With more historical sites than any other community in Omaha, Florence is a little-acknowledged gold mine in Omaha history. Buildings, events and people make the economic heart of the neighborhood come alive like few other places in the city. This is a history of the Florence Main Street, also called the Florence Commercial Historic District in North Omaha.
A History of the Florence Main Street
The history of Florence begins before there was a city of Florence. The Main Street was first laid out in late summer 1846 when the Mormons set up the town of Winter Quarters in the exact same configuration as today’s streets. This is why, in 2016, the Omaha World-Herald called Florence Main Street the oldest downtown in Nebraska.
It was almost a decade until, in 1854, when James C. Mitchell finished buying up the lots from their original owners. Representing a group of investors from across the river in Iowa, Mitchell put the land on sale as part of the City of Florence, which was formally incorporated in 1856.
Extending along North 30th Street from Weber Street to Ferry Street, there were two main streets in the original town. First Main Street was present-day North 29th Street, and Second Main Street was present-day North 30th Street. When the City of Florence developed, Second Main Street became the most popular of the two and by 1885 it was referred to as Main Street.
Sometimes pitched as a booming suburban of Omaha, the little City of Florence was regularly derided by the newspapers as a sleepy village or backwards town. That didn’t stop it from trying though: the Florence Street Railway Company was incorporated in 1886 to run a line from Lake Street to State Street, then to Main Street and north to Ferry Street. It was going to have a branch line to Florence Lake, too. While that didn’t come through, it also wasn’t the last attempt to grow the city more.
For 50 years, the route to Florence from Omaha was in the Florence-to-Council Bluffs Line, a stagecoach that ran twice a day from DeSoto to Omaha with a ferry across the river.
From the first horse-drawn lines in the 1860s, streetcars didn’t just run willy-nilly through Omaha. Instead, every single line was an investment in the civic, residential and economic infrastructure of the neighborhoods where they ran. From its earliest years, one of the places deserving that investment the small city north of Omaha. However, it took more than 50 years for a line to get there. The actual streetcar to Florence was finished in 1903, running directly from North 30th and Fort Street to North 30th and Fillmore Street.
Home to more than three dozen businesses, the Florence Main Street also benefited when the first concrete sidewalks were poured in 1904. It was 1910 before the City of Florence considered paving Main Streets, but the many “inequities” in taxing the residents didn’t make it a home run. Because of all of this and more, for more than a century was commonly held that no building on Main Street was empty for more than two weeks, because businesses knew Florence was a sure shot for success and they were chomping at the bit to get in.
The construction of I-680 directly impacted downtown Florence though. Since the early 1970s, more than 200 big rigs have driven along North 30th. In the meantime, the downtown suffered a loss of identity and storefronts began sitting idle for months in a row, and sometimes even more. As of 2023, there are now light industrial businesses and storage businesses on Main Street too, which bring the appearance of emptiness even though there’s work going on.
The City of Omaha annexed Florence in 1917. Streetcar service operated on North 30th Street until 1941, and buses took their place. Between 2007 and 2016, the City of Omaha invested almost $500,000 in streetscape improvements improvements along the blocks of Florence Main Street, including sidewalks, streetlights and more. In 2017, downtown Florence was included in an “intensive level survey of preservation resources” focused on Omaha’s historic streetcar system.
Businesses, churches and more keep humming along in downtown Florence though. In 2009, a massive neighborhood-wide campaign to save the library branch in Florence and the post office were successful, providing that neighborhood pride stays intact today.
Florence Main Street Historic Places
- Thomas Price & Sons Building, 8607 North 30th Street—Built in 1910, in 2023 it is the Price Apartments and the Florence Mexican Market
- McClure’s Cash Store, 8601 North 30th Street—Built around 1890, in 2023 it is home to Studio 24, a recording facility.
- Florence Mill, 9102 North 30th Street—With timber from an 1846 mill built by Mormon pioneers, this facility was owned by the Weber family and others beforehand. It is the Winter Quarters Mill Museum and ArtLoft Gallery, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
- Florence Depot, 9000 North 30th Street—Built in 1887, it was moved to its current location in 1971 and has been a museum since 1976.
- Zesto’s, 8608 North 30th Street—Opened in 1953 by Herman Cohen, as of 2023, Zesto’s has operated in Florence for 70 years. The original ice cream machine used in the building was called the Zest-O-Mat, and the business was originally a franchise.
- Bank of Florence, 8502 North 30th Street—Built in 1856, this building was designated an official Omaha Landmark in 1980. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and designated an official Omaha Landmark in 1980. It has been a history museum since 1969.
- Florence Masonic Temple, 8223 North 30th Street—Originally built as an Independent Phone Company building, in 1913 the Masons acquired this building and expanded on it in 1921. Dedicated in 1922, the Masons moved out in 2005. As of April 2023, it is an apartment building.
- Florence Building, 8702 North 30th Street—An architect named J.J. Davis designed the Eagles Hall, originally called the Fontenelle Building, on the northwest corner of Main and Clay Streets. A two-story building that opened in 1912 it had club rooms, restrooms, a ticket office, and a kitchen, with a large hall on the second floor. A year after Florence was annexed by Omaha, the City of Omaha bought the building and assured residents it would remain a community center. In 1924, the Hummel Hall was added to the building as a gymnasium. Designed by popular Omaha architect Leo A. Daly, the Florence branch of the Omaha Public Library was here until1976. That year, the library moved to a new building and the community center was eventually sold by the City. As of April 2023, it’s home to a private institution called the Universal College of Healing Arts.
- St. Philip Neri Church, 8200 North 30th Street—Established at N. 31st and Grebe in 1904, the parish opened a school in 1922. The original church was used as classrooms starting in 1953, when a new church was built at North 30th and Grebe Streets. The original church served as classrooms for the school until 1958, when both buildings were demolished and replaced. St. Philip Neri parish and school continue operating today.
- J. S. Paul Building, 8601 North 30th Street—In 1895, a grocer built a new store on the northeast corner of Main and Tucker Streets. For more than 25 years, J.S. Paul ran his store there. In 1905, he “had his curbs set,” and in 1911 he became mayor of Florence.
- Crayon Castle, 8524 North 30th Street—Dr. Levi Harsh opened a pharmacy here in 1856, and between then and 1973 there was a drug store on this corner. Operating in a new building constructed in 1910, for more than two decades the Siert Pharmacy was here. It became the Kuebler Drug Store in 1945, and stayed in business until 1973. Then was the Third Church, Christ Scientist for around a decade, and was also the Florence Flower and Garden Center around that time. It has been a daycare facility called Crayon Castle since the 1990s.
- Florence Drug, 8517 North 30th Street—In 1857 the territorial legislature was illegally convened in a building at this location, and there’s a historic marker there today. Built in 1906, this building is almost 120 years old. A historic two-story storefront and apartment building, this was home to the Florence Drug Store and Wall’s Toggery for dozens of years. Built of brick with windows across the front, there is a mid-century façade on the building now, along with a ramp that’s not historic. However, the rest of the outside and much of the inside maintains its classic appearance. In April 2023, it’s home to Steiner Dental and Florence Dental Associates.
- Florence Park, 8310 North 30th Street—First platted in 1846 as the Mormon Park, this was the town square for Winter Quarters, stayed the town square for the City of Florence, and continues being a park today.
- Harold’s Koffee House, 8327 North Thirtieth Street — Family-owned and operated, Harold’s Koffee House has served breakfasts and lunches at North 30th and State Streets since 1968. Before that, they were at 8505 North 30th Street for several years.
- Florence Standard Oil Station, 8521 North 30th Street—Built in 1914 by the Standard Oil Company, this structure served as a gas station for more than 60 years. Today its historical integrity is intact, if covered up a bit. In April 2023, its home to Prairie Piecegoods and Rock Bottom Books and Antiques.
- J.J. Cole Block, 8501 North 30th Street—Built in 1909 as a two-story building, this was originally called Cole’s Hall. A fire wrecked the top floor in the 1930s, and the building was continuously expanded on over the next 50 years. The south side of the building has its original block wall. Throughout its life, this building was a department store and more. In April 2023, its home to No More Empty Pots Food Hub.
- Piggly Wiggly Store, 8507 North 30th Street—Opened as a grocery store in 1900, this building became the Florence Piggly Wiggly in 1926. This was one of the first self-service grocery stores in Omaha, and was revolutionary in its day. The longtime home of the Florence Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), in April 2023, it has 3,900 square feet and has a historic marker for the 1870 Florence Opera House in front of it.
- Sommerfield Service Station, 8510 North 30th Street—Originally built in 1930, this L-shaped building as a gas station for 40 years. In April 2023, it’s home to the iconic and delicious Ramona’s, a Mexican food restaurant.
- Florence Billiards and Christiansen Bakery, 8512-8514 North 30th Street—Built as one structure with two storefronts, this single-story commercial building was constructed around 1925. Bricks with fancy details cover the front, with the original windows covered over in both stores. The Fairway Barber Shop was located in 8514 N. 30th for several years, but in April 2023, it looks like both buildings are empty.
- Helfrich Grocery Store, 8516 North 30th Street—Built in 1916, this is a one-story commercial building covered in a 1950s-era siding called Perma-stone, and the front windows are covered. Although it was home to the New Frontier Bar, in April 2023, the building sits empty.
- Wall Building, 8509 North 30th Street—A grocery store from the time it was built in 1908, it was home to Larimer’s Cash Store in the 1910s and 1920s. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was home to Florence Appliance for several years. Before the pandemic, it was home to the Get Down Lounge, and in the 1970s and 1980s it was a Peferoni’s Pizza Parlor.
- Bauer Plumbing, 8602 North 30th Street—Built in 1961, this building is just over 60 years old. It has two stories, with the bottom one currently occupied by Helping Hands for Senior Plans, an office-based senior assistance company. The rear end of the building was constructed in 1959 and has several smaller spaces in it.
- Peterson Cafe, 8604 North 30th Street—Opened around 1920, this building was a restaurant for many years. John Peterson and his wife ran a cafe there for 25 years. It was a portrait studio for a while in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the 1960s, it became home to the Florence Gun and Auto Supply Store, and after that it housed an estate sale company, a few antique stores, and more. In April 2023, this storefront is vacant.
Former Buildings on Main Street
Other buildings on the Florence Main Street included the Eagle Hall at North 30th and Clay Street where the present-day Florence Building stands. The Florence Opera House was once located at 8501 North 30th Street, and the Florence Home stood at 7915 North 30th Street for almost 90 years. For the city’s first 50 years, the most popular building in town was the Florence Hotel at 8412 North 30th Street. Opened around 1856, it operated in Florence for more than a century until 1964.
The house at 7710 North 30th Street was built in 1890, and is the oldest along that stretch of North 30th.
In 2013, the House of Hope was demolished. Opened in 1916 as a non-denominational charity retirement home, it offered services for low-income elderly people that no other institution in Omaha did when it opened. As of April 2023, the facility is operated as the Florence Home Healthcare Center, and the House of Hope Assisted Living and Memory Care is located near Fontenelle Park. They are both operated by an Omaha-based nonprofit organization called Midwest Geriatrics.
Built in 1971 by Ted Ganaros (1922-1986) as a motel, the Mormon Trail Apartments at 7419 North 30th Street stand as of April 2023.
While the building still stands, a lot of people still remorse the loss of Kelly’s North Bowl at the far end of North 30th Street.
Florence Historic Preservation
There has been a lot of work done to preserve the Florence Main Street and beyond. Florence pioneer gatherings happened for more than a century, and attempts to capture, record and promote the community’s history have happened for as long. All sorts of organizations have been involved, including the Florence Futures Foundation and the Florence Historical Foundation, as well as the Florence Kiwanis, the Florence Presbyterian Church, and many others.
The first record of a Florence Pioneer Day comes from in 1909, and says the event was held “by the old settlers of Douglas County.” Civil War veterans held a four day encampment in Florence, and there was a large picnic with fried chicken and ice cream.
The first Florence Pioneer Day parade was reportedly held in 1958. Running along North 30th Street from Redick to Bondesson, it has been held almost every year since then. In 1964, the newspaper said of the parade, “It’s to be an all-day affair and, if it measures up to last year’s, as we are confident it will, it should be a dandy.” The governor was the parade leader that year, and it led up to the dedication of “that attractive state historical marker, ‘Mormon Winter Quarters.'” A historical display at the Florence Bank was punctuated by a square dance in the evening, and an antiques auction. The Florence Pioneer Days Association was formally incorporated that year.
In the 1960s, the Douglas County Historical Society and the organizers of Florence Pioneer Days worked to preserve the community. They successfully led campaigns to save the Bank of Florence and the Florence Depot, and tried saving the Florence Water Works superintendent’s mansion.
Originally built in 1887 at 28th and Grebe in downtown Florence, the Florence Depot closed in 1966. It was moved to its present location in 1971, and has been used as a historical railroad museum since 1976. Similarly, the Bank of Florence was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and restored thoroughly since. Since then it has been a museum, too. Both facilities are owned and operated by the Florence Historical Foundation.
In 1973, community organizers put together a plan for the Florence Historical Village. Acting like a park, it was planned to include the waterworks mansion, the Florence Depot, and Mormon Cemetery, the Bank of Florence, and several other locations. One of the organizers planned on appealing to Mormon leaders for funding for the “Disneyland quality” profit-making venture that would feature Winter Quarters. Located next to I-680, organizers thought this effort could be a national attraction. Unfortunately, nothing came of this idea.
In 1979, the North Side Bank secured the rights to open a branch within the Bank of Florence building. Seeking to recreate a historical atmosphere, they planned to put a drive-through in the lot next door. It didn’t happen either.
Nes Latenser of the preeminent Omaha architectural family, proposed creating a new city park around the newly constructed Florence fire station at 9100 North 30th Street in 1986. His informal plan called for the damming of Mill Creek to create a pond as well as the transplanting of large oak trees to the site, along with historical placards telling the story of the area. His plan was shot down by the Omaha City Council for a lack of funding.
The Florence Mill was in rough condition for more than two decades before it was saved in 1998 by “The Mill Lady,” Linda Meigs. While she restored the iconic building at the far north end of the Florence Main Street, she got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, designated a Nebraska State Historic Site and listed by the Save America’s Treasures Project, too. Now operated as the Winter Quarters Mill Museum and ArtLoft Gallery, it is in good condition and hosts a farmer’s market in the summer. It also acts as an informal gateway to historic Florence today.
The Church of Jesus Christ has done a great deal to preserve their history in the Florence community, too. In addition to their fiscal investments in the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery and the Mormon Trail Visitor’s Center, they have built a grand new temple in Florence and led the rediscovery of Cutler’s Park. This was the first village established by Mormon pioneers in 1846, before Winter Quarters was established. It is located west of Florence at the intersection of Young Street and Mormon Bridge Road.
In 2022, the Florence Commercial Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the Florence Futures Foundation says the neighborhood has more historical sites per square mile than any other place in Nebraska. Their work includes the spectacular Historical Florence website, which includes a lot of historical details as well as events in the neighborhood. The Florence Days celebration continues annually, and the museums continue to be available to the community.
The future of the history of Florence Main Street is still being written though. We’ll see where it goes!
Thanks to all the people who contributed to this article’s development, including Ryan Roenfeld, Roger Brandt, Michaela Armetta, Michele Wyman, Jody Lovallo and John Lemen for their contributions to this article. Also, special thanks to the Durham Museum for making so many pics available, and to the Florence Futures Foundation for their fantastic website and work to preserve Florence history!
You Might Like…
MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF FLORENCE
Public Places: Florence Main Street | Florence Ferry | Florence High School | The Mormon Tree | Florence Water Works | Mormon Bridge | Florence Boulevard | River Drive | J.J. Pershing Drive and Monument | Potter’s Field | Florence Community Center
Businesses: Vennelyst Park | Bank of Florence | Florence Mill | Florence Depot
Houses: Parker Mansion | Brandeis Country Home | Lantry-Thompson Mansion | Mitchell House
People: James M. Parker | James Comey Mitchell | Florence Kilborn
Neighborhoods: Winter Quarters | Florence Field | Wyman Heights | High Point
Other: Directory of Florence Historic Places
MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF STREETS IN NORTH OMAHA
STREETS: 16th Street | 24th Street | Cuming Street | Military Avenue | Saddle Creek Road | Florence Main Street
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
- HistoricFlorence.org official website
- “Omaha’s Historic Streetcar System: An intensive level survey of preservation resources” for Nebraska State Historical Society and the City of Omaha by Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture and Restoration Exchange Omaha in 2017.
- The Florence Mill official website
- Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters official website
- Florence Commercial Historic District application for the National Register of Historic Places
Thank you for an excellent historic exploration of Florence! Sorry to admit the florencemill.com site is dysfunctional & unfinished. Information on the Mill can be found at Facebook.com/TheFlorenceMill
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I THINK IT WOULD SERVE. OMAHA AND NORTH OMAHA BETTER TO RUN THE STREET CAR FROM FLORENCE TO AT LEAST CUMMINGS ST.
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Thank you for this interesting history of the area where I lived in the 1950s. Our family was fortunate enough to have rented a home from Cliff and Maude Kierle and had the pleasure of their friendship as well. We lived at 3014 Grebe right behind St. Philip Neri Church, so my brother and I would use the Kierle driveway to get to the park facing their lovely home. I have very fond memories, my first, of all of Florence and all of our lovely neighbors. Zesto was certainly a favorite, even after we moved away. Maude was always a friend into her 90s.
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I was born in the village of Avery Nebraska in a vacant cabin with a mid-wife.
That mid-wife abandoned me at Douglas County Hospital. I grew up in two Orphanages in Omaha but I remember fondly walking through Florence stopping to fish in a local lake. I found thirty years later that my biological Mother whose first name was Florence was born in the City of Florence
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I possess three College degrees from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Lincoln in Education and Administration with a History Major. I appreciate your historical perspective. Thank you
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