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Ralph Bradley and the Ak-Sar-Ben Junior City Crew

By Natalie Kammerer

This week, we wanted to do another highlight of an object in our collection, because it’s a great example of how one item can lead to a whole story with various levels of historical significance.

Ralph H. Bradley was born in Missouri but spent the majority of his life in Omaha. He graduated from Benson High school (class of 1942) and enrolled at the University of Nebraska. World War II had of course already begun, and he enlisted in the Reserves in the winter of 1942. He ultimately served as a B-17 bombardier, completing 31 missions and receiving several medals for service and valor. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, where he was also President of the 100th Bomb Group.

Left: Ralph Bradley in WWII uniform, c. 1943. Image source:

Right: Ralph Bradley’s senior photo, Benson High yearbook, 1942. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Upon his return from the war, Bradley graduated from Creighton University and began a successful career in journalism and communications. He worked for newspapers in Iowa and Wyoming and was the editor of the Sun newspapers in Omaha. He worked in communications for both the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then served as Director of Public Information for the Omaha Public Schools until his retirement.[1]

The Douglas County Historical Society received a number of objects from the Ralph and Barbara Bradley estate, including elements of Bradley’s Air Force uniform and a red and green Ak-Sar-Ben jacket. In addition to his impressive military service, Bradley had also been part of an interesting little slice of Omaha history called the Ak-Sar-Ben Junior City. At first glance, it looks like a team jacket or a high school letter jacket, but it’s actually something much more unique.

Ralph Bradley posing with his jacket in 2002. Omaha World-Herald, March 20, 2002. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Growing up in the neighborhood near Ak-Sar-Ben Field, Bradley, and his friends were constantly sneaking into shows, circuses, and sporting events on the grounds. As he later recalled: “We knew the gaps under the fence; we knew which doors could be easily opened; we knew which windows had no locks (although climbing walls to get to them was dangerous); we knew how to slip in when all of the old ways were barred.”[2]

But one night, the field police caught a group of the boys and were ready to arrest them. Luckily for them, the executive director Jake Isaacson stepped in in the hope of finding another solution. In order to keep the boys out of trouble and allow them free admission to the shows, he gave them a job to do: help protect the field from “toughs from other parts of town.” As Bradley remembered it, Isaacson said, “Many of the men who are running Ak-Sar-Ben Field were once boys doing the same things you are doing. And someday you may be some of the men running Ak-Sar-Ben. You will be protecting property that really belongs to the people of this community.”[3] And with that, the Ak-Sar-Ben Junior City Club was formed. In hindsight, Bradley noted that “the privileges…far outweighed the duties:” Jake Isaacson ended up taking the club’s 25 or so members under his wing, giving them a clubhouse to take care of and hold meetings in. They worked out and enforced their own rules. They had their own baseball team. And Jake Isaacson bought them all matching club jackets that they wore to identify themselves at Ak-Sar-Ben events.

About 25 years later, Bradley noted with pride that all of the boys (with the reported exception of one who moved out of the neighborhood and “away from the influence of the club”) grew up to be upstanding members of the community as florists, military men, engineers, artists, and more.[4]

Though the club came to an end in 1941 as many of the boys were graduating high school, both Bradley and Isaacson expressed the sentiment that, though the club likely didn’t prevent any kind of damage to the field, its existence did help the boys “learn a sense of values and a sense of responsibility.”[5]

Photo of Jake Isaacson (left) and Ralph Bradley (right) taken at a Kiwanis event honoring Isaacson for his contribution to youth in Nebraska. Sun Newspaper, March 14, 1963. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Yet another layer of local history: those Ak-Sar-Ben Junior City jackets were made locally by Omaha company Wright and Wilhelmy, the subject of one of last month’s blogs:!

Interior of Ralph Bradley’s Ak-Sar-Ben Junior City jacket, 1930s. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

[1] “Ralph H. Bradley.” Omaha World-Herald Obituary. June 29, 2010.

[2] Bradley, Ralph. “Jake Isaacson Had His Own Method With Boys.” Omaha Sun Newspaper. March 14, 1963. p. 21A.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Omaha’s Auto Speedways

Omaha’s Auto Speedways

Natalie Kammerer


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

[1] “Automobile racing.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 29, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Ackerman, Lee. “Eddie Kracek – The Nebraska Midget Champion.” Midwest Racing Archives. Accessed July 29, 2021.

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

Rose Cecil O’Neill Latham Wilson

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

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

Temptation Leading down in an Abyss. Image source:

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

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

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

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

Suffrage poster by Rose O’Neill. Image source:

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

“The Eternal Gesture,” Rose O’Neill. 1920. Image source:,_by_Rose_O’Neill.jpg

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

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

[3] Ibid, 16.

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

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

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

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