As with any small town in America, seasons change and visitors come and go. But one thing that remains the same is the locomotive’s plaintive whistle heard all up and down Main Street in Elkhorn. Just a stone’s throw from the tracks, Olde Towne, as some locals refer to it, has experienced a renewed vitality in the past eight years after a number of new businesses opened.
The town was just recovering from a 2005 annexation by the city of Omaha. The locals fought hard to remain independent but Omaha won out.
“The only thing they did was change the numbers on our street and changed the names of some of the streets,” says Leona Anderson, owner of Little Scandinavia specialty shop.
Across the tracks is a tidy, 3.6-mile stretch of bricks laid in 1920 as part of the Lincoln Highway connecting New York to San Francisco. The secluded and serene stretch was recognized as part of the National Register of Historic places in 2003. “You’ll see the markings on the poles. A lot of bike riders like to take that route,” Anderson says.
A regular at monthly merchant meetings, Anderson has played a revitalizing role in Olde Towne by writing TIF (Tax Increment Financing) grants for Mayor Jean Stothert’s Neighborhood Grants.
“We are the ones carrying the ball,” she says. Soon, they will be receiving more TIF money for streetscaping, planting, and parking. “We’re up for big changes here. It will be fun,” Anderson says. Other projects include funding for such public amenities as trash receptacles and park benches. The benches are certainly comfy, but some of the most prized perches are the bar stools at Boyd & Charlies BBQ, where locals flock for ribs and ribbing. At least a few of the tales told among the slabs and slaw are rumored to have at least an element of the truth to them.
Although much is changing, it’s clear the long-time residents prefer the quaintness of yesteryear. “People in Elkhorn don’t like to be considered part of Omaha, so we respect that. You learn that very early, especially with the oldtimers, ” says Andrea Ramsey, owner of Andrea’s Designs.
There is no shortage of special events to attend in Elkhorn. The Christmas Tree Lighting is a popular event, as well as the crowd-pleasing Elkhorn Days Parade held in June. The area merchants also hold a Ladies’ Day event every month to showcase various seasonal specials. There’s also a Farmer’s Market on Thursday nights throughout the summer.
Ramsey is a merchant who takes part in the ladies’ events and has also had a hand in grant-writing. The opening of her store happened rather organically about five years ago. “I knew I wanted to end up starting a shop somewhere.” She spotted a building on Main Street that used to be welding business.
“We kept coming out and driving by, trying to get a feel for it.” She noticed tools in the window. After a few months, she realized those tools never moved. It was a challenge for her to find out who owned the building, because it still had the old Elkhorn number system on the window. “Before that, there was never a reason for me to come to Elkhorn, and I’m glad I did.”
Shelley Van Hoozer, a nurse and mother of three, has lived in Elkhorn since the early ’90s. “When we moved here,” she says, “it still had that country, small-town feel and everybody was really friendly.” She and her husband, Ross, chose the small-town vibe of Elkhorn after first checking out Gretna and then Millard.
Her favorite thing about living in Elkhorn is the schools, Elkhorn High School and Westridge Elementary School where her children attend. “The kids are getting a good education. The teachers are really good about staying in contact with the parents.”
Van Hoozer enjoys spending time with her family at Ta-Ha-Zouka Park (roughly translated as meaning an elk’s horn) along the river. “It’s pretty cool. There are soccer fields, baseball fields, and playground equipment.” She also frequents Common Ground Recreation Center for swimming and working out. She says that a visit to Elkhorn would not be complete with a trip to the Dairy Chef. “Everybody goes there. It’s a landmark, I guess you’d say. The Dairy Chef is a big deal.”
She says that Elkhorn feels safe and is a good area to raise her kids. “I think any of our neighbors would agree.”