Paul Phaneuf rushes to greet visitors to Carhenge, handing them a postcard featuring an aerial photograph of the avant-garde sculpture two miles north of Alliance, Neb. (pop. 8,959).
“These people are from Germany; nothing unusual,” says Phaneuf after welcoming the visitors. “The father has been here before. He brought his daughter this time.”
They had come to visit a memorial designed by artist Jim Reinder for his father, who once lived on the farm where Carhenge stands. After Reinder’s father died in 1982, relatives who gathered for the funeral agreed to return in five years to build a replica of England’s Stonehenge out of 28 junked cars—and the clan, about 35 strong, did just that. In 1988, however, state authorities declared the memorial a junkyard and ordered it removed for violating land-use regulations.
When Sharon Garett heard the news she called Phaneuf, who served on the Alliance City Council at the time, and asked for help.
“Initially, I recognized that this thing had the potential of being good for Alliance, because I was familiar with Stonehenge,” recalls Phaneuf, president of the Friends of Carhenge.
The group was formed to convince authorities that the sculpture wasn’t a junkyard because no automobiles or salvaged auto parts were being bought or sold. The group also raised money to build a paved apron off the highway and a parking lot to serve the growing number of people who were coming to see the sculpture. Eventually, state authorities relented.
At the height of the hype, more than 80,000 people a year visited Carhenge. When U.S. Highway 385 was re-routed west of town a few years ago, the number of visitors declined, but 23,000 people still found their way to the sculpture in 2000.
People in Alliance still have mixed feelings about Carhenge. Some consider it an artistic oddity, others an automotive masterpiece. Some simply like the thousands of visitors it brings to town.
“Almost every tourist we have in the summer has been at Carhenge or comes in to ask how to get there,” says Joan Dockins, a spokeswoman for the Carnegie Arts Center in Alliance.
Dockins credits Phaneuf with saving the sculpture from demolition. “Carhenge wouldn’t be here without him,” she says.
Phaneuf credits Garett. “She’s the one who got the thing started,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t called me.”
Garett humbly praises Reinders for creating Carhenge for the world. “Had he not put it here, I would not have known about Stonehenge,” she says.
Regardless, Phaneuf loves Carhenge because it carries on the tradition of other astronomical observatories around the world such as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru. These observatories allowed ancient cultures to determine, among other things, the dates of the summer and winter solstices, respectively the longest and shortest days of the year.
“It is the beginning of intelligence,” says Phaneuf of the geniuses who built the ancient observatories. “Here were people who could neither read nor write who were able to, by observing the sun, the moon, and other astrological bodies, develop intelligence from it.”
Carhenge also is fun, inspirational, and ceremonial. It’s been the site of several weddings, some visitors say they receive energy from the sculpture, and other admirers have been inspired to create their own works of art using cars and car parts adjacent to Carhenge.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t have fun meeting the people,” Phaneuf says.