John Creighton

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Examination of Omaha’s Annexation History: Benson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

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


John Kerns’ Saloon

John Kerns’ Saloon

On 215 South Fourteenth Street, in the Third Ward, sat a cramped saloon. Patrons knew the proprietor, John Kerns, for selling good liquor and maintaining a, “gentleman’s saloon.” The Excise Board granted him a liquor license on January 3, 1896. Kerns had strict rules of decorum that patrons had to follow, or face his scorn. Business and theatrical people frequented the bar; it was also a watering hole where Omaha’s elite quenched their thirst.[i] Born to Irish immigrants on October 22, 1855 in Carlinville, Illinois, he brought his wife, Delia Bailey, to Omaha, Nebraska around 1886.[ii] His saloon closed in 1917 when Prohibition came to Omaha. During the years that his saloon was open, Kerns made a lasting impression on his adopted city.

Unlike other saloons in Omaha, Kerns’ saloon was a, “very quiet place.” Kerns required patrons to be subdued. If a person were loud or unruly, Kerns made the patron leave the bar. People talked politics, local events, and gossip in a restrained environment. Actors like William H. Crane stopped by while in town to talk Shakespeare and other topics of the day with fellow patrons. John Creighton went to Kerns’ saloon by horse-drawn carriage after leaving his office in the late afternoon. Creighton, “an opposing figure with [a] flowing whitebeard tall silk hat,” ordered himself a whiskey along with a round for the bar.[iii] When Kerns ate lunch at the Paxton Grill on Farnam, he sat at the front window to watch people coming in and out of his establishment.[iv] He always monitored his saloon.

No chairs existed in Kerns’ saloon to prevent idlers and thieves from entering the bar. The rule was that everyone had to keep their, “tootsies’” on the ground. He did not want people coming into the bar without ordering a drink. If a loafer came into the establishment, they were spotted and quickly removed. One night, for example, a loafer came into the saloon and sat on a steam radiator. Kerns sent his porter downstairs to turn on the furnace. The loafer left when his bottom became hot. [v] “Creepers,” people who would, “sneak around and take money and valuables from trousers,” were strictly forbidden. If a person went to the saloon, Kerns made sure they were there to buy drinks.

Kerns prided himself on selling the best whiskey in the country. He offered patrons a choice of 15 whiskeys kept in barrels and tapped when crystal decanters became empty.[vi] He sold two drinks for a quarter. If a person only took one, he gave them a voucher for a free drink.[vii] Kerns could become defensive if anyone questioned his product. If a patron, for example, asked to take a sniff of the cork before he poured the drink, Kerns took it as an insult. “He snatched the decanter from the sniffer’s hands and poured out the contents into the sink.” Kerns sold beer begrudgingly because it was not a high-end drink, but brought well-needed capital into the saloon.

Kerns believed that whiskey from his private stock should be savored, not wasted with a quick chug. He gave customers a four-ounce glass of whiskey and along with the decanter. If the customer drank too quickly, Kerns went over to them and said, “good whiskey is for gentlemen, not hogs!“ Customers were on the honor system, reporting what they drank to him. Everyone in the saloon drank their whiskey slowly when Kerns was around.

During the winter, people came to Kerns saloon for his famous, “Tom and Jerry,” drinks. He could not keep bartenders in the winter because it was hard to keep up with demand. [viii] He refused to sell non- alcoholic drinks. For example, a person came into the saloon during the winter with their hands shivering from the cold. They requested regular eggnog. He gave them a glass of whiskey and an egg telling them to, “Run Over to the Paxton and get a glass of milk. You’re shaking enough to put it together all right.”[ix] Patrons had to be careful not to offend Kerns.

A voter referendum on May 1, 1917 brought Prohibition to Nebraska on May 1, 1917. Although Kerns was proud of his own business, he said that the, “Saloons have ruined themselves.”[x] He closed his saloon and lived a quiet life. He still, however, received visitors from people who frequented his saloon. Today, the old saloon’s site is on the Northwest Corner of the Gene Leahy Mall.

[i] “Johnny Kerns Passes Away” (30 August 1923), Lincoln Journal Star, (Lincoln, Nebraska), pg. 6,        

[ii] “Mortuary—Kerns” ( 10 April 1905), Daily Illinois State Register, (Springfield, Illinois), pg. 2,                 13E3682EAAE0362D%402416946-13E1275A558DF605%401-         13E1275A558DF605%40?h=3&fname=Delia&lname=Kerns&fullname=&rgfromDate=1860&rgtoDate=190                5&formDate=&formDateFlex=exact&dateType=range&kwinc=&kwexc=

[iii] Robert McMorris, “Omahan, ’91,’ Remembers City in Its Youth” (10 April 1982), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 16.

[iv] Jake Rachman, “Town Tattler” (28 January 1944), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 26.

[v] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days         Dies in Hospital” (30 August 1923), Evening World-Herald, pg. 5.

[vi] “Conversations” (19 November 1961), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 24.

[vii] Jake Rachman, “Town Tattler” (28 January 1944), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 26.

[viii] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days       Dies in Hospital.”

[ix] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days        Dies in Hospital.”

[x] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days         Dies in Hospital,”

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