Greats of the Plains: Frank Shoemaker

Emma Krab
June 7, 2022

My name is Emma Krab. I’m a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a story production intern with Platte Basin Timelapse. I’m a small town girl with a family tree that has generations of roots in this river basin. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not an ecologist. I’m not a conservationist. But, I am a storyteller with a passion to explore. I’m a lifelong writer — fond of any medium from rhetorical research to short stories to opinion columns — who’s just starting to use her curiosity and enthusiasm to tell stories that deserve to be heard.

Welcome to Greats of the Plains, a discovery into the voices you may not know of but certainly should. These are the movers and shakers of the land, water and sky we proudly call home. Come with me, and we can piece together lost memories and old essays, just maybe finding the bigger picture in the process.

Photo from the University of Nebraska Libraries, Design by Sidney Parks.

If you take 27th St. in Lincoln, Nebraska, and start heading north, you’ll pass by a Walgreens, a railroad, the Salt Creek, Walmart, and then the interstate, cars and semis rumbling beneath you as you leave the city behind. As the sounds of the city begin to fade, you’ll dart onto country roads and hear the pavement turn to gravel beneath your wheels. Here, following Little Salt Creek as it winds away from the main road, you’ll discover Frank Shoemaker Marsh.

Listen... A Visit to the Marsh on Gravel Roads

Shoemaker Marsh on a cloudy day. Photo by Dakota Altman.

First purchased in 2003 and rehabilitated in 2007, this 160 acre plot of land is split by the Little Salt Creek, which carves its way through the marsh and creates nearly 50 acres of eastern saline wetlands. The marsh is home to many important creatures, including the Salt Creek tiger beetle, a critically endangered animal and one of the greatest fascinations of its namesake — photographer and naturalist Frank H. Shoemaker.

Shoemaker sits in this forest in the rare undated photograph of the man behind the camera. Photo from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

In my journey to learn about Shoemaker, I’ve met other people just like me looking to rediscover the man beneath the marsh. One of the first things they’ll tell you is that he was ahead of his time.

“In regards to photography, it was a new thing. It was exciting. He’s got the ability. He’s got the inquisitiveness. And he’s recognizing that he’s providing something that nobody else can do at the time.”

Mary Ellen Ducey has worked closely with UNL as an archivist to unpack Shoemaker’s story and life. Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Ducey.

These are the words of Mary Ellen Ducey, an archivist and associate professor for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries. Ducey was introduced to Shoemaker but her ecologist brother James, and her interest only grew as she spent more time with Shoemaker’s archives, containing photos, journals and letters of wildlife and conservation efforts in the early 20th century. In 2013, Ducey co-wrote an article in History Nebraska titled “Frank Shoemaker: Self-Made Naturalist and Photographer,” diving into the naturalist’s life and the legacy he left behind. He discovered much of that legacy behind a camera lens. 

As Ducey told me:

“He couldn’t move in the world without having his camera.”

After moving to Lincoln in 1909, Shoemaker enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, hoping to acquire the scientific knowledge to back his amatuer naturalism and photography. When financial reasons barred him from finishing his education, photography became his career while naturalism became his passion — and a source of modernization. In the age where often the only option to study animals in depth was to kill or trap them, Shoemaker saw innovation through his camera lens. For him, photography was the key to shooting the likeness of wildlife without actually causing them harm, and in the process, his massive collection of photographs became vastly important.

“I really love the fact that he’s kind of like, ‘I want to capture this, but I don’t want to capture it literally. I want to discover.’”

Shoemaker’s images of Cooper’s Hawks, an elm tree, and a sleeping “tree toad” from Lancaster County in 1913, 1916, and 1920 respectively. Photos from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

For those like Ducey drawn to Shoemaker, these bright moments of his life rise to the top like bubbles. These moments are flashes of kindness, innovation, and true uniqueness. Indeed, that’s the second thing Shoemaker fanatics want you to know — what an absolutely wonderful person he was.

“I really like him. I really enjoy the person I’ve discovered. I want you to know that he’s a good man. He’s smart, funny and generous. He’s sensitive and kind. I want people to know he was creative and dedicated to his photography and seeing the landscapes to share what he knew.”

From the moment Ducey first told me this, I’ve seen it in every Shoemaker photograph I’ve come across. There’s something serene to his photography, hidden in a demure shot of a bird’s nest…

A nest of “catbird” young from 1919. Photo from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

Or the humor of four birds perched on a wire, seeming to silently accuse each other…

Four crows in the Branson Woods of Lancaster County in 1918. Photo from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

There’s a hidden beauty that I find myself chasing in every photo, hungry for more.

At the same time, there’s also a strange cloud of grief surrounding Shoemaker the man. As someone who often preferred to be behind the camera, there are few photographs of him, the ones in existence strangely formal. Though he wrote journals and letters, he never published official research or books of his findings. Despite his interest in academia, his lack of formal education has left him rather unrecognized. He never graduated college. He never married. He had no children.

When Frank Shoemaker died in 1948, he had $4.74 on him. His funeral was paid through a combination of odd jobs wages and a sale of his belongings, which was enough to purchase a plot in Lincoln’s Wyuka Cemetery.

In fact, I went to visit Shoemaker’s grave at Wyuka. I gathered my map of the cemetery, drove out to his section, and found only empty space where I thought I’d find a headstone. I checked the map again. Eventually, I called up the cemetery and a groundskeeper came out to help me. The both of us wandered around while pitched his spade into the dirt, trying to find a marker of any kind.

After twenty minutes of searching, he handed me back the map. “I don’t think he was buried with a headstone. But next to this tree, that’s about where he’s at.”

Frank Shoemaker has no headstone. Instead, he is only marked by these dandelions and a tall tree in Wyuka Cemetery. Photos by Emma Krab.

When time steals people like Shoemaker away, how do we honor them? How can we reclaim Shoemaker’s liveliness, his vibrance, and his humanity?

Where do we find him?

Photo from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Photo by Dakota Altman.

We find him at the marsh.

Photo by Dakota Altman.

Photo from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Photo by Dakota Altman.

Madeline Cass brings the complexity and nuance of art to our Shoemaker story.

Madeline Cass began visiting Frank Shoemaker Marsh in 2016. As a poet, photographer, and artist, she became entranced by the beauty and the importance of the landscape. As a lover and keen observer of nature, the marsh drew her in not once, but over and over again. She began to revisit certain trees because she knew certain plants or wildlife lived around them. She learned about the marsh’s tide and watched the pattern of water unfold over the area. Eventually, she began to write love poems and collect photographs. Then, she combed the archives of Shoemaker’s photographs and journals. At one point, she said she could pick Shoemaker’s small, delicate handwriting out of a lineup. In 2020, this bundle of poems, observations, and photos (shot by both Cass and Shoemaker) became the book how lonely, to be a marsh.

Cass told me:

“There’s something that feels important about this place. I am here. My car is parked here. I’m just here to be here, to appreciate it and to bear witness to its existence so it continues to exist.”

After I spoke with Cass, I drove up the Shoemaker marsh, parking in the little gravel lot, and walked down through a thicket of trees until the marsh opened up to me. I walked around, nervous because a storm was blowing in. But even then, I could feel that something in this landscape belonged to him, even decades after his death. Maybe it’s in the elusive nature of the Salt Creek tiger beetle (in all her trips to the area, Cass has only seen the creature once). Maybe it’s in the observation piers that jut out from the land, so you can look upon every corner of the marsh and become its protector and savior, even for just a moment.

One of Shoemaker’s most treasured species, the Salt Creek tiger beetle, is critically endangered and is only found in Lancaster County today. Photo by Brooke Talbott.

No matter what, I know my discovery of Shoemaker Marsh is still in progress. I’m an amatuer, just like Shoemaker once was, but I’m eager to learn more and more. When I asked Cass for her expert advice in observing and listening to the land, she told me this:

“Something that took me a lot of time to figure out, I would always be out and walking. There was a certain switch where I was suddenly like — I don’t have to stay busy when I’m out here. I don’t have to be journaling. I don’t have to be photographing. I don’t have to be setting up a camera. I can just sit down. “

Since I began my investigation into Frank Shoemaker’s life, I’ve found myself sitting still more often. It’s in these moments of rest that I begin to find him, whispering in the wind and combing his fingers through the grass. And it’s in these moments that I begin to witness something far bigger than myself. In the life and legacy of Frank Shoemaker, something beautiful has happened between the man and the marsh — the more I look, the more they become one.

An undated image of the man behind the marsh. Photo from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.

Ducey herself has wondered about what Shoemaker the man would say about his own legacy.

“I don’t think he would call himself a storyteller, but he is a storyteller. Shoemaker’s story isn’t just about himself. It’s about Nebraska. And that’s so important to us as Nebraskans.”

Whether he would’ve called himself a storyteller or not, there’s no denying Shoemaker’s impact. He’s not made a difference with his storytelling. He’s also inspired more observations, more photographs, and more stories. That spirit of kindness and curiosity lives within every person captivated by him — me, Cass, Ducey, and so many others. 

This kindness also lives on not just in Shoemaker marsh, but in the many protected, accessible marshes in the Lincoln area. Just across that dusty dirt road, Arbor Lake forms another crucial haven for saline wetlands. Restored in 2017, Marsh Wren also draws visitors to its beauty. Because of the work of naturalists like Shoemaker, Lincoln now hosts over a dozen recognized saline wetland areas that welcome nature-lovers to experience the same natural beauty and joy that Shoemaker did.

A beautiful day at Lincoln’s Marsh Wren. Photo by Dakota Altman.

And if we wish to rediscover that joy, we must simply let the landscape of the present bring us closer to the people of the past.

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PBT team photo. Summer 2023

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We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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