A doctor, politician and noted international medical missionary, Dr. Aaron M. McMillan (1895-1980) was a pivotal force in North Omaha. After serving in the Nebraska Legislature from 1928 to 1929, he served as a hospital-founder and physician in Angola for 17 years. Then he came back to North Omaha, where he provided free healthcare for five years before going back into private practice.
Dr. McMillan became a wildly popular figure throughout his life in the community. He moved to the city in 1922 when he was 27-years-old. By then, McMillan graduated from the Cotton Plant Academy in Arkansas in 1915, earned his bachelor’s degree at Bishop College in Dallas in 1919, and completed his medical studies at Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1923.
When he was at Bishop College, McMillan met his wife Willena. She also graduated from Bishop College, teaching at Houston College and Texas A&M College in Fort Worth. McMillan decided to move to Omaha after visiting his father, who was the minister at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.
Just a year after arriving, McMillan was added to the ballot as a last minute candidate to challenge Dr. John A. Singleton, DDS for a seat in the Nebraska Legislature. The effort worked and he was elected to represent North Omaha’s Ninth District. McMillan immediately became a member of the Douglas County Republican Committee and delegate to state Republican convention.
In his 1980 obituary, it was noted that during his early years in Omaha, he provided the first professional office space for Omaha’s NAACPand was the first Omahan to buy a lifetime membership to the organization.
The Missionary Doctor
However, that same year he was elected, he was invited by the Black Congregational Church and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to serve as a medical missionary. Leaving his term early, in 1929 McMillan and his wife left for the School of Tropical Medicine in Lisbon, Portugal, for an 18-month program of post-graduate studies. In 1931, they became the first American medical missionaries in Portuguese West Africa, later called Angola. The facility they served at was called the the Galangue Mission. Founded in 1923, Galangue was the first mission founded and staffed by African Americans in Angola.
During their 17 years there, the McMillan’s secured donations from the United States to build a modern medical complex at the Galangue Mission called the Willis F. Pierce Memorial Hospital. When they left, the facility had 4-acres with 45 buildings, including a 2-story building, 130 beds, modern equipment, a chapel, and training facilities for staff.
Returning to Omaha
Aaron and Willena moved back to Omaha 1948.
When he returned to North Omaha, he opened the People’s Hospital at North 20th and Grace Streets. He also volunteered with the NAACP, the Omaha Housing Authority Board, and other organizations. Dr. McMillan spoke nationally about his experience, too, and was regarded highly around the country. Later he served on the staff at Children’s Hospital and Methodist Hospital, both in Omaha.
Dr. Aaron Manasses McMillan died on June 1, 1980 in Inglewood, California. His wife Willena died in 1970.
Today, there are no monuments or historical markers in Omaha to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. McMillan.
Once named the “Negro mayor of Omaha,” Johnny Owen was a phenomonal athlete who became a designated leader in Omaha’s African American community from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Mr. Owen was a Democrat who served the Ninth District. He worked as a delivery driver when he was elected; later he worked in the Douglas County Assessor’s Office. Owen served in the Legislature from 1932 to 1935. An activist for civil rights, he occasionally found himself at odds with the Urban League and the NAACP.
He was born on February 11, 1907 in Newport, Arkansas, and died in Inglewood, California, on March 2, 1978.
John Adams, Jr. was a lawyer who became a legislator in the last session of the Nebraska House of Representatives, and the only and African American member of the first session, and the first African American member of the Nebraska unicameral.
He was a Republican who served the Ninth District. Adams was the first second-generation Black lawyer in Nebraska, and later served as an honorary sergeant at arms in the 1936 Republican National Convention. In addition to several terms in the Legislature, he served as a Judge Advocate at a military camp during WWII. After he left his seat early to join the war effort, his father, Rev. John Adams, Sr. was inspired to run for the Nebraska Legislature.
He was born in Columbia, South Carolina on August 14, 1906, and died on April 19, 1999 in Oakland, California.
A lawyer and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, John Adams, Sr. only ran for the Nebraska Legislature after his son John Adams, Jr. left to serve in WWII.
He was a Republican who served the Fifth District. Rev. Adams lost twice before winning, then served in the Legislature for 13 years.
According to the Nebraska State Bar Journal, after marrying Hattie E. Bowman in 1904, Adams earned a bachelor’s degree at Lincoln University, his masters degree at Yale University, and his Doctorate of Divinity at Gammon Theological Seminary. He moved his family to Omaha in 1913.
After first practicing law in South Carolina, Washington state, and Colorado, he settled in Omaha in the early 1920s.
With three sons eventually joining his law firm, Adams is still regarded as a highly influential and groundbreaking African American lawyer. Rev. Adams was the presiding elder of the Omaha District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and later became went on to serve as the presiding elder for the international African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Rev. Adams was born in Atlanta on February 2, 1876, and died in Omaha on April 22, 1962.
Edward Danner was a butcher and a union leader in the South Omaha meat packing industry before he became a state senator in the Nebraska Legislature.
He was a Democrat who represented the Eleventh District. He served from 1963 to 1970, and while serving, he addressed issues of interracial marriage, fair housing and more. He spoke at Nebraska first civil rights march in Lincoln in 1963. Danner was born on February 14, 1900 in Guthrie, Oklahoma and died on Janurary 1, 1970 in Lincoln.
The Kountze Place neighborhood was renamed in his honor in the 1970s, and the area’s advocacy group is called the E. R. Danner Neighborhood Association today.
George W. Alhouse was born in Moberly, Missouri in 1896, and died in Grand Island on November 21, 1981.
The founder and owner of the Althouse Beauty School, Mr. Althouse was appointed as a Nebraska Legislator after the sudden death of Edward Danner. He was a Republican who served in 1970.
Mr. Althouse was a Republican who served the Eleventh District. A longtime activist in his party, Althouse served in presidential election campaigns, on the Omaha Human Rights Board, and attended the first White House Conference on Aging.
The longest serving state senator in Nebraska history, Ernie Chambers is a national icon. He is an Independent who represents the Eleventh District in the Nebraska Legislature.
The only African American in the history of Nebraska to run for governor and the US Senate, Mr. Chambers has served in the Legislature from 1971 to 2009, and again from 2013 to present. He has passed countless bills, and experiences regular muckraking by his opponents and colleagues. One of the most outspoken leaders in Nebraska, he is credited with helping end the 1966 North Omaha riots, challenge segregation in Omaha Public Schools, and many other issues. He is the longest serving state senator in Nebraska history.
A long-time labor lawyer, Brenda Council served on the Omaha School Board and the Omaha City Council, and ran for Mayor of Omaha twice before running for Nebraska Legislature. She was the first-ever four-time president of the school board, and the first Black woman to sit on the city council.
She is a Democrat, and as a legislator she represented the Eleventh District. She won and served from 2009 to 2013. Ms. Council and Tanya Cook were the first African American women to serve in the Legislature. She was born on October 3, 1955 in Omaha.
Tanya Cook is a public relations professional who runs her own business. She is a Democrat who represented the Thirteenth District. First elected to the Legislature in 2009, she won several terms and served until 2017. She and Brenda Council were the first African American women elected to the Legislature. She was also the first African-American senator to serve on the Nebraska Legislature Appropriations Committee. Ms. Cook was born in Agana, Guam on November 9, 1964.
Once a labor lawyer for the Union Pacific, Justin Wayne owns his own law practice now. He is a Democratic who represents the Thirteenth District in North Omaha. Formerly serving on the Omaha School Board, he is currently a volunteer on the Goodwill industries board. Mr. Wayne was born on August 27, 1979 in Omaha.
Did you know there have been at least 11 members of the Nebraska Legislature representing North Omaha who were and/or are African American?
Ernie Chambers is frequently misattributed as the first African American legislator in Nebraska. While Chambers was first elected in 1971, my research shows there have been African Americans in Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature for dozens of terms since 1892.
The first Black to run for the Nebraska Legislature was Edwin R. Overall, a city worker and abolitionist who lost in 1890. However, his friend Dr. Matthew Ricketts won just two years later.
Following are North Omaha’s Black Legislators, serving the community’s political interests without prejudice and accomplishing what many other state senators have never tried and wouldn’t have been able to do.
Dr. Matthew Ricketts, 1893-1897
Born to enslaved parents in Kentucky, Dr. Matthew Ricketts (1858-1917) was the first African American member of the Nebraska Legislature. He was a Republican who represented North Omaha. Dr. Ricketts’ general practice office was on North 24th Street, until 1903 when he moved to St. Joseph, Missouri. Learn more about him »
Dr. John A. Singleton, 1926–1928
Dr. John Singleton was a dentist on North 24th Street and the son of a political activist in Omaha. He was a Republican who became a Democrat, and represented the Ninth District. Learn more about him »
Ferdinand L. Barnett, 1927-1928
Elected in 1926, Barnett was a civil rights activist who founded a Black newspaper in North Omaha. He was a Republican representing the Tenth District. Learn more about him »
Dr. Aaron M. McMillan, 1929–1930
Dr. Aaron M. McMillan served in the Nebraska Legislature from 1928 to 1930. He was a Republican who represented the Ninth District. Learn more about him »
Johnny Owen, 1932–1935
Johnny Owen was a phenomonal athlete who became a designated leader in Omaha’s African American community, and was a Democrat who served the Ninth District. Learn more about him »
John Adams, Jr., 1935–1941
John Adams, Jr. was a lawyer who became a legislator in the last session of the Nebraska House of Representatives, and the only and African American member of the first session, and the first African American member of the Nebraska unicameral. Learn more about him »
John Adams, Sr., 1949–1962
A lawyer and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, John Adams, Sr. was a Republican who served the Fifth District. Learn more about him »
Edward Danner, 1963–1970
Edward Danner was a Democrat who represented the Eleventh District, and served from 1963 to 1970. Learn more about him »
George W. Althouse, 1970
Mr. Althouse was appointed as a Nebraska Legislator after the sudden death of Edward Danner. He was a Republican who served the Eleventh District. Learn more about him »
Ernie Chambers, 1971–2009, 2013–present
The longest serving state senator in Nebraska history, Ernie Chambers is considered an icon. He is an Independent who represents the Eleventh District in North Omaha. Learn more about him »
Brenda J. Council, 2009–2013
A long-time labor lawyer, Brenda Council served on the Omaha School Board and the Omaha City Council, and ran for Mayor of Omaha twice before running for Nebraska Legislature. She is a Democrat who represented the Eleventh District. Learn more about her »
Tanya Cook, 2009–2016
Tanya Cook is a public relations professional who runs her own business. She is a Democrat who represented the Thirteenth District. Learn more about her »
Justin Wayne, 2017-Present
Once a labor lawyer for the Union Pacific, Justin Wayne owns his own practice. He is a Democratic who represents the Thirteenth District. Learn more about him »
Omaha’s most famous native son is El Hajj Malik el Shabazz. He was born in 1925 as Malcolm Little to Earl and Louise Little, and lived in Omaha less than a year of his life. His story is the city is longer though, where leaders have never managed to memorialize him with a building, street, park, library or museum.
The First Year
According to the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm’s parents Earl and Louise moved to Omaha in 1921 with their son Wilfred (1920–1998). Their children Hilda (1921–2015), Philbert (1923–1993), and Malcolm (1925–1965) were born in Omaha.
Earl Little was a Baptist preacher, and a community organizer for Marcus Garvey’s organization called the United Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA. Preaching on the street corners of North 24th Street, Earl Little spread the UNIA’s back-to-Africa gospel. According to Malcolm X’s biography, as “Garveyites,” Earl led the Omaha chapter of the UNIA and Louise wrote articles for the organization’s newspaper, “Negro World.” Louise might have also served as a secretary to other chapters in the Midwest.
Research by the original North Omaha historian, Bertha Calloway, Malcolm was actually born at home, which was at 3448 Pinkney Street, with his mother attended by Dr. W. D. Lear assisted by Dr. A. S. Pinto. His official Douglas County birth certificate listed the place of birth as the University Hospital; this was common practice in Omaha’s segregated healthcare facilities of the time.
In the month after Malcolm was born, Omaha’s Ku Klux Klan rode up to the Little House and started smashing windows with the butts of their guns. Shouting that the family should leave Omaha because “the good Christian white people” didn’t want Earl Little to “spread trouble,” Louise was there alone with her four young children, including baby Malcolm. The Little’s were terrorized in Omaha by a statewide KKK chapter with 45,000 members, with a women’s branch, a kids club, and an annual state convention in the state capitol.
In 1926, the family moved from Omaha to Milwaukee.
Life After Leaving Omaha
Soon after they moved, Earl Little was murdered in Milwaukee, and later Louise Little was committed to an insane asylum.
Malcolm was involved in crime and sentenced to prison. When he was released in 1952, he changed his name to Malcolm X. After separating from the Nation of Islam, in 1964 he took the name El Hajj Malik el Shabazz after converting to Islam and taking a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The only documented visit to speak in Omaha el Shabazz took happened that year as well. On June 30, 1964, he spoke at the Elks Club on Lake Street, as well as in the lecture hall at the now-demolished Civic Auditorium. during which he said “In Omaha as in other places the Ku Klux Klan has just changed its bed sheets for policeman’s uniforms.” The Omaha World-Herald also hyped up him saying, “Anything whites can do, blacks can do better.” There is a remarkable photo from this visit showing him standing with Rev. Rudolph McNair, the leader of the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights, which hosted his visit.
During his speech in Omaha, according to the Omaha World-Herald he said the following:
“In Omaha as in other places the Ku Klux Klan has just changed its bed sheets for policeman’s uniforms.”
“I go for revolutionaries more than I go for anybody else. I’ve never known anybody who ever got anything by singing, ‘We Shall Overcome.'”
“We have a racist government in Wahsington that has the audacity to tell us that the South lost the Civil War.”
“The sins of the father are about to be visited upon the heads of their children of this generation.”
“We 22 million Afro-Americans must form a united front. There’s no need for us to be divided. We do not want integration–we want complete recognition and respect as human beings.”
“The United States Government has failed to give us our freedom and our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. But we will not be denied much longer.”
In the following month, several editions of the newspaper carried negative comments from detractors who dismissed el Shabazz’s “communism,” “conceit” and anarchism.
el Shabazz was assassinated in New York City on February 21, 1965.
Omaha’s Memorials to Malcolm X
In 1965, the Little house was owned by the Moore family. Without knowing its history, they demolished the house late that year. Fighting vigorously and building a movement to honor the slain leader, Mrs. Rowena Moore started the Malcolm X Memorial Shrine in 1971, then won the site’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Starting in 1968, there was an annual Malcolm X Day celebration in Omaha for more than 15 years. Hundreds of students didn’t go to school that day, and the Black Panthers collected money from North Omaha businesses to host a “People’s Picnic” at the renamed Malcolm X Park.
There is an active movement to honor Malcolm X in his birth city today. Mrs. Moore founded the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, and in the past 25 years it has acquired 15 acres surrounding the birth site, created a plaza, built an interpretive center and educational memorial, and started a community garden. The State of Nebraska erected an official marker there in 1987.
There have been other activities, too, including attempts to formally rename North Omaha’s Kountze Park in his honor, as well as the celebration of Malcolm X Day for several years. The annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha was established in 2002 by Dr. Robert Chrisman, chair of the Black Studies Department at the time. Leading Black intellectuals have spoke at the event on the significance of Malcolm X to a range of issues including Black Nationalism, civil rights, issues of Black masculinity and leadership, Pan-Africanism, and internationalism. It continues today.
There are no schools, parks, streets, hospitals, museums, or higher education facilities named in honor of El Hajj Malik el Shabazz, aka Malcolm X, in Omaha today.
Omaha’s Malcolm X Timeline
1925—Malcolm Little was born at the University of Omaha Hospital on May 19th. His family lived at 3448 Pinkney Street
1926—The Little family moved from Omaha to Milwaukee
1952—Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X
1964—He took the name El Hajj Malik el Shabazz after a pilgrimage to Mecca
1964—el Shabazz spoke at the Elks Club on Lake Street
1965—El Hajj Malik el Shabazz was assassinated on February 21 in New York City
1965—The Little house at 3448 Pinkney Street, aka the Malcolm X Birthsite, was demolished
1968—Omaha’s Black Panthers collected money from North Omaha businesses to host a “People’s Picnic” at the informally renamed Malcolm X Park
1969—The Omaha Black Panthers and BANTU host the first Malcolm X Day events in Omaha, including a school walkout and more
1970—The Wesley House starts hosting the Malcolm X Day events, including parades, park festivals, and dinners
1971—The Malcolm X Day Festival was hosted by the Wesley Center at Malcolm X Park. There was also a well-attended Malcolm X Day Parade leading to the festival
1971—Malcolm X Memorial Shrine established by Rowena Moore at 3448 Pinkney Street, the site of Malcolm X’s home when he was born
1972—Malcolm X Day parade and festival at Malcolm X Park
1973—Malcolm X Day parade and festival at Malcolm X Park
1974—Malcolm X Day parade and festival at Malcolm X Park with 10,000 spectators
1979—The first annual Pan-African Festival sponsored by the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation was held at Malcolm X Park in conjunction with Malcolm X Week
1980—The second annual Pan-African Festival sponsored by the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation was held at Malcolm X Park in conjunction with Malcolm X Week
1981—The third annual Pan-African Festival sponsored by the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation was held at Malcolm X Park in conjunction with Malcolm X Week
1982—The City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission named the Malcolm X Birthsite an official Omaha Landmark
1982—The forth annual Pan-African Festival sponsored by the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation was held at Malcolm X Park in conjunction with Malcolm X Week. It featured Dr. Albert G. Rose of Compton, California, who advocated for a building to celebrate the life of Malcolm X
1982—The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation hosted a cleanup of the birthsite
1984—Malcolm X Day formal dinner hosted by Wesley House
1984—There was a Malcolm X Day parade and the Great Plains Black History Museum held an open house in honor of Malcolm X Day
1985—Wilfred Little, Malcolm’s older brother, visited Omaha for the annual celebration held by the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation at Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church.
1985—Malcolm X Day health run hosted by the Charles Drew Health Center
1985—The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation partners with a Black-owned production company called Midwest Video to provide a satellite broadcast about the life of Malcolm X
1986—Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers nominated Malcolm X for the Nebraska Hall of Fame for the first time. He was not inducted
1986—The City of Omaha Mayor’s Black Excellence Award was given to the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation
1986—Malcolm X Day health run hosted by the Charles Drew Health Center
1987—Official State of Nebraska historical marker placed at Malcolm X Birthsite
1990—Malcolm X Day events held throughout North Omaha, including a parade, talks, theater and more
1992—Malcolm X Day activities
1994—Malcolm X Day activities
1996—The last media reference to “Malcolm X Park” happens
1997—Malcolm X Day activities, including educational activities at Oran’s Black Americana Historical Museum
2001—The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation organized a birthday celebration, including service activities and speakers
2002—The Muntu Dance Theater performed for the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation in celebration of Malcolm’s life
2002—The inaugural annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured Joseph White, professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at the University of California in Irvine
2003—The 2nd annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured Robert L. Allen, a visiting professor at the University of California – Berkeley
2004—The Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission considered naming Malcolm X to the hall of fame, but he was not inducted
2004—The 3rd annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured Pearl Bowser, a scholar focused on African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux
2005—The 4th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University professor
2006—The 5th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured Charles Everett Pace, a historian and scholar who impersonates Malcolm X, and 11-year-old Council Bluffs poet D.J. Phillips
2007—The 6th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured M1 of dead prez
2008—The 7th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured senior political advisor and Georgetown University professor Donna Brazile
2009—The 8th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson
2010—The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation opened a center at North 34th and Evans Streets, which sits near the Malcolm X Birthsite
2010—The 9th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured Dr. Robert Chrisman, former UNO black studies chairman and festival creator
2011—Omaha’s Sherwood Foundation made a $75,000 challenge grant to the Malcolm X Foundation
2011—The 10th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured activist and presenter Ameena Nuur Fort-Matthews
2012—The 11th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured a Hollywood tv show director
2013—The 12th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured author, motivational speaker and UNO graduate Tunette Powell
2014—The 13th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened
2015—The 14th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened
2016—The 15th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened
2017—The 17th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured Jane Gordon of the University of Connecticut
2018—The 18th annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha happened, and featured a Hollywood tv show director
2019—The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation is hosting a weeklong celebration on May 19th to honor the life and legacy of Malcolm X, including forums, art competitions and performances.
Adam’s Note: This is a special contribution by guest author Ryan Roenfeld. This history shares many important lessons about Omaha’s diverse past, racist attitudes, and the dreams of a better life brought to America by immigrants. Share this with your friends, and let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
It was all gone by May 1982 when the World-Herald wrote 66 year old Carl Chin “was young when Chinatown disappeared.” Carl’s father was Chin Ah Gin who founded the Mandarin Cafe and then established the famed King Fong’s. If Chin Ah Gin ever bothered, he would have found his name spelled several ways during his many years in Omaha. The 1982 newspaper files and Carl Chin both agreed the “tong house” at 111 North 12th Street was the center of Omaha’s Chinatown that consisted of “four square blocks around”. The newspaper claimed “several hundred people of Chinese descent lived there” with “Chinese symbols everywhere”. Today, there is no evidence it ever existed.
Chin also told the newspaper of the “peaceful” situation of the Omaha tong, a memory not shared with historical accounts, along with the requisite reminisces of “street dances” during the “Chinese New Year”. When the “good-luck hon character” danced in front of a certain store “the owner would hand over money wrapped in lettuce leaves” as some traditional sort of thanks. There was also “secret gambling” going on with “mah-jong games in the back of some of the stores”.
There had been plenty of not so secretive gambling around that neighborhood once dubbed “Hell’s Half-acre” by the Daily Bee. One neighborhood landmark was the sinful St. Elmo, a donnybrook combination of dance hall, variety show, saloon, brothel, and gambling den Jack Nugent opened in 1880 on 12th Street between Douglas and Dodge. The old St. Elmo changed its name to the Theatre Comique and then to the Buckingham but maintained the same infamous reputation for debauchery, robbery, and sometimes murder. Then, in June 1885, the Women’s Temperance Union got a hold of the building as the former “Variety Dive” became an important landmark for Omaha’s Chinese community as the place where many of them first learned to speak English.
The book E Pluribus Omaha by Harry Otis and Donald Erickson places up to 300 Chinese immigrants in early Omaha. As common throughout the West, the majority of Omaha’s pioneer Chinese came from Guangdong and Cantonese language, customs, and cuisine long dominated the local community. The Albert Law closed the wide-open bordellos in the early 20th century while the neighborhood around Omaha’s Chinatown became the “main line” dominated by flophouses and pawn shops where thousands of homeless transients passed through on the bum across the country or just to get a bowl of beans on their way to Jefferson Park.
The exotic presence of the Chinese in Nebraska’s metropolis seemed to both attract and horrify the city’s newspapers all at the same time. After all, the Bee was more accustomed to instigating racial tension to sell newspapers than anything. The World-Herald likewise remained filled with comments concerning “celestials” and “washee houses” well into the 20th century. All of the names here are just phonetic conjecture as well as the plain descriptive “Chinaman”.
The story Wan Lee, the Pagan by Bret Harte was serialized in the Bee newspaper over the summer of 1874 and that October the newspaper questioned “Can’t the Chinese be trained to eat the grasshoppers?” That dilemma “agonizes the heart of one section of the great west” while another was “Can’t they train the grasshoppers to eat the Chinese?” Such sentiments over Chinese immigration to America fueled passage of the 1875 Page Act that ended Chinese contract labor in America and also stifled immigration of most Chinese women. This was followed by the even more restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as America’s first immigration policies were specifically designed to keep out a certain sort of immigrant.
The Washee Shops and Opium
By and large, it seems Omaha’s Chinese were usually ignored except for New Year celebrations or when crime was involved. This was especially true when it came to opium. On April 30, 1885 the Bee called on Omaha to “Throw out the Opium” with Mayor Boyd determined to enforce “Some of the Violated Ordinances” and shut down “the opium joints” and even force saloons to “close their doors at midnight and on Sunday”. A few days later on May 2 came the first details of the opium crackdown with 18 Chinese charged “for the first time in the history of the city of Omaha” with “keeping opium joints, or being inmates thereof”. All the “celestials” had lawyers who got their cases continued with around half of them “released on bail, while the others are still in jail awaiting trial.” Their names as given by the Bee were Hi Chung, Lang Ching, George Chinaman, Hong Lee, Tom Chinaman, Hing Ching, Wah Sing, Suh Wah, Tong, Wah, Shuh, Leo Gib, Yough, Stone Hi, Wing Lee, Sing, and Jim Gough.
A small glimpse of Chinese culture in Omaha appeared in the Bee on February 4, 1886 with “Coolie Laundrymen Celebrating Their Glad New Year”. This was the “twelfth anniversary of the accession of Quon Soi, the Son of Heaven, Prince of Earth and Emperor of all the Chinas” and “was celebrated in Omaha yesterday with far grander ‘éclat’ than the run of fairs would seem to warrant.” Omaha’s several “washee shops” closed as Chinese residents “arose with drowsy minds full of meditation”. Then, “Shrines of painted cloth and grotesque picturings were reared, and in their center set a figure of hideous mien about which incense tapers were lighted.” The “devotees of the great and awful Buddha fell upon their knees and wrestled for an hour with heaving prayers and mystic incantations.”
To the newspaper reporter this all seemed “strikingly similar to the common practices of New Year’s day in this country”. For the Chinese, “the day is spent in calling, and each washerman receives his visitors with good cheer” as in “every shop there is a spread of good things, such as hit the palate and fancy of the Oriental” with “Mysterious confections, quaint paper scripts which are greeting cards, cigars, cigarettes, opium pipes, and an endless quantity of quaint and curious articles are laid out and the caller helps himself according to his taste.” Every visitor “may take a snack of cake, or eat black taffy from a dark, forbidding pot or ‘hit the pipe’ a soothing lick, just as he wishes.” The Bee reporter was “cordially received at every point and intrepidly helped himself on pressing invitation” although “It is to be said that some courage is required to swallow Chinese delicacies, as their appearance is all but alluring.” All the same, “the candies and sugared fruits are palatable, and the cigars are genuine tobacco, while the opium smells as strong and probably work as damagingly as the ordinary drug of commerce.” It seemed the Chinese originally planned “a grand blow-out in the W. C. T. U. hall, where they attend Sunday school” and the old theater of the St. Elmo was covered by “lanterns and banners when suddenly they changed their minds and took down the ornamentations.” Instead, the “night was passed at high revelry at all the wash shops in town.”
Dr. Chang Gee Wo
In an era dominated by mail-order medicine and quack cure-alls, the June 5 and 7, 1891 issues of the Bee included half-page advertisements for Dr. C. Gee Wo, “the Chinese physician who after a lifetime of study in China among 500,000,000 people comes to this country locates at Omaha, and in two years earned such a golden reputation that his name is on every tongue.” The “Chinese physician” was based at 519 1/2 North 16th Street with “Office Hours from 9 a. m. to 9 p. m. Every Day” and “Consultation Free”. The Chinese doctor claimed to be a graduate of the National Medical College in Beijing, first in his class, and there were numerous testimonials from various Omahans as to his prowess. There was even examples of “Remarkable Cases Abandoned by Other Doctors but Cured by Dr. Chang Gee Wo”. For those who “could not come to Omaha” Dr. C. Gee Wo offered seven varieties of patent medicines at $1 each, including a “Last Manhood Cure”, “Sick Headache Cure”, and “Female Weakness Cure”. Dr. C. Gee Wo’s medicines were “Put up by the Chinese Medicine Co; headquarters and main offices Omaha, Neb” and a “Chinese office” in Beijing.
There was another advertisement in the Bee in January 1895 for Dr. C. Gee Wo wondering “Who Is He!”. Dr. Wo then advertised as “one of the most skillful of Chinese doctors” who “guarantees a cure in every case or the money will be refunded.” By then he apparently occupied all of 519 North 16th Street, a locality presently occupied by Sol’s Jewelry & Loan. Dr. C. Gee Wo later moved his medicine company to Portland, Oregon where an 1907 advertisement gives the address of his “Chinese Medicine Company” at 162 1/2 1st Street. By 1924, he had moved to 262 1/2 Alder Street in Portland.
On February 21, 1899 the World-Herald reported a round-up of 15 “South Omaha Chinamen” who “marched up N Street and boarded a streetcar” with “Deputy United States Marshals” Hank Homann and Jim Allan. It seemed an “inspector from Washington” who “rounded all Omaha and South Omaha Chinamen up at the federal building”. The newspaper reported that an “Omaha Chinaman” named Leo Guy had “escaped the officers” to warn the Chinese community in South Omaha “that something awful was going to happen”. Still, it seemed the “federal deputies, with the aid of the police” rounded up all the Chinese, including Hang Ho, Lu Ty, Ling Fee who all tried to escape before they were assured “no harm would befall them”.
Chinese immigrant Joe Wah Lee was featured in the Bee on August 19, 1900 when the Bee profiled what it considered Omaha’s most prominent Chinese citizens accompanied with photographs by Louis Bostwick. Photographs included Joe Wah Lee, “The Richest Chinaman in Omaha”, along with a view of the exterior of the Bon Ton “Chinese restaurant”, a “Typical Omaha Chinese Laundryman”, and Jo Sing taking the Civil Service Examination. The Bee called the Chinese community “One of the most exclusive sets in Omaha” and “the desire of the hundred or more natives of the Flowery kingdom who reside in the city is to be let alone to their own peculiar devices.” The newspaper thought that they had “no interest, generally, with the community in which they reside further than to be paid for the work they perform” and after “they have received their wages they retire behind the real or assumed indifference of ignorance, and it is a persistent American who can draw them into conversation.” The Bee believed that the “present trouble in China has increased their natural reserve and today there is but one Chinaman in the city who will converse with an English-speaking citizen on equal terms.”
The newspaper considered there was “but one place in the entire city where the Chinese character can be studied and that is in the Sunday school which meets Sunday afternoon during the fall and winter at the First Presbyterian church.” The organization originated “in the old Buckingham home” in September 1885 and then moved to First Presbyterian “where it is now maintained under the supervision of Mrs. John C. Morrow.” In the “Sunday school the taciturn become communicative and the exchange of ideas between the pupils and the teachers is sometimes very interesting, especially for the teacher, who from time to time is cornered by some question of Oriental casuistry or has some of her fondest hopes shattered by some point-blank statement from one of her most promising pupils.” The Chinese Sunday school was “not primarily a place for the dissemination of religious ideas, but that phase of the work comes up incidentally.” The “first effort of the teacher is to instruct the pupil in the rudiments of the English language” and “books have been printed with English and Chinese text and from them the teachers, many of them with no idea for the Chinese language, are very successful in their work.”
Omaha’s Chinese community “are practically all from the city of Canton, and coming from one place are all the more clannish in their home life.” The Bee considered the Chinese as “peaceable, quiet and law-abiding, their only appearance in the courts being caused by the national habit of opium smoking, and even this is falling into disuse with many of the Omaha. colony.” It was “Joe Lee, or Joe Wah Lee, as he is known in private life” who was “the recognized leader” of Omaha’s Chinese. The newspaper called him the “best interpreter in the city and has a sound knowledge of the English language.” He was also “one of the few Chinamen who will discuss affairs relating to his race with Americans.” Joe Wah Lee was “reputed to be the richest and one of the shrewdest Chinamen in Omaha” who “runs a restaurant on East Douglas street and as chef is said to be one of the best men in the west.” At the time he was “an applicant for a position as interpreter in the government service and expresses a desire to be sent to China with the army.” The China Relief Expedition was then headed to China towards the end of the Boxer Rebellion which sought to end both Western imperialism and Christianity.
Other members of Omaha’s Chinese community included Leo Mun, the “head of the Quong Wah company” who was “credited with being the best educated Chinaman in his native language in the city, being able to read at a glance all of the 40,000 characters of the Chinese alphabet.” Mun was “deeply learned in the theology of his native land, but is very reticent because of his ignorance of English.” There was also “Hong Sling, or Henry, as his Christian name has been translated.” He had moved from Omaha to Chicago and was passenger agent for the Union Pacific, Northwestern, and the Southern Pacific railroads. He had started out as “a section hand on the Union Pacific” before he was promoted to storekeeper in Pocatello, Idaho and then Ogden, Utah. Hong Sling later “had charge of the Chinese construction gangs on the Rio Grande and Union Pacific” railroads but “lost money” trying to sell “Oriental goods” at the Chicago World’s Fair. After that he went back to work on the railroad.
The Bee profile continued that during the “last registration of the Chinese” included in the “internal revenue collection district of Nebraska” found 502 Chinese natives. Of those, Deadwood “had the largest Chinese population, while Omaha was among the towns having small colony” of just 81. There were “many of those” who registered at Omaha who had since moved although “their places have been taken by others.” The newspaper counted 20 “or more” former residents who attended Omaha’s Chinese Sunday school had gone back to China and “many of them correspond with their former teachers and claim to be following the teachings of the western light.”
Unsurprisingly, the “principal occupation” of Omaha’s Chinese community was “laundry work”. The Bee explained that “the marks on the bundles of clean linen, duplicates of which are in the pockets of the patrons” were “‘good luck’ mottoes” and labeled the Chinese “a believer in spells and incantations”. Not all the Omaha laundries included them “but many of the houses give their patrons not only clean shirts, but a Chinese blessing for their money.”
The Chinese laundries had been running for years in Omaha before Americans seemingly found a taste for Chinese cuisine. In the early 20th century, that meant chop suey. In April 28, 1905 the World-Herald advertised a likely more traditional version. This was for the Sing Hai Lo Company at 1306 Douglas Street that offered “First Class…Chop Suey” and was open from 10 o’clock in the morning until three in the morning. Yes, they were only closed for seven hours a day. They could be reached via “‘Phone F2327.”
Two years later on September 8,1907 an article in the World-Herald attempted to explain the vagaries of Cantonese cooking. This was by request from Norma Schmidt of Niles, Michigan who wanted a real recipe for “chop suey”. The newspaper related this had “young, tender pork as a foundation” and “in Chinese restaurant parlance” was called “fine chop”. There was also “Guy chop suey” when the main ingredient was chicken or “Mo goe chop suey” with chicken and mushrooms. With “all these” ingredients and brown sauce it was called “See yu, or gee yow”. The brown sauce was compared “to our Worcestershire sauce” and was available from “any Chinese dealer” along with the “bean sprouts or water chestnuts that go with the dish.”
For “gay chop suey” that would “serve six persons you will need one young chicken, cut in pieces, using all the giblets: a pound of water chestnuts, two pounds of bean sprouts”. If those weren’t available, “French peas, tender string beans, or asparagus tips” could be substituted. The rest of the ingredients were “a little sliced celery” and “sliced onion”. Yes it was suggested to “serve over rice” and one should “add a little flour to thicken and salt to taste”. The brown sauce was added at the very end.
By October 1907, the Bee commented on the rising price of chop suey in Omaha although “meat packers say the price of fresh meat has declined”. Charles Yong was called a “Douglas Street suey magnate” and told the newspaper “the price will be advanced several cents a dish on all varieties.” The newspaper believed “the favorite delicacy of the ‘seeing Omaha’ crowd is higher at all restaurants than ever before” but if “chop suey contains fresh meat of any kind is a matter of conjecture.” It did contain green peppers and “the early frosts caught some of the peppers and may be in a measure responsible for the advance the chop suey market.”
The “suey king” Yong explained that chop suey was “the first Chinese dish which Americans learn to order, before they take a chance on ordering the other concoctions, which the Orientals serve.” As it was, “the Chinese say there is meat of several kinds in each dish, the fact remains that few know whether there is or not.” However, for those “who have eaten hash, known as lopadotemach, etc., to the Chinks, believe there is really fresh meat in chop suey, as it has the appearance of an Irish stew that has been dropped on the floor and picked up carelessly.” The “packers say that chop suey should be lower, as they have reduced the price of meat, and that the suey contains chicken or pork, green peppers, celery, barley, bamboo sprouts, liver, water nuts, sweet potatoes, lichee nuts, pineapple and the juice of the siau bean, mixed with fermented beef blood.” There wasn’t “a chop suey magnate in the city” who “will admit that the dish contains the things which the packers claim it does, or that the foundation of the concoction is fresh meat.” Charley Yong “shakes his head doubtfully, but admits that there is always chicken buried somewhere in the mixture which resembles goulash.”
There were photographs of Omaha’s 1910 Chinese New Year in the Bee on February 20 although the celebration was “securely secluded from the eyes of those who do not know and do not understand in some half hidden corner of those many partitioned, odoriferous oriental restaurants on lower Douglas street”. That’s where the “solemn faced yellow people are remembering the world’s oldest fete day – the New Year of China” and was also a celebration of Pi Yu, “the baby ruler of the Celestial Kingdom” who turned four years old on February 11. In Omaha, “one sees the golden dragon signs along Douglas street” and “Slow, slender filmy lines of smoke” that “rise from funny little regiments of punk sticks standing on a table bedecked as only by the art from out of the East.” There were “strange smells of garlic-like pungency” for the “Chinaman’s New Year feast, all to the glory of Pi Yu and the land of his forefathers over the Pacific.”
Decorations included “a cloth of daring brilliant color, rarely stitched in weird fantasies of dragon design and unchristian scrolls” on which rested “plates of rich enamel, through which gleams artfully traced lines of ‘powder blue,’ cups with flaming shades of salmon pink and sange de boeuf, vases that make one think of a sea sunset tangles in a simoon.” There were piles “of candied fruits and sweet meats and dainties” of Chinese origin and “bitter sweet ginger roots, crusted in yellowish flakes of sugar and the biting wild tasting shreds of ginseng mixed with ribbons of sugared cocoanut.” There was a “round woven basket with a frieze of rioting fanciful creatures chasing each other about the rim” that contained “the soft shelled raisin hearted nuts from the valley of the Yang-tse-Kiang” and then “in sudden contrast” was “a box of American-made cigars”. There was also a “dwarf tea plant, neighboring with a blossoming primrose” with “packages of yellow and green and red fire-crackers” all “strewn about mingling their gaiety with paper flowers, the like of which never grew on plant or tree.” The paper flowers were “the fairy blossoms of good luck – that’s all, just good luck blossoms, the only kind that the botanist has not tried to classify.” The “Chinamen say” that “they bear sweet fruits”.
In case the “visitor shares the confidence of his tea tinted host he may nibble at the sweet things” and “the Celestial” might even “produce a chubby jug strapped with dust stained labels in funny scrawls of India ink hieroglyphs and set forth tiny portions of green China rice wine, aged in fair Cathay.” As for “the taste” of the drink, the Bee reported it was “not exactly displeasing to the bourbon trained palate, but one wonders what will happen next.” What happened was “tingling sensations” that “spurt through one’s veins as the aroma of the peculiar beverage diffuses” and “discretion bids only the experimental tipple” and the face of “the Chinaman” almost “gleams with a politely concealed smile” at the refusal of a second drink.
A “guest, if he is a knowing one, exchanges his card for his host New Year ‘joy card,’ a slip of rice paper bearing the Chinaman’s name in bold brush printed characters on a field of red rich as blood clots, the glow that alights the hearts of the heathen Chinee.” With that “the door closes behind on the oriental feast tossing the delicate swirls of punk smoke into a chaos of curls” and with a “suave gesture the Chinaman bows you out and the New Year’s call is over.” Then “down the dingy stairs” and back “out into the noisy clatter of Douglas street, here the Omaha bustle and roar wakens one again and there Pi Yu’s birthday seems just a curiously ornate dream.” The “bit of talk, a drink, a smoke, some memories is about all that remains of the Chinese New Year in Omaha” with “but a scant 100 of the baby emperor’s countrymen in the city”. They were “too busily engaged in the altogether modernized chase of the big round American dollar” and “business urges they do not linger long with the native holidays.” Where there was “a community life preserving racial customs in a higher degree, the real fifteen day feast is held.”
The “beginning of the New Year means many things to the Chinaman” as “all his debts must be paid and his obligations met” which the Bee compared to the “New Year’s resolutions” of westerners. The Chinese immigrants “ancestors must be remembered with portions of boiled rice and chicken fresh cooked in spices placed on their graves” and he “may not grow angry or vexed while the New Year celebration is one, and the joss sticks must burn steadily in the temple.” The “Chinese New Year is a season of peace on earth and good will toward men, and many firecrackers to keep away divers and sundry devils and malicious spirits” that “combined sentiments of Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving, Valentine day, the Fourth of July and St. Patrick’s day, if one can imagine such a potpourri of tradition and festivities.” Due to “city ordinance” in Omaha the “firecrackers only form part of the decorative scheme of Chinese New Year”.
Around Omaha, “about the Chinese restaurants and laundries at this season one sees many little red cards bearing a name in English accompanied by an array of the Chinese characters.” These were “remembrance cards sent to former students by the teachers in Chinese missions, many of them from far over in the orient.” There was one “Omaha Chinaman” who had been “receiving a card from his mission teacher each New Year day for eighteen years, and he has come to consider it part of the tradition of the day.” In “curiously good English” he said “I wonder if it means that the Chinese New Year is becoming Americanized or if the American missionary is getting a tinge of the oriental
While the On Leong Tong generally held sway, in June 1910 the Bee noted Leo Lawrence and his father Chi Sang were the only Omaha members to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the “Four Brothers’ society” otherwise known as the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association, dubbed by the Bee the “Loo Gong Chang Chuu tong”. That tong were traditional rivals of the On Leong Tong.
On October 14, 1910, the World-Herald reported Louie Ahko’s “chop suey house” on Douglas Street was raided by Omaha police who “get beer”. In all, the police confiscated 40 quarts of beer and arrested Louie Ahko, his cook Chin Ten, and three couples in the restaurant “‘drinking’ a new brand of chop suey”. When arrested, Ahko had $212 on his person and Chin Ten had $227 so it seemed “business had been passably good as of late.”
January 1912 was when Gin Ah Chin opened the Mandarin Cafe on the second floor of 1409 Douglas Street. The restaurant featured a prominent Chop Suey sign on the front of the building. An advertisement for the Mandarin in the World-Herald invited the “After Theatre Parties” to attend the opening at 9:30 at night. The “grand opening” was at 10 o’clock the next morning, Wednesday, January 31st, with “Chinese fireworks” and “Souvenir Free To Every Visitor”. Three months later in March, the Mandarin introduced “An Innovation For Business Men” with a “Special Noon Day Luncheon” daily between 11:30-2:30. In addition to the “many appetizing Chinese dishes” there would be “American dishes” including “roasts, steaks, chops, and fish” with a “new Chef, direct from San Francisco”. One Mandarin advertisement in the Bee in March 1913 labeled it “Omaha’s exclusive Chinese cafe” with “Music ev’n’gs”.
While the Mandarin offered Chinese and American cuisine upstairs, one can only consider the full implications of 1409 Douglas Street. On the ground floor was the Budweiser Saloon, the long-time headquarters of Omaha’s political boss Tom Dennison. The connections between Omaha’s boss of the underworld and the local prevalence of opium remain nothing but a subject of speculation.
Just down the street at 1419 Douglas Street was Louie Ahko who advertised the reopening of his restaurant in the World-Herald in April 1912. He’d been closed for three weeks as he’d refurbished his restaurant. As always, Ahko’s was noted for its chop suey and “steaks–the very best obtainable.”
On April 11, 1913 the World-Herald gave a heart-felt, if patronizing, thanks to the city’s Chinese community following the devastation of the Easter Sunday tornado. Truly, “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin” and “there came into the World-Herald office a Chinaman, who modestly failed to leave his name.” The man “did leave, however, $120, and with it a little note – ‘In token of sympathy with the tornado sufferers. From the Omaha Chinese.'” “God bless you, John Chinaman,” the World-Herald continued, “with your yellow skin, your slant eyes, and your inscrutable face with its thousands of years of sad history and patient racial history behind it!” While “Our white man’s money has gone out to your own people in times when the great turbulent floods went pouring over China’s teeming plains” and “missionaries have penetrated the vastness of your ancient civilization preaching that you are our brothers, too” but “the idea never quite got under our skins, we must confess.” After all, “We’ve mocked your pigeon English and your mincing steps and your pig tails – and dreaded you a bit, too, even as we mocked.” The newspaper admitted that “We’ve speculated on ‘the yellow peril’ and read, in the lurid magazines, of how your deft, long fingers were itching to plunge into our very vitals and tear out our hated hearts” and “We’ve idly wondered if you really did despise us as you washed our linen and served us your chop suey and performed your menial tasks with that enigmatic smile forever on your lips.” The newspaper wrote, optimistically, that “It’s different now” and “That $120, earned nickel by nickel; that little note, ‘In token of sympathy for the tornado sufferers, from the Omaha Chinese,’ has taught us more than we could learn from many ponderous volumes.”
The simple gesture by Omaha’s Chinese community was picked up by a variety of newspapers, including the Arizona Republican of Phoenix, Arizona and The Commoner of Lincoln, Nebraska.
That same month on April 15, 1913, the Bee found “Frenzied finance” in Omaha police court after 159 “inmates of the disorderly houses” were arrested and a record amount of $1,342 was collected “for high fines and forfeited bonds”. Judge Foster went through the cases in the place of their arrest with the first 14 coming from Louis Ahko’s “chop suey parlor” at 1419 Douglas Street. Most of them were fined $5 and costs excepting two “inmates” and three “Chinese waiters” all released. Ahko was in California while “his wife, who had charge of the establishment, made her getaway from a rear window when the officers arrived.” Other places raided were “Sam Joe’s Unique cafe, which is also known as the Elite”, Charles Sing’s Turf cafe at 1306 Douglas Street, the Nanking at 1313 Douglas Street which was also “under the generalship of Charles Sing”, the Horseman hotel previously known as the Charles at 1419 Dodge Street, and Bessie Woods’ house at 11th and Leavenworth Street where mostly women were arrested. Ms. Woods failed to show up in court.
In spite of the reputation of local chop suey joints, it seemed a 193? Eastern Star convention held in Omaha seems to have spread Chinese cuisine across Nebraska after “several parties of women were taken through some of Omaha’s oriental restaurants.” One woman “asked for chop suey and yakame recipes and being obliged several score of other women followed suit.” After they had returned to their “Nebraska villages and hamlets” the Bee reported “Omaha restaurant men” were “receiving orders daily for some of the essential ingredients that have to be imported from China.”
Louie Ahko was in the news again on April 12, 1914, when proprietor of Chinese restaurant at 1419 Douglas Street was caught up as one “men and women accused of the abduction and downfall” of 14 year old Agnes Zimmerman. The Bee reported that Ahko’s “chop suey and chili joint” was where Harry McCloud “is said to have made his headquarters.” McCloud and Anna Smith were considered the instigators as police believed Ms. Smith frequented “10-cent stores” to “get acquainted with young girls” and “telling them stories of good times and expensive clothes”. That was the lure to Ahko’s restaurant where they were introduced to McCloud who “would then get other men for ‘escorts’ for the girls and would rent them his taxicab to take them on long trips to distant road houses or hotels.”
Not just a Jewish joke, but in December 1915 the Bee listed several Omaha restaurants that would be open for “Christmas dinner” that year, including the Mandarin which was offering a “Special Dinner, 11 A.M. to 8 P.M. $1.00 Per Plate”. The phone number for the Mandarin was Douglas 2840. Also open for Christmas dinner was the King Joy at 1415 Farnam Street. The King Joy called itself “Omaha’s Classiest Chinese Cafe” with “Finest Chops and Steaks in the City”. Upstairs at 1412 Douglas Street was Louie Ahko’s, “Omaha’s Best Chinese Cafe” offering chop suey, yet-gour-mein, and chili con carne. The phone number of Louie Ahko’s was Douglas 4591.
It was in 1916 when Louie Ahko bought two lots at 51st and Dodge Street where he “planned to build a home”. Due to neighborhood objections, they sold the lots instead of building. According to the World-Herald, Ahko was “the first of his race to own property in the exclusive portion of the city.”
That same year in March Omaha’s Chinese cuisine was blamed in the divorce brought by Edward Nicholson against his wife Irene. They had been married in Council Bluffs four years before and he asked for the divorce on grounds “of cruelty, alleging his wife is too fond of chop suey and frequents chop suey parlors.” The next year a fire swept along the north side of Douglas east of 15th Street and decimated Louis Ahko’s restaurant. He moved to Harney Street.
On September 14, 1920 the World-Herald announcement of the opening of the King Fong Cafe by the “King Fong Lo Co.” on the second-floor of 315 South 16th Street. That was the former Hanson’s Cafe. The advertisement noted Chin Gin was president, G. D. Huie was secretary, and C.S. Yuen was manager of the new enterprise. The restaurant planned to open two days later at 4 in the afternoon as “a worthy milepost to rapidly growing Omaha.” The restaurant was decorated “from far away Cathay” and included “camphor wood carvings, teak wood tables and chairs, elaborate silk embroideries, and other notable features”. Particular attention was called to the “four Chinese chandeliers in the dining room” that were “the first seen in this country.” It was intended that “East meets west” with an “attractive and unique blending of the oriental with the occidental”.
By the early 20th century the On Leong Tong dominated Omaha’s Chinese community from their headquarters on North 12th Street. The Bee referred to it as the “most powerful Chinese organization in the world” in January 1920 and detailed efforts by the tong against the opening of an unauthorized Chinese cafe at 1408 Farnam Street. At the time, Soon Lee claimed to be “one of the high officers of the On Leong Tong” who agreed to be interviewed by the newspaper with a translator present but who “avoided questions with a skill with which only the Oriental knows.”
Soon Lee did admit that Omaha’s Chinese Merchants’ association was “simply a local name for the On Leong Tong” and had 100 members who “would tolerate no interference with its wishes.” When asked about the recent skirmish at 1408 Farnam, Soon Lee suggested the newspaper “go talk to King Joy. He tell’y you all ’bout it” before he “hobbled back into an even darker room and would say no more.”
As for Joe Lee, the proprietor of the “California cafe and chop suey parlor” at 1408 Farnam, he “cowered in fear when the name of the tong was mentioned to him”. “I fear for my life,” Lee told the newspaper but still seemed determined to open in spite of the tong. The Bee also noted that a recent issue of the Chinese daily newspaper Chung Sai Yat Po published in San Francisco included a “warning to non-members of the tong in Omaha who dared to oppose members in any manner.” The translation, “death was threatened as the penalty”.
The furor continued at the end of January 1920 when Joe Lee’s attorney John W. Battin threatened federal intervention if there was more interference with Lee opening of a Chinese restaurant at 1408 Farnam. A “warning against nonmembers of the tong” was posted “in Chinese characters of black on an orange background” on the front of the On Leong building on North 12th Street. To Lee’s attorney, the threat in the San Francisco Chinese newspaper made it an issue for federal officials as it was transmitted through the mails. Local sources told the Bee there were once three tongs in Omaha but “One has disappeared” while the “Hop Sui tong” had lost so much of its membership that the “On Leong tong dominates the city”.
Such tong wars always good fodder for the newspapers. It was on October 27, 1924 when Ong Wen was reported killed in Omaha by the Daily Nonpareil newspaper. He was supposedly member of the “Can Wong” tong and was killed by a Chin Hin, a member of that same tong.
Another tong war report out of Chicago appeared in the Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau in March 1927. The report in the Missouri newspaper labeled the Hip Sing and Bow Tongs as having “radical membership” in contrast to the “conservative” On Leong and Hop Sing tongs. Sources in the Chicago police placed the “Hop Sings and Bow Tongs” as operating “west of Denver” while the On Leong and Hip Sing tongs had “the bulk of their membership” from Omaha east “to the Atlantic seaboard.”
As for Joe Lee’s California cafe on Farnam, well, it is not much remembered in the annals of Omaha’s Chinese restaurants, is it?
The Death of Louie Ahko
It was March 9, 1928, when the World-Herald reported the death of 64 year old Louie Ahko at Lord Lister Hospital at 26th and Dewey Street. Ahko fell sick at his Harney Street restaurant on Saturday and was taken to the hospital the next morning where he died soon after emergency surgery and a blood transfusion from his wife.
Ahko came to the United States in 1879 from Canton and worked “as a boy” in Seattle and Portland. He arrived in Omaha in 1890, the same year as Gin Ah Chin, and first worked as a cook for Phelan & Shirley’s construction company for a decade. In 1908, he first opened his cafe on Douglas Street. After the original Louie Ahko’s burned in the Hartman store fire and Ahko relocated to Harney.
The World-Herald called Ahko “probably the last of the well-known cafe men of Omaha” who was “known throughout the country” for “his meals, particularly his steaks” among “people of the stage who were his constant patrons when in Omaha.” Was it a Chinese immigrant who truly gave Omaha the reputation as the town where you could get a good steak?
Ahko had planned to leave the next month for a return trip back home to China. Instead, plans were made to return his body to burial in Canton following Presbyterian funeral service held at John Gentleman mortuary. About 50 people attended the service with the World-Herald noting that a third of them were Chinese. The newspaper also pointed out the large “wreath of lilies and roses” from the “Gee How Oak Tin association” although Ahko was not a member. The association still exists across the United States although it does not have a presence in Omaha.
With Ahko’s death, the newspaper noted the business was carried on by Frank Galloway and Edmund Blake, who’d both worked there for years and that Mrs. Ahko had returned the day after giving blood in an unsuccessful transfusion to save her husband.
At the End
In 1961, the World-Herald blamed the Great Depression on the end of Chinatown as the city’s Chinese community shrank to less than 100 people. It was said some “returned to the West Coast” and others went to Texas. That article also noted Omaha’s anti-fireworks law had a “quieting effect” on celebrating the Chinese New Year.
The On Leong Tong eventually removed to the “white-brick” building at 1518 Cass Street but the organization disbanded after death of its last member George Hay. That building later became distribution center for Volunteers of America and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. The old On Leong Tong building on North 12th Street was then “empty, isolated, condemned” and there were only an estimated 150 “Chinese-American” in Omaha, including “some recent immigrants.” At that time, 93 year old Chin Ah Gin then lived with his son Carl Chin and family at 3810 Corby Street. His descendants then included three daughters, three sons, 34 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren. He died in 1962 at the age of 93.
It was in December 30, 1962 when the World-Herald reported the end of the On Leong Tong building at 111 North 12th. It would be erased from the cityscape within a month for a “parking lot for Campbell Soup”. According to the article, the building was “the center of Omaha’s Chinatown” with an “Oriental produce firm on the first floor.” After the tong moved to Cass Street, the building became “a flophouse, then a freight depot, then a warehouse” and still remains a parking today. Retired World-Herald reporter Florian Newbranch recalled the “mah jongg and other games” and a “shrine room with a squat Buddha.” There was also “the lottery, a complicated Chinese bingo” with “drawings every 10 minutes”. According to Newbranch, although “one supposedly could win five dollars to 10 thousand dollars” he never knew anyone who won “any more than the minimum”.
The World-Herald also quoted former Omaha police captain John Dennison who recalled a “survey” for the “gas company” when he saw “old Chinese ‘shooting the hip’ – lying on one hip and inhaling opium in bunks in the building.” It was likely Dennison who told the newspaper that somewhere in the building the murder of “a transient Chinaman named Charlie” was “planned” out of suspicion he belonged to the rival Hip Sing Tong.
The On Leong Tong still exists in some American cities but these days Omaha’s Chinatown isn’t even a memory for anyone who wanders around 12th and Dodge Streets. That neighborhood is different now. It was 1978 when Joseph and Alice Kuo opened the Great Wall chain of restaurants in Omaha as the first significant shift from the city’s long established Cantonese cuisine. According to the 2010 census, Omaha’s Chinese population was around 1,500 people. Today, King Fong’s still remains sadly closed and the city’s best Cantonese and culinary hint of Omaha’s long-gone Chinatown can now be found well west of 84th Street.
Self-Guided Tour of Omaha’s Chinatown
First On Leong tong building, 111 North 12th Street
Second On Leong tong building, 1518 Cass Street
Office of Dr. C. Gee Woo, 519 N. 16th Street
Mandarin Cafe, 1409 Douglas Street
Bon Ton Restaurant, 203 S. 13th Street
Joe Lee Residence, 714 South 17th Street
Lee Wong Gem Residence, 114 North 12th Street
Soon Lee Residence, 1617 Cass Street
Sam Huey Residence, 1609 Cass Street
Jimmy Chin Residence, North 16th and Burt Street
Sing Hai Lo Company, 1306 Douglas Street
Louie Ahko Restaurant, 1419 Douglas Street
King Joy Cafe, 1412 Douglas Street
Unique Cafe, aka The Elite Cafe
Turf Cafe, 1306 Douglas Street
Joe Lee’s Cafe, 1408 Farnam Street
Nanking Restaurant, 1313 Douglas Street
Peacock Inn Restaurant, 1814 Farnam Street
Horseman Hotel, 1419 Dodge Street
Bessie Woods residence, 11th and Leavenworth Streets
King Fong’s, 315 South 16th Street
Yingalongjingjohn and Yingyang Laundry, South 10th Street between Farnam and Harney Streets
Hong Lee Laundry, Harney Street between 14th and 15th streets
Omaha Chinese Christian Church, 4618 South 139th Street
In the last decade, the lynching of Will Brown has received a lot of attention in Omaha and beyond. However, many of the facts in the story have been lost to time and others muddled away. Since volunteering to write more than 300 articles on Wikipedia related to Omaha history starting in 2007, I have searched for little-known details about Brown’s lynching. Here is what I’ve found.
Leading Up to the Lynching
Almost 40 race riots happened across the United States during the Red Summer of 1919. It was called the Red Summer for the blood that filled American streets. Omaha thought it was immune from this race hatred, but late September proved the city hatefully wrong.
Before that and throughout the summer of 1919, Omaha police had taken dozens of reports of violence by African American men against white women, but when they followed them up they consistently found they were hoaxes. In May 1919, W.E.B. DuBois spoke at the Omaha Auditorium, while during that same summer, William Monroe Trotter, editor of the militant pro-Black Boston Guardian, spoke at Zion Baptist Church. Both of these powerful African American speakers might have precipitated the conditions leading to the riots.
Nationally, media hyped up reports of Blacks who rioted against white neighborhoods. After white people armed themselves and waited for mobs that never came, they started forming their own vigilante mobs that lynched, murdered, burnt out and otherwise terrorized Black communities across the country. Sometimes, the yellow journalists who created the media hype would later take back their statements, occasionally offering a “whoops” in the back pages of their papers. Mostly, they didn’t though.
Some white people in Omaha were apparently foaming at the mouth for the blood of African Americans. As early as January 1919, reports were coming into the Omaha Police Department that African American men were accosting white women randomly on the streets of the city. For instance, an Army soldier named Henry Culpepper was arrested for assaulting a white woman. Fresh home from the military in his uniform, he was swept up in a wide net cast by police that brought in 30 other Black men, too. Culpepper was found innocent by the police though, and released. These incidents went on throughout the summer repeatedly, with more than 100 African American men brought to the police station under the pretense of several assaults of white women.
Then, on September 1, 1919, the Omaha Police Department shot dead Eugene Scott, an African American bellboy at Hotel Plaza downtown. Supposedly, the police raided a poker game and Scott ran away. They shot him as he ran, and he died immediately. Witnesses reported to the Omaha World-Herald that the death was unnecessary, and the Omaha Bee called the shooting as reckless and indiscriminate, noting it as the “crowning achievement” of a “disgraceful and incompetent” Omaha Police Department.
Tom and Agnes and Milton Lynched Will
Agnes Loebeck was born in 1899 in Omaha. Her father was Joseph Henry Loebeck (1860-1935), and her mother was Frances Christina Loebeck (1864-1932), both of whom were born in Germany. They had seven children, including Agnes Marie (1899-1966). The family lived at 3228 South 2nd Street in Omaha. On September 25, 1919, Agnes told the Omaha Police Department that she and her reportedly handicapped boyfriend Milton John Hoffman (1897–1982) were assaulted by an African American man at South 5th and Scenic Avenue. Hoffman lived at 1923 S. 13th St, and they were reportedly walking home from a theater.
A blatantly racist Omaha Bee headline screamed, “The most daring attack on a white woman ever perpetrated in Omaha, the most recent act in a series of violent offenses conducted by the Negro on Caucasian females in the city, occurred one block south of Bancroft Street near Scenic Avenue in Gibson two nights ago. Pretty little Agnes Loebeck was assaulted by a negro she identified as William Brown while returning home in company with Milton Hoffmann, her fiancée, a cripple and decorated war veteran.”
Before 1919, Hoffman was supposedly in New Orleans as a two-time bare-knuckle boxing champion called “Barrel.” He was said to have led a mob to the courthouse while riding on their shoulders and waving a handgun, goading on the white hoard to commit the lynching.
Police arrested a Black worker named Will Brown (1878-1919) as the assailant, accusing him of using a handgun during the supposed crime. During a jail interview, police found out his job was to move coal from trucks into cellars. They made a note that Brown limped because of chronic rheumatism. Previously, he work as a heavy laborer in a packinghouse and a lumberyard. Brown’s hands constantly writhed in pain and his body was regularly bent over.
From the outset, it seemed several members of the police force were accused of being sympathetic to Tom Dennison, who also had Milton Hoffman on his payroll; who also lost the previous mayoral election to a reform candidate; who also had deep investments in ensuring his control over the city’s criminal and political machinery. That was the point when all fingers start pointing in the same direction.
Rioting, Lynching and Chaos
According to Orville Menard’s definitive book called River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha, the notorious political boss was behind the lynching. He orchestrated the men in Black face who committed the crime; the angry mobs that showed up at the Loebeck family home to get Brown early; the horse rider hollering and Milton’s call for vengeance while waving a gun. Omaha had voted in a reform-minded mayor in Ed Smith, and Tom Dennison wanted to punish the city for it. Under the guise of the Red Summer that soaked America’s soil with the blood of hundreds of African Americans nationwide, Dennison stoked Omaha’s white supremacy with startling headlines from the newspapers and more. One of the main flash points was the police department.
Because of the false reports by the Omaha Bee newspaper and false calls to the police station from around the city all summer, the police initially ignored the report from the Loebeck family, including rumors she was murdered.
The morning after Brown was arrested, a crowd of 40 men gathered outside the Douglas County Courthouse and started chanting for Will Brown to be lynched. Within hours, Hoffman led a crowd of 300 people marching north from Bancroft School in South Omaha.
The mobs gathered at the Courthouse, and eventually the crowd of 10,000 swelled to 20,000. During the entire horrific event, Tom Dennison probably maintained control over the machinations of the mob from his offices at the Budweiser Saloon on Douglas Street.
As soon as they were prodded by the Omaha City Council to take action though, the police quickly moved: Ordered to take action on 9/26, the police immediately arrested 45 African African men. Almost all of them were immediately released except Will Brown. He was and taken to the Loebeck house for identification (9/26); a smaller white mob gathered outside her house (9/26); Brown was taken jail at the Douglas County Courthouse (Omaha) (9/26); a group of 25 African American workers was thrown on a train and told to leave the city (9/27); a mob of 10,000 to 20,000 white people gathered outside the courthouse (9/27); they nearly lynched Omaha mayor Ed Smith (9/27); they raided the building and broke out Will Brown (9/27); and they tortured, dismembered, burned and dragged around Brown’s body in downtown Omaha and beyond (9/28).
The mob threw fire bombs, poured gasoline, and barraged the Douglas County Courthouse with more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition. In addition to lynching, dismembering, burning and desecrating Will Brown’s body, they also murdered at least one other African American who was walking on the streets and caught by the mob; wounded at least 20 policemen; and demolished at least 10 homes in the Near North Side neighborhood.
After the Lynching of Will Brown
The white mob turned north toward the city’s African American neighborhood in the Near North Side, assaulting any Black person they saw along the way, as well as smashing windows and assaulting police (9/28). Rumors and newspaper reports said Black people from across North Omaha had raided businesses along North 24th Street for guns, and that there were more than 10,000 armed African Americans on roofs and in hiding spots throughout the Near North Side.
When the white mob arrived at 24th and Cuming Streets, they were met by US Army soldiers who’d been called to the city from Iowa, Missouri and Fort Omaha (9/28). On October 1, 1919, the commander of the operation, US Army Major General Leonard Wood, declared martial law over the city.
With three camps around Omaha, General Wood commanded more than 300 US Army soldiers to be garrisoned at 24th and Lake Streets. During their occupation of North Omaha, the US Army ordered 18 large machine guns along Cuming Street, North 16th, North 30th, and Lake Streets, with soldiers encamped and on patrol along these lines. An observation balloon was launched from the Fort Omaha Balloon School, manned by soldiers looking for fires that might be started inside the redlined area. The other two camps were on South 13th Street and in South Omaha.
Milton Hoffman was accused of inciting the riot, but went to live in Denver for a short time before marrying Agnes in 1920. He was supposedly helped by Tom Dennison. In April 1921, former mayor Ed Smith gave a speech at the Auditorium saying that Agnes Loebeck hadn’t been attacked by Will Brown. Two days later, Milton Hoffman gave a statement to the Omaha World-Herald saying she had, and that Smith was lying. Smith also said the riot was pre-orchestrated, which Hoffman also opposed.
120 indictments were handed down by a grand jury investigating the riot starting on October 8, 1919. There were confessions, witnesses and extensive interrogations that lasted for weeks in court. However, only two men were charged with a crime: Claude Nethaway, a notoriously racist real estate agent in Florence, and a man named George Davis.
Even the Omaha Bee stood trial for its role inciting the riot, including its editor Victor Rosewater, who routinely practiced yellow journalism. However, all suspects were eventually released, and nobody served time. The grand jury did find the police captain innocent of making the situation worse, and congratulated Mayor Smith for his heroics. However, they found Chief Eberstein and the Omaha Police Department guilty for exacerbating the riot by neglecting to staff the courthouse correctly.
Louis Weaver was the first of the rioters convicted by district Judge William A. Redick. On December 13, 1919, Weaver was sentenced to 20 years in the Nebraska state penitentiary.
General Wood, who originally attributed the riot to Tom Dennison’s criminal machine, later blamed organized labor and the Belsheviks. He would later use that fear in his 1920 presidential campaign.
In a 1919 article from The Crisis called “The Real Causes of Two Race Riots,” reports said that Agnes Loebeck knew Will Brown as a prostitute. Apparently she had problems with Brown, and wanted to get revenge on him by alleging the assult. The article also said Dennison was behind the riot as an attempt to regain political control of the city.
Will Brown was buried in the Potter’s Field near Young Street and Mormon Bridge Road on October 2, 1919. There were no mourners, there was no service, and for more than 80 years there was no grave marker placed there.
In 1921, Tom Dennison’s “perpetual mayor” Jim Dahlman was reelected to his position. One of the first things to happen was the dismissal of all remaining charges relating to the lynching of Will Brown, and in September 1921, all the books were cleared.
What Happened to Agnes Loebeck Hoffman?
As late as 1931, Milton Hoffman was said to be a member of city boss Tom Dennison’s inner circle. From 1945 to 1954, Milton was a secretary to various Omaha City Commissioners, and from 1964 to 1965, he was the coordinator of services at the Omaha City Hall.
The Hoffmans had several children, and some of whom as well as their offspring still live in the area. When she died in 1966, Agnes and Milton lived at 2445 South 17th Street. In 1973, Milton was remarried to Edna Swanson. He died in 1982. Agnes Loebeck Hoffman and Milton Hoffman are buried at Westlawn-Hillcrest Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Omaha.
There were countless impacts from the lynching of Will Brown. While it started beforehand, massive distrust between Omaha’s Black and white communities flared a century ago, and continues today. Informal Jim Crow still rules Omaha, with clear color lines between residential, commercial, religious and cultural activities still informally enforced.
Perhaps the most directly observable consequence of the lynching of Will Brown was the absolute segregation of Omaha. While the city was segregated beforehand, afterwards it was strictly segregated. When the US Army drew the redline around the Near North Side, they effectively drew a line followed, reinforced and sustained by real estate agents, insurance brokers, bankers and property owners for more than 40 years after. The residential patterns and behaviors established then continue today.
In 2011, Chris Herbert, an African American from Los Angeles who’d never been to Omaha, bought a gravestone for Will Brown. There are no commemorations, historical markers or other acknowledgment of the lynching of Will Brown, the riots, or the martial law in Omaha.
People Involved in the Lynching of Will Brown
These are just some of the people associated with the lynching of Will Brown.
Will Brown (1878-1919)—African American laborer lynched in Omaha on September 28, 1919 who suffered severe rheumatism.
Tom Dennison (1858-1934)—Omaha’s political boss from 1890-1930 who likely orchestrated the lynching of Will Brown.
Ed P. Smith (1860-1930)—The reformist mayor of Omaha nearly lynched by the white mob who requested US Army intervention in the riot.
Agnes Loebeck Hoffman (1899-1966)—First generation German immigrant woman who accused Will Brown of assaulting her; may have been a prostitute.
Milton J. Hoffman (1897–1982)—Employee of Dennison, date of Agnes Loebeck at time of supposed assault by Will Brown, may have been handicapped.
Joseph H. Loebeck (1860-1935)—German immigrant father of Agnes.
Frances C. Loebeck (1864-1932)—German immigrant mother of Agnes.
Leonard Wood (1860-1927)—US Army Major General who intervened at the request of the Omaha mayor and Nebraska governor and imposed martial law on the city; later ran for president.
Samuel R. McKelvie (1881-1956)—Nebraska governor who requested US Army intervention in the Omaha riot.
Claude L. Nethaway (1867-1937)—Virulent racist real estate agent who incited the mob and was tried for the murder of Brown, but acquitted. Allegedly gave the rallying call to lynch Will Brown.
Victor Rosewater (1871-1940)—Editor of Omaha Bee who used yellow journalism to sell papers, which helped incite the rioting that led to the lynching of Will Brown.
J. Dean Ringer (1878-1931)—Omaha Police Department commissioner who was committed to cleaning up Tom Dennison’s crime circle.
William Francis (1902-1952)—A 16-year-old relative of Agnes Loebeck who rode a horse into the mob to incite crowds to attack the courthouse.
Marshall Eberstein (1859-1946)—The Omaha chief of police who was assaulted by the crowd when he spoke to them, asking for justice to take its course.
Louis Weaver (n.d.-n.d.)—On December 13, 1919, Weaver became the only criminal sentenced to serve for his actions. Judge Redick gave him 20 years in the Nebraska state penitentiary for his role in the riot.
William A. Redick (1859-1936)—Omaha district judge who tried several rioters.
Locations Involved in the Lynching of Will Brown
3228 South 2nd Street—This was the Loebeck family home, where Agnes lived at the time.
1923 South 13th Avenue—This was where Milton Hoffman lived at the time.
Bancroft Street and Scenic Avenue—The location of where Agnes Loebeck was allegedly assaulted.
1811 South 5th Street—Will Brown lived with Virginia Jones at “5th and Cedar” when the mob gathered to lynch him there on September 27th. Police came and supposedly found him under his bed.
Budweiser Saloon, 1409 Douglas Street—The location of Tom Dennison’s offices and likely where he orchestrated the day’s events from.
Bancroft School, 2724 Riverview Blvd—The location where the first major mob of 300 people gathered to march to the Courthouse.
Douglas County Courthouse, 1701 Farnam Street—Will Brown was held in a top-floor jail. This was the major site of rioting, and was nearly destroyed by the rioters. Mayor Ed Smith spoke to the crowd from the front steps and was nearly lynched from this place, too.
Intersection of 16th and Farnam Streets—A 12-year-old named Verne Joseph directs traffic at this major intersection for several hours during the riot.
Intersection of Eighteenth and Harney Streets—Will Brown was lynched from streetcar cables intersecting here.
17th and Dodge Streets—Location of the burning of Will Brown’s corpse.
City Auditorium, 15th and Howard—Location of the US Army occupation forces headquarters, including the office of General Woods
North 24th and Lake Streets—Location of US Army field station during the Occupation of the Near North Side.
Potter’s Field, near Young Street and Mormon Bridge Road—Location of Will Brown’s burial and grave marker.
Black America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia [2 volumes]: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia by Alton Hornsby, Jr. (2011).
This image is from the September 30, 1919 edition of the Omaha Bee. The caption says, “Note thrown to mob from court house jail.” The purported note says, “The judge says he will give up negro Brown He is in dungeon there are 100 white prisoners on the roof_save them.”
*Agnes Marie Loebeck Hoffman was also referred to as Agnes Lobeck, Agnes Lowback, Agnes Loeback and Agnes Hoffman.
“Mr. Robbins commands the responect of the best lawyers in Douglas County and the confidence of every man who knows him… The result is that he is a lawyer with a fair practice and the possessor of the respect and confidence of his fellow workers at the bar.”
Omaha World-Herald, September 21, 1898
The first African American lawyer in Nebraska had to overcome blatant racism, informal Jim Crow and the white supremacy that has stalked the state’s history since its founding in 1854. He was Silas Robbins.
Born on February 14, 1857 in Ohio, Silas Robbins became a school teacher in Ohio, Indiana and Mississippi. A family of free Black farmers, Silas’s brother became a doctor in Detroit, Michigan. Earning his way onto the bar, Silas was eventually admitted to the Randolph County Bar in 1885, and allowed to practice in front of the Indiana Supreme Court in 1888. After moving to St. Louis, Missouri for a short time, he came to Omaha in the early 1889.
In 1873, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that Blacks could not be excluded from serving on juries, paving the way to Robbins becoming Nebraska’s first African American lawyer.
With little fanfare, on March 23, 1889 the Omaha World-Herald reported “Silas Robbins, a fine appearing, bright looking young man was admitted to practice in the district court this morning.”
With that, Robbins became the first African American to practice law in Nebraska, and although it wasn’t until 1892, he was the first African American to be listed on the Douglas County Bar Association. He was one of the first members of the Nebraska Bar Association, which was formed in 1899.
Robbins addressed all kinds of legal issues affecting African Americans in his law practice. From his office in the New York Life Insurance Building in downtown Omaha, Robbins was noted for his “plain manner of fact manner of delivery that succeeded in winning the attention of his audience.”
In an 1890 case, he represented an African American child called Till. Apparently, a farmer in Fillmore County named Williford kept the child as a slave. Robbins fought for his freedom, and after getting the case tried in Omaha instead of Fillmore County, he won it.
That same year, Robbins became the Omaha Afro-American League legal advisor and acted as the secretary for several large-scale Black community meetings chaired by Dr. Matthew Ricketts.
In 1893, he defended an African American man named Alexander Taylor who was accused of shooting at a white man. He was found not guilty.
Newspaper accounts from the era continuously say that Robbins was well-regarded in the legal community, and that he did right for his clients.
Robbins was a creative man whose political intentions and speaking abilities kept him busy around town. For instance, after securing a patent from the United States Patent Office for a game he created called “Politics” in 1893, just a year later he was involved in organizing the Omaha School of Economics. According to the Omaha World-Herald, “the object of this school is to study and discuss all questions of political economy and the science of government.” The Rev. John A. Williams and J. H. Kelly were involved, along with Dr. Matthew Ricketts, Dr. W.H.C. Stephenson and others.
During his later years, Robbins was also a regular debater and speaker around Omaha, challenging opponents on federal fiscal policy, local party politics and more. He was the secretary of the People’s Independent Party in 1895 as well.
In 1896, he ran for the Douglas County Auditor office. That same year he became heavily aligned with the pro-silver movement, making speeches and debating opponents throughout the city. Robbins, along with Cyrus Bell and John Jeffcoat, led the Afro-American Bimetallic League in Omaha during the pro-growth/pro-inflation Free Silver movement of William Jennings Bryan, starting in 1896. He served as the president of the organization for a few years, which kept an office at 1120 Dodge Street.
Robbins was one of the members of the National Colored Personal Liberty League who was appointed by the Nebraska Governor Governor Silas Holcomb to the Mixed Congress in July 1898. The next month he attended the Mixed Congress at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha. At the event, delegate Robbins represented black clients seeking redress under the state’s civil rights law. After the event, it was noted as “the first significant interracial gathering to discuss civil rights in America.” Many of the Omaha delegates went on to become founders of the city’s NAACP chapter.
That year, in 1898, Robbins ran for the Nebraska Legislature as a “fusion party” member. He didn’t win. Contemporary African American leaders in Omaha during Robbins’ later life included Harrison J. Pinkett, John Adams, Sr. and John A. Pegg, among others.
When the Populist Party took power in Omaha, Robbins was the Douglas County tax commissioner, serving from 1900 to 1901 and again from 1903 to 1905. Afterward he focused primarily on real estate law, and maintained a reputation as one of Omaha’s “best known colored attorneys.”
In 1908, Robbins got a marriage license. Four years later, in 1912 Robbins was sued over the value of some land, and in 1913 he was nominated as the federal government’s special secretary to Liberia. According to the newspaper, he had “the warm endorsement of Mayor Dahlman.” Listed as a member of the Douglas County Dry Campaign Committee, Robbins was signed on to support Prohibition in 1916.
Living at 2883 Miami Street in the Near North Side, Robbins was married twice. His children were Guy, Clifford and Freeda, along with a stepson. Apparently the house at that address today was built in 1905, and was the home were Robbins lived.
Apparently he had a cancer in his head, and in 1915 had a surgery to remove it. However, according to the Omaha World-Herald, he committed suicide on September 11, 1916 by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Both the Omaha World-Herald and The Monitor newspaper attributed it to continued painful suffering from his cancer. Robbins was buried in Forest Lawn.
Today, there is no marker in Omaha celebrating Silas Robbins’ accomplishments as a lawyer or plaque recognizing his historic home. Instead, he’s nearly forgotten across the entire city.
February is Black History Month, and March is Women’s History Month. As far as making history, you have to get ready to say the word “first” frequently when you talk about Judge Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Davis Pittman (June 3, 1921-1998). Although she was originally from Council Bluffs, her advocacy for North Omaha’s African American community may have been unparalleled in Omaha history.
Here are some of the firsts attributed to Judge Pittman.
In 1948, she became first African American female to graduate from Creighton University Law School;
In 1950, she became the first African American woman to get elected to public office in Omaha when she was elected to the school board;
In 1950, Pittman was one of only 39 African-American women lawyers in the United States;
In 1964, she became the first African American female to get appointed to the office of Douglas County Attorney, serving until 1971;
In 1971, she became the first woman and first African American person to be a judge for the State of Nebraska when she was appointed as Douglas County Municipal judge, serving from until 1986 on the Omaha Municipal Court;
In 1971, she was named “Woman of the Year” by the Omaha Business and Professional Club;
In 1973, her alma mater Creighton University awarded her an honorary doctorate;
In 1998, Creighton dedicated the Elizabeth Davis Pittman Building on its campus to mark the 50th anniversary of her receiving her law degree there.
The 1938 graduate of North High School went to UNL for two years, earned her bachelor’s degree from Creighton University, and in 1948 she became the first African American woman to graduate from Creighton Law School. After she became the first African American member elected to the Omaha Public Schools board in 1950, there was at least a single African American member on the board from then to now. Deeply involved in the city’s Civil Rights Movement, Pittman was personal friends and allies with many of the historic and current leaders and activists throughout her life.
Elizabeth Davis Pittman was a daughter, a mom and a wife. In her 20s, she participated in several beauty pageants in North Omaha, while in her 30s she sought to become one of the first female national representative in the Episcopal Church and lost. In 1950, she was included in the Who’s Who in Colored America for the first time, an honor which repeated for many years.
Justice Pittman was an active member of St. Philip Episcopal Church, Omaha’s segregated congregation for that denomination. She attended throughout her life, including when the church was closed and the congregation merged to become Church of the Resurrection, which is still open today on North 30th Street.
Her father and husband are notable in their own right, too. Her father and mentor, Charles Davis (1902-1959), was also an attorney who lawyered during the Great Depression and beyond. Convinced that Omaha’s African American community needed their own bank, in 1944 he worked with a group of African American leaders in the community to establish the Carver Savings and Loan Association, one of the first Black-owned banks in the United States. He and his daughter shared a legal office in the building in the early 1960s. The building still stands today in the 24th and Lake Historic District. When he passed away, Charles Davis was lauded for his life of service to Omaha and the African American community.
Her mother Mabel Davis (1906-1972) was also a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal, and was a library aid at Kellom School until 1971. She had two children, including Elizabeth and her sister Charleszine (1933-2017). Mabel’s mother, Bettie Hawkins, lived with her daughter and died four years after her in 1975. The mother and daughter were buried in Forest Lawn.
Her ex-husband, Dr. Arthur B. Pittman (1915-1990), was a notable figure in Omaha history, too. He was the only Black veterinarian in Nebraska from the 1940s through the 1970s, volunteered for many locally and nationally important roles, and was recognized with the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. When she later divorced him, Arthur was awarded custody of her only daughter, Antoinette Marguerite Pittman (1947-2018). However, Justice Pittman regularly credited him with encouraging her success. The building where he practiced is still standing today on Dodge Street, and was declared an Omaha Landmark in 2005 for its role in the city’s history and its distinct Art Moderne architectural style.
Living in a large brick home surrounded with a black wrought iron fence at 976 North 25th Street, Justice Pittman’s house and car were constantly broken into and vandalized. Without ever laying direct blame, she regularly reported her car being shot, windows being smashed, house being burglared and more.
When she died in 1998, Justice Pittman was buried at Forest Lawn.
Honoring Justice Pittman
Omahans who stepped into her courtroom said she had an incredible presence and she most definitely “held court.” She was characterized as “no nonsense”, “intense” and “brutally fair.”
During her life, she was frequently recognized for her contributions to Omaha, the African American community, and society in general. She’s remembered for her service statewide on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, and nationwide as a leader in the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers and the National YWCA. She was also a lifetime member of the Near North Side YWCA, Omaha’s NAACP chapter, and the Urban League of Omaha. She was named the 1971 “Woman of the Year” by the Omaha Business and Professional Club, and her legacy has gotten local press. Creighton honors a black law student with the “Elizabeth Pittman Award” annually, and there is the “Educational Opportunity Center – Judge Elizabeth Pittman Building” at Creighton, named for her.
But ladies and gentlemen of the jury, how will history treat the first female judge in Nebraska? How will history treat the only black female lawyer in the whole state of Nebraska in 1948?
“In 1948, the entry of a black woman into the legal profession was a challenge, but even more so in the Midlands where by 1950 the census had recorded a total of 1,110 white and 13 black women lawyers West of Illinois. Thus, Pittman was an anomaly. After Admission to the Nebraska bar, she joined her father’s law office and became one of the few women in the West to enter into private practice. It might have been more difficult for the only black woman lawyer in the state, but her father ‘helped the local law community accept her …in a male-dominated profession.'”
In The Omaha History Club, a virtual group on Facebook, there is a lot conversation about how history is recorded and remembered in Omaha. In a Creighton Law Review article, Judge Pittman was called “A Legal Pioneer” but the question of how her legacy will be treated by history is questioned. Here is an excerpt:
“How will Judge Elizabeth Davis Pittman be remembered? History matters. As Professor Gerda Lerner has written: ‘Women’s History has become one of the ‘frontiers’ of historical scholarship.’ However, the ideas of black women lawyers are not often captured by legal historians. Thus, historians have their work cut out for them. Historians will have to construct a matrix just for Pittman because of her groundbreaking appointment to the bench by the Governor of a state with few black citizens. If historians are true to their profession, they might sum up her career in the words she used to describe the reaction many people had when they saw her on the bench: ‘There’s democracy at work.’ In the end, historians may never understand the real challenges that Judge Pittman faced as she met the sunshine of the day and the moon light of nights. There is something about the lives of pioneers that is beyond direct discovery.”
Today, the Creighton Law School and the Black American Law Students Association occasionally bestows the Elizabeth Pittman Award on its graduates, including the Honorable Wadie Thomas and Brenda Council, among others.
Judge Pittman’s legacy and impact on the city is still felt, and the acknowledgment of the history she made is surely just beginning.
A day to celebrate one of the few international icons from Omaha? It seems obvious that a leader of the African American Civil Rights movement and an iconic figure for all oppressed people seeking empowerment be honored by his birth city. Unfortunately, Omaha has struggled with acknowledging Malcolm X (1925–1965) and his heritage, much the same as white people struggle to acknowledge our racism and challenge white supremacy.
Luckily, African Americans don’t need or wait for white people to acknowledge them. Starting in 1969, there were celebrations of Malcolm X Day in Omaha for more than two decades. This is a too-simple history of those celebrations.
“They set one day aside to say they honor this man (Malcolm X) and the other 364 days kick black people around.”
– Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers to the Omaha Star (May 14, 1970)
According to Wikipedia, “Malcolm X Day is an American holiday in honor of the civil rights leader Malcolm X which is celebrated either on May 19 (Malcolm’s birthday), or the third Sunday of May.”
Starting in 1968, there was an annual Malcolm X Day celebration in Omaha for more than 15 years. First requested in 1968 as a national holiday by the Congress for Racial Equity, or CORE, in 1969 the Omaha Black Panthers and BANTU called on students to skip school on his birthday to mark Malcolm X Day. Hundreds of students didn’t go to school that day, and the Black Panthers collected money from North Omaha businesses to host a “People’s Picnic” at the renamed Malcolm X Park. David Rice, reporting for the Omaha Star, wrote “It can be imagined that the misinformed citizens of Omaha were extremely disappointed that no trouble broke out on the nation’s first Black Holiday [Malcolm X Day].”
In 1970, the celebration happened at Malcolm X Park and at the Wesley House. The Okumbie Dancers of Minneapolis and Omaha’s Afro-American theatre group performed. For several years starting that year, staff at the Wesley House organized annual celebrations for Malcolm X Day.
In 1971, Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy signed a proclamation for the city to celebrate “Malcolm X Week” from May 16 to 22. Among other things it stated Malcolm X was, “a man who dedicated his brief life to teaching men to strive for self-dignity and to mold their own destinies. No American more exemplifies this essential link to our national creed than the late Malcolm X.”
The 1974 celebrations of Malcolm X Week included dozens of events with support from many organizations. A massive parade with more than 40 units, a play and other special events happened throughout North Omaha. The Wesley House, Dominican High School, the North Branch YMCA and many other organizations participated. 10,000 people attended the two-hour long parade, which went from the Logan Fontenelle Projects to Malcolm X Park.
More than 5,000 people attended three hours of celebrations in 1975. The next year in 1976, the Wesley House hosted Ernie Chambers at a formal dinner, where he spoke about the life of Malcolm X. By the next year, local media mentions of Malcolm X Day were gone. In 1979, there was discussion about establishing the Malcolm X Shrine, but nothing further.
In 1981, there was a parade on Malcolm X Day along with an open house at the Great Plains Black History Museum. The Charles Drew Health Center hosted a Malcolm X Day Run for a few years, including 1983 to 1986, and in 1989 there was a call in the Omaha Star for the City of Omaha to declare Malcolm X Day a city holiday.
Resurgence in Interest
Malcolm’s wife, Dr. Betty Shabazz, spoke in Omaha as part of celebrations in 1990. At that point she held four degrees and was the director of communications and university relations at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
That year, there was a nationwide movement to declare May 20, 1990 as a National Malcolm X Day. While it wasn’t declared by the federal government, a national organizing committee based in Omaha said 23 other cities expressed interest. A corporate challenge to encourage nationwide pilgrimages to Omaha to celebrate Malcolm’s birthday happened, too, with the City of Omaha, ConAgra, Lozier Corp, Mutual of Omaha, and several other companies participating. National figures such as comedian Dick Gregory, former Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher, actor Avery Brooks, and Kwanza founder Maulana Karenga participated in celebrations in Omaha, as well as local leaders, including George Garrison and Wali Gill from the University of Nebraska at Omaha; State Sen. Ernie Chambers; Rowena Moore; Fred Conley from the Omaha City Council; Darryl and Harry Eure; Rodney Wead of the Wesley House; Brenda Council of the Omaha Board of Education; and more from the Black Guardians and Mad Dads, among other organizations.
Activities that year included a cleanup of the birth site, panels and forums held at the OPS district offices, and a play, a parade, music, an official City of Omaha proclamation.
Other observations of Omaha’s Malcolm X Day happened in 1992, 1994 and 1997.
In 1997, a defunct organization called Oran’s Black Americana Historical Museum on South 13th Street hosted a wax sculpture of Malcolm X, and expected 50 elementary students to attend. According to the Omaha Star, Oran Z also gave lectures around the city on African Americans in the railroad industry as part of Malcolm X Day celebrations.
Honoring the Leader Today
Today, there is no evidence of a Malcolm X Day celebration in Omaha. The last commemorative events I have found happened in 1997, and not since then.
There have been various efforts to honor Malcolm X in his birth city though. Mrs. Moore founded the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, and in the past 25 years it has acquired 15 acres surrounding the birth site, created a plaza, built an interpretive center and educational memorial, and started a community garden. The State of Nebraska erected an official marker there in 1987.
Malcolm X Day was proposed as an official state holiday in Illinois in 2015. As of 2018, only the city of Berkeley, California observes the holiday with city offices and schools closed, while Washington, D.C. has hosted annual events since 1971.
A social force, culture builder, educational center and powerful advocacy base, the Negro YWCA was vital to African Americans advancement in Omaha.
Founded in the 1890s, the Negro Women’s Christian Association of Omaha was pivotal force in the city. The organization originally met at African Americans’ homes regularly, learning and sharing and bringing the community together. Faced with a city segregated by informal Jim Crow rules, these pioneer leaders were facing discrimination daily and organizing in response. The activities of the Negro YWCA had died down by 1912, but re-formed just a year later in 1913. Focused on healthcare, eldercare and education, the charity established programs, raised funds and started outreach of several kinds.
The organization is be referred to in this article by its many names, including Negro Women’s Christian Association (1890-1920), the Colored Young Women’s Christian Association (1920-1930) or the North Side YWCA (1930-1969).
Segregation in Charity
The YWCA has a history of segregation across the country, and of fighting against segregation. Founded in 1855 in London, the Young Women’s Christian Association, or YWCA, is widely acknowledged as being a leader in most major United States movements for social justice, including race relations, labor unions, and the empowerment of women. Coming to the US in 1858, the organization started housing programs for rural women moving to cities, and developed outreach activities to support women in need. In the 1890s, the first African American YWCA branch was opened in Dayton, Ohio, and the first YWCA for Native American women opened in Oklahoma. In 1915, the organization hosted the first interracial conference in the South, and in the 1930s, members across the country were encouraged to protect African American’s basic civil rights by advocating against lynching and mob violence and for interracial cooperation. YWCA adopted its Interracial Charter in 1945, and stayed at the forefront of race relations as they moved forward. However, the national Negro Women’s Christian Association stayed intact through the 1970s.
Starting in the 1890s
Founded in Omaha in the 1890s, the segregated YWCA was initially focused on social activities, women’s voting rights, and building community among the city’s African American neighborhoods. They sponsored annual balls for the Black community, held Vaudeville shows at the Mecca Hall at 24th and Grant, and held contests to earn money for charity. There were also regular speakers invited to educate, advocate and empower the members.
An important figure in Omaha’s African American cultural scene, Helen Mahammitt (1873-1956), is credited as an initial founder of the organization, along with Mrs. Jessie Hale Moss (???-1920), who was a trained social worker who fought vigorously for the African American community in Omaha. In its second incarnation, Mrs. James Jewell, Mrs. Alphonso Wilson, Jane Duncan, Florence Riggs, Eva Walker, Pinkie Osborne and Mrs. Irvin Gray were leaders, among others.
Funded by the Omaha Community Chest from its inception, other organizations in the same league with the Negro Women’s Christian Association were Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, the Child Saving institute, House of Hope, the Christ Child society, the Catholic and Jewish welfare and charitable societies, the Augustana Lutheran Women’s Home society, the Salvation Army, the Volunteers of America, the Hattie B. Monroe Home for Crippled Children, Minerva Cottage, the Masonic Boys’ home, the YWCA, The YMCA, the Red Cross, Society for the Friendless, Nebraska Tuberculosis Society, Nebraska Children’s Home Society, Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and the Junior League Day Nursery, among others.
However, the next year after Pegg spoke, in 1915, there was a battle within the association when his wife wouldn’t allow the group to continue to fund the home. According to the regularly mis-representing and frequently racist Omaha World-Herald, the group voted to disband and close the home. However, in 1916 they re-incorporated and continued operating the facility for another 40 years.
In 1920, the Omaha World-Herald took great pride in the racist pronouncement that three white women had bought a house at 2306 North 22nd Street for the so-called Colored YWCA. Mrs. Charles Offutt, Mrs. Edward L. Burke and Mrs. Sam S. Caldwell were named as the benefactors who spent approximately $20,000 on buying, renovating and furnishing the house. A commercial kitchen and dormitories for African American women were built in the house. The house was seen as perfectly positioned because of its proximity to Zion Baptist, St. John AME, and a nearby shirt factory that employed 60 African American women daily. The article was proud to announce that a white woman from the “main” YWCA for the city would be responsible for overseeing the new location.
During the same era, the Negro Y.W.C.A. purchased a new location for their Colored Old Folks Home at 3029 Pinkney Street. It stayed there until it closed permanently.
Continuing Onward from the 1930s
In the 1930s, the association was regularly involved civic activities like building a new University of Omaha campus and locating jobs for African Americans.
The Works Progress Administration and Omaha Public Schools were regular partners during the Great Depression, as the N.W.C.A. held reading, writing and math classes at their offices. Large, formal dinners were held for unemployed African American families, and fundraisers gathered food and gifts for Thanksgiving from local churches. They sponsored a “stay-at-home” camp for children every summer throughout the decade, including performances and demonstrations at the end of the session. There were 75 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 15 who attended the five week sessions, which were held in partnership with the Omaha Urban League, Omaha Public Schools and the Works Progress Administration.
A 1933 report on urban sociology by Thomas Sullenger at the University of Omaha suggested the organization was being kept from being fully effective. “The North Side YWCA is working under handicaps with the limited facilities at their disposal… With the large number of girls eligible for membership in this organization, there should be a greater outlet for their activities…”
While they hosted a community center at the former Webster Telephone Exchange Building in the 1930s, the N.W.C.A. would pivot again in the coming years. During this decade, the North Side YWCA was seen as being in the same league as the Omaha Family Welfare Association, the Christ Child Center, the South Side Cultural Center and the Urban League. While they’d been funded by general donations to the Omaha Community Chest from the 1910s, by the 1930s they were seen as a race-specific charity and treated differently by donors.
World War II and the 1950s
The Northside YWCA formed the Omaha Negro Youth Council in partnership with the Woodson Center and the Omaha Urban League in 1942. Intended for high school students, was “…a means of developing greater opportunity for leadership, cultural expression, and more wholesome social affairs.” The mission was, “to bring greater unity among all high school boys and girls and to help create better understanding between races.” Mrs. G. Aneita Blackburn was the leader then.
During this era, the YWCA Camp Brewster offered a few opportunities for young women from the North Side YWCA to stay there in the summer as part of their integrated outreach.
The Civil Rights Movement moved into its modern phase after the war, and organizations like the DePorres Club, 4CL, the Black Panthers and others were rallying African Americans to action throughout North Omaha.
When it emerged after World War II, Omaha’s Negro Young Women’s Christian Association was on the forefront of Omaha’s Civil Rights movement. In 1948, member Mildred Brown, also the publisher of the Omaha Star newspaper, hosted a meeting with thirty-five people. Focused on employment for African Americans, the meeting led to Brown partnering with DePorres Club to take action, propelling justice through activism throughout Omaha. In 1942, ’43, and ’57 the organization was a sponsor of Bayard Rustin as he spoke in Omaha. Along with Ms. Brown, later members included Martha Evans, C. Ross, Elizabeth Jordan and Ruth Wiles. Verneta Hill was the executive director from 1948 to 1953.
By the late 1950s, the North Side YWCA had relocated to a building at North 28th and Miami Streets, and the Midwest Athletic Club was located in their original building at North 22nd and Grant. The Martha T. Smith Home for the Aged, named for the leader who’d started the former Colored Old Folks Home, closed permanently in 1961. Activities were mentioned as happening there through 1969, including a new program called a “Y” Club in that year.
By the 1970s, there was almost no mention of the organization left in Omaha.
933 North 25th Avenue—Negro Old Folks Home and Negro Y.W.C.A. headquarters (demolished)
2306 North 22nd Street—Headquarters
3029 Pinkney Street—Colored Old Folks Home and Negro Y.W.C.A. headquarters (demolished)
2213 Lake Street—Community center
North 28th and Miami Streets—Headquarters (demolished)
Like fidget-spinners and hula-hoops, a whole new craze swept America during the late 19th century and that craze was the bicycle. Omaha was not immune with Solomon’s Bicycle and Velocipedes for both boys and girls advertised by N.I.D. Solomon as early as 1880. By the 1890s, there were local Wheelclubs of bicycling enthusiasts who encouraged and sponsored longer trips all the way down to Glenwood, Iowa and elsewhere as well as races for speed and endurance. Then, in July 1895, the Omaha Bee announced that the city would have its own dedicated “cycle park” located on Charles Street between 17th and 18th Street to be officially opened on August 5. This would be a wooden track “eight laps to the mile” and was constructed on the site of a former local baseball field. The new Charles Street “cycle park” was “banked on the turns so high that it is almost impossible for a rider to slip or fall on them.” The new track featured a grandstand and was well-lighted by “arch lights” placed directly over the track.
The new track originally was originally managed by a Mr. Mardis and its early adulation went on to suffer several bumps. One race by women went on “unsanctioned” and then in May 1897, the track was “blacklisted” by local cycling officials until W. E. Becker and George Mierstein were given their due rewards from the “last big day six-day race”. Still, on November 6, 1897, Omahan Charles R. Hall set several “world’s unpaced records” at the Charles Street track. Hall had set out to reduce the state records and instead the “National Racing board” had determined that he lowered the world records in the 3 through 10 mile categories with a time of 7:07 minutes for the three mile and 25 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.5 seconds for the ten mile.
The same month those records were set the Bee also reported that the Charles Street track had fallen into a “dilapidated condition” as the newspaper considered that “board tracks, like cedar block pavement, last but a very short time”. The bicycle track wasn’t even three years old and already “the foundations are nearly all rotted away” with the board track itself “rotten and splintered”. The newspaper predicted that after another winter it would be “dangerous to ride upon” and instead promoted the potential promises of “cement tracks”.
Thus, in May 1898, an otherwise magic year for Omaha, the Bee newspaper reported the “old Charles Street park track” was being torn down. The grandstand was already gone and within 10 days the newspaper predicted the track would be taken back to “bare ground”. The grandstand stood over part of Charles Street and the newspaper predicted that thoroughfare would be returned to the city and reopened to regular traffic. There was also talk of an alley between 17th and 18th Street which would cut the old bicycle park in half. As for “local wheelmen”, they lamented the end of the Charles Street track as it was “the only exclusive bicycle track in the city”.
There are no memorials today to this short-lived phenomenon in Omaha history when the city had its own designated bicycle park. Charles Street between 17th and 18th is closed today and the site of a playground north of New Visions Homeless Services. Whomever rides their bicycle through there today likely doesn’t know the history of that site or its role in setting world records back in the days when the bicycle craze swept through Omaha and across America.
A hallowed history unlike any other organization in the state, the Urban League of Nebraska is committed to,
“…lead Nebraska in closing the social economic gap in the African American, other emerging ethnic communities and disadvantaged families in the achievement of social equality and economic independence and growth.”
The Urban League’s accomplishments in Nebraska have been vast and vital to the state’s growth, pushing the Nebraska motto of “Equality before the law” into the forefront every day. What brought this vanguard organization into that place of power and purpose though? Who are the people, how do the strategies work, and what are the outcomes of the Urban League’s efforts?
This article explores the history of Omaha’s chapter, now called the Urban League of Nebraska, and its impact on the city.
The Context for Action
The Civil Rights Movement began long before Rosa Parks sat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. In Omaha, there were activists struggling against white supremacy and for Black equality in the 1860s. Community organizing continued to appear piecemeal through the 1880s, when several African American leaders started rallying the community to action. In 1891, George Smith, a Black worker, was lynched in Omaha. Fighting against this hatred and racist portrayals of African Americans throughout Omaha, 1892 was a watershed year for African American activism in Omaha: the first African American newspaper in Omaha started that year; the Afro-American Civil Rights Club was started in Omaha that year, and; the first Black state senator was elected that same year.
White people fought against this action though, and white supremacy was maintained throughout the city. By the 1920s, two race riots had happened in Omaha; another African American man was lynched; several civil rights organizations started and stopped; and Malcolm X’s family was chased out of Omaha because of their pro-Black empowerment activism.
In that light, it was November 1927 when Omaha African Americans started their local chapter of the Urban League. Founded in 1910 in New York City, the Omaha chapter was the first founded west of the Mississippi River. Focused on providing social and educational programs for African Americans, the organization set up the Omaha Urban League Social Service Center in North Omaha’s segregated Near North Side neighborhood. The first offices were near North 24th and Patrick Streets in 2039 N. 24th St. Soon after, they moved to a small building on the northeast corner of North 24th and Ohio Streets.
J. Harvey Kerns was the first professional leader of the Omaha Urban League. Starting his service in 1928, he moved to Omaha after leading the Milwaukee Urban League. The first program operated by the Urban League was the Omaha Colored Free Employment Bureau. Kerns was responsible for absorbing the Mid City Community Center located in the Webster Telephone Exchange Building, moving the Urban League there in 1935.
In 1950, Whitney Young, Jr. became leader of the Omaha Urban League. Guiding the organization towards more community action and organizing, Young worked with corporate and government officials to promote fair housing and fair employment throughout the city. He also partnered deeply with Black churches and the DePorres Club to challenge white supremacy in Omaha, including redlining and racial discrimination, as well as racist attitudes among white people throughout the city. Young was also a part-time professor of social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, serving as one of the first African American faculty at the university. In 1952, Young facilitated the sale of the Urban League Community Center in the Webster Telephone Exchange Building, moving the organization into offices at North 24th and Wirt Streets. Young left Omaha in 1954 to become executive director of the national Urban League. Later, he spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and advised several presidents on civil rights and race-oriented issues.
In a great article by Leo Adam Biga for The Reader, he revealed many of the longtime activists, organizers and staff of the Urban League in Omaha, including Dorothy Eure, Lurlene Johnson and Charles Washington. More recent people involved have included Pat Brown, Kathy J. Trotter, Nicole Mitchell, Mary Thomas, Wayne Brown, and Richard Webb.
Called a “Negro welfare organization,” from its beginning the Omaha Urban League facilitated programs on recreation, employment and social connections. Activism continued taking shape during this era as community organizers working to expand employment opportunities for African Americans in Omaha.
From its onset, the Urban League of Nebraska was formed to build community engagement and fundraising throughout North Omaha specifically and Omaha in general. The Urban League Guild is a specific committee of volunteers focused on raising money for youth work, hosting events like cotillions, supporting nursing home visits, and more. Starting with its launch in 1938, The Omaha Star newspaper featured a column on the Urban League highlighting activities, outreach and reports on the organization and its programs.
During World War II, the Omaha Urban League fought for job training, upgrading of Black employees, and integration of offices and factories that had been closed to African Americans before the war. According to Executive Secretary Raymond R. Brown, “To those of us engaged in social work, the word defense has a broader and deeper meaning than military preparedness. It must include a defense of our economic and social democracy.”
After World War II, the National Urban League recommended Omaha take a turn from its traditional focus on recreation and social activities and towards activism and social change. Partnering with the Northside YWCA and the Woodson Center, in 1942 the Omaha Urban League started the Omaha Negro Youth Council for high school students “as a means of developing greater opportunity for leadership, cultural expression, and more wholesome social affairs.” The League started clubs at Central, North, South and Tech High Schools, which each sent representatives to the citywide council. Striving for unity and justice, the council continued for almost two decades.
The Urban League sponsored a meeting of religious leaders around Omaha met for a one-day meeting focused on civil rights in 1948 at the Rome Hotel. The major request was the establishment of a Mayor’s Commission on Civil Rights in Omaha, which was passed unanimously, but never enacted by the mayor.
Executive Secretary Leo Bohannon led the closure of the Urban League Community Center. According to one report, membership in the organization took a nose dive as many African Americans who were former members in Omaha were uncomfortable with the new activist orientation. However, the community rallied and membership numbers rose in the late 1940s. When rising Urban League leader Whitney Young, Jr. joined, he reportedly felt he had the support of the whole community. Within a year, Young stepped up efforts to partner with local government agencies, including the City of Omaha and the Nebraska Legislature. He also began partnerships with several employers throughout Omaha, making demands for equality in employment, including hiring and firing and promotions.
“…one of Omaha’s worthiest and most progressive organizations.”
–The Omaha Star on the 25th anniversary of the Omaha Urban League in 1953.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Omaha Urban League led several campaigns focused on hiring more African American teachers in the Omaha Public Schools district; hire African-American teachers at junior and senior high schools, and; promote integrated and quality education for all students in the district. The Urban League also advocated for housing integration for African American personnel at Offutt Air Force base. In 1978, the Nebraska Urban League received a 50th anniversary plaque at the national convention in Los Angeles, with J. Harvey Kerns, the second executive secretary in Omaha, attending the event.
Family Housing Advisory Services, a vital nonprofit in North Omaha, was started in 1968 as the Urban League Housing Foundation. That foundation was an extension of the organization’s commitment to quality housing for low-income African Americans in North Omaha.
Family Housing Advisory Services, a vital nonprofit in North Omaha, was started in 1968 as the Urban League Housing Foundation. That foundation was an extension of the organization’s commitment to quality housing for low-income African Americans in North Omaha.
The Omaha Urban League became the Urban League of Nebraska in 1969. Soon after that, the organization offered a number of services to the community, including a job bank, a college scholarship fund, a prison outreach program, and a phone referral system. In May 1978, the Urban League launched a weekly television broadcast in contract with CBW Productions. Hosted by renowned civil rights leader Charles Washington, the show was a weekly broadcast designed to improve race relations through dialog.
Today, the Urban League of Nebraska offers a program called the Whitney Young Academy, which seeks to “empower youth through education and career preparation.” The chapter also honors Young’s contributions to the city and state with a mural in the office and his bibliography featured on the website. Some of the other programs currently operated by the Urban League of Nebraska include the Collective for Youth, Youth Attendance Navigators, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, and Project Ready, as well as the Step-Up program for the Empowerment Network. They also operate the Urban League Family Resource Center near N. 30th and Lake Streets.
The leaders of the Urban League were originally called Executive Secretary, and then Executive Directors. Many of the leaders in Omaha came from other chapters across the country, including Akron, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and elsewhere. Similarly, they were often recruited from Omaha to join staffs in larger cities, including Kansas City, Los Angeles and New York City, as well as the national offices of the Urban League.
Finding the names, birthdates and tenures of past leaders of the Omaha Urban League has been challenging! Please share any corrections in the comments section of this article. The people I’ve found include:
Isaac Carpenter (unknown) served from 1927 to 1928.
J. Harvey Kerns (1897-1983) served from 1928 to 1935.
In our first episode, Adam Fletcher Sasse explains how Omaha’s fur trading roots still affect the community today. He explains Fort Lisa and Cabanne’s Post and how Bellevue came to be a fur trading center. All of this happened before Omaha was founded!
It can be hard to tell the story of a place almost nobody knows existed. However, I’ve cobbled together accounts from a town founder’s diary, the newspapers and other accounts to share this history of Sulphur Springs, a settlement in the Saratoga township of Douglas County in the Nebraska Territory from 1857 to 1877.
Starting a Town in Pioneer Nebraska
In 1844, the US Congress passed the Federal Townsites Act. Speculators from the East Coast decided this would let them make millions from the settlement of the Indian Territory, including the land that became Nebraska. Crossing the river from the Iowa Territory that year, initial settlers were rejected by the federal government for the next decade. However, these same land hounds went back East and told speculators about the opportunities waiting for them. They sold speculation on the idea that when the Nebraska Territory opened, settlers would need to buy supplies from towns that needed to be built. Moving into the area before the Territory was official opened to homesteaders, the Federal Townsites Act of 1844 allowed town promoters to purchase 320 acres, usually for about $400. Shareholders would buy land around the new towns, claiming homesteads of 160 acres for themselves. These land speculators were given the legal titles to the land when the Nebraska Territory opened, and expected to make riches off lots they sold to settlers. They also sold shares in the town to other speculators. It was a gamble though, because if their towns didn’t pan out these speculators would lose their shirts!
In 1854, the Nebraska Territory opened to speculators and homesteaders. It was a wide-open land filled with wild hopes and fantastic dreams. For wealthy land speculators, the western shores of the Missouri River were ripe for the picking, with plans to build docks, towns and cities from the southern boundary to the far northern reaches of the river. One of those was a corporation of men from New York state, and their company was called the Sulphur Springs Land Company.
Established in October 1856 as part of the Nebraska Territory land grab, the Sulphur Springs Land Company was meant to make a fast buck for its founders. Establishing their initial development along the Missouri River that year, they named it from the spring located behind town, which they believed would make them rich men.
According to Beadle’s diary from his time in the Nebraska Territory, there were about a dozen shareholders in the Sulphur Springs Land Company. Taylor G. Goodwill was the chairman of the executive committee of the Sulphur Springs Land Company, and he had the original vision for the Grand Hotel built around the sulphur springs. Goodwin owned the actual sulphur springs and probably named the town Saratoga after the popular resort in Saratoga, New York.
LeRoy Tuttle was the company treasurer and a banker from Cooperstown, New York. He worked for the Western Exchange Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Omaha, one of the first wildcat banks chartered by the Nebraska Territorial Legislature.
Other shareholders included Thomas Hart Benton, Jr., James Comey Mitchell, William Young Brown. This group owned several “wildcat” banks in the Nebraska Territory intended to make fast money for the investors, including the Western Exchange Bank in Saratoga, the Fontanelle Bank, the Bank of Florence, the Bank of DeSoto and the Bank of Tekamah. The rest of the shareholders included A. F. Salisbury, Edwin Patton, Addison Cochran, C. B. Smith, and Samuel M. Owens.
Buying Up Land
Taylor bought his 160 acres, including the sulphur springs, in 1854 from William Clancy. After that, he formed the Sulphur Springs Land Company to expand the township and gather investment money to build his town.
In addition to the initial 320 acres claimed for the townsite, each investor claimed 160 acres nearby, and the township eventually added up to 2,300 acres. This extended from present-day Carter Lake to North 42nd Street, from Locust street north to Fort Street.
Within that townsite, there were three separate places platted: Suphur Springs, the Town of Saratoga, and West Saratoga.
Starting Sulphur Springs
This group’s town was called Sulphur Springs. Laying out lots along the riverside and extending over the cliffs lining town and onto the wide plain above town, the town founders staked out lots, built docks just south of the Saratoga Bend in Sulphur Springs, and encouraged development by selling land cheap and recruiting settlers from Council Bluffs and Omaha. Located north of Omaha and south of Florence, Sulphur Springs was named for a natural spring flowing from the cliffs east of present-day North 14th Street at Pinkney Street.
There were several streets laid out in Sulphur Springs by a surveyor hired by Beadle, as well as the initial number of lots.
In March 1857, the Sulphur Springs Land Company named a New Yorker from Buffalo to be the town manager and the company’s chairman to expand their efforts. Erastus F. Beadle had come to Omaha in summer 1856 to study the area and see if he wanted to get involved in the fledgling company. Returning home that season, he came back to Nebraska in April 1857 as an investor and employee of the Sulphur Springs Land Company. It took him 21 days to travel from New York to Nebraska. Serving as the company manager, his job was to supervise the drawing of lots for the shareholders, promote the town, and give away the free lots to people who would build on them. Beadle was supposed to earn a free lot and money for his job.
Beadle immediately set up a new townsite separate from Sulphur Springs that he called Saratoga Springs. With the first steamboat arriving at his dock on April 19, 1857, Beadle started a warehousing business, built a large warehouse along the river, and waited for money to come pouring in. Promoting Saratoga actively, he became friends with Bird B. Champman, publisher of The Nebraskian newspaper, and placed ads in the paper frequently. He was also acquainted with Nebraska Territory Governor Thomas Cuming, who owned lots in the Saratoga township.
The company set aside 256 lots for churches, schools and settlers who had to begin building houses or businesses by July 1, 1857. Beadle was initially very optimistic about his prospects and the possibility of the company striking it rich on the land.
The Saratoga Claim Club was organized in 1857 to help settlers protect their claims within the townsite. Given any threat from pre-empters or people who’d steal other peoples’ land, a group of men would gather together with their weapons and enforce the initial claim on the land–or the claimant they liked the most. This was pioneer justice, and was often biased and prejudiced. However, Beadle liked its effectiveness.
During the summer, $100,000 was dedicated to building a hotel called the Trinity House. Designed to cover an entire block in Saratoga, the building was finished on August 12th. Renamed the Central House when it opened, there was an opening gala that was “by far the most brilliant party ever given in the Territory,” with 200 guests served a ten course dinner complete with claret and port wine, along with a magnificent ball and wonderful music by a good band.
However, by the end of August 1857 Beadle was bummed. The company wasn’t selling lots quick enough to make money, and there were rumors from the East Coast about money problems about to hit the nation. In a diary he kept, his enthusiasm sounded drained and he quit working for the company. He homesteaded on a section of land near present-day South 108th and West Center Road, creating a farm and building a house. He didn’t stay there though, and eventually sold off the land he wrote about so poetically. His name for it stuck though, and today we still call Beadle’s Rock Brook Farm by its original title.
Closing the Company
Late in September 1857, there was a run on the banks throughout the eastern Nebraska Territory. A financial panic spread across the young United States that year, and settlers came pounding on the doors of these wildcat banks that were started within the few years before then. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of capital behind these banks, and when the run started a lot of settlers found themselves holding script from these banks that didn’t have anything behind them. Script was locally-produced money made by the banks, and exchanged with the settlers for their hard cash. It was treated as currency within a lot of the towns where the banks were located, as well as beyond those local banks.
Each of the banks mentioned earlier were wildcat banks, and each was slammed by the financial panic of 1857. They included:
Western Exchange Bank in Saratoga
Bank of Florence
Bank of DeSoto
Bank of Tekamah
When these banks’ customers came knocking repeatedly for money that didn’t exist, the bankers took the cue to close up shop and run away! Each of the five banks listed were tied together by their investment group, which was the Sulphur Springs Land Company. When the banks folded, the company folded. Their towns, including Saratoga, West Saratoga and Sulphur Springs, all ceased to exist formally at that point. Sure, people still lived there and the land was still on maps, businesses did business and the area kept growing–but there was no business behind all of it trying to drive profits and grow the place on purpose.
Only two boats ever stopped at Sulphur Springs. There were no stores or supply houses to serve the emigrants coming through the area though, and with the Panic of 1857, an independent town government was never established. The Panic also forced the exit of some of the most active promoters, including Beadle. There were no real town promoters or fiscal supporters left there after 1857.
Sulphur Springs nearly died.
Sulphur Springs Continues…
However, Sulphur Springs didn’t just whither up and die after Beadle left. Neither did Saratoga or West Saratoga. Sure, the Sulphur Springs Land Company ceased to exist, making legal claim to the lands within the Saratoga Township feeble at best. However, people still lived there, businesses still worked, enterprises still happened and the future still arrived.
In addition to the warehouse that Beadle built and sold, by 1858 there was a dock, a lumberyard, a brickyard and other enterprises that happened in Sulphur Springs. In September 1857, the United States government appointed a postmaster to the Saratoga Post Office, but it closed in early 1859. In February 1858, a committee lobbied the Nebraska Territory Legislature and got permission to found the University of Nebraska at Saratoga. That never amounted in anything though.
Saratoga was host to a big celebration on July 4th, 1858, with music by the Omaha Brass Band. A lot of events were held at the Central Hotel. Starting that same summer, the Douglas County fair was held southeast of 24th and Ames Avenue into the 1870s, and the Nebraska State Fair was held in town intermittently, too.
In the 1860s, the Saratoga School became a major fixture in the area, hosting events, elections, and more. The Saratoga Congregational Church was established by 1869, and a church was built in the early 1870s at North 25th and Ames. It stood until the 1920s, and was eventually used by Lutherans and as a public library.
Brownell Hall and Sulphur Springs
The Center Hotel went bankrupt in 1861. That year, the Episcopal Church opened a school there. For four years, girls in grades 1 through 8 came from across the area to board at Brownell Hall. They went to classes, created social activities, and planned for their futures. Several times annually, the school held picnics and socials; wagons came from Omaha City, Florence, Fontanelle, Blair, Bellevue and Council Bluffs to visit; and donations came in from regional benefactors. The students’ favorite campground for weekend excursions was supposedly at the foot of the bluffs east of present-day North 14th Street. When Cyrus Tator was executed at North 14th and Pinkney in 1863, the girls supposedly stopped camping in the haunted spot—which was near the actual sulphur spring. In 1868, the school moved to downtown Omaha, leaving Saratoga in the imaginations of girls. Stories poured out of threats from nearby Native American tribes; long days of baseball between Saratogians and Florencians, Omahans and others; and the struggles of living in a pioneer boarding school with no chimneys in their rooms, no running water near the building, and few amenities to make their lives easier. That all ended when the school moved into Omaha.
Since it continues today as the Brownell-Talbot Academy, Brownell Hall may be the most famous vestige of Saratoga’s history. However, it wasn’t the only one.
Starting in 1875, the county fair grounds near Sulphur Springs became known as the Omaha Driving Park. In May 1883, Buffalo Bill held the premier performance of his Wild West show there, and for years after special events were held at the track.
In 1873, there was a United States Supreme Court trial affecting the Sulphur Springs. In the case of John A. Smiley v. Sampson, two early owners of the land who sold to the Sulphur Springs Land Company took the former owners to court, contesting they never actually sold their land to the company, and that the company wasn’t legally sound to own title to the land. Presenting homestead certificates signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, the pair eventually won. There was another U.S. Supreme Court trial involving the Sulphur Springs Land Company in 1872 in the case of Frank B. Myers v. John T. Croft. In both cases, the solubility of the company is in question, and in neither case was it proven to be real.
In 1877, a raging flood cut off the Missouri River from Sulphur Springs. It was replaced immediately with a puddle about 1/3 of the current size of Carter Lake. A few years later, another flood inundated the area and expanded the water, which became known as Cut-Off Lake, then Lake Nakoma and then Carter Lake.
Before the City of Omaha pondered building a publicly-financed water works, there was a lot of talk around town about private companies building water filtering and distribution places around the area. In 1879, these companies’ searches reached a fever pitch and they started scouting locations, and one of these was Sulphur Springs. The costs for constructing the water works there would’ve been significantly less than elsewhere, but eventually it was concluded that it wouldn’t work because of the marginal condition of the water. The City Water Works Company finished the Florence Water Works in 1880, and the facility still serves MUD customers today.
In April 1882, the Omaha Daily Herald lamented the condition of the springs. “It is with great pity that the sulphur springs north of the city do not receive more protection against the ravages of time.” Apparently there was a house built at the springs that was rotting apart, and the hundreds of people who used to come to the springs everyday weren’t coming anymore. “All it lacks is a rusty iron stove to make it resemble a Council Bluffs streetcar,” which meant it was the WORST. The paper wanted the site cleaned up and renovated to encourage people back there to enjoy it.
A year earlier, in 1885, the Belt Line Railway was laid north from Nicholas Street to Locust, through the Sulphur Springs land and onto Florence following the old Saratoga Road up the bluff towards North 16th and Commercial Avenue. This line ran for the next 70 years. Right after it was finished, the mother railroad of the Belt Line, the Missouri Pacific, built a roundhouse just north of Locust inside Sulphur Springs. That same year there was a malaria infestation hitting Omaha. As a response, city engineers made a ditch running from Fort Omaha to Sulphur Springs to push stagnant water into the lake.
The Omaha Rowing Association was launched in 1885 from the old Sulphur Springs docks. With their first regatta happening on Cut-Off Lake in October, the crews brought out “many wagons full of spectators,” with the viewers including many women and men making wagers on the crews. A boathouse was eventually built there that stood into the 1930s, when it was rebuilt further north by the Works Progress Administration. However, the Omaha Rowing Association didn’t continue after that, until it was resurrected in the 1990s. The continued existence of the rowing boathouse on Carter Lake today may said to be originated with the 1885 club though.
Then there was yet another new vision for the sulphur springs.
In 1886, the Omaha Bee pushed the Saratoga Sulphur Springs in a battle against Manhattan Beach on Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs. While several of the properties out on East Omaha Island developed well, I think its honest and easy to say that Sulphur Springs didn’t ever really match up to Manawa.
In 1887, a pioneer real estate mogul and lawyer named A. J. Poppleton petitioned the City of Omaha to close all the streets and alleyways in Sulphur Springs. The City granted his request, and with that the sun set on the Old West land speculators’ dreams. No more docks, no more industry and no more hopes for the future. Sulphur Springs was over.
A gas well was discovered near the sulphur springs at Sulphur Springs in 1887. In August 1888, a 540-foot pipe was extended from the well to Sherman Avenue. A jet was put on the pipe, and a flame two feet high was lit. The owners of the piping quickly exclaimed their well would light and heat the entire City of Omaha, and they would have enough to fill the balloons “sailing in the upper air during the [county] fair.”
Throughout the decades, there were numerous incidents of “tramps” and “gypsies” that gathered in the vicinity of Sulphur Springs. For instance, in 1895 an Omaha World-Herald report said that “a swarm of tramps” were encamped at the spot, and after supposedly mugging someone a member was arrested. “The occurrence will probably cost him a few days of time [in jail], which is not at all valuable.”
The Bluff Tract
In 1898, the Omaha Driving Park and hundreds more acres next to Sulphur Springs hosted the most grand event Omaha ever knew: the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. After a grueling battle over where to site the event, Saratoga won out and a royal fairgrounds was built. Covering blocks of land acquired by Omaha banker Augustus Kountze in the 1860s, the land skyrocketed in value after it was covered with faux Greek temples made of horse hair and lathe. With new hotels, theaters, taverns and more, the intersection of North 16th and Locust thrived. Called the Bluff Tract, the Sulphur Springs Addition was packed with a giant teeter totter and the scenic railroad, among other attractions. There were several buildings on the Bluff Tract, including the state buildings, the Horticulture, Apiary, Poultry, and other buildings, and a section of the Midway. There was sewage, water systems, and electricity installed across the area, too, along with trees, sod and flowers. The Belt Line Railroad served the Bluff Tract excellently, as well as carrying general passengers to the rest of the Expo, too.
After the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo, homes and businesses filled the area above the Sulphur Springs site, west of the cliffs, and the history of the Sulphur Springs was nearly forgotten entirely.
By 1900, the entirety of the Saratoga township including Sulphur Springs was nearly absorbed into Omaha. That year, a dozen squatters were pushed out of the site by the Omaha Police Department. Although north of the notorious Squatter’s Row, these homes had reportedly been on the site for at least a dozen years. Apparently, they lost a court case and left the land after they were repeatedly harassed by railroad police and agents for the landowners.
A huge fire ravished the old Sulphur Springs area in 1910, including a roundhouse and a shack by the old springs. Bodies were found near that shack in a potential crime I couldn’t find more information about. In 1911 a new railroad roundhouse was built in the Sulphur Springs addition for the Omaha Road. It was destroyed by the Easter Sunday Tornado of 1913, and rebuilt a few years later. That same tornado smashed through the rest of the area too, and left a lot of destruction among the enterprises in and around Sulphur Springs. The Missouri Pacific roundhouse was located in the Sulphur Springs Addition, too, and the Union Pacific ran a spur from the North Yards around the north side of Carter Lake for industrial work there, too. The Sulphur Springs Addition was home to three railways through the years.
Other developments brought change to the area that used to be Sulphur Springs. They included:
The development of several industrial scale icehouses on Carter Lake dependent on the railroads, bringing hundreds of workers into the area daily, and staying intact for 40 years;
And much more.
The seemingly endless count of railroads and railroad infrastructure through and around the town included the Illinois Central Bridge over Carter Lake (demolished); the Union Pacific Bridge over Carter Lake (demolished); the Locust Street Causeway over Carter Lake (demolished); the Locust Street Viaduct (demolished); the Omaha Road Roundhouse at 35 Carter Lake Shore Dr (demolished); and the Missouri Pacific Roundhouse at 35 Carter Lake Shore Dr (demolished).
The history of Sulphur Springs, Nebraska Territory seems to have ended before it could ever get going. Today, the area is an industrial wasteland poisoned by toxics from a century ago, railroads that dumped oils and creosote and just left them behind when they bailed on the land. Despite recent attempts to sell it as prime real estate, the large chunk of land still sits empty, waiting for a vision. There are no acknowledgments of its past, either. Not a plaque, few mentions in books, and barely any appreciation for what was.
Starting in 1896, the The Salvation Army ran the Rescue Home and Maternity Hospital in North Omaha. Originally located at 3704 N 24th Street from 1896 to 1920, the hospital supported young women and women without support from pregnancy through birth. The children born there were often placed for adoption.
In 1920, the Omaha Salvation Army opened the Rescue Home and Maternity Hospital in the old Governor Saunders Mansion at 2008 North 16th Street, and stayed there until 1938. Expanding the mansion repeatedly, there were eventually more than 60 rooms there. In 1921, the facility was described as “a home for girls who are incorrigible.” They got religious training and “are encouraged to start life over in a new manner.”
It was renamed for Catherine Booth in 1938 and moved to 2404 Pratt Street at the location of the former Evangelical Covenant Hospital. The Booth Hospital was also called the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers. The facility was rebuilt in the late 1940s.
In 1967, the hospital was moved to South 40th and Dewey Streets. That building was closed in 1978, and sold to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 1990. Today the Salvation Army North Corps Community Center operates a new facility at the corner of North 24th and Pratt Streets.
“Write or telephone, asking for an interview. Policies and programs are flexible to meet individual needs. All factors are discussed confidentially with the applicant and arrangements made to give the girl and her baby the specific help that their situation requires. This service is available on the basis of need, regardless of creed, color, class or circumstances. The spiritual purpose is paramount. We are concerned with the whole person – not only the physical need but the mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs as well.”
–1964 newspaper ad for the Booth Hospital
From 1896 to 1978, the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital had four incarnations, three of them in North Omaha.
First Location: Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers, aka North Side Rescue Home
Location: 3824 N 24th Street
Second Location: Salvation Army Rescue Home and Maternity Hospital
2008 North 16th Street
Third Location: Women’s Home and Hospital, aka Catherine Booth Memorial Hospital
Before the Nebraska Territory was opened for settlement, there were land speculators sitting in Council Bluffs chomping at the bit to get land in or nearby a town that didn’t even exist yet called Omaha City. Some were shaggy opportunists without any money, while others were well-heeled capitalists waiting to make a fast buck. One of them was George Smith.
Early Years in Omaha
Born in 1826 in Genoa, Ohio, George Smith came from the East and arrived in Omaha without a lot more than the coat on his back and a wagon full of supplies. At the age of 30, he landed on the west side of the Missouri River and staked out a slice of land on the south end of present-day North Omaha. That was May 15, 1856, and the land was located between present-day North 16th and North 18th, from Grant Street to Lake Street. The address was 1602 North 16th Street, which is at present-day North 16th and Clark Streets.
Just three days after landing, Smith already had a house 3/4 of the way built on his newly claimed homestead. The Omaha Claim Club showed up that day with 100 riders though, and when Smith saw them coming he ran like the wind and hid in some trees. Apparently, he knew they weren’t going to be okay with his claim because he hadn’t approved it with them. Figuring that 100 men on horseback weren’t there to bargain, Smith hid instead.
The leader of the group had his force tear down the house, then rode up to Smith’s hiding place. Yelling about the house, Smith eventually agreed to leave town right away, and he did. According to his own telling from an 1881 newspaper story, he went back to his old farm in Glenwood, Iowa, and stayed there except to visit Omaha occasionally. For several months, he didn’t say anything about the farm he lost in North Omaha.
However, in January 1857 Smith filed a letter with the United States General Land Office to claim his turf. In February, the Omaha Claim Club held a large meeting at Pioneer Square in Omaha City, declaring the rule of law over all of Douglas County, with forces from Florence, Bellevue and elsewhere attending. Attempting to formalize and legitimize their vigilantism, the group made by-laws and created committees, and terrorized the county freely to their own benefit. In December of that year, the land claim office rejected Smith’s letter under the premise that he hadn’t lived there for a year, and declared that his claim was null and void.
In early 1858, Smith went on to hire a Washington lawyer to appeal for him. The lawyer had pamphlets about Smith’s case printed and distributed throughout Nebraska, and got the register of the land office in Omaha as a witness for Smith’s case. The register, John A. Parker, testified that not only had a mob torn down Smith’s improvement on the land, but that nobody else had improved it since.
Smith’s claim was re-instated and the land was his again.
Decades of Public Service
In 1870, Smith became an Omaha City Council member.
Later, George Smith was elected repeatedly as the Douglas County Surveyor from 1865 to 1887, and was deputy surveyor from 1887 to 1901. Working on behalf of landowners to establish, formalize and otherwise make legit their claims to land, real estate sales, and more, he was often cited in the Omaha Bee and the Daily Herald with opinions and ideas about the city’s development and growth on topics including gutters and sewers, street lowering and grading, and public places. This outspokenness seems to have peaked in 1888 with the siting and development of the new Omaha City Hall. In 1889, Smith had a testy public exchange with Andrew Rosewater in the newspapers, complete with name-calling and backbiting. Originally pulling for a site along Farnam which required street grading and a lot of surface work, he eventually advocated for Jefferson Square to become the site of the City Hall. That argument didn’t win though, and the building was constructed on Farnam against both mens’ wishes.
In his position, Smith was also a primary figure in establishing the Nebraska/Iowa state line through Cut-Off Lake, now known as Carter Lake, in 1892. The line was ratified by the federal government in 1893. That year, the Omaha World-Herald rallied against Smith continuing as the surveyor, and was effective in getting him booted from the office. They continuously called him incompetent, especially regarding the Platte River canal debacle. In that instance, apparently Smith’s judgment of distance cost Douglas County thousands of dollars in fines when they were off by more than 10,000 feet. His error was attributed as the reason why the canal from the Platte through Omaha to the Missouri River was never constructed. He sat on various committees and commissions after his public service. For instance, he was on the board for the Omaha and North Platte Railroad in 1886.
Referred to as “Doc Smith,” some references called his old house on North 16th Street as the “Dox Box.” At the end of his life, his address was listed at 2202 North 16th Street. Apparently, the Doc Box was his original cabin, eventually marked by a sign outside the building and placed next to his fine, large house. Inside it was filled with books and music that he listened to everyday in his older age. He kept surveying land until a few days before his death. His wife was Sarah M. (Converse) Smith (1837-1909), and they were married in January 1862 in Omaha.
“Emanations from Dox Box”
In September 1900, “Doc” George Smith was “stricken with paralysis,” and the “whole of his right side” was affected. When he died in January 1901, with an obituary proclaiming, “Guide, philosopher and friend of early settlers goes to his long home. He resisted demand of claim club, had a big heart for children and young men and settled here forty six years ago.” He died on January 10, 1901, and was buried in North Omaha’s pioneer resting place, the Prospect Hill Cemetery (note that his headstone there is dated wrong, and says he died in 1900. All the newspaper reports say 1901).
Aside from his tombstone, today there’s no marker for Dox Box, in memory of Pioneer Smith’s fight for land justice, or in honor of the decades of public service Doc Smith paid as surveyor for Douglas County and the City of Omaha.
As a side note, “Dox Box” was still standing in 1946 when it was the topic of a question in a letter to the editor of the Omaha World-Herald. Located just south of North 16th and Burdette, it stood for several years longer.
There was a time when every neighborhood in Omaha had its own grand movie theater. For more than two decades, that was the Corby Theater in the Kountze Place neighborhood. This is a short history of the building.
Starting in the 1880s, the Kountze Place neighborhood was intended to be an upscale commuter neighborhood served by Omaha’s horse-drawn railroad. With North 16th as an eastern boundary, the neighborhood was lined by North 30th on the west, Locust Street on the south and Sprague Street on the north. Established by Omaha pioneer banker Augustus Kountze, there was a lot of land donated for a park, churches and schools. In 1898, the development hosted the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it filled in with beautiful homes and exquisite institutions, and tremendous civic infrastructure to boot.
The Theater Opens
The Mozard Billiard Parlor was located on the northeast corner of 16th and Corby for more than a decade before the Corby was opened.
The Nebraska Theater Company was opened in 1926 by brothers Louis and Samuel Epstein and the World Realty Company. They immediately took ownership of the Orpheum and Roseland Theaters, and operated the Corby Theater.
Built in 1926, the Corby Theater was designed to serve the neighborhood. Designed by popular Omaha architect James T. Allan, the theater was built and originally owned by Alex Beck. In addition to 800 original seats, there was also a “cry room” for mothers with young babies. It was designed in the a Moorish Revival style, covered in light-colored brick highlighted with terra cotta detailing around the building. There was a single screen, along with three storefronts at the front that alternately housed a cafe, a clothing store and a beauty shop, along with other businesses that frequently with different owners and operators. The building has 10,800 square feet within, with an additional 4,000 square feet in the basement. It included the addresses 2801, 2803 and 2805 North 16th Street.
The Epstein brothers bought the building immediately from Beck.
Early on, the theater hosted live vaudeville shows. There was live singing, dancing and comedy, along with beauty shows and more. The shows were every Friday and Saturday, with occasional performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Some of the cafes located on the corner of the building included Mahon’s Cafe from 1926 to 1951, which explicitly and repeatedly only hired white staff, including waitresses and dishwashers. For a short while, Mahon’s was called King Tut’s Cafe; then it became the Corby Cafe in the late 1950s.
The Corby Cleaners were located in the storefront at 2805 North 16th from 1926 through 1945. In 1946, the Corby Theater bakery moved into the location, and in 1951 the storefront became a bar serving the theater. This same address referred to the Corby Cafe in 1951, and stayed there until 1973. There was a fire here in 1973, and the address has never appeared in the news since then.
In December 1933, the Corby closed for a month to have a “new RCA high fidelity sound system” installed. There was a “gala reopening” on December 22. In 1937, there was a massive new air conditioning system installed, and in 1949, the Epstein Amusement Company completely renovated the theater. By the late 1950s, the theater was permanently closed.
Harry Smith’s Businesses
In 1958, the Harry Smith Firestone Store opened in the old theater. Acting as a complete department store, they sold tires, clothes, toys, hardware, and much more for only two years before becoming Harry Smith Marine. Intended to cater to the boating crowd on the nearby Carter Lake, Harry Smith Marine was located in the theater from 1958 to 1967. Specializing in motorcycles too, the store sold and serviced Ducatis, Norton, BSA, Bultaca, Jawa and more.
In July 1967, the Omaha World-Herald reported that vandals attacked the store with axes and more, smashing the front windows and robbing the sales floor. Demolishing a boat, they broke into cabinets and more and looted merchandise. Nearby businesses including Lane Drug and the Volunteers of America Thrift Store were struck, too.
The business closed immediately afterward. In August 1967, there was an auction to sell remaining high dollar items, including boats and office equipment, store items and more.
Opened in 1973, Marvin and Eleanor Norton opened a store in the theater’s storefronts. Norton’s As-Is store sold used appliances, furniture and other used and low-cost items. They frequently advertised TVs, washers, dryers and more. It closed, but re-opened again in 1981.
Luther Haynes owned the building for at least a dozen years after buying it in 1987. Luther ran Fine’s Tier III Lounge there from 1992 to 1997 and spent five years and more than $150,000 renovating it. In 1999, another lounge opened there called Club Allusions. Featuring three bars, a dance floor and a stage, Club Allusions filled the entire building and was a popular nightspot. George Robinson operated the club for Haynes.
In June 1999, a four-alarm fire there caused $250,000 in damage. The second within a week, it was suspected to be an arson. To fight the blaze, firefighters ripped off the roof while smoke filled the building.
The building has never recovered, and as recently as 2015 it was reported to have open spots in the ceiling. Apparently, its being used as storage. That year, Restoration Exchange Omaha taped hearts on the building to promote its preservation as a historic place. Its appears to have sat quiet with no changes since then though.
Right now, there is no formal recognition of the role the Corby Theater played in Omaha history. It is not recognized as an Omaha Landmark, and it is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is rarely recognized for its architectural contributions to the city, its place in Omaha’s cultural fabric, or its ability to unit the community around a purpose-built community icon.
Some places hold the memories of North Omaha’s past more eloquently than others. While some of North Omaha transitioned from country estates to suburban bliss, from commuter haven to neglected hood, one building has stood steady in the community throughout almost everything. It’s called The Sherman.
Sherman Avenue and Madison Street
Before 1900, Sherman Avenue was a country road leading to the estates that lined the cliffs on the east side of the street. Large mansions sat on wide grounds built by wealthy businessmen who worked downtown. However, despite all this fanciness, it only took one building to transform this serene country life into a suburban dreamland, and later an urban reality. After this building was constructed, a dozen other apartments were built up and down the street; grocery stores, pharmacies, movie theaters and streetcar tracks were put into place. This building was The Sherman, a fine post-Victorian outpost that set the pace for North Omaha’s future.
Built in 1897, The Sherman was designed by Frederick A. Henninger (1865-1944) in the Neo-Classical Revival style and was constructed by local builder Gustave Peterson (1863-1938). George H. Payne (1864-1937) developed it for the Eastern Fidelity Trust Company, an investment firm. Payne, a successful real estate developer throughout Omaha, chose the site because of its proximity to the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo. Located on two streetcar lines, the Sherman is unique in Omaha today, and is credited with being one of the first apartment buildings in the city.
Named for the street where it sat—North 16th was called Sherman Avenue for several decades—the building was constructed with 12 apartments that had six rooms apiece, with hallways, bathrooms, large storage rooms, closets, marble washstands, oak floors and finishes, and a large front porch for each home. The three-story building had a large basement, too, with two large laundries, steam drying rooms and bicycle storage rooms. There was steam heat throughout the building, along with gas stoves, electric lights, electric doorbells, speaking tubes, and a telephone in the building. It was built at Sherman Avenue and Madison Street, now called Cady Avenue, and it was home doctors, lawyers, bankers, unmarried executives, and single women who had good paying jobs.
Designed to remind Omahans of classical Greek and Roman buildings, there are columned porches holding up porticos that have triangular pediments at the top. There are two of these features on the north and south ends of the west side of the building.
The apartment was built on Lots 28, 29, 30 and 31 in the Washington Square addition. The site was chosen for its proximity to the Expo grounds, as well as its availability. Sitting at the end of Lake Street, it was a great location.
According to an 1898 account, The Sherman was an immediate success for its investors, with every apartment rented six months before the it was finished being constructed. Initially, each apartment rented for $55 a month, and the building was managed by the Sherman Apartment Company. For several decades after it was built, The Sherman was treated as an exclusive residence that rented for top dollar. Society events were held there, the upper crust lived there, and it was a regal address to have.
An interesting side note is that even thought all indications were that the building was constructed only to be apartments, it was referred to as the Sherman Hotel in 1898. Alternately, it was also called the Sherman Flats from 1898 to 1914.
Construction of The Sherman made the area “ultra fashionable,” and led to the development of North 16th Street as a wealthy apartment row. After it was built in 1897, several others were constructed, including The Majestic in 1906; The Strehlow Terrace built between 1906 and 1916; Ivy Apartments in 1910; The Margaret, built in 1915; the Bretnor Court and Rosewell Court apartments in 1924; and the Fairfax Apartments at 2407 North 16th.
The Sherman was sold by Payne Investments Inc. in 1906 for $50,000. William Haney was a part-owner of the building in 1910. By 1915, the building had a private garage for each apartment, too.
By 1925, J. Warren Hahne had owned the apartments. Hahne confessed to murdering his wife, and was found insane when he committed the crime.
Long recognized for its role in developing Omaha, in 1929 the Omaha World-Herald featured the apartment in a history of multi-family houses in the city. They cited the 32-year-old building as leading all others of its style, influencing developers and residents who sought for more than a brick duplex or tiny flat above a store.
In 1931, the longtime janitor of the apartments was killed after being hit by two cars outside the building. Fred Schaffer, 63, had worked there for 12 years. There were a lot of cases of residents getting hit getting on and off streetcars along North 16th, as well as average deaths, awards and other recognitions by the Omaha World-Herald.One of the first women to run for county-level office lived at The Sherman. Katherine Tully ran for Douglas County Commissioner in 1944. In 1975, an 18-month-old child named Jennifer Darrough died after she was ran over by her father accidentally in the parking lot of the apartments.
In the 1950s, two apartments were built in the basement, bringing the building’s total to 14 apartments. The outside of the building is covered in brick, which was painted white in the 1990s. By that point, there was another apartment in the basement and the building’s total was 15 apartments.
Ownership of the Building
The Sherman was an investment property from the outset, built and intended to make profit for the owners. That formula was successful for more than 50 years, then faltered. Here are some details about the ownership of the building.
The Payne Investment Company sold the building to an unknown buyer in 1906. That year, Vaclav F. Kuncl, a businessman who owned several properties around the city, owned the building. Mrs. Barnum L. Gerber owned the building before 1952. That year, William Weiner bought the building for $46,000. In 1955, the building was put up for sale for $55,000.
Katherine “Rusty” Turner was the longest owner of The Sherman, and from all accounts, she worked harder than any other person in the history of the building to keep it intact, vibrant and sustained. She owned the building twice. The first time was in the 1960s, when she bought the property in terrible condition, fixed it up and sold it as an investment in 1969. However, it fell apart again and she repossessed it in 1975. Fixing it up again, Turner kept ownership and maintained the building for over 40 years. According to a feature in the newspaper, she was a hands-on landlord, traveling from her home in Washington state to Omaha to live in the apartments for several months every year. She painted, did restoration work, and was hands-on in all elements of building maintenance and management. She frequently rented to seniors, establishing a large family of residents and harboring goodwill with most of her tenants.
The Sherman in Modern Times
For more than a century, this building has been a distinct landmark in the area around it. It was one of the original apartment buildings in Omaha; its the oldest one still standing; it was a hallmark of prosperity through the Roaring ’20s and beyond; it was an island in the middle of decay and despair. Today, its story is being rewritten, and a reflection of that reality is that The Sherman was sold in May 2018 for $575,000.
There are a lot of historic properties surrounding The Sherman right now, including The Margaret Apartments at 2103 North 16th and Chambers Court at 2014 North 16th, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They are joined on the Register by a building called the Apartments at 2514 North 16th built in 1929. The Strehlow Terrace Garage at 2107 North 16th was built in 1909. Immediately south of The Sherman is the former Safeway Number 611 at 2465 North 16th, built in 1941, and north one block are the Bretnor Court and Rosewell Court apartments at 2536 North 16th. The site of the Storz Brewery is a few blocks south, along with the site of the Alvin Saunders mansion and the site of the A.J. Poppleton mansion. The 16th and Locust Historic District, including the historic State Bar, is just north.
Today, The Sherman is the oldest apartment building in Omaha. The building has 14 apartments across 15,390 square feet, and is owned by the Sherman Apartments, LLC. Its spacious apartments still have nooks once used as butcher pantries and maids’ quarters, with original oak woodwork, and some have disconnected gas fireplaces along with tin ceilings originally installed a century ago. The Sherman was designated an official Omaha Landmark in 1985, and in 1986 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The garages built around 1915 are long gone now, but the structure is largely intact from its original construction more than 120 years ago. It is widely heralded as one of the major preservation success stories in Omaha
The Sherman Apartments Timeline
1897—The Eastern Realty Corporation led by George H. Payne announces plans to build The Sherman.
1897—The Sherman was designed by architect Frederick Henninger.
1897—The Sherman was constructed by builder Gustave Peterson.
1898—The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was held immediately north of The Sherman.
1906—The Sherman was bought by Vaclav F. Kuncl for $50,000.
1907—The Sherman was bought by Mr. Hahne for $46,000
1915—The Sherman became handled by The Peters Trust.
19??—The Sherman was bought by Barnum L. Gerber for an undisclosed amount.
1952—The Sherman was bought by William Weiner for $46,000.
1955—The Sherman was bought by an unknown buyer.
1961—The Sherman was bought by Katherine “Rusty” Turner for $55,000.
1969—The Sherman was bought by an unknown buyer.
1975—The Sherman was repossessed by Katherine “Rusty” Turner.
1984—The Sherman was designated an official Omaha Landmark.
1986—The Sherman was listed on the The National Register of Historic Places.
2018—The Sherman was bought by Merle Vermuele for $550,000.
As soon as the year they started, the founders of Omaha City sought out the US military’s presence in their fledging burg. They knew securing an Army base would make Omaha relevant and bring important technological innovations faster. They succeeded, but only after local banker Augustus Kountze sold the government some choice land at a discount price. That land still abuts North 30th and Fort Streets in present-day North Omaha, and this is a history of the intersection where it sits.
Settling the Wild West
With a tiny town called Florence in the north end of Douglas County serving as a staging and restocking point for westward settlers and Mormons heading to Salt Lake, there needed to be a few roads leading to the old town of Saratoga and Omaha City to the south. One was called Butler Street, and today we call it North 30th. What we know today as Fort Street was originally called Garfield Avenue, and was laid out south of today’s Miller Park neighborhood around 1887. That entire area was still farm fields then, but the area south of there was developing. Small, affordable homes for soldiers’ families were built there.
Before that, in the 1870s, land throughout this area was owned by George Collier and A.J. Briggs, the Brown family and the Nichols family. Their little area wasn’t developed much though, except for a few small farmhouses. During the 1880s, it became fashionable for Omaha’s elite to take weekend rides to Fort Omaha to watch soldiers on parade in their fineries, officers on horses, and enjoy the military show of force.
Picture the scene of a military base with growing cottonwoods encircling it, brick officer’s houses surrounding it and a few large buildings around a large parade grounds. To the west were cornfields cut in half by the little Minne Lusa Creek. Just south of the intersection of Butler and Garfield was a covered bridge over the creek, and there were just two or three buildings at the intersection. This was 30th and Fort in the 1880s.
On the Edge of Town
During the early 1890s, there was an old barn near the intersection where soldiers would gather to gamble. Even though it was out of city limits, the barn was raided by Omaha Police Department detectives, who “pinched” the illegal gamblers more than once. That barn was owned by H.T. Beckman, and in 1901 it was burned down by an arsonist.
Frank Ketchum opened a tavern at the intersection of Butler and Garfield in the 1880s. In 1896, his main customers left the neighborhood when Fort Omaha closed for the first time, so he followed them to their new post at Fort Crook. Around the time he left, the Anheuser-Busch Park opened on the southeast corner of 30th and Fort. It became a popular place for picnics, and northern excursions from Omaha.
In 1899, the Omaha World-Herald ran a few articles about a family living in a box car near 30th and Fort, off the old Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad. Apparently, a lot had been made of them living in squalor and people were asked to make donations. In November of that year though, the newspaper said the family wasn’t that bad off afterall, or “the picture of distress can be as bad as somebody has painted it.” They went on to broker for the family though, and said “No doubt delicacies and nursing might be acceptable.”
Welcoming the 20th Century
By 1900, streetcars were running along Ames Avenue at 30th, and provided an easy way for Omahans to travel to Florence to go to Pries Lake and other entertainments there. That year, two highwaymen robbed a worker as he walked past the intersection late one evening. They ended up escaping, and the worker lost $25.
Edward Rich suffered a terrible fate in 1901. Walking down the railroad tracks where Sorenson Parkway is now, he was caught by surprise when a Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad engine came flying toward him. Without time to leap, according to the newspaper he was practically demolished by the train, with “blood, shreds of flesh, and pieces of clothing” found along the tracks “for several blocks east.” Letters found in his pocket gave his identity, and linked him to a nearby home. Apparently, his parents lived in Florence and his sister lived at 2745 Fort Street, within a mile of where he was killed. Rich had been living in Vermillion, South Dakota, for several years. His family had been out-of-touch with him, and it looked as if he was coming home. Within blocks, he was killed and never made it.
When the sewer was finished running from 30th and Ames to 30th and Fort in 1901, development of the neighborhoods surrounding it was ensured. To the south, the Collier Place and Kenwood neighborhoods, and the old town of Saratoga that was enclosed by Omaha at this point. The Miller Park neighborhood lots were set out for sale, and the intersection of 30th and Fort started developing proper.
Within a decade of the infrastructure growing, there were houses throughout the neighborhoods around 30th and Fort. The streetcar line was pushed north into Florence, and the intersection grew with it. In 1910, the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway company expanded their service to the intersection specifically. Apparently, the re-opening of Fort Omaha in 1906 led to a re-launch of weekend excursions to watch the troops there. However, with streetcar service intact now it was possible for the workingman to see the affairs instead of just the upper crust. The streetcar company added a “Y” to the intersection for cars to turnaround, and added a second car when weekend attendance started topping 10,000 (!) people some days. Announcements of housebuilding skyrocketed, and the neighborhood filled in soon afterwards. During this era, Fort Omaha was a popular baseball field too, in the same league as Rourke Park, Armour Park, Florence Park, Luxus Park and Athletic Park in Council Bluffs.
Around this time, 30th and Fort was home to the Post Cafè and the Post Pharmacy, both of which obviously served soldiers, as well as George Curry’s store, a small general store. The Post Cafè became the Post Restaurant by World War I. The cafe was open from 1913 through the 1930s, and the pharmacy was open from 1913 through 1923.
By 1913, the intersection was built-up enough and access was easy enough to justify building a new school there. However, this wasn’t any regular school. Instead, it was called the Fort Street School for Incorrigible Boys, and was meant to provide technical education for challenging students. Young men who skipped school, mouthed teachers, fought in the schoolyard and otherwise consistently acted wrong went to this school over almost a decade, learn trades like printmaking, woodworking, machining, and more.
On July 4th, 1914, the “largest gathering ever of Irish people held in this city” happened near 30th and Fort to celebrate the passage of the Ireland home rule bill. Happening in the old Anheuser-Busch Park, the program featured Gaelic sports and pastimes, along with music, dancing and refreshments. There was a talk given on the history of Irish home rule, and a fundraising activity to support the Emmett Monument.
In 1915, baseball in North Omaha reached its zenith as the Omaha Amateur Baseball Association rallied teams and ensured a lot of play at Fort Omaha.
As the United States geared up to enter World War I in 1917, the intersection at N. 30th and Fort Streets became crowded with military men and their support operations. Crowds frequently got off the nearby Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad train in A. J. Briggs’ addition called Briggs Depot, which was located just south of 30th and Fort at 3920 Grand Avenue. That railroad became part of the Chicago and Northwestern, which installed a trestle over North 30th at Grand Avenue, just south of the intersection, around this time.
Harry Lane bought the Post Pharmacy at 2920 Fort Street in 1921, totaling three Land Drug stores serving North Omaha. In 1954, Lane renovated the building after longtime tenants there passed away and the store closed.
In 1922, the former Anheuser-Busch Park on the southeast corner of 30th and Fort was developed for housing as the Woodland Park addition. It included 18 lots on three acres. During the late 1920s, the intersection had one of the first gas-driven bus lines in Omaha, taking passengers from there to South 32nd and Poppleton Streets. This decade also saw an ice house open up at the corner run by Charles Jensen.
On the southeast corner in 1930, a block north of the Fort School, L. V. Nichols opened a station under the White Eagle brand. The corner became a Socony service station in the 1940s, a Meneray and Berge station in the early 1950s, Todd’s Mobil Station in the 1950s and 60s, and remained a gas station into the 1970s. In a grand patriotic gesture, Pearl Church started hosting Memorial Day services for veterans and their families in 1930, lasting through the 1950s. Troops would gather at 30th and Fort with a National Guard “escort of Honor,” and then march to the church for services. The streetcar company opened a specific North High service from 30th and Fort to 30th and Lake in 1933. It was intended to make students use the streetcar more, and to encourage lifelong ridership.
Frank’s Place opened near the southwest corner of the intersection in 1931, offering a “cool beer garden” and Saturday night dancing. In 1934, Edward Robinson opened the Brown Bottle Tavern there, and stayed in place for almost four decades. In 1941, the Florence streetcar service ended and 30th and Fort became the northern turnaround again.
Suburban Bliss After World War II
The entire district around 30th and Fort changed dramatically again after World War II. Houses filled in on every block throughout the Miller Park, Saratoga, Kenwood and Belvedere neighborhoods. A traffic light was (finally) installed at the intersection for the first time. In 1947, the old US Army Fort Omaha was recommissioned as a Navy base, serving reserve troops from across the country as they stayed ready for potential missions around the world.
In 1948, the popular Dall Drug had a store at 30th and Fort for just two years.
In 1952, the Navy reconfigured the entrance to the Naval Personnel Center at Fort Omaha. Formerly an 18-foot-wide road, the new gate had two 19-foot-wide roads with a guard house between them. Traffic lights at the intersection were re-installed, and the traffic flow was improved overall.
Hot Rods and Hooligans
With a car dealership, a gas station, two drive-thru burger joints, a car wash, and plenty of drag racing, the 1950s and 60s made 30th and Fort a cool place for suburban white kids in North Omaha to hang out. Hot rods squealed their tires and dug out along the street, guys and gals hung out windows and stood along the streets next to their cars with policemen crowing and crowds applauding every move. That came with downs, including constant patrolling by policemen, car accidents, and fights among dragsters. However, it was a very social corner with a lot of fond memories for people.
One of the reasons 30th and Fort became so popular in the 1950s was the Marshall Drive-Inn, a carhop fast food restaurant opened in 1947 at 5319 North 30th Street. Marshall’s was the penultimate drive-in, with carhops on roller skates and dragsters peeling in and out of the place. In 1953 though, Marshall sold the place to Yano Caniglia, a young Italian guy from south of downtown. Caniglia’s Royal Boy Drive-In took over the place, and was popular for almost two more decades.
Henry Jourdan operated a car dealership selling Plymouths and Chryslers at 30th and Fort from 1938 until 1956, when he retired. Jourdan Motors was located on the southeast corner by Camden Avenue. A car wash was built nearby at 30th and Saratoga Streets in 1950, and today the Symphony of Suds remains open at the same location.
In 1959, “Bronco Billy” Barnes opened Omaha’s first locally-owned and operated fast-food restaurant at the intersection, called Bronco’s Drive-In. During that time, “fast-food” was an entirely new concept. Business was good through the hot rod years, and the restaurant stayed popular into the 1980s.
The hot rods at 30th and Fort were so predominant that the Omaha Police Department regularly targeted the intersection for traffic tickets. On night in July 1959, they cited 13 drivers in a mere 45 minutes on a range of infractions, including faulty mufflers, illegal wheels, speeding and reckless driving. That night, one policeman reported that the intersection was the “toughest spot” in their citywide safety campaign.
In 1961, Caniglia’s Royal Boy Drive-In became Mr. C’s Steakhouse, which became a longtime landmark at 30th and Fort. The iconic place held a lot of special memories for people, including its “old world charm” including murals and year-around Christmas lights, its outdoor seating area resembling Italy, and its home-style food. However, like many around it for decades, Mr. C’s was also a segregated business, then only serving Blacks out the backdoor in the 1970s, and in the 80s openly welcoming African Americans.
A major transition in the intersection’s busy-ness and relevance happened in 1967. After 101 years in Omaha, the U.S. Army formally withdrew all units from Fort Omaha, ending their usage of the city’s resources for all intents and purposes. During that year, the U.S. Navy also transitioned the use of the Fort from being its personnel center with national relevance, to becoming the Naval Reserve Training Center. While it was still used, it wasn’t as popular, and it led to the complete turnover of the Fort for civilian usage just seven years later.
White Flight Changes Everything
By 1970, the intersection of 30th and Fort was changing rapidly. The economic stability provided by middle class residents in the surrounding neighborhoods was diminished as white people fled African Americans moving into the area. Racism drove segregation and isolation in this area for decades before; with the changing laws and culture of the 1960s, the businesses, houses, churches and institutions around 30th and Fort changed a lot.
In 1975, Metropolitan Community College took possession of Fort Omaha. The General Crook House was immediately listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a short while later the entirety of the campus’ historic facilities were made into a historic district. The preservation of Fort Omaha was seen as a tremendous success for historic preservationists in the city. The site became home to the Douglas County Historical Society and Landmarks, Inc., an advocacy organization.
A neighborhood bar called Ju Jo’s Pub opened in the old Brown Bottle Tavern location in 1976, and stayed open until 1991. Commercial Federal Savings and Loan opened a branch on the southeast corner of 30th and Fort in the 1980s. The Omaha Fire Department considered building a new fire station at the intersection in 1976, but reconsidered and didn’t do it.
During the 1970s, white flight struck the surrounding neighborhoods en masse, with middle class white families evacuating their homes due to “block busting” and other fear-mongering tactics by real estate agents anxious to sell new homes in west Omaha. Absentee landlords, disjointed urban renewal efforts and half-baked school improvement plans plundered the values of properties around 30th and Fort Streets. Businesses came and went during this time. Unfortunately, with the closure of Mr. C’s in 2006, the intersection appeared blighted for a decade.
Mr. C’s growth bought up the buildings on the northeast corner of the 30th and Fort. With their ever-expanding parking lot, several storefront buildings once located on the corner were demolished and replaced by parking for the restaurant’s growing business.
A 1972 feature in the Omaha World-Herald about Sophie Shaw highlighted her longtime management of the Wee-Wash-It Laundry at 30th and Fort. Shaw had been in business since 1953, and in 1972 closed. According to a recent comment on this website by David Caniglia, Yano Caniglia made arrangements with Shaw to buy her building business and building to demolish it and grow their parking. Apparently, according to David Caniglia, the old Lane Drugstore building and a cafe space were demolished through similar arrangements, too. By the time Mr. C’s closed, it covered a quarter of the block with a parking lot facing the corner of 30th and Fort.
The intersection was forever changed by the development of the Highway 75 North/Sorenson Parkway/Arthur Storz Expressway interchange immediately south of 30th and Fort, which lasted from 1976 through 1992. Starting in the 2010s, Metro College redeveloped the southern end of their campus at Fort Omaha, too. Suddenly, hundreds of more vehicles went through the intersection as they conveniently reached Florence, the Ponca Hills and I-680.
The Future of 30th and Fort
Continuously working on the improvement, stabilization and sustainability of the historic facilities, and the appropriate modernization the campus ever since, in the 2000s, Metro began a massive expansion program that significantly increased the size of the college and its offerings to students. Today, there is a new entrance to the campus from the Sorensen Parkway, and the traffic issues endemic to 30th and Fort have largely been relieved. There are 73 acres of land with 32 buildings at Fort Omaha today, including more than 375,000 square feet of space.
Today, the Mr. C’s Restaurant site is home to a massive mixed-use commercial/residential building featuring apartments for students at Metro. Called 30 Metro Place, the building is a $20 million mixed-use project meant to compliment the developments at Metro. 30 Metro Place is a 113,000-square-foot building that has 110 apartments and 12,000 square feet of commercial bays. It is also home to a sculpture called “The Icona” that stands near the entrance, and was designed in part to honor the site’s treasured past. Charles Drew Health Care is the anchor commercial tenant, and offers medical, dental and behavioral health care there.
The Bronco’s restaurant was closed and demolished in the 1990s. Its business was replaced in the same location with a different structure by a Sonic Drive-In in the late 1990s. A Popeye’s Louisiana Style Chicken fast food restaurant opened on the southeast corner where the gas station was in the 1990s.
The Douglas County Historical Society has maintained the tremendous asset of the General Crook House as a museum, and developed a neighboring building as historical archives. I can’t say enough for how much I admire this place, the organization and the work done there. Ironically, or perhaps in a nod to 30th and Fort’s history as a hot rod haven, the Douglas County Historical Society hosts an annual event called “Vintage Wheels at the Fort” that gathers cool cars, great memories and fundraising for this essential organization.
I still appreciate that the future is unwritten for North Omaha, and even the intersection of 30th and Fort. It lacks the blustery ignorance of suburban happy days, and seems to be forgetting the ignorant painfulness of its last 25+ years. Instead, hope springs eternal and good things are happening.
Here’s hoping the future shines as bright as possible.
30th and Fort Historic Business Directory
A & L Cafe (1946-1961)
Anheuser-Busch Park, southeast corner of N. 30th and Fort St. (1896-1922)Briggs Depot, 3920 Grand Ave. (circa 1870-circa 1920)
Brown Bottle Tavern, 5212 N. 30th St. (1934-1973)
C & S Cafe (circa 1945-1953)
Caniglia’s Royal Boy Drive-In, 5319 North 30th St. (1953-1961)
Chandler’s Furniture, 5207 N. 30th St. (1958-1966)
Charles Drew Health Care, 5319 N. 30th St.
Dohse Cafe (1919-1920)
Frank’s Place, 5212 N. 30th St. (1931-1934)
Fort Omaha (1869-1947)
Fort Street School for Incorrigible Boys, 5100 N. 30th St. (1913-1919)
Gendelman Fruit Store, 5319 North 30th St. (circa 1921-1948)
Jourdan Motors (1938-1954)
Ju Jo’s Pub, 5212 N. 30th St. (1973-1991)
Lane Drug, 2920 Fort St. (1921-1949)
Lundhoff Grocer (circa 1888-1930)
Marshall Drive Inn, 5319 North 30th St. (1948-1953)
Metro Community College (1975-present)
Mr. C’s Restaurant, 5319 North 30th St. (1961-2007)
“No more constipation or stomach trouble if you eat Uncle Sam anti-dyseptic breakfast food,” screams a 1908 ad from the Omaha World-Herald. From the outset of the company, its pretense was plain: Eat our cereal and you’ll poop better. Since then, generations of Americans have done just that, and even though it’s not made in Omaha anymore, the cereal is still at work fighting constipation. This is a history of the company that sold Uncle Sam Cereal and more to the world.
In spring 1908, Lafayette Coltrin (1840-1917) established the Uncle Sam Breakfast Food Company at 4201 North 28th Avenue in North Omaha. Located along the almost-entirely industrial Belt Line railway, the surrounding neighborhood was almost entirely industrial, including a rubber factory, a truck-making plant, casket manufacturers, and more. Buying a large warehouse already on the block, Coltrin had another one built.
Soon after, Coltrin sold his company to an investment group that believed the healthy food would become massively popular, and this plant was thought to be an initial investment in their successful business. The label eventually claimed it was, “a natural laxative… a regularity favorite.” Led by a man named James W. McGowan, the company survived for more than 80 years, and the brand is still made today.
Arriving to the plant through railcars, wheat and flax seed were sorted into huge bins in the basement of the factory. Then, new kinds of machinery for the times boiled, heated and pressed the plants into flakes, mixing celery salt in along the way. The box eventually proclaimed it “a natural whole grain cereal no added sugar, no preservatives, no artificial colorings.” It was packaged in a special paper different from other cereals because of the high oil content in flaxseed.
Claiming to have medicinal properties, Uncle Sam Breakfast Food claimed to cure almost every ailment facing stomachs, including ulcers, constipation, bowel problems and more. In 1910, the United States Department of Agriculture Bureau of Chemistry took Uncle Sam to court on account of misinforming customers about the cereal’s health values. They were fined $10 and insisted they couldn’t make medicinal claims afterward. After then, Uncle Sam focused on simply relieving constipation instead of the array of health issues they wanted to address. That said, the company advertised extensively through medical journals and health magazines throughout the 1910s and 20s, with criticism written about the company’s claims a regular feature, too!
Building the Business
In its first year, the company claimed to manufacture 14,000 cartons of cereal every day, with increases planned. In 1910, the company expanded and bought an additional lot on their block to expand their factory. Everyone in North Omaha knew the distinct smell of Uncle Sam cereal because of the plant’s aroma.
In 1912, there was a tour of the then-industrial Belt Line Railway for businessmen throughout Omaha. Making a grand stop at the factory, more than 100 economic tourists were treated to bowls of Uncle Sam and given gift bags filled with swag from around the city. According to the newspaper, many noted the surprising size of the factory, and it’s industriousness. A year later, in May 1913, the plant was doubled in size. In 1914, the company built a cement elevator that has stood since.
During World War I, the company joined the pro-war effort by creating a barley cereal. This allowed more wheat to be used for troops overseas, and allowed for slowed wheat production on farms across the nation while young workers went overseas. The company’s “Liberty Barley Flakes” appear to have only been sold for a few years though.
In 1917, the company’s founder Lafayette Coltrin passed away in Long Beach, California. Originally from Ohio, Coltrin chose Omaha for its proximity to flax producers, central location on the nation’s railroads, and its under-utilized proximity to the “cereal belt,” where a lot of the nation’s breakfast foods were produced. Several years after his death, there was an ugly court battle between the company and Coltrin’s widow over the royalties owed to the cereal’s inventor.
Luckily, the company built up around Coltrin, his image and his cereal was made to last.
The company started manufacturing Skinner’s Raisin Bran, the first of its kind in the United States, in 1926 for the Skinner Macaroni Company of Omaha.
During World War II, Uncle Sam Breakfast Food Company again contributed to the war effort, freely distributing a booklet called The ABCs of Wartime Canning. The booklet was filled with recipes and substitutions.
In 1950, Uncle Sam continued its healthful claims, with an ad proudly reporting,
“For many years, doctors have recognized that flaxseed tends to stimulate peristaltic action of the intestines (bowel action). You see, flaxseed helps serve as a LUBRICANT. Many persons enjoy a daily serving of Uncle Sam Laxative Breakfast Food, drink plenty of water, and thereby obtain the aid they need to keep regular. Uncle Sam has been a standby in thousands of homes for more than 40 years.
Advertisement, Omaha World-Herald, February 12, 1950
In 1964, Uncle Sam bought the rights for Skinner’s Raisin Bran. They immediately became a best-seller, with a company vice-president admitting in 1985 that they far out-sold the company’s flagship product. Today, Uncle Sam’s is credited for creating the first-ever large scale production of commercially blended something other than cereal grains for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. The first was Uncle Sam cereal with flaxseed, starting in 1908. The second was Skinner’s Raisin Bran with raisins, created in 1926.
The newspaper reported that the Uncle Sam plant was attacked by vandals in May 1968, with more than 50 windows smashed early on a Saturday morning.
The company officially changed its name to U.S. Mills in 1975. Next up was a huge move!
Moving On Up
In 1979, the U.S. Mills bought the plant to move from its old space a few blocks away. According to then-president John McGowan (son of the founder), the space was intended for expanded operations “for years to come.” It had four times as much space as U.S. Mills’ original plant.
Remodeling their new building extensively, there were upgrades both inside and out that allowed Uncle Sam’s wheat flakes, flaxseed cereal and more lines to grow. The company also doubled employment from 40 to 80 workers, and expanded into manufacturing dog food at the plant.
According to the Omaha World-Herald at that point, in Omaha, Uncle Sam cereal and Skinner’s Raisin Bran were found in Baker’s Supermarkets, Hinky Dinky Supermarkets, Albertson’s Food and Drugs and Hy-Vee, as well as others. The company reported their best sales in large cities in California and Texas.
The company took cereal giant General Foods to court in the 1980s, charging infringement for claiming Grape-Nuts was the only cereal with wheat berries when Uncle Sam had them since 1908. They won an injunction against General Mills, which was forced to stop making the claim.
In 1986, U.S. Mills was sold to Erewhon Inc., which moved its natural food production to the plant. At that point, U.S. Mills employed 22 people at the facility, and Ewewhon sought to increase that number by 15. Erewhon Inc. was renamed Balanced Foods of Omaha that year, and the City of Omaha passed a $3,000,000 bond to buy and rehabilitate the U.S. Mills factory at 4301 North 30th Street. Apparently though, this was more of a merger than a sale, and U.S. Mills was eventually retained as the company’s name because of its age.
In 1999, the U.S. Mills building on North 30th Street was closed by Erewhon, Inc. Their home base was located in Needham, Massachusetts, and the cereal was manufactured there. Attune Foods of San Francisco acquired Uncle Sam Cereal in 2009, and the brand continues today with three flavors available. In 2011, the manufacturer proclaimed “Uncle Sam cereal is really about high fiber; it is rolled wheat and flaxseed, which delivers over 10 grams of fiber per serving without any artificial ingredients.”
The Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company built a new production facility at 4301 North 30th Street in 1936. The world’s largest baking ovens were installed there, and it was a major employer in the community for decades. The factory was later owned by several companies, including Merchants Biscuit Company, Orchard & Wilhelm, and U.S. Mills. This is a history of a company, a building, and North Omaha’s industrial past.
Building Success in North Omaha
From 1935 to 1940, the Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company had a large factory in North Omaha. It was September 1935 when the company announced they were going to build a massive modern production plant in North Omaha. Iten-Barmettler, which was incorporated in Delaware, started building the plant in September 1935.
Initially employing 200 people, the plant was led by Otto H. Barmettler (1875-1951) of Omaha. Barmettler had been a company manager for the National Baking Company, then worked for Iten Bakery for several years.
John J. Iten (1862-1921) and his family were bakers in Iowa. His father was a superintendent of Reimers and Fernald Candy and Cracker Factory in Davenport from 1892-1906, and father died, John himself worked for the National Baking Company in Des Moines for a few years. In 1908, he and his brothers opened a bakery at South 13th and Leavenworth. After moving to California in 1918, he died in 1921. At that time, the Iten Biscuit Company was credited for operating the largest exclusive cracker factory west of Chicago, their daily output of crackers “exceeding six carloads.”
Iten’s widow maintained family control of the corporation, and in 1928, supported Barmettler to become president of the Iten Biscuit Company when they merged with the National Baking Company, or NABISCO. In addition to their plant in Omaha, Iten had factories in Clinton, Iowa; Okalahoma City, Oklahoma; and Memphis, Tennessee.
The National Biscuit Company was started in 1898 and was the largest baking company in the world for several years. In 1932 when NABISCO and Iten merged, they employed 25,000 people in 50 bakeries, with 260 branch offices, with approximately 500 varieties of crackers and cookies. The merger was meant to “co-ordinate the business interest of the National Biscuit Company in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee and parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky.”
The Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company was owned by NABISCO, and the new factory was built under the Iten-Barmettler name. The company hiring prolific local architect James T. Allan (1890-1957) to build their new plant at North 30th and Taylor Streets. The Inland Construction Company was the general contractor.
Located next to the Belt Line Railway, which by the 1930s was exclusively for industry, the plant was located near several other industries, as well as the important intersection of North 30th and Ames Avenue. According to an era account, more than 1,000 creosoted pine pilings were used to make the foundation. The most modern machinery was installed in the plant, and the operations were top notch. The company raised more than $300,000 in investments to build the plant. Four acres were included in the land for the plant.
In the late 1930s, the “Iten-Barmettler Man on the Street” promotion made “six history-making broadcasts” with WOW radio. They reached interesting heights when the shows reached the broadest ranges across the Great Plains. The 1939 Works Progress Administration book called Guide to the Cornhusker State reported the “Barmettler trade-mark” was a “familiar emblem in nearly all the Middle West.”
Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company was there for just 5 years.
Merchants from Denver
The cakes, crackers, cookies, wafers were a serious business, filled with mergers and consolidations, buy-outs and other machinations. In 1940, the Merchants Biscuit Company bought the North Omaha plant from NABISCO. Merchants, based out of Denver, was determined to make a stake in Omaha. Hiring hundreds of people over the next several decades, they left a lasting mark on the community.
During World War II and afterwards, Merchant apparently only hired women ages 18-45 to work on the floor. They advertised the work as “light, fascinating work in clean, pleasant surroundings.” After the war, they advertised “Free Coffee, Relief Periods, Convenient Lunch Facilities, Directly On Bus Lines,” along with perks like time and a half, group insurance and more. Their work seemed strictly gender segregated, with a 1947 ad saying packers were hired between ages 16 and 21, and a janitor being “man between 30-50.” These were serious permanent positions that surely helped the entire North Omaha community grow and thrive. In 1955, the plant was seeking to hire a sponge setter was was “a married man, 30 to 45 years of age.”
The company completed an expansion of the plant in 1948. Designed again by James T. Allan, the 20,000 square foot addition was for shipping and warehousing. It cost $150,000. During this time, Merchants was a subsidiary of the United Biscuit Company of America, which was later known by its primary brand, Keeblers. In 1949, the company built another addition to it’s factory.
In February 1949, the first Girl Scouts cookies in the United States were made at the Merchants plant. The company also manufactured a durable biscuit called the “Nebraskit” that was intended for use as a staple of suburban nuclear fallout shelters.
For its entire duration, the company fielded baseball, bowling and basketball teams, and participated in a lot of civic activities. It was a contributing neighbor.
One of the advantages for the company’s location was being located in such a densely packed industrial area. They often used the area’s workers to taste test their latest products, including cookies and crackers, getting great response from the concrete plant workers, the truck plant workers, the furniture factory workers, the tire plant workers, and others in the area.
In my research on Merchants and Iten-Barmettler, I found no mention of labor issues at the plant before 1955. In September of that year, there was a walkout by machinists at the plant related to an overtime arrangement. When the plant dishonored that arrangement, a walkout happened. Within a day though, the president of Merchants announced arbitration between management and the workers. The workers were members of the International Association of Machinists.
In March 1962, after 22 years of operation at North 30th and Taylor, Merchants announced the closure of its plant. More than 290 workers lost their jobs, while the sales force of 200 kept theirs. While the company talked about problems expanding at their factory, and other issues with distribution, the government pinned the issue squarely on automation, with an official with the Nebraska State Division of Employment Security being quoted in September 1962 as saying, “Two hundred lost their jobs when Merchants Biscuit closed… because of automation… One hundred of those still are looking for work.”
Merchant Biscuit company was in the factory for 22 years, from 1940 to 1962.
The company created a re-employment program, and workers who’d worked at the plant for more than a year qualified for retirement or severance pay. In June of that year, the newspaper announced a committee was formed among the city’s bakeries to employ the people who’d lost their jobs. In 1963, the Mayor’s Committee on Automation and Re-Employment was complimented for its work to retrain workers who lost their jobs at the factory.
In December 1962, the former Merchants plant went for sale. Zoned industrial, it was described as a 182,000 square foot, two-story concrete building with three elevators, seven loading docks and two blocks of trackage along the Belt Line, complete with air conditioning in the offices and gas heat throughout. It was priced at $650,000.
By 1963, Merchants had built a warehouse in southwest Omaha near the new interstate.
Orchard & Wilhelm Come to North Omaha
That same interstate construction that attracted Merchants to southwest Omaha took the old Orchard and Wilhelm warehouse downtown from that company. With their old building at 5-stories and almost a century old, they looked forward to the new facility. The new space was said to accomodate more trucks for shipping though, as well as provide more trackage for boxcars. The company employed more than 100 people at the warehouse and in the mattress factory. Buying the building in late 1963, the furniture company remodeled the building extensively, including fireproofing the mattress manufacturing section.
Orchard and Wilhelm didn’t survive the 1960s though, went out of business just five years later. They were in the facility from 1963 to 1968.
North Omaha Makes Tools
In 1969, a company at North 30th and Saratoga Streets decided to buy the plant, and moved in March to the facility. The company, called Central States Tool and Die Works, paid $600,000 for the building.
Moving from a 24,000 square foot building to the 182,000 square foot building allowed the owner, Ralph Rosnick, to estimate the company would double their production. Its 80 employees made dies and molds for other manufacturers for metal and plastic products. Started in 1948, Rosnick began in a building at North 22nd and Cuming Streets, moving to South 24th in 1951. They moved to 5004 North 30th in 1953.
In 1975, the Central States Tool and Die Works went bankrupt. The operations at 30th and Taylor ended, and the building sat empty. In 1978, the City of Omaha considered buying the property to use as offices for the parks department and the health department, as well as maintenance shops, but dropped the idea.
Uncle Sam Expands
In 1979, the U.S. Mills bought the plant to move from its old space a few blocks away. The space was intended for expanded operations “for years to come,” and had four times as much space as U.S. Mills’ original plant.
In 1999, the U.S. Mills building on North 30th Street was closed by Erewhon, Inc. Located in Needham, Massachusetts, Erewhon took the brand there and continues to operate under the name U.S. Mills. Attune Foods of San Francisco acquired the Uncle Sam Cereal brand name in 2009, and the cereal is still manfactured today.
Omaha Public Schools Buys the Building
In 2000, the Omaha school district bought the building for $950,000. Workers converted the factory into a temporary school, carving out office space, installing plumbing for new bathrooms and repairing the factory’s roof. Almost immediately, classes from Miller Park and Rosehill Elementary Schools were transferred there while those buildings were renovated. That school renovation work has expanded across the district and is ongoing today, almost 20 years later. The old Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company building is still being used now, and has good prospects for use in the future.
Even though it hasn’t been a job creator for more than two-decades, this facility shows the lifespan of a typical North Omaha place. Over the decades, there’s been so much upheaval throughout the community that it might be refreshing to see one place make it through so much change. Here’s to a successful past and great possibilities for tomorrow…
A Timeline for 4301 North 30th Street
1935—The Iten-Barmettler Biscuit Company builds a state-of-the-art plant at 4301 North 30th Street in North Omaha
1940—The Merchants Biscuit Company buys the plant and establishes Omaha operations there
1948—Merchants expands the facility
1949—Merchants expands the facility again
1962—Merchants closes the facility
1963—Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture Company buys the facility and renovates it for a warehouse and mattress factory
1968—Orchard and Wilhelm goes out of business
1969—Central States Tool and Die Works buys the facility to expand their operations
1975—Central States Tool and Die Works files for bankruptcy and closes the factory
1979—U.S. Mills buys the plant to expand their operations
1986—Erewhon Inc. acquires U.S. Mills, ending three generations of family ownership
1999—Erewhon Inc. closes their North Omaha plant
2000—Omaha Public Schools buys the plant for use as temporary classrooms and storage and continues using it for that today
Adam’s Note: Here’s another normal house history from North Omaha. Focused on an address where everyday North Omaha people lived, this house is similar to the other exposés I’ve written. Over more than 125 years, some of these homes have fallen apart and others were bulldozed, while the vast majority of original houses are still filling the blocks from Dodge Street north to the county line, and from North 72nd east to the river. I hope you enjoy this tale from a normal house in North Omaha…
The Place It Was Built
The Nebraska School for the Deaf opened three miles from downtown Omaha in 1869. More than two decades later, the plans for Fontenelle Park were first made, along with a luxurious boulevard leading to it from the old Military Road. That park became home to massive fireworks displays, a rolling golf course, and a massive baseball field that neighbors loved to attend, and sometimes rued. That boulevard became part of a century-long boulevard system for driving pleasure throughout the city.
It was 1906 when the home at 3467 North 42nd Street was built a block away from the Nebraska School for the Deaf and four blocks from the Fontenelle Park. Originally 900 square feet, there was also a garage on the lot, which is in the Kenwood Addition.
That year, lots in this division were advertised as “close to three streetcar lines,” that cost $50 to $250 total, and were sold for one dollar down, then fifty cents a week until it was paid off.
In 1919, the Fairfax School was opened this year North 40th and Pratt Streets, a 7-minute walk from this house. It was a two-room school building with an outhouse that was demolished in 1974. It is likely that children at both addresses would’ve attended here for kindergarten and first grades.
Before this neighborhood was developed, there was a 10-room farmhouse at this intersection. By this year, there were only 4.5 acres left in the farm, including fruit and alfalfa. The 9-room house had two barns and a cow, and went on sale for $10,000. That house was gone by the 1940s.
The Hewett Family
In the first decade of the 20th century, Edward and Fannie Hewett bought a house at 3467 North 42nd Street. Their daughter Fannie was born at home in 1912, but unfortunately her father died that year.
The Druid Hill School was built nearby at 4020 North 30th Street in 1917 for students from first through eighth grades. Fannie probably went to school there. In 1920, a streetcar started going up North 45th from Military to Bedford started providing nearby access for residents of these addresses.
North High opened at 36th Street and Ames in 1924, and if Fannie graduated, that’s probably where she graduated from. Her mother, Sarah Parinthia Ford McCain (1844-1930) died at the house at age 86 and took over the house. In 1932, Fannie entered a gardening competition for her garden at the house. McCain was one of the original settlers in Kearney, Nebraska, and a nearby community called Pleasanton. She was involved in the notorious “Pleasant Valley feud” that resulted in a death and bad feelings for decades. As a mother, McCain had nine children, including sons Dode McCain, ?? Hazard, Dell McCain, ?? Loretto, and the late Oran J. McCain (1867-1929); as well as daughters Mrs. Maude Wittlake, Mrs. Charles Croston Hazard, Mrs. W.B. Rains, Mrs. Fannie Hewett. Mother McCain was buried at West Lawn Cemetery in Omaha.
Boarders and Court Time
A few years after her mother died, Fannie started renting out rooms in the house. In 1934, a 2-year-old named Arthur Hubbard was reported as having broke his arm at the house. Ross Hewett lived there, as well as Richard Saling.
In 1945, Fannie Hewett was ordered by a judge to get rid of two horses she kept in the garage at the house. Twelve neighbors testified that she boarded the horses, as well as hosting a mule “whose braying was out of this world” for a long-time.
During that same era, the Bedford Market opened nearby at North 45th and Bedford. People who lived at 3467 North 42nd would’ve gotten groceries there or at N 42nd and Ames. Adams Park opened seven blocks away in 1948.
In 1955, the 42nd Street streetcar stopped runny, with buses taking over many routes citywide, but not this one initially. However, there has been a busline through this neighborhood since the 1950s.
Gladys Croston, who was related to Sarah McCain, lived at 3467 N 42nd St in 1964.
That same year, a ‘gory’ effigy that was ketchup-smeared with a knife in its back was dumped on the porch of the house. Gladys Croston told police she’d been targeted by vandals several times recently. Another relative, Isabelle Croston, lived at house for a long time. In 1981, Gladys Croston and her sister, Grace Kersey, reported they’d been mugged by young people outside the house.
Before Omaha’s 1919 riots surrounding the lynching of Will Brown, the Near North Side neighborhood was filled with European immigrants, African Americans, Jews and American-born emigrants from the East Coast. The picture of an old-timey city scene, North 24th Street was the heart of the community packed with grocers and builders, fishmongers and butchers, cobblers and hardware stores, and much more. In 1905, Peter Frenzer got a construction permit to build a 2-story brick store and hall at North 24th and Parker Streets, and soon after the intersection became vital along the strip. Frenzer Hall set the tone for what was to come. People needed entertainment then, and as Omaha’s most successful residential neighborhood, the Near North Side needed a huge theater. The “glittering movie palace” called the Alhambra was its answer.
Second-Largest Movie Theater
The first ads for Omaha’s Alhambra Theater appeared in the newspapers in 1911. Constructed at 1814 North 24th Street, the Alhambra was the second-largest movie house in the city when it was finished. The theater had vaudeville performances and amateur acts for many years with a five-piece orchestra that played in support.
Frank Goff (1841-1941), known as “Daddy Goff” to a generation of North Omaha children, was regarded as “Omaha’s pioneer showman. He operated the Alhambra from 1911 to 1913, and was was credited for bringing the movies to Omaha. The first moving pictures in Omaha showed at the Franklin Theater under his management, and then showed them at the Alhambra Theater before any other theater in the city.
The theater hosted special events and charity benefits, too. Starting in 1911, there were boxing exhibitions held there featuring African American boxers. Moving pictures started being showed there in 1912, with the 5-piece story being cut down to a piano accompanist. A newspaper report said, “She just sat under the screen, pounding steadily away. For storm scenes and such high moments she walloped the bass hard, but most of the time she just played “Hearts and Flowers,” “The Missouri Waltz,” or “You Great Big Beautiful Doll.”
In 1916, the manager of the theater was arrested for violating orders from the city health department. Apparently, he was ordered not to let children under 12 into the theater because of a scarlet fever outbreak. No word on what happened to him. Ceclia Rocheford sold the Alhambra Theater in 1917 to Louis Margolin. Margolin also bought the lot next door, paying more than $30,000 dollars for both.
After hosting special union events including rallies and fundraisers for years, in 1919 the Alhambra was picketed by union operators and supporters. Apparently, the theater operators hired nonunion staff to operate the film projector, which was a strict no-no in Omaha at the time. Police came and broke up the protest twice on the night of June 23, 1919, with almost a dozen people arrested. Probably unrelated, in late June 1919, a Creighton University student named William Giles was convicted of launching a “stench bomb” in the Alhambra. A police judge sentenced him for 30 days for placing a bottle of concentrated chemicals in the theater, which cleared it out immediately. Then, on July 7, 1919, R. A. Pramer, the proprietor of the Alhambra then, was arrested for shooting at police. According to newspaper reports, he mistook officers roaming the alley next to his business for the union picketers from the prior weeks. Firing his gun to scare them off, the officers arrested Pramer and brought him to the police department. He was released on bail.
After the August 1919 rioting, the Near North Side neighborhood became deeply segregated. Where before African Americans were less-formally isolated, the US Army laid down a redline around the area and forced the Black community to stay inside that area “for their own safety.” In turn, whites who lived within those boundaries fled the area rapidly. However, while the redline area cleared out most white residents, white people still shopped in the area, the Alhambra Theater continued as a white-only entertainment venue enforced by informal Jim Crow rules of the era.
Apparently, the Lem Thompson Comedy Company was a smash at the theater in the early 1920s.
In 1923, the then-owner of the Alhambra, Harry A. Taylor, went to the Nebraska Supreme Court to challenge the state’s child labor law. Apparently, Taylor let seven children under 14-years-old dance for a recital. The dancers were students of Dorothy De Vere, and it was a public performance. Taylor was charged with aiding in child delinquency. Although the kids weren’t paid and had parental consent, the police department charged Taylor. He appealed the case though, but I haven’t found what happened as a consequence. However, there is a 1926 article advertising another recital at the theater, so I think Taylor might have had a successful appeal. Apparently, after he owned the Alhambra, Taylor built the popular Ritz Theater near North 24th and Patrick and operated it for its entire run.
The Omaha World-Herald reported a 1924 holdup of the Alhambra ticket booth. The robbers hopped out of a car parked along North 24th, ran to the booth with guns drawn and demanded all the money. The young cashier apparently fainted, and the bandits made off with an undisclosed amount of money.
A Jim Crow Theater
In the mid-1920s, the Alhambra theater became a Black theater, meaning it allowed African Americans to attend. It showed a number of mainstream films, as well as African-American-produced movies with African American actors, directors and more. In a horrible tale from the theater, a 9-year-old African American child named Vernon Roundtree lost his middle finger and ring finger in 1927 when he stuck his hand into a ventilation fan inside the building. Omahan George Johnson, among the first African American movie directors, and his Lincoln Film Company apparently showed films here, too.
The theater didn’t sustain though, and was closed around 1930. Other Black theaters continued operating in the Near North Side though, as well as some whites-only venues.
Acting like a social hall for a few years, the theater hosted political rallies, civic clubs and other groups for a few years. The building eventually served many other purposes, including as a roller skating rink, a grocery store and a miniature golf course. In late December 1933, the International Jewish Workers order sponsored P. Novick, a Jewish journalist and author from New York, who gave a speech at the theater called “Nazi Propaganda and Anti-Semitism.” There was also a banquet and entertainment after the speech.
After that, the Alhambra stood vacant for a few years in the 1930s.
In February 1936, the Alhambra Theater at North 24th and Parker burned down. Owned by an unnamed savings and loan association, the losses were estimated at $5,000.
Formally founded in 1854, the history of the Florence neighborhood in North Omaha includes businesses, schools, cityhood and a crazy story about being the state capital for a day. It also includes a lot of churches. The townsite was established on faith, with the Mormon Church keeping the Winter Quarters for their westward migration from 1846 to 1848.
This is a short history of churches in Florence. Its not complete, so please feel free to share any information, details, comments, pictures or suggestions below.
Winter Quarters Church
Address: Unknown, Winter Quarters, Indian Territory
Years: presumably 1846-1848
Given the Winter Quarters settlers were religious people, its reasonable to assume they established a place of worship in their town. I don’t know whether it actually existed, where it was, or whether it actually existed.
St. James Episcopal Church
Address: Unknown, Florence, Nebraska Territory
In 1857, the Iowa diocese established St. James Episcopal Church in Florence. This early missionary’s salary was paid in part by Davenport businessman Ebenezer Cook, who was part of the group that established the Bank of Florence. Rev. Adams only stayed for a few months though, and the congregation ended with him.
In 1857, Rev. Isaac F. Collins established the Florence Methodist Church after serving as a circuit rider in the surrounding area for a several months. In August 1857, a church was built on lot number one on Bluff Street in downtown Florence. Acting as the first school in Florence, 56 students attended there the first year. Apparently though, with the economic Panic of 1857 the Methodists could not maintain their building and were forced to give it to creditors that same year.
Florence Baptist Church
Address: Unknown, Florence, Nebraska Territory
Rev. George Barnes picked Florence over Omaha to start the first Baptist church in the area. Even though it looked like a sure shot in 1856 when it was founded, Florence didn’t flourish as much as Omaha and the church folded within a few years.
Florence Christian Church
Address: 8929 North 29th Street, Florence, Nebraska
Years: 1896-1961 (still operating elsewhere)
Located at 8929 North 29th Street, the Florence Christian Church was also called the First Christian Church. The Florence Christian Church moved into a new building at 7300 Northridge Drive in 1961, and continues operating today.
Florence Presbyterian Church
Address: Unknown, Florence, Nebraska Territory
Reverend Eben Blachly was the first Presbyterian missionary in Florence, arriving when the town was founded. Established in 1857, the Florence Presbyterian Church is still located at 8314 North 31st Street. After having three ministers and moving around members’ houses over and over in its first three years, the church stabilized and grew. Hard times came and went, and for a long time the church worshipped in the second floor of the Florence City Hall. In 1897, they dedicated their first church, and they built their current church at 8314 North 31st Street in 1950.
St. Philip Neri Catholic Church
Address: 8202 North 31st Street, Florence, Nebraska
Located at 8200 North 30th Street, St. Philip Neri has a long history in the Florence neighborhood of North Omaha. 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.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Address: 8019 North 31st Street, Florence, Nebraska
Years: 1881 to 1964
In September 1888, the Reverend William Pearson began Episcopal church services in a school house in Florence. In 1891, St. Mark’s was built with gifts from local Bishop Worthington and a friend on land given by the Florence Land Company for $2,000. By 1893 though, the church was reduced to only holding occasional services because of a lack of interest.
The congregation rebuilt in Benson and moved to North 60th and Girard Streets in 1964. Today, the original church building at 8019 North 31st Street has become home to the Saints of Salvation Ministries.
Ebenezer Lutheran Church
Address: 4th and Washington, Florence, Nebraska
Years: 1903 to 1915
Swedish immigrants started Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Florence in 1903. 12 people organized Florence’s Ebenezer Church with Rev. C.E. Elving. Located at 4th and Washington Streets, the church building was moved from Omaha and rebuilt on the site. After thriving for the next decade, the community was struck by an economic downtown and the church closed in 1915, after just 12 years of operation, and the congregation merged with Trinity Lutheran Church.
Other Religious People and Institutions in Florence
Reverend Reuben Gaylord, widely recognized as the father of Congregationalism in Nebraska, preached in Florence in the late 1850s. However, there’s no sign that a Congregational church was ever founded in the community. The Ponca Presbyterian Church opened in the early 1900s, and was located in the Ponca Hills. Rev. George S. Sloan was the minister there for several decades, but I don’t have information on when it closed.
One of the most important 20th century religious institutions in Florence was the Notre Dame Convent and Academy at 3501 State Street. Built in the 1920s, its nuns were Czechs who were intended to serve Omaha’s large Czech community. After identifying their need to serve Omaha, the Sisters of Notre Dame bought Father Flanagan’s Seven Oaks Farm, and hired architects to design a large, E-shaped building to serve as a high school. The Notre Dame Academy closed in the 1970s, and today the building serves as housing for the elderly.
The Mormon Church’s presence in Florence can’t be stated highly enough. After establishing their Winter Quarters on the west bank of the Missouri River in 1846, they laid out the street grid that became Florence, and constructed many of the original buildings that were sold a decade later to speculators. The Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, home to the hundreds of people who died in the winter of 1846, is located today at 3301 State Street. Used until 1848, LDS Church records indicate 359 pioneers are buried there. In a different location, Omaha’s Potter’s Field Cemetery was started in at least the 1870s, although there’s speculation that the first burials there happened when it was next to Cutler’s Park. Today, its located at 7909 Mormon Bridge Road next to the Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
The History Meets the Present
By 1916, Florence claimed to have seven churches, and the next year the city was annexed into Omaha. Since then, churches have come and gone, merged and closed, and in a few cases they’ve survived and flourished. Today, their past fills in more of the important history of North Omaha.
It can’t be said of many organizations that they had an outsized impact on North Omaha. However, the Wesley House did exactly that, and more than a decade after its closure its loss is still felt throughout the community. Following is an incomplete history of the organization; share your additions, edits and corrections in the comments section of the article.
Changing My Life
In 1993, I was named “Youth of the Year” by the Wesley House. Growing up as a goofy low-income Canadian immigrant kid in North O, I didn’t really fit the historical bill of the youth who’d been acknowledged before. I’m sure it was my mentors who’d gotten me the award – organizations weren’t exactly falling over themselves to acknowledge me!
Throughout high school I volunteered at Pearl Church, for the Miller Park PTA, and with the Miller Park Neighborhood Association. I was Santa every year in high school for hundreds of kids at Miller Park School; I spent dozens of hours lifting and sorting food at the Pearl Church Food Bank; I spent the night in half-built Habitat for Humanity houses with my dad to keep them from being robbed; and I did almost everything I was asked by my mentors throughout my neighborhood. Belonging to Boy Scouts, the United Methodist Youth Fellowship and clubs at school kept me from trouble, and I felt purposeful when I helped my neighborhood.
I knew little about Wesley House though. I used the honor they shared with me to get into college, and I took pride in the plaque they gave to me—which I still have! The scholarship I received with the award went directly into changing my life, and today I still see the effects of their generosity.
So here, 25 years late, is my letter of gratitude for this once venerable institution that helped so many North O youth. This is a history of the Wesley House in North Omaha.
Founded by Fire and Strengthened by Flames
This pic is from 1991.
The history of the Methodist church in Omaha goes back to the founding of the city, and the church’s role in North Omaha was indisputably important. There were several congregations started in North O that were vital to the community’s growth, and a few that even maintain the fabric that holds the area together today. The oldest African American church in Omaha is St. John’s AME, which also served as one of the prime leaders in the city’s Civil Rights movement.
In 1872, the Methodist powers that existed in Omaha decided the city needed a social service center and opened the first one. The Wesley House traced its roots to that early agency.
During the 1950s, Omaha experienced the storming power of the Civil Rights movement. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the movement in the South and drew national attention to what was happening there, North Omaha’s leaders took action in kind. Young people joined with the DePorres Club and the NAACP Youth Council, while adults joined the Urban League, the NAACP, and 4CL. The Omaha Ministerial Alliance took action too. Some of the most influential members of Omaha’s Civil Rights movement were Methodist ministers.
In 1958, the city’s Methodist leadership launched a campaign to replace their Neighborhood House in the Near North Side neighborhood. The next year, in 1959, they opened the Wesley House at 2001 North 35th, at Blondo Street, in the Franklin neighborhood, three blocks from the Hilltop Public Housing Projects. For almost the next 50 years, this center provided a hospice from challenges, a hotbed of hope and the forge for the future of hundreds of young people from across North Omaha.
In 1962, Rev. Harold Crume, the first executive director, reported that the number of people using the Wesley House rose from 120 when it opened to 4,387 just four years later. In 1958, the Franklin neighborhood surrounding the Wesley House was 99% white when the center opened. In 1971, the Omaha Star reported the neighborhood had become 99% African American, and the Wesley House was essential to the neighborhood’s success.
By the 1980s, the Wesley House was merged as part of the United Methodist Community Centers, seen as one of Omaha’s major community service agencies. There were two locations, including the Wesley House and the Woodson Center in south Omaha. In 1986, the centers both offered family enhancement programs, women’s resource centers, “sweat equity” housing development, senior meals programs, pre-school and after-school learning programs, and a variety of other youth activities.
All of this came from Omaha’s Civil Rights movement, from the faith of the city’s Methodists, and from Dr. Rodney S. Wead, PhD.
Dr. Wead, Community Builder
This is a 1971 image of Rodney Wead (right) presenting an award to Johnny Rogers.
Growing up in the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects, Rodney S. Wead was a determined student and athlete determined to help his city. After serving as a newsboy for the Omaha Starwhen he was a kid, Wead became a high school track star at Central High and is widely credited for youth activism that included protesting discrimination at downtown lunch counters, rallying support in the white community, and keeping peace during the 24th Street riots in the 1960s. After graduating from Central, Wead earned his B.S. in History and Education in 1957 from Dana College; his M.A. in Urban Studies in 1976 from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois, and his Ph.D in Sociology in 1980 from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio.
He became the leader of Wesley House in 1968, and stayed through 1974. Wead is considered a contemporary to North Omaha leaders Ernie Chambers, Charles Washington, Bertha Calloway, and others.
While he was in Omaha, Dr. Wead taught at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and wrote four books on sociology. Dr. Wead was instrumental in starting the Franklin Community Credit Union in 1968. In 1970, he worked with native Omahans to found the city’s first Black-owned radio station. Joining with NBA star Bob Gibson, NFL star Gayle Sayers, and NBA star Bob Boozer, local leaders including Wead and Charles B. Washington stayed involved through the life of the station.
Wead left North Omaha in 1974, but is still well-regarded for his activism and impact on the community, both through Wesley House and beyond. He has stayed well-connected to North Omaha, even holding a wake for Brown in the historical Jewell Building after her passing.
Other leaders took Wesley House to great places, too, but few are respected as much as Dr. Wead for their influence still today.
Activities and Action
This is a recent pic of Richard “The Bear” Brown, a longtime leader at Wesley House.
Throughout the history of the Wesley House, there were dozens of activities led by powerful role models who help shape several generations of North Omaha youth. The arts, recreation, culture, education, athletics and many, many other areas were uplifted through the influence and direction of the Wesley House.
In 1971, Wesley House completed a document called “The Overall Economic Development Plan for the Omaha Special Impact Area.” This plan called for the creation of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, which was intended to reignite the spirit of the North Omaha community.
A 1981 story about the Wesley House said the club was started “to give youngsters who were causing problems something to do.” “Once the club was formed, the problems ceased overnight,” according to Eddie Staton, the program director then. The club reported serving 4,000 youth that year, and was credited for being “one of three organizations operated by blacks that are funded by the United Way of the Midlands campaign,” out of 40 organizations in the Omaha area.
In the 1960s and 70s, job creation and economic empowerment programs were very important to Wesley House’s programming. Youth-In-Business was one of their special programs, along with several others for adults.
Richard Brown was an iconic coach at the Wesley House. After becoming a three-time state prep champion for South High, he wrestled for Iowa State in 1960. As the youth and athletic director at Wesley House, he organized teams for football, softball, basketball and wrestling at the center that were regular league champions in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. His wrestlers went to national championships, and one joined the world wrestling team in 1980.
For years, the Wesley House hosted a wrestling tournament that brought hundreds of wrestlers to the community center. Led by Richard “The Bear” Brown, the Wesley House team regularly won over wrestlers from the North Omaha Boys Club, Westside Wrestling Club, Columbus Wrestling Club, Bryan Bears, Papillion Wrestling Club, and others from Bellevue and around Omaha.
Tutoring and mentoring programs were popular, too, with thousands of young people learning through powerful partnerships with meaningful adults in their lives. In 1971, the center reported that young people aged 6 to 18 participated in its programs, including sports, dancing, drama and art, black history studies, cooking and sewing, ceramics, parties, group discussions and outings.” Mary Dixon, the adult activities coordinator, said, “Our youth programs are most important… Young people are looking for things to do and its up to adults to stimulate them. This is especially true with the girls. They get tired with the same old ‘blah’ arts and crafts. Its a challenge to find interesting activities for the young ladies.” Highly-regarded Omaha educator Tommie Wilson also led a program focused on staying in school at Wesley House in the 1970s that’s sometimes called the first alternative school in Omaha—which it wasn’t, but that’s a nice sentiment.
Beyond sentiment, the Wesley House didn’t shy away from empowerment. In 1980, they recognized community icon Charles Washington for his powerful advocacy on behalf of youth in the area with an award.
Starting in 2005, the Leadership Academy of Academic Excellence sought to “prepare our youth to become leaders in their community and their families.” Focused on promoting excellence in education through leadership development and academic achievement, Wesley House also offered the Extended School Program, which emphasized success in math, citizenship, financial literacy, health and leadership.
Through the years, the organization recognized a lot of contributions to the community that would’ve gone unsung otherwise. Some of them included the Dexter Jefferson Award, named in memory of an 18-year-old Tech High student artist who drowned tragically; as well as the Rev. Emmett Streeter Memorial Award; and the Youth Advocacy Award.
Closing a Community Icon
This is the Wesley House when it was opened in 1959.
Funded by the United Methodist Church, the Wesley House was considered a success from its inception through the 1990s. However, starting that decade there were supposedly severe fiscal problems at the agency.
News stories and anecdotes from inside North O indicate a deeper problem though. Starting in the 1990s, Wesley House opened a program called the Social Development Center for juvenile offenders, young people who were at high-risk of repeating offenses. Finding that young African American men are disproportionately represented in Nebraska’s jail system, Wesley House offered services to re-integrate these youth into society. However, they ran into resistence from the Douglas County Juvenile Court, which worked against Wesley House’s ability to affect high-risk juvenile offenders. From there, the courts sought to disrepute Wesley House. Reports shows that starting in 2002, probation officers actively discouraged parents from sending their children to the center, and the next year Wesley House lost a significant amount of their support from the United Way.
Through the 2000s, United Methodist women’s groups funded the center but couldn’t continue for some reason, and in 2010, the United Methodist Church withdrew their support entirely and closed the center the next year.
However, starting that decade there were severe fiscal problems at the agency. United Methodist women funded the center but couldn’t continue in healthy circumstances. In 2010, the United Methodist Church withdrew their support entirely and closed the center the next year.
Funded by the United Methodist Church, the Wesley House was considered a success from its inception through the 1990s. However, starting that decade there were severe fiscal problems at the agency. United Methodist women funded the center but couldn’t continue in healthy circumstances. In 2010, the United Methodist Church withdrew their support entirely and closed the center the next year.
In the years since, there have been many potential uses for the campus left behind by Wesley House. At the time of the closure, the United Methodists announced it was going for sale immediately. In 2010, longtime executive directory Paul Bryant resigned and the board hired another leader. Her first move was to recognize, “You’ve got program costs to have things be adequately staffed and nurtured and tended, but you also have overhead, and the property itself comes with a significant amount of overhead because they’re big, old buildings.” In 2011, Wesley House closed forever.
Its hard to deny the legacy of Wesley House which makes it so iconic, memorable and important to the community.
In 2013, a nonprofit called Compassion to Action acquired the property. Operating prison re-entry and family reunification programs there, they surely continue the powerful, meaningful mission of the original agency at the site, the Wesley House. In August 2018, Pamela Hinson won a contract with the City of Omaha to paint a new mural at the Wesley House, proving that the community center is still vital to the community, despite the Methodists having given up on it.
In July 2018, there was a gathering in North O to celebrate the commitment and service of Richard “The Bear” Brown. Dozens of people showed up to celebrate his work with youth, which started in 1973 and continues today. Despite having left Omaha for Atlanta, Paul Bryant continues to cash in on his popularity as the Wesley House leader through public speaking. Although his fees aren’t disclosed, surely framing his speeches on his upbringing in North O and his time helping the community is making him a little scratch.
Rodney Wead himself long ago moved away from Omaha. In 1991, Dr. Wead was declared recipient of The Omaha Star‘s first Citizenship Award. In 2018, the City of Omaha finally acknowledged his contributions to the community by renaming a section of North 52nd between Ames Avenue and Fowler Avenue in his honor. Today, a drive on Rodney S. Wead Street will lead you to the site of one of the greatest achievements by Wesley House, the Community Bank of Nebraska.
In 2017, Compassion to Action declared they were buying the entire property outright. Their activities, including the Compassion to Action’s program along with the Mission Church; a health screening clinic called Bridge 2 Health; the LeMick recording studio, a commercial kitchen used for a catering service; and the Raw Dawgs Youth Corps Gang Prevention for young boys are all based there today. Recognizing the property’s historical significance, Compassion to Action is committed to maintaining its past while it continues to build the future.
Wesley House Timeline
This is not a complete timeline. Please share any major events in the comments section, and I’ll add them. Thanks!
1872—Methodists open the Omaha City Mission, the first social service agency in the city.
1957—On September 27th, Methodists broke ground on the new building for a mission agency facility to augment the outreach at the Neighborhood House. Original features included a new office building, two playgrounds and landscaping across the entire block, all of which was owned for the mission.
1959—Rev. Harold Crume became the executive director of the Neighborhood House, including the Wesley House.
1959—Edward J. Powers was the program director; Ray Tribble was the youth director, and; Ellenor Cronkright was the group work director.
1959—A patio is added to the Wesley House in memory of Sadie A. Johnston, a past president of the Omaha City Mission.
1960—June Powers was the director of Christian education
1966—Rodney Wead became executive director
1968—Rodney Wead starts the short-lived United Methodist Community College at Wesley House
1969—Richard Brown became the youth and athletics coordinator
1969—Franklin Community Federal Credit Union was chartered at Wesley House
1970—The Edward R. Danner Memorial Scholarship was started in honor of the late state senator and Civil Rights activist
Adam’s Note: This is the 23rd chapter of a series for NorthOmahaHistory.com called Framed: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO and the Omaha Two Story. Written by author Michael Richardson (San Francisco Bay View, OpEdNews.com and Examiner.com). I believe this series tells a vital story missing from Omaha’s history. Its the story of men convicted with malice; a Black neighborhood terrorized by white supremacy; and justice long-sought and not gained.
“The facts here indicate the advisability of an ad hoc approach.” —Hale McCowan, July 14, 1972
On May 1, 1972, in his column “Washington Merry-Go-Round” Jack Anderson published revelations about FBI dossiers on the private lives of political figures, black leaders, newsmen and show business people. In an appearance on Capitol Hill, hours after the column was published, Anderson promised to prove his charges with documents.[i]
That evening J. Edgar Hoover’s supper was his last meal. Omaha steak was a weekly favorite as it was on this night. After eating dinner, Hoover developed indigestion and at 8:00 p.m. went home from Clyde Tolson’s apartment and poured a drink for an evening nightcap before going to bed.[ii]
Helen Gandy, Hoover’s longtime secretary, later claimed that Hoover received a call at home from Richard Nixon sometime between 10:00 p.m. and midnight telling Hoover he must quit. According to Gandy’s account, Hoover called Tolson to discuss his conversation with Nixon. Gandy said she learned of the White House call from Tolson.[iii]
Hoover never saw dawn’s early light, he was found by his housekeeper on the floor beside his bed. President Nixon was alerted at 9:15 a.m. By 11:00 a.m., Hoover’s doctor had been to the bedroom as had the coroner and a public announcement was made. No autopsy was ordered. Hoover’s long reign at the FBI was finally over.[iv]
In July, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled on the joint appeal of Ed Poindexter and Mondo, upholding their convictions. The affidavit for the search of Mondo’s house was a central issue.
“In making the determination of what searches are reasonable we must also weigh society’s interest in continuing to allow such searches. We must be extremely careful not to completely disarm the enforcement officials of the weapons necessary to maintain order, which in turn would leave us all at the mercy of the unhindered criminal. Were we to uphold appellants in this case the bloody shirt worn into the police station by the murder suspect would be kept from the eyes of the jury. To use this would be deplorable folly. Therefore, we do not propose to initiate a rule that would dictate such a patently unjust result.”[v]
“Duane Peak, the actual perpetrator of the crime, testified for the State.”
“In addition to the physical evidence found in the search of August 22, 1970, at 2816 Parker Street, Peak’s testimony is corroborated by the following….Scientific examination of a jacket taken from Poindexter disclosed particles of ammonia dynamite which is the type used in the bomb and the type found in Rice’ basement. Like particles were found on Rice’ pants. Scientific testimony indicated that Rice’ pliers had been used to cut a bit of copper wire like that used in the bomb and found in the basement of 2865 Ohio Street, next door.”
Justice McCown concurred with the rest of the court but offered his own rationale. “I cannot agree that the affidavit involved here met standards previously applicable. The United States Supreme Court and this court have uniformly held that where informants are involved, an affidavit for a search warrant must inform the magistrate of (1) some of the underlying circumstances from which the informant concluded that the articles were located where he claimed they were; and (2) some of the underlying circumstances from which the officer concluded that the informant was credible.”
“The majority opinion concedes that recitals in the affidavit that the police had been informed explosives were kept at the residence and defendants had said that explosives should be used against police officers would be insufficient standing alone….Whenever active membership in an organization which advocates violence against the police or any other group or segment of society, and a public expression of individual approval of such views, standing alone, become justification for the issuance of a search warrant whenever an incident of such violence occurs, the Fourth Amendment has lost its meaning.”
“I would place the decision on a different ground. At the time of making the affidavit for the search warrant, the police department had ample information to constitute probable cause for the issuance of the warrant, but much of the information was omitted from the affidavit….The facts here indicate the advisability of an ad hoc approach permitting some flexibility in the court’s analysis of the individual circumstances of each case.”[vi]
At the end of July, Geronimo Pratt was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in California despite Kathleen Cleaver’s testimony that Pratt was four hundred miles away from the crime scene attending a Black Panther meeting. Attorney Paul Wolf has cited Pratt’s case as an example of FBI tampering with justice.
“There were other problems with the case which went beyond Pratt’s inability to assemble defense witnesses. For instance, it did occur to the defense that if the FBI were tapping the phones of the BPP national offices in Oakland during December 1968—as seems likely—the Bureau itself might well be able to substantiate Pratt’s whereabouts on the crucial night. The FBI, however, submitted at trial that no such taps or bugs existed, an assertion which was later shown to be untrue.”[vii]
“At the trial, the Bureau also submitted that Pratt was not the target of COINTELPRO activity; several hundred documents subsequently released under the FOIA demonstrate this to have been categorically untrue.”
The chief prosecution witness against Pratt was a FBI informant, Julius Butler, who alleged that Pratt confessed to him. Butler falsely testified that he was not a FBI informer.[viii]
In August, a one-week training course for FBI agents on bomb cases began. An agent from the Omaha field office attended a week-long “specialized training for selected Agent personnel regarding bombing investigations.” The eighty-four agents in attendance at the FBI training school in Quantico, Virginia, likely listened to the 911 call that lured Larry Minard to his death during one of the sessions. J. Edgar Hoover had ordered Paul Young to obtain a good copy of the 911 recording from the Omaha police for training purposes a month after the crime.[ix]
The annual review of George Moore’s racial unit, now renamed Extremist Intelligence Section, listed accomplishments. The inspection report was stamped SECRET and not declassified until years later. The report shed light on a counterintelligence target of the Omaha FBI office, Charles Knox.
“The Black Revolutionary Party (BRP) is an all black extremist, political organization which was formed in April, 1971, at an internal meeting of the pro-Red China Communist Party of Canada….Among 16 people present were four Americans including Charles Lee Knox, former Black Panther Party leader in Des Moines, Iowa, who was to lead this group in the U.S.”
“The BRP is self-described…as a black political party organized to fight “racial discrimination and violent repression” through formation of armed self-defense units.”
“Its activities to date have centered primarily around Omaha, Nebraska, and Des Moines, Iowa; however, it is known to be active in Kansas City, Missouri, and Detroit, Michigan.”
“In June, 1971, Charles Knox and another BRP leader were temporarily detained by U.S. Customs officials, Detroit, Michigan, as they attempted to reenter the U.S. from Canada. A search of their automobile revealed numerous papers and pamphlets of a pro-communist nature.”
“In late August, 1971, two BRP activists were arrested for speeding and carrying a concealed weapon by the Iowa Highway Patrol. In this automobile at the time of arrest was an envelope addressed to PU Chao-min in Ottawa, Canada….He is also reported to be a Red Chinese intelligence agent. Also found in the automobile was an envelope addressed to Charles Knox from the International Section of the Black Panther Party, Algiers.”[x]
“In February, 1972, Knox was released after serving a six-month sentence for criminal contempt in Iowa. In March, 1972, Knox travelled to Canada where he apparently received instructions from the CP…to reorganize the BRP in the Midwest. He indicated at this time that he desires the BRP to operate in a covert capacity and where possible to utilize other legitimate organizations as cover for their activities and programs.”
“In June, 1972, information was received that Knox was moving BRP headquarters to Chicago and he would also take up residence in that city. Recent information has verified that subject has been in Chicago, however, he has also continued to be active in the Des Moines and Omaha areas.”
“Investigations of the BRP and its identified leaders and members are being aggressively pursued and where necessary closely coordinated.”[xi]
“In the past two years, many of these urban guerrillas have been apprehended and imprisoned for their criminal acts; however, their revolutionary efforts have not ended with confinement. They are engaging in increasing efforts to politicize the black prison community and to establish a political nature to their own imprisonment. They refer to themselves as “prisoners of war” or “political prisoners.”[xii]
On November 26, 1972, Jack Swanson was promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant of the Omaha Police Department. Swanson’s role in the conviction of Mondo and Ed Poindexter was good for his career. Swanson eventually rose to the rank of Chief of Police.[xiii]
In December, Acting Director Mark Felt censured Charles Brennan for sharing a FBI investigative report with the Alexandria County Police Department about the murder of a police officer. Brennan, who had been demoted to Special Agent in Charge of the Alexandria FBI office, provided the local police with a report on the suspected killer.[xiv]
The censure followed an internal Bureau memorandum that discussed disclosure of FBI reports to local police and Brennan’s action. “We should not permit the action by the SAC, Alexandria to go unchallenged, for to do so, would give tacit approval to field offices to disseminate FBI reports to their local departments. The potential scope of such dissemination is beyond estimation, since in nearly all of our criminal, local agencies have concurrent interests. If FBI reports were indiscriminately furnished to police departments, they could very possibly become parts of police records which are made available to members of the press, and there is no end to speculation as to what use could be made of information from such reports. It is also pointed out that FBI reports, if allowed to be given to police agencies, would be available to local prosecutors, many of who are politically oriented and would be very happy to quote FBI reports for whatever purpose best suited them. We should continue to adhere to the firm policy of requiring field offices to advise FBIHQ of all instances wherein dissemination of FBI information to local authorities is considered warranted. Before disseminating a raw FBI report to a local police agency, the matter should properly be taken up with the Attorney General by FBIHQ.”[xv]
Brennan’s actions in Alexandria were a sharp contrast to Omaha where he approved withholding a report from local police.
[i]Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Anthony Summers, p. 418, 1993
[ii]Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Hack, p. 396, 2004
[iii]Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Anthony Summers, p. 419, 1993
[iv] The decision to not have an autopsy, nor conduct toxicology tests, gave rise to several theories about Hoover’s death. One theory was that G. Gordon Liddy’s “plumbers” unit murdered Hoover with poison to simulate a heart attack. The scenario had Liddy’s team burglarizing Hoover’s house and planting a fast-acting poison where Hoover would ingest the toxin. The poison purportedly was the same kind the CIA used in the poison pen attempt on Fidel Castro’s life. Richard Nixon had assigned Liddy to come up with a plan to dispose of Hoover as head of the FBI. Hoover had many enemies and the lack of any official inquiry into the cause of death beyond a bedside visit leaves the question about the circumstances of Hoover’s death open.
[v] There was no bloody shirt in the case. The phrase illustrates the court’s bias.
[vi]State v. Rice & State v. Poindexter, 199 N.W. 2d 480 (1972), citations omitted
[vii]COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story, Paul Wolf, p. 40, 2001
[viii]COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story, Paul Wolf, p. 41, 2001
[ix] Archive.org, FBI Domestic Intelligence Division-HQ, Vol. 5, p. 50, October 23, 1973
[x] Archive.org, FBI Domestic Intelligence Division-HQ, Vol. 4, p. 151-152, August 21, 1972
[xi] Archive.org, FBI Domestic Intelligence Division-HQ, Vol. 4, p. 152, August 21, 1972
[xii] Archive.org, FBI Domestic Intelligence Division-HQ, Vol. 4, p. 156-157, August 22, 1972
[xiii] Annual Report, Omaha Police Division, p. 8, 1977
[xiv] Archive.org, Charles D. Brennan, Vol. 4, p. 260, December 13, 1972
[xv] Archive.org, Charles D. Brennan, Vol. 4, p. 257-258, December 6, 1972
About the Author
Michael Richardson is a former Omaha resident who attended Westside High School and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Richardson was a VISTA Volunteer on the Near-Northside and served on the Nebraska Commission on Aging before moving from the state. Richardson attended the Minard murder trial and reported on the case in 1971 for the Omaha Star in his first published article. After a nineteen year career as a disability rights advocate, Richardson worked for Ralph Nader coordinating his ballot access campaigns in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. Richardson has written extensively for the San Francisco Bay View, OpEdNews.com and Examiner.com about the trial while spending the last decade researching and writing the book.
North Omaha has deep history, with a little shallow but interesting past, too. For instance, here’s the story of a house tucked away in a historic neighborhood that’s architecturally distinct from its neighbors, and was once pivotal in local broadcasting.
The Mount View Heights and Mount View Acres subdivisions were built in the post-World War II housing boom that struck much of the area north of Ames and west of North 42nd Street. However, one house was was built almost 20 years earlier in the depths of the Great Depression.
5504 Kansas Avenue was built in the Tutor Renaissance style in 1935. That year, WOW radio leased some property at the house and built a massive antenna there.
Not 15 years earlier, Omaha’s giant fraternal organization, the Woodmen of the World, began it’s own radio station. It was 1922, and WOAW radio was their way to reach thousands of people at once. Just four years later, the call letters were changed to WOW.
In 1935, WOW built this massive antenna in North Omaha and became one of the most powerful radio stations in the United States. Broadcasting at 5,000 watts, it reached ships in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and millions of listeners tuned in. The place where they built that 454-foot-tall antenna was 5504 Kansas Avenue in North Omaha!
Apparently, the Federal Communication Commission, or FCC, used to require the radio station’s chief engineer used to live in the house. In 1945, the US Supreme Court forced the Woodmen of the World to divest WOW because they threatened the Woodmen’s tax-exempt status. Bought by a new company called WOW Radio, in 1949, the broadcasting company decided to launch WOW-TV.
Great Empire Broadcasting later bought WOW. According to one reader, “Empire bought the home from the owner when it became available. There was a long standing dispute because the owner put in a garden near the tower. The roots from some of the things planted were damaging the copper radials buried underground causing issues with the transmission system.” The antenna was unique when it was built because it stood only on a one-foot-square base, with four stabilizing cables extending from its corners to the ground.
Even though it sold the radio station in the late 1990s, Empire continues to own the house and surrounding property today. The house has 2,900 square feet of space along with a detached garage, and sits on 15 acres of land in a fully developed neighborhood next to Sorenson Parkway. The antenna sits squarely in the middle of the property right now!
In the early 1880s, William “Sand Bar Bill” McKenna was a railroad cop for the Union Pacific. By 1887 though, he’d left the UP and built McKenna Hall at Sherman Avenue and Locust Street by the old Sulphur Springs. A decade later, the brick building that became the long-running State Bar was built, and everything took off from there!
In 1887, Willet Robbins and his wife sold the land on this corner to David Archer, who in turn sold it to “Sand Bar Bill” McKenna to run his hall. That same year, John Buck applied for a liquor permit for the McKenna Hall at 2827 North 16th Street. From my research, it looks like McKenna owned the building and Buck owned the business.
Over the next 25 years, Bill McKenna hosted political party meetings and a variety of other events on the second floor. Ed Rosewater, Jim Dahlman and other figures of the day spoke there repeatedly, and the hall appeared regularly in political party announcements and records in the newspapers. Democratic Party speeches and debates were held at the hall frequently, too. It was such a popular political gathering spot that sometimes it was referred to as the 5th Ward Club.
Micah Evans, an administrator for the Omaha History Club, recently found that in 1898, the Omaha Brewing Association took out a permit to erect a brick saloon on the southeast corner of 16th and Locust for $5,000. Located ten blocks north of the Storz Brewing Company, the Omaha Brewing Company’s main label, Gottlieb Storz was responsible for the building that stands there today. We haven’t discerned how long it was a “tied house,” meaning that it probably exclusively sold Storz Beer.
The year it was built, McKenna Hall sat at the northern entry to the Midway at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. With 3,000,000 visitors coming through the entire Expo, the building inevitably saw its most foot traffic ever during that event. Before the Expo opened that year, a new two-story building was constructed on the corner with a bar on the first floor and McKenna’s Hall on the second floor.
The early community in North Omaha met regularly at McKenna’s Hall, calling for a variety of improvements in the community. For instance, in 1900 community members led by Joseph Redman met at McKenna Hall regularly. They planned on buying the Bluff Tract left over after the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition for years, but I can’t discern whether that happened with their influence. Starting in 1924, the Sherman Avenue Progressive Club was formed at McKenna’s Hall. For the next several years, business leaders and neighborhood residents met to advocate, plan and enact development along the strip, including better streetcar service, electric lights, pay phones and more. There were reportedly more than 100 members – but the club reports stopped in 1929.
This tied house eventually housed the old Sam’s Bar, which was opened around 1928, and later the notorious State Bar. During Abolition in the 1920s, owner James Kelly installed an illegal alarm system used to alert patrons when the police were coming. After a raid in 1931, he was fined $500 for alerting patrons about a raid by the cops. A few years later, he was fined again for served illegal alcohol from a bucket behind lightly papered wall in bathroom of his “soda fountain.”
As it was major intersection of two bus routes, one that would take you the Miller Park area and the other through Carter Lake and down to East Omaha, and according to a lot of former residents, the bar hosted a lot of people who would stop for a quick drink while waiting for their bus.
During the 1970s until the mid 80s the upstairs housed an after hours club. According to author Glenn Hubbard, Walter Sims owned the business, and it had a bar area with a kitchen, a 2nd room for gambling, and 3 bedrooms for “private entertainment”.
In 1982, Sims was convicted of manslaughter after killing a man in a party on the second floor. As per the usual reporting in the Omaha World-Herald, the business looks shady in the newspaper. All through the 1970s and into the 80s, there are multiple reports of shootings, robberies, violence and other negativity there.
16th and Locust Historic District
The McKenna Hall and State Bar is one of the oldest buildings at the intersection of N. 16th and Locust, and serves as a visual anchor of the historic significance of this intersection. Throughout its existence, this intersection has seen the rise and fall of streetcars; the rise and fall of North Omaha; the continued obliteration of North Omaha’s architectural landmarks; and the emergence of care and concern for buildings just like this.
I propose the development of an application to the National Register of Historic Places for the 16th and Locust Historic District. After the City of Omaha demolished the Wolff Bros. Store opposite of the State Bar in 2016, I became alarmed at the abandonment and ease with which they destroyed it. Working with the City of Omaha as a partner, this particular corner could be re-established as an economically viable, attractive place to live, work and thrive. A vision would have to launch this, and that’s what this article is meant to do: Inspire YOU to take action!
Adam’s Note: This article was written with research support from the Kiewit Corporation, which recently opened a training facility called the Kiewit University at 1561-1501 Burt Street in North Downtown Omaha.
Pioneers and prostitutes, capitalists and consumers packed one area of downtown Omaha for more than a century. Despite its redevelopment today, the North Downtown neighborhood has a long history. Its had many identities.
For the sake of keeping this article’s length reasonable, I will define North Downtown as the area between Cass and Cuming from North 10th to North 17th.The boundaries of Omaha and its communities and neighborhoods have been shifting since the city was founded. I found an 1867 article that mentioned North Omaha anything between Farnam and Cass! So, using these boundaries for North Downtown seems appropriate, especially since the City hasn’t said anything “official” about neighborhood boundaries, or declared North Downtown a Business Improvement District.
Following is a history of Omaha’s North Downtown.
A. D. Jones and the First Survey
The first people who lived in this region were Woodland tribal groups who lived up and down the Missouri River before AD 1400. Around that point, the Otoe tribe had a village along a stream called North Omaha Creek that went through North Downtown into the river.
In 1854, a surveyor named Alfred D. Jones was hired by the Nebraska Ferry Company to lay out a city including this area. The ferry company was essentially a real estate company that snatched up the Omaha area as soon as it became available for settling.
Jones became the preeminent pioneer settler of Omaha and was locally famous throughout the city’s early history. As a surveyor, he laid out Omaha City and named its first and most prominent streets. He was one of the first lawyers in Omaha, and served on the first Douglas County Commission and on the first Omaha City Council. He was the Speaker of the Nebraska Territory House of Representatives, and the first postmaster in Omaha. As a member of the second territorial legislature, he also named several counties across Nebraska. He helped found the Omaha Claim Club, and eventually, his law firm and land holdings made him rich and he retired wealthy.
In the map above, you can see the North Downtown area clearly platted. Created by A.D. Jones for the ferry company, its original caption (from the Durham Museum) says,
Lots will be given to persons who will improve them, private sales will be made on the premises. A newspaper, the ”Omaha Arrow” is published weekly at this place a brick building suitable for the Territorial Legislature is in process of construction – and a steam mill and brick hotel will be completed in a few weeks. Sept 1st 1854
Prominent geographic features include the Missouri River on the east; the North Omaha Creek weaving wily nily through the neighborhood, and the “Winter Quarters Road,” which became Florence Boulevard.
You’ll notice on the upper left corner of the map there are several streets marked that don’t exist today, including Swan, Eagle, Otter, Elk, Buffalo, Badger, and Antelope Streets. Of course, another map from the same era shows the same area with Canal Street, intersected by Bowery Street, Aspinwall Street and Bright Street, along with Blessington Street, none of which exist. So, there wasn’t 100% agreement on what the street names would become from the outset. However, most of that was settled for North Downtown by 1860. The streets in North Omaha are some of the oldest in Omaha, and as this map shows, North Downtown is home to several of those old streets.
According to Omaha’s historical lore, the first formal stake in Omaha was called the “Ferry Claim,” and was made in April 1854 when Jones took a line of string around the land and marking the corners by stakes. The northern line went from the Missouri River to “Swan Street,” which is called Cuming Street now, south to 13th and Webster, then to 23rd and Webster Streets straight through North Downtown. The original lots in the city, which were part of Jones’ survey of 1854, included all of the blocks between Webster and Cass, from 10th to 17th Streets. North Downtown is truly in one of the oldest parts of Omaha.
The First Players
Given that North Downtown was such a speculative place and a lot of people anticipated its value, there were a number of early players involved in the area.
Omaha pioneer Dr. George Miller moved to the neighborhood and started living there in 1854. Originally living in a shanty at 9th and Cuming, he moved to a cabin lent to him by Nebraska Territorial governor Thomas Cuming in 1855 that was located at present-day 24th and Cuming. According to a short history of his early life in Omaha, Miller said Cuming claimed the land to the southeast of his shack, including North Omaha Creek and the land surrounding it, which would’ve included the specific blocks you’re interested in. He became a very important city leader and wealthy man.
William Paxton was an early freighter in Omaha. He switched industries and started constructing bridges along the Military Road, including at least one over the North Omaha Creek, which flowed through your neighborhood, in 1857. He kept going west, building bridges along the road all the way to Kearney. Coming back to Omaha in 1860, he went on to become a city leader. T. W. T. Richards and L. G. Heybrook established the Cass Street Foundry in 1880. Paxton and Vierling Iron Works started after William Paxton bought the Cass Street Foundry in 1886, and after a fire they moved their factory south of downtown.
There were other important Omaha pioneers in the area too.
Developing the Area
The first development in North Downtown Omaha started at 10th and Cass and nearer to the river. Then, white settlers spread westward and northeastward.
At first, this area was referred to as North Omaha. Eventually it became known as the Near North Side, which served alternately as a euphemism for a segregated Black neighborhood in the area. Today, the area has been rebranded as North Downtown, and just like now, there were many landowners and speculators in this area at the beginning of the city’s life. It became important within a decade of the city’s founding.