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Nebraska's largest county has a lot of heart

By Jennifer Bremer

If you like the vast frontier and want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Cherry County and Valentine, Neb. is the place for you.

Located in north central Nebraska, the county is in the crossroads of the Sandhills.

Even though the population is small in Cherry County, Neb.--only 6,000 people--their hearts are big. Hearts are especially big in America's Heart City of Valentine.

Valentine is a very enjoyable city of 2,800 residents. Visitors mostly come to the area to enjoy the recreation on the Niobrara River--traveling down the river in tubes or canoes and enjoying the beautiful sights.

Valentine gets many visitors due to its reference to love and Valentine's Day. The city is actually named for E.K. Valentine, who was a congressman from Nebraska and was chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture during his six years in office--1879-1885.

The many references to Valentine's Day gets the city much recognition, too. It is a popular site for weddings on Feb. 14. The Heart City Bull Bash is an annual event on that date. Sixty pens of bulls and other commercial exhibits are set up on Main Street for the bull show and community celebration, just like they did it in the days of the Old West cattle drives.

As the "Heart City" of America, Valentine is the site from which thousands of Valentine's Day greetings are mailed each year. Visitors and residents alike find that Valentine's Day greetings bearing the Heart City's postmark adds an extra special touch to the annual lovers' holiday. Details for sending your greetings to get the Valentine cache are on their website: http://www.heartcity.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=30&Itemid=69.

Cattle country

Cherry County, which is larger than the state of Connecticut, has cattle ranching as its backbone. According to the 1990s count, they had more beef cows than any other county in the U.S.--169,000.

Thursday is sale day at Valentine Livestock Auction Market. It is the day when the bleachers are filled at the sale ring and cattle are pushed to and from the ring by men and women on horseback. Not all livestock markets use horses for sorting so it is a treat to watch.

The river traffic has enriched Valentine by bringing in arts and crafts shops, bookstores, museums and western wear stores, as well as over a dozen eateries and 365 motel rooms.

While in Valentine, a trip to Young's Western Wear is a must. It is one of the largest western wear stores in that area and is dubbed "Nebraska's best western wear store since 1950."

First National Bank of Valentine is a beautiful site. Brick relief murals on the front of the building celebrate the spirit of progress and discovery that brought the first settlers to the area.

Lincoln artist Jack Curran created the murals in 1992. The top mural features Longhorn cattle running north to symbolize the movement of the cattle industry to the Sandhills. The lower mural depicts scenes from a century of progress in Valentine, including the locomotive.

The Niobrara River and waterfalls

The Niobrara River is Nebraska's most popular canoeing river and is also considered one of the nation's top adventures, according to National Geographic magazine.

Tens of thousands of visitors canoe or tube the river each summer. The sites along the course include deep canyons with high cliffs, pine-topped hills and many waterfalls. Along the route to the river you will find many outfitters, campgrounds and boat launches. The Niobrara was designated a National Scenic River by Congress in 1991 and is managed by the National Parks System.

The area is also home to Nebraska's waterfalls--nearly 180 falls along the 20-mile stretch of the Niobrara River Valley.

At Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine, a hiking trail leads to Fort Falls, hidden in a secluded canyon--a beautiful site with many steps to climb. Also on the refuge is the two-tiered waterfall known as Stinard Falls.

The Niobrara falls are unique because of their convex faces that bulge outward, which is the opposite of most waterfalls. It is thought that this is because most of the falls are spring-fed and active year-round, preventing freeze-thaw action from eroding their faces. The faces are apparently protected by minerals from seeping groundwater and by the growth of algae, diatoms and lichens.

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

Herds of bison and elk and a prairie dog town make their home at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is also in the flight path for many species of migratory birds each year.

The refuge, which is in the Sandhills, is a beautiful setting for the grazing herds. A 3.5-mile driving tour through the refuge lets you view the herds up close.

As the name indicates, the refuge is the site of a frontier fort. Fort Niobrara was active from 1879-1906 and was used as a cavalry remount station until 1911.

A trip to the Nebraska Sandhills is well worth it, especially if you are a nature lover. The Sandhills cover 19,000 square miles--a sea of grass. It is prime rangeland and thus the reason cows outnumber people in the area. The beautiful landscape is something you won't find anywhere else.

Jennifer Bremer can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120 or by e-mail at jbremermaj@hotmail.com.



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