MINDEN, Neb. — Harold Warp lived a true Horatio Alger story. With $800 and an invention, the Nebraska farm boy drove a Model T Ford to Chicago in 1924 and started what would become a successful plastics company. Thirty years later, he invested a good part of his fortune on a museum in his hometown, Minden, a community of 2,900 people almost 200 miles southwest of Omaha. Pioneer Village now showcases 50,000 American artifacts — everything from a genuine prairie schooner to the nation's oldest Buick to a P-59 Airacomet, the first jet.
Warp's tribute to American industry took off as one of Nebraska's top tourist meccas, drawing more than 6 million visitors to date. And for good reason, said Michael Smith, director of the Nebraska State Historical Society.
“It's just an incredible collection of Americana and everything American,” Smith said. “It's kind of an encyclopedia.”
But we know what the Internet did to the encyclopedia. Pioneer Village is similarly in danger of being left behind by the very progress it enshrines.
The museum has seen annual attendance decline from about 150,000 to 35,000 in recent years, and the buildings housing the massive collection are showing their age. Not surprisingly, the museum that celebrates the bootstrap now finds itself cash-strapped.
In 2012, Pioneer Village's expenses exceeded revenues by nearly $60,000, based on federal tax returns filed by the nonprofit foundation that owns and operates the museum. Losses were even greater the previous year, although the museum was in the black as recently as 2010.
More potential financial trouble looms as a two-year legal dispute with the state awaits a decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The dispute involves the adjacent motel and RV campground operated by Pioneer Village for its visitors. Because lodging revenue supports museum operations, foundation leaders have successfully argued for 30 years they should not have to pay property taxes on the motel and campground.
But in 2011 the state tax commissioner protested the exemption, and he was upheld by the Nebraska Tax Equalization and Review Commission. The museum has appealed the decision to the high court, which heard oral arguments on the case in October.
Though it's risky business trying to predict an outcome based upon comments at oral arguments, Supreme Court Judge William Cassel indicated this isn't just any run-of-the-mill tax dispute.
“Pioneer Village strikes me as unique, if not just in Nebraska but perhaps in the United States,” he said.
The court could release its decision in coming weeks.
At stake is about $28,000 in annual property taxes. That could tip the balance for the struggling attraction, said Harold G. Warp of Chicago, the son of the founder and the foundation president.
“If we lose this appeal and have to pay additional taxes, it will have a devastating impact on the future of the Pioneer Village,” he said.
Regardless of what the high court decides, the museum's myriad buildings are in need of maintenance. The giveaways: peeling paint, cracked floor tiles, water-stained ceilings and drip buckets scattered in the exhibit halls. Many of the museum's signature highway signs have degraded beyond repair.
Although museum staff have done a good job of protecting artifacts, the general public reacts strongly to appearances, said Larry Wilcox, a Minden banker who serves on the museum foundation board.
“What bothers me and saddens me is word of mouth is negative,” Wilcox said. “Word of mouth is really hurting us.”
Community leaders are even more concerned about the 90-room motel — Minden's only lodging venue — which also needs updating. When Minden hosts corporate officials for business or recruitment efforts, most choose to drive 22 miles north to Kearney for modern accommodations, Minden Mayor Roger Jones said.
The situation has prompted talk of Pioneer Village building a new motel in Minden, Jones said, although no current plans exist.
Another sign of trouble: an attraction that once employed 100 full-time and part-time workers during the peak season now employs about 35.
What's more, the restaurant next to the motel is closed, although the board says it will reopen in the spring.
Minden officials recognize the importance of Pioneer Village to the local economy. Leaders would love nothing more than to see the attraction undergo the sort of historical renovation that turned the 1891 Minden Opera House into a community jewel.
Jones, a retired fundraiser for the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said there is a growing perception that the challenges confronting the museum are too much for foundation members to handle alone. Yet the mayor said his attempts to offer help have been met with resistance.
For example, the city offered some years ago to spend $12,000 on a professional feasibility study to develop a marketing plan for Pioneer Village. The foundation said “no thanks” to the offer, according to the mayor.
Jones said he can't help but wonder if Warp's son, who has lived his entire life in Chicago, understands the reality of keeping tourism attractions going in small-town Nebraska.
“It's not going to be simple, and it's going to be costly,” Jones said. “But I hope every effort would be made to continue the legacy that Harold Warp started.”
Warp was born in 1903 and grew up the youngest of 12 on a farm near Minden. His hands-on experience with a chicken coop provided the inspiration for his industrial success.
Warp noticed that glass panes installed on the coop in the winter blocked the sun's warming rays, which in turn lowered egg production. So he set out to develop a window that would seal out the cold while allowing warming rays through. After trial and error in his brother's basement, he developed a plastic sheeting — and eventually a product line that included the first plastic food wrap and trash can liners.
He and two brothers started Warp Bros. Inc. in Chicago, where they manufactured Harold's patented “Flex-O-Glass.”
Warp lived in his Cicero Avenue factory for the first five years, but he traveled frequently to build a network of dealers. The company survived the Great Depression, added to its workforce and now operates three plants in Chicago.
Warp got into the museum business more haphazardly. In 1948 he learned that the one-room country school he had attended as a child was for sale. Warp bought the building to save it, and eventually also acquired a church, a land office, a Pony Express station and a railroad depot.
He envisioned a tribute to the pioneer spirit of his parents that also documented the rapid transformation of America over the previous century. He bought land at the intersection of U.S. Route 6 and Nebraska Highway 10 in Minden and arranged his historical buildings around a green space, sort of like a village.
“In a mere 120 years of eternal time, man progressed from open hearths, grease lamps and oxcarts to television, super-sonic speed and atomic power,” Warp wrote on a sign still above a museum entrance.
To expand the collection, one of Warp's sisters and her husband traveled the country in a station wagon and hauled their acquisitions back to Nebraska in a trailer. Pioneer Village opened with great fanfare in 1953, featuring 10 buildings and 10,000 items on display.
Visitors arrived by train, bus and automobile in the early days. It wasn't unusual for more than 1,000 people to pass through the doors daily during the summer peaks, said Marshall Nelson, the museum's general manager.
Warp wanted to show how American ingenuity made life easier for common people. So his collection, arranged chronologically, includes everything from stagecoaches and buggies to more than 350 antique cars. It features tractors, telephones, watches, pens, firearms, glassware, refrigerators, phonographs, cameras, clothing irons and hand tools.
Pioneer Village now has 28 buildings and more than 50,000 artifacts. PBS's “Antiques Roadshow” could probably do a miniseries at the museum.
“It truly doesn't matter where your interest lies, you're going to find something here,” Nelson said.
True enough, but the collection's size can overwhelm or exhaust a visitor. Warp, ever the businessman, realized the need for a motel, RV park and restaurant to cater to those who wanted to stay an extra day.
He also lined highways with hundreds of Pioneer Village signs, à la Burma-Shave or Wall Drug. And Warp, an early practitioner of saturation advertising, had kids slap a bumper sticker on every car in the parking lot.
But about 20 years after it opened, annual visitation began to decline. U.S. Route 6 was once a heavily traveled coast-to-coast highway, but by the early 1970s it had lost traffic to the newly finished Interstate 80.
In 1983, Warp set up the nonprofit educational foundation and donated the museum to it. He and his son also gave their stakes in the lodging and food businesses to provide a funding stream for museum operations. They figured the arrangement would subsidize the museum as an endowment would.
Warp died in 1994 at age 90.
Smith, the state Historical Society director, has visited the finest museums in the country and said the collection at Pioneer Village is outstanding. But museums need to tell a story as much as they need to show off artifacts.
Building maintenance must be addressed, and perhaps the museum could tighten its focus by reducing the number of items on display, Smith said.
Pioneer Village might also benefit from a space where new or traveling exhibits could be featured, giving previous visitors a reason to return. Such challenges are not unique to the Minden museum, Smith said.
“We have to invest in helping people understand how this stuff relates to each other,” he said.
Harold G. Warp said his father simply wanted to show future generations, in the most comprehensive way possible, how their country was built. It's why he invested so much of his time and wealth in Pioneer Village.
“It was his heart and soul,” Warp said of his father. “He wanted to leave this as his legacy.”
Warp, 67, also runs the plastics company his father started. And while Warp Bros. remains successful, he said he does not — contrary to what some people think — have the personal financial resources to rebuild Pioneer Village.
In each of the past two years he has made “five-figure” donations to the museum, and he said he plans to do so again this year. But the museum's financial needs are far greater.
Warp wanted to address what he called another misconception: He and other board members are not paid. Every penny generated by the motel, restaurant and RV park goes to cover expenses and maintenance at Pioneer Village.
Warp said he could not recall the details of the marketing plan the city offered to have done, but he disagreed that he is closed off to offers of help. He would welcome, for example, a fundraising effort involving private donors and government entities in Nebraska.
The son also pointed out that many other museums in Nebraska don't generate profits and receive public tax support.
As for a new motel, he said the funds don't exist to build one. And he would regard any development of a competing motel as a hostile act that could make it impossible for Pioneer Village to remain open.
He declined to discuss what might happen if the Supreme Court ruled against Pioneer Village or the attendance declines persisted. Those are decisions that would have to involve the entire, five-member foundation board.
“I struggle with what direction to go with Pioneer Village every day,” he said. “What I know for sure is I would like to preserve my father's legacy.”