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Legacy museum volunteers honor founding member: Fenster advanced study of land conservation in Panhandle
July 23, 2015 Jerry Purvis   

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Photo by Jerry Purvis/Gering Citizen - Charlie Fenster (right) and Jack Preston, two of the founders of the Farm And Ranch Museum, visit during Charlie’s 96th birthday last week at Legacy of the Plains Museum.

Friends and volunteers at Legacy of the Plains Museum gathered early Thursday morning last week for a special event. The guest of honor knew nothing about it.

When Charlie Fenster walked in the door, he found out the gathering was to celebrate his 96th birthday. It was his vision, along with others, that created the Farm And Ranch Museum in 1988. Since then, the museum merged with the North Platte Valley Museum to form Legacy of the Plains Museum, which is fast becoming a major tourist attraction in Gering.

Jack Preston, also a part of the initial group, still credits Fenster with making the museum possible. “Charlie has a keen interest in our agricultural history,” Preston said. “He’s still the driving force behind the museum. He still volunteers here almost every day.”

In the early 1980s, Fenster was a member of the state commission to preserve the history of agriculture. The environment of western Nebraska is much different from the eastern part of the state, in climate, soil conditions, growing season, rainfall and more. So university administrators encouraged Fenster to take the idea to the Panhandle area. That led to the formation of the Farm And Ranch Museum.

Fenster, an agronomist with the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, retired in 1982. He spent his career researching the problem of wind erosion and what can be done to reduce its effects.

“In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, wind erosion was a big problem,” Fenster said. “My first assignment was with the Soil Conservation Service in eastern Nebraska back in the ’50s.”

Through his work there, Fenster gained the attention of the University of Nebraska. They wanted to hire him to investigate erosion problems in western Nebraska. He wondered why they would be interested because he had only earned a bachelor’s degree.

“I turned them down at first because I was making more with the Conservation Service than what the university was paying its PhDs,” he said. “But they worked it out. Eventually I was given a full professorship with the College of Agriculture at a time when the university was stressing that all its professors have PhDs.”

Fenster finally accepted the job with the university and worked on assignment in Alliance to increase the yield of winter wheat. “Until 1956, the winter wheat yield was 11 bushels an acre,” he said. “From 1956 to 1982, it went up to 33 bushels and today it’s over 40.”
It was through Fenster’s work that the university would eventually establish the High Plains Agricultural Lab, just north of Sidney.
After about 10 years at Alliance, Fenster’s work continued at the Panhandle Station in Scottsbluff until his retirement. Fenster and his work remain a valuable source of information on the subject of dryland farming, and conservation tillage.
Working with the Legacy of the Plains Museum and university resources, he created one of the museum’s major exhibits, “Breaking the Ground: The Evolution of Farming in the Panhandle of Nebraska Through 2002.” He called it “the story of my professional life.”
The university also established a professorship in Fenster and his wife’s name for researchers who are making significant contributions to dryland agriculture production.

Fenster will be receiving another recognition soon. On Aug. 11, university officials will be at the High Plains Agricultural Lab to name the Charles R. Fenster Building in his honor. His only condition was that the university stay committed to researching the latest methods of dryland farming in western Nebraska.

In addition to regular volunteering at Legacy of the Plains, Fenster has been active as a long-time member of the Gering Parks and Tree Board. That group works toward improving the city’s park system and encourages tree planting through various workshops and education activities, especially around Arbor Day.

During the Oregon Trail Days celebration this year, members of the Old Settlers elected Fenster to serve as the Honorary President for the 2016 event.

“We need to preserve our agricultural history,” he said. “We need to know where we’ve been before we can look to where we want to go in the future. That history also helps tremendously in developing new programs.”

Fenster said that over the years he’s had a lot of good people to work with. “People have been so good to me. I’ve been real fortunate in my lifetime.”
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