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The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014

From country music to herbal cocktails to horseshoe crabs to Rodin, our third annual list takes you to cultural gems worth mining

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9. Nebraska City, NE

(Shaw Nielsen)

Omaha has the zoo and aquarium, Lincoln is home to the university, Red Cloud's pride is Willa Cather, and the rest of the state has the corner on corn. That leaves history for Nebraska City, first noted as a promising town site by Lewis and Clark on their way down the Missouri River in 1804. It boasts the state's first fire department, oldest public building still in use (the brick Otoe County Courthouse) and only officially recognized Underground Railroad station.

A reporter for Nebraska Life once estimated that there's a museum for every 800 residents, which is why people who care about the history of the nation's westward expansion have a soft spot for Nebraska City. You might as well start at the River Country Nature Center, in a restored furniture store on South Sixth Street. It showcases creatures found and preserved by a local taxidermist named Joe Voges, who was clearly on the same page as Lewis and Clark when it came to area fauna. Speaking of the duo, the town's Lewis & Clark Missouri River Visitors Center, which celebrates (and explicates) the explorers' wildlife discoveries, leads to hiking trails that wend from burr oak woods to bluff-top aeries.

Nebraska City long served as a way station to the West, with a ferry crossing, steamboat port and freight companies, including one headquartered in a 1858 white frame building that is now—you guessed it—a museum. Look into the old Kregel Windmill Factory Museum, which manufactured the wind-driven turbines that brought well water to semiarid Great Plains farmland, and tour Wildwood, a local banker's Victorian country home where costumed docents perform on an 1883 Steinway.

The Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard is a working farm museum, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center brings artists, writers and musicians to its handsome Prairie-style building just off Central Avenue.

You'll never again pick up a container of Morton Salt, with its patented pouring spout and Umbrella Girl label, without recalling your visit to Arbor Lodge State Historical Park on the west side of town, the 1855 estate of Julius Sterling Morton, whose son Joy founded the salt company. Julius, editor of the Nebraska City News, started Arbor Day—now observed around the world—which he commenced with the planting of an estimated one million trees in 1872. Today state champion oaks, ashes and maples surround the graceful old family mansion, explaining what Julius meant when he said (evidently borrowing from English architect Christopher Wren), "If you seek my monument, look around you."

- SS


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