A Visit to the Petrified Wood & Art Gallery in Ogallala, Nebraska

I don’t often write about an art gallery as a tourist destination, but I was particularly impressed by the Petrified Wood & Art Gallery when I found it in Ogallala, Nebraska. Not only was the art work both unusual and stunning, but the artists themselves, twin brothers, were a delight.

Harvey and Howard Kenfield are 89 year old identical twins, and they have been working with petrified wood for the past 65 years. Both were on sight when I visited, and both were delighted to show off their collection and work. The twins now walk with canes, but they’re still very active – and they’ll often disappear into their on-site workshop – to work on another artistic piece. The one twin confided to me that he “felt like he was 39 years old, but they tell me that I’m 89.” Both still had a twinkle in their eye and a love for their work.

After being drafted into the Army and serving together in Korea in the early 1950s, Harvey and Howard returned home and began collecting stones, artifacts, and petrified wood. From 1954 on, the ‘boys’ have spent their lives collecting, designing, grinding, and polishing; they’ve attended many gem and mineral shows over the years – and spent most summer vacations searching for petrified wood (which is a name given to wood that has been turned into stone as the organic tissue is replaced by silica and other minerals). They also had ‘day jobs’ in Ogallala, in local manufacturing plants, but they retired from these back in the 1980s – and opened a Gallery. By the year 2000, the Kenfields decided to donate their collection to the Western Nebraska Community Foundation, with the understanding that it must remain in Ogallala. By 2007, the ‘Friends of the Gallery’ was established and owned the collection. By 2011, the Gallery moved to a larger facility, at 418 East 1st St. in Ogallala.

The Petrified Wood & Art Gallery is a showcase of natural history that specializes in ancient woods and fossils that have been collected by Harvey and Howard. There are many Native American artifacts and arrowheads to be found here, too – and gemstone butterflies and toadstools – and even fossilized leaf and fish imprints. Indeed, it’s quite a collection! Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

It was the appearance of Harvey and Howard themselves that made my visit extra special, for they’re easy to chat with and are so very proud of this collection. They love to talk about the pieces! They told me that some of the petrified wood was found right here in Nebraska, but they also found some in other western states, including Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. I strolled through the Gallery with them and saw cross-cuts of petrified black walnut, Douglas fir, elm, and pine that had been polished to such a luster that these pieces almost appeared as wet! I also saw some ancient petrified bamboo palm fronds and whole pine cones.

There are some very large but intricately detailed art pieces carved from the petrified wood, with stunning geometric patterns – and whittle down into some rather unique shapes. There’s also a collection of spheres that Harvey and Howard had cut, ground, and polished – and they confided that each required “from 30 to 80 hours to complete”. However, my favourite pieces were the cleverly designed, hand-crafted, three-dimensional buildings and objects that the brothers have fashioned entirely out of petrified wood that looks amazingly like weathered barn wood. They told me that they achieved this effect by splitting the petrified wood into tiny slivers of rock that were then glued together. It’s very effective, and they’ve achieved the creation of incredible scenes of a bygone era, including cliff houses, farm houses, grain elevators, wagons, and churches. Their creations of barns, rural scenes, and even outhouses are done with such detail that they almost seemed to jump out at me - and each of their awesome music boxes is accompanied by a piece of music that seems particularly appropriate. For example, the church music box plays “How Great Thou Art”, the wagon plays “Country Roads Take Me Home”, and the outhouse plays “Alone Again Naturally”.

There are also works by other artists on display here, including a great collection of pewter figures, bullet slugs, arrowheads, and some large marble sculptures (including a very large bust of Sitting Bull). One artist has even turned his collection of arrowheads into a stone buffalo. There’s also, of course, a great variety of items for sale in the gift shop.

If you happen to be planning a trip to the American West, then you might want to add a stop at this fascinating Petrified Wood & Art Gallery in Ogallala, Nebraska.

For More Information: www.petrifiedwoodgallery.com; www.visitnebraska.com

[John was hosted by Nebraska Tourism]