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Wright & Wilhelmy Co.

By Natalie Kammerer

The Omaha-based Wright & Wilhelmy Co. Wholesale Hardware firm was rather ubiquitous in eastern Nebraska for much of the 20th century. The company was founded by John F. Wilhelmy and H. Larson in Nebraska City in 1871. They functioned as both a retail and wholesale hardware supplier, mainly to outfit settlers heading west, as well as the peddlers who moved from homestead to homestead. They sold goods that everyone needed, and in their first year they grossed $16,000 (equivalent to $354,304 today).[1],[2] In 1876, Larson sold his shares in the company and W.S. Rector took his place. The company gained an additional investor in Nebraska City real estate man J.J. Hochstetler. (In 1880, J.J.’s son Frank would become the company’s first salesman, and by 1905, company president.)

As the Indian Wars continued through the 1870s, the company (now Rector & Wilhelmy) became an Army supplier, shipping blasting powder, nails, and various other materials to western garrisons.[3] By this point, they were a significant operation.

In 1880, the company had grown to six employees, including two salesmen who traveled throughout the Midwest with their catalogs and samples, visiting retailers, taking orders, and returning to Nebraska to fill and ship the orders themselves.[4] By 1883, the owners saw that the increasingly important railroad would make Omaha a much more strategic location for their headquarters, so they decided to relocate the company to a rented four-story building at 10th and Harney Streets.

An order submitted to Rector & Wilhelmy Co. in July 1884 from William Taylor in Rock Creek, Wyoming. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The Council Bluffs-based DeVol & Wright hardware firm owned by P.C. DeVol and William S. Wright consolidated with Rector & Wilhelmy in 1884, thereby becoming Rector & Wilhelmy Co. While DeVol remained in Iowa and continued to run a separate retail business under the name DeVol & Wright, Wright moved across the river to dedicate himself to the growing Omaha company. He was the impetus behind trade excursions and goodwill commercial trips to communities throughout the Midwest, which became a tradition in the early 1900s.[5] Wright also served three terms as President of the National Wholesale Hardware Association. In 1887, the company purchased land at the northeast corner of 10th and Jackson Streets to build their own facility in Jobber’s Canyon. Soon, they outgrew even their beautiful new building, and constructed a large warehouse directly behind it. Needing even more room, they then began using additional spaces at 8th and Howard and 10th and Jones.[6]

Exterior of the Rector & Wilhelmy Co. building at 523 S 10th Street, c. 1900. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Office workers inside the building at 523 S 10th Street, 1908. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Meanwhile, the company continued to grow and push boundaries. In 1892, the company undertook the massive project of issuing its first general catalog. The finished product contained more than 1,000 hand-illustrated product pages. It was the first catalog of its kind produced by a hardware retailer in the region.

William S. Wright was quoted in 1904 as saying “Our territory embraces everything eastward to the Mississippi, west to the Philippines, north to Manitoba, and south to Old Mexico.”[7] After that year, they listed $481,795.42 in assets (equivalent to $14,567,110.16 today).[8],[9]

Pages from the 1967 Wright & Wilhelmy Co. Catalog. At this point, they were using a combination of illustrations and photographs. Also, note the leather handles attached to the cover for easy carrying by a traveling salesman. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The company changed its name to Wright & Wilhelmy Co. in 1902 to better reflect current management. But they continued bringing modern conveniences and indispensable materials to people throughout the region. When automobiles arrived, Wright & Wilhelmy Co. added an automobile department, selling tires and other parts. They also outfitted their salesmen with cars, allowing them to drive through rural areas that weren’t accessible by train.

Salesmen’s Fords with sample phonographs strapped to the backs. From Wright & Wilhelmy 100th Anniversary, p. 11. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The company sold many major appliances, including Heatrola stoves, early refrigerators, oil heaters, and more. Display trailers brought model Youngstown steel-pressed kitchen showrooms around the region in trailers and vans. About midway through the 20th century, the company began to shift its focus away from large appliances, focusing instead on housewares, sporting goods, general hardware, and electrical and plumbing supplies.

By 1965, the company expanded again, acquiring the Omaha Paint and Glass Company Building next to its headquarters on 10th St. This added an additional 25,000 square feet to their operation.[10] In the 1970s, 100 years after the company was founded, it had 125 employees and served more than 2,500 general merchandise retailers in seven states. It also reported that the members of its sales team averaged about 20 years of company service.[11]

In 1989, the company moved from its Jobber’s Canyon location out to 11005 E St., where it continued business for about another decade. Wright & Wilhelmy Co. closed its doors in 2001, after 130 years of service. In all those years, the company had only eight presidents: John Wilhelmy (1871-1883), P.C. DeVol (1884-1903), Frank Hochstetler (1905-1929), Glenn E. Jennings (1930-1954), John C. Conley (1955-1977), Loyal Beavers (1977-1978), Warren R. Daasch (1979-1989), and James Wallert (1990-2001).


[1] “100th Anniversary 1871-1971.” Wright & Wilhelmy Co. Omaha, NE. p. 4.

[2] Conversion courtesy of https://futureboy.us/fsp/dollar.fsp.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 5.

[5] Ibid, p. 7.

[6] “A Successful Jobbing Firm.” Omaha World-Herald. January 3, 1904. p. 17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Balance Sheet, Wright & Wilhelmy Co., January 9, 1905. Douglas County Historical Society Collection.

[9] Conversion courtesy of https://futureboy.us/fsp/dollar.fsp.

[10] “Paint, Glass Firm Moving: Wright & Wilhelmy Buys Building.” Omaha World-Herald. January 24, 1965. p. 17.

[11] Ibid, p. 14.

“Aunt May” and “Auntie Bachman”

By Natalie Kammerer

DCHS recently received a collection of materials that provides a rich glimpse into the lives of two female artists active in Omaha at the turn of the 20th century.

May Murray (some records spell her name “Mary”) and Fannie Murray Bachman were born in 1850 and 1856 respectively, the two youngest children of Dr. Henry Murray and Ellen Leffington Murray. Dr. Murray immigrated to the United States from Ireland and became the first practicing doctor in Johnson County, Iowa.

In 1874, Fannie married Levi Bachman, an ice dealer in Iowa City.[1] The story goes that May Murray was engaged to be married as well, but learned that her fiancé already had a wife living. She burned her wedding dress and never married. Luckily for us, one of the highlights of the collection is Fannie Bachman’s wedding dress, along with photographs of her wearing the dress on her wedding day.

Bodice and hem detail of Fannie Murray Bachman’s 1874 wedding gown, sewn by Janis Mason of Iowa City. A note reads: “was once light blue like the buttons but has faded.” Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Fannie in her wedding gown, April 1874. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

In 1891, May Murray moved to Omaha to take a post as art instructor at the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (later known as the Nebraska School for the Deaf) at 3223 N 45th Street. For the first two years, she boarded at the school, which advertised itself as “free to all deaf mutes of school age in Nebraska.”[2] Fannie followed her to Omaha in 1893, and the sisters either purchased or rented a home on Sycamore St. (now Binney St.). There is no mention of Fannie’s husband Levi until later in the decade.

Fannie Murray Bachman, shortly after her arrival in Omaha. c. 1895. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

As soon as she arrived, Fannie Bachman started renting studio space at #619 in the Paxton Block downtown. She would keep her studio there until 1914, at which time her husband was also working out of the space. (He is listed in city directories in the 1910s as a “nurseryman,” but I was unable to find any connection with a greenhouse or nursery. I doubt #619 had good enough windows to keep a whole nursery running out of the studio…) She exhibited her work from the 1890s through the 1910s (both watercolors and painted china) with the Nebraska Ceramic Club[3] and in solo exhibitions, and received very favorable reviews.[4]

In 1899, May Murray was no longer with the Institute, but also had a studio at the Paxton Block, where she pursued watercolor painting. She continued to board with the Bachmans during this time. In 1900, the Omaha World-Herald announced that May had taken a position as the head of the art department for the Deaf and Dumb Institute in Olathe, Kansas.[5] She returned to Binney Street in 1902.

Sadly, there are no identified photographs of May Murray, and the vast majority of the artwork in the collection is signed by Fannie. Only one piece—a portrait of Fannie as a girl—was done by May.

Portrait of Fannie Murray, by May Murray. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Photo of the Art course at the Nebraska School for the Deaf, 1904. In this year, May is listed as a teacher in the directory, so this is perhaps her classroom. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Much of the information we have on the Murray sisters was given to us anecdotally by the donor, who never knew either sister. The sisters lived practically their entire time in Omaha at 4335 Binney Street, and were close friends of the Johnston family across the street at 4340 Binney St. Mabel Johnston, who knew the sisters as “Aunt May” and “Auntie Bachman,” was the donor’s own grandmother. When the sisters were aging and in poor health, she looked after them as if she were their daughter. Their closest relatives were in Michigan. Sometimes, they would say, “Take this,” and hand her a piece of silver, a doll, or a painted plate. Mabel kept everything they gave her, and these items were passed down through two generations of her own family. The treasures moved with the family from Omaha to California, back to Omaha, to Texas, North Carolina, then Texas again, and now have been brought back to Omaha.

Crazy quilt, hand-worked by one or both sisters. Notice that the white section with the strawberry, the red section with the daisies, and the somewhat creepy human baby/pea pod section at the bottom left are all painted directly onto the fabric. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

This painting, signed by Fannie and dated Nov. 11, 1928, would have been completed less than two weeks before her death. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.


[1] Iowa State Census, 1885.

[2] Omaha City Directory, 1892.

[3] “Ceramics In View: Annual Exhibition of the Nebraska Club Opens,” Omaha World-Herald. December 4, 1895. p. 8.

[4] “Announcements,” Omaha World-Herald. December 7, 1908. p. 6.

[5] “Art Notes,” Omaha World-Herald. January 21, 1900. p. 16.

The Early History of Waterloo, Nebraska

The Early History of Waterloo, Nebraska

Written by Natalie Kammerer

Research by Josalyn Switzer

 

The village of Waterloo in western Douglas County has a history almost as old as Omaha’s. The land was most notably settled by John H. Logan and Elias A. Kelsey, who arrived in 1863 and 1867, respectively. Logan was a Kentucky-born veteran of Company B, 2nd Nebraska Cavalry who settled in Nebraska directly after leaving the Civil War. Kelsey, born in New York, was originally a farmer, then became successful in the milling business.

When these men arrived in the 1860s, there were approximately 25 people living in the precinct. By 1864, John Logan had assumed the role of postmaster, and the local post office was run out of his home. He also ran a small lending library of his own books.[1] Shortly after he moved to the area, Elias A. Kelsey constructed a house and a mill that used the river for power.[2]

By 1868, Logan and Kelsey partnered to purchase the land that would become the town of Waterloo, and they began the work of platting the land in 1871, with partnership from the Union Pacific Railroad. By this time, the UPRR had designated the town as a stop on the route westward, and Logan, Kelsey, and UP officials arranged to locate the depot in the center of town.[3]

Plat map of Waterloo, Nebraska circa 1885. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

There are several different origin stories behind the name “Waterloo.” Some say the name was inspired by the Battle of Waterloo fought in Belgium, which marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.[4] Other sources note that Elias Kelsey was born near Waterloo, New York, and thus point to this fact as the reasoning behind the town’s name.[5] Still another (albeit less likely) story is recounted in a 1971 document. Here, the author cites a family legend that an old man living in the area had a horse named Lou that he took to water every day. When onlookers asked where he was going, he would reply: “Down to water Lou…”[6] Perhaps the name’s historical and personal significance were appealing to both the UPRR and Elias Kelsey, making a compromise easy.

High Water on Main Street, 1918. Due to the town’s location right along the Elkhorn River, it was prone to flooding, as can be seen in this photo of four men rowing along Main Street in 1918. Maybe Ralph Wilson’s legend wasn’t so far-fetched after all… Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

Shortly after platting the town and erecting the UPRR depot in 1871, co-founders Logan and Kelsey constructed the village’s first schoolhouse. At the same time, the men attempted to incorporate the village, but were unsuccessful. Another attempt in the late 1870s failed, and it wasn’t until January 2, 1883 that the town was officially incorporated.

Even before the railroad, Waterloo had been a popular passage for freight wagons traveling through the Elkhorn-Platte Valley. After the railroad was opened, raw materials were shipped through the town in huge amounts.[7]

The population grew quickly in the years following the village’s establishment and the construction of the railroad, doubling in size between 1879 and 1881. The town became an important supplier of vine and corn seed, and was the site of several companies: Emerson Seed; Omaha Elevator; Hively Seed; Hopper Grain; Waldron Seed; Western Seed & Irrigation; Waterloo Elevator and Stimmel Seed; Coy & Sons, which started in 1879 and became Cornhusker Seed in the 1950s; and the Robinson Seed Company, established in 1888, is still owned and managed by the family. [8] Robinson Seed Co. was the largest of them all, and is the only one still in business today (as a member company of Golden Harvest Seeds Inc., one of the nation’s largest seed brands).[9]

Waldron Seed Company, 1911. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

By 1881, the population had reached 300, and the town boasted three churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, and “Christian”), two hotels (one owned by John Logan), two doctors, an attorney, a restaurant, two meat markets, a milliner, and several other necessary conveniences.[10]

 

In 1919, Waterloo became the permanent site of the Douglas County Fair, and continues to be held there today.

 

Original program from the first annual Douglas County Fair held at Waterloo, 1919. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

 

In 1932, President Franklin Roosevelt visited both Omaha and the Gus Sumnick farm in Waterloo, where he addressed a crowd of supporters.

 

President Franklin Roosevelt speaks with a woman during his visit to the Gus Sumnick farm in Waterloo, 1932. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

 

 

 

[1] Logan, John H. “A Brief Yet Complete History of Waterloo.” January 6, 1882. Quoted in Ralph Wilson’s “Founders of Waterloo, Nebraska.”

[2] Wilson, Ralph C. “Founders of Waterloo, Nebraska.” 1971.

[3] Andreas, A.T. History of the State of Nebraska. The Western Historical Company. 1881.

[4] Perkey, Elton. Perkey’s Nebraska Place Names. 1982.

[5] Andreas, A.T. History of the State of Nebraska. The Western Historical Company. 1881.

[6] Wilson, Ralph C. “Founders of Waterloo, Nebraska.” 1971.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wilson, Ralph C. “Waterloo, Douglas County.” Virtual Nebraska Project, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 2005. https://casde.unl.edu/history/counties/douglas/waterloo/index.php . Accessed August 11, 2021.

[9] Mooney, Laura. “Hybrid Corn Ads from the J.C. Robinson Seed Company.” History Nebraska. https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/hybrid-corn-ads-jc-robinson-seed-company. Accessed August 11, 2021.

[10] Andreas, A.T. History of the State of Nebraska. The Western Historical Company. 1881.

Omaha’s Auto Speedways

Omaha’s Auto Speedways

Natalie Kammerer

 

Most Omahans of just about any age are probably aware of Omaha’s horseracing history, with the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack drawing huge crowds to 67th and Center Street for decades. But even farther back, Omaha and Council Bluffs had a string of auto racing venues that brought in international talent and fostered a love for automobiles among many locals.

Auto racing has been around for just about as long as internal-combustion engines have. The first true race was a publicity stunt devised by two Parisian engineers and businessmen—in 1895, they raced each other from Paris to Bordeaux and back. The drivers averaged about 24km/h. The idea caught on immediately, with a similar race taking place in Illinois later that fall.[1] By 1898, the close-circuit race was coming into fashion. It was easier to spectate, and safer for all parties involved.

The first speedway with banked curves was constructed in England in 1906, and they soon began popping up all over Europe and the United States.[2] In order to tap into the demand that was showing itself in Kansas City, Chicago, Buffalo, Indianapolis, and many other cities, a group of Omaha investors created the Omaha Automobile Speedway Association in 1910. Members included local auto men Clark Powell, W.J. Kirkland, C.L. Gould, W.D. Hosford, O. Hibner, and T.F. Wilcox.[3]

Though I was unable to find any explicit references to confirm this location, it seems that within a year, the Omaha Speedway track was built on the 1894 fair grounds between Elmwood Park and Center Street (almost exactly where the Ak-Sar-Ben track was built just a few years later).[4] The streetcar didn’t run all the way out to the track, but free shuttles were offered to move people back and forth.[5]

In the earliest days of auto racing, before specialized speed-focused design took over, the cars used were often brand prototypes for new models. Sometimes, companies would provide cars for publicity, and drivers gained reputations for representing specific producers. The Omaha Speedway Co. started strong, securing two cars each from the National, Black Crow, and Marmon factories, and six well-known drivers for its first race.[6]

At left, mechanic Jack Henderson rides with Ohio-born racer Eddie Rickenbacker, who would soon go on to become a decorated fighter ace in WWI. This photo was taken at the East Omaha Speedway in 1916. Rickenbacker lived in Omaha for a few years between 1910 and 1913 as an employee at Firestone. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

 

In 1914, another track, called the East Omaha Speedway, opened at Carter Lake.[7] It was 1.25 miles in circumference, and the track was made of lumber—3,000,000 feet of 2x4s laid on edge. To increase speed, the stretches were built at a pitch of 10 degrees, with the curves at a daring 42-degree pitch (about ten degrees steeper than the Daytona International Speedway). There was seating for 40,000 and parking for 5,000 cars.[8]

Over the next few years, several international names, including Dario Resta (English-Italian), Hughie Hughes (English), Ralph de Palma (Italian), John de Palma (Italian), and other well-known American racers like Barney Oldfield, Willie Haupt, and Ralph Mulford all raced at the Speedway.[9] The investment proved a popular one, with large crowds reported at many races. There was one hiccup—the Speedway built a lot of hype for a first-annual 300-mile race held on July 5, 1915, headlining many of the names mentioned above. Unfortunately, several of them were also in a race in Sioux City two days prior, which proved to be a dangerous mud bath. Several cars were destroyed and drivers didn’t have enough time for repairs, leaving many Omaha fans angry after a disappointing showing. The next year, they tried again, taking out a full-page ad in the Omaha World-Herald apologizing for the year before and explaining the new measures put in place to guard against another such unfortunate coincidence.[10]

Official program from the ill-fated first-annual 300-mile race, 1915. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

The Omaha Auto Speedway was shuttered when the U.S. entered World War I, but racing came back into vogue in the years after the war. In the 1930s, small and fast “midget” cars became popular in the U.S. Omaha’s first race was held in 1935 at League Park on 15th and Vinton.[11]  Soon, small ¼-mile tracks were all over the Midwest. A short-lived park at 72nd and Pacific (called Indian Hills) featured “midget” races, as did Creighton University (they build a mini racetrack inside the perimeter of the running track).[12]

Four women pose with a “midget” car, ca. 1940. These were often homemade racing cars just big enough to fit the driver. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

The Blue Heron Speedway, also known as Riverview Park Speedway, housed stock car, hot rod, and “midget” races for a few years in the 1950s, as did a tiny 1/8-mile track in Ralston.

Playland Park in Council Bluffs, which had long counted a track among its features, was transformed into a speedway-only venue for a few years between 1971-1977.[13]

Finally, Sunset Speedway opened in the 1950s in northwest Omaha, and was Omaha’s main auto racing venue for four decades.

[1] “Automobile racing.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/sports/automobile-racing. Accessed July 29, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Plan to Make Omaha Auto Racing Center.” Omaha World-Herald. June 18, 1910. Page 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Speedway Improved for Races this Week.” Omaha World-Herald. June 4, 1911. Page 32.

[6] “Big Drivers Will Come to Omaha Meet.” Omaha World-Herald. August 7, 1910. Page 14.

[7] Chamberlen, Ross. “Diversified Program of Turkey Day Sport.” Omaha World-Herald. November 26, 1914. Page 8.

[8] “Facts About the Omaha Speedway.” Omaha World-Herald. June 15, 1915. Page 4.

[9] Program, Omaha Auto Speedway. July 5, 1915. Douglas County Historical Society.

[10] “Announcement to the Public in Regard to Championship Automobile Races to be Held at Omaha Speedway Saturday, July 15, 1915.” Omaha World-Herald. June 28, 1916. Page 13.

[11] Chambers, Keith W. “Souping up a Midget racing Car.” Omaha World Herald. July 25, 1948. Page 10-C.

[12] Ackerman, Lee. “Eddie Kracek – The Nebraska Midget Champion.” Midwest Racing Archives. http://www.midwestracingarchives.com/2012/02/eddie-kracek-nebraska-midget-champion.html. Accessed July 29, 2021.

[13] Warner, Richard. “A Popular Council Bluffs Business was Landmark of the Times.” Council Bluffs Business Journal. May 1, 2003.

Omaha’s Hanscom Park

Omaha’s Hanscom Park
Natalie Kammerer

Omaha’s oldest remaining park was formed in November 1872, when land developers Andrew J. Hanscom and James G. Megeath donated 57.6 acres near Park Avenue and Woolworth Streets to the city of Omaha. The land was part of their 400-acre development called “Hanscom Place,” but was too hilly to be used for residential construction.

 

The acceptance of land for the site of a city park. In the coach, left to right: Joseph H. Millard, mayor; Harry P. Deuel; Byron Reed. Standing, left to right: W. J. Connel, Dr. V. H. Coffman, General J. C. Cowin, and James Stephenson. Atop the coach, left to right: Alfred Sorensen, W. Gallagher, Judge J. M. Woolworth, Count John A. Creighton, Captain W. W. Marsh, and Colonel Hooker. Original photo taken by Herman Heyn. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

The park was named after Andrew Hanscom, as he was the majority landowner. Hanscom was born in Detroit in 1828. After serving in the Mexican-American War, he set off to take part in the California gold rush. Along the way, he stopped in Council Bluffs, built a mill, and established a mercantile business. He practiced law for a while, then moved to Omaha in 1854. Here, he took part in politics, holding positions on the school board, city council, and territorial legislature, where he served as speaker of the Nebraska House of Representatives. His primary business was real estate.
Hanscom’s partner James Megeath was born in Virginia in 1824. He also followed the gold rush to California, opening a store in Calaveras County. On a trip home in 1854, he decided to settle in newly-established Omaha City. He and his brother Samuel opened a store at 14th and Farnam in 1858, which served to outfit Mormons emigrating west. He also took part in politics, serving on the city council, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, and the Territorial House of Representatives, where he was elected speaker in 1866. He also worked as a forwarding agent for the Union Pacific Railroad.
At the time of the donation, no official city agency existed to care for the land. Indeed, aside from Hanscom Park, there was only one other active park in the city—Jefferson Park located between 15th and 16th Streets and Chicago and Cass. It was demolished in the 1960s to make way for I-480. In 1888, a controversy arose when Hanscom and Megeath threatened to sue the city for the possession of the land on grounds of neglect by the city. They argued that the city had not executed the improvements stipulated in the conditions of the donation. The city quickly began installation of a sewer system and agreed to re-grade the streets around the park, making them more easily navigable by residents of the neighborhood. In 1889, the State Legislature created a new charter with a provision to form a Board of Park Commissioners to control the city’s public grounds and parks, establish rules for management and care of the sites, suggest a system of public parks and boulevards, and designate lands to be acquired for park purposes.

Jefferson Square Park at 15th and Chicago Streets. No date. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

As one of only two extant parks, Hanscom received a lot of attention and funds in the years following. Early features of the park included two lagoons and a cascade, and it boasted fifty-one species of trees. In 1890, the Board of Park Commissioners erected a bandstand, greenhouse, and a “wooden pavilion, slender and graceful, built in the Moorish style, with rounded arches, a pitched roof two stories high, and dormer windows” designed by Louis Bourgeois. This first pavilion burned on a February night in 1893, but was replaced the next year by another. Before it too was destroyed by fire in 1927, it was often a gathering place for local meetings. The park was recognized as one of the most beautiful places in the city, and it was runner-up for the location of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898.

Hanscom Park’s second pavilion, ca. 1905. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Additional greenhouses were built to house the Joslyn family’s conservatory after the greenhouses at their estate on 39th and Davenport were destroyed in the 1913 tornado. That building was deemed unsafe and demolished in 1968, but today large greenhouses on the grounds are still used to raise the plants used in parks, boulevards, and other city properties.

Hanscom Park flower beds with Joslyn Conservatory in the background, ca. 1915. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

Another controversy arose in 1946 when then-park commissioner Roy Towl proposed filling in the lagoon. In response, Omahans formed the Hanscom Park Improvement Club, which fundraised enough money to clean the lagoon and refill it with fresh water, as well as build a new rock wall around the water’s edge, thereby saving the lagoon, which still sits at the southeast end of the park.

Ice skating on one of the lagoons at Hanscom Park, ca. 1900. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

The Omaha Creche Society

The Omaha Creche Society

Natalie Kammerer

 

Among the collections housed at the Douglas County Historical Society Archive are the early records of the Omaha Creche Society, one of the first charities founded in Omaha. First established as the Omaha Charity Association in 1887, it was intended to offer an innovative new service that was unheard of in Omaha at the time. Several prominent women in the city had come to the conclusion that the community was in need of a day nursery for children, as there were many working mothers who had no options for affordable and trustworthy childcare.

As the author of the Creche Society’s history tells it, the original proposal was largely rejected, with many assuming that the venture would be a waste of time, as “no mother would trust her children with strangers.”[1] However, anecdotes abound about mothers resorting to locking their children in rooms with enough food and water to last the day, while they went off to earn the family’s money.[2]

On September 23, 1887, seventeen women belonging to the Unity Club of the Omaha Unitarian Church presided over by Mrs. O.C. Dinsmoor gathered in the parlors of the Paxton Hotel to organize what would become the Omaha Charity Association. The organization was incorporated six days later. One month later, Mrs. T.L. Kimball was elected president, Mrs. T.M. Orr secretary, and Mrs. Sarah Joslyn treasurer. A lot was leased at 19th and Harney, after it was determined that the organization had to be centrally located in order to serve its intended purpose.

The OCA sought to serve two imminent needs: daytime care for working parents, and permanent boarding for children with no guardians. As the institution’s mission was founded on the theory that “people should be helped to help themselves”[3], parents were charged a small fee of ten cents per day for one child, or up to twenty cents per day for three children, if they were from the same family. From 1887 to 1891, there was a daily average of 25 children at the home.

By 1912, when the Creche, as it became known fairly early on (the term “day nursery” never quite caught on, but the French word for “cradle” proved more fashionable), celebrated its 25th anniversary, thousands of children had come and gone. Some stayed for a couple of days, while others were there for years. The Creche did differ from the more traditional orphanage model in one important way—children were not held for adoption. Rather, the institution served to “bridge the interval between a death in the family or a reconciliation in a broken home, or until relatives who [would] take an interest in the child [could] be found.”[4]

Children at the Creche Society, circa 1940. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

 

The Creche occupied various locations around town during the more than one hundred years it was in existence:

1887: 19th and Harney

1912: Mrs. Kimball’s former home at 1223 Park Wilde Avenue

1929: 1303 Park Avenue (former Arthur Crittendon Smith mansion)

1949: 3173 N 52nd St.

The address on 52nd St. was the first building that had been constructed specifically for use by the Creche Society, and was a marked improvement from the converted residential homes that had served them at previous locations. The house at 1303 Park Ave. was actually condemned some time before the children moved out of it—the State Board of Control cited 34 fire hazards in the old home, but the organization was allowed to stay under the condition that they perform weekly fire drills.[5] The deteriorating house had also necessitated a cut in the number of children the home could hold, from 40 down to 28 children per day.

The condemned building at 1303 Park Avenue. Image source: Omaha World-Herald.

 

The new building, designed by James T. Allan, would serve as the Creche’s final home, housing operations from 1949 until 2014, when the Creche Center, which was then functioning as a daytime childcare center, made the decision to dissolve. After 127 years, the organization, which still relied heavily on donations for funding, was no longer a sustainable model. Indeed it had weathered some very trying times through wars and the Great Depression, but was largely recognized as a model agency that always managed to “do a lot with a little.”[6] Operating costs were largely funded by the Omaha Community Chest and individual donors, including a large bequest from Anna Wilson.[7] Children were provided three meals per day and healthcare including “psychological tutoring.”[8] Clothing was provided by donations from the local Needlework Guild and the Dunlop, Iowa Altar Society.[9] When the food budget began to outgrow their funds, a two-acre plot at 72nd and Underwood (belonging to Sidney Cunningham) was planted with tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, beans, and other vegetables.[10]

Caption: “This is a temporary home for dependent children of school age. Here a group of the lively youngsters living at the home at 1303 Park Avenue indulge in a strenuous after-school game of tug-of-war.” Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

 

Then-President Mrs. C. Clarke Swanson explained the secret to the agency’s success quite simply in 1948: “[There are] no figureheads on the Creche directorate. Their hearts are in this project, and they are just as interested in running this home as they are in their own households.”[11] In the first 60 years on the organization’s existence, the Creche had only seen five presidents, each leaving a powerful legacy.

Caption: “In 61 years, the Creche has had only five presidents. The four former presidents are, left to right: the late Madame Thomas L. Kimball, one of the founders; the late Mrs. John W. Towle, who brought it through the depresstion of the 1930s; Mrs. W. E. Hungerford; and Mrs. G. E. Shujert, Jr. Image source: Omaha World-Herald.

 

The building at 3173 N 52nd still stands, and is currently owned by the Omaha Montessori Co-op.

The Creche Home at 3173 N 52nd St. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

 

[1] Morris, Marjorie. The History of the Creche, Inc.: 1887-1947. 1948. Master’s Thesis, University of Nebraska. Page 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, page 7.

[4] Fleishman Auerbach, Ella. “Creche to Get New $100,000 Home.” Omaha World-Herald. September 19, 1948. Page 3-C.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Morris, Marjorie. The History of the Creche, Inc.: 1887-1947. 1948. Master’s Thesis, University of Nebraska. Page 10.

[8] Creche Society Records, Douglas County Historical Society. Container 11: Fund Reports.

[9] Creche Society Records, Douglas County Historical Society. Container 11: Clothing.

[10] Fleishman Auerbach, Ella. “Creche to Get New $100,000 Home.” Omaha World-Herald. September 19, 1948. Page 3-C.

[11] Ibid.

Medical Arts Building: Omaha’s Original Medical Campus

Medical Arts Building: Omaha’s Original Medical Campus

Natalie Kammerer

 

Omaha has a strong reputation in the Midwest for its medical resources, and today boasts several state-of-the art complexes that serve as healthcare hubs providing many services on one campus, or even under one roof. This certainly wasn’t always the case, but the history of combined medical facilities in Omaha goes back farther than you might have realized.

Around the turn of the century, Omaha was home to innumerable small hospitals, clinics, sanatoriums, and other medical facilities of religious, secular, private, and public persuasions. Some were large organizations like the Douglas County Poor Farm (originally located on St. Mary’s Avenue, ultimately residing at the location of the current County Hospital near 42nd and Woolworth) or St. Joseph’s Hospital (10th and Castellar), but many others were small private institutions housed in homes or office blocks, for instance, the Birch Knoll Sanitarium at 22nd and St. Mary’s Ave.

In fact, records from the 1920s point to the existence of 16 to 22 different hospitals,[1] an impressive number for a town whose population hadn’t yet topped 200,000.[2] Certainly, there were benefits to having so many small and large facilities distributed across Omaha’s neighborhoods (but still largely centralized in the Midtown and Downtown areas), but many local physicians and other healthcare professionals had a desire to form an association (the Medical Arts Association), and by 1919, property had been purchased at 17th and Dodge Street, and well-known local architects—Thomas Kimball and John and Alan McDonald—had been hired to furnish designs for a 17-story mixed-use structure.

Despite local enthusiasm, construction was delayed due to a rise in the cost of building materials and labor. By September of 1921, construction had begun, and was anticipated to cost about $1.8 million[3]—the largest building project in Omaha at the time.[4] Not long after, though, just as the building’s steel frame was completed, progress came to a grinding halt. Financial issues had arisen again, this time in the form of a legal battle over design and construction fees and a lien being placed on the partially-completed structure. The steel skeleton stood in place for three years before it was bought by the Selden-Breck Company at a sheriff’s auction in 1925. The original architects had pulled out of the project, and it was finished by Crosby and McArthur, with some changes to the original plans.[5]

The steel structure as it stood for three years. Image source: Omaha World-Herald. April 27, 1925.

Work resumes on the building in the fall. Image source: Omaha World-Herald. September 27, 1925.

The building was finally completed in 1926, with a variety of amenities, including: the first electric passenger elevators in Omaha (Otis Signal Control); a 500-seat auditorium for clinics and other professional gatherings; individual lavatories with hot and cold water, electricity, compressed air and gas lines, and the possibility to connect x-ray apparatus in each office; and “in addition to complete men’s toilet rooms on all floors throughout the building, the unusual convenience of a well-equipped combination women’s toilet and rest room…on each floor.”[6]

In 1927, one year after the building had opened, 75% of rentable space had been let, 185 medical professionals had set up shop, and an average of 6,651 individuals took advantage of services in the building each day.[7] Tenants included physicians, dentists, and also such businesses as Barber Dental Supply Co., Robert D. Jones Dental Lab, Medical Protective Co., Omaha Brace Shop, W.A. Piel Drugs, Riggs Optical Co., and Standard X-Ray Co.[8]

Floorplan of Medical Arts Building, Floors 5 through 16. Curtis Johnson Printing Company. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

The Medical Arts Building was a mainstay in Omaha’s healthcare landscape for decades, and was ultimately demolished in 1999 to make way for the First National Bank tower which currently occupies the block.

[1] Schleicher, John. McGoogan Library of Medicine. “UNMC History 101: Omaha’s history of hospitals. https://www.unmc.edu/news.cfm?match=11205. Accessed May 6, 2021.

[2] Drozd, David and Jerry Deichert. “Nebraska Historical Populations.” University of Nebraska at Omaha. https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-public-affairs-and-community-service/center-for-public-affairs-research/documents/nebraska-historical-population-report-2018.pdf. Accessed May 6, 2021.

[3] “Work on New Medical Art Building Begins.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 10. September 25, 1921.

[4] “Buildings Here Worth Twenty Million Go Up.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 12. May 23, 1920.

[5] “Medical Arts Name Will Not Change.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 14. September 20, 1925.

[6] Brochure, “Medical Arts Building.” Curtis-Johnson Printing Company, Chicago. Circa 1925.

[7] Advertisement, Omaha World-Herald. Page 12. December 13, 1927.

[8] “Directory of Tenants, Medical Arts Building.” Omaha World-Herald. Page 2. November 23, 1927.

Malcolm X: The Son of Preacher to the Father of a Movement

Malcolm X: The Son of Preacher to the Father of a Movement

This blog post was written by volunteer community member James Van Ormer

 

Malcolm

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925 to Louise and Earl Little. His father was an outspoken preacher who believed strongly in Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement. In 1926, Malcolm’s family left Omaha for Milwaukee due to threats and attacks from the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.[1]

As a child, Malcolm did well in school, but ended up dropping out of high school after being actively discouraged by his white teachers. On one occasion, a teacher was counselling students about their future career paths. The instructor eagerly supported all the goals of the other students, but when Malcolm suggested he wanted to be a lawyer, he was told this was unrealistic due to his race.[2]

As Malcolm reached young adulthood and became independent, he began engaging in criminal activity including pimping, dealing drugs, and burglary in Harlem. During his time as a fixer, it was already clear that Malcolm had little to no fear in him. Once, when he was preparing for a burglary with a group of accomplices, he made a point to display his conviction and fearlessness of death by pointing a revolver to his head and playing two rounds of “Russian roulette.” Eventually, the law caught up with Malcolm and he was arrested for burglary in 1945 and sentenced to 8 to 10 years in prison. While his energy and drive may have been directed unproductively up until this point, his resolve would eventually find an outlet that continues to have an impact on the world today.[3]

Nation of Islam

When Malcom was serving time in prison, his siblings, primarily his brother Reginald, introduced young Malcolm to the Nation of Islam and the prophet Elijah Muhammad. Though at first Malcolm was hesitant to join the Nation of Islam, he soon began to connect many of its teachings to his past lived experiences with racism. By the time Malcolm was released from prison, he was regularly exchanging letters with Elijah Muhammad and had become a devout member of the Nation of Islam. He had shaved his head, changed his wardrobe, and changed his last name—abandoning his slave-name Little for “X”, signifying the African identity taken from him.[4] In addition to his beliefs, he had developed an enormous reservoir of trust in the leader of the religion.

After meeting Muhammad and displaying his great deal of loyalty, Malcolm rapidly rose in prominence within the NOI; he was appointed to the position of minister and placed in charge of establishing and growing numerous temples across the country.[5] Malcolm was a deeply curious and charismatic man and had spent much of his time in prison developing into a voracious reader—these facts made his influential growth virtually inevitable. He quickly became the primary representative of the faith aside from Elijah Muhammad himself, helping induct thousands of people to the faith, including heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali.[6]

Malcolm X with Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, 1962. (Photographer: Eve Arnold. Image Source: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/politics/eve-arnolds-time-with-malcolm-x-and-the-nation-of-islam-in-her-own-words/)

 

Split

After over a decade of service to the NOI as a prominent preacher for the faith, and one of its core figureheads, tensions began to brew that would ultimately lead to Malcolm’s departure. Malcolm openly discussed many of the issues that lead to the break between him and the organization.

  • Malcolm had been reprimanded and publicly silenced for his comments on JFK’s assassination, when he suggested that it was an example of “chickens coming home to roost.”
  • Malcolm had grown to be a nationally recognized figure of great importance, and Elijah Muhammad did not want his position as face of the NOI to be challenged by him.
  • Malcolm had discovered that Elijah Muhammad had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with aides, both taking advantage of subordinate women and hypocritically violating NOI dogma.
  • Malcolm had grown disillusioned with the NOI’s failure to address issues facing non-Muslims in the Black community; he preferred to seek justice for all Black people facing adversity.[7]

Shortly after leaving the NOI, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, but even though he had broken with the faith, the tensions were still very much present. Malcolm was all too aware of the ever-increasing hostility of the NOI towards him, including numerous threats, which eventually culminated in his assassination.4

Rebirth

In April 1964, Malcolm X had one of the most formative experiences of his life when he took his pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm, previously a staunch advocate for Black separatism, reconstructed his worldview during his Hajj.

“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.”[8]

In short, his pilgrimage convinced him that racial unity was indeed possible through the faith of Islam.

It is a common misconception, however, that post-Hajj Malcolm was a “calmer” or “moderated” force. Many of his fundamental views did not change, such as his rejection of gradualism, his insistence that Black freedom can only be attained by fighting for it, his assertion that the government is deeply racist and will not simply grant freedom, that “Uncle Toms” must be called out and exposed, and that Black people must select their own leaders and determine their own strategies.[9] His experience simply revealed to him that it is possible for white people and Black people to cohabitate in the same society and treat one another as equals. Seeing this was a driving force for his future activism.

Just before setting off on his Hajj, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which advocated for Pan-African unity and sought to bring the case of Black Americans to the United Nations for intervention and condemnation. The OAAU strove to fight for freedom, equality, and justice by “any means necessary.”[10] The organization also firmly advocated for Black self-defense, encouraging people to take advantage of all the rights afforded to them in the Constitution, including the 2nd Amendment. (This stance would greatly inform the Black Panther Party only a few years later.) Both Malcolm and the OAAU strongly promoted Black self-reliance, rejecting the need to seek allies in the white community. Importantly, the OAAU did not reject allyship outright, rather it endorsed seeking justice and freedom for Black people on their own terms, rather than relying on the white population. Malcolm’s story is one of personal growth and an unyielding demand for justice, and it is one which resonates throughout the country today.

“Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no worker’s solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting others, until we have first united among ourselves.”[11]

Malcolm X at Queens Court, 1964. (Photographer: Herman Hiller, Image source: Library of Congress)

[1] X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Random House Publishing Group, 1965.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] X, Malcolm. Letter from Mecca. April 1964.

[9] Breitman, George. Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas, 1965, pp. 6–21.

[10] X, Malcolm. “By Any Means Necessary.” Organization of Afro-American Unity Founding Rally, 28 June 1964.

[11] Breitman, George. Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas, 1965, pp. 6–21.

Omaha Mayoral Origin Stories

Omaha Mayoral Origin Stories

This blog post was written with the help of volunteer community member James Van Ormer

 

As we gear up for Omaha’s mayoral primary next week, we wanted to take a look at some of Omaha’s past mayors from various eras to answer the question: What makes a mayor? The following three portraits tell the stories of three men who came from very different beginnings and left very different legacies in Omaha…

The earliest mayor we will discuss is Champion Spalding Chase (1820-1898). Chase was born on a farm in Cornish, NH to Clement and Olive Chase and was the tenth of Clement’s seventeen children. His unusual first name came from his grandfather, Champion Spaulding, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.[1] Chase would live up to both this illustrious name and military lineage, by serving in the Union Army and going on to become mayor of Omaha three times between 1874 and 1884.

According to his own genealogy and autobiography, his first work was as a teacher, first in Cornish, then at the Academy in Amsterdam, New York, and finally serving as vice-principal of the seminary in West Harwick, NY. Chase’s public career began in 1847, when he passed the bar in New York and was chosen as a delegate to the National River and Harbor Convention in Chicago. This Convention was one of the largest of the time and later became famous as the site of Abraham Lincoln’s first political address. Chase must have enjoyed the west, because he moved to the territory of Wisconsin the next year, where he married and established a law practice in 1849. He was chosen to represent Wisconsin at the first Republican National Convention in 1856 and served in the State Senate and as a District Attorney.[2]

Former Omaha Mayor Champion Chase, from the text of Omaha Illustrated, 1888.

 

In 1862, he was appointed Paymaster for the Union Army. He was commissioned as a Major by President Lincoln—a personal request from Champion’s cousin Salmon Chase, who served as Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary.[3] Chase served mostly in the west and was a part of General Grant’s staff when the Union Army took Vicksburg in 1863. He was honorably discharged in January 1866, having attained the rank of Lt. Colonel.

After leaving the Army, Chase moved to Omaha and became Nebraska’s first Attorney General, upon its admission as a state in 1867. He served as a regent for Brownell Hall and the University of Nebraska before running his first successful mayoral campaign in 1874.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

James C. “Cowboy Jim” Dahlman (1856-1930) was the Texas-born, deeply corrupt “perpetual mayor” of Omaha from 1906-1918 and again from 1921-1930.

Growing up on a cattle ranch, he thought of himself as a cowboy from the earliest stages of life, and not without justification. As he once said, “I was raised with a rope in one hand, spurs on my heels, and a six-shooter on my hip.”4[4]

And in DeWitt County, where he was raised, violence was simply a regular part of life, where factions would regularly battle in shootouts—he recalled seeing “as many as seven men” killed in a single fight in his youth.[5]

At the age of 22, he moved to northwestern Nebraska near the Niobrara River to help manage a cattle ranch owned by Zeke Newman. There, he would handle upwards of 15,000 heads of cattle and handle enormous amounts of money. On one such venture, he was tasked with escorting $300,000 (Over $7M in today’s money) to a trade in Oregon. Eventually he moved himself to Chadron, Nebraska, as it developed into a small town, where he ran a meat market.

Chadron was where Dahlman first set foot on the political stage, first being elected to Chadron’s city council, then as sheriff in 1888, and finally mayor in 1894. As he progressed in local politics, his interest in larger-scale politics came to the forefront. He met and befriended William Jennings Bryan, and worked on Silas Holcomb’s successful campaign for the Nebraska governorship in 1895, for which Dahlman was rewarded with a job as oil inspector, and later secretary of the state board of transportation, further increasing his political influence.[6] As Dahlman’s political career grew in scope, he moved to Lincoln and became chairman of the Nebraska state democratic committee, as well as the Nebraska representative for the DNC during William Jennings Bryan’s first presidential campaign.

Former Omaha Mayor James Dahlman, with Key to Omaha. Image source: https://www.nebraskastudies.org/en/1900-1924/racial-tensions/dennisons-political-machine/

 

In 1899 Dahlman moved to Omaha, and in 1906 he ran his first successful mayoral campaign against Erastus A. Benson.

Of the three mayors discussed here, Edward Zorinsky (1928-1987) was the only one to spend his childhood in Omaha. He was the son of Hymie and Sonia Zorinsky, both of whom were born in Russia and immigrated to the United States earlier in the century.[7]

He grew up in midtown Omaha at 4181 Wakeley Street.[8] After graduating from Central High in 1945, he enrolled in courses first at the University of Minnesota, then Creighton University, and finally at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he finished with a degree in chemistry.[9] After graduation, he returned to Omaha to work as vice president at the family business, H.Z. Vending and Sales, a candy and tobacco selling company his father had founded at 12th and Douglas.

Prior to his mayoral bid in 1973, he had been very active in Omaha military, civic, and commercial circles, spending 14 years in the Military Police Corps Reserve, serving on the OPPD Board of Directors and as membership chairman for the Downtown Optimists, serving as President of the Nebraska Association of Tobacco Distributors, and being awarded “Outstanding Business Executive in the Wholesale Tobacco Industry” in 1966.[10]

Former Omaha Mayor Edward Zorinsky as a senior at Central High School, 1945. Image source: Omaha World-Herald.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Chase, Champion. Genealogy of Champion Spalding Chase and Mary Sophronia Butterfield, his wife. Albany, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1894. p. 6. https://archive.org/details/genealogyofchamp00chas/page/10/mode/2up Accessed 1 April 2021.

[2] Ibid, p. 9-10.

[3] Ibid. p. 10.

[4] “Mayor Dahlman Is Dead.” Omaha World-Herald, 22 Jan. 1930, p. 12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

7 “United States Census, 1940. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9M1-SJX4?i=43&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AK99H-LH8. Accessed 1 April 2021.

8 Omaha Polk City Directories. DCHS Archive.

9 “Zorinsky, Edward (1928-1987).” https://bioguide.congress.gov/search/bio/z000013. Accessed 1 April 2021.

10 Press Release, Omaha World-Herald. 1973. DCHS Archive.

Elizabeth Olds: Drawing the Great Depression in Omaha

Elizabeth Olds: Drawing the Great Depression in Omaha

By Natalie Kammerer

 

Elizabeth Olds (1896-1991) was an American artist whose career spanned several genres, media, and geographic locations. She was born in Minneapolis, studied in Minneapolis, New York, and Paris. In 1926, she was the first female artist awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.[1]

 

But in the few years shortly after her return from Europe, she spent a handful of very productive years in Omaha. Olds, who was already a well-respected name at this time, had returned to the United States close to the beginning of the Great Depression. In 1932, she travelled to Omaha to paint portraits of the family of Samuel Rees Jr., then owner of the Rees Printing Company.[2] After that project, she stayed on in Omaha, first learning the basics of lithography from Rees’s technical supervisor, and then as an employee of the federal Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), where she helped to document the Depression in Omaha.[3]

 

Elizabeth Olds, The Preacher’s Message to the Homeless Men, 1930s. Image source: https://www.nebraskahistory.org/exhibits/new_deal_art/index.htm

 

Elizabeth Olds, CWA Dental Clinic, 1930s. Image source: https://www.nebraskahistory.org/exhibits/new_deal_art/index.htm

 

By 1934, Olds’ work was focused more pointedly on industrialism and its local manifestations. In preparation for a lithographic sequence on Omaha’s meatpacking industry, she visited the killing floors at the Swift & Co. Packing Plant in South Omaha. She sketched men working in their various roles, creating a ten-part collection called the Stockyard Series featuring works with titles like The Sheep Skinners, Beef Luggers, and Workers on the Floor. In an Omaha World-Herald article detailing the visit, she was quoted saying: “I think the luggers are the most interesting subjects in the packing house… These men, who carry great, heavy ‘quarters’ of beef into the refrigerator cars, are powerful, massive men—beautiful to see. Each wears a muslin smock that somehow winds around his head to protect him from the beef, which he carries on a shoulder. It makes him look like some sort of Turkish dignitary.”[4]

 

Elizabeth Olds, The Sheep Skinners from The Stockyard Series, 1934. Image source: https://www.cartermuseum.org/collection/sheep-skinners-1998106

 

Elizabeth Olds, Beef Skinner #2 from The Stockyard Series, 1934. Image source: https://www.cartermuseum.org/collection/beef-skinner-2-1998103

 

The Sheep Skinners was included in a touring collection entitled “Fifty Best Prints of 1934” organized by the Wehye Gallery of New York. Since her earliest days as a young artist studying under George Luks (Ashcan School) at the Art Students’ League in New York, Olds had been interested in frank portrayals of everyday people in unglamorous circumstances. She embraced printmaking and the skills she had picked up in Omaha helped her as a way to “introduce original modern art, inexpensively, to ordinary people.”[5] She was a strong advocate for meaningful art, writing: “Opposition is the encouragement of the hardy and a mark in favor of a strong work of art… Let the public cast aside outworn pictures as ‘decoration,’ and stop filling their homes with crumbling furniture, ‘ancestors by purchase,’ and put instead on their walls a reflection of life as vital as they themselves are.”[6]

 

A few months later, her lithograph titled “Dying Gangster” was awarded second place in the Kansas City Art Institute’s annual Midwestern Exposition. Shortly after, she returned to New York City, where she continued working in the WPA’s Graphic Arts Division, this time in an instructional capacity, helping younger artists develop their printmaking skills.[7] She and fellow artist Harry Gottlieb established the Silk Screen School in 1939 to teach this new technique and experiment with it as a fine art medium. Throughout her career, she continued to experiment with new media, exploring new ways to depict industrialism and American lives. She published work in political magazines including The New Masses and The New Republic, as well as writing and illustrating a number of children’s books.

[1] Langa, Helen. “Elizabeth Olds: Gender Difference and Indifference.” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 2, No. 22. pp. 5-11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1358896

[2] Polk City Directory, Omaha. 1932.

[3] Langa, Helen. “Elizabeth Olds: Gender Difference and Indifference.” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 2, No. 22. pp. 5-11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1358896

[4] Pinkerton, William. “A Woman on the ‘Killing Floor.’” Omaha World-Herald, February 17, 1935. p. 8.

[5] Olds, Elizabeth. “’The Old Mad Hatter’ Found Art in the Slums.” Omaha World-Herald. January 27, 1935. p. 8.

[6] Pinkerton, William. “A Woman on the ‘Killing Floor.’” Omaha World-Herald, February 17, 1935. p. 8.

[7] Langa, Helen. “Elizabeth Olds: Gender Difference and Indifference.” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 2, No. 22. pp. 5-11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1358896

Charles Haffke—Lawyer, Solider, and King

Charles Haffke—Lawyer, Solider, and King

By Natalie Kammerer

 

Charles Haffke was born in Germany in about 1878, and came to Omaha with his family in 1884. The family lived in South Omaha, at 33rd and T Street. In the 1890s, Charles began studying law and working as a messenger for the Western Union, then he enlisted in the Navy in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War. He gained some local notoriety when the Omaha World-Herald printed sections of a letter he had written to his mother five days after the May 1 Battle of Manila Bay. According to his own research, Haffke believed that he was the only Omahan, and perhaps the only Nebraskan, who participated in the battle.[1]

The USS Concord at Hong Kong wearing wartime gray paint, 1898. Image Source: https://criticsrant.com/battle-of-manila-bay/

Haffke was a crew member of the U.S.S. Concord under the command of Admiral Dewey. The full text of the letter, which is in the DCHS archive, describes the crew’s preparations, the landscape, and the battle itself in great detail:

…the ships were cleared for action. All woodwork was covered with canvas to prevent splinters from flying in case shells should strike there. All wooden benches were put away below. We ate on deck. The boats were covered with canvas. All awnings, stancheons (sic), fittings, etc. were removed and put below. We had large sacks of sawdust to be used if the decks should become slippery with blood. 

…Correigedor Island (sic), and a small rock, El Fraile, divide the entrance to the Bay into three channels. All these were said to be mined and the land heavily fortified. … We carried no lights except a small stern light on each ship to guide the vessel following. All port holes were closed. Fires in the boilers were banked so no sparks would come out and show our fleet to the Spaniards. All the men were at their stations, with guns loaded. It was so quiet that the water as it swished past the barnacles on the ships sides (sic) could be heard. We were all quite excited. We were told to be at ease, but that was out of the question.

            …The shock of our six guns was awful. Our boat shook all over. Some of our boats were shifted out of their davits; wooden tables cracked open; water and steam joints leaded; slice bars fell out of their hangers in the fire rooms; boiler doors flew open; it was so hot in the fireroom and engine room that the heat blistered our skin; the battle gratings were over all hatches and ventilators, and the thermometer stood at 180%.[2] The noise was deafening; we had been ordered to fill our ears with cotton, but it fell out and pretty soon the sign language was the only means of talking. Our ship was not hit directly by any shells. Many times shells struck so close that it splashed water on our deck.

Battle of Manila Bay, 1898. Print. Source: Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.58718/

After the war, Haffke returned to Omaha briefly to study stenography and pass a civil service exam, then went back to the Philippines in 1902. At the age of 24, he was working as a court reporter and one case in particular brought him into contact with several men from the Ilocanos tribe. Over time, he became acquainted with the tribe’s leaders and was able to help them with certain legal questions.

Later, when a cholera outbreak wiped out the Ilocanos’ entire royal family, tribal leaders approached Haffke to come fill the role. He knew little of tribal customs and spoke through an interpreter, but agreed to travel to Natividad, the region’s largest city. He was welcomed as “King Carlos I” with a celebratory feast and was offered a home in “a bungalow of good size and very comfortable.” At the crowning ceremony, “There were bonfires and a terrific hullabaloo, all in my honor. I and the big chiefs had dipped our thumbs in the rooster’s blood by that time, and I was the big boss. I sat pat, looking as kingly as I could, and everything was jake.”[3] It was agreed that he would be furnished with clothing, supplies, and 5% of the crops raised by the tribe, which comprised about 100,000 people.[4]

Things seem to have progressed this way for about a year, at which time the tribe’s elders raised the question of marriage. In order to assure a rich bloodline, Ilocano tradition dictated that the king should take several wives. King Carlos balked at this idea, and left town under the guise of royal business in the town of Langayen. He never went back to Natividad, instead booking a steamer to the US and returning to Omaha.

Once back, he finished his law degree, graduating from Creighton. He married Margaret Barr of Dundee. He reportedly “didn’t have the nerve” to tell her that he was a king, and only told her two years after their marriage. [5] He went on to have an illustrious career in Omaha, serving as Douglas County Deputy Attorney, and as city attorney of Benson for six years before it was annexed.[6]

Photograph of Charles Haffke, ca. 1924. Image Source: Omaha World-Herald, 10 May 1924.

He and his wife left Omaha in 1915 to spend time farming in Arkansas, investing in oil in Wyoming, and then working in Chicago as a special agent and attorney for the Department of Justice’s prohibition division. He died in Salinas, California in 1955 at the age of 78. There is no mention of his ever returning to Natividad or the Ilocos region.

[1] Haffke, Charles. Letter to Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1937. DCHS Library Archive.

[2] I can only assume he means there was 180% humidity?

[3] “King A.W.O.L. in Omaha.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 March 1924.

[4] Porter, T.R. “King from Omaha Afraid of Harem.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 February 1932.

[5] “King A.W.O.L. in Omaha.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 March 1924.

[6] “Charles Haffke, Ex-Omahan, Dies.” Omaha World-Herald. 11 August 1955.

Omaha’s First Mall: The Crossroads Shopping Center

Omaha’s First Mall: The Crossroads Shopping Center

by Natalie Kammerer

 

The Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge has been an iconic part of the central-Omaha skyline for decades (especially since the meringue-shaped white tented roof was added in a mid-1980’s renovation). It was also one of the country’s first enclosed regional malls.[1]

Until the 1960s, the land west of 72nd Street was largely undeveloped—the Indian Hills Golf Course lay just to the southwest, but there wasn’t much else out there. The Brandeis department store, which had been an Omaha staple for decades, was pursuing some major changes in their Omaha presence. They had built multiple iterations of beautiful flagship stores on the corner of 16th and Douglas since 1894, and in the late 1950s, the Brandeis Investment Company purchased land on the northwest corner of the intersection at 72nd and Dodge. Much of the conception and execution of the project was due to the Brandeis store, which would ultimately serve as one of two anchors at the new shopping center. Sears and Roebuck was the second.

Aerial photo of Dodge Street looking west toward 72nd. Construction was just starting on Crossroads, 1959. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

That year, Brandeis was also making big changes to their downtown campus—the Brandeis Theatre was demolished in 1959 to make way for the store’s parking garage.

The new shopping center, which boasted the most modern facilities, convenient dining and snack options, a sea of free parking, and a temperature-controlled arcade connecting twenty-four vendors ultimately cost about $10.5 million.[2] Sears and Roebuck had their grand opening in August of 1960, and Brandeis opened later in the year. They advertised “Seven Wonders of the Brandeis Shopping World”: luxuriously-decorated women’s and men’s departments, a youth section, a “fountain court” with escalators and a water feature, the “Crossroads Room” dining area, and the most marvelous and modern of all—the “magic air door.” This feature allowed for the store’s doors to be kept wide open—a gentle downward flow of air at the doorway was meant to act as a curtain, keeping out dust, wind, and extreme temperatures.[3]

Crossroads Shopping Center, looking northeast toward the Brandeis Department Store, c. 1960. Image source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/c4/7e/68/c47e68565f64060a9d2957982c4a7b74.jpg

 

Brandeis fountain/sculpture court, c. 1980. Image source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/37/6d/0f/376d0fe97cb26bb9087799d024a7950b.jpg

With vendors like Walgreens, Musicland, Herzbergs, Babytown, Goldstein-Chapman and more, the mall brought a wide variety of goods and services to what was then West Omaha. As the city continued to spread, more malls began to open to serve suburban communities. For many years, Crossroads managed to coexist with the larger Westroads (1968) and Oak View (1991) malls, undergoing various renovations and additions, ultimately ending with 735,000 square feet of retail space, three anchor stores (Dillard’s was added in 1986), a large food court, and room for 70 retailers.[4]

The first anchor store to leave was Younkers (they had acquired the Brandeis brand in the late 1980’s) in 2005, as they had a larger store at Westroads. Heightened competition from the other malls, in addition to the opening of Village Pointe (2004) and Shadow Lake Towne Center (2007) in farther-off suburban areas added additional strain. Dillard’s closed in 2008 and the mall was foreclosed in 2010. A few of the bays remained open until early 2020, when all stores were ordered closed so demolition could begin.

As of February 2021, demolition is underway and scheduled to finish by June. Lockwood Development anticipates that the new mixed-use shopping, entertainment, dining, and residential space will cost about $500 million.[5]

Plans, details, and renderings can be viewed here: https:/

[1] Way, Prange. “Crossroads Mall; Omaha, Nebraska.” Labelscar: The Retail History Blog. July 27, 2010. http://www.labelscar.com/nebraska/crossroads-mall-omaha

[2] “Construction of $10,500,000 Shopping Center on Schedule.” Omaha World-Herald. May 15, 1960.

[3] “Seven Wonders of the Brandeis Shopping World at Crossroads.” Omaha World-Herald. October 9, 1960.

[4] Way, Prange. “Crossroads Mall; Omaha, Nebraska.” Labelscar: The Retail History Blog. July 27, 2010. http://www.labelscar.com/nebraska/crossroads-mall-omaha

[5] “FAQs.” The Crossroads. https://www.thecrossroadsomaha.com/

Omaha’s Riverfront: A Land of Perpetual Possibility

Omaha’s Riverfront: A Land of Perpetual Possibility

Natalie Kammerer

 

Most people who have lived in Omaha for more than a couple of years have had some occasion to visit the Gene Leahy Mall that sprawls from the east side of the W. Dale Clark library toward the river. Anyone who’s been in the neighborhood in the past two years has surely noticed the massive construction site that sits there now.

During his mayoral term (1969-1973), Eugene A. Leahy wanted to encourage Omahans to turn their attention back to the city’s downtown area. In the postwar decades, the city had expanded rapidly to the west and several neglected pockets of downtown were becoming “blighted,” “deteriorated,” or “ragged.”[1] Mayor Leahy planted the seed for a riverfront redevelopment project when, in 1970, he assigned a committee “to ‘take cognizance’ of the potential of the riverfront in the area.”[2] An expansive plan was put together and presented to Blair, Carter Lake, Omaha, Council Bluffs, and Bellevue in the hope of realizing an expansive multi-city riverfront presence. A $1-million federal grant was awarded to the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) to help with the first year of development planning.[3]

Mayor Leahy’s vision was popularly referred to as the “return to the river” movement.[4] The city of Omaha had, of course, been born along the river – many of the “blighted” downtown structures were remnants of Omaha’s early industrial days, when the riverfront was bustling with railroad and river freight, smelting, the various industries housed in Jobber’s Canyon, as well as most of the city’s stores and entertainment venues.

After leaving the office of the mayor, Eugene Leahy moved straight into serving as President of the Riverfront Communities Development Foundation. Settling on a plan proved to be a long process. As exciting as the prospect of coordinating simultaneous development projects across city, county, and state lines was, it proved difficult to get all on board.

Concrete ideas for Omaha’s riverfront development featuring open green spaces with walkways and waterways were proposed by City Planning Director Alden Aust in the early 1970s. The development  was known as Central Park Mall, and was modeled after successful waterway park projects in San Antonio and Fort Worth.[5]

The City Council dedicated $2.37 million to acquiring land downtown for the Central Park Mall project. There was talk of additional groups purchasing land for other development projects—apartment buildings and a UNO education facility, as well as the corrections center and library that stand today. In 1973, representatives of the Riverfront Communities Development Foundation projected that $185 million in construction would occur downtown by 1985.[6]

The final plan was designed in 1974 by a team from Lawrence Halprin & Associates, led by Don Carter.[7] The first section of the park – one city block directly east of the W. Dale Clark library, was completed in the summer of 1977. At the opening ceremony, City Planning Director Aust celebrated turning a new page for Omaha’s identity, saying: “Today Omaha joins the ranks of the great cities of the Western world with a new public open space.”[8] The rest of the $15 million project, which would connect this western end of the park to Heartland of America Park, would be completed over the next four years.

The June 1977 opening ceremony for the Central Park Mall, which only covered one block at the time. Image courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald.

In 1992, the Central Park Mall was renamed the Gene Leahy Mall, in honor of Omaha’s former mayor and the visionary force behind the “return to the river” movement.

Not all of the riverfront plan was realized—for example, there was Friendship Fountain, whose design the Riverfront Communities Development Foundation commissioned from sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The Friendship Fountain was proposed as a feature celebrating the close relationship between Omaha and Council Bluffs, and would have been a 160-foot structure literally between them, sprouting out of the Missouri River. One 1974 Omaha World-Herald editorial noted that “…the fountain plan has not received a warm reception in either of the states whose friendship it would symbolize…”[9] and suggested that it be reconsidered. Indeed, there were questions raised about its appearance, but also about the complicated issue of how to share high installation, maintenance, and operation costs on a structure between city and state lines. The design, which was conceived to incorporate spraying water directed by manufactured wind, attracted lots of critical attention, comparing it to “an oil derrick or the spidery towers that carry high-tension wires.”[10] It was ultimately scrapped.

Models for the Friendship Fountain, 1974. Images courtesy of (left) Isamu Noguchi Original Collection, https://www.noguchi.org/artworks/collection/view/friendship-fountain/ and (right) Sunday World-Herald Midlands News, August 8, 1976. p. 1B. 

And today, as has been the case for about two years, the Omaha Riverfront is undergoing yet another reinvention and revitalization to adapt to another wave of investment and development in the downtown and riverfront areas. The overarching concept is the same—an artistically conceived park space to integrate some natural elements into the downtown area. But there are some changes. The new design seems to focus on providing more usable space—wide open lawns for events and performances, tree-lined areas full of tables and seating, playground equipment (including the iconic slides!), and a few water features, as well. The new park is scheduled to open in the summer of 2022 (with a final completion date in 2024), 45 years after the grand opening of the first segment of the Central Park Mall. Digital projections of the new design, as well as a progress camera showing weekly photos of the construction site can be found here: https://riverfrontrevitalization.com/

[1] “Return to the River.” Sunday World-Herald Magazine of the Midlands. February 18, 1973. p. 5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kelly, Michael. “A Brief History of Omaha’s Gene Leahy Mall.” Omaha World-Herald. June 13, 2018.

[5] Kelly, Michael. “Aust: Don’t Sink Mall’s Waterway.” Omaha World-Herald. November 3, 1975. p. 1.

[6] Kelly, Michael. “Downtown Is Mostly Omaha Owned.” Omaha World-Herald. November 14, 1973. p. 25.

[7] “Gene Leahy Mall.” The Cultural Landscape Foundation. https://tclf.org/landscapes/gene-leahy-mall

[8] Kelly, Michael. “City Takes First Green Step to River.” Omaha World-Herald. June 4, 1977.

[9] “Friendship Fountain: Is It Worth It?” Omaha World-Herald Editorials. December 29, 1974. p. 16B.

[10] Ibid.

The Volstead Act in Douglas County

The Volstead Act in Douglas County

Natalie Kammerer

The Volstead Act, the infamous piece of legislation also known as the National Prohibition Act, went into effect 101 years ago this week. The state of Nebraska had actually gone “dry” as early as 1917, as a result of the state’s overall sympathy with the temperance movement. Generally speaking, however, the city of Omaha was less enthusiastic about outlawing the production, transport, and sale of alcohol for political, economic, and cultural reasons.

There were rules on the books regulating the circulation of alcohol throughout Nebraska well before the large-scale temperance movement of the late 1800s–in fact, the first one was applied in 1835, almost twenty years before Nebraska officially became a territory. This first law prohibited supplying Native Americans with alcohol (as a means to prevent them from drunkenly attacking traders and settlers in the area).[1]

But by the 1890s, when temperance had become a hot-button political issue and the threat of prohibition began to loom on the horizon, many inhabitants of Omaha were still uninterested in the cause. There were 226 saloons listed in the 1890 Omaha City Directory (compared with 224 retail grocers). Many of them were family businesses owned by community members. And by the late 1910s, when Congress was voting to pass the 18th Amendment, the number of saloons had grown and the city was also home to three well established family-owned German-style breweries – Krug, Metz, and Storz – as well as the Willow Springs Distillery, all of which kept the city of Omaha in good supply. Other smaller brewing companies in town included Pabst Brewing, Lemp Brewing, South Omaha Brewing, and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. Each of these producers ran saloons, as well.[2] Not only were Omahans accustomed to good alcohol—both the production and sale industries were significant local employers.

Interior of Jake M. Gehrig’s saloon, a typical pre-Prohibition establishment at the intersection of Maple and Military in Benson. Andy Schaefer and E. Walt Kuerten stand behind the bar, ca. 1910. Photo Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

With Prohibition, some of the businesses were able to stay afloat—the Willow Spring Distillery and Storz Brewery, for example, switched to producing near beer (a non-alcoholic or low-alcohol malt beverage), soft drinks, and ice. Krug halted operations until Prohibition was repealed, but Metz closed its doors (they would re-open again briefly under new ownership in the 1930s).[3] Some saloon owners were able to shift gears, converting their establishments to restaurants.

That’s not to say that Omaha went truly “dry” during Prohibition. In fact, national prohibition was considered a “flop” in Omaha.[4] The era marked the peak of Omaha crime boss Tom Dennison’s reign—he established the Omaha Liquor Syndicate to monopolize the city’s bootleg market. And it was quite a market. He also had quite a good working relationship with Omaha’s police force, and many establishments were able to continue selling liquor under his protection. A 1929 survey claimed that “at least 1,500 places, including many drug stores, sold liquor.”[5] Dennison’s out-of-town connections included Al Capone of Chicago and Tom Pendergast of Kansas City. Despite the breadth of his power over Omaha’s operations, it was ultimately his role as the invisible hand behind the fight against Prohibition in the city that led to his downfall.

Harry Lapidus was an Omaha businessman who owned a restaurant supply company, the Omaha Fixture and Supply Co. He was a pretty strait-laced, reform-minded citizen, and his son-in-law was the state’s assistant attorney general. He was also good friends with Robert Smith, clerk of the Douglas County District Court. When, one night in late 1931, Harry Lapidus was found near Hanscom Park, hanging halfway out the driver door of his car with three bullets in his head, there was little question in many peoples’ minds who was behind this murder. It also wasn’t much of a surprise that there was hardly any investigation into the murder, and the details remained hushed for several years.

There was certainly violence in Omaha, and much of it was related to bootlegging and the Dennison machine.[6] But this was the first time they had targeted an uninvolved citizen. In a letter Robert Smith sent to Omaha’s various newspapers shortly after Lapidus’s death, we wrote, “If this thing is allowed to go on, no one will be safe…I shall insist in the future as I have in the past that I have a right as an American to demand that my government function; and from this course I shall not be driven by intimidation or threat.”[7]

From the Omaha World-Herald. December 31, 1931. p. 7.

It was Robert Smith’s son, Edson Smith, an assistant US attorney working in Omaha, who brought charges against Dennison and fifty-eight of his associates in 1932. They were tried for 168 various crimes committed during the previous decade. It ultimately ended in a hung jury, but the trial had brought enough visibility to Dennison’s activities that public opinion shifted significantly, and he fell out of favor. The political tickets he backed in the 1933 city elections lost and he died in California in 1934. That same year, Prohibition was struck down in Nebraska (one year later than the 21st Amendment repealed it nationally).

 

[1] Fisher, Joe. The Liquor Question in Nebraska, 1880-1890. Thesis, Municipal University of Omaha, 1952. p. 5.

[2] Thompson, Patrick. “Tied Houses: A Lesson in Omaha’s Saloon History.” Restoration Exchange, 2017. https://restorationexchange.org/2017/07/27/pabst-schlitz-omahas-saloon-history/

[3] Mihelich, Dennis. “Omaha’s ‘Big 4’ Brewing Families.” Douglas County Historical Society, 2020.

[4] Larsen, Lawrence and Barbara Cottrell. The Gate City: A History of Omaha. Pruett Publishing Co., Boulder. 1982. p. 183.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hansen, Matthew.”Hansen: 1931 slaying of businessman Harry Lapidus helped pry Omaha from mob’s clutches.” Omaha World-Herald. March 9, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

Omaha’s Civic Auditorium

Today, anyone who grew up in Omaha has memories of the big tan building at 18th and Capitol Street. Though it was a little outdated at the end of its life, it was one of the nation’s premier arena facilities for much of the second half of the 20th century.

The auditorium’s grand opening, which took place on January 2, 1955, generated all kinds of excitement. A six-page spread ran in the Omaha World-Herald on January 1, celebrating the great achievement and advertising all its amenities and the attractions the new auditorium would bring to the city. The Civic Auditorium’s conglomerate design, combining a large arena space for big conventions and sporting events, a smaller exhibition hall for more intimate events, and traditional stage facilities for ballet, opera, and concerts made it a versatile performance space suited to any kind of act. Before the auditorium was officially opened, it was announced that such engagements as the Boston Pops Orchestra, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Grand Ole Opry, and the Shrine Circus had already been booked for the first part of the year.[1] But from the beginning, the auditorium was also meant to house local events – in its first year, the different facilities housed UNMC and Creighton University graduation ceremonies, the All-City High School Music Festival, events hosted by various local church groups, high school basketball tournaments, political meetings, and labor union sessions.

Even though the success of the completed auditorium seemed a given, the project was not without battles and complications. In 1945, the price of construction was originally estimated at $3 million, and the site at $540,000. Omaha voters approved the plans and passed a bond issue for $3,540,000. By 1947, the cost estimate had jumped to $6,698,831 but voters continued to support the project, striking down a 1948 proposal to abolish the Auditorium Commission and approving an additional $2,794,000 bond in 1950. The ongoing Korean War was also cause for some delay – the National Production Authority vetoed Omaha’s requests for steel twice in 1951.[2]

Omaha’s Civic Auditorium Arena Entrance, ca. 1960. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Over the next 60 years, the building, designed and built by local architecture firm Leo A. Daly and contractor Peter Kiewit, would serve the city well. Historical events of local and national significance took place on the stages of the Civic Auditorium – the Rolling Stones played a 1964 concert to a small crowd of 650 screaming teenagers when they were still largely unknown in the United States; a 1968 speech by polarizing Alabama segregationist George Wallace drew large protests and led to three days of unrest in the city; Omaha’s short-lived NBA team, the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, called the auditorium home from 1972-1975; Elvis Presley played his second-to-last concert there in June 1977.[3]

The auditorium at 18th and Capitol was not the city’s first – its original all-purpose auditorium was designed by John Latenser and constructed in 1901 at 15th and Howard Street. Though beautiful, “the old Auditorium…was never considered adequate. People were asking for a new one before 1920.”[4] Indeed, the new auditorium more than tripled the capacity of the original facility. One 1950 newspaper plug for the upcoming bond issue read: “NO MORE ‘OLD BARN’ – The old auditorium is not a decent place to ask any actors, sports players, or speakers to perform. It is a blight to Omaha. Most of us choose to avoid the old barn rather than go to an event there—attendance records show this…”[5] The so-called “Old Barn” was sold in the early 1950s for $211,000 with profits put to offset the cost of the new structure.[6] It was razed in 1954.

The “Old Barn” at 15th and Howard Street, 1932. Image Courtesy of the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, Durham Museum Photo Archive.

Cars on display at an auto show in the original Omaha Auditorium, 15th and Howard Street, 1920. Image Courtesy of the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, Durham Museum Photo Archive.

The Civic Auditorium was razed as well – the building closed in 2014 and was demolished in 2016. The development company that was chosen to redevelop the site, Tetrad Property Group, pulled out of the project in March 2018, and no current plans appear to be public.

[1] Burbach, Chris. “Timeline: Civic Auditorium and Music Hall.” Omaha World-Herald. March 20, 2018. https://omaha.com/news/local/timeline-civic-auditorium-and-music-hall/article_3a6cb839-138e-5550-818e-82ce28f40622.html.

[2] “Omaha Set for New Entertainment Era.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 23.

[3] “Vote ‘YES’ Nov. 7!” Omaha World-Herald. November 6, 1950. p. 9.

[4] “Auditorium Commission Had Many Fights Even Though Project Supported by Voters.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 26.

[5] “Music Hall Gets 2 Big Attractions.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 23.

[6] “Auditorium Commission Had Many Fights Even Though Project Supported by Voters.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 26.

Inoculating Omaha: The 1950’s and the Polio Vaccine

With all the talk of a COVID-19 vaccine circulating over the past weeks, we thought it would be timely to look at another vaccine story that captured Americans’ attention and imagination 65 years ago. In the 1940s and 50s, parents lived in fear of polio, and doctors were confounded by it. During the summer months, children were often warned against going to swimming pools, movie theaters, and other areas full of kids.

In the years before vaccines, about 500,000 people around the world died or became paralyzed annually as a result of the illness.[1] In the United States, 1952 saw the worst spike, with 20,000 cases resulting in paralytic polio.[2]

At the same time that the epidemic was reaching such proportions, however, people began to speak hopefully about the prospect of a new vaccine that could protect people, especially children, from the disease. Polio was originally called “Infantile Paralysis” because it affected children so disproportionately. Attempts to develop a vaccine dated as early as the 1930s, but it was almost twenty years later – in 1953 – that it started to look like it could become a reality.[3] The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had been building on this original research for sixteen years when it started to look like Dr. Jonas Salk, an epidemiologist from Pittsburgh, had finally had a breakthrough. He had spent years developing his vaccine, which contained a killed version of the virus and was delivered through multiple injections.[4] He tested the vaccine on monkeys and mice, and administered it to his wife and children at the beginning of its trial. In April of 1954, large-scale trials began across the country, including in Omaha. About 4,600 second graders around the city were given the opportunity to receive the virus with parental consent.[5] More than one million people in forty states participated in the trial, which was the country’s first double-blind placebo-controlled study.[6]

Domenico Caporale, an official of the Omaha-Douglas County Health Department, drove to Lincoln to pick up Douglas County’s share of vaccine doses. He is pictured as he unloads boxes of the vaccine upon his arrival back in Omaha, photo taken on May 1, 1954. Image from Omaha World-Herald photo archive courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Jonas Salk’s name has gone down in history, but his was not the only vaccine developed during this decade, nor is it the only one in use today. Dr. Albert Sabin of Cincinnati developed an orally administered vaccine containing a weakened version of the virus. This one was cheaper to produce and easier to distribute on a large scale (this was particularly important for getting it to less-developed countries who had benefited much less from the Salk vaccine, which was in wide use in the United States). Dr. Sabin’s vaccine wasn’t widely used in the United States until after its 1959 trial in the Soviet Union.[7]

In the next few years, gatherings known as “Sabin Oral Sundays” (or SOS events) became common throughout the country – mass vaccination events aimed at inoculating entire communities efficiently. Omaha had its first SOS day in 1962. At one event in May 1962, there were sixty locations around town that served over 380,000 residents of Omaha and Council Bluffs in just one day. There was a “suggested fee” of 25 cents, but no compulsory charge for the vaccination.[8]

A man identified as “Mr. Morton” receives his dose as his children get set to follow at an SOS event at Jefferson School. Image from Omaha World-Herald photo archive courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Some of the conversations we’re hearing today on distribution, access, and awareness are almost like a 60-year-old echo. In 1959, The Omaha Star wrote that, four years after the Salk vaccine had been approved for wide use in the United States, 98 million Americans remained un-vaccinated “at a time when there is ample polio vaccine and the surplus is spoiling in the shelves.”[9] Polio outbreaks in the years following the vaccine’s availability affected people of color and low-income neighborhoods at much higher rates than white and more affluent communities.[10]

For more polio-related items in our collection, see our blog post on Avery Hiddleston, and Omaha boy who was partially paralyzed by polio in the 1920s: http://douglascohistory.org/avery-zeke-hiddleston/

[1]What is Polio?” Canadian International Immunization Initiative. p. 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 29, 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20070929090612/http://www.immunize.cpha.ca/english/consumer/consrese/pdf/Polio.pdf

[2] “Poliomyelitis Vaccination in the United States.” Institute of Medicine Vaccine Safety Forum. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK231547/

[3] Hickok, Kimberly. “Who Invented the Polio Vaccine?” LiveScience. June 1, 2020. https://www.livescience.com/polio-virus-vaccine.html

[4] “Whatever Happened to Polio?” National Museum of American History, Behring Center (Smithsonian Institution). https://amhistory.si.edu/polio/index.htm

[5] Sullivan, Robert. “What About this Polio Vaccine?” Omaha World-Herald. April 18, 1954, p. 78.

[6] Hickok, Kimberly. “Who Invented the Polio Vaccine?” LiveScience. June 1, 2020. https://www.livescience.com/polio-virus-vaccine.html

[7] https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/what-happened-when-million-nebraskans-drank-polio-punch

[8] “Cups, Droppers and Spoons Used: More than 380 Thousand Receive Sabin Vaccine.” Omaha World-Herald. May 28, 1962. p. 25.

[9] “98 Million Americans Have Not Made Use of the Salk Vaccine.” The Omaha Star. April 24, 1959. p. 1.

[10] “Important to You.” The Omaha Star. August 7, 1959. p. 4.

Omaha’s First Public Libraries

In 1857, just three years after Omaha was officially incorporated, the young city established an Omaha Library Association. They disbanded before they were able to open a facility, and it wasn’t until twelve years later, in 1872, that a public collection became available to Omaha’s population. It was small, but it was a start – the first library was housed on the second floor of the A.J. Simpson Carriage Factory located at 14th and Dodge Streets.[1]

The A.J. Simpson Carriage Factory, ca. 1870. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Over the following years, the library board became more established, and the collection was re-located around the city on several occasions. It wasn’t until seventeen years later that the city was able to provide a permanent facility, following a land donation by real estate man Byron Reed. In addition to the large lot at 1823 Harney Street, he gave much of his personal book and coin collection.

The young architect Thomas Rogers Kimball had recently returned to Omaha from Boston, and his firm Walker & Kimball submitted designs for the library, competing with about seven other local architects.[2] Walker & Kimball was awarded the contract in 1892. It was one of Kimball’s earliest projects in Omaha, and is still standing today (used as offices).

The plans for the Harney Street library were displayed at that year’s World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but rather than being credited to Nebraska development, they were showcased as “representing the best work of Massachusetts architects.”[3] (Kimball had attended – but did not graduate from – MIT.)

Omaha Public Library, 1823 Harney Street, ca. 1904. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

There were some delays experienced in the construction – the sandstone used for the building’s exterior was purchased at bargain rates from a new quarry near Hot Springs, SD, and it wasn’t until some time later that the quarrymen discovered they’d miscalculated how difficult it would be to get the right quality of stone from the quarry. They also discovered that the quarry was located inconveniently far away from the railroad, and it took lots of extra time and effort to transport the stone by wagon.[4]

Despite those delays, the building was opened on schedule and very well-received: “Great credit should attach to Mr. Kimball and his partner, Mr. Walker, not only for their successful production, a beautiful architectural design, perfect and appropriate, but also for their economy in the use of money at the board’s disposal, and the prompt execution of the work.[5]

Thomas Kimball spoke of the finished product in somewhat more measured terms…speaking with a World-Herald reporter, he said of his design: “I wish that you would say as little as possible about the style of architecture. As a matter of fact it is the Italian Renaissance, but what we have attempted to build is a square, honest, sensible building, adapted inside and out to the purpose to which it is to be devoted. And I believe we have succeeded. … Of course we have had to sacrifice many of the things we wanted to have, and about all that can really be said of our work is that we have provided a handsome outside protection for the books. The amount appropriated barely sufficed to do what we have done, and as I said, we have had to sacrifice many of our ideals.”[6]

Omaha Public Library Circulation Department, ca. 1900. Image source: https://cdm16747.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16747coll7/id/25/rec/1

 

[1] “From the Archives: Happy 140th, Omaha Public Library!” The Omaha World-Herald. October 15, 2019. https://omaha.com/blogs/from-the-archives-happy-th-omaha-public-library/image_8bc805a5-9278-5f37-bddf-72bbaa8a6a20.html.

[2] “Plans for the Library.” The Omaha World-Herald. March 26, 1892, p. 4.

[3] “The New Library.” The Omaha World-Herald. February 12, 1893, p. 2.

[4] “Laying the Corner Stone.” Omaha World-Herald, August 5, 1893, p. 5.

[5] “Omaha’s Public Library.” Omaha World-Herald. June 24, 1894, p. 11.

[6] Ibid.

Omaha’s Groundbreaking Bakery – the Iten-Barmettler Factory

Today is National Cookie Day! Did you know that Omaha was once home to “America’s most modern bakery”?

In 1932, it was announced that the National Biscuit Company and the Iten Biscuit Company would merge in order to fully occupy the Midwestern market. Otto Barmettler, an Omahan, was named Vice President of the new conglomerate, whose headquarters would be in Omaha. The National Biscuit Company (later known as NABISCO), established in 1898 and employing 25,000 workers, was the largest baking company in the world.[1]

They set to work building a state-of-the-art new facility at 30th and Taylor Streets in North Omaha. It was said to be “America’s most modern bakery” – building construction cost $800,000 and a custom oven was purchased for $56,000. It was brought to Omaha in eight freight cars. Located in the heart of the factory, it was partitioned into six individually operated ovens so production could continue if technical problems arose.[2]

Postcard. The Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company Headquarters, ca. 1939. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The investment in the new 85,000 square-foot facility was done with one goal in mind – automation. Every step in the production process, from mixing to frosting to carting baked goods around the factory, was done on a massive scale using specialized machinery. Upon opening, the factory had impressive output – just over 3 million crackers per day or 1.5 million cookies per day.[3]

Page from Iten’s Handy Helper, offering suggestions for using Iten brand crackers, ca. 1936. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

The Iten-Barmettler Company’s presence in Omaha was short-lived – they sold the factory to Merchants Biscuit Company in 1940 only five years after it was completed. Merchants stayed in Omaha a little longer, and had a strong presence during two international events. During World War II, the factory was a large employer. Even after the war, it seems they only employed women on the production floor. During the Cold War, the Merchants Biscuit Co. gained attention as the production facility for an experimental University of Nebraska-developed product called the Nebraskit. A compact cracker that packed 850 calories and high protein levels, it became a must-have item for fall-out shelters.[4]

Merchants closed in 1962, and over the next 38 years, the plant saw a succession of several other local manufacturing names: Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture Co., Central States Tool and Die Works, U.S. Mills, Erewhon Inc. In 2000, it was acquired by the Omaha Public Schools and retrofitted with classrooms to hold students during large-scale renovations of other school buildings.

The building still stands, just a few blocks south of the DCHS library.

[1] “Baking Companies Unify Operations.” The Oak Creek Times. September 8, 1932, p. 3.

[2] “$800,000 Iten-Barmettler Plant Opens; Can Bake 3,123,200 Crackers A Day.” The Omaha World-Herald. December 16, 1936, p. 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peters, Chris. “In Cold War America, the ‘Nebraskit’ was the choice snack for nuclear fallout shelters.” The Omaha World-Herald. August 3, 2019. https://omaha.com/archives/in-cold-war-america-the-nebraskit-was-the-choice-snack-for-nuclear-fallout-shelters/article_1323886f-d4a3-5acf-a350-9941559088b3.html

Charles Jackson French, a WWII Naval Hero

Those of you who follow us on Facebook may have seen a recent Veteran’s Day post featuring a photograph of a young man named Charles Jackson French. This week, we’d like to take the opportunity to tell a bit more of his story.

Photo of Charles Jackson French and his sister Viola, appeared in the Omaha Star on 11/6/1942. Image source: Newsbank Omaha Star Archives.

French was born in Foreman, Arkansas in about 1920. He grew up as an orphan and enlisted in 1937. He was serving as a mess man on the USS Gregory when it was sunk by Japanese forces near the Solomon Islands in September of 1942. When twenty-four or twenty-five of his injured shipmates were unable to swim to safety, French tied a rope around his waist and swam, dragging a life raft filled with the wounded men, for at least six (some estimates go as high as eight) hours until they were picked up by another vessel.

The ship actually went down not far from the shore, but the men knew they were in unfriendly territory and would be taken prisoner as soon as they hit land. This was why French made the decision to swim away from shore. In a later interview, he recounted: “I knew that if we got close enough them [Japanese] would kill us. They, we had been told, would soon as kill a man already wounded as anybody else. So, I being lucky enough to not get hurt just put a line around my middle and started a paddling away from the beach. Then I got the hell scared outta me.”[1]

Because not only were they in danger of getting picked up by enemy forces, the water they were in was full of sharks. Jackson recalled, “So I thought what’s worse, them sharks or them [Japanese]? At least them sharks will be quick. […] So, I just keep paddling. I nearly peed on myself when one of them sharks touched my feet.”[2]

When the men were spotted and pulled aboard an American landing ship, French was told by the vessel’s crew to move to the “colored” quarters. The men who he had saved insisted that he remain with them on deck.

In October, French received a hero’s welcome in Omaha, where his sister Viola lived. He was hosted by S. Edward Gilbert (Omaha Star Editor), met with Senator John Adams, visited the Naval Headquarters, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant. He was also honored at Creighton University’s homecoming game, where it was reported that he received a five-minute standing ovation.

Charles Jackson French and his sister Viola at the Creighton homecoming football game on October 31, 1942. Image source: https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/black-swimming-history-a-world-war-ii-hero/

The Solomon Islands episode was featured in a series of war-hero trading collectible cards distributed by Gum, Inc. as part of their War Gum product line. Several months later, French received a letter from Admiral William F. Halsey, commending his actions, but the shipmates he saved thought he deserved a greater acknowledgement of his heroism. He never did, perhaps due to a precedent that a subordinate crew member never receive a higher commendation than an officer on the same vessel. The ship’s commanding officer Lt. Cdr. H. F. Baurer received a posthumous silver star for refusing help while mortally wounded, allowing other crew members to be saved.

French remained in the Navy, and also served in the Korean War before spending the rest of his life in California.

Gum Inc., #129, “Negro Swimmer Tows Survivors”. Image source: https://ishof.org/assets/charles-jackson-french_article.pdf

[1] Wigo, Bruce. “The Story of Charles Jackson French.” https://ishof.org/assets/charles-jackson-french_article.pdf

[2] Ibid.

Rose Cecil O’Neill Latham Wilson

Rose O’Neill was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1874. When she was a toddler, her parents moved to Battle Creek, Nebraska to try their hand at farming. Her father, William, was a classic book salesman by trade, and the farming venture was fairly short-lived. By the time she was seven, the O’Neill family had relocated to Omaha, where they would spend the next twelve years. There were seven children, and money was always tight. The family originally lived near Creighton University, but moved several times.[1]

In Omaha, Rose spent much of her free time drawing, and was largely self-taught. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, she entered a sketch called Temptation Leading down in an Abyss into a children’s drawing contest sponsored by the Omaha World-Herald. The judges couldn’t believe that someone her age could have produced a work of such quality, so she was asked to replicate certain elements for them before being named the winner.[2] As a teenager, Rose began taking drawing lessons from J. Laurie Wallace, a Realist with ties to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Temptation Leading down in an Abyss. Image source: https://hhfo-5.weebly.com/an-artist-is-born.html

At the age of nineteen, Rose moved to New York to work as a contributing illustrator for various popular periodicals like Truth, Sunday Magazine, Harper’s Bazarr, and Cosmopolitan. In 1896, she published a comic strip entitled “The Old Subscriber Calls” and became the first female comic strip artist in the United States. She joined the Puck staff in 1897 and was the only female member until 1903.[3]

The Kewpie character didn’t come about until 1909, when Rose’s career was already well-established. The little cupids first appeared in magazines, and their massive popularity led to Rose creating dolls of the characters in 1913. Rose and her sister Callista worked with New York artists to develop the dolls, which were first produced in factories in Germany, then production expanded to France and Belgium, as well. In addition to being cute little figures, they also were unfailingly kind, respectful, and loving to one another in their cartoons; these little characters were an extremely visible way for Rose O’Neill to share her world-view with her audience.

An original Kewpie doll, c. 1915. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Meanwhile, Rose’s popularity was skyrocketing, and she became the highest-paid female illustrator of the day, worth $1.4 million in 1914.[4] She was an influential force in both the art world and politics. She hosted salons in her spacious New York apartment, and spent time studying in Europe, most notably with Auguste Rodin.[5] She was also dedicated to suffrage and other social causes, not hesitating to use her wealth and popularity to improve the situations of others. She firmly disagreed with the fashion trends of her day that saw women being cinched into restrictive corsets – she preferred looser-fitting robe-like dresses that were referred to as “flyin’ squirrel dresses” by natives from the Ozarks (the O’Neill family’s final home and the setting for Rose’s retirement). She also took issue with popular depictions of Black subjects in mainstream art, where they were often shown with grotesque or otherwise exaggerated features. She was one of the first illustrators to buck this trend, using the same stylization techniques for all of her characters.

Suffrage poster by Rose O’Neill. Image source: https://historical.ha.com/itm/political/posters-and-broadsides-1896-present-/votes-for-women-rose-o-neill-kewpie-poster-perhaps-the-most-sought-after-of-all-woman-s-suffrage-items/a/6181-43174.s

The production of Kewpies slowed drastically during WWI, and only regained some of their former popularity, in part because of the arrival of another cartoon – Mickey Mouse.[6] But Rose O’Neill continued producing artwork – she lived in Paris for most of the 1920’s, where she produced more “serious” work. During this time, she exhibited at the Galerie Devambez and was elected to the Société Coloniale des Artistes Français. She returned to the United States in 1927, and spent much of the rest of her life living at Bonniebrook, her family’s estate near Branson, Missouri.

“The Eternal Gesture,” Rose O’Neill. 1920. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_O%27Neill#/media/File:The_Eternal_Gesture,_by_Rose_O’Neill.jpg

[1] Dunbier, Lonnie. “O’Neill, Rose Cecil.” Courtesy of Museum of Nebraska Art.

[2] Rose O’Neill and Miriam Formanek-Brunell, The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 44.

[3] Ibid, 16.

[4] Bossert, Jill. “1999 Hall of Fame Inductee: Rose O’Neill,” Society of Illustrators, 1999.

[5] Buhr, Sarah. Frolic of the Mind: The Illustrious Life of Rose O’Neill, 35.

[6] Dunbier, Lonnie. “O’Neill, Rose Cecil.” Courtesy of Museum of Nebraska Art.