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A History of the James Comey Mitchell House in Florence

This is a history of the founder of Florence, Nebraska’s home.

An entrepreneurial opportunist determined to make his mark, Jim Mitchell was a sea-captain-turned-town-founder who was inspired to buy North Omaha’s Winter Quarters. Learn about his and his house in this short history of the Captain James Comey Mitchell House that was at 8314 North 31st Street in the Florence neighborhood of North Omaha.

Mitchell House Florence 1960s
This is a 1962 image of the Mitchell House at N. 31st and State St. in Florence.

“The Cedars”

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 9.00.57 PM
This is from a 1929 newspaper feature on the house. Pictured here was the back of the house, and the supposed grave of “Will [sic] Mitchell, former sea captain and builder of “The Brigham Young home.”

Captain Mitchell was the founder of Florence. An opportunist from across the river, he was chomping at the bit to get ahold of the old Winter Quarters the Mormons had mostly abandoned by 1848. Using the original 1846 Mormon map of the area, he platted a new town called Florence. After building a small cabin there in 1851, he built a large house when the Nebraska Territory was officially opened for white American settlement in 1854.

In 1926, the Daily World-Herald reported a different story though. It said that Mitchell built the cabin in 1846 when the Mormons were there. History does show that Mitchell worked as an Indian Agent in Bellevue, Iowa, in 1840, which is north of Davenport. However, it doesn’t show how a white American man managed to build a house in the Indian Territory that wasn’t opened for to steal property before 1854.

1916 Brigham Young House newspaper banner
This 1916 newspaper banner screams the Mitchell House belonged to Brigham Young.

Regardless, stories about this house persisted. Supposedly, when Brigham Young arrived in Winter Quarters in 1846, he found Mitchell’s house completed and immediately rented it. In the 1926 article, it was written that Mormons from around the world visited the house, which Young called “The Cedars” for its exquisite woodwork on the interior, because of its role as the “Winter Headquarters.”

Mitchell supposedly built the house to be reminiscent of the sea ships he’d captained for a decade during the 1830s and 40s. The tall second-floor porch was a catwalk; the narrow interior stairs were like a galley. Alas, very little corroborated the story of Young living there, and whether the house was as old as the 1840s or as notable wasn’t determined…

…Until 1927, when Hannah Beals, the niece of James Mitchell, told a different story.


Captaining a New Ship

Mitchell House 8314 North 31 Street Florence North Omaha Nebraska
This is an 1860s picture of the James C. Mitchell House at 8314 North 31 Street in the town of Florence in the Nebraska Territory.

What history generally agrees today is that in 1851, James C. Mitchell built a cabin on the corner of present-day North 31st and State Streets in Florence. Two years later, in 1853, Mitchell surveyed the former town of Winter Quarters to build a town called Florence during this year. Several buildings and some homes were left intact, and Mitchell sold them to speculators. He named the town in honor of his young niece Florence Kilborn.

In 1855, Mitchell built this home in Florence at 8314 N. 31st Street. According to the Omaha World-Herald​, “it was the largest house, the first in the Nebraska Territory to have a bathtub, and it was unusual as it looked similar to a steamship. The house was the oldest inhabited house in Nebraska until it was razed… When the ‘Widow’s Walk’ was added, the tree was not taken into consideration, so a hole was cut into the porch rather than cut down the pine tree.”

The house was two stories tall, with the first floor made into the hillside and built with brick that was made locally. The second floor was all wood imported from St. Louis. Most of the furniture in the house was bought by Mrs. Mitchell on a steamboat trip to St. Louis; she wanted only the finest. It was made of mahogany, with one wardrobe featuring mirrors and costing more than $1,000. There were fine carpets throughout the house, and a $1,200 silver service, too.

Gardens were laid out on a terraced hillside with brick walls, steps and walkways. There were two smaller buildings next to the house, too: One was a slave quarters where Mitchell kept four servants who gardened and worked within the house. The other was separated into a bathhouse and kitchen.

In the late 1850s, Mitchell planted a 20-acre apple orchard behind his house, going west up modern-day State Street. People claim to have these original trees still in their yards or only recently cut down, more than 150 years after they were planted.

Mitchell died in Florence in 1860. When he died, he took with him the factual history of the home with his name on it, and left only speculation.

The Florence Presbyterian Church bought the Mitchell House and property, and in 1950 they built south of the house. Apparently, the house was used as the minister’s house until 1960. That year, it became offices for the church and Sunday school classrooms. In 1963, it was determined termites had destroyed the second floor of the house and the next year, in 1964, the entire thing was demolished. Today, there’s a grassy lawn in its place.

Today, there’s no sign of this once-great home.


Controversial History

Old Brigham Young Home in Florence May 30 1926 North Omaha Nebraska
The heading of the Sunday World-Herald on May 30, 1926 features the “‘Old Brigham Young Home’ in Florence”.

In 1916, the Omaha World-Herald proudly bragged they knew something historians didn’t: The so-called Brigham Young house still stood in Florence! However, a month later they acknowledged the house was misidentified throughout the years. Just a decade later though, they ran a page entitled “Brigham Young’s Home Still Stands in Florence,” with hand-drawn headlines, captions and borders. They thought it was his home again!

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, there was an ongoing dispute among Omaha’s historians and interested parties. This was a serious issue that drew the attention of Omahans, Florence town settlers and Mormon Church officials. As I mentioned, the final word might have come from a 1927 interview with another of Mitchell’s nieces. A 1927 feature in the newspaper was entitled, “House that Captain Mitchell Built never Lived In by Brigham Young, Says Niece of Old Seaman; She Relates True Story of Famous Old Structure.”

One of the most important points made by Hannah Beals was that her uncle didn’t build his cabin in Nebraska until 1851, and Young never didn’t come back to Nebraska after 1848. That alone disqualified the claim about “the Cedars.”

Mitchell House 1916
“A relic of the Mormon Camp of 1846 that has so far escaped the historian; An interesting house today,” bragged a baited headline from the January 30, 1916 edition of the Omaha World-Herald.

In 1927, Hannah Beals reported to an Omaha D.A.R. meeting to settle the score about her uncle Jim’s cabin. According to Beals, Mitchell was a Quaker born in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and was a brother to her father. Beal’s grandmother was her namesake. After organizing the Florence Town Company, he had a boom town. Mitchell worked with James Parker to establish the first Bank of Florence, and the pair became wealthy. When he built the house in 1855, it was made to look like an English house.

A Florence pioneer named Louis Grebe was interviewed by the World-Herald in 1935. He openly disputed a recent interview with the president of the Church of Latter Day Saints, who had recently visited Florence and mentioned the Young House. Louis maintained his father, Henry Grebe, built the original cabin for Mitchell, and that there was no way Young ever lived there. There is evidence to corroborate that Henry Grebe worked for Mitchell at the Nebraska State Historical Society.


Historic American Buildings Survey

Architectural drawing of The Mitchell House Florence Nebraska by FA Henninger
This is a 1933 architectural drawing of The Mitchell House by popular Omaha architect F.A. Henninger.

In 1933, the United States federal government started the Historic American Buildings Survey, or HABS. It was the first federal preservation program in the country. Intended to capture a wide array of American buildings, HABS included monuments, utilitarian and vernacular buildings, and many others from across the country.

In the first year of HABS, the government hired a historian named Charles Steinbaugh to research and record the history of the house. They also paid for several architects to create architectural schematics for the house, including popular Omaha architect F. A. Henninger.

Among the notes from the survey, the historian noted the house was built in 1848, and that people said Young lived there. He also said the foundation was made of native stone, and not brick, a kinda-important difference.

Dr. W. L. Ross owned the house when the survey was completed in 1934. He said he was born in the house in 1868 and lived there his whole life.


Unanswered Questions

1936 pic of James Mitchell House 8314 N 31st St Omaha Nebraska
This was the James C. Mitchell house at 8314 N. 31st. Street in Florence, built in 1851 and demolished in 1964. When the “Widow’s Walk” was added, the tree was not taken into consideration, so a hole was cut into the porch, rather than cut down the pine tree.

The house was demolished in 1964.

My unanswered questions are:

  • What was left in Florence when Mitchell bought the land? One account talks about Mitchell buying land and buildings and houses and more, and the next says he tore everything remaining down and rebuilt new buildings. Still another says he sold the buildings to investors and others.
  • What’s the actual oldest building in Florence today? Today, we know that the Winter Quarters Mill is still standing, though its been moved and rebuilt extensively throughout the years and may only feature a few original timbers.
  • Are there houses in the neighborhood as old as the Mitchell house?
  • What were the original churches in Florence? What’s the oldest continually operating church in Florence?
  • Where the school houses in Florence located throughout the years?
  • Why did the church buy the Mitchell house?
  • Was there any movement to save the Mitchell house?

Perhaps this question have been definitively answered; I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if that’s the case. Please include sources. Otherwise, we’ll sit with these mysteries, search the possibilities and see what time shares with us!


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BONUS PICS!

Architectural drawings of the Mitchell House in Florence Nebraska in 1934
These are architectural drawings of the Mitchell House in 1934.
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These are 1934 architectural drawings of the former slave quarters at the Mitchell House in the Florence neighborhood.
Architectural drawing of The Mitchell House Florence Nebraska by FA Henninger
This is a 1933 architectural drawing of The Mitchell House by popular Omaha architect F.A. Henninger.

5 replies on “A History of the James Comey Mitchell House in Florence”

I find all this history extremely fascinating, especially since I have lived in the “neighborhood” for the past 40+ years. I appreciate all your research and reporting…

Liked by 1 person

I have read your accounts of the Mitchell House and captivated by your account of this home. I lived in this home as a boy from 1946 – 1953. My father Layton N. Jackson was the pastor of the Florence Presbyterian Church from 1942 till 1953. My father initiated the purchase of the property at 8314 N. 31st st. through the church board to include approximately the half city block. At that time the entire property was overgrown with trees, brush, grass, etc. and the Mitchell home was in ruin and dilapidated. My father thought the home could be refurbished to use as a Manse for the church and build a new church building to the north of the home. Both of those plans were accomplished while my father was pastor. The two homes constructed behind the Mitchell House, but part of the complex, were subsequently torn down. The home sustained a fire while we lived there but then remodeled and improved by the church. As a boy I was fascinated by the two trees that grew through the roof of the porch and a sub cellar for food storage in the early days. I climbed those trees and made a “secret” room in the cellar. Because of the location of the House and Florence known as the “winter quarters” for Mormons, we constantly had people stopping and wanting to tour the house. At first my parents did allow some people to view the home. Later on the requests became a burden and viewing was stopped. An artist, James Pape, was commissioned to paint the home as it appeared when purchased in about 1943 which shows the huge overgrowth around the stately home. I have this painting and an item from the Omaha World Herald giving historical account of the Mitchell House. I would like to give the painting to the Florence Presbyterian Church. The home stood where the church entrance is now built. Lyman Jackson

Liked by 1 person

Hi Lyman, and thanks for sharing your story! If you have any photos of the home I would love to add them to my article, including a picture of that painting! I’m afraid a lot of Florence’s history is being forgotten, and I’m excited to share more. Thanks again for your note!

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