The first community settlement in the Florence area occurred in 1846, when it served as the Winter Quarters for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints traveling westward. At this time, over 3,000 Mormons stayed in the area for almost two years before continuing west. This constituted Nebraska’s first sizeable settlement, though the land had already been home to numerous trading posts as early as 1807.[1]

The village of Florence (named after Miss Florence Kilbourn, the niece of founder James C. Mitchell)[2] was incorporated on March 15, 1855, just one year after Omaha City. The new town saw very quick development in a variety of industries – an abundance of mills, building supply outfitters, and architects set up shop in the area, offering quality materials and services for affordable prices. The woods to the north of the village were a convenient and significant source of lumber, and thousands of feet were felled per day.[3]

The home of Florence founder James C. Mitchell. It is unclear whether he built the house after the Winter Quarters were abandoned, or if this house remained from the original settlement. The home was located at 8314 North 31st Street. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Inexpensive ferries along the Platte River ensured reliable transportation between Florence and Iowa. The Florence and Omaha Omnibus Line provided two daily round trips between the two new cities – the first left Florence at 7:00am and returned at 11:00, and the second l:00pm and returned at 4:00.[4] The village of Florence offered a wide range of necessities – dry goods, clock making, medical services, auctioneering. Other cultural pursuits began to flourish quickly as well, including musicians for hire and candy shops. Businesses in Council Bluffs, Crescent, and Omaha sought patronage from the population of Florence, as well.[5]

The Bank of Florence, built in 1856 at 8502 North 30th Street, is Omaha’s oldest extant building. One of the village’s most iconic and celebrated structures was the Florence Water Works. With its tall tower, ornate stone façade, and 5-acre landscaped grounds, it was a destination for social gatherings as well as a functional utility. It was constructed in 1879 for the privately-owned City Water Works Company, and supplied water to both Florence and Omaha City. Though it passed through several different companies in the following years, the water works remained a private venture until MUD was created to publicize the service in 1913. It was, in fact, this very transfer that brought about the town’s annexation.

Florence Water Works, ca. 1900. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society

As a private business, the Water Works had been a huge source of tax revenue for Florence – about $162,000 annually in the 1910s.[6] When MUD finally acquired the service in 1916, the loss of this revenue was felt so sharply that the town was unable to pay off $3,000 worth of state-held school bonds. The town was essentially bankrupted, and many saw the opportunity to combine with Omaha as an opportunity to continue development and expansion in a community that held much promise. Unlike the previous instances of annexation in Omaha, a bill was passed that would allow for the annexation of Florence without bringing the issue to a public vote. The formal merger was signed and the town’s records were handed over relatively quietly in June of 1917.

[1] Miles, Marian G. “The Founding of Florence, Nebraska, 1854-1860.” Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1970.

[2] Gannett, Henry. The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. 1905. p. 127.

[3] Miles, Marian G. “The Founding of Florence, Nebraska, 1854-1860.” Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1970.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Municipal ownership bankrupts a town,” Public Service Magazine, 1916. Volume 20. p. 26.

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