Some intersections have always been busy. For more than 130 years, the intersection bordering Fontenelle View, Central Park, and Fontenelle Park has been one of those busy places. This is a history of the intersection at North 40th and Ames Avenue.
The Old West
Starting in the 1860s farms spread from North 34 Street west throughout Douglas County. Every road was a dirt road, unnamed and leading out into the countryside. Ames Avenue started in the 1850s in the old town of Saratoga and led west to North 34th, and in the 1860s it was plowed further west along farm boundaries. For the next 25 years farmhouses were built along the road that became Ames Avenue.
Ames Avenue wasn’t called that until the 1880s. Before then east of North 34th Street it was referred to as different names; however, west of North 34th it was just a “County Road” on most maps. This county road had a few businesses along it, but nothing notable.
Originally called West Saratoga, the eventual intersection of North 42nd and Grand Avenue was a viable commercial center for farmers in this early era. To get there from the town of Saratoga and Omaha a wagon would have to travel along the county road to the intersection that became North 40th and Ames, and this is what made the intersection matter in it’s earliest decades.
“A Shooting Affair”
By the 1890s, there were businesses on each corner of the intersection at North 40th and Ames. They included a grocer, two taverns, a hotel and a blacksmith. That decade, the intersection grew in popularity when the Omaha Streetcar Company started running its line to the North 40th and Ames, ending there and returning to the Sherman Avenue run. Within 15 years, the line was extended to North 42nd and Grand, but still came through the intersection to get there.
In 1901, the Omaha World-Herald reported, “Late this afternoon the police were called to the vicinity of Fortieth and Ames Avenue by a rumor of ‘a shooting affair’ of which no facts were given them beyond that a man was shooting off a revolver.” I couldn’t find any follow-up on the incident.
The intersection started converting from wooden storefronts to brick buildings in the early 20th century. It was 1909 when W.L. Selby developed and started selling lots in Loomis’ Addition and Loomis’ 2nd Addition on the south side of Ames at North 40th Street. During the next few years, about 40 houses were built between North 39th and North 41st Streets. In 1921, neighbors around the intersection asked the Omaha Police Department to be more vigilant about stopping speeders along Ames at North 40th. “Drivers make a practice out of letting their machines out along this stretch and the noise of the machines with cutouts wide open is such as to disturb the neighborhood, let alone the danger that exists to pedestrians by reason of the swiftly moving cars.”
From the 1890s through the 1940s, there was a polling place in one of the grocery stores at 40th and Ames. In the 1920s, there was even a controversy when a candidate sent a police car to pick up a group of elderly voters from the corner to a political rally. The Ames Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church opened up just a block away from the intersection in 1929 after moving from the nearby Monmouth Park neighborhood.
From the 1890s through 1955, streetcars traveled to this intersection. After World War II, there was an air of possibility for the neighborhoods around the intersection, and the intersection itself. From the early 1950s through 1964, there was even a 40th and Ames Merchants baseball team that took on other business teams around the city. New houses infilled the older neighborhoods, and there was possibility.
However, new neighborhoods and new businesses developed along Ames Avenue to the west of 40th and took away the local neighborhood influence of the pharmacies, cafes and grocery stores that once lined Ames Avenue to the east. Soon after, real estate agents targeted white people in the area to buy into new housing developments west of 72nd Street using racism as a major selling point.
White Flight Strikes
From 1964 through 1980, white flight scared so many families into leaving the Central Park neighborhood, the Paxton Boulevard neighborhood and the Fontenelle View neighborhood that having successful commercial enterprises along Ames Avenue from North 16th Street to North 40th Street became nearly impossible. During the 1970s, the Omaha Police Department allowed crime to soar in this particular area, similar to how they did all of North Omaha. Staring in the early 1970s, robberies, burglaries, thefts, and other crimes climbed steadily at the intersection and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods.
However, not everything failed. Many Black-owned businesses found success at 40th and Ames, and new businesses opened there in the intervening years. There are signs of ongoing commercial viability today. The historic buildings are still standing on three out of four corners today.
Following are histories of each corner of North 40th and Ames Avenue.
The two-story brick building on the southeast corner of North 40th and Ames at 3929 Ames Avenue was built in 1905, along with the single story building attached to it at 3927 Ames. Together, these buildings total 4,000 square feet, with another 1250 square feet in the basement. Currently home to Sammy Dee’s Barber & Beauty Shop, in 1897 there was a farm at this location where cows were stolen from repeatedly. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the corner was home to a Finocchiaro Grocery store, and in the late 1930s the M&M Food Mart was located there. A bar called “Dusty’s Place” opened at 3929 Ames in the mid-1930s, and E&D Bar opened there in 1940. In the 1950s, the building housed a firm called May Artificial Limb and Brace company, with the Omaha Sewing Center there in the 1960s. Other businesses including a paint store, tax accountant, a “shade shop” where they sold window blinds, an upholstery shop, and more were located there throughout the years, too. Ames Florist and Landscaping was there in the 1980s and 1990s.
Also located on the southeast corner are the three storefronts at 3921, 3923 and 3925 Ames Avenue. These addresses are located in a single building with three storefront bays with a total of 2,200 square feet. A brick building, there is also basement storage with 1,100 additional sqaure feet. A barber shop, antique store, insurance agency, tax preperation company, and real estate agent have been located in the building throughout the last century. A storefront church called the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Inc. has been there for several years. North Side Sounds, a record store, was located at 3925 Ames in the 1990s.
Arguably one of the most recognizable corners in this area of North Omaha, the northeast corner of North 40th and Ames Avenue has its own unique history. There are three distinct buildings located on the corner, including 3922 Ames Avenue, 3924 Ames Avenue, and 4507 North 40th Street.
The Ames Avenue Meat Market was located in a wooden storefront at 3922 Ames Avenue in the 1920s. Sharp’s Grocery store was located there at the beginning of the Great Depression, selling “meats, staples and fancy groceries, fruits and vegetables.” However, it appears to have been a victim of the times and closed within a few years. The brick building at this address was built in 1932, and opened as a tavern run by Claude R. Young. Eventually called the Lucky Tavern, it’s name changed to the Kentucky Tavern in the 1940s. Charles A. Glassen owned it for decades afterwards. The Jet Set Lounge was located there in the 1970s, and was called Euell’s Jet Set in the late 1970s. Cleon Montgomery, a former heavyweight boxer from North Omaha, was featured in the Omaha World-Herald in 1978 when he was a night watchman at the bar. He was highlighted for carrying a gun and threatening would-be burglars with getting shot. That bar was closed in the early 1980s, and the building was empty for a while. Reopened as Big Jim’s Tavern in the 1980s, the business became home to aspiring Black business owners throughout North Omaha in the 1990s. the North Omaha Business Association began meeting there regularly starting in 1994. More than 100 Black business owners frequently attended social and business gatherings, and the organization promoted a pro-Black business agenda. Politicians who attended frequently faced hostile crowds, lambasted for not supporting Black-owned businesses enough. By 1999, the business was called Hank’s Place. In 2010, Karen Jenkins was killed while renovating the building. As the owner, two of her tenants murdered her. Jenkins was a professor in Omaha at Metro and Creighton, and owned a few properties in the community. Doc’s Lounge is located there now.
3924 Ames Avenue was built in 1922. It is a two-story brick building with approximately 4,400 square feet. There are storefronts on the front corner and west side of the building, and apartments above it. The first business located on the corner was the Fontenelle Park Pharmacy. After more than 40 years in business, the pharmacy closed permanently in 1968. A furniture store opened there next. Big Jim’s Barber Shop is located there today.
Located in the same building is a former storefront at 4505 North 40th Street. Joe Mangeameli ran a shop repair business there early in the building’s life, and it was a cafe run by Mary K. Morse through 1932. A beauty shop for the rest of the decade, it was a furnace business in the 1940s. A radio repair shop and beauty shop again in the next 40 years, in the 1990s the North Omaha Business Association kept an office there. Brenda Council had a campaign office at this location in 1997. Today the storefront is covered up and not in use as a business.
Built as a garage in 1922, the building at 4507 North 40th Street has been related to cars since, for the last century. Tom’s Auto Service was there for several decades and Montez Motor Service was there after. Cunningham Auto and Truck Service was located there in the 1980s, and auto body repair services began there in the 1990s, along with auto detailing services. In 2004, a gathering of approximately 150 people was broken up by the Omaha Police Department at the building around 12am on a Sunday morning, and the owner was cited for breaking occupancy laws. Today, the address is home to T’s Auto Wash and Detailing.
The northwest corner of North 40th and Ames at 4002 Ames Avenue was the location of a dairy farm in the 1890s. The farm closed permanently in 1919, when “two wagons, harness, plough, enlivator [sic], potato digger, barrow and small farm implements” were sold in the newspaper. Soon after, a 22′ by 50′ building was constructed there, and Sam Ella ran a chicken restaurant there. In 1930, he expanded his operation and advertised in the Omaha World-Herald saying, “Keep cool! Drive out to Sam Ella’s for a heaping dish of ice cream or a cool drink.” The building was home to the Fontenelle Grocery in the 1930s, and in the 1940s Burns Grocery was there. In the late 1950s, Burns Market was the site of several acts of vandalism, including having their display windows smashed out more than once. By the early 1960s, Burns Market was closed.
In 1972, the neighboring lot to the west at 4004 Ames Avenue was rebuilt and the lot at 4002 Ames became its parking lot. Before that, the address had several businesses. Glen Ellett kept a barber shop here in the 1920s and 1930s. Mike Bailey ran an Enco Gas Station at the address in the 1950s and 1960s. From the 1960s it ran as a garage without a gas station until 1969. A new building was constructed in 1972, and the empty lot at 4002 Ames became the parking lot for 4004 Ames.
That year, a Pay-Less Self Service Shoe Store was opened at 4004 Ames Avenue, where there is 4,000 square feet in a single story building. The fourth Pay-Less in Omaha, it was one of 400 stores nationwide. The Payless Shoe Source store stayed there until at least 1996. In 2002, Rod Kush Furniture opened a store in the building. Kush, a former UNO football player, opened the store with a former teammate. However, it was closed by 2004. That year the Enoch Missionary Church opened there, and it located there still today.
The building at 4001 Ames Avenue was constructed in 1915. A double storefront, the building has almost 1,200 square feet with a basement the same size. There were two businesses at the address for several decades. Originally home to a grocery store and meat market, the building also had “living rooms” when it was advertised for sale in 1917. Staying in the same line of work, the Fontenelle Grocery originally opened there in 1917. J.F. Hutzfield kept the grocery store there next after the Fontenelle Grocery Store moved in 1921, and after him Glenn P. Madsen ran a store there in the late 1920s and 1930s.
In 1937, the Omaha World-Herald announced Madsen took charge of a grocery cooperative in Omaha. An ice cream shop and confectionery was located there in the 1920s. Madsen stayed in business into the late 1950s, when Veith Market took over the spot. That store closed unceremoniously in 1975 after it was robbed several times within a year. Ran by Gail and Adeline Vieth, it “sold bread, meat and canned goods.” When there store closed in March of that year, they told the newspaper, “It’s the crime — the trouble you have to put up with these days. We’ve been robbed six times in recent years — and the shoplifting… it just isn’t worth it anymore.” The B.J. Furniture Company was located there in the late 1970s, and a storefront church called Worldwide Missions was there in 1980.
By the late 1980s, the address was home to Wilson’s Beauty Supply, which stayed there into the 2000s. In 2008, a restaurant called Ellis’ Fish & Chips opened there, and in 2009 the Network Cafe took over the space. Its now home to the Taste of Kansas City BBQ and Don’s Barber Shop. The nearby Freestone Primitive Baptist Church has been located at 4023 Ames Avenue since the 1990s after taking over the former Ames Avenue United Methodist Church building.
A longtime important hub for the streetcar, today the intersection at North 40th and Ames Avenue seems unimportant, under-recognized and ill-thought of by the City of Omaha and many of the people who live nearby. People don’t recognize that for more than a century, this intersection has been a central point for traffic to all directions, offering simple staples like groceries, gas, bars and various goods while acting like a focal point for people traveling through the area.
There are no historical acknowledgements for the century-plus year old buildings on three out of four corners, and there is no tour coming through celebrating the accomplishments here. However, the businesses are open on each corner and hope springs eternal. Go visit the intersection at North 40th and Ames today.
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MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF STREETS IN NORTH OMAHA
STREETS: 16th Street | 24th Street | Cuming Street | Military Avenue | Saddle Creek Road
INTERSECTIONS: 42nd and Redman | 40th and Ames | 40th and Hamilton | 30th and Ames | 24th and Fort | 30th and Fort | 24th and Lake | 16th and Locust | 20th and Lake
STREETCARS: Streetcars | Streetcars in Benson | 26th and Lake Streetcar Barn
OTHER: North Freeway