July 10, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Confirming the population of any given city requires nothing more than a glance at census figures, right?

Not so fast. To best understand at least one local community, it would be advisable to also have a calendar handy. For 364 days

of the year, Ralston’s population is estimated at almost 7,000 people. But on that remaining day, July 4 to be exact, the city bursts at the seams when as many as 50,000 people swarm to the place known as the Independence City.

Carrying on that patriotic theme, the Fourth of July parade route wends its way along Independence Avenue, the honorary label of Miller Avenue. And the mini park downtown is named Independence Square.

Ralston Mayor Donald Groesser explains that the “Independence” label has dual meanings. Sure, the town’s star-spangled Fourth of July parade and surrounding events are crowd-pleasers that make the city the third largest in the state that day, but there’s more.

Omaha was positioning itself to annex Ralston in 1964, but the town had other ideas. A deal was struck where Omaha agreed to leapfrog Ralston so long as the suburb did not itself expand to the magic number of 10,000. State law mandates that Omaha may annex any burg with a population below that number without putting the issue to a vote by that community’s people.

“So I have my little pilgrimage downtown every four or eight years,” says Groesser, who is serving his fifth term and has been in office for 18 years, “just to reaffirm the deal and to repeat that handshake with each new mayor elected in Omaha.”

The same kind of casual, handshake aura defines the very nature of the close-knit community that has retained its distinct, small-town vibe even as the metro has grown around it. It’s a thriving, one square mile island of folksiness smack dab in the middle of an equally thriving city.
And it’s the type of place where roots run deep.

Music teacher Ladonna Johnson has been a fixture at the Independence Day festivities for decades. “When I was a kid,” Johnson says, “we’d decorate our bicycles with crepe paper and ride in the parade. It was a lot simpler thing in those early days, but it was so exciting for all the neighborhood kids.”

Johnson took a larger role in last year’s affair. And there wasn’t any crepe paper involved this time. She rode in a convertible as Parade Marshall, an honor bestowed for her lifelong service to the little city on the hill, a place where the historical museum—The Frank and Velma Johnson Ralston Archive Museum—is named for her parents.

“Many of my current and former music students came to the parade and chanted ‘Ladonna! Ladonna!’ as I passed by,” she says. “It was such grand fun!”

Many of the local businesses have roots that run equally deep.

A crashing cacophony of 7-10 splits have been heard at Scorz, the local bowling alley, since the ‘50s. A quintessential corner hangout—the ancient Village Bar—may have a snazzy, new, and hip logo, but the everybody-knows-your-name atmosphere remains the same.

And then there’s the tacos. Since 1976, Maria’s Mexican Restaurant has been a magnet for margaritas and a hub for habaneros.

Michael Sanchez, son of the restaurant’s titular founder, Maria, goes “all in” when it comes to Ralston boosterism. He’s chairman of the Ralston Chamber of Commerce and is running for a seat on the city council. But what about his mother? Does Maria have a plan to retire any time soon?
“My mom will probably one day be the Mrs. B of Ralston,” he says, “riding around the restaurant in a little scooter,” just like the late, iconic entrepreneur associated with Nebraska Furniture Mart who was, in her later years, known to (literally) wheel and deal from her perch atop a custom
scooter contraption.

The rise of the Ralston Arena—home of Omaha Lancers hockey, University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s basketball, the arena football Omaha Beef, and more—has changed the city’s landscape in more than just a literal way. It is the anchor for an ambitious, 20-year development plan that Mayor Groesser dubs “The Hinge.”