HURON – Since day one, Jim Reinders’ American homage to Stonehenge, England’s ancient artistic and engineering marvel, has drawn both admirers and skeptics to the prairie of western Nebraska.
After spending decades in Europe as a petroleum engineer for a Houston-based oil company, he returned home with an idea he wanted to share with family members for the family farm north of Alliance in the state’s panhandle.
It was 1987. One of his relatives is nephew Dan Reinders of Huron, who at the time was a graduate student in Omaha.
“He thought Stonehenge, was really cool,” the younger Reinders said. “The history, the art, the mystique of it and the engineering side of it.”
Here was the plan: Let’s get everyone together and build our own version of Stonehenge, but with cars rather than stones.
“So the message went out, we’re going to do a family reunion, here’s what we’re doing, everybody get a car and drive it in,” Dan Reinders said.
He drove a 1962 Cadillac DeVille that his dad found in Grand Island. It took two tanks of gas to make the trip to Alliance. He also needed to add three quarts of oil along the way. But then his dad only paid $200 for the car.
And so the Reinders clan gathered at the farm about three miles north of Alliance and created: Carhenge.
Did people think they were crazy?
“Absolutely,” Reinders said. “Absolutely. Oh, there were a lot of naysayers in the community.”
For 30 years, Jim Reinders’ Stonehenge replica – a memorial to his father – has had its detractors. But it has also had something else: Thousands and thousands of the curious, coming to see what 39 automobiles, covered in gray spray paint, arranged in a circle 95 feet in diameter, looks like.
A visitor center was built in 2006, and the 10-acre site also includes other artworks created from cars.
Alliance and Carhenge are taking on even more significance this weekend because they are in the center of the path of Monday’s total solar eclipse.
The community of about 8,500 people will host a crowd that will include Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. Visitors, from a number of states and foreign countries, will watch a 30-team softball tournament, concerts and a Native American powwow.
And on hand will be members of the Reinders family – who created all of this – including Dan and his uncle, Jim, now in his 90s.
The prehistoric site of Stonehenge in England was built of giant rocks that had been dragged from quarries. While there are many theories, archaeologists think it was built to mark celestial events, such as the solstice.
“There’s a whole lot that’s unknown about it,” Reinders said.
That 1962 Cadillac that he drove to Alliance is the heelstone of the sculpture. The replica was placed like its original at Stonehenge, tipped over and not upright, having become a victim of wind or erosion, or whatever.
“He used cars because he wanted it to be more Americana,” Reinders said of his uncle’s concept. “We all love our automobiles and so that’s what he did.”
Back in Omaha after that reunion in Alliance earlier in the summer of 1987, Reinders was working a part-time job at a large law firm when he was asked one day to drive to the airport to pick up some attorneys in town for a deposition.
On the way back to the office downtown, he asked them where they were from.
“Alliance,” they said.
The young Reinders had heard the comments, on both sides of the spectrum.
“Some loved it and, probably initially, more hated it, but it was a mix,” he said.
So, why not find out what these guys thought?
But he deliberately played it cool, even mispronouncing the name of the sculpture.
“I said, ‘isn’t that where they did that Carhedge thing?’” he said.
“The attorney on the right, who was behind me, he just came unglued,” Reinders said.
“That blankity-blank,” the attorney said. “Building a junk yard in my back yard. I’ve got to drive by that blankity-blank every day on my way to work.”
“He hated it,” Reinders laughed. “I didn’t tell him my name. I didn’t turn around and say, ‘I’m Dan Reinders.’”
A documentary filmed a dozen years ago asked the question: Is Carhenge the work of a genius, or is it junk?
Whatever one cares to call it, Carhenge will attract throngs of eclipse watchers from far and wide in a few days.
“It’s gotten to be so much more than he ever planned,” Reinders said of his uncle. “He kind of did it because he had too much time and too much money, so he said, ‘let’s have some fun,’ and that’s what it became.”