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Omaha’s Bridges Across the Missouri

by Susan Baron

Figure 1 Drawing published in the program distributed during the Official Dedicatory Exercises for the
Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge, Omaha, Nebraska on Sunday, May 31, and Monday, June 1, 1953.
Source: Florence Historical Foundation, Bank of Florence Archives

The ease with which we cross from Iowa to Nebraska on the Mormon Bridge is rarely given much thought, because it’s so easy. But getting across the Missouri River wasn’t always like that. In 1846 thousands of Mormons gathered on the eastern banks of the Missouri River, shielded their eyes from the setting sun, and wondered how they would ever get hundreds of wagons and thousands of people and heads of livestock across those muddy swirling waters to their Zion in the West. They couldn’t afford the steamboats that occasionally arrived from downriver to act as ferries. Always the problem solvers, Mormon men went to work and in two weeks constructed a rough ferry of logs. This ferry was located just north of where Peter Sarpy operated a small dingy at Bellevue and was the first ferry to operate regularly.

Figure 2, Source: Sunday Omaha World Herald May 17, 1953 pg. 99

From the first of July 1846 until the fall of that year, wagons, families, livestock, and supplies were ferried from the Iowa side to what was then Indian Territory. By mid-September 1846, the site of Winter Quarters (modern-day Florence, NE) was officially selected. The Mormons moved their ferry north to Winter Quarters and located the landing probably at the mouth of the now-buried Mill Creek.  In 1846 Mill Creek emptied into the Missouri River and there was a limestone footing at its mouth; one of the few places in the Missouri that such a footing was to be found so close to the surface.  Wide, flat-bottoms or beaches on both the Iowa and Nebraska sides made this a desirable place for a ferry.  And others would find it a good place to put a bridge.

Figure 3 Location of ferries, Source: Richard Bennett Mormons at the Missouri
(University of Oklahoma Press 1987) p. 48

In 1854 James C. Mitchell founded the town of Florence, Nebraska literally out of the ashes of the 1846-47 Mormon Winter Quarters and was granted permission to incorporate the Florence Bridge Company by the U.S. Congress the following year. Mitchell had hoped that the Union Pacific railroad would cross there, and in that hope, he raised $200,000 to build a wooden bridge. The project only got as far as moving some dirt around on the Nebraska side before the financial panic of 1857 put an end to the endeavor. All hopes were dashed for a railroad bridge at Florence in 1873 when the Union Pacific constructed their single-track bridge. This bridge, however, did not serve wagons or foot traffic.

Figure 4, Source: UPRR Museum

Omahans were sick of seasonal ferries, pontoon bridges, and crossing precariously on ice when the river froze. In 1888, the Douglas Street Bridge for streetcars with a walkway for foot traffic was completed. When automobiles became the preferred transportation, a twin sister bridge was added and re-named the Lincoln Highway Bridge, and eventually the Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge.

Figure 5 Picture Douglas Street Bridge, Source: Douglas County Historical Society

The Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway managed to dig footings for a bridge at Florence in 1885 but went no further. 1891, 1905, 1914, 1922, 1926 and 1936 Florence talked about a bridge north of their city, but there was little action. By 1934, a second bridge in Omaha, the South Omaha Bridge, spanned the Missouri. The South Omaha Bridge delighted everyone: farmers, travelers, and particularly occupants of downtown Omaha. Before that bridge was opened, trucks odoriferous with manure would cross the Douglas Street Bridge from Iowa and drive through downtown Omaha to reach the packing house district. Whew!

By now, Florence was feeling very much left out. The only way to get to Florence from Iowa was to cross one of the two Omaha bridges and weave north through city streets. Time consuming and inconvenient.

Back in 1950 getting around in a car was a lot more challenging than it is now, for there were no interstates. Highways were two-lane affairs which made passing difficult if not dangerous. The 1950 road map shows only two-lane options. The blue arrow points to the Douglas Street Bridge, and the route east across Iowa was on Highway 6 through every little town. Scenic, but slow. A traveler could also go north on Nebraska Highway 73, cross the toll bridge at Blair and connect to Highway 30. Again scenic, but slow. The orange arrow points to the South Omaha Bridge which seemed the best route to take going south to Kansas City.

Figure 6 Image of 1950 Iowa Road Map, Source: author

Before the 1946 General Bridge Act, permission to build a bridge over an interstate stream required a franchise from Congress.  The Bridge Act bypassed Congress and streamlined the process. In 1947 the Nebraska Legislation gave municipalities and county boards the authority to create and appoint bridge commissions. The time for a bridge at Florence was way overdue, but the North Omaha Bridge Commission was the public body to get the job done.

It was a protracted and often frustrating labor of love for The North Omaha Bridge Commission: Dr. H. L. Karrer, a retired dentist; manager L. Dale Mathews, banker; contractor and chairman William F. Schollman; and Marvin G. Schmid, attorney. These men were called “Heros of Mormon Bridge” by H. W Becker, and they truly were. The way Dr. Karrer put it, “This commission had neither money nor experience. All it had was the burning desire to succeed where others in the past had failed.”

Yet the commission dove into the job of getting the 1912-foot-long bridge built. They dealt with consulting engineers, contractors, material shortages, and even traffic engineers to confirm the bridge could support itself and pay off the bonds. Smith, Barney, and Company of New York were chosen to handle the issuance of $3,450,000 million in bonds (the cost to construct the bridge, the approaches to the bridge, and a bridge over Pigeon Creek in Iowa). With engineering plans and specifications completed on December 19, 1950, the contract for the bridge was let.

The road to build the Mormon Bridge was not always straight. Among several challenges was a lawsuit alleging the commission did not have the authority to sell bonds or build the bridge. The suit was dismissed but not without causing some anxiety. There were more obstacles.

Critical materials became scarce due to the ongoing Korean War and steel being allocated. Steel mills could only promise 2,000 tons of the 3800 tons needed for bridge construction, which left a shortfall of 1800 tons. Attorney Schmid and Dr. Karrer went to Washington and wheedled another 102 tons from the Federal government. Then another hero entered the picture. The State of Nebraska – standing tall – promised the needed material out of the state’s steel allowance.

By April 1951, equipment moved in to drive piles, move earth, and secure the steel girders for the roadbed. The official groundbreaking ceremony took place on May 12, 1951, with about 500 dignitaries in attendance.  Dr. Karrer said, “The commission and the people of Omaha feel that we have been greatly honored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in giving approval to name the structure the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge, and one of our greatest desires is to have the Church and its official representatives take a leading part at the dedication ceremonies.”

By the summer of 1952 just 4,000 feet of the Iowa approach needed to be laid. The toll plaza was nearly completed, and truss work had begun.

Everything was on schedule for an October or November 1952 opening, and then came the infamous April flood of 1952. Fortunately, the area around the bridge was not greatly affected by the flood waters, and the official opening of the Mormon Bridge was only delayed until December.

The official opening on December 14, 1952 was a modest affair compared to what the dedication would be the following year. A few speeches, a ribbon cutting, and then cars and trucks streamed across. Dr. Karrer said 4,000 vehicles passed over the bridge the Sunday after it was opened. One old-timer, Harold Bergquist, present at the opening, told of crossing the Douglas Street bridge in a horse and buggy as a boy of five.

Figure 7 Toll house on Mormon Bridge in operation, Source: Omaha World Herald Dec 15, 1952 pg. 10

Kick off for the elaborate dedication ceremonies of the Mormon Pioneer Memorial bridge began with the meeting of five civic clubs from North Omaha and Florence. Twenty sub-committees were formed, and police, highway patrol, and sheriffs from Council Bluffs and Omaha were engaged to handle the expected crowd of 25,000. The days’ events would include a religious ceremony and a huge parade.

The sunrise in Omaha on May 31, 1953 was 4:53 a.m. The day was going to be hot and humid with no precipitation and little wind. The Missouri River was at 5.0 feet, down from its norm of 9.3 feet. At approximately 8:00 a.m. a special 18-car Union Pacific train pulled into Union Station with leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, including President David O. McKay, on board. In addition, 45 Palomino horses from the Weber County Utah Sheriffs Mounted Posse traveled in three cars attached to the train. More Mormons arrived by motorcade.  Descendants of Brigham Young and church founder Joseph Smith were present as well to add luster and significance to the two-day program. The North Omaha booster called it the largest gathering of Mormons in Mormon Church history.

Dignitaries were feted at a noon luncheon followed by a program at the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery with speeches by members of the North Omaha Bridge Commission and leading representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That evening “an epic cantata” was performed by 100 voices from Brigham Young University at Ak-Sar-Ben coliseum. The cantata depicted the 1846 Mormon trek across Iowa.

The next day, June 1, (coincidentally Brigham Young’s birthday) was just as packed with activity and symbolism. At 9:00 a.m., a long line of cars carrying mayors, governors, church leaders, members of the North Omaha Bridge Commission, army officials, and politicians crossed the Douglas Street Bridge in downtown Omaha to Council Bluffs. The 20-car motorcade then circled north to Cresent, Iowa and as a symbol of the Mormon pioneers crossing in 1846, drove across the Missouri River on the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge into Nebraska. The motorcade then joined the main parade beginning at 30th and Ames.

Figure 8 1953 MUD float, Source: Omaha World Herald June 1, 1953 pg. 8

Florence businesses gave prizes for the best window displays showing materials used by the Mormons during their stay at the Winter Quarters. Items included an 1845 coverlet made from flax that was grown, spun, and woven on a farm near Nauvoo, Illinois, a chest and blankets from a covered wagon, a washboard, two brass buckets made in 1849, a saddle maker’s bench, and kitchen and eating utensils of the period.

By 1969 the Mormon bridge was financially sound, but it would be another ten years before the bonds would be paid off and the bridge made toll-free.

Figure 9. Kodachrome Slide picture in 1965 at 30th Street & Mormon Bridge Road, Source: Elzo Porter

A sister span was added in 1978 before the bond was paid off which disgruntled some bridge crossers. Bridge traffic going into Iowa had to pay a toll, but traffic coming into Nebraska paid no toll.

Figure 10 1978 added span to the Mormon Bridge
Source: From the Omaha World-Herald Photography Collection at Durham Museum

That situation didn’t last long. April 21, 1979, the last toll was collected. The $3.45 million bond was paid off two years earlier than projected and left $40-$50 thousand to spare for future bridge maintenance. Crossing the bridge was now toll-free both ways. The toll booth, scheduled to be moved in late June 1979, was delayed until early July due to rain. It now resides in Florence behind the old bank and is occupied by barber, Dick Brown.

Figure 11 Mormon Bridge Toll Booth being moved
Source: Omaha World Herald July 4, 1979 pg. 6

The bridge has not been neglected. In 2018, the original bridge underwent an $11 million refurbishment that involved lead paint remediation, repairs to the bridge deck, and a new asphalt driving surface. Cars, trucks, RVs, and even electric vehicles easily cross where once there was only a ferry.

What would the pioneers of 1846 say if they could see the Twin Bridges now? I imagine they would be thankful there was no need for a ferry, and then, without hesitation, urge their teams onto the roadbed of the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge continuing West to their chosen Zion.

Figure 12 Bridge 2023, Source: author

Sources:

North Omaha Booster

                December 19, 1952 #51

                Friday, May 8, 1953 Vol 29 #19

                Friday September 11, 1953

                Friday May 29, 2953

                H. W. Becker “Heros of Bridge”

Sunday Omaha World Herald

                May 17, 1953 pg. 99

                May 24, 1953 pg. 17

                May 31, 1953 pg. 17

Evening Omaha World Herald

                May 26, 1953 pg. 1

                May 27, 1953 pg. 1

                May 28, 1953 pg. 5

                July 4, 1979, picture

Karrer, H. L. ERA Improvement April 1952 228-229 “The Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge”

Fletcher, Adam “A History of the Mormon Bridge in North Omaha”

Training the “Angels of Hell” — Fort Omaha’s Balloon School in World War I

By Bob Lohman

This week we honor the sacrifices of our nation’s military veterans on Veterans Day, a holiday that began as Armistice Day, commemorating the silencing of the guns in France at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”  With the holiday’s roots in World War I, it is an appropriate time to remember Fort Omaha’s contributions during the Great War—namely the operation of the Army’s Balloon School.  It is hard to read the words “balloon school” without smiling over such an anachronistic sounding institution, but balloons were no joke in the early era of aviation. They provided a stable platform for observing enemy movements and time aloft was not constrained by fuel capacity. While the era of manned observation balloons largely ended on Armistice Day 1918, Fort Omaha’s balloon soldiers made their mark on the battlefields of the western front and contributed to the defeat of the Kaiser’s army.

Fort Omaha actually hosted two Balloon Schools; the first from 1908-1913 and the second, which encompassed World War I, from 1916-1919. Balloons saw their first use by the U.S. Army in the Civil War. While not a huge success, the ability to observe enemy movements from above remained alluring and military balloons were again employed during the Spanish American War with mixed results. In the early 20th Century U.S. Army, the operation of balloons and aircraft was the responsibility of the Signal Corps. Originally, the Signal Corps planned to house the balloon effort at Fort Myer, Virginia; however, they were unable to construct a hydrogen plant there and transferred the balloon school to Fort Omaha, the home of the Signal Corps’ school for non-commissioned officers.

Construction of a balloon hangar and hydrogen plant began in 1908 and the first balloon filled with hydrogen generated at Fort Omaha ascended in April 1909. The school conducted classes for balloon pilots every May until it closed in October 1913, when the cash-strapped Army decided to concentrate its limited aviation funds on airplane development. Less than a year later, World War I broke out with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. While the United States managed to remain neutral through the first three years of the conflict, by 1916 the Wilson administration deemed it prudent to develop more robust military capabilities to protect American interests. A growth in aviation was part of the Army expansion, and since observation balloons were widely used by both sides in Europe for directing artillery, the Army decided to re-establish its Balloon section. Fort Omaha, which had retained its hydrogen generation plant and balloon hangar, was the logical site for the new operation, and the reborn balloon school was opened there in November 1916. Five months later, the United States entered World War I.

IMAGE 1: Balloon Hangar and Hydrogen Plant at Fort Omaha

The balloon school at Fort Omaha conducted two types of instruction. The first course of instruction was for the “Flying Cadets,” volunteers learning to become balloon pilot/observers.  Volunteers for the flying cadets included both civilians and junior enlisted men. Instruction was conducted in the former Department of the Platte Headquarters Building, commonly referred to as the “Old North Barracks” during the WWI era. The training was developed by Major Hersey (soon to be Commander of the balloon school) and encompassed topics like map reading, artillery observation, winch operations, telephones, panoramic drawing, cordage (knot tying), military skills, and meteorology.  The students also benefited from the experience of the British and French advisors attached to the school. The cadets were housed in single-story buildings behind the “South Barracks” (currently called the Double Barracks).

The growing need for balloon pilots quickly outgrew Fort Omaha’s limited capacity and the Army contracted with a private balloon school in St. Louis to provide the aerial portion of the pilot training. That school moved to Camp John Wise near San Antonio, Texas in the fall of 1917. Flying cadets subsequently conducted their 3–4-month ground school at Fort Omaha and then spent a month at Camp Wise to complete the required 8 flights to receive their balloon pilot license. Upon successful completion of their training, the cadets were commissioned as Army officers and provided the leadership for the newly forming balloon companies.

IMAGE 2: Balloons Ascending over the Fort Omaha Parade Field

The second type of instruction at Fort Omaha was for the newly-formed balloon companies and the scores of enlisted men that performed the various support functions involved in assembling, launching, recovering, maintaining, protecting, and transporting the balloons. The designation, size and structure of balloon units evolved over the first year of the war, but by June of 1918 the Army had settled on numbered balloon companies consisting of 7 officers and 180 enlisted men that included observers, hydrogen specialists, a maneuvering detail, parachute packers, a basket detail, truck drivers, maintenance sections for the balloons and trucks, cooks, machine gunners, communications specialists, and an administration section. Each company supported one Cagout style balloon, a finned cylinder that looked like a smaller version of today’s blimps.

Draftees arrived at Fort Omaha from various locations and were assigned to newly organized balloon companies. After a period of basic training in “the school of the soldier,” the troops were taught skills like knot tying, filling the balloon, attaching the basket, operating the winch to raise and lower the balloon, and parachute packing. Soldiers chosen to be specialists like truck drivers and machine gunners were sent to courses at other locations and returned to their units upon completion of their training. Classroom instruction was conducted in the South Barracks building, but much of the training was of the “hands on” variety and performed on the parade field. One veteran recalled that the initial instructors were “tough old Army sergeants” who showed no mercy to the green draftees. Later, the cadre were drawn from balloon companies that had recently completed their training. The troops were predominantly housed in tent camps set up in the northwest part of the fort.

IMAGE 3: 5th Balloon Squadron Tent Camp at Fort Omaha
Note the General Crook House and Archive Center in the background.

The limited size of Fort Omaha and its tree-lined parade field meant no more than three balloons could ascend at one time. This severely constrained the school’s ability to meet the growing demand for new balloon companies to support the rapidly expanding American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and the need for additional training sites became paramount. In July 1917, Company B was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to serve as the cadre for a new balloon school at that location. In October, the Army leased 119 acres north of Fort Omaha and dubbed it Florence Field.  The addition of Florence Field enabled the Balloon School to more than triple the number of companies that could be trained at one time.  However, even this increase was not enough to accommodate all the balloon companies in training.  In the summer of 1918, three companies were sent from Fort Omaha to establish a school near Acadia, California (Ross Field) and a month later three more Fort Omaha companies opened a training site at Camp Morrison, Virginia. Fort Omaha further expanded its training operation to Fort Crook (today’s Offutt Air Force Base) a month before the Armistice, using the fort to conduct basic training for new draftees.  In total, some 17,000 soldiers passed through the various balloon schools.

IMAGE 4: Tent Camps and Balloons at Florence Field

While the flying cadets and school cadre were housed in barracks at Fort Omaha, everyone else slept in 8-man pyramidal tents. New arrivals in the winter of 1917-1918 had to draw platforms, tents, and stoves and assemble their new homes before they could go to bed. The veterans of that period recall the freezing temperatures and sleeping in their clothes with everything else piled on top of their cots for warmth. Fortunately, the weather began to warm up in April. The quality of food in the balloon companies was dependent on the competence of the company cooks. One veteran recalled that his unit’s cooks only knew how to make “slumgullion,” a cheap stew mixed with macaroni. Other veterans were luckier, with one even declaring he “ate better than he did at home.” Soldiers looking for some variety in their diet could find home cooking at the Red Cross food stands outside the front gate, and the Junior League of Omaha hosted a canteen for officers in the southeast corner of the post. For amusement on post, the soldiers could write a letter, have a doughnut, or find reading material at the YMCA. There was also a post newspaper, The Gas Bag, that provided Fort Omaha and Army news. Troops seeking more active entertainment could catch a trolley outside the front gate on 30th Street and head into Omaha to catch a movie or show, drink a beer, attend a dance and flirt with girls, or visit an amusement park. Several veterans mentioned the support and friendliness of the people of Omaha, stating they frequently received invitations to dine in civilians’ homes.

IMAGE 5: Interior of YMCA at Fort Omaha

Training for the balloon companies typically lasted about five-to-six months. Reveille for the trainees was at 0600, followed by breakfast, policing the parade field, and work details. Training and balloon ascensions started mid-morning and continued until dinner. Simulated explosions were employed to train observers on adjusting artillery. One training detail mentioned (and disliked) by many of the enlisted veterans was digging balloon beds, which were large shallow balloon-sized pits that could accommodate a partially deflated balloon when not in use. The bed was covered with a canvas hangar or camouflage and provided shelter for the aircraft.  Numerous balloon beds were dug at both Fort Omaha and Florence Field. Training with the combustible hydrogen-filled balloons could be a dangerous endeavor. In May 1918, a balloon exploded in the 14th Balloon Company at Florence Field while being deflated inside its shelter. Two soldiers were killed and twenty injured in the blast that was believed to be sparked by static electricity.

IMAGE 6: Balloon Bed at Florence Field

Once a balloon company completed its training, it shipped out to an embarkation port for transport to England and France. A veteran of the 2nd Balloon Company recalled his unit’s departure was highlighted in the dramatic local newspaper headline; “Angels of Hell Go to France.” Upon their arrival in France, the balloon companies were sent to one of two training camps run by the AEF. There they received additional instruction before deploying to support one of the infantry divisions. The 2nd Balloon Company was the first American balloon unit to arrive at the front in February 1918, followed by the 1st Company in March. Of the 35 Balloon Companies that made it to France, 17 would see duty at the front and make 1642 ascensions. The units that did see action were used hard. The 2nd Company spent 251 continuous days at the front and the 1st Company served from March until the armistice without relief.

Balloon companies performed multiple duties in combat. Connected to artillery units by field telephones, they called for and adjusted shelling on enemy positions. They also collected information on German positions and troop movements, which they captured in drawings, photographs, and reports that were sent to higher headquarters. Although they were strongly protected by antiaircraft guns, German aircraft attacked AEF balloons 89 times; 35 balloons burned and 12 more were shot down. Because the observers used parachutes to bail out when attacked, only one observer, Lt. Cleo Ross, was killed during the war when his burning balloon touched his parachute and set it ablaze. Two more observers were captured when their winch line parted and prevailing winds took their balloon into enemy territory. The balloon companies’ positions were also subjected to shelling and gas attacks whenever they ascended, making them very unpopular with the nearby infantry units.

IMAGE 7: 2nd Balloon Company in the Aisne – Marne Offensive

The role of manned balloons in modern warfare ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Airplanes and eventually helicopters and drones would perform the airborne artillery spotting and intelligence-gathering roles in succeeding conflicts. Of the 89 U.S. Army Balloon Companies that were formed during WWI, at least 38 spent some period of their training at Fort Omaha and Florence Field. As noted, only 17 balloon companies saw action at the front, although some 30 more were en route when the war ended. Following the war, the Army’s balloon operations were consolidated at Scott Field, Illinois, and Fort Omaha’s balloon school closed in the fall of 1919; Florence Field was returned to the heirs of the original owner and eventually developed into housing. After the war, the old balloon soldiers refused to fade away and formed the National Association of American Balloon Corps Veterans in 1932, publishing a quarterly newsletter, Haul Down and Ease Off, for several years. The balloon veterans’ organization also made periodic pilgrimages to Omaha for reunions and visits to Fort Omaha up until the early 1980s.

Sources:

“Balloons Up” – Short Life of the Army Balloon Service. (2022, April 1). Retrieved from Meandering through the Prologue: https://meaderingthroughtheprologue.com/balloons-up-short-life-of-the-army-balloon-service/

Balloons and Dirigibles in WWI. (2023). Retrieved from The National WWI Museum and Memorial: https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/balloons-and-dirigibles-wwi

Beemer, A. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Havens, K. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Herbert, C. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Lieutenant William Collins (1918). Pictorial History of Fort Omaha. Omaha: U.S. Army Balloon School.

Mauldin, F. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Moore, S. T. (1963). “When Sausages Blazed in the Sky”. Air and Space Forces Magazine, 85-88.

Training the “Angels of Hell” – Fort Omaha’s Balloon School in World War I

By: Bob Lohman

This week we honor the sacrifices of our nation’s military veterans on Veterans Day, a holiday that began as Armistice Day, commemorating the silencing of the guns in France at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”  With the holiday’s roots in World War I, it is an appropriate time to remember Fort Omaha’s contributions during the Great War—namely the operation of the Army’s Balloon School.  It is hard to read the words “balloon school” without smiling over such an anachronistic sounding institution, but balloons were no joke in the early era of aviation. They provided a stable platform for observing enemy movements and time aloft was not constrained by fuel capacity. While the era of manned observation balloons largely ended on Armistice Day 1918, Fort Omaha’s balloon soldiers made their mark on the battlefields of the western front and contributed to the defeat of the Kaiser’s army.

Fort Omaha actually hosted two Balloon Schools; the first from 1908-1913 and the second, which encompassed World War I, from 1916-1919. Balloons saw their first use by the U.S. Army in the Civil War. While not a huge success, the ability to observe enemy movements from above remained alluring and military balloons were again employed during the Spanish American War with mixed results. In the early 20th Century U.S. Army, the operation of balloons and aircraft was the responsibility of the Signal Corps. Originally, the Signal Corps planned to house the balloon effort at Fort Myer, Virginia; however, they were unable to construct a hydrogen plant there and transferred the balloon school to Fort Omaha, the home of the Signal Corps’ school for non-commissioned officers.

Construction of a balloon hangar and hydrogen plant began in 1908 and the first balloon filled with hydrogen generated at Fort Omaha ascended in April 1909. The school conducted classes for balloon pilots every May until it closed in October 1913, when the cash-strapped Army decided to concentrate its limited aviation funds on airplane development. Less than a year later, World War I broke out with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. While the United States managed to remain neutral through the first three years of the conflict, by 1916 the Wilson administration deemed it prudent to develop more robust military capabilities to protect American interests. A growth in aviation was part of the Army expansion, and since observation balloons were widely used by both sides in Europe for directing artillery, the Army decided to re-establish its Balloon section. Fort Omaha, which had retained its hydrogen generation plant and balloon hangar, was the logical site for the new operation, and the reborn balloon school was opened there in November 1916. Five months later, the United States entered World War I.

The balloon school at Fort Omaha conducted two types of instruction. The first course of instruction was for the “Flying Cadets,” volunteers learning to become balloon pilot/observers.  Volunteers for the flying cadets included both civilians and junior enlisted men. Instruction was conducted in the former Department of the Platte Headquarters Building, commonly referred to as the “Old North Barracks” during the WWI era. The training was developed by Major Hersey (soon to be Commander of the balloon school) and encompassed topics like map reading, artillery observation, winch operations, telephones, panoramic drawing, cordage (knot tying), military skills, and meteorology.  The students also benefited from the experience of the British and French advisors attached to the school. The cadets were housed in single-story buildings behind the “South Barracks” (currently called the Double Barracks).

The growing need for balloon pilots quickly outgrew Fort Omaha’s limited capacity and the Army contracted with a private balloon school in St. Louis to provide the aerial portion of the pilot training. That school moved to Camp John Wise near San Antonio, Texas in the fall of 1917. Flying cadets subsequently conducted their 3–4-month ground school at Fort Omaha and then spent a month at Camp Wise to complete the required 8 flights to receive their balloon pilot license. Upon successful completion of their training, the cadets were commissioned as Army officers and provided the leadership for the newly forming balloon companies.

The second type of instruction at Fort Omaha was for the newly-formed balloon companies and the scores of enlisted men that performed the various support functions involved in assembling, launching, recovering, maintaining, protecting, and transporting the balloons. The designation, size and structure of balloon units evolved over the first year of the war, but by June of 1918 the Army had settled on numbered balloon companies consisting of 7 officers and 180 enlisted men that included observers, hydrogen specialists, a maneuvering detail, parachute packers, a basket detail, truck drivers, maintenance sections for the balloons and trucks, cooks, machine gunners, communications specialists, and an administration section. Each company supported one Cagout style balloon, a finned cylinder that looked like a smaller version of today’s blimps.

Draftees arrived at Fort Omaha from various locations and were assigned to newly organized balloon companies. After a period of basic training in “the school of the soldier,” the troops were taught skills like knot tying, filling the balloon, attaching the basket, operating the winch to raise and lower the balloon, and parachute packing. Soldiers chosen to be specialists like truck drivers and machine gunners were sent to courses at other locations and returned to their units upon completion of their training. Classroom instruction was conducted in the South Barracks building, but much of the training was of the “hands on” variety and performed on the parade field. One veteran recalled that the initial instructors were “tough old Army sergeants” who showed no mercy to the green draftees. Later, the cadre were drawn from balloon companies that had recently completed their training. The troops were predominantly housed in tent camps set up in the northwest part of the fort.

The limited size of Fort Omaha and its tree-lined parade field meant no more than three balloons could ascend at one time. This severely constrained the school’s ability to meet the growing demand for new balloon companies to support the rapidly expanding American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and the need for additional training sites became paramount. In July 1917, Company B was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to serve as the cadre for a new balloon school at that location. In October, the Army leased 119 acres north of Fort Omaha and dubbed it Florence Field.  The addition of Florence Field enabled the Balloon School to more than triple the number of companies that could be trained at one time.  However, even this increase was not enough to accommodate all the balloon companies in training.  In the summer of 1918, three companies were sent from Fort Omaha to establish a school near Acadia, California (Ross Field) and a month later three more Fort Omaha companies opened a training site at Camp Morrison, Virginia. Fort Omaha further expanded its training operation to Fort Crook (today’s Offutt Air Force Base) a month before the Armistice, using the fort to conduct basic training for new draftees.  In total, some 17,000 soldiers passed through the various balloon schools.

While the flying cadets and school cadre were housed in barracks at Fort Omaha, everyone else slept in 8-man pyramidal tents. New arrivals in the winter of 1917-1918 had to draw platforms, tents, and stoves and assemble their new homes before they could go to bed. The veterans of that period recall the freezing temperatures and sleeping in their clothes with everything else piled on top of their cots for warmth. Fortunately, the weather began to warm up in April. The quality of food in the balloon companies was dependent on the competence of the company cooks. One veteran recalled that his unit’s cooks only knew how to make “slumgullion,” a cheap stew mixed with macaroni. Other veterans were luckier, with one even declaring he “ate better than he did at home.” Soldiers looking for some variety in their diet could find home cooking at the Red Cross food stands outside the front gate, and the Junior League of Omaha hosted a canteen for officers in the southeast corner of the post. For amusement on post, the soldiers could write a letter, have a doughnut, or find reading material at the YMCA. There was also a post newspaper, The Gas Bag, that provided Fort Omaha and Army news. Troops seeking more active entertainment could catch a trolley outside the front gate on 30th Street and head into Omaha to catch a movie or show, drink a beer, attend a dance and flirt with girls, or visit an amusement park. Several veterans mentioned the support and friendliness of the people of Omaha, stating they frequently received invitations to dine in civilians’ homes.

Training for the balloon companies typically lasted about five-to-six months. Reveille for the trainees was at 0600, followed by breakfast, policing the parade field, and work details. Training and balloon ascensions started mid-morning and continued until dinner. Simulated explosions were employed to train observers on adjusting artillery. One training detail mentioned (and disliked) by many of the enlisted veterans was digging balloon beds, which were large shallow balloon-sized pits that could accommodate a partially-deflated balloon when not in use. The bed was covered with a canvas hangar or camouflage and provided shelter for the aircraft.  Numerous balloon beds were dug at both Fort Omaha and Florence Field. Training with the combustible hydrogen-filled balloons could be a dangerous endeavor. In May 1918, a balloon exploded in the 14th Balloon Company at Florence Field while being deflated inside its shelter. Two soldiers were killed and twenty injured in the blast that was believed to be sparked by static electricity.

Once a balloon company completed its training, it shipped out to an embarkation port for transport to England and France. A veteran of the 2nd Balloon Company recalled his unit’s departure was highlighted in the dramatic local newspaper headline; “Angels of Hell Go to France.” Upon their arrival in France, the balloon companies were sent to one of two training camps run by the AEF. There they received additional instruction before deploying to support one of the infantry divisions. The 2nd Balloon Company was the first American balloon unit to arrive at the front in February 1918, followed by the 1st Company in March. Of the 35 Balloon Companies that made it to France, 17 would see duty at the front and make 1642 ascensions. The units that did see action were used hard. The 2nd Company spent 251 continuous days at the front and the 1st Company served from March until the armistice without relief.

Balloon companies performed multiple duties in combat. Connected to artillery units by field telephones, they called for and adjusted shelling on enemy positions. They also collected information on German positions and troop movements, which they captured in drawings, photographs, and reports that were sent to higher headquarters. Although they were strongly protected by antiaircraft guns, German aircraft attacked AEF balloons 89 times; 35 balloons burned and 12 more were shot down. Because the observers used parachutes to bail out when attacked, only one observer, Lt. Cleo Ross, was killed during the war when his burning balloon touched his parachute and set it ablaze. Two more observers were captured when their winch line parted and prevailing winds took their balloon into enemy territory. The balloon companies’ positions were also subjected to shelling and gas attacks whenever they ascended, making them very unpopular with the nearby infantry units.

The role of manned balloons in modern warfare ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Airplanes and eventually helicopters and drones would perform the airborne artillery spotting and intelligence-gathering roles in succeeding conflicts. Of the 89 U.S. Army Balloon Companies that were formed during WWI, at least 38 spent some period of their training at Fort Omaha and Florence Field. As noted, only 17 balloon companies saw action at the front, although some 30 more were en route when the war ended. Following the war, the Army’s balloon operations were consolidated at Scott Field, Illinois, and Fort Omaha’s balloon school closed in the fall of 1919; Florence Field was returned to the heirs of the original owner and eventually developed into housing. After the war, the old balloon soldiers refused to fade away and formed the National Association of American Balloon Corps Veterans in 1932, publishing a quarterly newsletter, Haul Down and Ease Off, for several years. The balloon veterans’ organization also made periodic pilgrimages to Omaha for reunions and visits to Fort Omaha up until the early 1980s.

 

Sources

“Balloons Up” – Short Life of the Army Balloon Service. (2022, April 1). Retrieved from Meandering through the Prologue: https://meaderingthroughtheprologue.com/balloons-up-short-life-of-the-army-balloon-service/

Balloons and Dirigibles in WWI. (2023). Retrieved from The National WWI Museum and Memorial: https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/balloons-and-dirigibles-wwi

Beemer, A. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Havens, K. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Herbert, C. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Lieutenant William Collins (1918). Pictorial History of Fort Omaha. Omaha: U.S. Army Balloon School.

Mauldin, F. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Moore, S. T. (1963). “When Sausages Blazed in the Sky”. Air and Space Forces Magazine, 85-88.

Raines, R. R. (1996). Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History.

Two Soldiers Die, Twenty Hurt When Balloon Explodes. (1918, May 3). Omaha World Herald, p. 1.

War Department, U.S. Army Balloon School, Fort Omaha, Nebraska. (n.d.). General Orders 1919-1921. Retrieved from National Archives: Training the Soldier: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/617502

Weigel, A. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

How to Get Away with Murder: Death at the Paxton Hotel

By: Elise O’Neil

On November 17, 1888, Elizabeth Beechler shot her husband to death in the lobby of the Paxton Hotel. There was no doubt that she was the culprit. Multiple witnesses watched her follow him to the staircase, firing a revolver in his general direction. She was even heard to exclaim, “I have shot my husband!” before handing off her gun to another hotel guest and collapsing into a faint. Without question, she was the cause of this man’s demise. Nobody disputed this.

The Paxton Hotel, c. 1886

Illustration of Libbie Beechler in the Omaha World-Herald.

Why, then, was she tried and acquitted of the crime less than 5 months after perpetrating it? Maybe 200 years earlier, before literacy rates skyrocketed in the United States and newspapers were printed cheap and fast, the answer to this question would have been lost to the mists of time. But the reporters staffing the World-Herald in 1888 were as intrepid as they were unethical, and the Douglas County Historical Society has filed away pages and pages of their prodigious output concerning this case.

 

The reporting on the trial was exhaustive and scathing, incorporating even the most insignificant of details while viciously roasting various side characters. But long before the trial commenced, in just the first 48 hours after the murder, reporters from local publications were digging as deep as they could to take advantage of the growing sensation. They joined the looky-loos at the Paxton, attempting to catch glimpses of the hotel servants cleaning blood out of the Turkish carpets. They went to the morgue where some of them succeeded in viewing the corpse. They listened in at the inquest, soaking up every little nugget about the bullet’s trajectory throughout the man’s body. One indefatigable Herald man even managed to elude officials and temporarily achieve an “unobstructed view” of the accused in her jail cell.

 

Not only did these reporters provide posterity with copious amounts of information about the crime and its aftermath—they were likely one of the main instigating factors in Elizabeth Beechler’s eventual acquittal. Amidst sensational descriptions of the victim flailing his arms before toppling down the staircase and “the life blood spurting from his mouth,” two facts remained consistent throughout every reporter’s tale. First, Elizabeth Beechler had killed her husband. And second, said husband had recently deserted her and married another woman.

 

The latter of these facts immediately garnered her sympathy with the public—particularly with women. For a Late Victorian woman with no family money, desertion by one’s spouse could result in the direst of straits. Respectable ladies across Omaha surely put themselves in this unfortunate woman’s shoes and felt for her in her distress. Two women were even accosted by a World-Herald reporter as they left the jail, having just delivered an “elaborate meal” including “some very fine fruit and a pitcher of cream” to the accused.

 

Of course, the father of the dead man had no sympathy for his son’s erstwhile wife, claiming to reporters that she was of “bad character” and implying that the two had never even been married at all. However, his voice seemed to be alone in the sea of others who took up for the woman, appearing to be altogether unimpressed with the dead man’s womanizing career. One of the father’s closest business associates told reporters that he was unsurprised at this turn of events, as the murder victim was a “prodigal son” who “threw…aside” his many advantages in life and “seemed wholly unable to resist temptation.”

 

Riding and encouraging this wave of sympathy for the woman they dubbed “the murderess,” the papers rarely failed to describe her in a flattering light, presenting her as “pale” with “unusually large blue eyes and dark hair.” In the earliest stages of reporting, she was presented as entirely respectable, having previously lived in a stylish area of Chicago. One notice even opined that she ought not to be put on display and that she was far too innocent a character to be sharing a cell with the “procuress” who was her current cellmate. Just two days after the murder, the World-Herald declared that “public sentiment and sympathy (were) much in favor of the woman.” All of these very public opinions and descriptions placed the accused at a significant advantage by the time her trial rolled around.

Illustration of Harry W. King, Jr. in the Omaha World-Herald.

But let’s back up for a moment. Who was Elizabeth Beechler? And who had her husband been before succumbing to his injuries? Elizabeth Beechler was referred to in the papers by various derivatives of her Christian name, including Eliza, Lizzie, and Libbie. She seems, however, to have consistently referred to herself as Libbie, so we’ll go with that. Originally from Cleveland, she came from what all the reporters agreed was a “poor” family and lived in obscurity in Ohio until she met her husband. He swept her off her feet and away from the country hotel in which she was working, taking her to live with him in Illinois.

Image of the lobby of the Paxton Hotel.

 

Her husband, in contrast, was more of a known quantity by the time of his murder. The son of Chicago business mogul Harry W. King, Sr., Harry W. King, Jr. was a 30-year-old college graduate who had already been divorced once when he met Libbie Beechler. Soon after the two crossed paths, in October of 1886, the young King took his newest conquest to Quincy, Illinois, where he had a friend who may or may not have been a minister marry the two in secret. Libbie was assured that the marriage was legally binding, and the couple proceeded to set up house in Quincy and later in Chicago, living as husband and wife. One red flag in this arrangement which Libbie chose to ignore was that her husband insisted they live under false names so that his father wouldn’t get wind of the marriage. But she was a decade younger than her world-wise husband, and he was not only paying for her sister to attend school at a convent in Chicago, but also allowing her 4-year-old brother to live with them as a surrogate son. Despite the subterfuge, this was a huge step up in life for a poor girl from Cleveland.

 

Yet the red flags continued to wave. Later, Libbie would claim that Harry had beat her in the streets of Quincy, resulting in the miscarriage of their unborn child. Further, twice Harry deserted her, leaving her destitute. Both times his father dispatched lawyers who held out the promise of lump sum payments if she would sign papers relinquishing her claim to him. The couple reunited and continued their life together soon after the first desertion, but upon the second, Harry absconded to Missouri where he married an 18-year-old named Alice Duffy. It was reading of this marriage in the paper that spurred Libbie to board the train to Omaha where the newlyweds were reported to be living at the time.

 

And that brings us to the crime. According to witnesses at both the inquest and the trial, Libbie checked in at the Paxton early in the morning as soon as she arrived in Omaha. She then asked to be shown to the young Mr. King’s room, where she knocked on the door and announced herself. Harry did not invite her in, and instead the two made their way to the parlor above the lobby where they engaged in a chat for some 15 to 20 minutes until the shots from her revolver began to ring out. Witnesses saw Libbie pursuing her husband while continuing to shoot as he ran from her, tumbled down the balcony stairs, and collapsed in a bloody heap on the landing. Libbie was not, it turns out, a very good shot, as only one of the four bullets struck him. Nevertheless, he expired within minutes, being unable to speak and therefore making no dying declaration.

World-Herald illustration of Libbie Beechler shooting at Harry W. King, Jr. in the lobby of the Paxton Hotel.

The trial itself was appointment viewing for Omahans who had the time. Professionals with flexible schedules and middle-class women who kept house were the main spectators. Arriving hours before proceedings began each day, these casual viewers packed the courtroom and jostled for seats—some bringing luncheons so that they didn’t have to give up their positions during the midday recess. Those times when the trial wasn’t proving to be dramatic enough copy, the trusty reporters from the World-Herald and the Bee could be counted on to take shots at the spectators to add a little color to their stories. One notice referred to the viewing public as “the vulgar herd” while numerous other reports devoted paragraphs making snarky comments about the women in the audience, noting that they far outnumbered the men.

 

But who could blame these thrill-seekers for their determination to land good seats at the best show in town? Though there were moments of tedium to allow for the serious administration of the law, there were enough outbursts and scandalous revelations to keep even the most jaded housewife engaged. The opposing lawyers were constantly objecting to one another’s statements, detailed descriptions of gore abounded, and the defendant herself was incredibly exciting to watch. Dressed in “widow’s weeds” in deference to the husband she had recently killed, she was an array of emotions—at turns chatting amiably with her representation and at others audibly wailing in frustration. Several times she had to be taken into a back room to be calmed down due to excessive dramatic swooning.

Illustration of Libbie Beechler swooning in the Omaha World-Herald.

 

The jury selection for this trial was also more intensive than most, as the court needed to find 12 men willing to sentence a woman to death. When the pool ran out before reaching the required number, the presiding Judge Groff had to issue a venire compelling more jurors to come to court. Accordingly, the sheriff’s deputies began pulling random men off the streets for that purpose.

 

The prosecution had a strong case. After all, it was not in dispute whether Libbie Beechler had shot and killed Harry W. King, Jr. The prosecuting attorney merely had to prove that she had meant to do so. The lead prosecutor was a Mr. Mahoney, who introduced numerous witnesses to describe the events leading up to the crime, the crime itself, and Libbie Beechler’s affect and motivation throughout the entire ordeal. Mahoney asserted that the defendant had gotten on the train to Omaha with the sole intention of finding the victim and murdering him. The lynchpin that held this argument together was a letter that Libbie’s team had valiantly fought but failed to have thrown out of the pile of admissible evidence. In it, many months before the crime, Libbie wrote to her husband upon his first desertion that, “If you ever go back on me again, God help you, for I will not let you live.” Tough stuff.

 

However, the defense seemed to take this damning letter in stride. In fact, the lead defense attorney, a General Cowin, chose to rest without presenting a single witness, insisting that the prosecution had made his case for him. That isn’t to say that he didn’t make his own persuasive argument. During closing statements, Cowin spoke for hours upon his client’s innocence until he was entirely hoarse, floating several novel theories to introduce that little bit of reasonable doubt. He positioned Libbie as the victim in the situation, arguing that she had been betrayed by her husband and bamboozled by the lawyers his father had sent to pay her off. He asserted that the evidence showed she had acted in self-defense, as she had stated that she shot Harry only after he had taken her by the throat and threatened her life. According to Cowin, Libbie was nothing but a loving and dutiful wife, while her husband was a spoiled scoundrel. He took particular relish in the dead man’s last name, “King,” honing in on the American distaste for monarchy and implying that Harry was the disastrous result of the endless indulgence afforded to “royalty.”

Illustration of General Cowin in the Omaha World-Herald.

Early on in his speech he seemed almost to be making a proto-feminist argument, questioning openly how a jury made up entirely of men could possibly be expected to comprehend the inner workings of a woman’s heart—the actions of a woman in love. And then he went an entirely different route in order to claim that Libbie had been temporarily insane when she shot her husband and could therefore not be held accountable for her actions. He argued this point by brandishing a medical textbook and explaining that all women go temporarily insane once a month when menstruation occurs. Perhaps this scientific assessment was the theory that clinched the defense’s victory.

 

Libbie had maintained the sympathy of the court and the public throughout the trial. Reporters commented that her appearance was favorable despite her months spent languishing in jail. The bailiffs and deputies seem to have taken a liking to her and began chaperoning her on carriage rides around town to calm her nerves after court. (One day, a bailiff even took her on a peaceful ride around Fort Omaha which she seemed to have enjoyed immensely.) And when the jury rendered her “not guilty,” the entire room cheered, utterly irritating an already exasperated Judge Groff. She couldn’t leave the courtroom for a long while thereafter, as a receiving line had formed, and she was obliged to kiss and thank every spectator who had taken in her ordeal day after day.

 

So why was Libbie Beechler allowed to walk free after killing her husband? Did the jury buy that she was defending her own life? Did they conclude that she had been temporarily addled by her menses and the injustice of all her husband had put her through? They weren’t telling. Perhaps they didn’t even know. One juror was quoted in the World-Herald stating that the 12 men had not even had a discussion over the matter. They had simply walked into the jury room, voted “not guilty,” and unanimously acquitted her of the crime within minutes.

 

Libbie Beechler had many attributes that endeared her to reporters, the jury, and the general public. She was attractive and personable. She presented herself as a respectable white bourgeois lady. And she was also not local, meaning that no one in Omaha harbored any previously-held assumptions about her or her background. She was a clean slate upon which the public could superimpose their own sympathetic interpretations of a wronged woman. While there were many tales of her husband’s notorious misdeeds flowing into local papers from Chicago, Libbie appeared to have no dark past upon which to capitalize. She was essentially the proverbial “everywoman,” which worked significantly to her advantage.

 

And she didn’t stick around to change this perception. The day after the trial ended she hopped on an eastbound train with her destination unknown to at least the clambering reporters. She was not heard from in Omaha again.

Illustration of Libbie Beechler clutching her handkerchief in the Omaha World-Herald.

Sources

 

“What Judge Brewer Saw.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“Young King’s Career.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“Mrs. Beechler’s Babe.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“Mr. Browning Interviewed.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“Around the Morgue.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“The News in Chicago.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“The Inquest.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“Shot to Kill.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“The Slayer’s Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“King Senior’s Statement.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“After the Tragedy.” Omaha World-Herald. 18 November 1888.

 

“Will Be Commenced Today.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 April 1889.

 

“She Wore a Widow’s Weeds.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 April 1889.

 

“She Made a Scene in Court.” Omaha World-Herald. 4 April 1889.

 

“Morbidly Curious Masses.” Omaha World-Herald. 5 April 1889.

 

“A Settlement That Failed.” Omaha World-Herald. 6 April 1889.

 

“Surprised by the Defense.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 April 1889.

 

“Talking for a Woman’s Life.” Omaha World-Herald. 9 April 1889.

 

“Her Freedom is Restored.” Omaha World-Herald. 11 April 1889.

 

“Where Will She Go?” Omaha World-Herald. 12 April 1889.

Satellite or Spaceship in Omaha?

BY: SUSAN BARON

Why does the building on the NW corner of 60th and L looks like it is not of this world? What was there before and who built the motel? To figure that out, we need to go back in history.

Before white settlement, Native Americans hunted, fished and lived in the broad valley of the Big Papio Creek. They planted corn on its bottoms and the creek cut so deep into the land that an ox belonging to Mormon leader Brigham Young broke its neck trying to get down the Papio’s steep banks to get a drink. That was in 1846, when the Mormons, after an arduous three-month trek across Iowa, were given permission to cross into what was then Indian Territory.

Hundreds of Mormon wagons began crossing the Missouri River in late June of 1846 and found temporary respite in the open prairie near what is now 60th and L. It was a temporary stop for the Mormons and because of a large spring seeping sweet, clear and cold water, they named it Cold Springs Camp. Here they prepared for the trek to Grand Island, where it was thought they would winter since it was too late in the year to attempt a mountain crossing

 

Plans changed. By August, Mormon leaders directed the hundreds of wagons and tents to leave Cold Spring Camp and go to Winter Quarters in modern Florence, Nebraska. In 1854, Indian Territory became Nebraska Territory and the land filled up with white settlers. Margaret Baier Bauman and her husband settled on a farm at 54th and L in 1867 and lived there for most of 50 years. Fast-forwarding to 1893, Fred Tex, Sr. married Lily Bauman, Margaret Baier Bauman’s daughter. The Tex’s first child was Fred Tex Junior, born in 1900. Three daughters followed while Tex and Lily took up the business of farming.

By 1909, Fred Tex Sr owned parts of Section 1 and Section 6 on the Douglas County plat map of that year.  Fred came to own quite a bit of land in the area, but that’s another story. For now, it is important to know that a parcel of land in Section 1 would eventually be the landing pad for the Satellite Motel.

The first building to cover the pasture land on the NW corner of 60th and L, was a garage built by Fred Tex, Sr. for his son. Fred Tex, Jr. had a glass eye from being kicked by a horse or cow and, perhaps for that reason, he did not farm with his father, but he did have an interest in motors. This was in the 1920s and neither L or 60th streets were paved.

 

These dirt roads needed grading from time to time to level out ruts and holes created by wheels and weather.

 

At about this time, Fred Tex, Jr, friends with Floyd J Kidder, Sr, married Floyd’s sister, Blanche Kidder, and Floyd married Fred’s sister, Ida Tex.  Floyd and Ida Tex Kidder’s marriage holds significant importance for this bit of history for they also had a son, Floyd J Kidder, known as Junior. Junior would eventually take over the garage from Fred Tex Jr, build a new one and also build the Satellite Motel.

Junior was born August 4, 1922 and he was special from the beginning, for he was a person of little stature, only growing to a height of 4 feet.

 

But nothing held this enterprising young man back. Junior attended South High School; participating in the school orchestra as a saxophone player and soloing in choir.  Junior had difficulty walking long distances, so to traverse the long halls at South High, he used a tricycle. It seemed like a logical solution since he did the same at home. Junior was excused from his classes 3 minutes early to avoid the rush of students in the hall and he had the privilege of using the elevator.  Soon after graduation, Junior took a position as bookkeeper and dispatcher at Omaha Concrete Stone. He worked there for 15 years.

Junior and his brother Gene took over the garage from Fred Tex, Jr. in 1957. The Kidder brothers became widely known as builders and racers of dragsters.

Students across the street at Ryan High School remember the roaring of car engines as they were being tested.

 The widening of 60th street to four lanes was planned for 1964. The roads had long been paved, but now the garage on the NW corner of 60th and L would be in the way and would have to be moved or demolished. In 1963, Junior worked out a deal with Fred Tex, Sr. to get a piece of ground just north of the old garage in order to build a new garage. That building stands today operating as All Pro Muffler and Brakes.

After construction of the new garage, there was a bit of land left over just to the south, right on the corner. Junior and brother Gene drew up rough plans for a building that would fit the site. Architects Gollehon and Schemmer drew up the final plans for the octangle building and it was completed in May 1966.

The Satellite motel was not only unique in design, but in purpose. It housed Junior Kidder and his parents, Joe and Margaret. The first level had motel rooms all around, with outside access and an interior hallway providing interior access. In the core of the structure were living quarters for the family. The dining room and kitchen were on the ground level. On the second level, reached by elevator, were bedrooms and baths. The third level, called by some a penthouse, was actually a recreational space for Junior, complete with a bar built to accommodate his short stature.

There is no clear reason why the name Satellite was chosen, but Junior played it up by having a Sputnik type sign made that seemed like it was orbiting the motel. Before it was damaged by a recent hailstorm, the ball, nor longer painted orange, blinked lights at the end of its numerous antennae.

Sadly, Junior had a heart attack in 1977 and died at the age of 55. Due to health concerns, ownership of the motel had been transferred earlier to his sister and brother-in-law, Margaret Kidder Kosalka and Joe Kosalka with the condition that Junior be able to live there for the rest of his life. The Kosalkas decided to sell the motel in 1986. Unfortunately, the current owners did not respond to a request for an interview so we don’t know how much the interior has changed. However, the motel exterior looks today much like it did back in the 1960s, still attracting notice from passersby, wondering if The Satellite Motel might begin to whirl and lift off to fly to distant universes.

Author’s note: This article was made possible by the research help from the librarians and archivists at the Omaha Public Library, but most of all from Robert J Kosalka, whose mother and father lived in, worked in and owned The Satellite Motel for most of its past history.

Bibliography:

Keith Pauley – owner of All Pros Brank and Muffler shop 4646 S 60 Street, Omaha, Ne

Omaha City Directories and Street Guides

Omaha History Club Facebook page

Omaha World Herald historical obituaries, births and marriages

Franzwa, Gregory M The Mormon Trail Revisited, pg. 74-76

Peony Park’s Appeal

By: Tara Spencer

I knew people were going to have strong reactions to the blog I wrote about Peony Park. Not because of my writing, but because I’d already heard the way people talk about it. You can see the adoration in their eyes as they recount some of their favorite memories.

When I was in college, I was part of a kind of experimental class. The professor, Dr. Chris Allen, wanted to teach students how to make a documentary, start to finish, over the course of two semesters. I don’t think I’d ever been so excited for a class before. Only six of us signed up.

In our initial discussion, we gravitated towards the idea of doing a story on Omaha’s Black history during the time of segregation. But due to our small size, we didn’t think that was a topic we would be able to cover in a mere two semesters.

Some preliminary research had been done, and in that exploration, one of the students discovered the not-always-so-nice history of Peony Park. After much back-and-forth, it was decided that we would make our documentary on this Omaha institution, but we were going to make a point to cover its whole history.

It’s easy to see why people idealize it the way they do. We don’t have anything around today that can touch what it was in its heyday. Members of my own family had stories about how much fun going to Sprite Night was, though their stories weren’t quite as wholesome as most others we heard.

As I mentioned in the blog, most people we interviewed had only fond memories, including former Nebraska Congressman Lee Terry and Carl Jennings, the man who literally wrote the book on Peony Park.

Others remembered things in a different light. We spoke with former Omaha mayor Mike Boyle and Omaha businessman Herb Rhodes, who was a part of the historic change to the park’s policy. Both men discussed the incidents that led to the decision to allow Black people to swim in the pool and the aftermath.

Personally, I only have one memory of Peony Park, as I was quite small when we visited. I remember riding on the Sky-Rail with my mom and brother, and seeing the pool below, wishing we had brought swimsuits. I didn’t know its history until I started researching it for the documentary.

Despite the controversy surrounding segregation and reported drownings and near-drownings, the pool remained the biggest draw for the park.

To address a couple questions people had concerning the last blog post, the pool occupied 4.5 acres (including the beach) and held roughly 5 million gallons of artesian well water. Depth ranged from 1 to 10 feet and was 700 feet long. 

Over the years, attendance did wane. As revenue dropped, operation costs increased, and eventually the decision to sell was made.

When we look back on places and events from a vantage point of several years or decades, it’s easy to romanticize them. But it’s important to remember that oftentimes we can be biased to only remember the good points.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get to enjoy those feelings of nostalgia, but we should know that our experiences are likely different from those of others.

Looking at history should be all-encompassing and include the good, the bad and the terribly ugly. Nostalgia can be lovely, but we shouldn’t let it cloud the facts. Analyzing why and how horrific events happened and actively working to ensure they don’t happen again is the best way to keep history from repeating itself.

Benson’s Almost-Forgotten Amusement Park

By: Elise O’Neil

The sense of nostalgia across DCHS’s social media platforms was intense following the release of our recent blog post about the ups and downs of Peony Park. Most of the comments we received involved personal memories of time spent at the pool, in the ballroom, or on the rides. In following with that theme of Omaha amusement parks gone by, we thought we’d revisit a similar site of recreation—Krug Park—although there are surely far fewer people alive today who remember it in all its glory.

Krug Park, n.d. (DCHS Photograph Collection)

The Park

 

Let’s set the scene: Decades before the dawn of Peony Park, in the 1880s a man named Charles Tietz began building what he dubbed “Tietz Park” on a strip of land that is now Gallagher Park in Benson. Originally encompassing 20 acres extending from Bedford Avenue to Maple Street and from 52nd Street to 54th Street, the endeavor blossomed quickly. Tietz built a beer garden and dance hall, added rides like a Ferris wheel and carousel, and established what his grandson would later claim was the first bowling alley in Omaha.

Beer Parlor and Dance Hall, c. 1900s (DCHS Photograph Collection)

The land had been mortgaged to Omaha brewing magnate Alfred Krug, who upon Tietz’s death in 1903 repossessed the park and renamed it Krug Park—the name by which most would come to recognize it. From there, Krug expanded the business into a full-blown amusement park with thrilling rides, dazzling performances, and top-notch concessions.

Krug Park, c. 1900s (DCHS Photograph Collection)

For the first decade after Krug took over, the park was billed as Omaha’s “Polite Resort.” Postcards featured images of well-dressed guests patronizing a tidy, well-kept park with arched gates, wide pathways, and floral displays. But by the mid 1910s the amenities were rapidly expanding and so was the clientele.

            The list of rides that appeared at Krug Park between the 1900s and the 1920s would have impressed at any amusement park worth its salt during that period. A Benson Times notice from 1926 listed a “Chair-o-Plane” ride, Skooter, Whip, Merry-Go-Round, and a troublingly-named tunnel-of-love-esque ride called the “Swanee River.” Other notably popular rides over this period were the Caterpillar and the roller coaster, that could be seen towering over the rest of the park, called the Big Dipper.

Children at Krug Park, n.d. (DCHS Photograph Collection)

If a guest wished to indulge in an activity that wasn’t quite as stomach-turning as some of these early 20th century rides could be, there were plenty of other amusements of which to take advanta0eg. In one area was the House of 1001 Troubles, a fun house that promised to thrill any who walked through it. The dance hall was always bustling with modern music and theme nights. At various times over the years there were exotic animals on display like the 18 monkeys reportedly shipped in from India in the summer of 1923. And if one truly wished to be awed, there were stunts galore regularly performed throughout each summer. In the early years these involved trapeze artists, balloonists, and human cannonballs. Later on, in the 1910s and 1920s, the park became known for hosting “Dr. Carver’s High Diving Horse” show, in which the horse (or horses) in question would dive from a high tower into a tank of water while mounted by a “girl in red.” One of these “girl(s) in red,” a local secretary named Vivian Keller (nee Karls) claimed years later that she “never felt any fear at all” during her numerous dives atop her horse, though she eventually quit the act at the insistence of her mother.

 

Swings and Carousel with Diving Platform and Tank in the Background (DCHS Photograph Collection)

In addition to the cutting-edge rides and entertainments on display at Krug Park, management also invested in new technologies that would make their establishment stand out. For example, in 1924 a newly-patented system costing more than $10,000 was installed which would make “it possible to serve an endless stream of people with drinks of a uniform temperature of coldness and uniformly carbonated.” This was an enormous feat at a time when personal refrigerators were only just making their way into the mainstream and was surely a balm for guests wearing modest 1920s clothing on hot Nebraska days.

Another example of park management’s commitment to utilizing technology to entice visitors was the system used to purify the pool. The pool itself was immense, offering a sand beach and serviced by a sumptuous bath house. By the mid-1920s it was equipped with a water carousel, its impressiveness further enhanced by thousands of electric bulbs strung above it to accommodate its late closing time at 11 PM. The icing on top was the pool’s acclaimed cleanliness, achieved through the use of “special machinery” operated by an “expert chemist” that promised to destroy “every bacteria.”

Krug Park Swimming Pool and Bath House, n.d. (DCHS Photograph Collection)

For many years, Krug Park was the sole place Omahans, South Omahans, and Bensonites could go to experience high-flying rides the likes of which could only be found at places like Coney Island in New York. And though there is plenty of nostalgic mythology surrounding Krug Park, most of it has been overshadowed by an incident in July of 1930 that made Benson the site of perhaps the deadliest roller coaster accident in United States history.

 

The Tragedy

 

The acclaimed Big Dipper coaster was the culprit. Affectionately dubbed the “rolly coaster” by dedicated riders, the apparatus had recently been deemed safe by a city inspector. On the other hand, one park worker predicted there would be a “terrible accident” on the coaster due to a perceived lack of regular maintenance. But whether one trusted in the safety of the rollercoaster or not, no one could have predicted the scope of the disaster that would take place that day.

View of the Big Dipper with Benson High School Visible in the Background (DCHS Photograph Collection)

July 24th 1930 was like any summer’s day at Krug Park—guests picnicked, rode the rides, and spent their hard-earned pennies on whimsey and fun. At approximately 7:40 PM, 23 people boarded four cars on the Big Dipper roller coaster and prepared themselves to be amused. But halfway up the 75-foot incline a brake shoe fell off the front car and settled on the track. This caused the car to tilt off the track and careen through the wooden guardrail, pulling the other three cars behind it.

Because the cars hadn’t been moving at a steady clip as they were scaling the incline, the 35-foot fall was not instantaneous. Passengers had time to realize what was happening as their cars began to fall. 16-year-old Mary Polityka remembered that she had the thought to jump when she saw the first car tilt off the track but “there was no way.” Her companion that day, 16-year-old Antis Uzdawinis, stated that “as the first car went over, people in the other three screamed and muttered short prayers while tugging desperately at their safety belts.” Some conjectured that perhaps the only reason Bill Butkus, 20, survived the ordeal was because he hadn’t fastened his seatbelt in the first place, resulting in him being thrown from the coaster instead of finding himself crushed beneath his car.

Aftermath of the Accident, 1930 (DCHS Photograph Collection)

Four people would ultimately die as a result of the crash—C.H. Stout, 34; Mrs. Gladys Lundgren, 29; Ruth Farrell, 15; and 22-year-old Tony Polityka, brother of the aforementioned Mary. Many others were gravely injured. Mary herself didn’t regain consciousness until 10 days after the accident and remained in the hospital for 5 weeks, having been scalped and having sustained a skull fracture and crushed chest.

Many of the injured successfully sued Krug Park for damages but their reward was measly. The park’s (at the time 3) owners and insurance company were only able to provide $35,000 to be divided amongst the plaintiffs, meaning that the injured received just a fraction of the sums initially awarded them by the court. 14-year-old Helen Czaji who had lost an eye in the crash received the largest payout, amounting to only $7,000. The $4,800 Mary Polityka had received was entirely lost in a bank failure during the Depression.

 

The Decay

 

Everything sort of went downhill from there. The Great Depression wasn’t the easiest time to keep an amusement park afloat, and Krug Park seemed to be plagued for the entire 1930s by financial troubles and intermittent bouts of horrible luck. After the accident, the Big Dipper was torn down and an ordinance was put into effect by the City Council banning roller coasters within Omaha. The owners of Krug Park attempted to get this ban lifted so that they could rebuild what had been one of their most successful attractions but were denied in District Court in 1938.

The park came under new ownership in 1932 and in an ill-fated attempt to stir up interest a 4,000-seat stadium was built on the grounds which held boxing and wrestling matches. However, the City Council soon banned these spectacles in response to complaints from neighbors of the park objecting to the noise and the idea of their neighborhood housing a commercial sports center.

Also in 1932, a fire gutted the bath house adjacent to the swimming pool and insurance covered only 25% of the damages. And the following year, two armed men robbed manager Louis Slusky at gunpoint of an entire weekend’s profits. After obtaining the money, the robbers locked Slusky in the office vault where he presumably would have suffocated had his brother not arrived a few minutes later to take him home.

Burned-Out Bath House, c. 1940s (DCHS Photograph Collection)

As the Depression meandered on, the park continued to lose money, facing threats of both bankruptcy and foreclosure at various points. It finally closed for good after the 1939 season, although the dance hall continued to operate as a converted skating rink until July of 1944 when it burned down in a massive conflagration which was reportedly visible to most of the city due to its elevated location.

            The park remained in a degenerative stasis over the next decade. While fights raged on in the community over whether the land would become a residential area or a city park, weeds were allowed to grow 6 to 8 feet high, the swimming pool filled up with dark water, and the old burned-out bath house reportedly gained the appearance of a war ruin. It was said that neighbors feared walking by the park at night and Police Commissioner Henry Knudsen declared the park “the worst mess in Omaha.”

Eventually the city purchased the land, and in 1954 the old structures were removed so that the area could be seeded. The park was rechristened Gallagher Park after Rachel K. Gallagher, an Omaha philanthropist who led the decade-long campaign to turn Krug Park into a city park. Today it boasts a playground, swimming pool, and 3 unlit ball fields. For over half a century it’s been a staple in Benson as a peaceful, green oasis in the midst of an otherwise increasingly urban landscape. It’s hard to picture now what it must have been like when a wooden roller coaster peaked out from behind Benson High School and people from so many walks of life converged on this spot every summer for various park-related thrills.

Sources

 

“Study on Krug Park.” DCHS Archives Center Vertical Files. 13 April 1959.

 

“Rachel K. Gallagher Park: Formerly Home to Beer Garden, Amusement Rides.” Omaha World-Herald. 24 July 1985.

 

Ivey, James. “Krug Park as it Was During its Ups and Downs.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 December 1977.

 

The People of Washington County. “Washington County History 1980.” Washington County Historical Association.

 

“Thrill At Krug Park: Chair-o-Plane Ride, Coney Island Hit, Now at Krug Park Joy Grounds.” Benson Times. 18 June 1926.

 

“Krug Park Installs $10,000 Drink Cooling System.” Benson Times. 18 July 1924.

 

McMorris, Robert. “Secretary Spent Summers Riding High-Diving Horses.” Omaha World-Herald. 6 September 1965.

 

Prohaska, Joe. “Krug Park Closing Ended Colorful Era.” DCHS Archives Center Vertical Files. 25 August 1957.

 

“’King Tut’ Night at Krug Park.” Benson Times. 24 August 1923.

 

“Krug Park Swimming Pool Opens.” Benson Times. 30 May 1924.

 

“Big Balloon At Krug Park: Monster Will Be Sent Up This Afternoon for Second Time in History.” Omaha Daily Bee. 9 September 1906.

 

“Eighteen Monkeys Help to Entertain Krug Park Visitors.” Benson Times. 1 June 1923.

 

“Krug Park Roller Coaster Kills 4.” DCHS Archives Center Vertical Files. 11 July 1974.

 

“Krug Park Opens Saturday, May 16th.” Benson Times. 8 May 1925.

 

“Krug Park Attracts Many People.” Benson Times. 17 June 1927.

 

“Krug Park Opens Saturday, May 15th.” Benson Times. 14 May 1926.

 

“Diving Girls and Horses at Krug Park.” Benson Times. 5 August 1923.

 

“Krug Disaster Not Forgotten.” Omaha World-Herald. 24 July 1994.

 

“Krug Park Gradually Lost Glitter After ’30 Roller Coaster Tragedy.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 August 1962.

Sights, Sounds, and Segregation at Peony Park (by: Tara Spencer)

Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. The mention of a place or a person can make you feel like you’re there, or with that person, (or there with that person) all over again. Sometimes you don’t even have to hear a name. The smell of lilacs can put you in your grandparents’ backyard or the sound of a horse neighing will take you to the summer camp you went to in 8th grade.

For many Omahans, the name Peony Park provokes the strongest sense of that sentimental feeling. Their favorite song from a band they saw at the park might start playing in their head. Or perhaps it will be the echoing voice of Sweet 98’s “Hot Scott,” aka Scott O’Hanlon, the man famous for DJing the infamous Sprite Nights held at the park on Thursdays during the summer.

 

Gas Station

While today’s parents and older brothers and sisters likely remember Peony Park for its incredible pool and those summer nights filled with music and dancing, the park’s history goes back much further.

Its first incarnation back in 1919 was simply a gas station and restaurant across the street from Carl Rosenfield’s 25-acre peony farm on the Lincoln Highway in what could have been considered far West Omaha. Manhattan Gas and the restaurant called Peony Inn were started by Joe Malec, Sr. and his brothers Jerry and Godfrey. It was a savvy business move, as the peony farm saw a lot of tourism at the time. But they had bigger plans, expanding the property into a more garden-like park area, and eventually opening a dance pavilion in place of the Peony Inn, which would later be known as the Royal Grove. Despite a devastating fire that burned the hall to the ground in February 1925, it would eventually become one of the biggest draws for musicians and music fans alike.

Music Central

The Royal Grove saw some of music’s biggest names play to its audiences, especially during the big-band eras of the 1930s and 1940s. Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey all played there, as did Lawrence Welk, a regular performer at the venue who had not yet reached the height of his popularity. Omaha’s own Preston Love also performed there and later, so too did The Beach Boys and Chubby Checker.

While those early days are considered a sort of musical golden age at Peony Park, younger generations who came of age in the ’80s and (early) ’90s likely have fond memories of bands such as Metallica, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Pixies. Live music played a huge role in cementing the park’s place in history. But of course, it was also an amusement park, which means rides. And they had plenty of those.

 

Wild Rides and Speedy Slides

Peony Park had rides for big and small kids alike, including its popular Galaxy Roller Coaster, Ferris wheel, and the Scrambler. They even had a special miniature rollercoaster, perfect for smaller children. There was also a small train and a miniature golf course, popular with young and old, called “Around the World in 18 Holes.” But one would be hard-pressed to find someone who visited Peony Park who wouldn’t remember the Sky-Rail, which took its visitors for a loop around the park’s infamous pool.

The pool was a huge draw for Peony Park. Opened in 1926, the pool was developed from a natural spring-fed lake. But it was so much more than the average pool. An Omaha World-Herald article printed in 1947 described it thus: “The pool and surrounding beach take up about 4 acres. There are five million gallons of filtered, chlorinated water in the lake. It is supplied from artesian wells. The pool is seven hundred feet long. Its width varies from 150 feet to four hundred feet. The depth ranges from one foot for youngsters, to 10 feet for expert swimmers and divers.”

It’s easy to understand why the park was a wildly popular place for children and adults alike throughout the decades. Unfortunately, its history also has a fair share of scars.

It’s easy to understand why the park was a wildly popular place for children and adults alike throughout the decades. Unfortunately, its history also has a fair share of scars.

In 1979, 13-year-old Neal Tetzlaff died after a cage on the SkyDiver ride opened when a cotter pin fell out. Byron James Conant, 31, died after falling from the Hurricane, reportedly after he was seen outside the safety bar. There was also an especially tragic drowning at the large, beach-like pool in which a decision had to be made between saving a father or his son, according to former employee Carl Jennings. Senator Ed Zorinsky died of heart attack right after performing in an Omaha Press Club show.

These incidents were awful, but not necessarily unheard of for an amusement park. However, one can’t talk about the history of Peony Park without addressing its own ugly, self-imposed scar—racial segregation.

A World Apart

Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Black people were allowed in the park, yet were not allowed to swim in its pool. When two Black airmen from Offutt Air Force Base attempted to enter the pool in June 1963, they were denied entrance, despite Nebraska laws prohibiting discrimination. Air Force Captain Michael King filed a complaint, pursuing legal action.

A month later, members of the youth council of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) sought entrance to the pool and were promptly denied. Omaha entrepreneur Herb Rhodes was a part of that group. “We went out there, probably on a Sunday afternoon or Saturday afternoon…to go swimming, with the expectation that we would be denied entrance.”

This act was followed by several days of peaceful protests. The park even converted to a private club for a time to avoid allowing Black people entry. Facing several lawsuits, the park’s management eventually gave in and opened the pool to all. Rhodes said he didn’t remember there being much of an issue after that, though there are several accounts, including one from former Omaha Mayor Mike Boyle, attesting that some white people got out of the pool after the Black youths got in.

 

A Slow Decline

Despite these incidents, Peony Park lasted another three decades. But as attendance slowed and expenses added up, the owners filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy action in 1991. The park continued to lose money in 1992 and 1993. In December 1993, it was announced that the park was for sale and would close March 31, 1994, unless a buyer decided to keep it open.

On March 22nd of that year, Peony Park was sold to a private development group. Their future plans included removing the pool, ballroom and rides—essentially razing the park to the ground, which they did. Now, all that remains of the park is the building that once housed the Plaza Theater and is now Big Red Keno. There hasn’t been anything quite like it since it closed nearly 30 years ago, but for so many people who frequented this Midwest haven, it lives on in their hearts and in their memories.

John Pehle: Homegrown Humanitarian

By: Elise O’Neil

There has long been a prevailing historical narrative that the United States did not put forth enough effort to save the lives of Jews and other marginalized groups in Europe during the Holocaust. Like so many hot-button issues today, the question about what could be done by Americans for European Jews was a political one.

Congress enacted a quota system through the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924 which allowed only a certain number of immigrants from each country to immigrate to the United States each year. The process of obtaining a visa became even more restrictive in the early 1930s with the economic downturn of the Depression.[1] This meant that for a number of the years between 1933 and 1945, when European refugees were most in need of safe harbor, the United States didn’t even reach its allotted visa quotas. Thousands more visas could have been issued during this time—each representing a life saved.[2]

Further, until the last two years of the war, public opinion in the United States seemed to skew towards taking in less refugees as opposed to more. There are various reasons for this. Coming out of the Depression years there was a concern that an influx of new immigrants could imperil American jobs. Another reason was the strong strain of antisemitism running through America, proliferated regularly by pro-German, antisemitic speeches made by isolationist national icons like the aviator Charles Lindbergh and the popular radio host Reverend Charles E. Coughlin.[3] Once the United States had entered into World War II, many people felt that humanitarian concerns like the plight of the Jews in Europe should take a backseat to the primary focus of winning the war. Finally, an event as catastrophic to humanity as the Holocaust strained credulity for many, even after reports of the atrocities being committed began to trickle into U.S. newspapers. Many Americans just couldn’t believe that Jews and others in Europe were being systematically murdered. It was difficult to galvanize the public opinion to assist potential refugees and seemingly more insurmountable to get the government to take action.

There were, however, some people in both the government and in the wider civilian population attempting to help the European Jews from the United States. Jewish organizations across the country worked to get out the word about what was happening in Europe and raised money to rescue as many people as possible. Rabbi Stephen Wise, who led protests against Nazism throughout the 1930s, presented President Roosevelt with a report in late 1942, detailing the horrors taking place in Europe[4]. And in January of 1944, the president issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board, a temporary government agency put in place to help the Jews who were still alive in Europe. The director of this agency was John Pehle, a 34-year-old Treasury Department official from Omaha.[5]

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1909, John Pehle moved to Omaha at the age of 14 with his parents and siblings.[6] He attended Central High School where he participated in the yearbook staff, senior play, and Spanish Club, and was Second Lieutenant in Company “A” of the Cadet Regiment.

Image Source: 1926 O-Book, Douglas County Historical Society.

After graduating from Central in 1926, he attended Creighton University where he earned a Bachelor of Philosophy in 1930. Notably, he was an ROTC Captain at Creighton, and during his last two years at the University he worked nights at the Dundee Theatre (now operating as Filmstreams at 50th and Dodge.)

Image Source: 1930 Blue-Jay, Douglas County Historical Society.

Pehle continued at Creighton’s Law School for two years before transferring to Yale, where he received his law degree in 1933. He stayed on at Yale on a fellowship until 1935, earning a Doctorate of Science in Law. [7]

After finishing up his schooling, Pehle moved to Washington, D.C. where he took up a post in the office of the General Counsel of the Treasury Department. He worked his way up in the department and in late 1940 was put in charge of the division of Foreign Funds Control, which would eventually control 7 billion dollars worth of assets in the United States belonging to enemy and neutral countries. It was in this capacity that in the summer of 1943 a request came across his desk from the World Jewish Congress for a license to allow them to fund relief for the Jews in France and Romania. Pehle granted the license and sent it to the State Department to be transmitted, but officials in that department shelved it. When the matter was pursued, State Department officials continued to obstruct the issuance of the license until Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau personally intervened to ensure its transmission.[8]

While investigating the cause of the delay, Pehle and his colleagues at the Treasury Department discovered that State Department officials had not just been obstructing attempts at providing humanitarian aid to the European Jews. They had also been attempting to keep details of the ongoing Holocaust from being proliferated across the United States. In the wake of these discoveries, Pehle and two colleagues wrote a report to the Treasury Secretary entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” They did not mince words. [9]

The report begins: “One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated. This Government has for a long time maintained that its policy is to work out programs to serve those Jews of Europe who could be saved. I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.”[10]

Image Source: Creighton News, 2022. Creighton.edu.

On January 22, 1944, soon after a copy of the report was passed onto President Roosevelt by Secretary Morgenthau, the president issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board. This agency was established with the sole aim of saving the lives of as many Jews in Hitler’s Europe as possible. Pehle, who had already demonstrated a keen interest in the cause, was placed in charge of the agency. He hit the ground running.

A huge part of the work of the War Refugee Board involved getting relief money into the hands of allies in occupied countries. This involved streamlining the pesky licensing process for distributing U.S. money overseas that had first revealed the obstructionist actions of the State Department officials. Pehle and his staff made this process so much simpler that by the conclusion of the war, the agency had approved 11 million dollars in humanitarian aid to be spent in Europe. Though some funds originated from the U.S. government, much of this money was provided by private organizations, including the Quakers, the International Red Cross, and several Jewish relief agencies.[11] The money was used to buy weapons, procure official papers, fund escape efforts, and bribe officials like border guards. It was against U.S. policy to pay bribes, but Pehle was not fastidious about this technicality when it came to saving lives. The War Refugee Board also continued to spread awareness about the atrocities taking place in Europe, and garnered support for a refugee camp on American soil which opened in upstate New York in the summer of 1944.[12]

Much of the agency’s work was covert, making it difficult to estimate an exact count of the number of people saved by the actions of Pehle and his staff. The most conservative estimates are in the tens of thousands. The activities of the War Refugee Board were most beneficial to Hungarian Jews, many of whom had not yet been deported to concentration camps at the time of the agency’s inception.[13] As Pehle said in a speech at the Fontenelle Hotel in April of 1944, their task was “a simple, honest job of saving the lives of people who (were) inside Hitler’s Germany and in imminent danger of death.”[14]

The War Refugee Board saved countless lives in the brief time it was in operation. That is not insignificant. Further, the United States was the only nation during World War II with a government entity devoted to providing relief to the Jews and other persecuted people of Europe. [15] In fact, the United States admitted the most refugees of any country during World War II—between 180,000 to 200,000.[16] Again, these lives were precious and significant.

But when looking back on his work with the War Refugee Board, John Pehle stated, “What we did was little enough… It was late. Late and little, I would say.”[17]

Still, people were saved, and generations have lived on after them because they were able to escape.

Pehle resigned from the Treasury Department after the war. He lived a life mostly out of the public eye, working in private practice tax law and golfing in his retirement. He lived the rest of his life in Bethesda, Maryland and died in 1999 at the age of 90.[18] Like a classic Midwesterner, he didn’t draw attention to himself and didn’t insist that his community recognize his accomplishments. In a press conference in June of 1944 in which President Roosevelt spoke about the activities of the War Refugee Board, he consistently referred to Pehle (pronounced Pay-lee) as “Mr. Peeley,” suggesting that in the months the two men had worked together so far, Pehle hadn’t bothered to correct him.[19] But he was an Omahan of the highest degree, who believed in the idea that the United States should be a force of good in the world.[20] He certainly did his part.


[1] “American Response to the Holocaust.” History.com. 21 August 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/american-response-to-the-holocaust.

[2] “The United States and the Holocaust.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed on 4/20/23. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-united-states-and-the-holocaust.

[3] Burns, K. (Director). (2022). The U.S. and the Holocaust. [Film]. PBS.

[4] “Stephen Wise.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed on 4/21/23. https://exhibitions.ushmm.org/americans-and-the-holocaust/personal-story/stephen-wise.

[5] Hansen, Matthew. “An Omahan Saved Countless Jews During the Holocaust, Then Faded into Oblivion.” Omaha World-Herald. 4 February 2019.

[6] “Young Creighton Graduate Holds Axis Billions in U.S.” Omaha World-Herald. 17 June 1941.

[7] “Young Creighton Graduate Holds Axis Billions in U.S.” Omaha World-Herald. 17 June 1941.

[8] Burns, K. (Director). (2022). The U.S. and the Holocaust. [Film]. PBS.

[9] “The Creighton Alum Who Helped Save 200,000 Lives.” Creighton University News. 13 October 2022. https://alumni.creighton.edu/news-events/news/john-pehle-creighton-us-holocaust.

[10] Officials of the United States Department of the Treasury. “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.” 13 January 1944. http://www.shoppbs.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/holocaust/filmmore/reference/primary/somereport.html.

[11] Burns, K. (Director). (2022). The U.S. and the Holocaust. [Film]. PBS.

[12] Hansen, Matthew. “An Omahan Saved Countless Jews During the Holocaust, Then Faded into Oblivion.” Omaha World-Herald. 4 February 2019.

[13] “The Creighton Alum Who Helped Save 200,000 Lives.” Creighton University News. 13 October 2022. https://alumni.creighton.edu/news-events/news/john-pehle-creighton-us-holocaust.

[14] “Refugee Task Is Explained.” Omaha World-Herald. 5 April 1944.

[15] Burns, K. (Director). (2022). The U.S. and the Holocaust. [Film]. PBS.

[16] “The United States and the Holocaust.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed on 4/20/23. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-united-states-and-the-holocaust.

[17] “The Creighton Alum Who Helped Save 200,000 Lives.” Creighton University News. 13 October 2022. https://alumni.creighton.edu/news-events/news/john-pehle-creighton-us-holocaust.

[18] Hansen, Matthew. “An Omahan Saved Countless Jews During the Holocaust, Then Faded into Oblivion.” Omaha World-Herald. 4 February 2019.

[19] “Refugee Problems.” Omaha World-Herald. 5 June 1944.

[20] Burns, K. (Director). (2022). The U.S. and the Holocaust. [Film]. PBS.

Councilman Betty Abbott: How the Times Have Changed

By: Tara Spencer

Being the first to do something isn’t easy. But being the first woman or person of color to do something comes with its own set of challenges. Those pioneers are often met with more vitriol than accolades—and that kind of contempt can be doubled, and often more dangerous, if they happen to be both.

While the ability to hide behind social media has made it excessively easier for people to voice their (often abhorrent) opinions on women in power, this is far from a new problem.

Betty Abbott, the first woman city council member of Omaha, acknowledged some of the obstacles faced by women in an interview with the Benson Sun in December 1970 when they named her their Woman of the Year.

Douglas County Historical Society

“If you’re a woman, you don’t dare leave yourself in the open without the proper information on an item,” she said. “It might not matter if a man was uninformed…but you are singular and under the spotlight.”

Abbott’s friend and colleague, city clerk Mary Cornett, emphasized that point in the same article. “The first woman out is always sensitive. She has felt she would put every woman on the spot if she made a mistake.”

So, Abbott tried not to make any. She made the effort to fully understand an issue before making any decisions or even comments on it. In one Omaha World-Herald article, it was noted that she opposed raising property tax, but “would have to get more information” on a sewer-use fee.

Omaha World Herald, 1975

A Republican before the party saw some major platform shifts in the ’70s, Abbott considered herself a moderate. Liberal on some issues, conservative on others, she acknowledged she couldn’t please everyone. A World-Herald article in September 1974 stated she was “Certainly not the darling of the women’s rights movement,” and Abbott admitted she was “probably not as aggressive” as they would have liked her to be.

Regardless of how others viewed her and her work, Abbott certainly did a lot to help prove that women did belong in politics.   

When she was first elected, the Omaha City Council president at the time, H.F. Jacobberger, said his first thought was “having a woman in city government is going to be murder.” He later praised her for her competency, describing her as an excellent council member and saying he wished there were more women like her in government.

The same Benson Sun article stated that throughout her time on the council, she set an example for women’s equality, adding “Her accomplishments have helped erase the stereotypes and prejudices which perpetuate male dominance of civic affairs.”

One of Abbott’s primary passions while on the council was improving the quality of urban life. This included advocating for cleaner air and preserving city park land. She also fought to save and restore the Orpheum Theater.

The list of board memberships, committees served on, and accolades received during her career are almost too numerous to list. That informative Sun piece from 1970 said that at the time of their interview, she had 19 active affiliations and her resume of major projects and memberships exceeded 40.

Throughout the years, Abbott was a founding member of the Henry Doorly Zoo’s board of directors, served on the board of directors of the National League of Cities, was president of the Nebraska Environmental Control Council, and was appointed to the Defense Department’s commission on women by President Gerald Ford.

Douglas County Historical Society

Before beginning her political career, Abbott’s interests were in music and radio. Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Betty Lorraine Condon was described as a musical and athletic child. She sang and played piano and cello, but she also pitched on the girls’ softball team. While attending Lincoln High School, she was captain of the debate team, a member of the national honor society, and president of the literacy society.

After graduation, Abbott attended Drake University for two years, where she played cello in the Des Moines Symphony. However, the piano was her preference, and it played a large role in her future career. At 10, she had played accompaniment over the radio. Later, she played the organ at KSO-KRNT while Steve Allen played the piano. (For those who don’t know, Allen later became a famed television and radio personality and was co-creator and host of the first iteration of The Tonight Show.)

Douglas County Historical Society

Abbott worked at several radio stations across Iowa before getting hired at the Buchanan-Thomas Advertising Agency in Omaha. The head of the agency, Adam Reinemund, heard her on KSWI out of Council Bluffs. He said Abbott possessed “qualities you’d look for in a man.” What that means exactly was not in the Sun article in which that quote appeared, though it was noted that she had a “mild and warm delivery,” that made her popular. Most notably, she was the voice for Kimball Laundry and Dry Cleaning. The recognition she gained through broadcasting no doubt proved helpful during her run for Omaha City Council.

She was a member of the League of Women Voters (nonpartisan group) and the Republican Party. Later in life, she was an active member of the Omaha Musicians’ Association, where she worked on public relations for the union and served as labor representative to civic boards.

Abbott’s family did not share her political passions. Her husband Doug supported her, but preferred not to go on the campaign trail. Her two daughters, Diana and Gwen, also chose not to campaign, seeming to shy away from the spotlight their mother was in. Abbott did not act as if she minded, stressing in one article that she liked keeping her public and private life separate.   

While Abbott may not have known the extent to which her legacy would reach, she certainly played a role in paving the way for other women. Her words and actions helped ensure she wasn’t the last.


“Betty Abbott Still Has ‘Something to Live up to.” Benson Sun. 21 March 1963. Center Section, page 1A.

“Betty Abbott Isn’t Far From Action.” Omaha World-Herald. 1 September 1985.

“Former Politician Prefers Eating.” Omaha World-Herald. 15 March 1982.

“Lagging Council Frustrates Abbott.” Omaha World-Herald. 30 September 1974.

“Doug Abbott: Politics Not My Kettle of Fish.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 May 1977.

“Betty Abbott’s hard work moves Omaha toward a better environment.” Benson Sun. 12 29 1970. Page 1A.

rewirenewsgroup.com/2013/03/24/omaha-mayoral-race-reflects-breadth-of-sexism-in-politics/

https://web.archive.org/web/20141030220428/http://www.wowt.com/news/headlines/2068011.html

The Great Automobile Race of 1908: New York to Paris (passing through Nebraska).

By: Liz Boutin

On February 12, 1908, a crowd of about 250,000 people gathered in Times Square in New York City to witness the beginning of an automobile race. The race would run from New York to Paris, with six teams competing, representing Germany, France, Italy, and the United States. An automobile race like this had never been run before. The prize? According to some sources, a 1,400-pound trophy and bragging rights. The New York Times and Le Matin, a Paris newspaper, sponsored the race. A shot in the air from a pistol at 11:15 am started the race.

Image Source: Library of Congress, The Omaha Daily Bee, March 6, 1908.

The six teams included three French cars (the De Dion-Bouton, Motobloc, and Sizaire-Naudin), one German (the Protos), one Italian (the Züst), and one American (the Thomas Flyer) with about two to three members on each team. Initially, no one from America would enter the race. President Theodore Roosevelt requested the manufacturer of the Thomas Flyer car, E.R. Thomas Motor Company in Buffalo, to enter the race. George Schuster was an employee of E.R. Thomas, an expert mechanic; he rode with the American team, even driving parts of the route.

The intended route of the race would have drivers push across the United States to San Francisco, then ship the cars to Seattle, and forward to Alaska by boat, crossing over the frozen Bering Strait towards Siberia and onward to Paris. The actual route went across the United States to San Francisco, up to Seattle, from there to Japan by steamer, to Siberia by ship, and then through Asia and Europe. The conditions in Alaska turned out to be impossible to drive in as George Schuster and the American team first attempted it. They lost fifteen days due to having to turn back to Seattle. The team was able to make up for that time and more later on in the race.

At the time of the race in 1908, road maps were non-existent, roads were unpaved, and some places had no roads at all. Teams had to endure frigid temperatures, snow, and much mud along the route. The terrain conditions were rough on the cars, which were not built for such abuse. The vehicles carried several supplies, including gasoline, chains, ropes, spare parts, and tools.

Nebraska was part of the route for the drivers of the great race, with cars stopping at various towns in the state, including Grand Island, Ogallala, and Omaha. The American car driven by Montague Roberts was the first car of the race to enter Omaha on March 5, 1908. The citizens of Omaha provided great hospitality to the crew of the Thomas Flyer. The team received complimentary meals from the Schlitz hotel and warm clothing from the M.E. Smith Company. Each crew member was fitted with a complete outfit for their journey through frigid temperatures. The men vowed to return the clothing after arriving in Paris. On the night of March 17, the first French car arrived at Grand Island and was delayed a few days due to a broken shaft. 

Sunday, July 26, 1908, at 6:15 pm, the German team arrived in Paris with their car, the Protos. Unfortunately, the German team was penalized for 30 days for taking shortcuts along the race route. Among the shortcuts was sending their car to Seattle from Pocatello, Idaho, by train. The American team arrived in Paris on July 30 at 8 pm, four days after the Germans. Once arriving in Paris, the team was stopped by a French police officer telling them they would be arrested due to missing a headlight. Paris law required a car to have two working headlights. A bicycler happened to be near the car and ended up allowing the American team to have his bike so they could finish the race by bolting it to the car. After traveling over 22,000 miles and 169 days, the American team officially won the great race of 1908. The Italians arrived in September 1908. Out of the original six teams, only three made it to Paris. The French were unable to make it to the finish line.

The Great Automobile Race was recorded in a variety of newspapers. Word of the race spread through towns via newspapers and telegraphs. In Omaha as in other stops along the route, people would stand outside to greet and cheer the teams as they passed through. The big event helped recognize the need to improve roads and highlighted the car’s resilience for driving long distances. The race also provided the sense of needing newly constructed roads as asphalt wasn’t developed until 1910.

Times Square in New York at the beginning of the race. Image source: Apex Automotive Magazine.

An interesting article by The New York Times dated June of 1968 states after sixty years after winning the race in 1908, George Schuster received a $1,000 award from an automobile club that promised money to him if he had won the race. Schuster never received it in 1908. At the age of 95, at the time of the article, Mr. Schuster received his award.

The Thomas Flyer car. Image Source: Apex Automotive Magazine

Are you interested in learning more about vintage automobiles? The “Omaha’s AUTO-Biography” exhibition in the Crook House Museum covers racing, motor cars, and automobile production. Only a couple of months left of the exhibition, so if you have yet to visit the museum to see the exhibit, you still have time. Race to our website: http://www.douglascohistory.org/collection/current-exhibitions/ for more information and admission fees.

Image source: Library of Congress; The Omaha Daily Bee, March 8, 1908
Map of the 1908 Race. Image Source: Rare Historical Photos.

Sources:

Abbott, Karen. “Paris or Bust: The Great New York-to-Paris Auto Race of 1908: Even before there were roads, there were men who wanted to drive fast.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 7, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/paris-or-bust-the-great-new-york-to-paris-auto-race-of-1908-116784616/.

Bear, H. E. M. “Roswell Daily Record, 03-17-1908.” (1908). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/roswell_record_news/1388

Evans, Art. “The Greatest Race – 1908 New York to Paris.” Sports Car Digest. September 28, 2011. https://sportscardigest.com/the-greatest-race-1908-new-york-to-paris/.

Garrett, Jerry. “New York to Paris the Hard Way, 100 Years Ago.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times, February 10, 2008; 1-2.

“Omaha, A Stop on the Great Race of 1908.” History Nebraska. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://history.nebraska.gov/omaha-a-stop-on-the-great-race-of-1908/.

Sblendorio, Bob. “The Great Auto Race of 1908.” Apex Automotive Magazine. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://www.apexautomag.com/2018/05/the-great-auto-race-of-1908/.

 The photographic story of The Great New York to Paris Auto Race of 1908. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/new-york-paris-auto-race-photos-1908/.

 “1908 Race Victor Will Get $1,000: Schuster, 95, Will Receive Belated Payoff Tuesday.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, June 12, 1968: 54.

“Transcontinental Bicycle Relay and Automobile Races Contrasted.” The Library of Congress; the Omaha Daily Bee. March 8, 1908: 3.

“Yankee Car Resumes Trip.” The Library of Congress; The Omaha Daily Bee. March 6, 1908: 9.

Ella Mahammitt: An American Story

By: Rita Shelley

Ella Mahammitt was an Omaha journalist, civil rights advocate, and women’s rights activist. From 1891 until 1897, she edited The Enterprise, a black weekly newspaper published here.

Image source: The Enterprise, Easter edition, 1896. Newspapers.com.

The ancestral record of Ella’s life is incomplete. Fortunately, I could also mine the written record of her work at The Enterprise as a way of chronicling her life.

Ella arrived in Omaha in 1891 when she married Thomas P. Mahammitt, her second husband and the Enterprise’s publisher. Her first bylines appeared in 1894 but, as described by editor of Topeka’s Black-owned newspaper, The Plain Dealer, “The Enterprise, owned by Mr. T.P. Mahammitt and operated by Mrs. Mahammitt, is a credit to the colored people of this section…Mrs. Mahammitt deserves much credit for the way she conducts the paper. She knows the newspaper business from [typesetting] ‘case’ to the editorial chair.”[1]

The future wife of Thomas Mahammitt was born the year of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), in Kansas City, Missouri, to William and Annie Davis. William was born in Kansas in 1842, Annie in Missouri in 1846. Given William’s and Anna’s dates of birth and that they were listed in the Federal Census as “mulatto,” can one say with relative certainty that they were born into slavery and had white ancestors? Ella would hardly have grown up knowing the history of slavery in her home state. But her parents would have, where only recently had the capture of a fugitive slave yielded a cash reward. The ransom amount depended on the age, sex, and physical condition of the person who was captured.[2]

In 1880, William Davis was a policeman and 17-year-old Ella was a public school teacher living at home. She taught in Kansas City public schools from 1880 to 1883 and in 1887. In each of those years’ city directories, the letters “col’d” appear next to her name.

That Ella was a teacher begs the question of where she obtained her training. Might it have been at nearby Freedmen’s University at Quindaro, Kansas, a free-soil town across the river in Wyandotte County? The university had been established as a post-reconstruction all-black college. Quindaro was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.[3] Alternatively, might William and Annie have had the financial wherewithal to send their only daughter to Tuskegee University in Alabama? Might Tuskegee have been where she met her future Enterprise-bylined colleague, Mrs. Booker T. Washington?

Or did Ella attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where her first husband, J.M. Browne, had received his medical training? Ella and J.M. were married in 1884 when he was 28 and she was 21. J.M.’s father was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and a trustee of Howard. What I wouldn’t give to see Ella’s and J.M.’s wedding photo! Or Ella in her cap and gown after graduating from teacher training!

Records of where Ella and J.M. met, where she was educated, and what subject she taught in Kansas City’s schools, seem to have been lost to history. The Kansas City Times account of the end of their marriage is not. In what must have been humiliating detail for the couple, the Times printed Ella’s allegation that her husband returned home intoxicated “at least five nights a week” and did not provide for her. They divorced in 1887.[4] J.M. died in 1888. His funeral was at the home of Ella’s parents.

When Thomas Mahammitt brought his bride to Omaha, they were feted at the home of Millard Fillmore Singleton, an officer in the Omaha Colored Republican Club, the Omaha branch of the National Afro-American League, and one of Omaha’s leading citizens. Inside the Singleton home there was celebrating, perhaps even prayer and a toast. But outside awaited the cruel world of Jim Crow-era Omaha.

Four months after the Mahammitts’ wedding, the lynching of George Smith, a porter, was reported in the Omaha World-Herald. In disturbing prescience of the 1919 lynching of Will Brown, Smith was accused of assaulting a five-year-old white girl. Upon his arrest, authorities didn’t or couldn’t protect Smith from a mob that broke down the jail’s steel bars. He was dragged through the streets of downtown Omaha, stomped on by hundreds of onlookers, and hanged from a telegraph line though he was already dead.[5] For hours, a long line of prurient gawkers viewed his remains where they were on view at the Heafey-Heafey funeral home.[6] Four men were charged with first-degree murder and arrested, posting $5,000 bond each. The four were George Greevy, a Union Pacific foreman; Ed Newchaffer from Rising City, Nebraska; Walter Brandes, a saloon keeper and future developer of South Omaha’s Brandes Block; and “General” Megeath, a clerk.[7] I found no account of their convictions on murder or lesser charges.

The racial climate of Omaha surely was a source of Ella’s determination to speak truth. She was among activists who in 1895 inaugurated the National Federation of Afro-American Women in Boston. Margaret (Mrs. Booker T.) Washington was elected president. Ella represented the federation’s western district as one of four regional vice presidents. Another visionary, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was also founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was arguably the most famous Black woman of her time. Ella and Wells-Barnett were also friends–in 1896, Ella congratulated Ida upon the birth of her first child.

The Boston Conference, Ella wrote in 1896, was for the purpose of consolidating several organizations of African-American women “for the weal of the nation.”[8] She averred that by speaking in a unified voice, Black women “indisputably establish the fact that Negro Intellect is identical with the intellect of any other people.” Efforts to demand fair wages for skilled domestic workers also gained her support.[9]

The Enterprise’s 1896 Easter edition was billed as written, edited, and produced entirely by women as a fundraiser for the Federation of Negro Women’s clubs. Among its bylined writers were members of Ella’s Federation network, including Margaret Washington, who called for educated Black women of the South to not turn their backs on other women of their race.[10]

Of the power of Mrs. Washington’s voice, Ella wrote, “the experiments of our Southern sisters must come as an inspiration. When we read from their own pens the trials which they are passing and the fierce wars they are waging almost single-handed, against poverty, ignorance and vice our hears cannot help warming to the work of race-building, and closing our eyes to the old scars and gaping wounds, we plunge in once more. To the weak-hearted, Mrs. Washington’s letter will give renewed vigor.”[11]

Another byline was that of Victoria Earle Matthews, also a nationally prominent journalist, author, and lecturer. Matthews had been born into slavery and is believed to have been “owned” by her white biological father. She wrote that “organization of Afro-American women’s clubs will someday be written of as one of her monuments. Considering the forces [that] labored for over two centuries to bestialize her, there is something bordering the miraculous in her present moral status.”[12]


Alongside national voices, Ella highlighted the local organization she had established, the Omaha Women’s Club, of which she was president. Other officers were Ophelia Clenlans, Laura Craig, Nettie Johnson, and Clara B. Franklin.

Mrs. Clenlans was a freed Platte County, Missouri, slave who was married to Emmanuel Clenlans, an Omaha postal clerk who also was active politically. Ophelia’s legacy lasted well into the 20th century with the establishment of a North Omaha women’s club named in her honor. In 1922, the club’s members wrote a letter urging Senator Gilbert M. Hitchcock to support an anti-lynching bill.[1]

Image source: The Enterprise, Easter edition, 1896. Newspapers.com.

Laura Craig, Ophelia’s daughter, represented Nebraska at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Clara Franklin was listed as a printer in the 1890 census. Other traces of Clara’s life, and that of Nettie Johnson, are sparse.

Image source: The Enterprise, Easter edition, 1896. Newspapers.com.
Image source: The Enterprise, Easter edition, 1896. Newspapers.com.

Elia Peattie, a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, wrote a review of Ella’s 1896 Easter edition. She described it as “simple and unaffected,” surprising to her because “many of its contributors are novices in the matter of writing for the press.” She wrote that the writing was well above average, also remarkable to her because the authors were “of a race that a little over a quarter century ago was in shackles.”[1]

Tangentially, Peattie addressed a controversy among Omaha Woman’s Clubwomen as to whether Black women were entitled to membership. Peattie’s account also provides insight into the accommodation of white women that was still expected, even for a woman of Ella’s accomplishments: The question was proposed to the board, apropos of Mrs. Mahammitt, a young and beautiful colored woman of good education, and honest intellectual ambitions. Mrs. Mahammitt showed singular good sense. Rather than engulf the club in difficulty of any sort, she started a club among her own race, and has led that society of women along pleasant fields of study. Not long ago, as president of the Omaha Colored Woman’s club she was invited to address the 500 members of the Woman’s club. This she did with singular modesty, propriety of language, and good sense, and met with the warmest applause. So far, and no further have the women got on the color question in this city.[1]

Image source: The Enterprise, Easter edition, 1896. Newspapers.com.

Ella’s journalism career halted by 1902 when Thomas Mahammitt accused her of adultery and filed for divorce.[1] The divorce was granted in 1902.  

Ella’s final column in the Enterprise, in which she praised the work of Omaha’s Visiting Nurses Association as a far-reaching charity, was printed in 1897.[2] She returned to Kansas City, where she reclaimed her first married name, Ella Browne, and worked there as a domestic servant (col’d).

The 1910 Federal Census calls into question the accuracy of the enumerator’s work. A 17-year-old “brother,” born in 1893 while Ella and Thomas were married, was named Henry Mahammitt Brooks and lived with Ella. Brooks was the surname of the man who was named in Thomas Mahammitt’s accusation of adultery.

1920 found Ella working as a nurse in Orange County, CA. She was the western division representative for the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and a member of its executive board[3] and committee secretary for a mayor’s Colored Citizens’ Campaign.[4] She died in Los Angeles in 1932.

Writing Ella’s story set off my own reflections on the invisibility of race in my two “home” states, Kansas and Nebraska.

I was not taught that lynching was not uncommon in the Sunflower State, including events at Alma, Kansas, reported in the July 21, 1899 Alma Enterprise: “Kansas has got into the game at last. There was a lynching bee up at Alma Sunday afternoon, but they were only amateurs at the business and allowed the marshal to cut the body down before the negro was dead.”[5] I also was not taught about the heroic roles Kansans played in the run-up to the Civil War and abolition, including the establishment of the Freedmen’s University that Ella Mahammitt may have attended.

The legacy of slavery was not lost on me when I worked at one of Omaha’s Fortune 500 companies. Amongst more than 5,000 employees, I had only two African American colleagues during the decade I worked there, both men. Lacking the protection of student deferment because he couldn’t afford college, one had served in Viet Nam. The other had fallen short of his dream of a broadcasting career; he had been told that Omaha already had a Black news anchor.

In a story about the accomplishments, barriers, and near invisibility for entire decades of the life of a politically astute Black woman, why am I devoting two entire paragraphs to my own story? Perhaps this is because I long for the day when my home and adopted states bear witness to the truths we were not taught in school.


[1] “Two Divorce Suits.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 August 1901, p. 12.

[2] “Woman’s Column.” The Enterprise. 13 February 1897, p. 1.

[3] “Clubdom.” California Eagle. 30 December 1922, p. 11.

[4] “Farmer for Mayor.” California Eagle. 17 Febuary 1923, p. 16.

[5] “What They Say.” Alma Enterprise. 21 July 1899, p. 1.

[6] “A Word With the Women.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 April 1896, p. 8.

[7] “The Clenlans Women’s Club Writes Hitchcock.” The Monitor. 24 February 1922, p. 1.

[8] “Omaha’s Colored People.” Topeka Plain Dealer. 18 July 1901, p. 1.

[9] Missouri State Archives. Missouri’s Early Slave Laws: A History in Documents. sos.mo.gov/archives/education/aahi/earlyslavelaws/slavelaws Accessed 2 Febuary 2023.

[10] O’Bryan, Tony. “Quindaro, Kansas” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas  Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Libray. Accessed Monday, January 9, 2023 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/quindaro-Kansas

[11] “Why They Must Part.” Kansas City Times. 19 July 1887, p. 8.

[12] “Frightened to Death.” Omaha World-Herald. 20 October 1891, p. 8.

[13] “Left Ruin All Around.” Daily Nebraska State Journal. 11 October 1891, p. 2.

[14] “All Are Free Again.” Daily Nebraska State Journal. 22 November 1891, p. 5.

[15]  “Woman’s Column.” The Enterprise. 24 August 1895, p. 3.

[16]  Ibid.

[17] “The First National Conference of Colored Women.” The Enterprise. 7 April 1896, p. 7.

[18] “Brief History of The Woman’s Meeting Organized and Conducted in the Town of Tuskegee, Alabama”. The Enterprise. 4 April 1896, p. 1.

[19] “Colored Woman’s National League.” The Enterprise. 7 April 1896, p. 7

Society of Amateur Chefs: A Taste for Indulgence

By Tara Spencer

In the late 1930s, a group of men in New York City decided they wanted to show off their culinary talents to their peers. Thus, the Society of Amateur Chefs was formed.

Their first organizational meeting was held at the Hotel New Yorker in October, 1938, and was comprised of “men whose hobby is preparing and serving their own favorite victuals.” It was decided they would meet on Thursdays, as that was the traditional “housemaids’ night off.” These dinner meetings presented an opportunity for members to demonstrate their skill in the “male interpretation of good cooking,” according to a New York Times article from Oct. 14, 1938.

Founder (and later executive director and president) Ben Irvin Butler declared November 3, 1938 as the day marking the “emancipation” of men who enjoy cooking. (This was the date the society was officially formed.) This declaration was made in an article Butler wrote that appeared in the Morning World-Herald on August 12, 1940.

The organization disbanded for some time during World War II, but reconvened in the late 1940s, with chapters popping up across the country.

Their reformation and ensuing popularity were, in part, a reaction to what one man (ironically, the feature and woman’s editor of the St. Louis Dispatch) described as “a de-caloried and vitamized society where every woman aspires to be a broomstick.” Apparently, some men at the time felt they were being made to eat smaller, healthier meals by their wives, forcing them to cook their own food when they got a hankering for something hearty.

Primarily thought of as a meat-and-potatoes (and corn) state, Nebraska was an ideal place for a chapter to form. That’s not to say members strictly stuck to steak, though. These men incorporated many different ingredients while occasionally drawing on other regional cuisines to make their meals of substance. With their desire for more indulgent meals, there was a seemingly strong preference for rich, French-influenced creations.

The Douglas County Historical Society recently acquired a collection that includes memorabilia from the Omaha chapter of the Society of Amateur Chefs, including membership lists, meeting reports, newspaper articles and ads, invitations, and many menus. The society’s invitation-only dinners presented their invitations and menus in a humorous, whimsical fashion using clever designs and tongue-in-cheek wording. Oftentimes, they would incorporate representations of the evening’s hosts/cooks into the design.  

Menu from an Omaha Society of Amateur Chefs gathering. Many members signed their names next to their portraits, including Omaha World-Herald photographer John Savage, Council Bluffs doctor Ben Moore, beauty salon owner Lorenzo Donarico. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Omaha’s chapter included some names that pepper the city’s history, such as Schimmel, Swanson, and Storz. Unsurprisingly, these names are also associated with the food and drink industry.

Listed in the membership registry, Edward Schimmel was the manager of the Blackstone Hotel (which could explain why many of their dinners seemed to take place there). Also found in several of the registries was Arthur Storz of Storz Brewery family fame. Clarke Swanson, of what would become the TV dinner empire, makes an appearance in the pieces of ephemera, notably on an egg-shaped invitation, on which his head is placed atop the body of a hen, alongside similarly attired cohost Ed Schimmel.

The New York chapter had a slightly more eclectic mix of characters, with one New York Times article mentioning attendees Jack Dempsey, Christopher Morley, and Lowell Thomas, as well as cartoonists Ham Fisher and Charles Biro.

Some of the society’s members were featured in ads for Libby’s corned beef hash, in which they would provide unique recipes that incorporated the hash. One such advertisement featured a “Hash Hawaiian” by author, explorer, and member of the society “Bob” Ripley.

The Omaha chapter’s big coming-out was featured in the April 11, 1948, issue of the Sunday World-Herald Magazine. The men met in the Fern Room of the Blackstone Hotel, natch. The new club had a seven-course dinner lasting three and a half hours, followed by a brief business meeting in which they voted to apply to join the national society—a formality, as they had already been invited by the national group.

Twenty-one men attended at this first meeting, and it was later decided that the maximum number of members should be limited to twenty-eight. They planned to have ten dinner meetings a year, at a cost of $7.50 per person, with two people hosting. It was strictly stated in their rules that members must be willing to “promote the culinary interest of the group.” It was clear that they took their “amateur cookery” seriously, further stating that many members were not interested in a “stag dinner group,” meaning they did not want members to simply hire a professional to plan and make the meal.

This fell in line with what the originators of the society stipulated—that members must cook for a hobby. Though it should be noted that they did not stipulate they be good at it. Rather, it seems they considered it a given.

Reading through articles related to the Society of Amateur Chefs, one notion that stands out is the belief that men are simply better at cooking. The New York chapter went so far as to pass a resolution to that effect.

Given the fact that women had been confined to the kitchen for much of Western history, this was a tough bite for some to swallow. Some women, and men, did push back. A former Mrs. Omaha, M.E. Arnold, determined that men do well when focusing on one dish or style of cooking. “If women could concentrate on special dishes for special occasions, we’d do a better job than the amateur cook,” she was quoted as saying in a World-Herald article. Dan Powers, noted as being the secretary of the Association of Amateur Chefs in Omaha, was quoted in the same article as saying amateurs are good at cooking because they like food. “Men have the edge there,” he said, as though women of that time simply did not like food.

A positive aspect of the organization is that they did seem to believe that more men should be interested in cooking, especially among younger generations. One article noted that younger men tended to view cooking as unmanly, or “sissy.”

While this sentiment surely still exists in some, cooking has become a more acceptable hobby for men over the last few decades. Cooking as a form of employment? Well, the culinary field has been strongly dominated by men for decades, with women typically making up around a quarter of chefs working in the industry in the U.S.

The men of the Society of Amateur Chefs once said they might “give their wives a treat” by inviting them to a session once a year. But women don’t have to wait to be invited. They can make their own meals—and their place is only in the kitchen if they want it to be.

Society of Amateur Chefs menu, 1950. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Sources:

file:///C:/Users/tarad/Downloads/News_Article__Omaha_World-Herald_published_as_SUNDAY_WORLD-HERALD___April_11_1948__p80.pdf

file:///C:/Users/tarad/Downloads/News_Article__Omaha_World-Herald_published_as_MORNING_WORLD-HERALD___August_12_1940__p5-1.pdf

file:///C:/Users/tarad/Downloads/News_Article__Omaha_World-Herald_published_as_SUNDAY_WORLD-HERALD___March_28_1948__p1.pdf

https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1951/07/14/86468431.html?pageNumber=16

https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1938/10/14/issue.html (Pg. 25)

https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1952/01/20/93557250.html?pageNumber=202

https://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/women-and-food

https://www.zippia.com/chef-jobs/demographics/

Martin Luther King Middle School and the Integration of Omaha Public Schools

By: Natalie Kammerer

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader is reflected in the history of the school that was named for him. It was the first Omaha Public School named for an African American, and the first commemoration of Dr. King in Omaha. Its design first went before the Board of Education in 1969, the year following Dr. King’s assassination, and it was decided that the school should be named for him because he was a good role model for students of all races.[1] It seems particularly fitting that this school was named for Dr. King, because its opening in a predominantly African-American neighborhood provided the flashpoint which finally spurred the Omaha School District, as it was known then, to provide a desegregation plan for its schools. But that was only after the U.S. Justice Department sued the district for racial discrimination.

Cover of Martin Luther King School Dedication Program, 1974. Courtesy Douglas County Historical Society.

Martin Luther King Middle School opened at 3706 Maple Street in September of 1973[1], near the southwest corner of Adams Park. Even before discussing the legal issues surrounding the opening of MLKMS, there were several aspects of the school that made it notable for its time. It had the distinction of being the first middle school in OPS, and it was meant to ease overcrowding at both Franklin and Clifton Hill Elementary Schools, as it was located less than a mile from each. Its design embraced the concept of team teaching, and offered courses such as industrial arts, homemaking, art, and science not available in a typical elementary school.[2]

A student in an industrial arts class adjusts the temperature on an oven. Martin Luther King School Dedication Program, 1974. Courtesy Douglas County Historical Society.
A student finishes a sewing project. Martin Luther King School Dedication Program, 1974. Courtesy Douglas County Historical Society.

The staff made goals to support the original philosophy of MLKMS, which was “a plan to make the school fit the child, not the child fit the school.”[1] While these goals were groundbreakingly student-centered, addressing the whole child and his or her needs, as well as nurturing a civically and morally-minded student body, they could not address the de facto segregation that still defined public education in predominantly African-American neighborhoods at that time. By 1973, the Omaha School District had not yet addressed the segregation in its own district. Although the Supreme Court had ruled that

“separate is not equal” in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954,[1] it wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that the Justice Department was granted the power to enforce this ruling.[2]

Many parents whose students were in the MLKMS attendance area were upset that its location would perpetuate segregation. Overcrowding of neighborhood schools necessitated that the new school be located within the predominantly African-American neighborhood,[3] but the district made no effort to integrate King’s attendance zones. One zone actually pulled Black students from the integrated Monroe Junior High. Other zones kept white students from attending the school, sending them to predominantly white junior highs that were farther from their homes than King.[4] The Justice Department requested an injunction against the opening of MLKMS, citing that an integration plan needed to be in place and that discriminatory transfer policies needed to change before the school opened, as this would be in the best interest of all parties.[5] The request was denied, and the school opened that September with 800 students,[6] 82% of whom were Black.[7]

Martin Luther King School Vice Principal James Hubschman (left) and Principal James Freeman (right). Mr. Freeman had a 38-year career with Omaha Public Schools, and retired from UNO in 2019 where he was the Director of Multicultural Affairs for 16 years. From Martin Luther King School Dedication Program, 1974. Courtesy Douglas County Historical Society.

The Justice Department pushed forward with a racial discrimination lawsuit against the district. Eugene Leahy, who had just served as Omaha’s mayor, agreed with the lawsuit, urging citizens “to obey the law of the land” and to back efforts meant to provide equal educational opportunities for all Omaha students.[1] After the injunction failed, the Justice Department alleged that the district was not following its own neighborhood policy, instead using a “selective open school policy at the high school level…optional zones at the junior high level and a discriminatory transfer policy at all levels.”[2] The department also pointed out that while only 19% of students in the district were African-American, more than 60% of these students attended only 12 schools which had a 70-100% African-American enrollment, while 49 elementary schools, eight junior highs and four high schools were “either solely or predominantly” white.[3]

The Legal Aid Society joined as a third party in the lawsuit, representing 32 Black plaintiffs, both students and their parents, in a class action lawsuit effectively representing “all [B]lack children enrolled in the Omaha public schools and their parents.”[4] In clarifying their involvement, Legal Aid referenced third party representation in at least three other cities where desegregation lawsuits had taken place, explaining that on critical issues the Justice Department may “adopt a dramatically different stance from that favored by [B]lack students….”[5] Three attorneys from the Harvard Center for Law and Education who specialized in school desegregation also helped with the case.[6]

In June of 1975, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Omaha public school system was intentionally segregated and directed the district to make a plan for both faculty and student integration.[7] African American civic leaders were pleased with the ruling and warned the Board of Education that appealing the decision would be a waste of time and money, saying their resources needed to go towards integrating the schools, not fighting the decision.[8] Despite pushback from the Board of Education, an integration plan was eventually adopted.

In 1976 when Omaha Public Schools enacted its desegregation plan, Martin Luther King Middle School evolved into one of two ninth grade centers, serving students from many parts of the city. Twelve years later in 1988, the school moved to the site of the old Horace Mann Junior High, at 3720 Florence Blvd., becoming King Science and Technology Magnet Center.[9] Its previous location on Maple became King Elementary.

The concept of the magnet program introduced in the 1980s was to provide unique benefits in the form of focused subject matter – like science and technology – taught by specialized teachers as a way to add interest for “voluntary integration.”[10] King was an early example of the success for the model – in 1999, 446 students entered a lottery to compete for only 15 available spots in the 5th grade class.[11] The trend continued, with rare amenities like a planetarium, multimedia rooms, and lab spaces for both science and technology classes attracting families from around the district.

Although Martin Luther King Middle School has had a variety of identities over the last 50 years, its legacy has always been to provide an excellent education to deserving students. As King Science and Technology Center today, it continues to serve a multi-racial student body from across the city.

Photo from the MLKMS Dedication Program, 1974. Courtesy Douglas County Historical Society.

Ronco Construction. King Science Center Magnet School. Accessed 11 January 2023: https://ronco-construction.com/projects/educational/king-science-center-magnet-school

[1] Parsons, Dana. “Support Is Divided On New Race Group.” Omaha World-Herald. 9 August 1973, p. 8.

[2] “Hearing May Be Preview of School Suit.” Omaha World-Herald. 11 August 1973, p. 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Parsons, Dana. “Legal Aid Asks Part In School Racial Suit.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1973, p. 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Parrott, Larry. “Integrate Appeal Decision Monday.” Omaha World-Herald. 13 June 1975, p. 7.  

[8] “Decision Hailed by Black Leaders.” Omaha World-Herald. 13 June 1975, p. 7. 

[9] History of King Science and Technology Center. Accessed January 9, 2023: https://www.ops.org/domain/1051.

[10] Willcoxon, Shelley. “Magnet School Attracts a Crowd.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 June 1988.

[11] Matczak, Melissa. “Two New Magnet Schools Will Have Open Seats in August Omaha School District Magnets.” Omaha World-Herald. 13 May, 1999.

[12] Separate But Equal. Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School, 2022. Accessed 10 January 2023: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/separate_but_equal#:~:text=On%20May%2017%2C%201954%2C%20the,Clause%20of%20the%20Fourteenth%20Amendment.

[13] Brown v. Board of Education: The First Step in the Desegregation of America’s Schools. History.com. Accessed 10 January 2023: https://www.history.com/news/brown-v-board-of-education-the-first-step-in-the-desegregation-of-americas-schools#:~:text=Finally%2C%20in%201964%2C%20two%20provisions,withhold%20funding%20from%20segregated%20schools.

[14] History of King Science and Technology Center. Accessed January 9, 2023: https://www.ops.org/domain/1051.

[4] “Integrated King Goal ‘At Opening.’” Omaha World-Herald. 11 August 1973, p. 9.

[15] Ibid.

[16] History of King Science and Technology Center. Accessed January 9, 2023: https://www.ops.org/domain/1051.

[17] “Blacks Up in Fringe Areas.” Omaha World-Herald. 4 November 1973, p. 12-B.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] History of King Science and Technology Center. Accessed January 9, 2023: https://www.ops.org/domain/1051.

An Early History of the Omaha Fire Department

By: Natalie Kammerer

In continuation of our holiday exhibit and blog series dedicated to Highlighting our Heroes, we’ve done a deep-dive into some of our collections that tell the early history of Omaha’s Fire Department. We unfortunately don’t have names to put to many of these men’s faces, but their stories are as much a part of our history as those named and featured in our exhibit!

The Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company was established in 1860, six years after Omaha City’s official incorporation. A local carriage builder named Andrew J. Simpson estimated that it would cost him about $75.00 to build a “truck.” A handful of local insurance agents pledged contributions to help cover the cost.[1] Before long, Omaha’s first fire vehicle was ready for action. [It was] …“a hand pulled cart with hooks on the sides on which to hang the ladders and the buckets. It was about twelve feet long, painted bright red, and had small wheels for turning corners easily.”[2]

View of A.J. Simpson’s carriage factory, taken at a later date (c. 1880). Simpson went on to serve as the chief of the Volunteer Hook and Ladder Company from 1866-1868. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

When the city invested in this high-tech machinery, they realized that they would also need a permanent (and convenient) location to store it, so the first fire station was built on the west side of 12th Street between Farnam and Douglas. At this time, the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company was comprised solely of volunteer firefighters; when a fire was reported, church bells were used to call members into action. They would rush to the station, get the cart, and pull it to the fire as fast as they could.[1]

Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company Volunteers at 11th and Farnam Streets, c. 1860. Reproduced from “Omaha Fire Department: 1860-2010 150th Anniversary.” Courtesy of Local 385.

Though this seems almost comical today, Omaha was still in its infancy during these years. Not only was the city’s geographical footprint small, the scope of its construction was simple as well. Most buildings were one or two stories of frame construction, so the “bucket brigade” method did the job just fine for a while.

For a few years, it seems that improvements within the fire department generally kept pace with the city’s growth and expansion. In 1866, Andrew J. Simpson (who was now serving as chief of the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company) facilitated the purchase of a hand engine called “Fire King” which was bought second-hand from Davenport, Iowa. The next year, a steam engine called the “Omaha” was acquired. Over the next two decades, the city continued to build up a small fleet of modern equipment that was able to pump water from a new network of cisterns located throughout the city. Though a definite improvement over hauling buckets, this system had its limits, as well. Namely, the cisterns simply weren’t big enough to hold the water required to fight a really large fire.

The worst illustration of this problem came with the 1879 fire at the Grand Central Hotel, a newly-remodeled five-story brick building. After a while, it became clear that the cisterns were running low, and the Hook and Ladder Company’s hoses simply couldn’t reach the upper floors. Five firemen were killed when a floor collapsed, and the building was a total loss.[1]

View of the Grand Central Hotel at 14th and Farnam, c. 1870. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

Around the same time, it was also decided that the volunteer Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company was becoming obsolete – they were no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the growing city. Paid professional companies were proving to be more popular among members, and also more sustainable, considering how quickly the city was growing. A volunteer fireman simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of his professional life and the increasing need for fire services. In 1885, after 25 years of fighting the city’s fires, the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company voted to disband.

Leather accessories from Omaha’s Pioneer Hook and Ladder Co., c. 1880. The items in the top image may be a belt cover and a hat adornment. The lower image is of a belt. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

This shift toward a fully paid and professional force came at about the same time that Omaha was establishing its waterworks. The system of pressurized fire hydrants and reservoirs was completed in 1881, and proved extremely effective. Between the improved water systems and continued investment in modern equipment, people felt so confident in Omaha’s fire protection that in 1886, insurance premiums were lowered citywide.[1]

The issue of water quantity and pressure continued, however. On multiple occasions, it was determined that low water pressure had hampered the fire response, and there were often complaints about poor service, mismanagement, and deferred maintenance.[2] Omaha’s buildings were getting taller, and the water supply situation was quickly becoming untenable. Unsurprisingly, this led to multiple instances where firefighters were limited by their own tools, sometimes causing heavy property losses, and occasionally human losses as well.

Late in 1886, when construction was just being completed on the new Barker Building at 15th and Farnam, it burned to the ground. The fire department was quick to note that they “would have been more effective in handling this fire if they had not been handicapped by the low pressure of the water.”[3] Between 1887 and 1894, there were 1,945 alarms rung in to the department, and monetary losses totaled about $2,165,000.[4] At least four firemen were killed in the line of duty during those years, and many more experienced severe injuries.[5]

Finally, in 1910, a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended decades of heated debate over Omaha’s water works. By 1899, continued conflict surrounding the volume of water available, and the rates charged for it, had led the city to approve a $3,000,000 bond issue to purchase the water company. The company refused to sell for that price, so a committee was tasked to come up with a more objective appraisal. One member was appointed by the city, one by the water company, and the third was chosen by the first two appointees. After three years, the number they settled on was $6,000,000, which the city refused to pay.[6] A 1907 Federal District Court decision sided with the city, but this decision was reversed in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. Finally, in 1910, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city was obligated to pay the price set forth by the committee.[7] This was a big year for the department – they also purchased the city’s first motor-driven engine! The department also continued to expand in order to bring services to different corners of the community.

The crew and truck pictured above were not Omaha’s very first motor-powered engine, but they are South Omaha’s first! Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.
This peek into a firehouse bunkroom was likely taken in the Benson station. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

Like many neighborhoods and services of the time, the fire department was initially segregated. Omaha’s Hose Company No. 11 was organized in 1895 to serve the city’s Black residents.[1] Their station stood at 30th and Spaulding Streets, and the five men who made up the company were laborers, barbers, and tinsmiths by trade.[2] The creation of this company is generally attributed to Omaha community leader and Nebraska legislator Dr. Matthew Oliver Ricketts. At the time, social taboos limited the neighborhoods that fire companies would service, and also dictated that Black firefighters could not fight fires from inside white homes.[3],[4] The department wouldn’t be officially desegregated until 1957.[5]

The five members of Hose Company No. 11 located at 30th and Spaulding Sts., c. 1895. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

Interested in learning more stories about essential workers who have made a difference throughout Omaha’s history? Visit us at the General Crook House Museum – our holiday decorations and exhibit “Highlighting Our Heroes” will be on display through Jan. 13. Each room of the house celebrates dedicated Omahans who have worked to improve our community in industries like education, medicine, transportation, social justice, delivery services, and more!


[1] Some sources name this date as 1895, others as 1885.

[2] The Omaha Fire Department, compiled for the Benevolent Association of Paid Firemen. Burkley Printing Co., 1895, p. 81.

[3] “More Than a Century of African American Firefighters in Omaha.” Accessed 19 December 2022: https://www.theclio.com/entry/22510.

[4] It’s unclear whether this was an explicit rule of conduct, or a more unspoken expectation.

[5] Dice, Harry Edward. “The History of the Omaha Fire Department 1860-1960.” UNO Masters Thesis. 1965, p. 91.


[6] Ibid., p. 33.

[7] Ibid., 38.

[8] The Omaha Fire Department, compiled for the Benevolent Association of Paid Firemen. Burkley Printing Co., 1895, p. 49.

[9] Ibid., p. 59-60.

[10] Ibid., p. 53-55.

[11] Dice, Harry Edward. “The History of the Omaha Fire Department 1860-1960.” UNO Masters Thesis. 1965, p. 51.

[12] City of Omaha v. Omaha Water Co. United States Supreme Court Record, 1910. Accessed 9 December 2022: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/218/180/.

[13] Ibid., p. 27.

[14] Ibid, p. 12.

[15] Dice, Harry Edward. “The History of the Omaha Fire Department 1860-1960.” UNO Masters Thesis. 1965, p. 9.

[16] Ibid.

Ukulele Joe Thomas:
New Orleans to Nebraska and Nevermore

By: Tara Spencer


There’s something about the dainty, plucky sound of a ukulele that immediately puts one at ease. Perhaps it’s the association with Hawaii—a paradise on Earth—or the often soothing voices that accompany it, such as Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole and Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands.[1]

Simply put, it’s hard to be in a bad mood once you hear those sweet tones.

Over the years, the ukulele has been considered a simple, lesser instrument by some musicians and critics. Others consider it an absolute joy, and therefore perhaps the best instrument to play. George Harrison once wrote “it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh.”[2] Music that can affect moods in such a way is bound to have an impact that spread.


One man who found the allure of the ukulele appealing was New Orleans-born, Omaha-based Joseph S. Thomas. Known as “Ukulele Joe,” Thomas worked for the Union Pacific Railroad as a private chef to many of the higher-ups, including Carl R. Gray, who ran the company as president and vice chairman for 17 years before retiring in 1937.[3] It was even reported that he had earned a written stamp of approval from Queen Alexandria (sic) of Denmark.[4]

Besides his day job cooking for U.P.’s senior administrators on private railcars, Thomas was a musician, singer, and songwriter. During his travels with the company, he was a frequent visitor at radio stations along their routes, appearing on airwaves across the country playing a ukulele or a “one-stringed violin.” One of his most popular songs seems to have been “When the Morning Glory Climbs Up To My Window,” written about the twining, horn-shaped flowers that grew outside his North Omaha home.[5] Other songs attributed to him include “Ukulele Joe’s Big Parade,” a song for children, and “Oleomargarine Maid,” which one article said was “dedicated to housewives.”[5]

“Ukulele Joe” Thomas appears to have been equally at home in the kitchen and behind a microphone. With original song titles like “Oleomargarine Maid” and the invention of his musical kitchen, it sounds like he combined his two gifts from time to time. Photographer: Williams Studio. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.
 

His combination of talents earned him the moniker “the singing chef.” He even turned his entire home kitchen into an impromptu concert hall. One excerpt from the California Eagle—a Black-owned newspaper in Los Angeles, California, published from 1879-1966—wrote that he sent “season’s greetings from Café De Melody, 2711 N 28th St.” That address was listed as his home in an Omaha World-Herald clipping.[7]

Thomas poses for a local photographer, credited simply as “Davis.” Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.
 

The mention of his name in newspapers outside his hometown is proof of Thomas’ widespread appeal. He seems to have been especially popular on the Pacific coast radio programs, with credits including WHT Chicago, KFH Wichita, KSL Salt Lake City, KHQ Spokane, KGW Portland, KNX Holloywood, KCNR Santa Monica, and KGO Oakland.[8] He also played some live shows, such as one at Iron County Hospital in Utah, where he entertained residents with original compositions. According to the Iron County Record in 1930, “Ole Uncle Johnson” was a particular hit with the crowd.

Thomas even had some famous friends, such as Lincoln Perry, aka Stepin’ Fetchit, a successful vaudevillian, film actor, and tap dancer. According to a society blurb in The Omaha Guide in August 1937, Fetchit even visited Thomas at his home for some time. It was reported he enjoyed his time in Omaha so much that he was “planning to return in the near future,” though I was unable to find evidence he ever did.

Despite Thomas’ famous friends and seeming renown, information on this impressive man was scant. Much of what I could find was largely published in Black-owned papers, as well as a few Omaha World-Herald pieces. One slice-of-life read from the World-Herald on August 26, 1928, helps frame Thomas’ world and helps bring him to life.


The story opens with “Jazz served ‘a la carte’—red hot from the pots and kettles of ‘Ukulele Joe’s’ musical kitchen—that’s the newest in music for those who like novelty with their tunes.” Thomas’ kitchen was stocked with “ukulele pots, pans, and other culinary musical ‘pipes.’” These culinary instruments reportedly cost nearly $1,000 and were made by the music man himself. (Another talent unlocked.) Even the kitchen range included a complete miniature organ. Naturally, his menus had musical themes, such as “Hawaiian dreams au gratin” or “Swanee River en caserole (sic).”

Joe with one of his culinary instruments. Image source: Omaha World Herald. 14 September 1947, p. 23.

This peek into Thomas’ world of food, music, and creativity gives us the smallest glimpse into the life of a man who certainly made quite an impact in his time.

According to his obituary, published in the Omaha Star on Friday, May 5, 1950, Thomas died April 28, 1950, at “a local hospital.” He was survived by his wife, Sally Mae Thomas, and daughter, “Mrs. Frances Overby.” His brother, D. Warren Thomas of Chicago, was also listed and his funeral was at St. John A.M.E (African Methodist Episcopal) Church and was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. He was 72 when he passed.

Interested in learning more stories about essential workers who have made a difference throughout Omaha’s history? Visit us at the General Crook House Museum – our holiday decorations and exhibit “Highlighting Our Heroes” will be on display through Jan. 13. Each room of the house celebrates dedicated Omahans who have worked to improve our community in industries like education, medicine, transportation, social justice, delivery services, and more!

Thomas stands with several stringed instruments, presumably his own collection. S have a homemade look to them. Photographer: Williams Studio. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.

[1] Recker, Jane. “How the Music of Hawai’i’s Last Ruler Guided the Island’s People Through Crisis.” Smithsonian Magazine, 2019. Accessed 1 December 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-music-hawaiis-last-ruler-guided-islands-people-through-crisis-180971783/.

[2] Gioia, Joe. “The Curious Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Ukulele in American Pop Music. Magellan.com. 8 July 2020. Accessed 1 December 2022. https://www.magellantv.com/articles/the-curious-rise-and-fall-and-rise-again-of-the-ukulele-in-american-pop-music.

[3] “Joe Cooks a Sweet Meal.” Omaha World-Herald. 26 August 1928. p.3.

[4] “You and Your History.” The Omaha Star. 31 March, 1976. p. 3.

[5] “Gray to Quit Helm of Union Pacific: President Since 1920, He Will Step Aside Oct. 1 at Age of 70 and Be Vice Chairman.” New York Times. 13 April, 1937. p. 37.

[6] “Ukulele Joe – Singing Chef.” Omaha World-Herald. 11 September 1932. p. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Radio Artist Sends Greetings.” California Eagle. 28 December 1928. Accessed 1 December 2022 https://z-upload.facebook.com/groups/1681787125444102/search/?q=ukulele%20joe.

Debutante, Nurse, and Society Matron Anna Millard Brought Healthcare Reform to Omaha

By Rita Shelley

For her coming out party in 1890, Miss Anna Millard wore a Paris gown of pale pink mousseline de soie, trimmed with a garland of tiny pink hyacinth buds. The daughter of former mayor and First National Bank President Ezra Millard also wore hyacinths in her hair.[1] At subsequent parties throughout the season, she wore white lace with apple blossoms adorning the bodice, white silk and tulle with sweet peas on the bodice, a black gown with red poppies on the shoulders, a red bonnet trimmed with American beauty roses, and white crepe with white flowers in her hair.

But in 1894, Omaha begrudgingly relinquished its favorite daughter to Johns Hopkins nursing school in Baltimore. “She will be missed,” it was reported, especially as an “indefatigable worker among the wounded and heavy laden of Omaha.” [2] Becoming a nurse changed Anna’s life; it also changed Omaha when she returned from the east coast with a vision for a visiting nurses’ association to train public health nurses, to provide care to patients who could not pay, to reduce infant and maternal mortality, and to teach hygiene practices in times when cases of scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, measles, and whooping cough could quickly alight into epidemics.

Thus, in the winter of 1896, several women gathered at 4 p.m. on a Thursday at the Omaha Woman’s Club in the Gold Coast neighborhood to hear what their friend Anna Millard had to say. Attendees Winifred Gallagher, Annie Baum, Agnes McShane, Minnie Lord, and Laura Whitney had grown up with Anna. They had hosted and attended birthday and coming-out parties together and worn gowns magnificent enough to make the paper. By this time, all attendees except “Miss Millard” had married scions of Omaha’s leading industries – factories, banking, steel and iron, construction, medicine, real estate, and agriculture.

As soon as the women of the club announced their decision, a Daily Bee reporter opined that Anna’s work, and the support of her wealthy friends, “opened the way for a noble and much-needed work of charity and provides a wide field of usefulness for young women who desire active employment in the relief of the sick and distressed.[3]

But it was not the first time since nursing school that Anna had advocated for public health, especially that of women and girls. Upon first returning to Omaha, she had helped organize the city’s Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA, now the Women’s Center for Advancement). At the YWCA’s first formal meeting, she was elected both third vice president and recording secretary. Anna also earned the county board of health’s gratitude for “volunteering her services, kindness and watchfulness nursing to an impoverished woman.”[4]

Perhaps it was during her professional training that Anna learned about women like Lillian Wald in New York and Jane Addams in Chicago, women who drew on their families’ wealth and connections for the greater good in public health and social welfare. Whether or not she had direct knowledge isn’t known, but the agency she started as a solo nurse in 1896 with the commitment of $1 per year dues from 30 Omaha women was modeled after Wald’s and Addams’ work. Wald is credited with coining the term “public health nurse” and starting the nation’s first visiting nurses’ association.

For many years, membership dues were the sole ongoing support for Anna’s VNA. But local philanthropists George and Sarah Joslyn looked out for their own when, in 1897, they made their five acres at 39th and Davenport available for a Lawn Fete fundraiser for the VNA. Admission was 25 cents for adults, a dime for children. Tents, awnings, and drapery were donated by enthusiastic merchants. Bunting was sufficient for an event encompassing five acres, as were Electric Light Company incandescents around the lake for swimming and at entrances. Dancing was accompanied by the 22nd Infantry Fort Crook band.


In June of 1898, Anna married Herbert Rogers, a Princeton-educated attorney who was recent heir to and president of Milton Rogers and Sons Hardware Company of Omaha. The wedding was at the Millard family home, followed by a reception for 500. Entrepreneurial Anna was now “Mrs. Herbert Rogers.” Within four years she and Herbert were parents to Milton, Millard, and Hellen, in a household that also included two sisters-in-law, two nieces, and a servant.

As the VNA’s honorary president, Anna continued fundraising and guiding the ongoing development of the small but mighty agency. In 1918, she helped recruit reserve nurses to care for patients on the home front while professional nurses were deployed in Europe. (VNA nurses also risked their own health to care for soldiers who returned home with the Spanish flu.)  

During Anna’s lifetime and in the decades until she died at age 67, she also worked with women who have almost become invisible with time. It is difficult to find and tell some of their stories when being known as “Mrs. Husband’sName” carried more power and was a source of pride. In one case, it would take a professional researcher to locate a woman known, even in her obituary, as “Mrs. Felix McShane.”

Anna would want these women’s stories told:

Louise McPherson, one of Anna’s early advocates and a long-time VNA member, was the daughter of a livestock commissioner, rancher, and stockman. She directed a play to raise money for the VNA. She and Anna grew up and attended the Cathedral School of Saint Mary in New York together. In 1911, Louise moved to her grandfather’s home in Maryland, where she was a dairy farmer who was active in the Democratic Party.[1]

Dr. Mattie Arthur, an informal medical director of the VNA in its early days, deserves a book of her own. Born in Ohio in 1859, she taught in Burt County rural schools for five years beginning when she was still a teenager herself, studying for medical school at night. According to her obituary, she graduated from Iowa’s medical school in 1886, the only woman in her class, and did post-grad work in New York, London, and Edinburgh. She returned to Burt County to practice medicine before setting up her practice in Omaha’s Paxton block. She taught anatomy at Creighton Medical School and obstetrics at Omaha Medical School.[2] At age 75, she was still recovering from a rattlesnake bite at her ranch in western Nebraska when she tripped on a rug and broke her hip.[3] She regained her health and still saw patients the day she died in 1940 at age 81.[4]


Bessie B. Randell was a VNA nurse for two years before she was appointed its director in 1911. She was also an advocate for suffrage. She resigned from the VNA in 1917, claiming that the work was straining her health. She married Dr. F.E. Coulter the following year.[1]

Florence McCabe succeeded Bessie Randell as VNA director in 1918. Her arrival was lauded owing to her education at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago and the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, her executive experience at the Red Cross, and her work at Chicago’s tuberculosis sanitarium.[2] In 1918, she became ill during the flu epidemic, but recovered. [3]


VNA nurse Greta Paulsen was Omaha’s first orthopedics specialist who went on to be superintendent of the Hattie B. Munroe Home for Crippled Children.[1]

Anna Millard Rogers died at her home in Omaha in 1931 at age 67. During her lifetime she and the battalion of nurses she trained and worked alongside were widely recognized for saving lives and bringing comfort to the afflicted. Anna envisioned a future in which medical professionals bridged the gap between care that could be provided and the people who needed it. Today, 125 years later, the VNA responds to epidemic and pandemic crises while also sustaining infusion services, home health care, parenting support, flu and immunization clinics, clinics at homeless shelters, hospice, and palliative care. The agency’s annual budget surpasses $5 million.[2] The 19th and 20th century women who applied their medical expertise, as well as those who martialed Omaha’s philanthropic resources, would be proud.


According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald, these 32 women “[stand] ready in all kinds of weather to lend aid to the sick poor, or to anyone wishing hourly paid service.” Source: OWH, 24 May 1925, p. 7.

Interested in learning more stories about essential workers who have made a difference throughout Omaha’s history? Visit us at the General Crook House Museum – our holiday decorations and exhibit “Highlighting Our Heroes” will be on display through Jan. 13. Each room of the house celebrates dedicated Omahans who have worked to improve our community in industries like education, food service, transportation, social justice, delivery services, and more!


[1] “Little Cripples Thank Rotary For Its Help.” Omaha World-Herald. May 3, 1928, p. 3.

[2] Visiting Nurse Association. Our Services, 2022. https://www.vnatoday.org/services/overview/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.

[3] “Bessie B. Randell.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 May 1918, p 66.

[4] “Miss Florence McCabe Assumes Duties as Visiting Nurse Chief.” Omaha Evening Bee. 21 Jan 1918, p. 1.

[5] “All but Three Visiting Nurses are Ill with ‘Flu.’” Omaha Evening Bee. 24 Oct 1918, p. 2.

[6] “Louise McPherson. ”The Public Mirror. 26 July 1923, p. 1.

[7] “Dr. Mattie Arthur Dies.” Oakland Independent and Republican. 26 April 1940, p. 1.

[8] “Bitten by Rattler and Hip Broken; Cheerful.” Omaha Evening Bee News. 6 December 1934, p. 1.

[9] “Dr. Mattie Arthur Dies.” Oakland Independent and Republican. 26 April 1940, p. 1.

[10] “A Week in Omaha Society.” Omaha World-Herald. 26 January 1890, p. 6.

[11] “Farewell to Miss Anna Millard.” Omaha Daily Bee. 11 March 1894, p. 4.

[12] Omaha Daily Bee. 21 November 1896, p.4.

[13] “Board of Health.” Omaha Daily Bee. 6 April 1893, p. 2.

Horrific History

By Tara Spencer

Every community has its own tales of spiritual happenings, hauntings, and horror. In my hometown, there was an abandoned house known simply as Unity where people claimed to have seen buckets of blood in the barn and experienced forces pushing them and slamming doors in the house.

Here in Omaha, I’ve heard stories about Mystery Manor, The Hatchet House, and of course, The Black Angel, which my own mother told stories of. Then there’s the infamous Hummel Park, which is purportedly haunted, though it doesn’t need the added drama if one looks at the already tragic stories of provable horrors that happened there.

As an avid watcher of Criminal Minds and early reader of books about serial killers, it’s often the real-life tragedies that haunt me the most. I’ve never understood wanting to be scared by horror movies when there’s already enough awfulness in the world.

My partner, who grew up in Bellevue, remembers stories about John Joubert’s time of terror during 1983, when parents were scared to let their children, especially their young boys, out of the house. Recently, I learned of another murderer who terrorized our community, and many others across the country, from the late 1920s until his capture in 1947.


Jake Bird was born somewhere in Louisiana, a place he left around the age of 19. He worked off and on for the railroad as a laborer. This allowed him to live a rather transient existence, which no doubt helped him evade police while pursuing his other interests—robbery, stalking, and murder.

In some ways, Bird fit the stereotype of a serial killer. U.S.-born, transient, male, clever, and often with an element of sado-sexual overtones to his crimes, Bird was said to stalk his victims, usually women, and rob them in their homes.[1]

Bird’s full history is unknown. He first showed up on Omaha’s radar in the summer of 1928 when he served as witness in a trial to determine if one of his traveling companions at the time—a young man from Cleveland, Ohio, who had been killed by a railroad employee—had in fact been murdered.[2] The case never made it to trial, but Bird decided to stick around afterward. This would prove an unfortunate decision for the community, specifically for Joseph W. Blackman and Gertrude Resso, her sister Creda Brown, and their friends and families.

Blackman, 76, was Bird’s first victim, beaten to death with a sharp instrument in his home in North Omaha on the morning of November 18, 1928. The house had been ransacked and a small fire set in an attempt to burn evidence. His son, Cecil, found his body and was considered a suspect for a time.[3] Then the bodies of Resso, 21 and Brown, 18 were found by Resso’s husband Waldo the following day and authorities realized there was a serial killer in their midst. This time, Bird left a witness—the Ressos’ 3-year-old son, Bobby. Sadly, the poor boy’s statement was of little help.[4]


Earlier that year, another tragedy struck the town when Harvey Boyd, 8, went missing in Carter Lake, Iowa. His body was discovered in a patch of sunflowers just north of Avenue H, nearly five weeks after his disappearance. Clarence Lukehart, who had pled guilty to and been convicted of assaulting an 8-year-old girl two days after Boyd’s disappearance, was immediately a suspect. He was serving time at Anamosa State Penitentiary in northeast Iowa when he was questioned in Boyd’s murder. After hours of interrogation, Lukehart confessed.


Clarence Lukehart was the first to confess to the Harvey Boyd murder, “after hours of questioning.”[5] Image Source: Omaha World Herald.

He said he struck the boy in the head with a hammer to stop his crying after sexually assaulting him in the Lukehart basement, hitting him until the crying stopped.[6] The Omaha World-Herald later printed part of his handwritten confession on the front page. Lukehart crossed paths with Bird after being transferred to Iowa’s Fort Madison State Penitentiary, where Bird had been sent for a crime he’d committed in Carter Lake.

Omaha authorities could not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the ax murders that took place there were the work of Bird. However, he left a more credible witness during his next Carter Lake attack.


Originally, Carter Lake was a recreational and resort community with swimming holes, social clubs, and an amusement park. For a time, it also had a reputation as a bit of a legal no-man’s-land between Iowa and Nebraska. At the time of the attacks, the community was just coming into its own as an incorporated city.[7] (The lake was renamed Carter Lake in 1908.) Image source: Douglas County Historical Society.


“Axman Remains At Large” was the headline on November 21, when yet another account of an ax attack was reported in the Carter Lake Club area. Husband and wife Harold and Mary Stribling, both 25, were the next victims. In the early morning hours of November 20, Harold was attacked and severely injured with an ax while he was in bed. When the intruder turned on Mary, she blunted the blow by turning away just as it was delivered. She then pleaded with her assailant to spare further attack on her husband and their baby, Mollie. She agreed to go with him peacefully if he would leave her family alone.

Two hours later, she was found by police officers, wandering near 5th and Locust streets in a daze. The authorities took her home where Harold was found in grave condition. He was transported to Lord Lister Hospital in Omaha, where he lingered near death for several days before he began to recover.

Mary described the man who attacked her family to the police. Acting on a tip, the police department of Omaha detained a man and arranged for Mary to see him face to face in her hospital room, also at Lord Lister. It was Jake Bird.

Reportedly, Mary said, “As sure as there is a God in Heaven, you are the man, Jake,” and Bird’s response to her accusation was simply “I don’t know what you are talking about, lady.” However, this statement is unlikely. In one World-Herald story, it was reported that she simply said, “That’s the man. Take him away,” before becoming “hysterical.”[8]

Regardless, with Mary as a witness able to identify Bird, he was turned over to Iowa to be prosecuted for the attack, where he was given a 30-year sentence at Fort Madison. In 1941, only twelve years later, Bird was granted parole.

Clarence Lukehart remained in jail, serving out his life sentence. Bird did try to get it reduced for him by confessing to Boyd’s murder when he was later arrested in Tacoma, Washington. Once again, he had killed two women with an ax— Bertha Kludt, 52, and her daughter Beverly June, 17, This time he was caught by police when neighbors heard their screams. While in custody, he claimed to have murdered a total of 44 people.[9]


Jake Bird, in handcuffs, being escorted into Judge Rosellini’s courtroom in Washington State, 1948. Image source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/22426986/jake-bird.

On July 15, 1949, at 12:20 a.m., Bird was hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for the murders of the Kludt women. The “Tacoma Ax-Killer,” as he was dubbed by papers, was likely one of the most prolific serial killers to have existed.[10] Yet his name is relatively unknown to most, despite his having confessed to murdering more than some of the most notorious, Netflix-famous slayers of the past century.  


[1] “Lured to Weeds, Hit With Stone To Stop Crying.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 August 1928, p. 1.

[2] Newton, M. “Hunting Humans: An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers.” 1990. Accessed: https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/hunting-humans-encyclopedia-modern-serial-killers.

[3] Reports Conflict on Identification by Mrs. Stribling. Omaha World-Herald. 23 November 1928, p. 1.

[4] “‘Chopper’ Slays Omaha Sisters; Strikes as Both Sleep.” Omaha World-Herald. 19 November 1928, p. 8.

[5] “Suspect Denies Any Knowledge of Ax Attacks.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 November 1928, p. 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.cityofcarterlake.com/history

[8] “Bloody Ax Found Concealed Is New Blackman Clue.” Omaha World-Herald. 19 November 1928, p. 1.

[9] “Probe Ordered of Bird’s Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 1 January 1948, p. 8.

[10] McClary, Daryl. “Jake Bird, convicted of murdering two Tacoma women, is hanged on July 15, 1949.” HistoryLink. 31 October 2009. Accessed: https://www.historylink.org/File/7973.

For the 1939 Golden Spike Days Extravaganza, Show Business Was in High Gear. So Were the Sewing Machines.

By Rita Shelley

This story started as one about several dresses in the DCHS textiles collection.

When Collections Coordinator Natalie Kammerer proposed the idea of delving into the history of several of dresses in the Society’s archives, she explained that they had been worn during Omaha’s Golden Spike Days in 1939. The Spike Days had coincided with the much-anticipated release of Cecil B. DeMille’s movie about the original 1869 driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point. Aptly named Union Pacific, the movie premiered in Omaha’s Orpheum and Paramount theaters. Thus, the entire city got behind an ecstatic welcome of the movie’s actors and the premiere. The celebration, I was to learn, rivaled the epic proportions for which DeMille was known. Evocative of railroad worker and townspeople “extras” employed by DeMille, thousands of “pioneer” Omaha women — and their dresses — played important roles in the lollapalooza of the movie’s premiere.


In an 1869 ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, a crowd of thousands celebrated the joining of the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the American West, connecting the Union Pacific Railroad to the Central Pacific Railroad. The 1869 ceremony was celebrated with the 1939 release of the movie Union Pacific and Golden Spike Days. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

“How quaint,” I thought while (cotton glove) handling the calico dresses with their sunflower buttons, fussy fichu collars, and yards of rick-rack trim, not to mention matching bonnets. I wondered whether seaming, sleeve setting, collar attaching, waist gathering, and hem finishing had changed in the 80 years since the dresses were made or in the five decades since I’d aced 8th grade Home Ec.  Would the products of a 1930s iron horse Sears machine compare to what I can produce on my Swiss engineered sewing computer that cost more than (gulp) my first car?

With both awe and disappointment, I discovered that garment sewing methods have not changed. If you studied the inside of a dress I sewed recently (sans ruffles and rick-rack), you wouldn’t see a difference in technique. As to how the quality from today’s computerized machines compares to that of 1939, a modern machine feeds fabric more smoothly and stitches more evenly. But the Golden Spike dresses are as solidly seamed as if they were made yesterday.

For DeMille, future director of The Greatest Show on Earth, whose genius was bringing the spectacular to the screen, Union Pacific was another resounding success in a career of film after blockbusting film. But more importantly for Omaha, 1939 answered UP President William Jeffers’ call to action, to “convince the people that they are capable of making Omaha a greater, more progressive community.” If an east coast Atlantic magazine journalist could allege that Omaha’s days of glory had long since departed[1] he’d better prepare to answer to thousands of ladies in pioneer costumes first. Men in ¾-length double-breasted frock coats, brocade vests, gingham shirts, ascot ties, souvenir canes, false beards, and golden spike cuff links were a force to reckon with as well.

The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck as a good-hearted woman with an Irish brogue who stands by her man, Robert Preston, as the charming but train-robbing man who breaks her heart, and Joel McCrea as the law-enforcing, buffalo-taming good guy who doesn’t get the girl. An army of swarthy but good-natured-in-spite-of-endless-backbreaking-toil workers build the UP ribbon ever westward, one spike at a time, all the way to Utah. The movie scene depicting the ceremony featured a replica of the 17.6-karat gold original spike, property of Stanford University.

Filming locations ranged throughout Utah and California, including Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. The scene in which Joel McCrae shushes a bull buffalo from the safety of a train car was filmed in Utah and superimposed by a skillful editor against a background of a grazing herd that had been filmed in Oklahoma.[2] DeMille’s sprawling late-Depression-era canvas declares independence and the power of patriotism over adversity. It recalls a time of clarity and hopefulness, after the Civil War had nearly torn the country asunder and President Lincoln (who in 1862 had signed the transcontinental railroad into existence) had died. Yes, [White] America was united. Nothing but blue skies up ahead. The hard work was done.

For their own part, Omaha’s captains of industry readied for the massive local production with committee assignments. Committee chairs included Walter Byrne, general manager of MUD; George Brandeis, president of Brandeis Department Store; James Davidson, president of Nebraska Power Company; Frank Fogarty, a Chamber of Commerce Commissioner who later would be general manager of WOW; J.M. Harding, assistant publisher of the Omaha World-Herald; Ford Hovey, executive director of Occidental Building and Loan; J.J. Isaacson, activities director for Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben; Morris E. Jacobs, president of Bozell Jacobs advertising firm; Arthur A. Lowman, president of Northwestern Bell Telephone; J.F. McDermott and E.F. Pettis, vice presidents of First National Bank; E.L. Moser, a contractor; Bert Murphy, president of Andrew Murphy & Son Chrysler dealership; Cecil Slocum, a trader for Burns Potter investment bankers, and A.A. Westergard, owner of an insurance agency. Mrs. Dorothy Wickham, vice president of National Construction headed the “women” committee.[3]

As I studied the women’s costumes, I tried to imagine hordes of working-class women finding precious time and money to devote hours to making dresses, all cut from the same cloth and the same pattern. I also found it difficult to picture upper class women suddenly taking up sewing.  Then I read that Francis Matthews, Chamber of Commerce president, and W.O. Swanson, Nebraska Clothing Company president, had overseen the sourcing of women’s costumes. Thousands of $1.40 dresses were ordered in 13 color combinations and with white organdy bonnets trimmed to match. Orders for thousands of dresses were placed at Kilpatrick’s, Brandeis, Nebraska Clothing, and Beaton’s.[4]  Somewhere in America, a small army of garment workers were bent over factory machines. Their cumulative 100,000 hand-stitched buttonholes required surgical precision; there is no record of who these invisible workers were. 

Matthews and Swanson had no idea what furor would transpire. In late March, they announced that no more orders would be accepted. It was getting too close to the deadline for getting them done in time; 15,000 had already been ordered. I can only imagine Swanson’s near despair when only two weeks before the big event, he hung up after a “long distance phone conversation with the manufacturer of the Union Pacific world premiere 1869 dresses.”[5] The shipment was late, but 90 percent of the full shipment was guaranteed to arrive within days, Swanson assured World-Herald readers. The Central Dress Depot would probably open Monday morning. Definite announcement would be in the Sunday paper and over the three Omaha radio stations.[6] On April 17, a scant 10 days before the premiere, the workers at the dress depot (the location is not given) opened for business. By 9:30 a.m. on a cold, rainy morning, 350 women were already waiting in line. Until all orders were filled, the depot would be open every day until 6 p.m. Once again, reassurance came from Mr. Swanson at the Nebraska Clothing Company: For every ticket, there would be a dress.[7]


Annie Doyle was a merchandise manager and buyer for six Kilpatrick’s department store departments when she modeled her costume in downtown Omaha. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Twelve Kilpatrick’s department store saleswomen modeled the costumes they wore for Golden Spike Days that could be ordered from their store. Pictured: Anne Solka, Lavaughn Smith, Mary Sullivan, Ruth Turner, Alberta Walker Anders, Irene Burger McDonald, Ruth Pierce, Mildred Letovsky, Cloris Short, Bess Maly Huxford, and Alice Cosson. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Women who couldn’t or chose not to shell out $1.40 could instead DIY with four yards of “percale, 36 inches wide fast color in historical prints 19c per yard”[8] and six yards of rick rack. In the long run, homemade dresses weren’t the best value though if their owners wanted to enter to win round-trip Pullman tickets to California. The winner of the Queen of Gingham championship at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum was to be recognized on the fourth day of festivities. Chairman George Brandeis would award the winner, but no official costume, no prize. Men could also compete for the best beard, the blackest beard, the reddest beard, as well as the most ridiculous and the most becoming.[9]


Two ladies in downtown Omaha modeled their brocade costumes during the Golden Spike Days celebration. Unlike “pioneer” costumes worn by thousands of women, these costumes likely were the work of a professional tailor. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Top hats, frock coats, vests, and canes were in demand during 1939’s Golden Spike Days. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

In the days leading up to the premiere, a city auditorium exhibition displayed the original spike in an “honored niche.”[10] The spike was enclosed in glass, guarded by railway agents and police. It had been in a Wells Fargo vault in San Francisco since 1869. As part of the exhibition, an “Indian Village” was set up on the courthouse lawn.[11]


Stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans featured in De DeMille’s movie were also present in 1939 Omaha. These thirty-two members of the Sioux tribe performed dances and demonstrations for festival-goers; four of the men are pictured above. Image source: Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Then came the parade that must have astonished even DeMille. Cue the floats recalling settlement of the Great Plains! The Lewis and Clark expedition, Omaha being built, Abraham Lincoln at Council Bluffs, the Colorado Gold Rush, and rails following trails! Omaha’s first railroad depot, the Golden Spike uniting  America, and the prairie being broken! The mounted police and the 22 bands! The horse drawn Brougham carriages carrying UP president William E. Jeffers and Board Chairman W.A. Harriman! The university students dressed as Native Americans, the Mormons arriving at Winter Quarters, the Prairie Schooner with families and riflemen! The bearded iron workers, the pony express riders, prospectors marching with burros and packs, Civil War soldiers afoot and 4-H boys dressed as farmers![12]

At last came the movie premiere. Omaha’s fete “eclipsed” Hollywood, a news headline declared:

For the multitudes assembled on Douglas Street, the show began shortly before 8 o’clock, when private cars and taxis began arriving with visitors, guests and Omaha elite. It was a fashion parade in which all imaginable types of costumes and all imaginable combinations of costume were in evidence.

Waves of applause greeted the most spectacular shots of the film, such as the wrecking of a train by the Indians, the destruction of an engine in a snow slide, and the dramatic scene in which the gallant little engine, “General McPherson,” carried the troop of rescue soldiers across the blazing Dale Creek bridge.

Audience reaction was marked to such emotional high spots as when a young Irishman about to send to the old country for his wife was shot to death by a gambler; when old Monaghan, engineer and father of the heroine, was killed in the snow slide, and again in the faithful reproduction of the ceremony at the driving of the Golden Spike.

The only hitch in the evening occurred when the sound system blew a tube and the dialogue was barely audible for a couple of minutes.[13]

When the financial impact of the celebration was tallied, it was reported that, in addition to 200,000 parade-goers, 40,000 people saw the premiere and 15,000 more saw its second showing. 40,000 women and 25,000 men wore costumes.[14]




Wearing the dresses, a newspaper columnist observed, served several causes, not the least of which was honoring the railroad’s 40,000 employees: “When those two steel ribbons were laid eastward and westward, 10 May 1869, the destiny of the west and middle west was fixed. …Thereafter products of the machine could be carried across the continent and products of the land carried back….when we wear calico dresses of uniform pattern, when we celebrate the laying of the golden spike and the picture premiere, we do something for our souls,” the columnist wrote. “We revel in pageantry and have a whale of a good time.”[15]

Meanwhile, smaller-type headlines began to hint at what was ahead. Britain drafted 20-year-old men for the first time in modern history as a warning to Italy and Germany. Czecho-Slovak officials defied an order to surrender the country’s consulate general to German authorities. A Polish woman was imprisoned for slandering Chancellor Hitler. On the morning of the Union Pacific premiere, a prominent World-Herald headline reported that Hitler had scrapped treaties with Britain and Poland.

Two other blockbuster movies were released in 1939: Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz.

The suggestion was made that costumes should be kept on hand for a future Golden Spike Days. As it turned out, the costumes wouldn’t be needed again for a very long time.


[1] Footnotes. Lincoln Star. 26 June 1938, p. 5.

[2] Union Pacific. Union Pacific (1939) Filming & Production. IMDb, www.imdb.com/title/tt0032080/location.

[3] Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, 1939. p. 3. Douglas County Historical Society archives.

[4] “Gals, If You’d Get a Fellow, Wear Bright Red, No Yellow.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 8.

[5] “‘69 Dress Depot May Open Monday.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 April 1939, p. 4

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Distribute 1869 Dresses Tuesday.” Omaha World-Herald. 17 April 1939, p.1.

[8] “Golden Spike Dress Prints.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 18.

[9] “Gingham Gals, Whiskeroos to Win Trips.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 18.

[10] “Spike Given Honor Niche at Exposition.” Omaha World-Herald. 25 April 1939, p. 77.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, 1939. p. 16. Douglas County Historical Society archives.

[13] “Hollywood Is Eclipsed by Omaha Fete.” Omaha World-Herald. 29 April 1939, p. 3.

[14] “No Fooling! ‘Twas a Big Celebration.” Omaha World-Herald. 30 April 1939, p. 1.

[15] “Dear Mary Lane.” Omaha World-Herald. 29 March 1939, p. 15.

Band Kid or Budding Psychopath?: The Crimes of Leslie Arnold

By Elise O’Neil

Humans are resilient. When horrific events or tragedies inevitably take place, we attempt to rationalize them. Finding some meaning, a motive, a reason why – can help us to cope with disaster, move on, and trust that the circumstances that created our misfortune are unlikely to present themselves a second time. And when we can’t immediately understand a tragedy, we feel obligated to rehash it again and again until we find an explanation that makes the most sense to us.

On September 27, 1958, 16-year-old William Leslie Arnold murdered his parents. Police officers, prosecutors, judges, family members, his fellow students at Central High School—all have put forth various theories as to why he did this. Was he a budding psychopath with a violent streak, quick to lash out when he didn’t get his way? Was he a good kid who finally snapped after years of verbal abuse by a domineering mother? Maybe it was simply the inevitable outcome of feeling trapped in a dysfunctional version of the idealized one-size-fits-all nuclear family structure ubiquitous in mid-century America. Whatever the case, his reasons remain oblique. All we can do is comb over 64 years of retellings and draw our own conclusions.

He seemed like a good kid. He had just started his junior year at Central where his teachers referred to him as “quiet…polite, attentive in class and well behaved.”[1] Known by his middle name, Leslie, he was a mostly B student who enjoyed science and was interested in going to college. A glance at the yearbooks from his freshman and sophomore years (both of which can be found in DCHS’s extensive yearbook collection) show him participating in numerous extracurricular activities including ROTC, track,[2] and band.[3] He was reportedly an avid Elvis fan,[4] and his affinity is evident in his sophomore year band photo. He has removed his hat, showing off an impressively tall greased hairstyle in imitation of the King.[5] It’s difficult to look at these photos of Arnold without thinking about the acts he would soon commit. But without that context, he appears incredibly unextraordinary.


Leslie Arnold on the left holding a tenor saxophone during his freshman year in the ROTC Band at Central. Image source: 1957 Central High School O-Book, page 72. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
Leslie Arnold, easily visible in the column of his bandmates with his hair teased in homage to Elvis Presley. Image source: 1958 Central High School O-Book, page 63. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Still, in the aftermath of his crimes, accounts of his precarious emotional state began to slowly trickle into the pages of the World-Herald. His great-uncle, Benjamin McCammon, told a reporter, “Leslie always did have a violent temper,” couching this assertion with another: “But he didn’t smoke or drink.”[6] And though McCammon claimed he’d never seen him “lay a finger on anybody,” Arnold’s younger brother Jim later recalled that Leslie would often physically attack him with socks on his hands so that he wouldn’t leave a mark.[7]

And then there was Opal, Arnold’s slain mother. Descriptions of the 40-year-old homemaker are tinged with vague references to a possible mental illness. Both neighbors and Arnold himself spoke to the difficult relationship between mother and son. It’s alleged that she showed little interest in her older son apart from verbally berating him and mocking him for his musical inclinations. It was clear to neighbors that she preferred the 13-year-old Jim. Later, Arnold would tell psychologists that Opal would sometimes refuse to let him back in the house, resulting in his sleeping in the nearby Ak-Sar-Ben stables.[8] His allegedly “henpecked” father, Bill, was little help—encouraging him to grin and bear his treatment to maintain the family unit.[9]


Opal and Bill Arnold with their younger son, Jim. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 12 October 1958.

The pressure cooker environment created by Arnold and his mother’s clashing tempers was perhaps bound to result in tragedy. Then again, most children mistreated by their parents don’t end up shooting them six times each in the kitchen of their family home.[10]

The Arnold home at 6477 Poppleton Avenue. It remains standing today. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 3 September 2017.

On the day in question, a Saturday, Arnold and his mother launched into an hours-long heated argument about his girlfriend (of whom his mother didn’t approve) and his use of the phone (she felt he was tying up the line for too long). She ended the row by declaring that he could no longer use either family car to take his girlfriend to a drive-in movie that night. He pulled his father’s 22-caliber semiautomatic Remington rifle out of his parents’ closet, apparently intending to show his mother he meant business. And then she laughed at him. So he shot her. And kept shooting her. When Bill arrived home minutes later, he took in the scene and lunged at his son, so Leslie shot him, too. Arnold’s behavior in the aftermath of the murders is notable. After dragging his parents’ bodies to the basement and asking a neighbor to take in his brother,[11] he picked up his girlfriend and her brother in the family’s 1957 Mercury and headed for the drive-in. He took in a double feature and ended the night at Tiner’s[12] (whose sign is featured in DCHS’s current exhibit Omaha’s AUTO-biography, on loan from the Durham Museum.) The next night he buried the bodies in his backyard beneath a lilac bush[13] and tossed the bloodstained rugs on which his parents died into the Papio Creek.[14] He covered his tracks, materializing to open his father’s business the Monday morning after the murders, telling all that his parents had had to take a sudden trip out of town.[15] Leslie only missed two days of school in the subsequent two weeks before his crime was discovered.[16] Eight months after Arnold led police to his parents’ shallow graves in their own backyard, he pled guilty to two charges of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. In court appearances, he clutched a rosary and “blinked back tears.”[17]


Leslie Arnold escorted by Detective Thomas Curran. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 12 October 1958.
Leslie Arnold leading detectives to the location of his parents’ bodies. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 11 October 1958.

The question remains: Why did he do it? What was on his mind in the seconds it took for him to raise the rifle and shoot at the sound of his mother’s laughter? Some killers relish talking about their crimes. Others are openly remorseful. Still others spend the remainder of their lives never speaking to a soul about the details of what they’ve done. But we can’t ask Leslie Arnold for any reflective thoughts on his crimes, because in 1967, nearly nine years into his prison sentence, he escaped.[18] And he’s never been located. His reasons for making his escape at this juncture are even more unknowable that those for his parents’ murder. Because he was a minor when he was sentenced to his life term, he likely would have been eligible for parole in a just a year or so.[19] Barring any potential future crimes, Leslie Arnold would be free and among us today if he hadn’t escaped.

Instead, he’s a fugitive. Though there have been several leads over the decades, it has been assumed that Arnold landed in Brazil. He had spoken to a fellow inmate of escaping to Brazil, and in 2017 a recently-digitized Brazilian immigration card from 1968 containing his information was located on familysearch.org. If it was indeed Arnold who provided his information to immigration agents, he confoundingly gave them his real full name, birth date, and place of birth. And though there is a notation on the back of the card connecting Arnold to an FBI investigation for a missing fugitive, it is unknown whether the FBI was ever informed by Brazilian authorities of his arrival to the country.[20] If he is still alive today, he would be 80 years old.


Brazilian Registration Card from 1968 showing Leslie Arnold’s personal information. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 13 September 2017.

It’s unlikely anyone will ever get the chance to speak to Leslie Arnold again about the murders of his parents and his subsequent escape from the Nebraska State Penitentiary. He likely wouldn’t be able to provide satisfactory answers anyway. This is a story that has been told many times resulting in increasingly compelling theories. Could the rationalization from the mouth of the killer ever measure up to what we can conjecture from imagination? One thing is certain, however. There is no halting the human desire to make sense of a case like this. And after all, a spooky story is that much more frightening when it doesn’t have an ending!


Age progression of Leslie Arnold. The first two photos were taken in 1958 and 1959 respectively. The 3rd is a projection of what he could have looked like in the 1990s and the 4th is a projection from 2010. Image source: Omaha World-Herald, 13 September 2017.



[1] “Youth Called Quiet, Polite; School Shocked by Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958, p. 24.

[2] Central High School O-Book 1957, p. 112. Douglas County Historical Society Archive.

[3] Central High School O-Book 1958, p. 63. Douglas County Historical Society Archive.

[4] Cordes, Henry J. “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold – Part One: The Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 September 2017, p. 11A.

[5] Central High School O-Book 1957, p. 112. Douglas County Historical Society Archive.

[6] “Boy Was Unconcerned After Parents’ Murder.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958, p. 24.

[7] Cordes, Henry J. “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold – Part One: The Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 September 2017, p. 11A.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Once Upon A Crime Podcast. “Episode 159: Bad Seeds: Leslie Arnold.” 2/24/2020.

[10] “Local” Omaha World-Herald. 13 October 1958, p. 2.

[11] “Youth Kills Father, Mother to Get Own Way About Car.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958.

[12] Cordes, Henry J. “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold – Part One: The Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 September 2017, p. 11A.

[13] “Life Sentence to Youth Who Killed Parents.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 June 1959, p. 1.

[14] “Relatives Tell Youth: Don’t Discuss Killings.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 October 1958, p. 3.

[15] “Youth, 16, Confesses: Shot, Buried Parents.” Omaha World-Herald. 11 October 1958, p. 1.

[16] “Youth Called Quiet, Polite; School Shocked by Story.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 October 1958, p. 24.

[17] “Life Sentence to Youth Who Killed Parents.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 June 1959, p. 1.

[18] “Two Omahans’ Escape ‘Clean.’” Omaha World-Herald. 19 October 1967, p. 6.

[19] “Is Arnold Alive, Dead? Police Still Puzzled.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 September 1976, p. 41.

[20] Cordes, Henry J. “Part Four: Epilogue.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 September 2017, E-Edition.

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