Some places in North Omaha bring out feelings just by mentioning their names. Whenever I hear the words Miller Park, I think of fireflies dotting around on hot summer nights with locusts screaming in the background, and I feel lazy and relaxed. For a lot of people, another place like that is the Ohio Fish Market. In the few months since I learned about the place, I’ve asked some old timers and others what they remember. People lick their lips, snap their fingers and gladly reminisce about delicious food and great service. This is a history of the Ohio Fish Market in North Omaha.
Just after the new year in 2016, I heard from Matt Lesley. His grandfather opened Ohio Fish Market at 2612 North 16th Street in the late 1950s and ran it for the next 40 years. Matt wants to share his family’s history, so he asked around, collected thoughts and recollections, and shared them with me. Here’s the history of North Omaha’s Ohio Fish Market.
In 1958, Wilbur Keller was working at Omaha Steel when he decided to open a fish market in the basement of the Corby Apartments. A huge building with a big basement, the fish market took up the entire area. Wilbur installed a huge tank running across half the basement and stock it daily with fish. Customers would pick live fish from the tank and they’d be gutted and cleaned immediately.
Through those early years, Keller kept working at the steel plant while he was running the fish market. On Sundays, he’d clean fish and drive them to the Logan Fontenelle Projects to see them to people who couldn’t afford to get to his store.
The Corby Apartments were in a wooden building between Ohio Street and Corby Street, right along North 16th. When the owner of the building wanted to sell, Wilbur’s son urged him to buy the business, and that’s when they moved to officially open the Ohio Fish Market.
Matt Lesley, Wilbur’s grandson who shared these details with me after talking with his older family members, shared a cool personal memory with me. He said, “When I was a kid we would go in the basement and pop the fish bubbles on the floor as they were cleaning fish. All the kids in the neighborhood could do it too while their parents would go down to the live tanks and pick fish.”
Moving to Ohio Street
In 1964, Wilbur bought the building at 2612 North 16th Street, formerly a Venetian blind store. Saving money from his job at Omaha Steel along with a bank loan, he bought the building. Wilbur and his team totally gutted the building, built a weighing room, and installed a chute to carry the fish from trucks into the basement where they had several live fish tanks.
They redid the plumbing and installed cleaning sinks. Wilbur also had three fish tanks built. One was small, and held catfish. The next was a medium size, and held mostly buffalo fish. The large sized tank was for carp. Stainless steel tables were made for cleaning fish, and they installed multiple drains on the concrete floor for clean up.
On the main floor, they installed new countertops and in a dining room. The tables were old but were made of solid 3×8′ marble tops.
The front window was painted in front with Ohio Fish Market.
After the Ohio Fish Market opened in the new location, business was good and they installed fryers to cook food to order. The fish market had four main items on the menu, including carp, catfish, buffalo fish and fried chicken. In the winter time they would serve fried oysters, and they also offered tenderloin sandwiches.
Everything was offered with hushpuppies, french fries, bread and a pickle or coleslaw.
Walking into the new restaurant, the main entrance area had new countertops and three fryers. Two cookers had lard for fish, and the third had vegetable oil for french fries, onion rings, shrimp, and oysters. There was a pop machine. The fish market bought homemade pies from a woman in the neighborhood, who’d make apple, sweet potato and any other kind asked for. The store made it’s own shrimp sauce and the cole slaw.
Perhaps most importantly, the Ohio Fish Market had a jukebox and two pinball machines.
Over the years, Wilbur got fish came from a variety of suppliers. First, Strollers Fish from Spirit Lake, Iowa, delivered. They tried to come once a week but sometimes couldn’t make it. Then, Falt Fisheries opened and Wilbur decided to buy from them. Falt, which is still in business south of Offutt Air Force Base, stocked the Ohio Fish Market for the rest of its years.
Before the State of Nebraska changed laws to outlaw the practice, Wilbur also bought from local fisherman off the Missouri River. He bought carp for $.05 per pound; catfish for $1.00 per pound; and buffalo fish for $.25 cents/lb.
During an era when many white North Omaha business owners were wrestling with serving African Americans, Wilbur Keller didn’t. His family says at least half of his business was Black. On their holidays, the Jewish community in North Omaha came to the Ohio Fish Market to buy live fish. They had customers from across all of North Omaha, East Omaha and others from throughout Omaha.
Business boomed. Customers would walk past the other fish market in the neighborhood on 20th and Corby just to eat at Ohio Street. Everyone agree Ohio Street had better prices, better food and friendlier employees. Wilbur was known to have a soft spot for his customers, too. He extended credit, shared food with hungry kids, and was a good neighbor in the community.
Customers could walk in and have a seat at a small table to eat at the fish market. If customers wanted fresh fish to take home, they could go downstairs and pick out the fish than had it cleaned in front of them. Everything was fresh and filleted to order.
The Ohio Fish Market was a hot spot for railroad workers looking for a good lunch. Every Thursday, a group of them would come into the store after hours and work cleaning fish from 4pm until midnight. On another occasion, the same group painted the exterior signs in return for baseball uniforms and jackets for their softball team.
In 1969, the riots in North Omaha lasted throughout the summer. Luckily, the Ohio Fish Market was spared by a community who had a love for the store and it’s owner whom they called “Fish Man.”
The fish market stayed open until Wilbur Keller turned 65 in 1990. That year he closed The Ohio Fish Market, and the building was demolished by 2000. Beyond the memories of family and customers, there is no trace of it today.
Murders at the Fish Market
There were also some unfortunate events at the Ohio Fish Market. Several. At least three different people connected to the Ohio Fish Market were murdered in seemingly unrelated circumstances.
The first murder was perhaps the saddest occasion at the fish market. Wilbur Keller’s wife and original partner in the business, Betty, was killed in 1967. On Monday, September 11th, a fight broke out in the restaurant. Betty and Wilbur’s daughter Patricia, who was 19 years old, was stabbed in the chest during an argument involving a man and two women. Her mother, Betty, chased the group as they fled into the street when the man, identified as Edward Carter, pulled a gun from his car and shot her. Betty died instantly. Carter pled innocent, claiming that as he grabbed the gun another man punched him and he accidentally fired. He was arrested for manslaughter, but I can’t find what happened after that. Apparently, Carter was sentenced to serve five to seven years for the murder, and was released after serving 18 months.
In 1988, a worker at the Ohio Fish Market named Johnny Joe Shields went missing from his home in Carter Lake. Leaving a pickup truck and all of his money, Shields was heard leaving his house at 2am on December 15th. He was never heard from again, and police classified his disappearance as involuntary. His bank account was never active again after then, and no body has ever been found.
In March 1990, Mitch Simon was working at the Ohio Fish Market when he was murdered. In an apartment connected to the fish market, police found his body after it was stabbed 41 times. At the time, rumor was that Simon found drugs stowed in a fish and was attacked by a drug dealer. Nobody was charged in his murder.
There are no apparent relations between these murders, and the only thing in common between them is the connection with the fish market.
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Special thanks to Matt Lesley for reaching out to me, having conversations with his family and sharing his pictures and thoughts with me!