In 1946, an Omaha World-Herald writer was driving his family to a vacation at Carter Lake when he came upon a scene worth repeating for the paper. This is your introduction to the East Omaha truck farms:
“Turning left into Read Street, we descended into the broad, fertile valley and skimmed past one blooming truck garden after another. Cabbage after cabbage whizzed by; radish after radish, carrot after carrot, pie-plant after pie-plant. Indeed, some of those radishes looked like 14-carrot pi-plants, they were so unbelievably large. The evening mistsrose softly – anyway fairly softly – above the treetops. A flock of ducks went waddling by in the twilight. We were in the lake country at last.”
Often forgotten and definitely neglected by the rest of the city, there is a part of Omaha that feels a bit different from everywhere else. Once for recreation and outdoorsmen, the area has always been home to Omahans who worked hard but lived differently from others. They had businesses, homes and schools, but for more than a century, made their living from growing food. I’m talking about a part of the city called East Omaha today, including the Sherman neighborhood, the old town of East Omaha, Birchwood, and everything on the Nebraska side of Carter Lake. This is a history of the truck farms in East Omaha.
What Is a Truck Farm?
Its common knowledge that Omaha was built on warehousing, and a large part of that was food. Big mills, a large regional vegetable and fruit market, and being surrounded by lush farms in many directions were all the causes of its successes. After the start of the 20th century, food processing became a major employer in the city, with companies like Swanson, Storz, Updike and U.S. Mills located in North Omaha specifically. The rest of the city benefited too.
However, that’s not where Omaha started. For the first 40-plus years of the city’s existence there were cows in peoples’ backyards, along with chickens and pigs, goats and more. Most families kept their own gardens, tending and protecting their families’ produce. A lot of people kept a fruit tree or two as well. For decades, this was true of low-income and middle class people. When middle class people began relying on pre-manufactured foods from mills, canneries and other mass production facilities, they began buying their food from grocery stores in earnest. Their meat came from meat markets; their milk and cheese from local dairies. Their fruits and vegetables were grow by others, too, and enter the truck farmer. These men and women farmed small batch farms all around the outskirts of the city, especially in areas without large farms or other limitations on farm sizes.
One of the places with those limitations is referred to today as East Omaha. In its history, this area also included the Sherman neighborhood, the Birchwood community and other pockets of houses. However, its mostly been farms, spread out across the river bottoms. Early on, these small enterprises used large wagons called trucks along with strong horses or mules to haul their wares downtown for sale in the farmer’s square; to take to the groceries in North Omaha along North 16th, North 24th and North 30th, on Locust, Ames, Lake and Cuming; and in Saratoga, Florence and the Near North Side; or to trot along specific routes to sell directly to homes along the way. They’d usually haul the day’s take, whatever was freshly out of the ground, and truck it to wherever it sold. Onions, carrots, radishes cabbage, rutabagas, turnips, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, peas, sprouts, cucumbers, sweet corn and peppers were some of the vegetables grown in East Omaha. Cantaloupe, watermelons and honeydew were some of the fruits grown, along with small orchards for apples, pears, plums and more. Strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries and blueberries were all available. Everything was grown by truck farmers, and it was all seasonally available.
Sometimes, these small family farmers followed the trends of their times, and other times they bucked them. Pesticide use and sale rates were popular, and everyone used them. A lot of the truck farmers didn’t use machinery and didn’t do a lot to increase their yields otherwise. Instead, they relied on sweat and determination, and they made a living the best way they knew how.
I haven’t found many names of the earliest generations of truck farmers in East Omaha from the 1880s and 1890s, beyond the Stratbuckers and the Sesemanns, both of whom were German immigrant families. Andrew Neldeberg was also a truck farmer in East Omaha from the early era through the 1950s. Anna Papke was the mother of Bus Papke, and had been farming in East Omaha since at least the 1910s.
In 1920, a flood wiped out Gustave Sesemann’s work at Florence Lake, located between Carter Lake and the Missouri River. Gus rallied a group of truck farmers in the area to launch the East Omaha Water District. Their plan was to raise money and build the levee along the Missouri River. He was the entrepreneur behind the Florence Lake Hotel in 1890, and later the Sesemann’s Park, also known as Seseman Gardens and Maolis Gardens, which sat on the shores of Florence Lake. His son continued the family business, and his brother built a farmhouse still standing at 5907 North 16th Street that’s still owned by the family.
From the earliest years, these family truck farmers rallied together to form the Northeast Improvement Club, which had a hall at 4914 North 16th Street that’s been demolished.
As part of the East Omaha Water District, farmers throughout the area paid a special tax to build and maintain the levee, which worked for several years before major floods struck in the 1940s and 50s. By then, some East Omaha truck farmers included Adolph Bauer, Emil W. “Bus” Papke, Virgil Wagner, Lewis Vanderpool, Larry Bowley, Herman Junge, Frank Harris, Anton Christensen and Charles Baum.
In 1956, the Omaha World-Herald published an article about the changing face of Omaha’s surrounding areas. Talking about “truck gardening,” they wrote “The Seseman family gardens on 175 acres. There are Gus and his sons Hal and Lee. There is also Charles, brother of Gus, and his son Albert. Others in the area include Ed Harris and sons Ed, Jr., Robert and Donald; Herman Junge, Fred Deutchler, George Sykes, Herman Stratbucker, Emil Papke and his son Emil, Jr., and Lou Sykora.
By the 1960s, one of the last truck farmers was David Harpster, whose greenhouses and farm was on North 16th at present-day Sorensen Parkway.
In the 1950s, manufactured foods became more popular throughout the United States, and standardization swept through farming. Tractors became more powerful, pesticide use became more ubiquitous, and small farms became less practical. East Omaha’s truck farmers were still driving their produce around town, or simply selling truck loads one-by-one parked on street corners or driving slow through neighborhoods. There were still truck farms in East Omaha into the 1970s, but they were mostly gone shortly after.
With his farm at East 8th and Fort Streets, Herman Stratbucker was one of the last truck farmers in Omaha. In a 1971 interview with the Omaha World-Herald, Stratbucker said his father started the farm in the 1890s. He talked about all of East Omaha being covered with small farms, and dozens of other farmers in the area. Stratbucker was 75 when he was interviewed, and said he’d worked the farm his whole life. He was one of the last of his kind.
King of the East Omaha’s Truck Farmers?
By any measure, Carl Mittelholz might have been the king of the East Omaha truck farmers for a time. Born in 1915 to Julius and Mary Mittelholz, Carl grew up at the family truck farm at North 16th and Ida Street. Father Julius bought the place in 1918, and became notorious a decade later for refusing to pay the Omaha Police Department double his regular taxes to cover for the wild dogs they regularly captured on his property, where they ate his crops.
Julius’s son Carl married young in 1932. He and his wife moved into a house on the family farm, and soon after his father moved to a big farm at North 49th and Ida Street, which was incorporated as the Omaha Feeding Company. Carl took over the little truck farm, but in the depth of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Carl became a CCC worker in Omaha. In 1937, his arm was cut while working for the program, and in 1938 a judge awarded him a settlement from a malpractice lawsuit against Dr. Phillip Levey, the doctor who treated him.
Shortly afterward, Mittelholz bought 35 acres from his father on the north side of North 20th and Read Streets and set up his truck farm. There, his young family grew fruits and vegetables Omahans relied on for their dinner tables, restaurants and picnics. However, Mittelholz must’ve realized he could do more. In July 1945, the Mittelholz family was the feature of an article in the Omaha World-Herald reporting on labor shortages. Despite having four kids (George, Marion, Charles and Margaret), the Mittelholz’s grew bumper crop was so big in 1950 they couldn’t find either the labor to harvest the plants or places to sell them to. In 1951, the newspaper labelled him “one of Omaha’s major truck farmers,” so apparently the family survived the labor and market shortage from six years earlier.
However, later in 1951, Mittelholz auctioned off his farming equipment. Carl renovated his house to become a store, which was between J.J. Pershing Drive and North 16th Street. The Read Street Market at 2032 Read Street was open from 1951 through 1963.
The family moved to North 18th Street to North 33rd and Fowler. In 1950, Carl’s son George was the subject of a newspaper article. Apparently George caught a hook in his finger while fishing at Miller Park. However, his dad convinced him to keep trying afterward, and young George ended up catching a large catfish. In 1953, he was included in an article as part of a fund-raising drive to “save Carter Lake,” which was filling in with mud at that point.
In the late 1950s, Mittelholz sold the farm and his business to C. W. Nave. Mittelholz bought a home in Benson around this time. In 1958, Carl’s mother Mary died at age 79, and in 1969, Carl’s father Julius died at the age of 89 in Omaha. By 1972, Carl had moved out to a cabin at Cedar Creek on the Platte River.
The East Omaha truck farmers had working class and low-income families that lived modestly, worked hard and generally stayed strong throughout their whole lives. Given the pressure of living near a wide-open town, then being seen and treated as a rural backwater for decades, there was a great deal of controversy involving these modest operations.
In 1892, an influential lawyer and politician named Frank Crawford was accused of fraud in a local election. Apparently, Crawford tried to rent a steamboat to carry passengers from the town of East Omaha across Carter Lake to the Sherman neighborhood to vote. This was illegal because East Omaha was outside the City of Omaha’s jurisdiction, and these voters were thought to belong in Iowa. Crawford went on to become more influential in local politics, serving as a judge and later. He also became a real estate agent who sold land throughout the middle of North America. However, he stayed on his East Omaha land for a long time, too.
Another early controversy involved Sesemann’s property around Florence Lake. When the city mistakingly built a water intake valve on the Missouri River for the Florence Water Works just south of a sewage-filled creek in the 1910s, the City of Omaha proceeded to route the sewage flow into Florence Lake, destroying Sesemann’s prospects of selling lots and continuing his resort business on the lake.
The relationship between the airport and its former truck farm neighborhoods seemed contentious from its very beginnings. In 1925, several farmers took the City of Omaha to court to sue for the amounts the City forced them to take when their land was acquired to establish the airport. Martin Hamblin, Charles Adams and Charles Perkins were all truck farmers who sued the city. John Palazzolo, Vito Agrusa, Herbert Vasholz, F. A. Masinda and Andrew Neldeberg were also in court against the City for their small payments. Contention over the airport acquiring more land, controlling the landscape of the farms around the airport, and eventually demolishing homes and farms in its scope continued through the 1980s and 90s, when the last homes in the town of East Omaha were bought and demolished, and the remaining farms to the north and east of the airport were condemned and destroyed.
In the 1930s, one of the original truck farmers, Anna Papke, sued the city when their grading of a nearby road and the CCC working on the levee caused the river to flood her radish patch and destroy her crop. She only received $1,000 even after attesting to the fact that it was worth $2,500.
During the 1950s, Herman Stratbucker, Emil “Bus” Papke, Herman Junge and Larry Bowley were victims of a shady deal with the manger of the Eppley Airfield, Lee (Tim) Huff. Apparently, for more than a decade the farmers paid rent for garden plots on airport land that Huff simply pocketed. There were no lease agreements or receipts, and the whole crooked deal only came out when the City attorney busted them. Huff apparently pocketed almost $3,000 over the years, and the farmers worked the land the whole time. In his trial, Huff continually said he never collected money from the farmers. When they went to court, Papke testified that each year’s $150 was in cash, and that the farmers didn’t know they could get receipts.
Water Runs the Game
The same as all farms everywhere, water ran the game for East Omaha’s truck farmers. Water and money, that is. Water, money, and as the controversies showed earlier, land.
Omaha was founded in 1854. In the years that followed, land speculators snatched up property all around, including the entire area I’ve written about here. One group of investors formed the East Omaha Land Company, and throughout the decades they worked with the Byron Reed company to sell land to truck farmers, property to the airport and other interests to industry. Oliver Ames was their frequent representative.
During well-watered years when there weren’t droughts or floods, East Omaha’s farms did well. The soil was good in the area, because of the Missouri River’s occasional discharges of fine silt and soil from upstream. However, from the earliest years of settlement in Omaha, that same river constantly hampered development east of the Bluffs. I mentioned the 1920 flood earlier. Earlier still, the flood of 1857 challenged the Sulphur Springs area along the Saratoga Bend by completely moving the river away, while the 1877 flood obliterated the businesses, homes and other developments that were there, northwest of Carter Lake Drive and Locust Streets. While it rejuvenated the aforementioned Florence Lake, this same flood formed the Cut-Off Lake, which later became Carter Lake. All the farming efforts in this area were constantly demolished by the whipping course of the Missouri River at flood. When the farmers in the area started to tame the river in 1920, their efforts weren’t enough. Throughout the 1940s and 50s there were numerous huge floods that took a constant toll on the truck farmers. It was the 1957 flood that demolished much of the town of East Omaha that led to the demise of most East Omaha farms. Many truck farmers simply moved away from their land and left it to the fates. The other thing they did was sell their land to non-farmers.
Next door to Carl Mittelholz’s farm was the land of Norman Ziemann. In 1937, Ziemann was ordered by a court to move his “scientific goat-raising” away from his address. Given a 90-day jail sentence, Ziemann was “high in goat-raising circles” and well-regarded for the 80 goats he raised on his two-acre tract. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Ziemann was the vice-president of the Nebraska Goat Breeders Association, and a director of the International Dairy Goat Record Association. The paper regarded his court case as a publicity stunt.
At some point in the 1960s, the Read Street Market closed. The Maple Grove Trailer Court moved in across the street, and eventually the site of the store disappeared. Earlier on, in the 1940s, the Garden Valley Trailer Court moved in at 5702 North 16th Street. These ate away at the truck farms, as did new factories along North 16th and elsewhere.
In the 1960s the City of Omaha built Abbott Drive as a connector from J.J. Pershing Drive to downtown Omaha, especially tying in the airport. In the 20 years after, remaining homes in East Omaha were targeted for purchase and demolition, an industrial park was established in the northern area where Florence Lake was, and eventually the Storz Expressway connected all of Omaha to East Omaha. Many farmers sold to industry and retired, moving to other parts of Omaha and beyond.
The land value in East Omaha is slowly increasing, and with suspicious fires burning down vacant houses, old churches and businesses getting abandoned and other developments, its hard to say how long the once quaint Sherman neighborhood will survive. Much of the rest of East Omaha is already paved over and built up; surely industrial interests won’t let these little houses stand for much longer.
Water runs the farming game, and money doesn’t hurt either!
Today, there is little evidence that farming was ever a going concern in this area. However, I don’t want to this vibrant history to be forgotten so I researched and shared all this information with you. Will you share it with others so its not lost even more?
East Omaha Truck Farm Directory
- Herman Stratbucker, 1802 East Hartman Avenue
- Emil W. “Bus” and Margaret Papke, 1302 East Kansas Avenue; 5220 North 15th Avenue East
- Julius and Mary Mittelholz, North 16th and Ida Streets
- Carl Mittelholz, 2032 Read Street
- Gustave Seseman, 5907 North 16th Street
- Herman Junge, 5703 North 21st Street East
- Andrew Neldeberg, 4920 North 33rd St East
- J. M. Booth, 1678 Whitmore Street
- George Harpster
- David Harpster, 5720 North 16th Street
- Martin Hamblin
- Charles Adams
- Charles Perkins
- John Palazzolo
- Vito Agrusa
- Herbert Vasholz, Perkins Avenue and North 23rd Street East
- F. A. Masinda
- An Early History of Carter Lake
- A History of the Town of East Omaha
- A History of Kiddieland and Pleasure Pier
- A History of the Omaha Municipal Beach
- A History of the CCC Camp in Omaha
- A History of Bungalow City
- A History of Florence Lake
- A History of Eppley Airfield
- A History of the Omaha Auto Speedway
- Meaning of “truck farm”
- Truck Farm Omaha, a program of City Sprouts
- (1954) The Truck Farmer (2nd edition), an Encyclopaedia Britannica Film