WASHINGTON — At least there's no covered wagon.
Nebraska's pioneer heritage is likely to once again be enshrined on U.S. coins after a key advisory committee voted Tuesday to recommend an old wooden house and water pump, bracketed by ears of corn, to represent Homestead National Monument on a quarter.
“It represents the food, shelter and water which were important to ... survival for the settlers and it does it in a somewhat interesting way for a 1-inch palette,” said Gary Marks, chairman of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee.
The U.S. Mint's latest series of 56 quarters, issued five per year, are titled “America the Beautiful” and honor a national park or site in each state, Washington, D.C., and the territories.
Nebraska's new quarter will be minted in 2015; Iowa's comes in 2017.
When Nebraska was last featured on a coin, during the 50 State Quarters program in 2006, some Nebraskans bristled that the depiction of a covered wagon at Chimney Rock made the state seem stuck in the past.
But once Homestead near Beatrice was selected to represent Nebraska in the current coin series, the new design was sure to be rooted in the 19th century. Of the dozen designs proposed by U.S. Mint artists for the Homestead quarter, most depicted some version of a plow, plowing or harvesting crops.
None drew much enthusiasm Tuesday from the advisory committee, which includes experts in art, history and coin collecting as well as members of the public.
“There is nothing in the Homestead group that excites me or thrills me. ... I don't like any of these designs,” said committee member Donald Scarinci, a coin collector.
But he said he would throw some grudging support behind what was identified as design No. 2, with the home and water pump, because that one seemed the most palatable to other committee members. The panel did insist, however, on the removal of a proposed string of 30 stars to represent the 30 homestead states.
The final decision is up to the treasury secretary, who is expected to make a decision by this fall. But the committee's recommendations are given great weight.
Committee member Heidi Wastweet, a leading American medalist and sculptor who specializes in bas-relief bronzes, criticized the artwork selection. She particularly disliked design No. 1: a depiction of a man holding a plow while a child in the background chops wood.
Wastweet said that proposed design runs counter to everything she has been fighting for during her four years on the committee. She pleaded with the mint to avoid busy, saccharine or inaccurate scenes.
“That's a magic plow driving itself through what appears to be a lawn,” she said. “This is everything we don't want to see. I think we do an injustice to the people that came to this land and worked it to make it productive and fruitful. This was not a walk in the field on a sunny day like you see depicted here. There was muscle involved.”
She asked the staff if it was possible to scrap the entire portfolio.
“Do we have time to go back to the drawing board and make this better?” she asked.
The mint staff said it was already late in the process and assured her that her feelings have been passed along to the artists.
Some committee members objected to designs where the words “Free Land” were writ large over a scene of a man plowing a field. One member compared it to a voice-over in a movie — a sign that the artist has fallen short.
Another committee member, Iowa banker Michael Olson, complained that the words overshadowed the artwork.
“It almost looks like it ought to be in neon, flashing 'Free land, come get it,' ” Olson said.
Homestead Superintendent Mark Engler was at the meeting to provide his expertise. When asked an unrelated question about the historical accuracy of the water pump in the design, he responded to Olson's point and made an impassioned plea for having the free land text.
When Nebraska was being settled, he said, fliers blaring Free Land were exactly like a neon sign calling out to everyone — immigrants, former slaves and women — that they could get their parcel of “free” land, as long as they provided the back-breaking labor to make the required improvements to their 160-acre parcel.
“If we miss saying 'Free Land,' we are missing the Homestead Act,” Engler said.
The committee ultimately threw its support, however tepid, behind the No. 2 design but asked to ditch the stars and add the “Free Land” slogan to the coin.
Engler said the most important thing is that the monument and the Homestead story it tells will be honored.
He described the Homestead Act as one of the most important laws ever passed, one that transformed Nebraska and the rest of the nation.
“To have the monument represented on a piece of currency — I think it's just a tremendous thing,” Engler said.