For the entire length of the city’s history, there have been efforts to preserve, protect and promote Omaha’s history. Several organizations have been involved in these efforts focused on record keeping, artifacts and physical properties. Out of all of these organizations, one continues today. This is a history of the Douglas County Historical Society.
A History of History in Omaha
The start of the Douglas County Historical Society should be attributed indirectly to Milo Bail (1898-1984), then-chancellor of Omaha University. In 1954, he recruited Dr. Roy M. Robbins (1904-1981) from Indiana to teach at OU. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Dr. Robbins “had belonged to several historical societies in Indiana and was shocked to learn that Omaha had none. It was explained to him that Omaha has no history!”
In 1956, Dr. Robbins brought together 65 people to discuss founding the Greater Omaha Historical Society. The vision worked and the organization was started. Later that year, Dr. John M. Cristlieb (1902-1981) was elected president. Claiming to be “the first historical society ever established here,” it was quickly decided that the society needed a project. Attorney Edgar Zabriskie, Jr. nominated that his family’s fine Bemis Park home be adopted, and while that didn’t happen, the society continued to exist.
However, this wasn’t the first time history preservationists tried organizing in Omaha. There were pioneer Omahans who believed enough in the city they were establishing that they voraciously collected ephemera, including bills of sale, contracts and other legal documents, as well as stories. Byron Reed (1829-1891) was one of those early collectors, as well as “Doc” George Smith (1826-1901). Early organizations preceding the Douglas County Historical Society were the Nebraska State Historical Society, founded in 1878, and the Douglas County Association of Nebraska Pioneers, organized in 1906. The latter organization had 1,600 members in 1918 and lasted until about 1950; the former continues today as an official state entity called History Nebraska. There were occasional “old settlers” gatherings, picnics and special events, but no real attempts to formally organize for the city’s history.
The towns around Omaha City seemed to be far more interested in preserving their histories than Omaha. The South Omaha Historical Society was first organized in 1908. Meeting regularly at the South Omaha Library, the society held regular talks, social events and educational activities for the community. The towns of Valley, Elkhorn and Bennington all had their own historical preservation efforts, too. Surrounding counties had early efforts, including Pottawattamie County Historical Society, which was founded in 1907 “with big and enthusiastic membership” and re-established in 1935; the Washington County Historical Society, pleading for money to save Fort Atkinson as early as 1926; and the Sarpy County Historical Society, organized in 1936. From 1971 through the early 2000s, there was a group in Omaha called the Byron Reed Historical Society in honor of the city’s original historian. Interest in the history of Florence gained momentum in the 1920s, and led to the formation of the Florence Historical Society in the early 1960s.
In the late 1890s, a group called the Omaha Historical Society was intrigued by the proposition of building a history museum in the city. The idea, led by General Charles F. Manderson (1837-1911), and supported efforts to build it. In October 1898, they “decided to go to work at once in collecting, asking donations and in any way possible further the project.” However, there were no further reports about it after that year.
After the Greater Omaha Historical Society started, almost immediately they began holding educational talks, and in late 1956, the society started collecting historical artifacts and ephemera. Meeting at the Joslyn Art Museum, they developed a membership and leadership that became visible in the media, including the newspaper and television. Articles of Incorporation were filed with the Nebraska Secretary of State in September 1957, with the organization’s mission stated as, “…to encourage research and inquiry into history, and establish libraries, museums and permanent records.” In addition to local people involved in the organization, there were officials with the Nebraska State Historical Society and the United States National Park Service active, too. Notable Omaha architect Frank Latenser (1890-1973) and his wife were early supporters.
The society did many notable things through the years. The year after they started, the organization named the “11 Builders of Omaha,” identified through a citywide selection process. Field trips, essay contests, and other activities were soon in the regular rotation of activities, along with the lectures, educational activities and collections they were starting to accumulate. The Oregon Trail, Fort Atkinson, Native Americans and the founding of Omaha seemed to be regular focuses for the group.
Dr. Lynn B. MacQuiddy, Sr. (1889-1963) took over as president in 1961. During this era, Nebraska novelist Mari Sandoz (1896-1966) consulted the organization. Bruce Thomas was president in 1964. The next year, Charles W. Martin (1909-2000) took the role. Martin was a nationally recognized expert on the Oregon Trail, and a descendent of an Omaha pioneer.
In 1965, the society was involved in placing the first permanent aluminum historical plaque in Nebraska. Located at Central High, it still stands today. There are several others in Omaha and statewide now. More historical preservation and advocacy efforts emerged around this year. The demolition of the U.S. Post Office downtown, the potential closure of Central High, and the ongoing removal of many historical homes throughout Omaha led to the development of Omaha Landmarks, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on historical preservation which became Restoration Exchange Omaha.
J.M. Hart, Jr. took the president position in 1966. In 1967, the offices for the organization moved from their first location at 2027 Dodge Street. When Ruth Vogel became president in 1967, they moved into 1319 Farnam Street. The next year, the organization became involved in a multi-institution effort to preserve historic architecture. Joining together with historians from universities in Omaha and the National Park Service regional office, the collective volunteered to “be contacted for help in determining what historical buildings and sites should be preserved. By then the society was publishing a regular newsletter called The Historical Pot-Shot.
Starting in the late 1960s, the society started collecting parts of old houses and proposing other property-related efforts to save Omaha history. They had part of the Byron Reed House and the Count Creighton House in storage at the Joslyn Art Museum. In 1971, they took possession of three acres of land around the newly-moved Florence Depot. The effort, led by architect Nes Latenser (1925-2006), was supposed to lead to the development of a Florence History Park that never came to fruition.
Changes in History
The society was led by Dr. Harl Dalstrom (b1936) in 1970. That year, a number of changes began affecting the organization. Perhaps the largest was a name change to become more inclusive of the area around Omaha. In 1970, the Greater Omaha Historical Society voted to change its name to the Douglas County Historical Society. That change became official when organizational bylaws were changed in 1972.
Also in 1971, after the blatant decimation of historical properties in 1960s Omaha, the society began advocating repurposing the original Omaha Public Library at 1823 Harney Street. Built in 1891, it was being threatened with demolition when history advocates got involved in saving the building. Even though it was turned over to private hands and not kept public, the structure was saved and the campaign to save it was successful.
The Western Heritage Society was established in 1973. Formed to convert the Union Station into a history museum, the nonprofit was incorporated immediately and began raising funds. The Douglas County Historical Society was among several civic and private groups that declared support for the project.
In 1974, Dr. Roy M. Robbins was credited as the founder of the Greater Omaha Historical Society. That year, when Dr. Orville H. Zabel (1919-1985) was president, the society brought a submarine called the USS Marlin to Omaha, working with the US Navy who barged it from Lake Charles up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to Omaha. It was installed permanently in a riverside park. In 2023 the submarine went back on display in Freedom Park.
The society was a partner in a conference in downtown Omaha on November 22-23, 1974 called “Progress in Preservation.” Joining in with the University of Nebraska College of Continuing Studies, National Park Service, the City of Omaha, the Nebraska State Historical Society and Omaha Landmarks, Inc. Funded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the conference included topics like “Town Revitalization,” “Adaptive Use of Older Buildings,” “Financing Preservation,” and “Preserving Historic Districts.” Historical preservationists, architects, designers, decorators, government officials and members of service groups. Speakers included representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the “keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.”
The organization had another success in 1975 with the declared saving of the Old Omaha Library. An investor’s proposal to turn it into an office building won out over all others.
Claiming the General Crook House
The biggest win by the Douglas County History Society to that point came in 1974 with the beginning of its efforts to save Fort Omaha and the General Crook House. Dr. Zabel led the efforts by the society to acquire the Crook House and restore it as a bicentennial project under the premise that “there is a ‘strong possibility’ the house [would] be given to the society.” The Metropolitan Technical Community College bought the fort from the federal government, and the society leased the Crook House from the college. The restoration of the house was approved subsequently, and fundraising began immediately.
Margie March was the first restoration chairman for the house. It was the residence of the commanding general for the Department of the Platte at the Omaha Barracks, later called Fort Omaha. Almost a century later, the society began restoring the building. Bruce Lauritzen, president of the organization in 1976 when Mrs. March was appointed, suggested she spent thousands of hours coordinating the efforts. Working without historical documentation of the additions, decorations, designs and updates to the house over the years, Mrs. March identified original staircases, original paint colors, details smothered by paint and wallpaper, and much more. Focused on authentically restoring the house to 1879, details including a period rosewood Steinway piano were added.
In 1978, William Beans became president of the society, and Pamela A. Fuchs took the role in 1980. The Nebraska Arts Council, the Metropolitan Arts Council, Opera/Omaha, Landmarks, Inc. and other organizations were constant partners at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. A 1979 historical preservation program led by the college relied on the Douglas County Historical Society as a partner. This included efforts to restore the Guardhouse and other buildings.
Throughout the years, the society has had several opportunities to own historical buildings around Omaha. Mansions, downtown buildings, and in 1981 the Packers National Bank in South Omaha was a candidate. Few of them panned out though. That year, the society held a Victorian Festival at the Fort to celebrate the completion of some of the General Crook House restoration. In a first of its kind, 1200 visitors attended during the week of the festival.
In 1980, Dr. John M. Cristlieb was referred to as the president of the Greater Omaha Historical Society. The General Crook House began operating as a museum when its restoration was complete.
By 1982, the Crook House had 30 board members and 280 guild members. That year, the society directed an archeological dig of an 1875-1892 trash dump for the fort. Artifacts recovered included dishes, bottles, horseshoes and more. Five categories of objects were identified, including pottery, metal, bones, glass and miscellaneous items. They were all cleaned, labeled and pieced together.
Hosting the Dr. C.C. Criss and Mabel Criss Memorial Foundation Lecture Series starting in 1983, the society’s library became a busy place for several years afterwards. Also around this year, the organization started celebrating the birthday of Mary Crook (May 7, 1842), General Crook’s wife. That year the organization received a commendation from the American Association of Local and State History for its usage of Quarters Two at Fort Omaha as the Douglas County Historical Society Library and Education Center. Housing the society’s photos, archives and curatorial collection, it featured a reference system based on the Dewey decimal system.
Garneth Peterson was a city planner who served as president of the society in 1988. That year, the organization considered relocating its headquarters in to the new Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center. Today, the center houses “state-of-the-art technical laboratories for the examination, evaluation, and specialized conservation treatment of ceramics, glass, metals, ethnographic materials, archeological materials, wooden artifacts, works of art on paper, photographs, documents, archival materials, books, and paintings.” It’s operated by the Nebraska State Historical Society. The Douglas County Historical Society never moved in.
In 1989, Charles Peters became president. That year, the executive director, Patricia Pixley, reported to the newspaper that “the society presents events and tours of Crook House, onetime residence of famed Gen. George Crook and his wife, Mary. Events range from a garden walk to Christmas holiday events. In addition, the society has a library and archives. It includes 4.9 million clippings from the World-Herald library, bound volumes of the defunct Sun Newspapers of Omaha, and letters and diaries not found in other libraries.”
That was also the first year that the society awarded the Mary Dailey Crook Medallion, intended to be an annual award “to a person who has done outstanding community service.” It was only given out until 1993. The society also worked with retired landscape architect Ken Krabbenhoft to design a Victorian garden at the General Crook House. Almost two dozen flower beds on the south lawn and around the house were designed with more than 50 varieties of flowers and plants appropriate to the 1880s with brick and concrete paths. The more popular flowers included petunias, begonias, clematis, columbine, hostas, coleus, ferns, hollyhocks, daisies, day lilies, geraniums, chrysanthemums and snapdragons.
In 1991, Creighton University history professor Dennis Mihelich became the new president of the society.
By the mid-1990s, the society was in rough shape fiscally. Vard Johnson was the president of the society, and with support from a variety of sources the society kept operating. It was 1994 when the society first brought Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens, to the General Crook House for a Christmas celebration.
History in the Present
Betty Davis (1934-2018) became the executive director in the late 1990s. In 2000, “Omaha lawyer and historian Ronald W. Hunter made a presentation Sunday to members of the society about his idea to create a National Indian Wars Library and Archives at Fort Omaha.” In its role as the U.S. Army command post during late 1800s conflicts with Plains Indians, Hunter thought the society would be the ideal home for his work and others, too. The founding president of the Durham Museum, he donated 35,000 pages of research and writing to the society. The branding happened that year, and the next year the library was added to the society’s programming. It was used through 2010.
That year, the organization was again in dire straits fiscally.
A new executive director, Kathy Aultz, was hired. Working in nonprofit management throughout Omaha, Aultz had worked previously with the Joslyn Art Museum and the Omaha Children’s Museum. According to the World-Herald, over the next twelve years she led the organization toward a “vast variety of programming, exhibitions spotlighting community history, popular fundraisers, resources for organizations and community members researching the past, a renovated museum, library and gardens and of course, new computers, and updated website and upgraded technology.” An event planner by trade, Aultz developed a series of events to raise money including Second Sunday Talks, Women Defining History Fashion Show and Luncheon, an annual garage sale, Dickens at Christmas, and the GEM donor program. Throughout the COVID pandemic, the DCHS stayed relevant with a variety of innovations. In 2023, Aultz retired from the organization. According to one board member, “her fundraising added much to the financial stability of the organization.”
Today, the General Crook House Museum is promoted as a local tourist site, saying
“Award-winning, authentically restored home of General George Crook at Fort Omaha. The Italianate house built in 1879 and on National Register of Historic Places, shows how a Commanding Officer lived on the Frontier in the 1880s. The heirloom garden has more than 110 varieties of flowers and plants.”—VisitOmaha.com
In the decades since the Douglas County Historical Society was established, a flood of history-oriented organizations have sprung up in Omaha. Along with groups already included in this article, formal entities including Great Plains Black History Museum, City of Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission, Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, and several informal groups like the Omaha History Club have emerged as particularly influential forces throughout the community.
In 2019, I was invited to give a talk for the Society as the opening for a new display on the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, and in 2020 I shared a “Front Porch Talk” interview.
I am curious about the future of the Douglas County Historical Society. Since I started writing Wikipedia articles in 2007 and NorthOmahaHistory.com in earnest a decade ago, I have seen a massive surge in interest in Omaha’s history. A new generation of history fans could become history advocates and preservationists, and DCHS could be the impetus for catalyzing them. It is essentially an avatar for the city’s history, and if properly helmed, can maintain and expand on that role for the century to come.
We’ll see what the future brings for DCHS!
You Might Like…
- Douglas County Historical Society official website
- Douglas County Historical Society Online Collections Database