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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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!
- A History of Florence’s Mormon Tree
- A History of the Florence Neighborhood in North Omaha
- A History of North Omaha’s Danish Vennelyst Park
- James C. Mitchell – An article I started on Wikipedia
- “James Comly Mitchell” from the Florence Futures Foundation
- “James C. Mitchell, 1810-1860(?)” from the Nebraska State Historical Society
- “The Mitchell House, Florence, Douglas Co., Nebraska” by William L. Steele for the Historic American Buildings Survey (1936)
- “Florence and the Political Machine” by Linda Persigehl for Omaha Magazine (May 10, 2017)
- James C. Mitchell House collection from HABS in the United States Library of Congress