Mention the name Harold Warp to practically any Nebraskan, and his amazing Pioneer Village in Minden immediately is called to mind. Many others think of the now ubiquitous plastic sheeting or sandwich bags, but almost no one connects him with the iconic photo of Babe Ruth seemingly pointing his bat to the center field in the 1932 World Series.
John Neilsen Warp immigrated from Skollenberg, Norway, in 1873 and settled on an 80-acre homestead nine miles southeast of what would later become Minden, Nebraska. Warp first lived in a dugout on the side of a draw, which he rebuilt as a sod house the following year and married Helga Johannesen from nearby Cosmo Township in 1880.
In that sod house, on Dec. 21, 1903, their 12th child, Harold, was born. When Harold was 3, his father died and when he was 11, his mother also passed away, leaving all 12 children to live with relatives and area friends. While living with his older brother, Harold graduated from high school and observed how chickens seemed healthier and laid eggs at a faster rate during the summer months. This he equated with sunlight and began experimenting with plastic coverings that would keep out cold winds yet allow the sun’s warmth and ultraviolet rays to penetrate. Also, as a money-raising venture, Harold wrote and published a cookbook for home economics teachers that he sold by mail order.
Harold’s publishing idea may have come about from his older brother Oscar who, at about the same time, was the Kearney County Superintendent of Schools and published the Eighth Grade Question Book, which he printed, first in his home and later in a building in his backyard. This developed into the “Warp’s Review Workbook,” a 50-book series which, by the 1950s, employed more than 15 people. Harold, however, had over a three-year period perfected and patented what he called Flex-O-Glass in 1924. Accompanied by his brother John and $800 in savings, Harold drove his Model T Ford to Chicago where he felt he could better merchandise his new plastic coverings. The brothers found a storefront on Chicago’s west side, on the then unpaved Cicero Avenue, which had living quarters attached, and hired workers from North Avenue to begin production. In order to promote the unknown product, they spent $160, much of the remaining nest egg, to buy an ad in a farm/home magazine. For the next few years, Harold still spent about half of his time traveling to hardware stores to convince them to carry Flex-O-Glass so that he could move away from direct mail order sales. Everything seemed to mesh, and by 1926, while sponsoring the popular “National Barn Dance” on radio station WLS, his ad budget reached $200,000 annually.
In 1932, Harold Warp, now an enormously successful businessman, attended game 3 of the World Series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the only baseball game he had ever witnessed. It was there that he was able to capture Babe Ruth at bat when he supposedly pointed his bat to center field and “called” where he was going to hit a home run. The still photo of Ruth became one of the most iconic in baseball history. Interestingly Harold was also photographing the same event but with a 16mm motion picture camera, only one of two apparently at the game. The other film unfortunately showed very little as the man ahead of the camera stood up blocking much of the sequence.
The film was stored, forgotten and unseen until 1994 when Warp’s cousin James Jacobs reviewed it but again simply put it on a shelf. The film was finally exposed to a larger audience when it was shown at Harold’s funeral and ultimately loaned to ESPN. The entire footage includes Ruth’s running the bases after the famous homerun and clearly shows the famous scene where he points his bat—not as the still photo seems to show—but toward the dugout, apparently in disagreement with the signal he had just received from his team manager!
In 1948, Harold Warp learned that a one-room Minden area schoolhouse was being sold. He bought the building and had it moved to downtown Minden. The same year Warp established a $25,000 foundation to aid in the restoration of Fort Kearny. At about the same point in time Harold began preserving America’s technological improvement from 1830 to the present.
In 1950 Lavern Danielsen was hired to begin construction of Pioneer Village to house Warp’s ever-growing collection of technology, including the schoolhouse that soon would be brought to the new museum grounds. In 1952, Pioneer Village opened 12 miles south of Interstate 80 on U.S. 6/34 on a connection road now named in Warp’s honor.
A few of the museum’s 50,000 items, which are displayed in 25 buildings that cover 20 acres, include 356 automobiles; an 1879 steam-driven merry-go-round; a Webster County log cabin; a reconstructed sod house; the one-room Grom schoolhouse moved from downtown Minden; a fully stocked general store; an operating blacksmith shop; doctor’s office; original pony express station; the Cowles, Nebraska, Elm Creek Fort; Lowell/Bloomington railroad depot; steam train; Franklin County land office; St. Paul Lutheran Church; the first cordless telephone; a San Francisco cable car; a fire engine used during the famous Chicago fire; the P-59 Air Comet, first jet-fighter aircraft; his wife’s contact lenses and practically everything in between.
Harold Warp died April 9, 1954, at his winter home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, while the factory that developed polyethylene food wrap, jiffy-bags and hundreds of plastic film products is still going strong in Chicago.