Tag Archives: cowboys

Wicked Omaha

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Musty newspapers, photos, archives, public records, presentations, and endless hours of research. Sure, the life of a modern folk historian sounds glamorous, but it’s not all like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In many ways, history is an occupation reserved only for those obsessive truth-seekers disconnected from their place on the space-time continuum.

Local historian, author, teacher, and Glenwood native Ryan Roenfeld has been making history entertaining for nigh on two decades. The 44-year-old nontraditional UNO student describes himself as a “hick-from-the-sticks.” A quasi-Luddite with a passion for the past, he doesn’t have a cell phone but he uses Facebook.

“I don’t know how I got so interested in history,” Roenfeld says. “Most folks see history as dry and dull, but it’s not. It really is—good, bad, or indifferent—the story of why things are the way they are.”

While decrying the modern age, Roenfeld helped popularize one of Omaha’s most frequented social media sites: Chuck Martens’ “Forgotten Omaha” Facebook page.

As one of three administrators, Roenfeld has seen “Forgotten Omaha” grow to more than 45,000 likes over the last year.

“I was surprised at the interest. Omahans didn’t know as much of their history as I thought,” says Roenfeld, who also teaches classes on Omaha history for Metropolitan Community College at Do Space. “History really is the story of us all, and I like telling people their stories.”

A folksy populist with an encyclopedic knowledge of colorful locals and criminals, Roenfeld tells the lesser-known tales of underrepresented populations, colorful characters, and swept-under scandals. He has self-published a dozen books and contributed to many articles on topics ranging from old postcards, railroads, steamboating, and local 19th-century brewers. To date, his most popular book has been Tinhorn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes, a colorful history of vice in Council Bluffs, which offers a glimpse at the city’s exploitation of prostitutes in the late 19th century.

“The highlights are always the lowlifes,” Roenfeld says. “People like hearing stories of cowboy shoot-outs in the street. People think the Old West happened in Arizona, but this area was really the archetype for every Wild West trope.”

The popularity of Western depravity was also obvious to Roenfeld’s publisher, The History Press. Roenfeld’s latest book, Wicked Omaha (not to be confused with David Bristow’s book, Dirty, Wicked Town [Omaha], published by Caxton Press in 2000), looks closely at “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Omaha’s red-light district in the 1880s.

Hell’s Half-Acre stretched from the Missouri River to 16th Street and from Douglas to Cuming streets. The city portrayed in Roenfeld’s Wicked Omaha makes all the stereotypes of Deadwood seem trite.

“People don’t realize that anything went in Hell’s Half-Acre,” Roenfeld says. “It was a different Omaha, when the saloons ran all night and strangers were victimized by every scheme going, all right downtown, nothing secret about it. Brothels were illegal, but ran in the open. There was drug addiction, suicide, and systematic exploitation. Prostitutes paid ‘fines’ monthly to keep operating. If they couldn’t pay, the city gave them a few weeks before they were hauled in front of a judge to either pay up or get shut up.”

Wicked Omaha made its debut Thursday, March 9, at the UNO Criss Library’s Read Local Author Showcase. Roenfeld plans to present his book at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark library May 6. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

Visit arcadiapublishing.com for more information.

This article appeared in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.

Isiah Gandy

August 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If there was a sport at Boys Town, Isiah Gandy didn’t just play it. He excelled at it.

As a high school freshman, he was instrumental in Boys Town’s push through the state basketball playoffs to win the 2006 championship, the school’s first title in 40 years.

As a senior quarterback, he led the Cowboys football team to the Class C-1 championship (although they lost the final game). 

He also ran cross country and participated in the triple jump and high jump in track and field. But his first—his strongest—sport was always basketball, a game he picked up on the local court near his childhood home of West Palm Beach, Florida.

“My dad played basketball, and we shot baskets in the backyard when I was a kid, so it’s something I’ve always loved,” says Gandy.

After Boys Town, he bounced around college programs. Following one year at Des Moines Area Community College, and two seasons on court with the UNO Mavericks, Gandy transferred to Minot State University in North Dakota for his junior and senior years.

Now, Gandy has the opportunity to play his favorite game in Omaha again—and get paid for it.

This fall, he will take the court with the newly formed Omaha Chargers of the National Basketball League of America. The first-year league starts this September with a short season ending in November.

“I’ve always had a hunger for basketball,” says Gandy, who has been coaching at his high school alma mater for the past two basketball seasons. “I love the work—the grind—involved with playing basketball and playing it well.

Teams on the Chargers’ schedule are located in Sioux City, Kansas City, and Sioux Falls, and home games will be played at Ralston Arena.

As a shooting guard, Gandy joins a squad with deep ties to the local community. Head coach Rodney Buford played basketball at Creighton University before an NBA career. Point guard C.J. Carter graduated from Omaha Benson High School, was an all-star at UNO, and played professional basketball in Macedonia last season. Shooting guard James Parrott hails from Omaha, and several other teammates have links to regional basketball programs.

Gandy initially came to Omaha via Boys Town when he was 15, and he excelled right away on and off the court.

“Boys Town was a great experience for me because I learned a lot of things that I didn’t get to do in a single-parent home in Florida,” says Gandy. “We never sat down to eat as a family at home, but we did at Boys Town, and that meant something to me. Overall, it was a good experience.”

While he’s excited to play before an audience that he considers to be his home crowd, Gandy also hopes to parlay his playing time with the Chargers into a chance at international pro leagues.

“I found out about the league in April when a friend sent me a link, and I was interested right away,” he says. “This is going to be a great opportunity to see the support the community gives to its sports teams on a professional level.”

Visit omahachargers.com for more information. Omaha Magazine

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Life in the Nebraska Sandhills

July 8, 2015 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

This article appears in Omaha Magazine July/August 2015.

Nebraska’s pioneering spirit shines brightly along the I-80 corridor, which follows the vast open spaces of the Great Plains. If travelers hurriedly passing through the state thinking, “Yep, this is Nebraska,” took the time to veer off the well-beaten path and steer the car northwest, they would discover a landscape unlike any other and a lifestyle steeped in the tradition of the frontier.

Heading up Nebraska Highway 97 just above North Platte, the topography changes dramatically. The flat farmland graduates into clusters of enormous sand dunes—miles of them. Anchored by a variety of prairie grasses and etched by relentless winds over thousands of years, the all but treeless Sandhills rise up like waves of an ocean—a phenomenon not seen anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

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Blue sky, dotted with puffy cotton balls of clouds, stretches as far as the eye can see before dipping down and hugging hills on the distant horizon. Under this protective dome lies nature at its purest, virtually untouched by civilization. This, too, is Nebraska—western Nebraska, where life mirrors the land: simple, unaffected, and humble.

The bloodlines of the Sandhills run deep in Joel Jacobs, going back five generations. The 34-year old Omaha investment manager grew up where Route 97 meets Highway 2 in Mullen, the only town in Hooker County (named after a Civil War general), and, by default, the county seat. It also serves as a center of commerce.

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The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, known as “Mr. Buffett’s train” by the locals, roars past the house Joel grew up in every 10 minutes or so, 24 hours a day, carrying car after car of coal eastward from Wyoming. In a town of less than 500 people in a county with a population density of one person per square mile, the sharp blast of a train whistle represents employment, not a nuisance.

But small town doesn’t mean small time. Like many young people in Mullen, Jacobs excelled in sports, quarterbacking his high school’s eight-man football team (the salvation of deep rural areas) to a state championship in 1998. He continued to make a name for himself as a tight end at the University of Nebraska-Kearney—a Division II school—resulting in a free agent contract with the NFL. He spent the bulk of his pro career with the New England Patriots and NFL Europe.

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When injuries cut his football dreams short, he and his wife, Megan, moved to Omaha, a city big enough to launch a successful financial career, yet only five hours, 334 miles, and one time zone away from the land he loves—and a town that still thinks of him primarily as
Jodi and Kirk Jacobs’s son.

“I grew up with the feeling that no matter how bad things can get, everything’s going to be okay,” says Joel, finishing the thought with the flip side, “But no matter how good things are, you’re no better than anyone else.” Humility ranks high on a wish list for his three young children. “That’s why I like to bring them here as often as I can. I want them to know this kind of stability.”

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For Jacobs, stability includes spending time with his grandparents, Jake and Bunny Jacobs. The couple, celebrating 70 years of marriage in August, still live independently on the 3,000-acre ranch just south of town where Bunny, born Berneice (e before i) Taylor, grew up.

“My father bought this land in the early 1930s during the Sand Bowl,” says Bunny, sharp as a tack at 91 and, with a rollicking sense of humor, referring to the Sandhills’ version of the Dust Bowl. Like most settlers in the valley, her father quickly realized crops don’t grow in sand. Raising her index finger a couple of inches above her thumb, Bunny says, “The corn only grew this high.”

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But cattle could thrive on the prairie grasses, providing Bunny, who inherited the ranch, and Jake a means to support a family. Until the family grew.

“By the time they had four kids, my dad went to work for Consolidated Telephone to bring in some more money,” explains Kirk Jacobs, referring to another big employer in Mullen. Kirk also holds a customer service job with Consolidated while maintaining the day-to-day operations on the ranch. Work never ends in the Sandhills.

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On a wickedly gusty Friday, two cattle haulers drive onto the ranch, each carrying 50 head of Angus cows and their new calves. “They’ll graze here for the next five months before going back to a feed lot in Kearney,” says Kirk in his understated way.

With the bovine visitors safely grazing in their new digs, Kirk and Joel head out to the east pasture, checking miles and miles of barbed wire for gaps. Stopping at a well on the property, Kirk fills a water bottle. “Freshest water you’ll ever taste,” he says. “We’re right on top of the Ogallala Aquifer.”

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For people who exhibit no pretensions, life flows in a natural rhythm, like the waters of the Middle Loup River where the Jacobs family gathers for a twilight “tanking” adventure. Floating down the river in a large, round, metal water tank normally found in pastures to water the livestock provides family fun at a reasonable cost—nothing. Joel’s wife, two older children, mother, sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids sit side-by-side in the tank as he and his father navigate the swift current with oars, dodging tree limbs and driftwood obstructing their path.

Amid the gales of laughter as the tank bounces off canyons of sand that form the riverbank, Joel’s mother and sister, Kelly Marsh, pass around homemade, individually-wrapped ham and chicken paninis, miniature quiches, and pickle bites wrapped in salami and cheese. Taking care of her family brings Jodi Jacobs joy.

“I always wanted a big family and Kirk and I have four of our own,” she says softly, cradling a grandchild in her arms. “I love to cook. I love to entertain. And I love it when the kids come home.”

RanchPhoto10That passion recently led to the fulfillment of a dream: Jodi opened a restaurant, The Nebraska Pantry, conveniently located next to the town’s only grocery store along Mullen’s main street. She rises at 4:30 every morning to make bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and daily lunch specials for her many regulars, adding credence to the belief that hard work and low stress can trump cholesterol any time.

Jodi’s culinary talents extend beyond Mullen. She makes a line of Nebraska Pantry gourmet dip mixes, sold in Omaha at Scheel’s Sporting Goods and Sugar Bakers gourmet store. In addition, Jodi somehow finds the time to work in the pro shop of the Sand Hills Golf Club, one of two top-rated, private golf courses located in Mullen (the second being Dismal River).

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“I’d say about 75 percent of the current PGA has played here at Sand Hills,” says Joel, as he surveys the wind-swept, Ben Crenshaw-designed course nestled deep in the sand dunes. “It’s ranked number one in the country and number 11 in the world. Players come here to enjoy their game in privacy.”

Standing on the portico of the starter’s cabin nicknamed Ben’s Porch, Joel takes in the magnificent scenery so familiar to him. “Life here? It’s a beautiful gift,” he says, almost to himself, as he anticipates the return trip to Omaha.

The land and the serenity it brings will lure Joel back again and again. And his children will someday discover what their dad already knows: some of the richest lives on earth are lived in tiny Mullen, Nebraska.

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