For more than 120 years, one organization set the pace for childcare and the treatment of children throughout Omaha. People saw this organization as the city’s leading conscience regarding children, and they revered its role throughout the community for decades. When they closed, this 127-year-old organization was the oldest nonprofit in Omaha history and the first charitable nursery. This is a history of the Omaha Crèche.
Founding a Legacy
“We aim to help poor women, by strengthening their hands to work–not by filling them with gifts; and to make homes possible by supplementing them–not by taking their places. That is what Day Nursery works means.”-Mrs. Mary Kimball in the Omaha World-Herald, February 6, 1888
In an era where poverty affected the majority of working people, Omaha’s upper class often looked down on the needs of these families. However, before anyone else in the city one group of women established a daycare for working class children, and it was called the Crèche, a French word for a a nursery where babies and young children are cared for while parents work.
The Omaha Creche was founded in 1887 as a daycare for the children of single, working parents. It was the first charitable daycare in Omaha, and was noted for a lot of reasons.
The organization was later changed into a boarding home for children where they took children as boarders for $1.25 per week, and later it became a regular orphanage.
A 1900 newspaper report said the facility hosted 28 children since the time it was founded. Patrons were mostly “young mothers or widowers who could only find low-paying jobs such as waitressing, clerking, or working in factories. These types of jobs often required that the children’s parents work unusual hours, making it difficult for them to care for their little ones at night.”
Throughout its earliest years, public reports treated the organization kindly. An 1890 newspaper article called it a “plucky little institution” and said “It helps unfortunate people and does not pauperize them.” Newspapers also praised the people involved and their charity towards the people they were helping.
Mrs. Mary Porter Kimball (1831-1930), the wife of Thomas Lord Kimball (1831-1899) and mother of Thomas Rogers Kimball (1862-1934), was the first president of the Crèche, which was founded by a group of women from the Omaha Unity Club. The board members were Omaha elite, and included wives of many of the city’s leading capitalists.
However, those roots didn’t make the organization automatically successful. By 1896, a newspaper article reported that “Treasurer’s figures show that hard times have affected the finances of a practical charity.” A later report struck a similar tone saying, “The Creche has sometimes been hard-pressed to provide for the children. There is no definite income. The institution depends upon voluntary contributions. The ladies of the board do their work very quietly. They love the labor of providing a home-like place for these little ones, and only regret that they cannot care for more.”
During the earliest era of the Crèche, reporter Ellie Peattie covered the organization frequently for the Omaha World-Herald. Her angle included hyperbolizing the extend of suffering by children in the Crèche, as well as the abilities of the women who worked there being saviors and godsends.
From 1887 to 1907, the original home of the Crèche was at 19th and Harney Street. In 1907, the Crèche moved into Thomas L. Kimball’s former home at South 7th and Pierce Streets. In 1914, Mrs. Kimball donated her home at 1223 Park Wilde Avenue and stayed there until 1929.
It wasn’t that they never had money though. In 1903, Jonas L. Brandeis (1835-1903), founder of the iconic Omaha department store, left a considerable amount of money to the Crèche in his will, like Anna Wilson (1835-1911), the notorious madame, who gave money to the Crèche throughout her life and bequeathed them money in her will when she died in 1911. Mrs. Kimball’s son, popular Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball, continued giving money to the Crèche after his mother died.
In 1929, the Crèche moved into the former Arthur Crittenden Smith Mansion at 1303 Park Avenue.
The organization started promoting that “it does a lot with a little,” and it’s supporters built its reputation on that promise. During the Great Depression, they fed the kids for half the cost welfare workers thought it would take, and continually provided medical and dental care, recreational needs, clothing and salaries for the staff of six.
In the late 1940s though, the organization’s facility was condemned by the Omaha Fire Department, cited for having more than 30 fire hazards throughout the rambling old mansion. They were allowed to stay in the building as long as they had weekly fire drills to ensure the childrens’ safety.
The Crèche finishing building a new facility near Benson at 3173 North 52nd Street in 1949. Announced in 1948, local architect James T. Allen designed the new building. Funded by donations from business tycoon Carl A. Swanson (1879-1949) and an anonymous donor, the new building at North 52nd and Pratt Street was promoted as being fireproof. It was built to house 40 children instead of past limit of 28.
1948 newspaper report said, “Crèche children attend the nearest Sunday School. The boys go to the YMCA for swims, have tool chests and benchwork in a basement room if they are inclined to putter with tools. The Crèche has a harmonica band. Children can take piano or violin lessons if they show aptitude. They are permitted to attend playmates’ birthday parties, or visit other children, when invited.”
By the late 1950s, the organization was the oldest in Omaha.
In 1967, the Omaha Public Schools opened a summer enrichment program at the Crèche, and the Crèche became the Crèche Child Care Center in 1970.
Closing and Legacy
In 2014, Omaha’s oldest nonprofit closed its doors permanently. Donating the remainder of their funds to the Omaha Community Foundation, a fund was started in their name that continues today.
That year, the Montessori Parents’ Co-op for Children moved into the former Crèche at North 52nd and Pratt Street. The building was not included in the 2002 Reconnaissance Survey of Selected Neighborhoods in Omaha, Nebraska Nebraska Historic Buildings Survey focused on Benson.
While their last home has been preserved in service to children by becoming a school, the building has not been listed on the National Register of Historic Places or named as an official Omaha Landmark by the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. There are no plaques explaining the Crèche’s illustrious history, and the city has almost forgotten their impact.
Hopefully in the future we will remember the Crèche’s history.
Omaha Crèche Timeline
- 1887—The Crèche was founded and opened at 19th and Harney Street
- 1907—The Crèche moved into Thomas L. Kimball’s former home by South 7th and Pierce Streets at 1223 Park Wilde Avenue
- 1929—The Crèche moved to the former Arthur Crittenden Smith Mansion at 1303 Park Avenue
- 1949—The Crèche moved into a brand new building at 3173 North 52nd Street
- 2012—The Crèche Child Development Center contracted with another organization to running their facility
- 2014—The Crèche closes permanently, and the Montessori Co-Op School opened in its former building
You Might Like…
- A History of Streetcars in Benson
- A History of the Nebraska School for the Deaf
- A History of the Oakview Home for Negro Boys
- Creche Childhood Education Fund, Omaha Community Foundation official website
- “Montessori school finds new home in Benson” by Julie Anderson for the Omaha World-Herald on June 28, 2014
I grew up at 5058 Pratt St from 1943 to 1959. I remember the home being built. It had a good reputation .
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My mother and aunt were residents of the Creche home, in the early 1940’s. They talked about their experiences some. Behind closed doors the children were not always cared for in a respectful, kind manor.
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Hello did you meet or play with any of the children there? My mother was there about the time you were 7-8 and she was about that age.
I have started a fb group called Survivors of Omaha Crèche home for children. Please consider joining
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I was a child resident of the Creche from May 1955 to Aug 1962. I would like to join your fb group
I have no issue of you sending me email direct. My email is posted on a previous post.
You don’t ever truly know what goes on behind closed doors. Myself and three siblings ended up at Creche August of 1960, and left there in March of 1962, only to be placed at Nebraska Children’s Home Society to be adopted out. Were we fed and clothed and educated and exposed to Religion? Yes. Do I have good memories of the place and our treatment? No. I see the picture of the building and the lawn. We older kids raked the yard and didn’t do it good enough. Mrs. Swisher had us out there raking with our fingers. I remember that yard well. My history here is bitter and we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. When Judge removed us from our parents, Mrs. Swisher called me into her office and told me there had been a decision and we were going to be moved and had been taken from our parents. She also told me my father had fathered three children with three different women who had kids there. How she would know that, I can’t guess but you sure don’t tell an eleven year old something like that. She then sent me to school. I remember it probably was my first trauma. My world had literally gone black and gray. I didn’t understand all that she said to me, but I knew enough to realize our lives were going to drastically change. I don’t sugar coat anything. We existed there until we left. There were staff there who genuinely cared for children and showed affection. I remember them fondly. Do not have good memories of Mrs. Swisher, nor Miss Kay, the girl’s housemother. I have to wonder how the other children there when we were there have fared.
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Thank you for sharing that Sue. History is only made tangible and real by human stories like yours, instead of dry impersonal accounts like mine. Thanks for helping bring this story to life.
Hello my mom was at Omaha Creche in the early 1950’s. Too many stories to share here but all abuse. I have started a Facebook group. Please consider joining. It is called Survivors of Omaha Creche home for children.
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I was also a resident at the Creche from 1955 to 1962. I had considerable contact with Lola Swisher. I understand and emphasize with your assessment of the Creche. Please feel free to contact me
Michael, I haven’t seen any activity on the group fb page since the gentleman initially started it , but I haven’t looked in the last couple of weeks. Hope you hear from. It would be nice to have a focus to share our stories.
Adam, your article mentioned a shop for the boys. I knew of no such shop or boys being worked with. I failed to mention my little sister, age 5, was put in a different room from me and was tied to the bed to keep her in place. She still has the scars on her wrist. She showed me just two years ago and she was 64. I remember one of the older girls ran away. When she was brought back she was put in isolation and separated from the rest of us, even at meal time. My brother was sexually assaulted by an older boy soon after we got there. Where was his protection? This article was hurtful to me as I saw it and lived it from the inside and seems like it is sugar-coated to make for good reading.
Hi Sue, and thanks for writing again. I am sorry that it appears as an imbalanced account; I will make edits. The histories I write (like most histories) are often inaccurate, as I largely use only newspaper accounts and books to research my content. The problem with that is that I can only share what I find. Again, its stories like yours that make these /work/ more effectively. If its okay with you, I will use some of your accounts to revise the article. I will also spend more time researching abuse at the Creche to make it more accurate. This might take a few weeks, but I will fix it. I am sorry, and I appreciate you taking time to share corrections.
I’m wondering if you have delved into more of the history of day to day living for children placed at Creche. Because of your article, another resident placed at Creche, lapping over in some of same time frame as myself and my siblings, has contacted me. We are sharing many memories, both good and bad. Remembering names of some of the staff who were kind to the children, and remembering the bad treatment from the ones who had no heart.
I posted my email when I signed on to make a comment. If you’d care to contact me, I would be willing to talk to you whenever..
I would like to know if there are any records of the children that were. placed there?
Sue, In 1940-41 my father at age 8 or 9 was also sexually assaulted by another boy after his step mother placed him in Creche home when his father entered military service after FDR started the selective service registration. This probably had repercussions throughout his life impacting his personality and family for the rest of his life. I only learned of this in his final months before my father passed away.
Eddie, I believe there are more horror stories like this, if the truth would be told. I know most of the kids placed there might have been better off than in their homes, unsupervised, but it would take an act of real desperation for me to have ever considered putting a child in a home like this.
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I lived in the children’s home with another brother and another sister out of a family of nine we were adopted out by a great family in O’Neill Nebraska that place and those people bring back so many memories not much good I’m so blessed to have been off the streets into a home like that.
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Hello. Does anyone know of records of children who died in care? My grandmother was placed in care with a younger brother by their widower father somewhere in Omaha between the June 1900 census and June 1901 when her adoption by a German immigrant couple was finalized. She was told her brother died in “the orphanage.” I would like to learn what happened to him and where he is buried. Any suggestions? Thanks.
Was the Creche mentioned by name? I’m not sure when Nebraska Children’s Home Society came into being. My siblings and I were adopted from there. Creche was a boarding home for children and fees were paid so they could stay there. Have you tried the various cemeteries looking for him by name? Have you done ancestry yet? Obviously if he passed as a child you won’t have his offspring but maybe cousins would match up.
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I have no name for the orphanage and posted hoping to learn what info might be available to help me find out in this situation. I live in Kansas and would consider a research trip to Omaha, but want to have some direction, contacts, etc. before I travel. Her birth father’s family were Ragers, living in Omaha, but some are buried in Atlantic, Iowa. Her birth mother was a Badger from the York, NE area. Some of the extended family’s descendants could well still be in the area. But, as both she and my mother were adopted, a dna match with me is not an option. I don’t think any of her birth daughter’s descendants have done dna.
You are apt to hit alot of dead ends before you get a good hint. I too have family history with York, NE, Beaver Crossing, Seward. I didn’t know this til last year when a half brother to my mom posted his dna. He had no clue his father had a child before he wed so a whole big family tree opened up to me. My mother was placed for adoption shortly after her birth. I hoped to find her paternal bio, and did. Seriously, have you done dna test? It’s a good place to start. If the children were placed together in orphanage, and the boy died, and you know his last name and approximate year he died, cemetery is good place to look. Also, I will do some research as to how many orphanages there may have been in 1900/1901.
I have been searching York area for name “Badger” and have several. Also searcher name of Rager for Omaha area and have more info. If you want to email me directly, I’m good with that. firstname.lastname@example.org I’ve been on newspaper.com and searching articles so there’s quite a bit I printed out and will send to you when we connect and share address.