Addison E. Sheldon, who led the Nebraska State Historical Society from 1917 to 1943, was a pivotal figure in the organization’s history. When he became superintendent (as Society directors were called then), the Society had no easily accessible museum, published no magazine, and did little public outreach. By the time Sheldon died in 1943 at age eighty-two, a publicly-oriented Society museum had been open in the state capitol for a decade, a bill to raise funds for the Society’s own building had been passed by the legislature, and Nebraska History magazine was completing its twenty-fifth year under his editorship. In many ways Sheldon was the bridge from the small, somewhat elitist and antiquarian State Historical Society of the late nineteenth century to the “modern” Society that emerged with the directorship of James C. Olson (1946-56) and the opening of the R street building in 1953.
Although he was somewhat younger than the Society’s founders, men such as Robert W. Furnas and J. Sterling Morton, Sheldon resembled them in having lived through much of Nebraska’s “pioneer” period. He grew up on a Seward County homestead, filed his own homestead claim in Cherry County in the 1880s, and edited a Chadron newspaper in the 1890s. He covered the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and was elected to the 1897 legislature on the Populist ticket.
Sheldon was forty-one when he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska in 1902. Although he worked for the Society between 1901 and 1911, he left in the latter year and did not return until he was appointed superintendent in1917. Two years later he earned a doctorate from Columbia University. His dissertation was published as Land Systems and Land Policies in Nebraska, volume twenty-two in the Society’s Publications series. It remains a significant work on the subject.
Perhaps Sheldon’s greatest legacy was his success in broadening the Society’s reach and promoting the importance of history to the public. He founded Nebraska History magazine in 1918, authored numerous books and articles (many aimed at school children), and gave hundreds of talks. He arranged for a Society exhibit car to tour Nebraska via the Burlington Railroad in 1928, which attracted some 180,000 visitors. He promoted marking historic sites and organizing county historical societies. During his tenure Nebraska history went on the radio, the Society became a leader in Great Plains archeology, and notable collections were acquired, such as the Eli S. Ricker interviews about Indian wars in the West. During the Depression Sheldon oversaw a dramatic expansion of Society functions with workers provided under federal New Deal programs.
Sheldon was not without his idiosyncrasies. He is the only superintendent/director known to have written poetry and then to have the nerve to publish it frequently in the magazine he edited. Concluding this glimpse at one of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s most memorable figures are a few stanzas from his poem about the Lewis and Clark centennial observed in 1904:
A hundred years ago a rude sail tent was set
By the Missouri’s flood – far frontier, wild and rough;
Beneath its shade the white and red men met,
Struck hands, smoked pipe – and named it Council Bluff.
The curious catbird’s querulous question-note
Challenged the invaders of his solitude;
The warning from the wildwood warbler’s throat
Hushed the harsh clamor of her startled brood.
Beneath the bluff the river beat its breast,
Mad that its mystery should so soon be told;
Beyond – the boundless prairie stretching west
Mimicked the August sun with disks of gold.
Those who would like to read the remaining six stanzas can find the poem on p. 192 of Nebraska History 18 (1937).
— James E. Potter, Senior Research Historian