In a Nebraska Wheat Field Stands Carhenge, Attracting a Bumper Crop of Tourists—and Trouble

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the midst of the vast emptiness of western Nebraska, swept over by cold Canadian winds heading south and carloads of tourists heading north to the Black Hills, there stands Carhenge—mysterious, haunted...rusty. Someday, if it survives, it will drive archaeologists mad. Already, it is driving bureaucrats crazy.

Carhenge is Jim Reinders's wacky hommage to Stonehenge, the megalithic circle that stands on Salisbury Plain, about 70 miles southwest of London. As the name might suggest, Carhenge is made, not from giant carved rocks, but from the remains of 31 Plymouths, Fords, Chevrolets, Cadillacs and one old ambulance. Reinders, 62, built it in June 1987, just after he inherited the 120-acre family farm near the town of Alliance in Box Butte County.

Reinders, an engineering consultant in Houston, rarely gets back to the old homestead, so he decided to do something special. "I'd spent a number of years living in England and got interested in Stonehenge," he says. "I just thought it would be neat to replicate it in Nebraska." Reinders spent about $12,000 and took eight days to plant 24 cars trunk-down in the earth, using shovels and backhoes. The other eight cars were hoisted on top of them. "The cars are about the same size as the stones at Stonehenge," says Reinders. "I wanted to use something perishable, something American."

Unmarked and unexplained, Carhenge immediately became an object of fascination to the tourists driving past on Highway 385. Motorists began stopping their cars and walking through the fields to examine the strange new monument. Word of Carhenge quickly reached Lincoln, the state capital 400 miles to the east. The officials there were unimpressed by the grandeur of Reinders's vision. Carhenge, they said, caused highway congestion. And it caused litter. There was no paved parking lot. And there were no toilets for the tourists. Straighten it out, they told the city of Alliance, or tear it all down.

Thus, the Carhenge contretemps became the official purview of Bob Carr, Alliance's director of Building and Zoning Administration (and the department's only employee). "This is a flagrant violation of land-use regulations," says Carr. "I can't see in the code where planting cars comes under agricultural use." In August 1987, Carr, at the behest of the planning commission, began to serve Reinders with notices that ordered him to install a paved parking lot, get insurance, get toilets, put up signs, get permits—or tear down Carhenge.

Reinders ignored Carr. "The city kept bugging me," he says. "I'm interested in keeping Carhenge for people to look at, but I'm not interested in spending thousands of dollars. I already spend $600 a year on liability insurance."

Carr took a new tack, charging that Carhenge is a junkyard and therefore subject to state regulations governing junkyards. "Any junkyard within 1,000 feet of a highway must be screened, that's in the state statutes," says Carr.

Carr vs. Carhenge has become a range war. A survey in the Alliance Times-Herald found that 72 percent of the population favors Carhenge, largely because it brings tourists to their part of the world. Led by Sharon Garrett, who is Reinders's cousin, 30 supporters have formed a group called Friends of Carhenge. Their number includes Eva Knight, Alliance's $500-a-year part-time Mayor, as well as other political heavyweights.

Bob Carr, though, remains unmoved. "It's my responsibility to enforce the law," he says, adding ruefully: "I'm not having much luck." He won't if people like local resident Art Thomsen have their way. Thomsen, enraged by the car wars, dashed off a stern letter to the editor. "It is a good thing," Thomsen wrote, "that the City of Alliance wasn't responsible for Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty, as they would have used Mount Rushmore for a rock-crushing project and they would have sold the Statue of Liberty for scrap metal."

—Michael Neill, Bill Shaw in Alliance

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