Millions of people have flown over Nebraska on cross-country flights or driven through the state at high speed on the interstate. But if that’s all you know of this Great Plains state, you’re missing out. Check out these fun and interesting facts about a surprising state at the heart of the country.
1. Nebraska is At the Center of the Center of the Country
Nebraska is the only “triply landlocked” state in the country. That means no matter what direction you go, you have to cross at least three states to get to the ocean. The geographic center of the lower 48 United States is located near Lebanon, Kansas, about 12 miles south of the Nebraska border. But counting Alaska and Hawaii, the geographic center of all 50 states is located near the town of Belle Fourche in northwestern South Dakota. Lebanon and Belle Fourche are about 550 miles apart, and the halfway point between them is in north-central Nebraska. So, Nebraska is at the “center of the center” of the U.S.A.!
2. It’s Both a Big and a Small State
Nebraska is geographically large, but small in population. It has a land area of 76,796 square miles, making it the 15th-largest state in the country. Its population is 1.96 million people, making it the 37th state in population. Most of Nebraska’s people are concentrated in the eastern part of the state in the large cities of Omaha and Lincoln and their suburbs. This area was the first part of the state settled, with better access to water for irrigation, transportation, and trade, better farmland, more rainfall, and a geographically closer position to other, more populated states.
3. Wild Animals Wander into Nebraska’s Cities
A mountain lion was spotted on doorbell cams in Omaha and its suburbs in the summer of 2023. In affluent suburbs like Papillion, residents have reported spotting foxes, bobcats, coyotes, whitetail deer, hawks, owls, and eagles in yards, streets, and trees. Residents have to keep these dangers in mind when letting small dogs out in their yards, especially at night.
4. A Half Million Sandhill Cranes Migrate Through Nebraska
Millions of birds migrate through Nebraska north and south as the seasons change each year. In all, you can spot up to 400 species of birds in the state. Nebraska is most noted, though, as a stopover point for sandhill cranes. About 500,000 of them fly through the area of Grand Island in the south-central part of the state. They find abundant food and water in the Platte River and the surrounding fields and forests. They’ve become quite a tourist attraction, and blinds and other facilities have been set up for visitors to observe and photograph the birds without disturbing them.
5. A Nebraska Controversy Preceeded the Civil War
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a controversial piece of legislation that organized the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and allowed them to decide for themselves whether to become free or slave states. This set off civil unrest because it overturned the previous Missouri Compromise of 1821 which would have required Kansas to be a free state. Kansas ultimately voted to become a free state, and Nebraska gained its statehood after the Civil War in 1867. Nebraska’s capital was named Lincoln in honor of the President.
6. Nebraskans are Called “Cornhuskers”
It may not sound flattering, but Nebraskans are proud to be called “Cornhuskers,” or “Huskers” for short, which is also the nickname of the University of Nebraska football team. In case you haven’t figured it out, a cornhusker is a person who removes the husks from corn as part of the harvesting process. Nebraska feeds and fuels the nation, coming in third among the states in corn production, second in ethanol production, and first in cattle feed.
7. Football is Seriously a BIG DEAL in Nebraska
Nebraskans are rabid supporters of Nebraska Cornhuskers football. The team is part of the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, representing the University of Nebraska in the West Division of the Big Ten. The University supports its athletic program generously, including constructing the largest weight room in the world, which covers 30,000 square feet.
The Cornhuskers play home games at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. With a seating capacity of over 90,000, the stadium has sold out every home game since 1962! It also sold out for the Nebraska Cornhuskers women’s volleyball game on August 30, 2023, which set a world attendance record for any women’s sporting event. It’s worth noting that during every sold-out game, Memorial Stadium temporarily becomes the 3rd largest city in Nebraska!
8. The Capitol Building is a New York Skyscraper
The tallest building in the state capital, Lincoln, is the 400-foot-tall capitol building. It looks like a New York skyscraper for good reason. It was designed by New York Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue as the winning entry in a design competition. His design was a skyscraper in the Art Deco style popular in the early 20th century, as seen in buildings like the Empire State Building. Construction lasted from 1922-1932, cost $10 million, and was paid for before the building was completed. It was the first state capital that was not modeled after the national capitol building in Washington, D.C.
9. Nebraska Has a Unicameral Legislature
Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature, unlike other states that have modeled their legislatures after the federal Congress with a Senate and House of Representatives. Organizers of the state felt that a unicameral legislature would be more efficient, less costly to taxpayers, and would hold legislators more accountable to the electorate.
10. Bison Are Returning to Nebraska
Once, millions of bison roamed the plains of Nebraska and were an integral part of the livelihoods and cultures of Native American tribes. By the mid-19th century, the species was driven nearly extinct as homesteaders fenced the land and replaced bison with cattle. Today, bison are making a comeback. With 28,000 head, Nebraska has the second-largest herd in the country, after South Dakota. A good place to see bison is at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
11. Nebraska Loves Trees
Nebraska was covered with deep prairie grass and few trees when the early settlers arrived. Many of them missed the shade trees and fruit trees they had known back East and in Europe. In 1872, Nebraska became the birthplace of Arbor Day, a holiday that celebrates and promotes planting trees. One million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day. In the years since then, that total has soared to over 100 million trees planted! Nebraska National Forest is the largest hand-planted forest in the world, with some 90,000 acres of trees. Nebraska is also the location of the largest indoor rainforest in the world, located in the world-famous Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha.
12. Nebraska Has a “Desert”
Nebraska was once called the “Great American Desert” because about 25% of the state is covered in sand dunes, called the “Sandhills.” They take up over 19,000 acres and have sand that goes as much as 200 feet deep! They’re mostly covered in prairie grasses, but you can easily see the white sand where erosion or construction has removed an area of grass. If you want to see a “real” desert, check out the desert exhibit under the enormous geodesic dome of the Omaha Zoo.
13. Nebraska Sits On the Largest Aquifer in the Country
Not only is Nebraska not a desert, but it also has more groundwater than any state in the nation. Rainwater can easily soak through the sand of the Sandhills rather than running off. As a result, beneath this area is the largest supply of groundwater in the country, the High Plains Aquifer. This 200,000-mile aquifer actually is partially in eight states: Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. However, the majority of its water is in Nebraska, and it covers nearly the entire state.
14. Nebraska Does NOT Have the Most Miles of River of Any State
All over the Internet, you’ll find the false claim that Nebraska has more miles of river than any other state. The truth is, Alaska has the most, with 365,000 miles and numerous other western states have well over 100,000 miles of rivers. Nebraska has only 79,056. Maybe along the way, there has been some confusion because the names “Alaska” and “Nebraska” sound similar. Who knows? The two major rivers in the state are the Missouri River, which runs north-south and makes its border with Iowa and Missouri, and the Platte River and its tributaries, the North Platte and South Platte, which run west-east across the south-central part of the state.
15. Nebraska Has Interesting Rock Formations
Although most of the state is covered in flat plains or rolling grass-covered sandhills, in the far western part of the state there are some interesting rock formations. Toadstool Geological Park is called the “Badlands of Nebraska” for its mushroom-shaped windswept rock formations and deeply eroded gorges. It’s been a rich source of fossils and geological knowledge for scientists. Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff are examples of tall rock formations that served as landmarks for pioneers on the Oregon Trail. You can still see in the area deep ruts made by wagons and names and 19th-century dates carved into cliffsides by pioneers.
16. Omaha Has the Largest Haunted Object Collection
Omaha is home to the Museum of Shadows, with about 3,000 items that are said to be haunted. Each has its own creepy backstory. This is considered to be the largest such collection in the world, earning it the nickname “The World’s Most Haunted Museum.” Visitors have the opportunity to sit alone in the dark for as long as they dare to see if they can have a supernatural encounter. If you survive that, then check out the Alliance Theater in the town of Alliance, where numerous people have reported seeing eerily unexplainable things.
17. The Reuben Sandwich Was Invented in Nebraska
A Reuben sandwich is a delicious concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut with salad dressing (Russian or Thousand Island), all grilled between two slices of rye bread. There are several competing origin stories. The most interesting one claims that the first Reuben sandwich was a special order for a hotel kitchen during a weekly 1925 poker game. One of the players, Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian grocer, had a taste for a corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich. The hotel owner’s son improvised with Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and rye bread. The result was so good it made it onto the hotel menu and eventually won a national sandwich contest. If you’ve never tried one, mark March 14 on your calendar. It’s Reuben Sandwich Day in Omaha.
18. The Pony Express Traveled Through Nebraska
The Pony Express operated for just 18 months from 1860-61, but that was enough for it to capture the American imagination and win a permanent spot in our national history. It was a relay mail service of young men on fast horses that handed off mail pouches from station to station, day and night. Riders could weigh no more than 125 pounds and had to withstand harsh weather, dangerous animals, bandits, and hostile indigenous warriors. The Pony Express ran between Missouri and California, cutting mail delivery time between the East and West coasts to 10 days. It was never financially profitable, though, and was replaced in 1861 by the invention of the telegraph.
19. Omaha is a Model of Religious Cooperation
The Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska was born as a result of a friendship between a Jewish rabbi and an Islamic imam. The two struck up the idea of building new worship facilities with a shared parking lot since their days of worship were on different days of the week. They soon expanded the idea to include a Christian church as well. Today, all three faiths have beautiful worship facilities on a large, shared campus, with a shared fellowship space called Abraham’s Tent. The public is welcome to visit services and attend cultural events to build trust and understanding. The U.S. State Department has been known to bring delegations from foreign nations to visit this facility and talk to its leaders to see a possible model for religious reconciliation.
20. Nebraska is the Birthplace of Kool-Aid!
Edwin Perkins of Hastings, Nebraska invented the flavored drink Kool-Aid in 1927. He was selling a soda syrup called “Fruit Smack” but figured out a way to make it in powdered form for easier shipping. The children of the world have had red, blue, green, and purple lips ever since. Thank you, Edwin Perkins.
21. Nebraska Has a Post-Apocalyptic Monolith
In addition to a haunted theater, the western Nebraska town of Alliance also has a post-apocalyptic monolith called Carhenge. Inspired by Stonehenge in England, Nebraska’s version uses 38 junk cars painted grey arranged to replicate the ancient original. Creator Jim Reinders had visited Stonehenge and decided to build this replica in honor of his late father. It’s now a quirky piece of Americana that attracts 100,000 visitors a year to this out-of-the-way town in Western Nebraska.
22. Nebraska Has the World’s Largest Mammoth Fossil
The largest mammoth fossil in the world is on display at the University of Nebraska State Museum. Discovered in 1922 in Lincoln County, this Columbian mammoth was 15.5 feet tall, 25 feet and 7 inches from tusks to tail, and weighed 15 tons. “Archie,” as he is affectionately called, roamed North America along with other Ice Age species such as the wooly rhinoceros, camel, giant ground sloth, and saber-toothed cat.
23. Nebraska Has Its Own Fast Food Chain
Runza is a fast-food chain restaurant that started in 1949 and now has 86 restaurants in Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, and Kansas. Its specialty is the Runza sandwich, which is a soft bread pocket stuffed with ground beef, onions, cabbage, and spices. It is basically a type of East European pirozhki. As Czechs and Slovaks made up a large immigrant community in Nebraska, it is not surprising that this type of food is a regional favorite. Runza also has the best hamburgers (try the Swiss mushroom burger, it’s the best!). In the winter you can also get chili and cinnamon rolls, an unusual taste combination popular in the Midwest. Don’t live in Nebraska? You can order Runza and they’ll send it to you via FedEx.
24. Nebraska Controls the Nukes
The United States Department of Defense has 11 command centers. One of them is U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Bellevue, Nebraska. USSTRATCOM is responsible for command and control of the country’s strategic nuclear arsenal for offensive and defensive operations as well as assessing missile threats. During 9-11 when newscasters announced President Bush was moved to an unnamed secure location, they were referring to Offutt Air Force Base.
25. Nebraska Has a World-Famous Zoo
The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha is consistently ranked among the top 10 zoos in the United States. In 2023, U.S. News & World Report rated it #1 in the country for best zoo, best zoo exhibit, and best safari park. It is the second-largest zoo in the country, with over 130 acres of space and over 1,000 animals.
One of the unique experiences it offers is the chance to take “sleeping bag safaris” and sleep overnight outside different exhibits to hear the sounds of the animals, or to sleep in the glass tunnel of the aquarium, surrounded by fish and sharks. Another unforgettable experience is feeding giraffes by hand from an observation platform at the animals’ standing head level. If all this makes you want to have a job at the zoo, they offer a “Zoo Academy” experience in which local high school seniors can spend a portion of their school day learning and working at the zoo for high school academic credit.
“Honestly, It’s Not for Everyone.”
In 2019, the state of Nebraska ran a hilarious tourism campaign under the frank slogan, “Nebraska: Honestly, It’s Not for Everyone.” The campaign went on to feature some of the weird and wonderful attractions we’ve shared with you in this list. There’s so much more, though!
- We didn’t yet mention the world’s biggest porch swing. It seats up to 24 people!
- If you come to Nebraska in the fall, make sure to get lost in a corn maze! It’s actually pretty scary. Ensure your cell phone has a good charge and signal.
- Warren Buffett, one of the richest billionaires in the world, is from Omaha and still lives there. He has helped plenty of other people in the area get rich as well.
- Downtown Omaha has two tall skyscrapers. Sometimes you can rappel 25 stories down one of them to raise money for the Boy Scouts.
- A couple of years ago there were mysterious drones systematically flying over the southern part of the state at night. Aliens? No one knows.
There are still plenty of adventures and mysteries in Nebraska. It’s not for everyone. But is it for you?
The photo featured at the top of this post is © RobertWaltman/iStock via Getty Images
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