You might say Buffalo Bill, Gen. George Custer, Chief Standing Bear, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Malcolm X paved the way for the Lincoln Highway.
Or that Chimney Rock, the Kearney Cotton Mill, the Pawnee Villages in Dodge County and the Half-Breed Tract near Auburn were milestones along the way.
In late June, the Nebraska State Historical Society dedicated a historical marker to commemorate an original three-mile brick section of the Lincoln Highway at Elkhorn. It was the 500th plaque in a series dating to 1961.
Jim Potter of Chadron, the historical society's senior researcher, has written or edited the text of many of the markers.
“They commemorate significant events, people, places, sites, movements and traditions in history,” he said.
They do so in few words. Standard large markers have room for 170 to 180 words. Single-post markers can accommodate about 80 words.
Some markers denote major events or themes, such as the Mormon Winter Quarters in Omaha or the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851 in Scotts Bluff County.
Others designate sites of local interest, such as the state's first oil well in Richardson County or a B-17 bomber crash in Hall County.
There are markers in 84 of Nebraska's 93 counties. Douglas County has 33 markers. Sarpy County has 10.
Potter said he wished every county had a marker, if for no other reason than to tell the story of the origins of the county or a town.
“Every county deserves to let people know how they came to be,” he said.
Marker No. 1 was dedicated at Chimney Rock, an Oregon Trail landmark, in May 1961.
“Many markers aren't on the exact site where something happened because that spot often is in the middle of someone's field,” Potter said.
Proposals for placing historical markers are often initiated by cities, counties or local organizations. In most cases, if the historical society approves a request, the local sponsor is responsible for financing the marker.
The marker text is subject to the society's review and approval. The society prefers to place historical markers on public property. Markers usually are erected by Nebraska Department of Roads crews.
Historical markers don't commemorate individuals, organizations or structures that are noteworthy primarily for longevity. There are also no markers for people in public service or philanthropy, unless they meet the criteria for historical significance.
The markers range in cost from $1,750 to $5,100, depending on their size.
“We found money to do it because it was important to make it happen during this year's 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental highway,” he said.
All markers are cast aluminum with silver letters against a dark blue background. The state seal is the lone illustration.
Someday people will be able to go to the historical society's website and dig deeper into the brief story told on a historical marker.
Researchers are compiling information from society records, including documents, photos and video clips. They will be linked to specific historical markers to provide “the rest of the story,” said researcher Patrick Haynes. Local historical societies will be invited to contribute their material to the project.
Potter is working on the text for a marker along U.S. Highway 385 between Sidney and Bridgeport to tell the story of Mud Springs, a former Pony Express station that was the site of a skirmish between Army troops and Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in 1865.
The historical society has text prepared for a few more markers, if sponsors step forward to pay for the plaques, Potter said.
Among them are markers telling the story of Sand Hills archaeology, African-American homesteaders in the Sand Hills and the old sugar beet industry in the central Platte River valley around Grand Island.
“There are a lot of voids that should be filled,” Potter said.