Charles Martin was an ambitious man. Soon after he platted the biggest subdivision in Omaha’s history called Minne Lusa, he moved on a huge gap of land between Omaha and Florence. The US Army had used it for to practice balloon-based military maneuvers in World War I. When they were done, Martin knew it needed to be built up. Eventually, he advertised it with more than 1,100 lots as the largest subdivision ever built in Omaha. Today, there are more than 650 homes there, along with memories of some iconic businesses.
Here’s a history of the Florence Field neighborhood in North Omaha.
The Army Makes a Home
Fort Omaha started operating at present-day North 30th and Fort in the 1870s. In 1905, the Army established a hot air dirigible school at the fort. After closing it and opening a balloon school there for World War I, the Army realized they needed more practice space, and on October 1, 1917 the US Army began leasing 119-acres less than a mile north called the Florence Field. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the military no longer needed Florence Field and the next spring, the land was relinquished for sale to it’s original owner, Fred Parker, who owned the Parker Estate.
In early March 1919, the Daily World-Herald announced the sale of Florence Field and some more land totaling 175-acres from the Parker Estate to developer Charles Martin. Martin, whose Minne Lusa subdivision bordered Florence Field to the south, was a successful real estate salesman and developer, and had his fingers in Kountze Place, Saratoga, Miller Park and several other neighborhoods. Utilizing the fire hydrants, sewage lines and two miles of roads built by the City of Omaha free of charge for the Army, Martin immediately platted 1,100 lots in Florence Field for development.
Martin paid $140,000 for land stretching from North 24th to North 36th Streets, from Redick Avenue to Weber Street. The Florence streetcar line also cut through the development, and two boulevards fed into it: the Minne Lusa Boulevard, which connected to the Florence Boulevard through Birch Drive in Miller Park; and the Fontenelle Boulevard, which connected to the eponymous Martin Avenue.
Three additional interesting notes:
- 15-acres in the property were excluded from Martin’s initial purchase for Fred Parker to maintain his family’s estate in 1919, including the mansion and art gallery;
- Martin paid $152,000 for the 126-acres that became Minne Lusa; he paid $140,000 for the 175-acres of Florence Field. Why the discrepancy in costs?
- By 1923, Martin had acquired the 15-acre Parker Estate too, as well as additional land held out by other heirs of the estate, making the total amount of land for the Florence Field subdivision 225-acres.
An early advertisement for Florence Field promoted it’s wide streets, building restrictions, large lots, and access to “splendid streetcar service.” Being close to Miller Park, Florence Boulevard and Minne Lusa Elementary were hyped, as were the financing and customized building plans available. After 1924, the new North High School was used as a selling point. Martin really wanted people to buy into Florence Field, and quickly. He used his successful development with Minne Lusa against Florence Field, proudly announcing the new development would “eclipse” the older one.
“It is much larger and has a better elevation. The streets are wider and many of them follow the contour of the ground. The lots are larger and the parking spaces wider than those in Minne Lusa. The view is simply wonderful and from the higher ground beautiful vistas meet the eye from every direction. Over twenty-five miles of the Missouri River and the Iowa Bluffs are scenes one never tires of viewing.”
In January 1920, Charles Martin presented his plat to the City of Omaha planning commission, which accepted his entire plan for the neighborhood without any significant changes. The newspaper noted that this was the first-ever large scale development seen by the new commission, and they were excited for Martin’s work. Martin did succeed in getting the City to agree to widen both Florence and Fontenelle Boulevards near Florence Field, as well as the planned River Drive along the eastern edge.
In October 1920, a group of Boy Scouts were hiking through the Florence Field area when they came across a cave in a hillside. After the fact, the boys reported to their scoutmaster they saw a group of men with guns walking out of the cave towards them. A few days later, police surrounded the cave and went in, only to find it empty of men. However, they found clothing and provisions packing the cave, and came to the conclusion that the men were a gang of bandits and they’d just left right before the policemen showed up.
An impromptu demonstration of a brand-new “caterpillar like tractor” was given during the months of April and May 1921, when a gas-powered machine was used to remove a hill from the development. Located between North 30th and 28th by Vane Street, the hill was reportedly half as tall as the western slopes in the subdivision.
In 1921, Martin worked out a deal with the city of Omaha to connect Fontenelle Boulevard with Minne Lusa Boulevard to the River Drive. Originally called Florence Field Boulevard, eventually it became known as Martin Drive. An economic downtown over the next year slowed down development of Florence Field, and Martin stopped grading the area. However, in March 1922, he turned the tractors back on. However, the land preparations weren’t finished until 1923. That year, water mains were installed below the newly-straightened North 30th Street, and advertisements proclaimed that Martin had three caterpillar tractors and 120 mules completing grading in the development.
Redick Avenue from North 30th to North 36th was first paved in 1923, and was a sales point for the subdivision. Martin installed sidewalks, street lamps and other features throughout the neighborhood when grading was finished in 1923. He advertised extensively throughout Omaha and beyond, encouraging first-time homeowners, housing investors and others to build there. He also presented the Omaha World-Herald with regular press releases and updates on construction. Their articles from the era read like he played them like a fiddle, since they wrote lavish pieces echoing his ad-speak and more. Everything was always great and arriving in Florence Field!
Many of the new streets gently swooshed along the hillsides, and easily fit between Florence and Minne Lusa. Businesses were opening along North 30th, including a real estate office at 30th and Vane; the Minne Lusa Theatre at 30th and Titus; a Reed’s Ice Cream stand by 30th and Vane; and other businesses.
The Neighborhood Grows
Initial lot sales began in the neighborhood in September 1923. There were some houses there before that, including the Parker Mansion and Art Gallery, but there weren’t many. Martin’s company advertised lot sales readily, alternately saying that 150 lots or $100,000 in sales had happened within the first month. At the same time, every sale of a lot to a notable Omahan was promoted in the World-Herald as hot real estate news. In the first month, news of homes being built included:
- Larry Finn, a Brandeis store detective, building an $8,500 home on Whitman Street west of North 30th, and was projected to be the first home built in the subdivision (8/2/1923);
- H. R. Potter building a Dutch Colonial Revival style bungalow; (8/15/1923)
- Harry Conant, owner of several hotels in Omaha, building a Swiss chalet-style bungalow “on one of the most sightly hilltops in Florence Field.” (8/23/1913)
Ed Bentel of the Midwest Engraving Company and Fred R. Johnson were also among the first homeowners in Florence Field.
A month after going to sale, the newspaper reported that 54 buyers had bought more than 100 lots in Florence Field. Many bought multiple lots as investment properties, and had bought into Martin’s previous development at Minne Lusa for the same reason. Within the next season, Martin’s company planted 2,000 shade trees in the neighborhood and finished installing the majority of sidewalks, sewers and lamps.
Martin’s promotion was unending. In December 1923, he and other builders in the city presented the City of Omaha mayor’s officer with a plan for the “Own Your Own Home Movement.” That December, the Omaha World-Herald launched a campaign to give away a new home in Florence Field the following March during the Omaha Home Show. Mayor James Dahlman, the shady stooge of crime boss Tom Dennison, broke ground on the construction site, and the newspaper proceeded to hype their every step. They were cute and attributed the initial homeowner as O.W. Herald. The house was built at 7008 North 30th Street, and stands still today.
The Henry B. Neef House at 2884 Iowa Street was designed in the Tudor Revival style by Bilger Kvenild and built in 1929. Neef was the president of an Omaha steel company, and his house was the first one in Omaha made with a steel frame. The Neef House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
The Great Depression hit the Florence Field neighborhood hard. Promotion continued though. In 1930, the Charles Martin Company hosted a fireworks display in Florence Field to celebrate July 4th. The Salvation Army acquired 50-acres within the development, and used it as a farm to raise vegetables for needy families. By 1933, a new manager called the Florence Field Company had taken over sales, and the Charles Martin Company was gone. The Florence Field Company readily advertised that they wanted to dump lots, sell quickly and keep the real estate market there moving. With the onset of new building opportunities came new challenges, and those really came to a head after World War II.
Improvement Club Makes a Park
During the decade, homes built in Florence Field were a lot smaller than earlier houses built in the neighborhood. The Federal Housing Administration promoted efficient, mass-produced, affordable housing., which led to controversy the subdivision. In 1944, longterm homeowners created the Florence Field Improvement Club. Robert Dillon was one of the builders taking this money. The Florence Field Improvement Club led protests against Dillon and others for building new smaller houses in the neighborhood, because they thought the houses would lower their own home values. Another builder was the Engles Company. Between 1938 and 1941, they built at least 75 houses in Florence Field. Using FHA funding supporting Great Depression-era housing efforts, the homes were built along what was then called Plant Street, and later renamed Sharon Drive.
The club took their battle to city council, insisting that the smaller sizes of the war developments would drive down the value of their houses. They protested and rallied, and got an injunction against new developments until the planning commission ruled otherwise.
In July 1944, the Florence Field Improvement Club donated a plot of land to the City of Omaha as a park in memory of Captain William H. Graham, a staff member at the Omaha World-Herald and a resident of Florence Field. Graham was killed in an airplane crash in the South Pacific during World War II. The park is located at Read Street and Martin Avenue, and is called the Graham Triangle Park. When the club dissolved in 1953, they gave their remaining funds of $120.53 to the Children’s Memorial Hospital. The money was left over from fundraising for the Graham Triangle Park.
Supporting the Neighborhood
From the 1920s through the 1960s, the Florence Field neighborhood was supported with a range of healthy businesses and other institutions supporting its growth and sustainability. The Minne Lusa Theater opened at 6714-6720 North 30th Street in 1929. It operated until 1958, and is currently home to Heartland Family Service.
The Minne Lusa Elementary School, North High, Blessed Sacrament Catholic, St. Phillip Neri Elementary and Notre Dame Catholic High School provided education for kindergarten through twelfth grade students.
Churches built in the neighborhood include Mount Olive Evangelical Lutheran Church, opened in 1949. It continues serving the neighborhoods at 7301 North 28th Street today. The Miller Park Presbyterian congregation was established in 1920. In 1925, Noel Stanley Wallace designed a church at 3020 Huntington Avenue and it was built. The congregation folded in the 2000s, and today the church is operated by Jehovah Shammah Church International. In 1920, Parkside Baptist Church was founded in an old streetcar. Located at North 30th and Newport Avenue, it serves the Florence Field neighborhood and the Minne Lusa. In 1924, a new brick church was built.
The neighborhood finished in-filling in the 1950s. The streetcars were finished going up North 30th Street by 1950, and most of the first-generation businesses turned over by then. For instance, Lincoln’s Tavern, which had been at 7254 North 30th from the 1920s, closed and became Mr. Steak in the 1970s. After that closed in the early 1980s, it became Jonesy’s, which sold chicken, steak and shrimp at low prices when that diner closed, it was Bojangles Restaurant for a short time, and then became an Arby’s through the early 2000s. Today, its a Subway fast food store.
An A&P Supermarket opened on the corner of North 30th and Scott Circle in the early 1950. By 1954, it was called Shaver’s Supermarket. After becoming Sav-Mor Foods in the 1970s, the building sat empty for several years. It then became a Salvation Army Thirft Store, and remains that today.
In the 1920s, a commercial strip was borne on North 30th from Redick to Newport Avenue. A grocery store at 6604 North 30th Street opened as a Piggly Wiggly on April 24th, 1924; by 1938, the store was part of the Safeway chain. By 1945 it was a Sav-Mor Super Market, and by 1950 it was Minne Lusa Hardware. The first drug store on the corner of North 30th and Huntington was called the Minne Lusa Drug Store, and it became the Dahl Drug. Dahl was there into the 1980s. Minne Lusa Hardware closed in 1976. Four Aces Pawn Shop was opened in the location at some point afterwards, and stays open today. It was also the location of the Colfax Garage, later called the Minne Lusa Garage.
Others will remember a Sinclair gas station at North 30th and Redick, and a card store in the strip with the Minne Lusa Theatre, as well as the Fairway Barber Shop. There was also a shoe repair store, a dentist’s office, Dahl’s Card and Party, Ray’s Raceway and the Zaccone Furniture Store, all during different eras or overlapping each other, and almost all gone by 1990. The Heartland Family Service renovated the entire structure in 1992 and has occupied it since then.
Historical Places in Florence Field
- Harry Neef House, 2884 Iowa Street
- Former Minne Lusa Tavern and Minne Lusa Restaurant, 7202 North 30th Street
- Four Aces Pawn Shop (Former Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store, Safeway, Dahl Drugs and Minne Lusa Hardware), 6604 North 30th Street
- Heartland Family Service (Former Minne Lusa Theater), 6714-6720 North 30th St.
- Former Miller Park Presbyterian Church, 3020 Huntington Avenue
- Parkside Baptist Church, North 30th and Newport Avenue
- Mount Olive Lutheran Church, 7301 North 28th Street
- Graham Triangle Park, Read Street and Martin Avenue
- Omaha World-Herald House, 7008 North 30th Street
- A History of Minne Lusa
- A History of Florence
- Historic Neighborhoods in North Omaha
- A History of the Parker Mansion