Erastus Benson

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The Writings of Erastus A. Benson

Natalie Kammerer

Erastus Benson was born in Iowa in 1854, and came to Omaha as a young man. Over the course of his life, he practiced law, taught school, edited a newspaper, was an important investor in Thomas Edison’s early inventions, and was one of the largest real estate developers in early Omaha. We wrote a blog post last year detailing some of his financial and real estate endeavors (notably, the founding of Benson).

A recent acquisition has inspired a second post—in addition to Benson’s civic pursuits, he also dabbled in creative writing! It would appear that, in 1921, “during a term of enforced idleness” Benson was moved to type up a selection of his musings and assemble a book, which he then sent to various friends and family. DCHS recently received an original copy, which was sent to a personal friend of Mr. Benson named Wilbur Crutchfield.

In honor of this unique donation and Erastus Benson’s lasting Omaha legacy, this week’s blog will feature a selection of his writings.

First page of Erastus Benson’s collected writings, typed and distributed in 1921. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

On Reading Newspaper Account of Roosevelt Shooting Big Game In Africa.



The shades of night were falling fast,

As through an Afric jungle passed

A lion with strange conceit,–

He’d have a picnic when he’d meet

T. Roosevelt.


In new-made camp he saw the light

Of pine knot fires gleam warm and bright;

“I will have my mane close shorn

If I don’t get before the morn

T. Roosevelt.”


“Try not to pass,” the tiger said,

For I have heard it “on the dead,”

But Leo shook his frame with rage,

He’s seen a lion in a cage,

T. Roosevelt.


“Stay,” the baboon said, “and rest,

I really think it would be best.”

But Leo roared with beastly pride:

“I’m bound to have in my inside

T. Roosevelt.”


All night he wandered in the brake;

He passed by game of lesser stake;

His mind was fixed, his purpose set,

He’d show the timorous beasts he’d get

T. Roosevelt.


At break of day a sound was heard,

It came from waking beast and bird,

And echoed, “What is coming there?”

A voice rose on the startled air,

T. Roosevelt.


Leo at the startling sound

Went surging forward with a bound;

He saw before him on the heath

A broad smile and a set of teeth,

T. Roosevelt.


He lashed his sides with furious ire

His eyes stood forth like balls of fire.

He crouched him for a furious rush

And with a single blow to crush

T. Roosevelt.


There in the daylight cold and gray,

Lifeless but beautiful he lay,

And on his shaggy form there sat

A hunter with adhesive hat,

T. Roosevelt.


            Our dreams are to what we call out sterner thoughts what our ghosts are to our forms of flesh and blood. You ask if I believe that there are ghosts. Yes, I know that there are ghosts. I would have to doubt my own existence, if I doubted the existence of these shadowy forms.

            In silence at night I hear their footsteps on the stairs and in the halls. I listen to the rustle of their garments, and when I walk beneath the stars at night, they often come and walk and talk with me, and even when I tread the busy streets beneath the noontime sun, they sometimes come and take my arm, and I am oblivious to the forms of flesh and blood about me.

            Not long ago I visited the place where I first attended school. The old school house had been replaced, but the trees were there and though more than fifty years had been added to their growth they looked so low. I knew but I never felt before what the poet meant when he said:

I remember, I remember, the fir trees dark and high,

It seemed to me their slender tops were close against the sky;

It was a childish fancy, but now it’s little joy,

To know I’m further off from Heaven, than when I was a boy.

            School had been dismissed and I was alone. I sat down beneath a tree, and presently I was surrounded by a bevy of boys and girls. I knew them every one. They laughed and shouted and played tag and hide-and-go-seek.

            Among the rest was a little chap with tanned cheeks and disheveled hair. His little hands were chapped and none too clean, and as I looked at those soft chubby little hands that my mother called her pincushions, I wondered how they could have ever grown into these hard and bony ones. And he knew me. He looked and smiled and then the smile faded into a look of disappointment and reproof, such as I hope never to see again.

            That night in the little tavern in the little town (we always called it the Tavern, although no liquor was ever sold), by the side was a grapevine arbor where the people used to gather and gossip and talk over the news and happenings of the day, in my honor the landlord gave me the spare room, and built a blazing wood fire on the hearth. Did you ever stop to think of the influence the open fire has had upon our art and upon our literature, both prose and poetry, that some of your most exquisite books never would have been written but for the open fire, and if you would remove from your shelves every book where some scene was laid before the open fire, you would have little left except your dictionary and books of reference? It would require a bold artist to picture a social group gathered about a steam radiator, or a family kneeling in solemn prayer before a hot air register. (But this is only by way of parenthesis.)

            As I sat in my fire-lit room it came to me that some place, sometime I had read a rhyme on “The Little Old Town That I Left One Day,” and I reconstructed a verse or two to suit myself:

The little old town that I left one day,

Because it was quiet and slow,

Bears the name it bore when I went away

In the days of long ago.

But those who I knew in the little old town,

With its one wide street running up and down,

No longer gather at the tavern where

The grape vines used to climb.

They have ceased to gather and gossip there

As they did in the dear old time.

The little old town that I left one day,

Because it was quiet and slow,

Seems as free from care as it used to be

In the days of long ago.

But the friends I had in the dear old days

Have wandered forth in a hundred ways,

And none that I knew remain;

But as I sat in my chair in the tavern there,

In my fire-lit room in the evening’s gloom,

They were all there again.

Yes, we know that there are ghosts. You cannot see my ghost and I cannot see yours, but I know they are all about you. Some are gray and lay their loving hands upon your head to bless you; some are young and ready for any game or sport; and some have little fingers that are tangled in your hair.

Yes, ghosts there are and ghosts there always have been since the brand was put upon the brow of Cain, and ghosts there always will be as long as we turn to white memories, as long as the cold gray stones lie heavily upon the breasts of those we love.


Did you never buy a gold brick,

Now honest, cross your heart?

Did you never get against it,

When you thought you were pretty smart?

Did you never give your money

To a man who put on airs,

And find that all he’d left you

Was certificates of shares?

Did you never buy a guy’s land,

And think you’d drawn a prize,

And find out that all he’d sold you

Was a right to fertilize?

Did you never take a section,

Just in time to catch your train,

And find the one thing lacking

Was the element of rain?

Did you never send your money

Way down to Mexico,

The only thing you’re sure about

Is that you saw it go?

Did you never put your earnings

In a rich old Spanish hole,

And when they’d pumped the water out,

They’d shovel out the gold?

Did you never try a “diggins”

That was so rich with ore,

You’d spend your life in luxury

For ever, ever more?

Did you never try an orchard

Of apple, peach or plum,

And never could exactly find

What put it on the bum?

Did you never buy a city lot

And pay a dollar down,

And find it in a corn field

A dozen miles from town?

Did you never put your money

In a lease with oil to burn,

And find you’d better spent it

On an apple butter churn?

Did you never trade your Liberties

For something paying more,

And find it safely anchored

A hundred miles from shore?

Can you say you never witnessed

A fool and money part?

Did you never buy a gold brick?

Now, honest, cross your heart?

Erastus Benson (seated at right) in his office in the Paxton Block at 16th and Farnam, c. 1895. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Examination of Omaha’s Annexation History: Benson

Erastus Benson was born in Iowa in 1864, the same year as Omaha City. He came to Omaha as a young man and would play a very important role in the city’s early development. Over the course of his life, he practiced law, taught school, wrote poetry, edited a newspaper, was an important investor in Thomas Edison’s early inventions, and was one of the largest real estate developers in early Omaha. In addition to his property in Benson, it has been estimated that about 5% of Omahans lived on property Benson developed.[1] In one [unspecified] year, he was said to have paid taxes on more than 1,000 properties.[2]

In 1887, very shortly after arriving in Omaha, Benson purchased 900 acres of land to the northwest of the city. This first land purchase, which he named Benson Place, was obtained from John Creighton (one of the founders of the university), and was sparsely-developed farmland where wild strawberries thrived.[3] From the beginning, he planned to develop this parcel into a village. At the same time that he bought the lane, he applied for a permit to run a streetcar line from Omaha to connect the two towns. Benson Place was platted by March 4, 1887. In the spring of that year, the Benson and Halcyon Heights street railway line opened and ran until it, too, was annexed by the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company.

An early Benson home located northwest of 66th & Wirt, ca. 1900. Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Like some of the other small towns established near Omaha, growth was slow at first. In order to draw prospective buyers out to the new town (about nine miles from downtown Omaha), Benson arranged for a herd of buffalo to be brought out to graze along present-day Maple Street. They were looked after by a man known as “Buffalo Jones”. When curious Omahans would come out to have a look at some real-life buffaloes, Mr. Benson would also draw their attention to the fledgling development nearby.[4] The first ten years brought only about 200 new inhabitants, but there was an influx in development once Benson incorporated as a village in 1897. By 1907, the population had reached 1,600 – in 1912, over 4,000 called Benson home.

A humanitarian in addition to his other pursuits, Erastus Benson believed that home ownership was an important part of building successful new communities. When new residents fell on hard times, Mr. Benson was known to forgive overdue payments and often refused to accept accrued interest.[5] The land for Benson’s first school (Seeley School), town hall, and the St. James orphanage were all donated to the town by Mr. Benson.

By the early 1900s, Benson was a full-blown town, with several schools and churches, a volunteer fire department, paved streets, electricity, and its own newspaper. If there was anything its inhabitants lacked, downtown Omaha was still just a streetcar ride away.

The Benson Times building that was located between 62nd and 63rd on the south side of Maple from 1903-1908. Lou Raber was the publisher of the newspaper and a subscription was $1.00 per year. Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

In 1895, Benson also became home to a top-notch amusement park featuring a tunnel of love, roller coaster, hot air balloons, live performances, and more. In 1902, the park was purchased by the Frederick Krug Brewing Company and became known as Krug Park. It would be a hub of activity until its closure in 1940. The land is now home to Gallagher Park at 52nd and NW Radial Highway.

Krug Park employees standing at the base of “The Big Dipper” roller coaster. In 1930, this coaster would be the scene of the United States’ deadliest roller coaster accident to date. No date. Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

In 1917, at the same time that Omaha received permission from the Governor to annex Florence without a vote, they also had their eye on the prosperous suburb of Benson. Benson’s mayor, F.A. Bailey, was opposed, on the grounds that Benson’s situation was so different from that of Florence. There was a small stretch of undeveloped and unplatted land between the towns, which the town of Benson used to claim that they were separate from Omaha and not infringing upon their development. Omaha, however, asserted that the strip was small enough that Benson was essentially bordering on Omaha. Despite their disapproval, the residents of Benson foresaw that annexation was imminent, and they suspected that once they were part of the larger city, their neighborhood needs might go unanswered. So, in 1915, the town decided to refinish streets, build a brand-new combined fire station and city hall, and install new streetlights. In 1917, Omaha acquired the debt for these projects along with the rest of Benson.

[1] “No Doubt About It, Erastus Benson Had a Flair.” Omaha World-Herald, 1977.

[2] “E.A. Benson, 77, Succumbs to Long Illness.” Omaha Daily Bee, 1932.

[3] “Erastus Benson Buffaloed Buyers.” News article, paper unknown.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “E.A. Benson, 77, Succumbs to Long Illness.” Omaha Daily Bee, 1932.


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