North Omaha has been home to a variety of industries, including vehicle manufacturing, food processing and steel building. However, one industry left an indelible scar the community is still trying to erase almost a century after it left. This is a history of the Carter White Lead Company factory in East Omaha.
The Roots of a Dynasty
Paint has vexed humankind for thousands of years. While ancient Greek, Khmer and Mayan temples have been found with their paint intact, those are the exception and not the rule. Instead, paint weathers, wears down and simply fades away.
In the 1800s, inventors realized that mixing relatively massive amounts of white lead into paint compounds resulted in a long-lasting, sturdy product that would protect and preserve surfaces far better than any previous mixture. This was called the “Dutch process,” and during it huge sheets of lead took a long time to melt in vats. After that, they were mixed with other chemicals and colors to make paint. A century after this process was invented, the Omaha White Lead Works were established to provide this mixture to a growing city and the region around it.
Opened near the Union Station in downtown Omaha, the Omaha White Lead Company was founded in 1878. Several local industrialists including William A. Paxton (1837-1907), W. B. Royal, C. W. Mead, N. Shelton, D. O. Clarke, S. E. Lock and Levi Carter all invested a total of $60,000 and built a factory. When it started, the plant made 600 tons annually and was the largest producer of white lead west of St. Louis.
In 1880, the company doubled the size of the plant, doubling their capacity. However, in 1885, the Omaha White Lead Company had to close for a year because the bottom fell out of the market.
Levi Carter bought the company and organized the new Omaha White Lead Company south of downtown Omaha in 1886. A generous offer of land and tax breaks lured him away from the original site of the Omaha White Lead Company by the railroad depots, and he built large.
However, after production and sales issues again happened in 1888, the next year Carter bought the entire company and reorganized the company as the Carter White Lead Works, installing himself as president and Henry Yates as vice-president. With no background in science, Carter experimented with a new process to reduce lead to atoms instead of being allowed to remain in large sheets. This shrank the production time by massive percentages, allowing a lot more paint to be made in much smaller amounts of time. The company immediately turned over a much higher profit.
Moving to the East Omaha Factory District
On June 14, 1890, a massive fire burned down the second plant in a single night. The newspaper estimated 20,000 people gathered to watch the fire, which was the largest Omaha had seen in years. However, when the boilers were going to explode there was a stampede to escape potential injury. Firemen succeeded in keeping the fire contained, though they couldn’t stop it, and the entire plant was lost. The cause of the fire was a mystery, and was never solved.
Levi Carter was just arriving from a business trip the night the fire whipped up. Without missing a beat though, the next morning Carter drew up plans for a new plant, and by the end of 1890 the new plant was operating in East Omaha Factory District. Within a year, it was earning twice as much income as the plant that burnt down.
Within 20 years, the Carter White Lead Works was the largest manufacturer of paint in the United States, with plants in East Omaha and Chicago, and later in Montreal. The Chicago plant was the largest single white lead factory in the world, and the Montreal plant was the only white lead paint manufacturer in Canada. In 1905, the company claimed to make one half of all paint in North America.
After the 1890 fire, an upstart New Jersey firm called the National Lead Company offered to buy out Levi Carter. Rather than sell, he rebuilt and redoubled his efforts, and prospered because of it. Carter’s company was headquartered in Chicago, but he maintained his home in Omaha.
When he died in 1903, the Carter White Lead Company board of directors elected Edward Cornish (1861-1938) to succeed Carter as president. Cornish, who was Carter’s lawyer and a friend of the family, immediately set about ensuring his fiscal well-being.
In 1906, Cornish agreed to a stock sale to National Lead. However, he also bought a lot of National Lead’s stock. After a fire in the East Omaha factory, National Lead closed it in 1907. In 1908, Cornish became the head of National Lead. He immediately reopened the East Omaha plant, and served as president of National Lead for the next 17 years. When Cornish died, he was succeeded by Fred Mason Carter (1868-1951), Levi Carter’s nephew.
The East Omaha plant ran until 1936, when company consolidations led to the formal dissolution of the Carter White Lead Company. The National Lead Company of New Jersey received all its property, and kept running the Chicago plant as the Carter Brand of the National Lead Company into the 1950s.
The plant was sold to the Platte Valley Cement Tile Manufacturing Company in 1927, and the buildings were gradually torn down in the 1930s and 1940s. At least one building, likely an outbuilding, was still standing in 1960.
In 2001, the United States Environmental Protection Agency declared much of North Omaha to be toxified by the massive amounts of lead throughout the environment, in particular caused by the Carter White Lead Company. In 2012, the buyers of the company, National Lead Industries, settled with the EPA. Rather than paying for the EPA’s work in Omaha, the company decided to lead its own action to heal the toxic site of its former Carter White Lead Company facility, which at that point hadn’t been operated in more than a century. It was finished in six months, and the current property owners are responsible for long-term maintenance.
A Park, a Village and a Lake
When Levi Carter died in 1903, his widow took immediate steps to turn the land Carter admired into a park. In 1907, she donated more than 250 acres of land around Lake Nakoma to the City of Omaha to become Levi Carter Park. Eventually, she donated as much as a million dollars for more land and improvements to the park. Today, Levi Carter Park is one of the largest in Omaha.
There are no historic monuments or history plaques at the park though, and few people actually know who Levi Carter was, where his gigantic factory was, or how much the people of Omaha have benefited from his memory. However, standing at the shore of the lake named in his memory, it is nice to see what was envisioned in his memory a century ago.
You Might Like…
- “White Lead Industry in Omaha, Nebraska” by Mark D. Budka for Nebraska History 73 (1992).
- “Archive Record: RG4098 Carter White Lead Company (Omaha, Nebraska)” History Nebraska website
- “Levi Carter – the man behind the name” from Carter Lake: A river runs through it” by Spencer Chaplin