October 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a rural neighborhood with a small-town feel, full of rolling hills, large trees, wildlife, and huge plots of land.

This same area is just minutes from downtown Omaha, which gives residents a short drive to performances, restaurants, and everything else the city has to offer. Residents of the old neighborhood would call Ponca Hills the best of all possible worlds for its convenience.

“It’s just beautiful,” says Sara McClure, who moved to the area from Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband, Dave, 11 years ago. “The drive home, no matter what time of year, is spectacular. And the wildlife and the proximity to the rest of Omaha is amazing.”

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Parameters of Ponca Hills are flexible depending on whom you talk to. McClure says the neighborhood extends west to 72nd Street, east to the Missouri River, north to Fort Calhoun, and south to Interstate 680; however, the heart of the Ponca Hills seems to be east of Highway 75 to the river, and just north of the Douglas County line.

The history of how the area got its name is equally ambiguous. The name “Ponca Hills” sounds like it was named after something, says Clare Duda, a Douglas County Commissioner and third-generation Ponca Hills resident. But that’s not the case, he says.

“Somebody just picked the name. I don’t know who, when, or why, but it wasn’t because the Ponca Indians were here,” Duda says. “It would be more correct to call it the Otoe Hills because the Otoe Indians were here as well as the Omaha Indians.”

ponca-hills4While the area’s historical connection to the Ponca tribe is uncertain, the hills remain packed with history from local families. Duda says at least some Ponca Hills residents are descendants of the area’s original homesteaders. The Dudas have kept farms or land in the area for several generations. Other families have no specific tie to the land other than they could not imagine living anywhere else.

Ages and demographics of the Ponca Hills’ approximately 1,000 residents are all over the map. Duda, who has served as an active member of the area’s volunteer fire department for the past 40 years, says he still sees a great number of young families, many who move to the area to be closer to older generations. Meanwhile, a fair number of residents are older or retired folks who have lived in Ponca Hills their entire lives—and have no intention of moving. 

Why is Ponca Hills such a draw? Why do families not only decide to move there, but end up staying for the rest of their lives? And what motivates their children to follow in their footsteps, deciding to build their lives in the same area as their parents and grandparents?

The main attractions are the sense of community among residents, the beauty of the land, and the wildlife.

Neighbors get together for several community gatherings throughout the year, including the Ponca Hills Volunteer Fire Department’s annual barbecue, which draws approximately 2,000 people, including residents and their friends.

“It does raise money for the fire department, but really in my mind, the better reason for having it is that it is a community celebration,” Duda says. “The whole community is together.”

Other events throughout the year include the Ponca Hills Preservation Association’s annual chili feed, a steak cookout at Ponca Hills Farm stables, and smaller events like dinners and potlucks.

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While events bring everyone together, what really keeps people in Ponca Hills is the relationships developed through shared commitment to helping one another. When a neighbor is sick, you bring him a meal. When a neighbor gets stuck in the snow, you help pull him out. It’s just what you do.

“We’re a very caring community,” Duda says. “The people are the best asset we’ve got, but the natural environment we’ve been blessed with is right up there, too.”

Deer, foxes, raccoons, possums, skunks, groundhogs, and coyotes, along with turkeys, geese, and many other birds inhabit the area. This is in addition to other animals that neighbors keep on their land, including dogs, cats, chickens, horses, and goats.

“My wife and I travel a lot on the motorcycle,” Duda says. “We can go across the country and will see more wildlife on the three miles near our home than we will on our entire trip.”

For an animal and nature lover like McClure, living in the midst of it all, while still being able to drive to her job in downtown Omaha in less than 20 minutes, is a dream come true.

The extra land is more work. And the older homes mean more to repair and more to update, McClure says. “But the benefit of being so close to Omaha, yet so far from the city, is really worth it.”

Visit poncahills.org for more information. OmahaHome

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