On the Great Plains, there are no Golden Gate Bridges, Guggenheim Museums or Space Needles. The dust of the prairies is fertile creative soil only to the quirky few, and there are seldom endowments or line items in governmental budgets to ensure that their roadside attractions will survive much beyond the lives of the eccentrics who created them.
But three years after the death of 94-year-old Jim Reinders (1927-2021), his 10-acre, Carhenge monument in Alliance, Neb. seems braced to survive the ages. Less than four decades old, Carhenge is firmly established as pop-culture icon visited by celebrities, featured in films and song . . . and as a financial rainmaker for local businesses in a remote town of 9,000 situated closer to Cheyenne, Wyo. and Rapid City, S.D. than to Nebraska's center of commerce, Omaha.
Carhenge is a to-scale replica of England's mystic Stonehenge, arranged in a circle replicating Stonehenge's layout, with junked cars replacing the 13-foot-high standing stones of the prehistoric British monument.
Reinders knew the original well. As a well-traveled and well-paid petro-physicist (the scientists that oil companies employ to extract petroleum from rocks), he lived in England for the five years bridging either side of his 50th birthday. Reinders was fascinated by Stonehenge, and had visited often.
In 1982, he returned to his hometown of Alliance to bury his father, who willed him a modest 10-acre farm. But the recently retired Reinders was no farmer, and he didn't need the money a sale would have bought. Before dozens of relatives gathered for the funeral, he announced his vision for Carhenge, and implored his extended family to return to his father's land five years hence to help him build it. In 1987, 35 or so of them did just that.
With no shortage of decrepit automobiles populating the farms and junkyards or rural northwestern Nebraska, the family set up a work camp -- replete with tents, portable bathrooms and a chow line -- and got busy.
"It started out to be very difficult because I had in mind that we would do it with muscle power, like the original people that built Stonehenge," Reinders said in a 1995 documentary, Carhenge: Genius or Junk? (see link below). "They didn’t have any forklifts or backhoes.
"So we got all the men there and we dug the first hole. No problem digging the hole; it was nice, soft, sandy loam. And then we had a small car to start with; it was a Japanese Subaru, I remember it well, So we rolled that thing back to the hole and was going to push it into the hole and it stopped. It wouldn’t go another inch. So we heaved and tugged and couldn’t move it.
"So we decided then we would have to have some power equipment. So we shut things down and got a backhoe and a forklift. The learning curve was actually quite steep. But before long, well, we were planting two or three cars in the morning and two or three more in the afternoon."
Within the week, the project was complete.
"It took 1,600 years to complete Stonehenge," Reinders noted. "It took us six days."