‘This is where they were running moonshine out of someone’s house.’”
As they passed Neligh, he told her the story of Shade On. According to Terry’s book, Shade On was a standard-bred horse born in 1894.
He would become the most famous harness racer in Nebraska despite an injury sustained as a foal that left him with one front leg that was shorter than the other.
He was housed in a stable on land that has since become the Antelope County Fairgrounds. Shade On died in 1911 and there is a memorial on the land near where he is believed to be buried.
Near Oakdale, he shared the story of Darryl Francis Zanuck who would visit his grandparents there as a child. Zanuck was born in 1902 in a room of the hotel his father managed in Wahoo.
Eventually, his parents divorced and Zanuck moved with his mother to Los Angeles, according to his obituary, which was run in The Washington Post in 1979.
His mother met and married a man who regularly abused both alcohol and Zanuck. During the summer, he’d escape to his grandparents' house in Oakdale.
Zanuck went on to become well-known in the film industry and spent three decades over seeing operations at 20th Century-Fox. During his time as a film-marker, his name was on films such as "The Longest Day," "The Sound of Music" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!"
He died at his home in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 77.
As their trip down the Cowboy Trail progressed, Jacobsen was enthralled by the stories Terry told. She had loved his book, but she loved the stories that accompanied each town even more.
The next year, she decided to bike the trail again, this time covering the stretch from Norfolk to Valentine. She couldn’t stop thinking about the history of each town along the way.
“I had a student who loved writing, so I said, ‘Let's write a grant,’” Jacobsen said.
She was able to secure enough funding to take students out on the trail so they could begin compiling its stories. They began filming in 2014, two years after Jacobsen’s first visit to the trail.
So far, they’ve covered the majority of the trail except for the stretch from Valentine to Chadron. At each stop, they’ve managed to connect with people who have been eager to share their connections to the past.
“We’d go into small towns and ask, ‘Does anybody know about this?’ and every time, someone did,” Jacobsen said. “It’s been an incredible journey.”
She said all of the stories told in the documentary are backed up by official accounts from newspapers and books.
Although the film, which she called “student-driven,” isn’t totally finished, Jacobsen is excited to share pieces of it during her presentation. She’ll also be sharing information about biking and running the trail, development of the trail for recreational opportunities and conditions of the trail after the flooding that has occurred this year.
To learn more about Jacobsen’s journey, look for "Stories From the Nebraska Cowboy Trail" on Facebook.