By Rita Shelley

 

Alice Grace Harvey

A native of Tobias, Nebraska, a village of 300 in the southeastern part of the state, she was “Miss Harvey” to generations of students at Omaha’s South High School where she taught typing and shorthand for 35 years. To everyone else, she was Alice Grace Harvey, poet, author, and lyricist.

Alice died in 1976 at the age of 84 from complications of diabetes,[1] leaving a legacy of widely published poetry, short stories, and a play. She penned the lyrics for “My Omaha,” described as a rousing, rhythmic, toe-tapping march that was performed by the South High School Packers band in 1954.[2] Unfortunately, the lyrics and music are no longer extant.

Alice’s legacy extended well beyond that of teacher and writer. She also advocated for poetry as an art form, hosting a writing group at the home she shared with her mother. She celebrated local poets whose work was otherwise unknown, including Mrs. Frank Rankin’s verses honoring disabled veterans, elders, and laborers. She also noted Mrs. Leon Smith’s “Birch Interlude” inspired by trees in Omaha’s Miller Park.[3] In 1936, Alice was elected director of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s writers’ guild.[4] She mentored a group of writers from the Omaha chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).[5] She published a book about Nebraska authors. She presented her “original dramatic sketch” about Christmas candles at the AAUW’s annual meeting in 1944.[6] She led a statewide poetry school.[7]  After retiring in 1957, Alice continued her writing sideline with articles and stories in teachers’ and children’s magazines.[8]

In her 1961 book of poetry, “The Hum of the Land,” Alice mourned the war from which men of her generation did not return:

Our World Memorial Day

Today American flags will wave around the world,

As graves of our soldier dead are marked

By thousands of kindly hands of foreign friends.

Who bow their heads and place a tiny flag

Beside white crosses in stately, solemn rows.[9]

 

And ahead of her time, the writer and teacher from Tobias also held hope for a future without racism:

 

He Saw No Color
For all the years that man has lived on earth

Tribe fought with tribe and sought to be supreme.

Then came The One who looked within the soul

And found the heart which had no color line,

To Him each one bore an eternal mark,

So let us strive to reach the shining goal
By simply looking deep for something fine,

That hate will fade for those skins dark.[10]

Alice Harvey (right) sits with her Phi Delta Gamma sister Mrs. William Kavan. Omaha World-Herald. 25 June 1952, p. 19.

 

Avery Abbott

The author of a 1910 article, “Women Who Do Things,” recognized Omaha author Mabel Rundell Abbott for her literary accomplishments, described her writing process, and assured readers that Mrs. Abbott was both brilliant and logical. The writer marveled at her mental qualities, expertise at making a good cup of coffee, and the joy she took in domestic pursuits, saying she was “never happier than when enveloped in a becoming apron.”[11]

Publishing under the pen name Avery Abbott, the wife of Omaha World-Herald drama critic Keene Abbott was described as a prolific author as often as she was as celebrated as an exemplar of true womanhood.

At the time of the 1910 article about her literary and homemaking accomplishments, she had been commissioned by McClure’s magazine to write a 5,000-word article about a humorist from Hannibal, Missouri, none other than Mark Twain.[12]

“I could not compose a line without a pencil in my hand,” Avery told her interviewer. “The rattle of typewriter keys disconcerts me so greatly, but with plenty of pencils and paper on the table and a well-sharpened pencil in my hand, I am ready for work.” An article she published in Cosmopolitan magazine was written on a scrap of paper in her lap while she was traveling on a train.[13] In 1912, Avery published “Captain Martha Mary,” a tale of a young girl, the eldest of five children, trying to hold her family together in spite of grinding poverty.

While a student at the University of Iowa, Mabel Rundell met her future husband, a literature professor. They married in 1905, beginning a partnership that lasted until his death in 1941.[14] In spite of the long-term success of their relationship, Avery learned that the results of collaboration could be uneven. Co-authoring, she said, was a mistake when it resulted in a “faulty and uneven style that does neither credit. Keene went over [the text] with the pruning shears and ruthlessly chopped out all my part. Imagine my chagrin when he sold it to the first publisher who saw it.”[15] With a better outcome, they co-authored an illustrated historical sketch with stereopticon slides, titled “Nebraska, Mother of States,” for the National Society of Colonial Dames.[16]

Referencing a profile of Avery in Woman’s World Magazine, one reporter observed that “…whether Avery Abbott is listening to the birdies and drawing inspiration for another Woman’s World yarn, or whether she is actually laying the final brick in this enchanting garden nook…or making home an attractive place for her husband…you’d like her as a woman and – this is a secret – you’d like her as a cook, for she can bake a pan of fluffy, fragrant, light-hearted biscuits.”[17]

For locally published poetry, Avery looked to Nebraska nature for inspiration, including sadness about the arrival of winter (“icy rain/smiting the windows/slashing through gutters”).[18] She also wrote of a gift received from neighborhood children:

The Gift
They brought me lilies, fair and sweet and tall,
They gave me beauty but that was not all.
Breathing soft fragrance in my lonely room,
The lilies know how blest it is to bloom,
Reaching to light that gives old pain surcease,
They, bringing lilies, also brought me peace.
[19]

 

After a widowhood of two decades, Avery died at an Omaha nursing home in 1961 at age 91.[20]

Mrs. Avery Abbott, as pictured in the Omaha World-Herald, 5 June 1910.

 

[1] “Alice Harvey Dies, Teacher.” Omaha World-Herald. 14 May 1976, p. 40.

[2] “Music Week Spotlights City High Schools.” Omaha World-Herald. 25 May 1954, p. 25.

[3] “Writers Hold Literary Tea.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 March 1936, p. 61.

[4] “State Writers Elect Officers.” Omaha World-Herald. 8 November 1936, p.63.

[5] “AAUW to Hold Annual Tea Event.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 December 1944, p. 12.

[6] “Creative Writers to Have Luncheon.” Omaha World-Herald. 5 January 1940 p. 73.

[7] “Poetry School to Open Grand Island Meeting.” Omaha World-Herald. 26 April 1946, p. 5.

[8] “Story-Writer.” Omaha World-Herald. 23 February 1958, p. 55.  

[9] Harvey, Alice G. Hum of the Land. South High School Print Shop, 1961. p. 35.

[10] Ibid. p. 20.

[11] “Women Who Do Things.” Omaha World-Herald. 5 June 1910, p. 42.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Ibid.

[14] “Death Takes Mrs. Abbott.” Omaha World-Herald. 17 Nov 1961, p. 39.

[15] “Women Who Do Things.” Omaha World-Herald. 5 June 1910 p. 42.

[16] “Write Story of Nebraska.” Omaha World-Herald. 20 January 1931, p. 12.

[17] “National Magazine Carries Article About Avery Abbott, Local Author.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 April 1927, p. 14.

[18] “Winter Wheat.” Blaine, Frederick. Poems by Nebraska Poets. Marshall Press, Lincoln, NE. 1940. p. 36.

[19] Ibid, p. 95.                                                   

[20] “Death Takes Mrs. Abbott.” Omaha World-Herald. 17 Nov 1961, p. 39.

By Rita Shelley

In honor of Women’s History Month, this week’s blog celebrates three Omaha-based women. Each had very different careers during different eras, but all accomplished remarkable feats of preserving historical artifacts and stories for generations to come.

Elia Peattie: Prolific Journalist (1857-1935)

“This is a story about some pigs and a woman,” Omaha journalist Elia (Wilkinson) Peattie wrote in 1896. The Poland China pigs belonged to Mrs. A.M. Edwards of rural Fremont, NE, whose heroism fascinated Elia enough to fill nearly two full newspaper columns. Edwards had relocated to Nebraska from New York City after her husband’s bankruptcy and went on to become a nationally prominent livestock breeder. [1] Without Elia, her lasting impact on agriculture would have been lost to history.

Born in Wisconsin in 1857, Elia began her career with words when, as a teenager, she set lead type at her father’s print shop. In her twenties, Peattie worked at the Chicago Tribune where she met her future husband, Robert Peattie. When Robert was hired as managing editor at the Omaha Daily Herald in 1888, the couple relocated to Omaha. During her time in Omaha, Elia wrote 800 editorials, columns, features, and works of fiction for the World-Herald and also published in Harper’s Bazaar, Atlantic Monthly, and Cosmopolitan. [2] She also served as President of the Omaha Women’s Club for a short period in 1896. Elia and Robert remained in Omaha until that year, when Robert’s ill health necessitated returning East.[3]

The first two Peattie children, Edward and Barbara, were born during the Tribune years. Roderick was born in Omaha. Donald was born in 1898 during a period in which Elia wrote 100 stories in 100 days for the Tribune, lectured widely, and published three books.[4] In a lesser-known book published by the Nebraska Press Association in 1895, Elia championed an emerging writer named Willa Cather. Cather later wrote that she’d first imagined becoming a journalist and author when she was inspired as a child by a work of Peattie’s that she read while growing up in Red Cloud.[5] Elia died in Wellingford, Vermont, in 1935, at age 73.

Portrait of Elia Peattie, c. 1896. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

Josephine Platner Shear: Renowned Archaeologist (1901-1967)

No history of prominent women with origins in Omaha would be complete without honoring the legacy of archeologist Josephine Platner Shear Harwood. Josephine was born in 1901 to Martha and George Platner, owner of a lumberyard.[6] She earned a B.A. from Wellesley College in 1924 and an M.A. from Columbia University in 1928. Her studies prepared her for a career in classical archeology, what she described as “the most thrilling study in the world.”[7]

Beginning in her 20s, Josephine attained renown for her study of ancient Greece, focusing primarily on the ancient city of Corinth. The site had already been a site of worldwide interest since the 19th century. As a 27-year-old at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Josephine was the only woman on an expedition of thirty at Corinth. Her role was to record the exact locations of hundreds of artifacts, including pottery, coins, and statuary that bridged what had been a research gap between 1500 BC until 200 AD. Columbia and Princeton sponsored the expedition and published the survey’s results in textbooks used by the two universities’ archeology students.

The leader of the Corinth expedition was Theodore Leslie Shear, a Princeton professor who would become Josephine’s husband and lifelong colleague. They married in 1931 when she was 29 and he was 50. Their son, Theodore Jr., was born in 1939.[8] During visits home to Omaha throughout the 1920s and 30s, Josephine described highlights of her experiences in Greece. Once, she was only three miles from an earthquake at Corinth that killed thirty. She cabled a one-word message home to Omaha: “Safe.”[9]

A wine goblet, signed by its maker in about 500 B.C. was considered the only finding of its kind in the world and valued at $5,000 in 1929.[10] Josephine’s discovery of jars and wine jugs in a Corinthian cemetery were reported in The Illustrated London News.[11] Two artifacts uncovered at Sardis (modern-day Turkey) that are attributed to Josephine and her husband, archaeologist Theodore Shear are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: a drinking cup and a footed dish.[12] Josephine’s and Theodore’s Corinth partnership continued until his death in 1945. Josephine married Floyd Harwood in 1955. She died in 1967.

The Agora Excavations staff and workforce, 1933. Archaeologists, staff, foremen, and workmen gathered under the Hephaisteion for a group photograph. Theodore Shear and Josephine Platner Shear are probably seated in the center of the second row, eighth and ninth from left. Image source.

Archeologists Theodore Leslie Shear (1880-1945) and Josephine Platner Shear, with statuette of Apollo Lykeios, July 27, 1936. Image source. 

Rowena Moore: Civic Leader and Champion of Local History (1910-1998)

Over more than two decades, Rowena Moore never gave up on her campaign to establish a sustainable Malcom X Memorial at his birth site in North Omaha. It wasn’t the first campaign she took on, either. She’d learned a thing or two about tirelessly advocating for a cause from her previous lives as a labor organizer and civil rights activist.

Moore began working in a packinghouse as a teenager, but was fired in a round of layoffs. She returned to the meatpacking industry in the 1940s.[13] Easter of 1948 found her on a picket line at the Armour plant in South Omaha where, as chairwoman of the strike recreation committee, she had organized a service of hymns and Bible readings.[14] Later that year, she was one of 43 strikers and officers of the local CIO United Packinghouse Workers of America cited for violating a court order to end their strike.[15]

In a 1979 interview, Moore recalled that after a round of layoffs, African-American women were not hired back. Management argued that white workers would refuse to work alongside or share bathrooms and dressing rooms with Black workers. In 1941, Moore organized a picket line. But the effort also encountered discrimination from within the Union when its [male] negotiating team discouraged the women from picketing. The men also positioned themselves to approach management on behalf of the women rather than women addressing management directly. In all, the federal government’s order that Armour hire Black women was an incomplete victory. In order to be hired, Black women had to be under 26 years old and weigh less than 145 lbs. By then 32 years old, Moore did not qualify.[16]

No longer working for Armour, Moore turned her attention to civil rights causes in Omaha. She headed a drive that raised $1,000 for the NAACP’s legal defense fund.[17] She ran for City Council.[18] In 1966, she began a campaign for a park in North Omaha to buffer a residential area from an industrial zone. The park, with landscaping and a playground, wasn’t built until 1974. Fighting for her green space dream for eight years prepared her to sustain her efforts for the Malcolm X Memorial from 1971 until her death in 1998 at age 88. Today, the memorial’s 17-acre site continues as a work in progress with annual events and recognition as an official historical site by the State of Nebraska.[19]

Rowena Moore at the Malcom X Memorial state historical marker. Image source.

Sources:

[1] “Some Pigs and a Woman.” Omaha World-Herald. 9 February 1896, p. 16.

[2]  Writer Elia Peattie Made Her Name in 1890s Omaha. Unidentified newspaper. 11 March 2007, p. 01E.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bloomfield, Susanne George. Impertinences: Selected Writings of Elia Peattie, a Journalist in the Gilded Age. University of Nebraska Press, 2005. pp. xix-xx.

[5] Bloomfield, p. 214.

[6] “United States Census, 1920.” Database with images, FamilySearch. (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MCVB-3YJ : 2 February 2021), George W Platner, 1920.

[7] “Digs Into World’s Past: Josephine Platner, Home from Corinth, Tells of Finding Valued Relics.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 August 1929, p. 1.

[8] Shear, Josephine Platner. American Numismatic Society Authorities. 2016 http://numismatics.org/authority/shear_josephine_platner

[9] “Safe in Corinth Quake Josephine Platner, with Research Expedition, Cables Escaped Earth Shocks.” Omaha World-Herald. 23 April 1928, p. 1.

[10] “Digs Into World’s Past, Josephine Platner, Home from Corinth, Tells of Finding Valued Relics.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 August 1929, p. 1.

[11] “Wine Jugs and Jars Excavated from Corinthian Cemetery by a Party Which Included Josephine Platner.” Omaha World-Herald. 3 September 1930, p. 1.

[12] Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000-2022. Search Results – The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org)

[13] “Activist Rowena Moore Dies; Fought Discriminatory Hiring.” Omaha World-Herald. 1 January 1999, p. 13.

[14] OWH “Easter Going to Picket Line: Service to Start Near Armour Plant” Omaha World-Herald. 28 March 1948, p. 20.

[15] “Armour Tells Picket Names: Alleges 43 Violate Restraining Order.” Omaha World-Herald. 6 May 1948, p. 10.

[16] “Black Rights Leader Stopped Being Passive, Started Getting Results.” Omaha World-Herald. 23 June 1979, p. 13.

[17] “Rally to Hear Till’s Mother”. October 24 1955, p.28.

[18] Mrs. Moore Enters Race. Omaha World-Herald. 18 December 1972, p. 6.

[19] “Malcolm X Birthsite.” Visit Omaha, Omaha Visitors Center, https://www.visitomaha.com/listings/malcolm-x-birthsite/57385/.

By Rita Shelley 

When the derelict 10-story property at 1714 Douglas Street was demolished on February 10, 1992, fifty years of the Omaha Athletic Club at that location ended in a cloud of smoke. The club had closed in 1970 and was purchased by the Federal Reserve in 1977. The Reserve offered the building for sale in the mid-80s, but it remained unoccupied until its demolition.[1]

With a crowd of fifty assembled blocks away to watch the demolition on a clear, cold morning, Anderson Excavating and Wrecking Company detonated the building with 250 pounds of explosives. Bus routes in the neighborhood had been temporarily re-routed. The originally planned blast time of 8 a.m. had been postponed until 8:40 to allow time for the conclusion of Mass at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church three blocks away.[2]

Postcard image of the Omaha Athletic Club at 1714 Douglas Street, c. 1925. The Hotel Fontenelle is just visible to the left. Courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

 

While the Douglas Street address had been the club’s home from 1918 until it closed in 1970, the club’s history actually dated back much farther. Beginning in 1888, the club had been housed at 1415 Farnam. That building’s second floor was outfitted as a gym with the intention of a men’s-only club for an exclusive roster of members. In 1891, the club moved a block east to a building that developer John Redick rented for $1,000 a year. With a membership of only thirty-eight, the club nevertheless hosted an event showcasing members’ gymnastics and diving skills. The following year, the club team took on the Bohemian Turners in tug-of-war. Entertainments also included sparring and wrestling matches.[3]

But by early 1893, the club was fighting for its life. Monthly revenue from bowling, billiards, locker rental, cigars, boxing, fencing, and “entertainments” was short of expenses by $200 a month. Rent was past due. Boxing matches were poorly attended; the theory was that the public perceived the matches to be fixed and, even so, Omaha lacked sufficient interest for boxing to turn a profit. Raising annual membership fees to try to cover expenses had the opposite effect when many members quit. It was suggested that if fifty men were to pay off the club’s indebtedness and if fees were more affordable, the club would be back on a firm footing. Membership, it was also suggested, should include free bowling, boxing, and fencing.[4]

Within six months, membership and income were declared sufficient to cover expenses, marking the beginning of an era of apparent solvency that lasted until the 1930s. Use of the bowling alley was now free to members on Wednesdays; Saturday mornings were set aside as “ladies’ day.”[5]

The club was doing so well, in fact, that it commissioned a new building for its headquarters, located at 17th and Douglas. Billed as the dreamchild of a small group of influential Omahans, its ten stories made it the tallest building in the city at the time. Designed by architect John Latenser and Sons, it had a gymnasium, ballroom, swimming pool, rooms upstairs rentable to temporary guests, meeting rooms, and a penthouse. There was a nine-hole golf course in the basement and handball and squash courts on the roof. Upon its formal, members-only opening in December 1918, the club declared itself a showpiece of downtown Omaha and a site of leisure time activities for businessmen.[6]

Based on mentions in the Omaha World-Herald, the club likely hosted nearly as many social events as athletic ones during its history. In the 1920s, it hosted a swimming meet, amateur boxing matches, and a regional bowling tournament with teams from Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Des Moines. There were boxing matches featuring nationally known fighters, as well as basketball and billiards tournaments. It also hosted society mavens’ lunches, a dinner dance for the Aksarben chapter of the Eastern Star, and an annual Christmas party for children. One dinner featured a musical with a song for each course, beginning with “Yes We Have No Bananas.” A banquet honored a New York feminist who traced feminist progress from primitive society to modern times.[7]

View of the Omaha Athletic Club’s bandstand, dance floor, and part of the dining room from an upper balcony, 1944. Courtesy of the Durham Museum’s Bostwick-Frohardt Collection.

                Another era of instability began in 1933 when it was announced that membership had dwindled from 1,000 to 400 members. The organization was $25,000 in debt, and the club was closed.[8] Furnishings and inventory were auctioned off, including pieces from the billiard parlor, barber shop, restaurant, and the bowling alley.[9] But the club got back on its feet and reopened again in 1936. With an investment of $100,000, the newly decorated and furnished club’s amenities included a bowling alley, pool and billiards rooms, a swimming pool, gym facilities, and squash and handball courts. There were also rooms for bridge and card games. The wall of a new bar depicted a boar hunt; a second bar had a South Seas island theme. The recovery was billed as a “triumph for Omaha…placing Omaha among the nation’s leading cities.”[10]

Silver champagne bucket monogrammed with Omaha Athletic Club logo. It’s unclear whether this is one of the pieces auctioned off 1933, or if it dates to the period after the club reopened. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

In 1949, the club made dramatic headlines when police seized and destroyed ten slot machines during a morals squad raid. The club’s manager was charged with keeping a gambling room and fined $500.[11]

With the exception of swim meets during the 1950s and 60s, the club’s activities shifted during these decades to more social events and less athletics. In the 1960s, holiday parties were hosted by the Mid-Continent Horse Show Association, the New Neighbors’ League, and the National Association of Railway Business Women. Aksarben princesses and the Minerva Mothers Club of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity hosted luncheons.[12]

A final era of low membership and debt caused the club to close in 1970. Developers showed interest in the building, but no financially feasible plan materialized. Hence, the eight-second demolition in 1992. The east side of the building went first, its rubble falling into the hole left by the previous demolition of the neighboring Baird Building. Two sirens sounded the all clear.[13]

 

Bonus Pictures:

Four employees in the Omaha Athletic Club offices. They are identified from left to right as Jennie Aldera, Shirley Smith, Irene Ehlers (back), and Helen Sys (front), 1948. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

A woman mid-dive at the Omaha Athletic Club pool, c. 1953. Courtesy of the Durham Museum’s Paskach Collection.

 

[1] “Old Athletic Club Will be Sold.” Omaha World-Herald. 24 October 1983, p. 13.

[2] “Athletic Club Blasted into Rubble.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 February 1992, p. 1.

[3] “Omaha Athletic Club: An Excellent Program Rendered Last Night at the Club House.” Omaha World-Herald. 25 May 1892, pg. 2.

[4] “A Slim Week for Sports: The Affairs of the Omaha Athletic Club Entertainment Not Profitable.” Omaha World-Herald. 26 February 1893, p.14.

[5] “Omaha Athletic Club Notes.” Omaha World-Herald. 4 June 1893, p. 2.

[6] “$750,000 Omaha Athletic Club Starts Ten Story Building on Douglas Street”. Lincoln Star Journal, 23 September 1917.

[7] “Calls Women Victims of Inferiority Complex. Doris Stevens Tells Professional Sisters That Theory of “Place in the Home Is Old-Fashioned.” Omaha World-Herald. 28 September 1927, p. 1.

[8] “Athletic Club, Born in Times of Adversity, Succumbs in Losing Financial Struggle.” Omaha World-Herald. 21 May 1933, p. 3.

[9] “Furniture Auction.” Omaha World-Herald. 8 April 1934, p.19.

[10] “Omaha’s New Athletic Club Opens.” Omaha Bee. 20 February 1936.

[11] “Trial for Athletic Club.” Omaha World-Herald. 30 December 1951, p. 2.

[12] “Mothers’ Group Slates Session.” Omaha World-Herald. 4 October 1960, p. 17.

[13] “Athletic Club Blasted into Rubble.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 February 1992, p. 1

by Rita Shelley

On December 6, 1917, Paul Borowiak, a 19-year-old from Omaha, enlisted in the U.S. Marines at Mare Island, California. Enlisting as a stenographer, Borowiak went on to serve with the Marines in decisive battles in France with the 18th Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment U.S. Marine Corps (4th Brigade, 2nd American Division). His wartime experiences are described in his palm-sized diary now in the Douglas County Historical Society’s archive. The diary covers May 2 to December 31, 1918. After the war, Borowiak also wrote a 14-page typed memoir specifically focused on the events of July 16-20, 1918. Historical accounts place the 2nd American Division on those four days at the Battle of Soissons on the Western Front, part of an offensive that culminated in an Allied victory. Its objective was to cut off a German supply route from Soissons to Chateau-Thierry in northeastern France. Historians contextualize the Germans’ loss as a turning point in the war.

Borowiak at Mare Island, 1917 or 1918. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
Inside cover of Borowiak’s 1918 journal. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

In his memoir, Borowiak also reflected on the meaning of Soissons:

The purpose of this battle was to cut off the Soissons – Thierry road. If this could have been accomplished the entire salient would have been cut off with the resulting capture of thousands of Germans, plus guns. However, enough ground was taken by the 1st American Division, the fierce French Moroccan Division, and the 2nd American Division of which the Marines constituted the 4th Brigade, to put the Chateau-Thierry Soissons road under our artillery fire and made the German position untenable. A series of battles by other American Divisions gradually dislodged the Germans from the salient. It was practically the beginning of the end for the Germans. They never won another battle in World War I.

Early pages in Borowiak’s diary describe his first days in France. Two sentences recorded on June 9 couldn’t possibly have foretold what would be months of horrific combat:

Was playing baseball when the order came out that we would all move by morning to the front. Can consider this as really starting my war career.

On Tuesday, July 16, Borowiak’s company received orders to board French trucks at 10 p.m. Because of a shortage of trucks, quarters were cramped:

…worse than marching, particularly when it is taken into consideration that each Marine had a full pack on his back, full belt of ammunition, plus rifle, canteen, bayonet and helmet. The operation and the ride were about as bad as anyone could picture.

The following day brought ever more horrific scenes, including trenches half-filled with water, artillery shells detonating after striking trees, shrapnel “raining down from above,” and an assignment to be a runner for a captain who was killed later in the day.

The road was positively choked with traffic consisting of supply wagons, machine guns being drawn mostly by mules, caissons, etc. Occasionally you would slip in the mud and down you would go into the culvert. Then the next time you might slip in the other direction and – bango – right into the rear end of a mule, or it might be the wheel of a caisson, or any part of the side of a supply wagon or truck. Occasionally a lightning bolt would strike a tree and there would be a deafening roar of crackling shattered timber.

Thursday, July 18 brought casualties of two-thirds of Borowiak’s company, even though “thousands of prisoners and guns” were captured. There were “many, many dead and wounded laying on the field, some very pitiable sights.”

The next day, Borowiak became separated from his company. Upon rejoining, he observed that most of the company was missing, and learned that out of what had been a company of 250 men, he was one of only 18 still alive. He later reflected on the meaning of July 19 when Allied forces’ decisive win was still in the balance:

I have often wondered what the results of World War I would have been had those two columns of Germans that surrendered after we emerged from Cotterets Forest, and other columns of Germans that surrendered to the 1st American Division and the fierce French Moroccan Division, who were the other two divisions in this sector, had fought as the Germans did later in the day on July 18, 1918. In my opinion we would have positively won the war, but certainly not in the year of 1918.

According to the World War I Museum, Germans first used chlorine gas in 1915, using cylinders that they had embedded in the ground. The asphyxiating chemical warfare is said to have cost lives of three percent of its victims.[1] Still, hundreds of thousands suffered burns to lung tissue resulting in temporary and permanent injuries. According to Borowiak’s entry on July 30, 1918, his symptoms ran their course in about two weeks. He doesn’t say where or exactly when this exposure occurred, but describes its toll in a matter-of-fact tone:

During all these days was suffering from the effects of chlorine gas, although I took it to be a cold. …. I took off my gas mask because it was too difficult to breathe. It must have been here that I got a dose of gas. Luckily for me it was Chlorine gas and not Mustard gas. I did not report to sick bay because I was afraid they would transfer me to some other outfit and I did not want to leave the eighteenth company.

Paul Borowiak’s field gas mask, 1918. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Borowiak was honorably discharged on August 13, 1919. In just two years’ service, he had risen to the rank of Sergeant Major. In his memoir, he summed up what he had survived:

The battle of Soissons added up to the almost unbelievable total of 92 hours of constant movement by French trucks, by foot, by being under terrific counter barrages and artillery fire, by being under machine gun fire, even by being strafed by a lone German aviator, by being the targets of snipers, and this without any hot food whatsoever and very little water, and practically no sleep at all.

Omaha city directories show that Borowiak settled into civilian life, first as a shipping clerk at a department store in 1920. By 1930 he was a detective for the Omaha Police Department. He and his wife Alice are listed in the 1940 Federal Census as the parents of two children, James and Gloria. By 1940, Borowiak owned a bar and ballpark. In 1964 he purchased Vinton Bowl, and served as president of the Omaha Bowling Proprietors Association. Upon his death on Nov. 17, 1970, that day’s Omaha World-Herald described him as having also operated Fallstaff Softball Park, the “headquarters of top-notch Omaha softball” in the 40s and as having been a member of the Omaha Bowling Hall of Fame. He had also been “a steadfast booster” of the World-Herald Good Fellows’ annual charity tournament.

The Borowiak collection housed at DCHS includes not only Paul’s journal and memoir, but also several photographs, military documents, maps, field materials, and pieces of his uniform. It’s a remarkable physical record of an important period in modern history, but also allows researchers today to delve with extraordinary depth into how this period was lived and remembered by one young man from eastern Nebraska.

Front and back, postcard photo of Paul Borowiak in Germany, c. 1918. Reverse reads, “Me sitting on the fence on the estate of the Princess of Wied. A wonderful sight can be seen from the top of this hill looking down the Rhine valley, and can see all the way to Coblenz.” Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

[1] “First Usage of Poison Gas.” National World War I Museum and Memorial. https://www.theworldwar.org/support/donate-object/recentacquisition/poison-gas

By DCHS volunteer Rita Shelley

The two women who became known as the Everleigh sisters began their lives as Ada and Minna Lester (or Simms), daughters of a well-to-do Southern family. Though there are few primary sources that give any definitive facts regarding their early lives, the sisters’ legacy is more visible. They were most likely born in Virginia, Ada in 1864 and Minna in 1866. Minna died in obscurity in New York City in 1948, and Ada passed in Virginia in 1960. As adults, they changed their last name to Everleigh, reportedly taken from how their grandmother signed letters, “Everly Yours.”[1]

Ada’s and Minna’s training in the arts of elocution may have influenced their embarking upon theatrical careers. But their time as traveling actresses was brief and not particularly well documented. The most popular version of the story is that the troupe they were traveling with went broke, stranding them in Omaha in 1898. The end of their acting careers became the beginning of eventual renown as bordello operators (most famously in Chicago). But their Everleigh Club in Chicago was the second chapter. The preceding chapter was in Omaha, when the sisters found themselves in town right before the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. The story goes that Ada and Minna had heard of the plans for the exposition and sought permission to open an “entertainment center” on its grounds. Suspicious officials turned them down, claiming their attraction was nothing more than a house of ill fame. The sisters opened their house anyway, at another location.[2]

Portrait of Ada Everleigh, taken in Omaha, c. 1898. Photographer: Fyock, 218-20-22 N. 16th St. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

With an initial investment of $35,000, they entered a trade variously referred to in Omaha and then Chicago newspaper accounts as a “bawdy house,” “den of sin,” “bordello,” “house of sin,” “glittering palace of pleasure,” or “upscale gentlemen’s club.” During their careers and in years since, the proprietresses have been referred to as “harlots,” “naughty ladies,” “scarlet sisters,” and “the most glorious madams of all time.” The sisters officially said the $35,000 was from a family inheritance.[3] Another theory questioned whether such a “heavy purse” more likely was loaned by a local “cattle baron, meatpacker, or railroad magnate.”[4]

The Omaha brothel was at 12th and Jackson Streets. The Trans-Miss Expo returned dividends of 50 percent to its investors. In comparison, the Everleighs doubled their $35,000, ending their two years in Omaha with $70,000 to invest in Chicago toward what eventually would be a $1,000,000 fortune.[5]

Exterior of the Everleigh Club at 2133 South Dearborn Street, Chicago, purchased by the sisters in 1900. Originally published in The Everleigh Club: Illustrated, 1911. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The 1910 Federal Census recorded Ada and Minna as owners of a “boarding house” with 25 women in their twenties as “boarders.” The Club gained ever more fame during its eleven years: Some said the first fast trains from New York [to Chicago] were inspired by wealthy men looking to make more frequent trips to the Everleigh Club.[6]

The sisters touted their establishment as sumptuous and luxurious in an advertising brochure they published in 1911. The Chicago Sunday Tribune paraphrased the brochure:

[The Everleigh Club] is long famed for its luxurious furnishings, famous paintings and statuary, and its elaborate and artistic decorations. Fortunate, indeed, with all the comforts of life surrounding them, are the members of the Everleigh Club.[7]


Interior photo of the entrance hall of the Everleigh Club at 2133 South Dearborn Street, Chicago. Originally published in The Everleigh Club: Illustrated, 1911. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

But modern marketing brought about the Club’s demise. Chicago’s reform-minded Mayor Carter Harrison objected to the reflection on the city’s image as boldly flaunting prostitution. He ordered the club closed on October 24, 1911.[8]

“So bold is their operation that they issued a brochure. Circulation of their fancy pamphlet brought the closing,” the Chicago Tribune published.[9]

Ada and Minna responded to the mayor’s order by leaving for a six-month tour of Europe. With their Chicago prospects having abruptly ended, they moved to New York, where they lived in quiet comfort. After Minna’s death in New York City in 1948, Ada moved to rural Virginia, where she lived until her death in 1960 at age 93.[10]



[1] Washburn, Charles. “Onetime Most-Glamorous Madam, Ada Everleigh Dies.” Omaha World-Herald. 6 January 1960, p. 15.

[2] Omaha Press Club to Unveil Portrait of Everleigh Sisters. Historical Society of Douglas County, no date.

[3] “Ex-Omahans Introduced in Special Way Back East.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 September 1985, p. 2.

[4] Uhlarik, Carl. “The Sin Sisters Who Made Millions.” Real West. December 1968, p. 20.

[5] Ibid, p. 21.

[6] “Ada Everleigh Genius of Notorious Bawdy House.” Chicago Sunday Tribune. 31 January 1960, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


By Rita Shelley

Historically Omaha has attracted immigrants from all over the world. For Rajan Bhattarai from Kathmandu, Nepal, and Sneha Shah from the state of Gujarat in India, it was work that brought them here. Dawn Smejkal arrived by a different route, adopted from Korea by a Norfolk, Nebraska family when she was nine months old. The three work at Werner Enterprises where they have organized an Asian and Middle Eastern Associate Resource (AR) Group. As part of the group’s cultural outreach mission, they are hosting one of the rooms in the General Crook House Museum for our From the Globe to Our Home: Douglas County Ethnic Traditions exhibit.

Rajan Bhattarai, chairperson of Werner Enterprises Asian and Middle Eastern Associate Resource group, and group members Sneha Shah and Cory Curfman. The group decorated a room combining Indian, Korean, and Nepalese holiday traditions. Photo courtesy of Rajan Bhattarai.

Rajan, Senior Manager of Information Technology at Werner and chairperson of the AR Group, came to the United States as part of the U.S. Department of State’s annual Diversity Immigrant Visa program. The DIV Program makes only 50,000 immigrant visas available annually for the millions who apply, drawn from random selection among all entries from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. From Nepal alone, 700,000 apply. He estimates there are 2,000 Nepali in Omaha.

Rajan has felt welcomed by how friendly Nebraskans are.

“The wonderful thing about Omaha is that everyone here says hi. You can talk about weather or football and feel like you’ve known that person for a long time.” When the weather conversations turn to snow, Rajan recalls his first winter here: “I never saw snow until I moved here. Kathmandu is sunny and 70 [degrees] all the time. Was January when we moved here. It snowed at 2 a.m. I watched that snow all morning. I cleaned off a friend’s car with my bare hands. Didn’t know how cold snow could be because I had never touched snow before!”

Rajan described two main Nepali holidays. The Dashain Tika Festival symbolizes the triumph of good over evil in 10 days of celebration. Diwali is a five-day festival of lights that celebrates the victory of light over darkness.

Sneha, a solutions architect at Werner, had never heard of Nebraska before coming here. “I was told to put my finger in the middle of the American map and that’s where Nebraska is.” She and her husband thought they would be here for one year; that was 15 years ago.

Sneha’s holidays span Christmas as well as Hindu festivals.

“We celebrated Christmas in India but on a much smaller scale. [Since being in Nebraska] it’s a big thing for us now – tree, presents, and our kids still believe in Santa.”

“But also there is such a large community from India in Omaha, I celebrate Hindu festivals even more than I did in India. Besides Diwali described by Rajan, she also celebrates Navaratri, a festival of nine nights in October during which each night honors a different goddess.

For Dawn, Associate Vice President of Risk Management at Werner, the opportunity to display Asian and Middle Eastern culture at the General Crook House Museum is important as a way to counter the stereotype of Nebraska as solely Caucasian. This dovetails with the mission of the AR group’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Rajan Bhattarai and Dawn Smejkal prepare for a talk on Nepalese and Korean holiday traditions at the General Crook House Museum. Photo courtesy of Rajan Bhattarai.

Dawn was born in Seoul, Korea. Because she was abandoned as a baby and no official record of her birth exists, her birth date was “on or about” February 8, 1971. Dawn was one of 24 babies who were on a flight from Korea to Seattle in November of that year. Adopted into a Caucasian family with Western traditions, Dawn grew up celebrating Christmas. She also has taken advantage of opportunities to learn about Asian holidays, including from Bhutanese and Chinese culture.

“I’ll be celebrating Chinese New Year in February this year,” she said. As far as celebrating uniquely Korean holidays, “I just haven’t had the opportunity,” she added.

With their goal of advancing Asian and Middle Eastern culture in Omaha, the Werner Associate Resource group’s participation in an exhibit that focuses on ethnic diversity was a perfect fit.

The General Crook House Museum’s holiday exhibit runs through Jan. 14, with Chinese New Year decorations remaining on display until Feb. 1.

DCHS would also like to thank Werner Enterprises for being one of our generous Adopt-A-Room sponsors – for the remainder of the From the Globe to Our Home exhibit, Werner employees with a company ID receive free admission to the General Crook House Museum. Click here to see the rest of our sponsors!

by Rita Shelley

Most people can trace their heritage to the countries of their ancestors’ origins. For Omaha’s Italian American community, not only can many trace their lineages to Sicily, they can name the exact village, Carlentini. The connections between Omaha and Carlentini are strong – of approximately 60,000 Omaha residents who claim Italian heritage, two-thirds descend from Omaha’s late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Carlentini.[1] Hence, Sheri Kanger, the third generation of an Omaha family that traces its roots to Carlentini, and Carmelita de la Guardia who immigrated with her parents from Carlentini when she was four years old, share a passion for their ancestral home. (Sheri’s Italian great grandmother was Maria Puglisi Ruma. Carmelita’s parents were Joseph and Maria Nanfito Troia.)

Since April 2021, Sheri and Carmelita have worked with other Omaha Italians Charlie Venditte, Todd Procopio, and Al Vacanti to establish the Sicula Italia Foundation, with a mission to “formalize a relationship and strengthen the long-standing bonds between the cities of Omaha and of Carlentini, Sicily.” In doing so, they join a tradition of organizing around Italian culture and community that was documented as long ago as 1938.[2] The author of that study, Alphonse Fiore, had a career that spanned teaching assignments at Creighton Prep and Creighton University. He went on to obtain a second PhD at the University of California and continued his professorial career at the University of San Francisco, where he is said to have welcomed Omaha visitors to whom he served Italian food at his San Francisco home. Fiore died in 1977.  

Fiore reported that many Omaha Italians from Carlentini were induced to leave their homeland behind for economic reasons. In an inventory of census records of Italian immigrants to Omaha, Fiore supported his assertion that the first wave of Italians who came to Nebraska between the 1880s and ‘90s were drawn here for its promise of employment. Opportunities came from railroads, the construction and smelting industries, and meatpacking. Of nearly 200 heads of households who he catalogued by surname, a preponderance found work as laborers and railroad workers. (Interestingly, more than 20 were fruit merchants.)

Fiore devoted an entire chapter to a discussion of the panoply of Omaha Italians’ social and cultural organizations. The chapter sets the stage by describing how Italian character uniquely contributed to organizing these efforts:

The bulk of Italian immigration in Nebraska … owes its existence to the fact that a number of prominent and influential Italian leaders in Omaha sought unskilled laborers from the home towns from which they, too, had emigrated. Naturally other immigrants, more or less closely connected with this stream of unskilled labor, either by ties of family relationship or of friendly association, felt the natural attraction of coming to Nebraska. Emigrating mostly from the same few provinces and towns, it was simply a question of “following the leader.” The movement in this case became simply contagious – it seemed that as one came to Nebraska so came the rest. Brother followed brother, father followed son, family followed family, and friends followed friends. (Fiore 17)

A list of local social and cultural organizations that welcomed or were started by immigrants after their arrival is exhaustive: seven mutual benefit societies that aided members and their families in case of sickness, death, or unemployment; Italian Fellowship Club; Ladies Auxiliary of the Christ Child Center; Italian American Alliance Club; a handful of veterans’ organizations and their auxiliaries; Italian American Civic League; Modern Italian Americans; Italian Federation Political Club; Italian Ladies Progressive Club; Santa Alfio, San  Bernardino, and Santa Lucia societies; Dante Alighieri Dramatic Society; the Italian Commercial Club; and the University Italian Club. Fiore’s list also includes the Cristofor Colombo Society organized in 1912, Happy Tribe (a women’s organization), and an Italian Fellowship Club.


Members of Omaha’s Sons of Italy lodge prepare and serve the pasta luncheons for which the organization is known locally and regionally. Omaha World-Herald, 25 January 1990.

Fiore further wrote:

The Italian’s intense social and hospitable nature finds expression, pleasure, and satisfaction in “frequently getting together”…. Ask an Italian in Omaha if his countrymen form organizations and invariably you will get the answer: “Our organizations are so numerous that you cannot count them.” (Fiore 123)

Throughout the 1940s and continuing into the present, activities of a broad range of organizations serving social, cultural, and political purposes were also reported in the Omaha World-Herald. Mention was made in 1948 that the Risveglio Italo American Club with its 700 members sponsored a letter writing campaign to their Italian counterparts, urging them not to vote for candidates sympathetic with Communist causes.  Also during the 1940s, Omaha’s Italian organizations led a voter registration drive. Organizations such as Modern American Italian American Club, United Italians of Omaha, Italian American Women’s Society, and North Side Italian American Citizens’ Club held annual officer elections and hosted events.

In 1990, an earthquake at Carlentini tragically caused deaths and injuries. Local church women’s groups organized prayers and a relief fund for earthquake victims. More than half of Omaha’s late 19th and early 20th century Italian immigrants came from Carlentini. Omaha World-Herald, 13 December 1990.

For Sheri and Carmelita, the motivations behind their work with Sicula Italia are to honor their Carlentini heritage, including by pursuing recognition of a formal agreement for Omaha/Carlentini Sister City designation. In the Italian heritage holiday display at the General Crook House Museum through mid-January, their work shares national pride, with two trees decorated in colors of the Italian flag, red, green, and white, and the Sicilian flag, red and yellow. The larger of the two trees represents Italy; the smaller represents Sicily. During a recent presentation to school children who visited the General Crook House Museum, Sheri also described five Italian Christmas holiday traditions celebrated in December and January. The celebrations begin with San Nicolo di Bari who can be thought of as an Italian Father Christmas. Additionally, observances are dedicated to Gesu Bambino (Baby Jesus), Santa Lucia, Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), and La Befana, a grandmother figure who brings gifts to children.

Italian immigration to America made an imprint on Omaha. That imprint continues today with the work of three core organizations, the Santa Lucia Festival Committee, Sons of Italy, the American Italian Heritage Society, and more recently, the Sicula Italia Foundation.

The General Crook House Museum holiday celebration From the Globe to Our Home: Douglas County Ethnic Traditions runs through January 14.

[1] Kanger, Sheri and Carmelita de la Guardia. Personal Interview. 29 November 2021.

[2] Fiore, Alphonse. History of Italian Immigration in Nebraska. 1938. University of Nebraska, PhD dissertation.

by Rita Shelley

During the 19th and 20th centuries, two waves of Lithuanian refugees settled in Omaha, the first in the 1890s and the second after World War II. Though separated by half a century, the two groups shared a common imperative, to escape persecution. For the 300 Lithuanians who settled in Omaha between 1890 and World War I (ultimately 850 by 1918), lives and livelihoods were threatened by Czarist Russia. The post-war cohort endured Nazi and Soviet occupations. After the war, Lithuanian refugees lived in U.S. sponsored displaced persons camps in Germany. According to historical accounts, Lithuanians at the end of the war had three choices: remain in war-torn Germany, risk prison and exile to return to Soviet-occupied Lithuania, or emigrate. The first post-war Lithuanian refugees arrived in Omaha in 1949.

            Among that group was Kris Jonyka, whose Christmas stars are featured in one of the displays at the General Crook House Museum’s From the Globe to Our Home: Douglas County Ethnic Traditions exhibition honoring the holiday traditions of many of Omaha’s ethnic communities. The exhibit opens this Sunday, November 7, and will continue through January 9. The stars are made from humble drinking straws, but their beauty and intricacy represent traditions kept alive through successive global upheavals. On Sunday, November 13 at 2:00 p.m., Kris will be demonstrating how she makes the stars and will have straws and instructions in kits available to take home. She will also give a talk about the history of Lithuanian immigration to Omaha. The museum’s Rooted in Diversity exhibit will also be on display.

Kris Jonyka holds one of her handmade straw stars. She and Aldonna Tanner decorated a Lithuanian Christmas tree for the current From the Globe to Our Home: Douglas County Ethnic Traditions exhibit. Photo by Rita Shelley.

Traditionally, Lithuanian stars were made from rye stalks but there was no rye in Nebraska. Wheat isn’t pliable. So, Kris thought, why not drinking straws? Thus she fashions infinite combinations from different types of straws – from narrow straws that come with milk cartons to wider and thicker “bendy” straws. To Kris, stars represent the heavens and nature, bringing together a constellation of ways in which Lithuanian traditions matter. Stars are ancient, as is Lithuanian culture with its language as old as Latin. They also represent a world view beyond a single nationality. Stars and the craft that goes into keeping this folk tradition alive also transcend attacks by successive regimes on Lithuanian culture and language. And for a woman who was born in a displaced persons camp and who immigrated to Nebraska with her parents, the craft of Lithuanian stars connects her to the extended family she never knew.

Another of Kris Jonyka’s stars. Photo by Rita Shelley.

            Kris’s parents, Larisa and Juozas (Joseph) Jonyka, brought Kris and her younger brother, Peter, to Omaha when Kris was 2 ½ years old. Her parents’ stories were typical of Lithuanians of their generation – lives interrupted by violence and war. Larisa spoke Lithuanian, Russian, German, English, Polish, and Latvian. Larisa’s father was Chief of Police for the city of Kaunas in southern Lithuania. Juozas, whose family owned a mill and a large farming operation, had just finished graduate school at the University of Vilnius when the Nazis invaded. He taught chemistry and trigonometry in the DP camp. In Omaha, Joseph worked at a concrete company, a smelting company, and at Cudahy packinghouse in South Omaha. Eventually, he earned a civil service classification that qualified him to manage the commissary at Offutt Air Force Base. Larisa and Joseph also owned delicatessens at 32nd and U Streets and at 90th and Maple during the 1960s and 70s. “Their whole future was nothing like they thought it would be,” Kris said.

While no two Omaha Lithuanian immigrant families’ experiences were identical, they share the themes of displacement, loss, participation in a community-centered around St. Anthony’s parish and school at 5402 S. 32nd Street, and eventual assimilation. Aldona Tanner’s daughter-of-immigrants story also carries these themes. Aldona’s father, Joseph Agurkis, had been a partisan resistance fighter during Nazi and Soviet invasions, one of a few who survived. Aldona’s mother, Jane (Janina) also faced harrowing events she miraculously survived. When Berlin fell, the train she was on was bombed. She hid from Nazis while making her way to the DP camp where she and Joseph would meet and marry before coming to Omaha. They also received vital support from St. Anthony’s congregation and leadership during the transition into their new lives.

Founded in 1906 and consecrated in 1907 by the first wave of Omaha’s Lithuanian immigrants, the church that had sustained Omaha’s first Lithuanians in turn sponsored the mid-century arrivals. Reverend Joseph Jusevicius sponsored Lithuanians, raised money, and arranged employment for them in construction and meatpacking. The parish also provided temporary housing, literally, when refugees stayed in the church basement until more permanent arrangements could be found in an enclave south of Q Street between 13th and 36th Streets.

Members of the “Rambynas” choir, 1983. Accompanist Aldona Tanner, second row, third from left. From We Lithuanians, 1984. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Within a few years, the parish sponsored a choir, a school, language classes, scout troops, folk dancing, veterans, an amateur theatrical group, athletic teams, a youth organization, and a women’s club that provided social and material support for the Lithuanian community. Joseph Agurkis acted in theatrical productions and started a fishing and hunting club.

Lithuanian men’s anglers and hunters club, 1982. Back row from left: K. Gegzna, J. Pultinevicius, J. Milasius, V. Arnauskas, A. Lizdas, A. Salkauskas, A. Galeckas, J. Agurkis. Front row from left: R. Drukteinis, P. Kovas, V. Mackevicius, V. Vainiunas, S. Pangonis, A. Ofertas, I. Dziuvenis. From We Lithuanians, 1984. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Theater productions were staged throughout the 1950s. Above, a photo from a production of Room for Rent, directed by M. Pratkeliene. Pictured: J. Povilaitiene, J. Agurkis, V. Mackevicius, D. Drazdiene, G. Drazdys, A. Neliubavicius, M. Pratkeliene, G. Narkeviciute, A. Buskus, J. Drukteiniene, S. Radziunas. From We Lithuanians, 1984. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Kris’s and Aldona’s parents’ generation came to the U.S. with the expectation that they would return to Lithuania when its independence from the Soviet Union was restored, but that didn’t take place until 1991. By then, they had long put down roots here. They had careers and lives that revolved around St. Anthony’s. Their children, who had been born in DP camps or in Omaha, were in their forties. “The longer they had stayed, the more they couldn’t go back,” Aldona says.

Seventy years and counting, Omaha’s Lithuanian community continues its mission to keep traditions alive and to share them in their hometown as a way to honor their heritage.

Scout troops were among a full range of activities for young people at St. Anthony’s church. From We Lithuanians, 1984. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

St. Anthony’s Holy Communion Procession. From We Lithuanians, 1984. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

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: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/omaha/name/ralph-bradley-obituary?id=5300020

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: http://douglascohistory.org/wright-wilhelmy-co/!

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. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/omaha/name/ralph-bradley-obituary?id=5300020.

[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.

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.

T. ROOSEVELT

I.

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.

II.

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.”

III.

“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.

IV.

“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.”

V.

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.

VI.

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.

VII.

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.

VIII.

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.

IX.

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.

GHOSTS

            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?

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.

By Natalie Kammerer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 5.

[5] Ibid, p. 7.

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

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

[11] Ibid, p. 14.

By Natalie Kammerer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Iowa State Census, 1885.

[2] Omaha City Directory, 1892.

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

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

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

The Early History of Waterloo, Nebraska

Written by Natalie Kammerer

Research by Josalyn Switzer

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

Omaha’s Auto Speedways

Natalie Kammerer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omaha’s Hanscom Park
Natalie Kammerer

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Omaha Creche Society

Natalie Kammerer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

1887: 19th and Harney

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

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

1949: 3173 N 52nd St.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, page 7.

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid.

Medical Arts Building: Omaha’s Original Medical Campus

Natalie Kammerer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Malcolm

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

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

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

Nation of Islam

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

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

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

 

Split

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

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

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

Rebirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

Omaha Mayoral Origin Stories

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

[2] Ibid, p. 9-10.

[3] Ibid. p. 10.

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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

8 Omaha Polk City Directories. DCHS Archive.

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

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

Elizabeth Olds: Drawing the Great Depression in Omaha

By Natalie Kammerer

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

[2] Polk City Directory, Omaha. 1932.

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

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

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

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

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