Tag Archives: Douglas County Historical Society

July/August 2017 Giving Calendar

July 7 (7-10 p.m.)
Ales for Tails
Benefitting: Nebraska Humane Society
Location: Bärchen
—nehumanesociety.org

July 8 (8-11 a.m.)
5K Superhero Run and Post Race Party
Benefitting: CASA for Douglas County
Location: Turner Park at Midtown Crossing
—casaomaha.org/calendar/

July 10 (11:30 a.m.)
24th Annual Golf Classic
Benefitting: Keep Omaha Beautiful
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
—keepomahabeautiful.org

July 13 (6:30 p.m.)
Links to a Cure Golf Gala
Benefitting: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Location: Embassy Suites La Vista
—nelinkstoacure17.eventscff.org

July 14 (8:30 a.m.)
Links to a Cure Golf Tournament
Benefitting: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Location: Arborlinks Golf Course
—nelinkstoacure17.eventscff.org

July 15 (5-11 p.m.)
Relay for Life of Greater Omaha
Benefitting: American Cancer Society
Location: Stinson Park at Aksarben Village
—relay.acsevents.org

July 16 (noon-3 p.m.)
ULN Guild Men Who Cook
Benefitting: Urban League of Nebraska
Location: OPS Administrative Building Cafeteria
—urbanleagueneb.org

July 25 (6 p.m.)
Hope in the Heartland Gala
Benefitting: American Cancer Society
Location: Stinson Park in Aksarben Village
—gala.acsevents.org

July 28 (6-9:30 p.m.)
Screw Cancer Fundraiser 2017
Benefitting: Cancer Alliance of Nebraska
Location: Omaha Country Club
—cancerallianceofnebraska.org

July 29 (6:30-11 p.m.)
2017 Blue Water Bash
Benefitting: Boys Town Okoboji Camp
Location: Boys Town Okoboji Camp, Milford, Iowa
—boystown.org

July 29 (8-10:30 a.m.)
Omaha Head for the Cure (HFTC) 5K
Benefitting: Head for the Cure Foundation
Location: Lewis & Clark Landing
—headforthecure.org/omaha

July 29 (9-11 a.m.)
The Walk to End Pancreatic Cancer
Benefitting: PurpleStride Omaha
Location: Sinson Park at Aksarben Village
—support.pancan.org

July 29 (1:30-10 p.m.)
Golf 4 Lungs
Benefitting: New Hope 4 Lungs
Location: Eagle Hills Golf Course
—newhope4lungs.org

July 31 (11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.)
Help Build a House Golf Event
Benefitting: Gesu Housing
Location: Champions Run
—gesuhousing.com

July 31 (1-6 p.m.)
Swing 4 Kids Golf Benefit
Benefitting: Partnership 4 Kids
Location: Tiburon Golf Course
—p4k.org/2014-swing-4-kids-golf-benefit/

Aug. 4 (5-9 p.m.)
New American Arts Festival
Benefiting: Lutheran Family Services
Location: Benson First Friday, 60th-62nd and Maple streets
—bensonfirstfriday.com/news–events.html

Aug. 4 (6-10 p.m.)
Dance for a Chance
Benefitting: Youth Emergency Services
Location: Omaha Design Center
—yesomaha-org.presencehost.net/news-events/dance.html

Aug. 4 (6-11 p.m.)
River Bash N Brew
Benefitting: Visiting Nurses Association
Location: Lewis & Clark Landing
—thevnacares.org

Aug. 5 (6-9 p.m.)
10th Annual Nebraska Walk for Epilepsy
Benefitting: Lifestyle Innovations for Epilepsy
Location: Turner Park at Midtown Crossing
—nebraskaepilepsywalk.com

Aug. 5 (8 a.m.-noon)
Spirit of Courage Golf Tournament
Benefitting: Jennie Edmundson Hospital Cancer Center
Location: Dodge Riverside Golf Club
—jehfoundation.org

Aug. 5 (6-10 p.m.)
Spirit of Courage Gala
Benefitting: Jennie Edmundson Hospital Cancer Center
Location: Mid-America Center
—jehfoundation.org

Aug. 5 (6-9 p.m.)
Jefferson House “Stand Up for Kids” Comedy Night
Benefitting: Heartland Family Service
Location: Fremont Golf Club
—heartlandfamilyservice.org/events/stand-kids-comedy-night/

Aug. 6 (noon)
No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament
Benefitting: Jennie Edmundson Hospital Cancer Center
Location: Mid-America Center
—jehfoundation.org

Aug.10 (7 a.m.-1 p.m.)
18th Annual Release Ministries Bill Ellett Memorial Golf Classic
Benefitting: Release Ministries
Location: Iron Horse Golf Club, Ashland, Nebraska
—releaseministries-org.presencehost.net/news-events

Aug. 11 (9 a.m.-noon)
Step Out for Seniors Walk-A-Thon
Benefitting: Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging
Location: Benson Park
—stepoutforseniors.weebly.com

Aug. 12 (8:30 a.m.)
HETRA’s Little Britches Horse Show
Benefitting: Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy
Location: HETRA, Gretna, Nebraska
—HETRA.org

Aug 12 (5:30 p.m.)
11th Annual Summer Bash for Childhood Cancer
Benefitting: Metro Area Youth Foundation
Location: Embassy Suite La Vista Convention Center
—summerbashforccc.org/

Aug. 13 (10 a.m.-3 p.m.)
Vintage Wheels at the Fort
Benefitting: Douglas County Historical Society
Location: Historic Fort Omaha
—douglascohistory.org/

Aug 14 (11 a.m.)
QLI Golf Challenge
Benefitting: QLI Tri-Dimensional Rehab
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
—teamqli.com/team_events/qli-golf-tournament

Aug. 18 (6-10 p.m.)
Exposed: Voice
Benefitting: Project Pink’d
Location: Hilton Downtown
—projectpinkd.org/exposed.html

Aug. 19 (day-long)
Paint-A-Thon
Benefitting: Brush Up Nebraska
Location: Various
—brushupnebraska.org

Aug. 19 (8 a.m.)
JDRF One Walk
Benefitting: JDRF Heartland Chapter
Location: Lewis & Clark Landing
2.jdrf.org

Aug. 20 (7-11 a.m.)
Boxer 500 Run and Walk
Benefitting: Great Plains Colon Cancer Task Force
Location: Werner Park
—coloncancertaskforce.org/boxer-500

Aug. 20 (7:30 a.m., end times vary)
Corporate Cycling Challenge
Benefitting: Eastern Nebraska Trails Network
Location: Heartland of America Park
— showofficeonline.com/CorporateCyclingChalleng

Aug. 21 (2-4 p.m.)
Grow with Us Gala
Benefitting: City Sprouts
Location: Metro Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts
—omahasprouts.org/gala

Aug. 22 (11:30 a.m.)
Annual Golf Classic
Benefitting: Methodist Hospital Foundation
Location: Tiburon Golf Club
—methodisthospitalfoundation.org

Aug. 24 (5:30-10 p.m.)
120th Anniversary of the Summer Fete
Benefitting: Joslyn Castle Trust
Location: Joslyn Castle lawn
—joslyncastle.org

Aug. 25 (5:30-8:30 p.m.)
Wine & Beer Event
Benefitting: ALS in the Heartland
Location: The Shops of Legacy
—alsintheheartland.org/news-events/

Aug. 26 (5-10 p.m.)
Gala 2017
Benefitting: Papillion-La Vista Schools
Location: TBD
—plvschoolsfoundation.org

Aug. 26 (5:30 p.m.)
Red, White & Madonna Blue
Benefitting: Madonna School
Location: CenturyLink Center Omaha
—madonnaschool.org/celebration

Aug. 26 (6-9 p.m.)
Mission: Possible
Benefitting: Angels Among Us
Location: Hilton Hotel downtown
—myangelsamongus.org/

Aug. 28 (11 a.m.)
10th Annual Jesuit Academy Golf Tournament
Benefitting: Jesuit Academy Tuition Assistance Fund
Location: Indian Creek Golf Course
—jesuitacademy.org/golf-tournament.html

Aug. 28 (noon)
19th Annual Goodwill Golf Classic
Benefitting: Goodwill’s Real Employment Assisting You (READY) & Business Solutions Programs
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
—goodwillomaha.org/events/golf/

Aug. 28 (11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Golf Outing Invitational Fundraiser
Benefitting: Open Door Mission
Location: Oak Hills Country Club
—aunitedglass.com/golf-classic.html

Florence and the Political Machine

May 10, 2017 by
Photography by Provided by Douglas County Historical Society

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Omaha’s annexation of Florence—the historic and scenic riverfront community on the far northeast reaches of our city. The milestone warrants a look back at this contentious time in Florence’s history, when its rapidly rising southern neighbor unapologetically gobbled up the settlement despite the objections of many residents.

Why Annex Florence?

It helps to understand a bit of the community’s history. Best known as the site of Winter Quarters, the settlement for thousands of Mormon pioneers making their way West during the 1840s, Florence became a “city” in 1855 when Iowa businessman James C. Mitchell and his surveying team platted the land and officially incorporated.

Florence Kilbourn was the namesake of Florence, though her lineage is unclear. She has been referred to as the adopted niece of Mitchell’s wife or the granddaughter of Mitchell’s wife (depending on the historical account).

Mitchell recognized the busy frontier town’s big potential due to its convenient proximity to the Missouri River and frequent ferry service. The river’s narrow profile—at just 300 yards—and its solid-rock bottom just east of Florence also made it the most natural place to build a future bridge.

In the 1860s and ’70s, Florence grew into a bustling, young city. Early industry included a flour mill, brick manufacturing plant, lumber sawmill, and blacksmith shop, to name a few. Its population swelled well above 3,000, and its economy boomed.

Ana Somers, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, says pressure for Omaha to annex surrounding municipalities really began in 1910 with the Greater Omaha Proclamation. “This was a direct response to the growth crises of 1910 that created a need to annex neighboring towns and villages,” Somers says.

But by early 1915, despite high tax levies, Florence began finding it fiscally difficult to meet community needs. Business leaders in Florence began fearing for the financial solvency of the city moving forward. At the same time, Omaha was building a strong reputation as a Midwestern hub of business and industry. Most members of the Omaha Commercial Club, an organization of area business owners and leaders, became proponents of Florence’s annexation for the “great savings to the taxpayers” it would provide through reduced redundancies in government, and they claimed such action would “provide residents with more benefits, not fewer.”

With the Merger Bill of 1915, the State of Nebraska passed a controversial law allowing Omaha to annex neighboring communities unilaterally, providing these areas lie adjacent to current city boundaries, are situated within Douglas County, and have fewer than 10,000 residents.

A legal battle followed, with representatives from Dundee and South Omaha opposing the decision. Omaha was poised to annex Florence, but lawsuits to the Nebraska Supreme Court left the possibility in limbo.

Some in Florence, fearing taxation without representation, were convinced to join the pro-annexation cause after being assured they would have a Florence representative in city government. The Omaha Commercial Club appointed a committee to explore annexation further, then held a public meeting in January 1916. According to newspaper accounts, 76 in attendance voted in favor, while only nine voted against it. Although the club had hoped to complete annexation by the May 1916 election, it took more than a year longer for it to come to fruition.

Even train cars full of anti-annexation protestors from Florence, Benson, South Omaha and elsewhere flooding the state capitol in Lincoln during hearings could not kill the law. The fight dragged on for two years, until Feb. 14, 1917, when the Nebraska Supreme Court finally dismissed a lawsuit on behalf of the once-independent Dundee.

Confirmation of the new law was a welcome development to then-mayor of Omaha James Dahlman, or “Cowboy Jim,” as he was called, who saw it as a prime opportunity for his administration to grow the city quickly and gain tax revenue. The law allowed for the huge expansion of Omaha later that year with the annexation of Florence and Benson on June 6, 1917, while sealing the fate of South Omaha and Dundee.

According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald dated June 10, 1917, city officials reported the annexation of Florence and Benson expanded the city to 38 square miles. For reference, the present-day City of Omaha occupies roughly 127 square miles (according to the U.S. Census in 2010). Boundaries of the former City of Florence had been Read Street, 40th Street, Florence Heights Boulevard, and the Missouri River.

During subsequent years, the annexation law has been nicknamed “Omaha’s secret weapon,” allowing for continual expansion of its city limits, year after year.

The Dissenters

Not all of Florence was convinced annexation was the best option. Among those in opposition: Florence’s mayor, Freeman Tucker, was concerned for the “political integrity of the village.” He vowed to take his fight against annexation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (though he never did). Another dissenter was Dr. Carr, a prominent local dentist and investor who feared that annexation would reduce the likelihood that Florence would be the site of a promised river bridge, says Rosemary Allen, a longtime member of the Florence Historical Foundation.

“There were concerns about a lot of promises [made by the city] not being delivered on, including security and safety services, such as a rescue squad. And, in fact, a lot was promised but never materialized,” Allen says.

“As I recall, the citizens of Florence didn’t end up having much to say about it all. It was just sort of pushed through. It was a very contentious thing,” she explains. “I do know there were a lot of residents who weren’t happy about it one bit, with some public meetings almost erupting into fist fights. And even years later, there were those that remained bitter about it.”

Allen says residents of Florence were also fearful that annexation would mean the loss of the community’s identity and important history. And in fact, through the years, many of the historic structures from its pioneer town days fell to ruin from neglect, fire, or normal decay.

Years later, it became the mission of the Florence Historical Foundation to keep its historic sites alive and maintain community pride—a mission the foundation has found great success with, preserving many historic landmarks, including the Fire Barn, Keirle House, Depot Museum, Bank of Florence, and Mormon Bridge Toll House. The foundation coordinates the annual Florence Days every May as well as other entertainment and holiday events.

The independently restored Florence Mill and another community group, Florence Futures, also collaborate on community and heritage initiatives. The neighborhood on North 30th Street has witnessed an uptick in activity in recent years, thanks in part to a lively restaurant scene. Blooming flowers (planted by the Northern Lights Garden Club) accent the booming streetscape.

The North Omaha Commercial Club—no relation to the historic Omaha Commercial Club that advocated for Florence’s annexation—is one of Omaha’s oldest civic groups, where Florence business owners meet regularly to discuss ways to keep the corridor alive and thriving. All celebrate the small-town and family-friendly feel of this unique river city community.

Despite being in the shadow of the Big O for nearly a century, Florence maintains an identity and appeal all its own.

Florence Days takes place on the second full weekend of May, with a parade Saturday. Visit historicflorence.org for more information. Archival resources provided by the Omaha Public Library archives of the Omaha World-Herald (omahalibrary.org) and the Douglas County Historical Society (douglascohistory.org).

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Where Dignitaries Waited

October 6, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Out of the Douglas County Historical Society’s collection of 6 million artifacts and records, the biggest showcase is the General Crook House Museum. The Italianate-style brick home was built in 1878. Now located on Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus, the museum is named for its first occupant, Gen. George Crook.

general-crook-house-6Just inside the museum’s front doors is the reception room, which displays fine objects like Battenberg lace, embossed leather tables, and dried flowers under glass. There are scenic oil paintings depicting simpler times and curious antiques, such as Bohemian ruby glass vases and candlesticks dripping with crystals.

“The reception room would have been a place that servants would have greeted guests,” says Kathy Aultz, director of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Aultz says the reception room is an intimate space where the general’s wife, Mary Crook, might have enjoyed tea or entertained friends. Today, the reception room holds weddings, baby showers, anniversary parties, and is also a popular spot for holiday photo sessions. In recent years, the great-great grandson of Charles Dickens, Gerald Dickens of Oxford, England, greeted fans in the reception room after performing adaptations of his ancestor’s classics.

A silver-plated tray that rests off the entrance hints at the popular Victorian ritual of using calling cards, where guests would leave their cards to see if the lady or the general were accepting visitors.

general-crook-house-4

History indicates that the height of a woman’s card pile might be interpreted as a clue to her social standing. One can just imagine Mary Crook’s calling card pile overflowing, as dignitaries such as President Ulysses S. Grant and President Rutherford B. Hayes visited. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, the founder of Howard University, was also a guest.

Aultz says she loves to sit on the Rococco-style velvet-upholstered loveseat and soak it all in. “The furniture is different than what I am used to. Look at the design. Look at the quality craftsmanship and how it was built. Notice how small the furniture is and how low to the ground it is when you’re sitting on it. That’s because people were just so much smaller then.”

general-crook-house-3Some pieces in the room are original: the fireplace, the flooring, and the cherry woodwork with maple trim. The room’s focal points are the Regina music box that plays metal disks and the rosewood Steinway square concert grand piano that was brought up the Missouri River by steamboat.

Aultz spearheads the maintenance of the house. She recently ordered new carpet for the stairs from Europe. “We want it to be loomed the exact width that they would have used during the time, and we can’t get the correct width here.”

The Douglas County Historical Society also studied wallpaper authentic to that period from the John Sautter Farmhouse in Papillion. “We used that pattern to have new wallpaper reproduced that would have been paper not only authentic to the period, but also authentic to this area of the country,” she says.

Aultz welcomes volunteers who want to serve as greeters. “We really strive to make people feel like you’re welcome in this house. We’ve done all this work to restore it and preserve it for you to enjoy and see a piece of history of Douglas County.”

Visit douglascohistory.org/visit.html for more information. OmahaHome

general-crook-house1

Embellishing the Truth

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Distinctive elements of a residence in the Aksarben neighborhood attracted architects Eric and Trina Westman when they were house hunting.

Since purchasing the home in 2006, the Westmans have been both fascinated and puzzled by the architectural embellishments of their 742-square-foot brick house. Those features—including brown sandstone trim around the front door and decorative plaster crown moldings in the foyer, living room, and dining room—seemed out of place for a small dwelling.

Maag2While the couple sat in their living room, they would look up at the plaster cornices and contemplate.

“I sat here staring at the walls a lot,” says Eric, a project architect at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. Trina adds, “We literally stared at it for 10 years, thinking, ‘Why? Where? Who?’” Visiting friends and colleagues were equally mystified. Why would a house of this size, in this neighborhood, have such grand features?

After the Westmans agreed to include their home on Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Fall Neighborhood Tour, they started piecing together the answers.

Maag1Restoration Exchange Omaha (REO) rewards those who open up their homes with a portfolio containing information and newspaper clips about the home’s architecture, history, and occupants. Last fall, University of Nebraska at Omaha honors students conducted research on the homes in the Aksarben neighborhood as part of a service-learning project for REO. UNO junior Justin Korth prepared the research for the Westman home.

Korth’s research detailed the history of the original residents who lived at 1310 S. 63rd St. Edwin and Regina James built the home in 1939 and lived there for 25 years. Edwin was an assistant dean at Omaha University. His father, W. Gilbert James, was twice the acting president of the university and its first dean of the School of Fine Arts.

Regina James was a librarian at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. Her parents were Freida Maag and her husband, master craftsman Jacob Maag.

Trina read the report, which included an extensive obituary of Jacob, and began a quest to find out more about him. “I started reading a little more and went down to the library that same week. They had a file on him, a couple of articles and some pictures of him carving,” she says. She also ran across a document called “Mallet and Chisel: A Fifty Year Saga of Architectural Sculpture by Jacob Maag.” Primarily a transcript of a 1962 interview with Maag by members of the Greater Omaha Historical Society (now the Douglas County Historical Society), the document includes an in-depth interview with Maag and listings of his stone carving and ornamental plaster work.

Maag4“I think now we have an answer, and it makes sense,” says Trina, who works for the City of Omaha Planning Department. “His daughter, her first home— she was building it in 1938 and that’s when he was doing this kind of work. ‘Sure, your little 742-square-foot house, I’ll put up some fancy plaster work and stone trim,’” she imagines Maag saying.

Maag held impressive credentials. His training included a four-year apprenticeship in Baden, Switzerland, where he earned top marks in his class. Maag then attended the Art Academy in Milan, Italy, and worked for sculptor Angelo Magnioni. He returned to Switzerland and then came to Omaha at the urging of his uncle, John B. Kuony, one of Omaha’s earliest pioneers.

Maag left his mark on some of Nebraska’s most impressive and enduring buildings. He created stone carvings for St. Cecilia Cathedral, Central High School, the University of Nebraska Stadium, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and dozens of others. He created ornamental plaster moldings for Union Station (now Durham Museum), the State Capitol, and Burlington Station, among many others. He could carve wood and inscribe metal. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a material Maag could not manipulate into some artistic statement. A true Renaissance man, he even wrote poetry.

Maag moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1961 to live with his younger daughter, Jacqueline. He continued to fashion works, mostly in alabaster and marble, in his retirement. He died at age 98 in 1980.

To date, no documentation of the archway or plaster cornices at the Westman home has been found. There is mention in “Mallet and Chisel” of a cast cement fireplace in the home, one of many Maag fashioned. The fireplace is no longer there, though the Westmans see evidence of where it once stood on the north wall of their living room. They speculate that Edwin and Regina James took it with them when they moved to Texas in 1965.

The Westmans plan to build an addition in the next few years and may include a stone fireplace on the far wall.

Maag railed against modern architecture and its “straight up and down” look. He called the new buildings of the day “crackerboxes with holes.” He told the Omaha World-Herald in 1961, “I believe a person should remember the arch over the door he enters.”

Thanks to Jacob Maag, the Westmans can remember the arch over their door and other impressions he left behind. 

Maag3


Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 2016 Fall Tour: The Aksarben Neighborhood

Date: Sunday, Oct. 2
Time: Noon-5 p.m.

Eric and Trina Westman’s home is one of 11 sites on the tour, which features a variety of residences in the Aksarben neighborhood (between Leavenworth and Center streets, running from 50th to 72nd streets). Styles include Tudor revival, bungalow, Spanish colonial, and foursquare. The starting point, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, is also featured.

Tour sites:

  • 5525 Leavenworth St., Mount Calvary Lutheran Church
  • 5501 Leavenworth St., owned by Jennifer Bauer
  • 1301 S. 52nd St., owned by Sarah Cavanagh
  • 5848 Hickory St., owned by Scott Swanson
  • 5844 Pine St., owned by Royce Cannerley
  • 1310 S. 63rd St., owned by Eric and Trina Westman
  • 6239 Poppleton Ave., owned by Kim Riege
  • 6024 Poppleton Ave., owned by Katie Blesener and John Royster
  • 5611 Leavenworth St., owned by Rebecca Anderson
  • 5522 Marcy St., owned by Steven and Amy Thompson
  • 5542 Marcy St., owned by Russell Hollendieck

Tickets are $15 apiece or two for $25, with a discount available for Restoration Exchange Omaha members. Tickets can be purchased the day of the tour at Mount Calvary. They include a tour booklet with the histories of the tour sites and a history of the neighborhood. The route is 2.6 miles and accessible by walking, bicycling, or driving. A free shuttle to the locations will also be provided.

Visit restorationexchange.org for more information. OmahaHome

Past Lives

May 28, 2015 by

This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.

When we research our genealogical histories, we sometimes find we’re related to some pretty interesting people, says Max Sparber, Research Specialist for the Douglas County Historical Society.

Before Sparber, who is adopted, investigated his own history, he knew his biological parents’ ethnicities. But that was it. Then he did some digging.

“I found out that I have a great deal in common with my biological mother,” he says.

Sparber and his mother both attended the University of Minnesota where they studied theater and journalism. She became an expert in Irish studies. Sparber writes frequently about Irish-American studies. He also learned he had long owned a book written by his biological mother long before he knew who she was.

The thrill of discovering such an ancestor—or maybe learning that you’re related to someone famous—may pique many people’s interest in family history. Regardless of the reasons, though, genealogy has turned into a wildly popular pastime in the United States.

According to ABC News, as of 2012, genealogical research is the American people’s second favorite hobby behind gardening. It’s an industry worth about $1.6 billion.

“I think everyone has their own reasons,” Sparber says about why so many people are interested in genealogy now. “[They’re] just looking for their own story.”

Sparber says the interest is driven by popular media like the television show Who Do You Think You Are? There’s an attraction to discovering your ethnic identity, and many enjoy the elements of mystery and puzzle- piecing. Ease of use has played a big role, too, with things like birth records and newspaper articles going digital. DNA tests can help pinpoint who your ancestors are. Two or three years ago, such tests might have cost $1,000, but now popular websites like Ancestry.com and Family Tree DNA will perform them for less than $100.

For Omahans interested in learning their genealogical histories, resources like the Greater Omaha Genealogical Society, which is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, may help (the church has long been interested in genealogy and can accept members into its faith posthumously).

The Douglas County Historical Society, Sparber says, fields requests related to genealogy daily. Twenty to 30 percent of what the organization does involves genealogy, and it has access to many records that haven’t been uploaded digitally. The society’s archives hold Douglas County records that date back to the mid-1800s, including city directories that identify where people lived and what they did for a living.

Most people who investigate their genealogical histories hope to find that they’re related to royalty or movie stars, Sparber says.

In Omaha, people sometimes hope to be related to criminals.

Locals come with family stories about ancestors who were bootleggers or brothel owners, and they often hope the stories are true. One woman, Sparber says, wanted to find some information about an ancestor from early Omaha who was a doctor. Sparber found a newspaper article that identified a man who went by the same name as the woman’s ancestor and who was, indeed, a doctor. He was also the first man in Omaha to be arrested for murder, though he claimed self-defense and was never charged.

Sparber says the woman was “thrilled.

History1

Libby Krecek

October 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Puh-leeze,” she would beg on family vacations as a girl, “can we go to the history museum?”
Libby Krecek has a longtime passion for both history and museums.

By the fourth grade, she had decided museums would be the center of her career as well as her vacations. Krecek went on to earn a Master of Arts in Classics degree from the University of Colorado and set out to pursue her calling.

She first worked as an intern at Omaha’s Durham Museum. Jobs followed at the Joslyn Art Museum, the Gerald Ford Conservation Center and—for the past 10 years—the Douglas County Historical Society, where she is the registrar.

The what?

“I’m the one who takes care of the stuff,” explains Krecek. Wearing white cotton gloves (and sometimes purple medical-grade gloves), she tenderly handles rare historical artifacts and records.

The Douglas County Historical Society lacks a budget for acquisitions and so depends on the kindness of strangers to donate relics that tell the story of Douglas County.

Krecek accepts donations and assures the givers that their items, even when not on display, are in good (white-gloved) hands. Donations are archived in acid-free boxes with acid-free tissue.

“A lot are precious family items,” she says. “They want them to go to a good home to be preserved rather than put back in a box in the basement.”

Kathy Aultz, executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society, said Krecek has the most serious of responsibilities. “She is taking on people’s treasures, people’s memories. We have six million documents and 8,000 artifacts. The house itself 
is an exhibit.”

Aultz is referring to the General Crook House, located on Metro Community College’s main campus and home to the Society’s museum. The house’s Italianate-style façade is the same as it was in 1879 when built for Gen. George Crook.

The campus in the 19th century was Fort Omaha, a military headquarters. The historic district near 30th and Fort streets is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Krecek is thrilled by many of the donations. “Last year, a woman called. She had an authentic Indian Wars uniform from the 1860s or ’70s. The officer had been stationed here at Fort Omaha. Her collection also included his history and a photo of him wearing the uniform.”

She also trains volunteers who conduct tours of the museum, and she helps the museum’s research specialist answer questions from the public about Douglas County history.

The registrar shares office space in the library archives building with a cluttered desk, a huge aerial view of Omaha in 1944, and an oil portrait of Edward Creighton, one that is so heavy it took two people to hang.

Creighton University, where Krecek earned her Classical Bachelor of Arts degree in Classics and History, was named for the man in the portrait, who died in 1874. She’s an enthusiastic fan of Creighton basketball and baseball.

Krecek’s idea of a fun time is exploring the museum’s ancient newspaper archives. “The way people wrote back then was totally different. They wrote about what people were wearing and were more graphic about murders. I get a view into that world.” OMAG

For information on donating historical items, contact Libby Krecek at 402-455-9990 ext. 107 or registrar@douglascohistory.org.

Antiques at Revival

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Partners Joe and Amanda Johnson are committed to reviving history. Through their new antique shop, Antiques at Revival, they are attempting to do just that, one piece at a time. In June, they opened their business on Leavenworth Street with the goal of giving the Omaha community not just a run-of-the-mill antique shop but one that provides knowledge, advice, and lessons to its customers.

“In January of this year, I accidentally found myself without a job,” Amanda remembers. “We’ve always had dreams of opening an antique shop, so Joe says to me, ‘You can either go get a job, or we can create one for you.’ The rest is history.”

The shop carries a large variety of furniture, home décor pieces, and other odds and ends. Items so odd, in fact, that you can find air plants, terrariums, and even farm-fresh eggs. The couple continuously hunt for items all over the country to bring back pieces that customers might not usually see in this region. Those that ultimately end up in the shop date from around the 1790s to the 1970s. In addition to selling items, Amanda says Antiques at Revival is the only antique shop in Omaha that offers interior design and furniture repair and refurbishing classes.

“We do our best to specialize in high-quality, well-preserved merchandise,” Amanda explains. “Some of our pieces need a little TLC, and we put in the time, effort, and skill that it takes to bring them up to par. The craftsmanship that is put into antique pieces isn’t something you come across today.  It is truly amazing to look at a piece and see the detail, history, and pride that went into making it.”

With their shop, the Johnsons strive to be involved with the Douglas County Historical Society to help support their efforts of preserving Omaha’s history. Each month, Antiques at Revival donates a portion of their profits to the DCHS.

“We truly believe in the efforts of the historical society and all they do for Omaha and Douglas County. Without the historical society, a lot of Omaha’s history may have been lost forever,” Amanda says.

These monthly contributions are just one way this eclectic antique shop is striving to keep history, particularly Omaha’s, alive.

Antiques at Revival
4541 Leavenworth St.
402-315-9761
antiquesatrevival.com

Family Ties

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Chris Wolfgang

Killion family members from all over the country take turns hosting reunions every two years, a ritual that’s been going on now for over three decades. Jim and Anna Killion of Omaha had a chance to relive shared memories with 50 of Jim’s blood relatives and their spouses, most of them elderly, when the couple hosted the gathering July 19-21 at the Marriott Regency. Advancing age and health issues have pared down participation; reunions used to draw over 100.

Since 1985, the Lewandowski clan has met every three years in several different states and always over the Fourth of July weekend. Kathy Aultz of Omaha welcomed more than 250 people, including a two-week-old baby, to her home turf for this year’s reunion. The fest took place at Mahoney State Park, where families stayed in cabins or nearby hotels.

A 90th birthday party for Marian Leach of Omaha, organized by her daughter, Kathy Meier Morris of Columbus, Neb., provided a much-anticipated get-together of the Meier/Leach immediate family in early June. The last time Meier Morris, her two brothers, and their families converged on Omaha (outside of weddings and funerals) was 10 years ago for Leach’s 80th. The community room at Pacific Springs Village in West Omaha, where Leach lives independently, provided an intimate space for heartfelt congratulations.

Three family social gatherings—each different in size, scope, and purpose—nevertheless answer a basic need most Americans share: the need to belong.

“We tell our history through stories. By gathering families together, you have the opportunity to reconnect,” muses Aultz, who, as executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society, dedicates both her personal and professional life to preserving and sharing the past. “Reunions keep us grounded.”

Successful reunions have a central purpose. For Aultz and her relatives, the marriage of Anton and Sophia Lewandowski on May 6, 1919, in central Nebraska provided the reason to celebrate. Aultz’s mother, 88-year-old Esther Lewandowski Kaminski, was the first of 10 children born to the couple.

“I put Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding pictures up a lot of places at the reunion because that’s when our family tree started,” says Aultz.

“We tell our history through stories. By gathering families together, you have the opportunity to reconnect.” – Kathy Aultz

The family tree now has 449 leaves on it and is still sprouting. Aultz contacted every family by letter over a year ago about the reunion dates and then followed up with several e-mails. A nod to the fierce pride the group feels about their Polish heritage could be found in the handouts: a cookbook with favorite Polish recipes that families e-mailed to Kathy ahead of time, and a refrigerator magnet made of cloth and shaped into a pierogi (Polish dumpling).

The Lewandowski reunions include lots of games for the children, golf tournaments for adults, outings (a busload of people visited the Holy Family Shrine in Gretna), endless buffets, and socializing that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.

Genealogy spurs the Killions to gather biannually. They have traced their roots to an ancestor, possibly Irish, who sailed from England and landed on the shores of North Carolina in 1755. Descendants, many of whom live in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, spend reunion time visiting cemeteries, checking dates on gravestones, documenting family historical data, and touring places of historic significance; a passion not necessarily shared by the younger generations.

“Anyone under 40 couldn’t care less about history and antiques because they haven’t reached an age where it’s important to them,” laments Killion, 73, who acts as keeper of the spreadsheet that contains 225 family names, addresses, and phone numbers.

Then, with a wry smile, Killion continues, “I called Omaha Magazine to get some handouts because it has a great events calendar, and she asked me, ‘What age group are we addressing?’ And I said, ‘Seventy and over. You know, yesterday’s teenagers!’”

As reunion organizer for the past 15 years or so, Killion knows the importance of nailing down dates and hotel space at least a year in advance, no matter where the event is held. Almost 100 members of her husband’s family don’t have e-mail, forcing Killion to use the U.S. Postal Service for the initial Save the Date letter that also contains the location and registration information. She then follows up with phone calls.

“Anyone under 40 couldn’t care less about history and antiques because they haven’t reached an age where it’s important to them.” – Anna Killion

“One of my favorite tricks is to put the invitation on iridescent paper. That way it doesn’t get lost,” chuckles Killion, who’s been married to Jim for 48 years and together raised six children.

No ‘snail mail’ for Meier Morris; she used Facebook and cell phones to gather about 30 members of her immediate family and stepsiblings to Omaha for a reunion that actually served a dual-purpose.

“We had a noon baby shower for one of my daughters, who is due in September, at Upstream that Saturday,” says Meier Morris, who explains that the men played pool and ate lunch there. “Mom’s party was at 7 that evening, and we had it catered. It was easy. Our family stayed at the Embassy
Suites La Vista.”

“I was just thrilled to see everybody,” exclaims Marian Leach, a grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of eight (with one on the way). “I couldn’t believe they would go to that trouble and expense to be with me!”

To which her family might respond, why wouldn’t they give back to a woman who continues to give so much to them? Why wouldn’t they celebrate a woman whose strength, vitality, faith, and loving nature sustained her through the heartbreaking loss of two husbands?

“We all stood up and told ‘mom’ stories,” says Meier Morris. “The grandchildren talked about all the trips she took them on; trips to Cozumel, Cancun, Baja. We just wanted her to know that we love her, and we’re very proud of her.”

The Killions, Lewandowskis, and the Meier/Leach families reached through time, miles, and hectic lifestyles to strengthen the ties that bind them—a legacy worth passing down to generations.

Our Livestock Legacy

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nothing screams “feed me!” like the smell of a thick, juicy steak sizzling on an outdoor grill. The aroma draws friends and neighbors to an informal, laid-back rite of summer: the backyard barbecue, now in its peak season. But before you throw a T-bone, cowboy ribeye, New York strip, or sirloin on the “barbie,” give a tip of your chef’s hat to that hunk of meat.

After all, beef put Omaha on the map. The cattle industry became the brick and mortar used by pioneering families like the Roths, Buschers, and Simons to build solid businesses; it created hundreds of enterprises related to the meat industry, like the great steakhouses of Little Italy. The packinghouses paid “the best wages in the city,” so young adults like Terry Moore could prosper and start a family. The demand for workers brought diverse cultures to Omaha that enriched life here.

For more than 80 years, livestock drove Omaha’s economy. “Omaha was the largest livestock center in the world; we’re talking the 1950s and ‘60s,” says Bob Buscher, Sr., whose great-grandfather, John Roth, a German immigrant, started a small beef-packing outfit, John Roth & Son, in 1885. “Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week. We even beat Chicago.”

Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son’s.

Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son.

Chicago first gained Omaha as a spirited rival for livestock supremacy way back in 1883 when a group of prominent Omaha businessmen decided they wanted to corral some of the wealth Chicago had amassed from its stockyards. And why not? they reasoned. Omaha had the lush pastures and the Union Pacific Railroad. Equally important, Omaha provided a more central location for cattle barons and ranchers of the Plains and the West to bring in their steers, hogs, and sheep.

According to newspaper clippings of the era, the business syndicate—which included John Creighton, one of the founders of the university that bears his family’s name— bought “2,000 acres of land about four miles due south of the Omaha post office.” They set aside 200 acres for the animal pens and “split up the rest into building lots.”

“Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week.” – Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son

The Omaha Union Stockyards opened in August 1884 with a shipment of longhorn cattle from Wyoming as the first tenants. By early 1885, a slaughterhouse began operating in the shadow of the yards. Almost overnight, Omaha went from a sleepy frontier town to a hub of agriculture and commerce, thanks to its upstart namesake: South Omaha. As the stockyards expanded throughout the 1890s, the packinghouses and the burgeoning meat industry drew thousands of immigrants with the promise of jobs. Poles, Czechs, Bohemians, Greeks, and Lithuanians joined the Irish and Germans in carving out a better life.

The Simon family, the name behind Omaha Steaks, traces its proud heritage to a Latvian immigrant and his young son.

“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers,” says Todd Simon, a fifth-generation owner. In 1898, Todd’s great-great-grandfather, J.J. Simon, got off the train in Omaha with his son, B.A., because the landscape reminded J.J. of the Riga farmland he had left behind. “They bought sides of beef from the packinghouses, cut them up into smaller pieces, and sold them to hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores. They basically replicated what they knew in Latvia.”

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

Their new butcher shop, Table Supply Meat Company, began in 1917. The business moved to 12th and Howard streets in Omaha in 1924. No one could have imagined then what fortunes lay ahead for that modest enterprise.

By the time the Simons arrived here, South Omaha—a separate jurisdiction— had become the fastest-growing city in the nation. Census records show 8,000 residents by 1889, leading one local journalist to dub it “The Magic City.”

“It even had its own newspaper, the Magic City Hoof and Horn,” says Gary Rosenberg, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, which houses a treasure trove of information on the Union Stockyards.

“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers.” – Todd Simon of Omaha Steaks

With its unprecedented growth—and wealth—South O became a much-coveted acquisition by its neighbor to the north. The city fiercely fended off many annexation attempts before finally conceding to a merger with Greater Omaha in 1915.

But the beef industry never conceded its importance to the region’s economy and kept nipping at the heels of Chicago. By the early 1950s, the stockyards stretched from 27th Street on the east to 36th Street on the west between L and Q streets. The majestic, 10-story Livestock Exchange Building, where buyers and sellers completed transactions, rose from the middle of the stockyards on South 30th Street. Tens of thousands of animals came into Omaha every week for processing. When the markets opened in New York on Monday mornings, the buying and selling frenzy began.

“You didn’t want to be caught on L Street on a Sunday evening,” remembers Terry Moore, long-time president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and a graduate of Omaha South High School. “The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.”

Terry Moore, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

Terry Moore, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

“The stockyards had to be the most interesting place on earth,” recalls Buscher, who, as a teenager in the ’50s, often accompanied his father, Clarence, when he went to buy cattle for Roth & Son. “My dad would go down the alley with all the pens of cattle, 25 cattle per pen. He’d bid so many cents per pound on this pen and that pen, and he never wrote it down. Never. He remembered everything.”

Nor were any contracts involved. After haggling over prices and often cursing at each other, the buyer and commission firm agent would come to an agreement and use a handshake to seal the deal.

“A cattleman’s word was his bond,” says Buscher with a hint of reverence. “In all the years I paid the bills, I don’t remember a discrepancy in the number of cattle we bid on or the price.”

“The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.” – Terry Moore, president of Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO

Anyone who grew up in South O after World War II remembers close-knit ethnic neighborhoods where life revolved around a variety of Catholic and Orthodox churches, and social clubs. They also remember a vibrant city with a bustling commercial strip.

“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street,” recalls South District Councilman Garry Gernandt, who grew up at 20th and Vinton. “We had Phillips Department Store, Buck’s Shoes, TV repair shops, dime stores, restaurants, and lots of ‘mom and pops.’”

On November 21, 1955, the Omaha World-Herald trumpeted the news Omaha had waited decades to hear: It had overtaken Chicago. Bragging rights as the center of the world’s meat industry had finally come to the Midlands. According to the Omaha Daily Journal-Stockman, “Fully one-half of the Omaha labor force is employed in some facet of the livestock industry.”


The demand for meat products kept 13 independent packing plants humming alongside the “Big Four” meatpacking companies: Armour, Swift, Wilson, and Cudahy. Each of the large plants employed more than 2,000 people. The Armour plant alone could process 1,360 head of cattle, 4,800 hogs, and 3,600 sheep in an eight-hour period.

“I went to work for Swift and Company right out of high school in 1961,” says Terry Moore, following in his father’s footsteps. “I worked in all areas of the packinghouse: the kill floors, the coolers, the hide cellar where we cured hides, the engine room, the sausage room, the specialty-cut room—that’s where we’d fill the restaurant orders for the day when they wanted the extra-thick cuts of beef or pork.”

From the hide to the hooves, no part of the animal went unused. A pinched-off hoof, for example, could stabilize gunpowder. The rest of the foot, when boiled, yielded oil for waterproofing.

“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street.” – Garry Gernandt, South District Councilman

Generations of families who worked in the stockyards or the packing plants found themselves constantly surrounded by mud, manure, or blood. And that was fine with them.

“On a summer evening when it would rain, my father and I would take a deep breath,” says Moore. “My father would ask, ‘What is that, Son?’ I’d say, ‘It smells, Dad.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s the smell of money, son, the smell of money.’”

That’s the same line Sally Kawa’s (KAH-vah) father, Jack, fed her when they had to hose down the floors of their restaurant, the iconic Johnny’s Café.

Johnny’s Café sisters Sally Kawa and Kari Kawa Harding.

Johnny’s Café sisters Sally Kawa and Kari Kawa Harding.

“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots,” says Sally, who now co-owns Johnny’s with her sister, Kari Kawa Harding. “We had washable linoleum floors then. I’d say, ‘Daddy, this smells,’” at which time Jack would give her the stock reply.

While Italian immigrants, who elected to live between the river and 10th Street, started most of Omaha’s early steakhouses, a Polish immigrant named Frank Kawa invested what little money he had into a bar called Johnny’s at 4702 S. 27th St., next to the stockyards. What started in 1922 as a small, eight-table operation quickly grew into a South Omaha staple.

“We’d have a chuck wagon-style lunch, where all the workers would line up at the steamship round [of beef] counter for their sandwiches,” says Sally. “It was a quick way to serve people.”

“Back in the day, we’d open at 5:30 in the morning for breakfast and not close until 2 in the morning,” adds Jack Kawa, Frank’s son.

“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots.” – Sally Kawa of Johnny’s Cafe

Even after the stockyards closed, Johnny’s survived—outlasting once-popular steakhouses that Jack can still reel off: Angie’s, Sparetime, Mr. C’s, Caniglia’s, Johnny Hrupek’s, Ross’, Marchio’s.

“People didn’t forget us,” muses Sally. “We added chicken, fish, and salads to the menu to change with the times, but we still serve old-school favorites like braised ox joints. It’s our biggest seller.”

When “the smell of money” started to turn, it hit people in South Omaha like the thud of a fallen steer. By the late ’60s, the tall, multi-storied, brown brick packinghouses with the kill rooms on the top floor had become woefully outmoded. Built at the turn of the century, they lacked the latest technology and had succumbed to gravity. Terry Moore remembers, “You could take your pen and slide it in between the bricks, and the mortar would fall out.”

At the same time, rural areas like Glenwood and Sioux City, Iowa, and western Nebraska lured packers to relocate to be nearer the product—the cattle, sheep, and hogs. Ranchers could sell direct and avoid the middleman.

One by one, the Big Four packinghouses packed up and moved out, followed by many of the smaller ones. By 1971, Omaha lost its “greatest livestock city in the world” title. The Union Stockyards eventually closed for good in 1999, the same year the Livestock Exchange Building became a historic landmark.


Out of the stagnation that followed emerged a new era for Omaha’s beef industry.

“We still have three of the largest independent packers in South Omaha,” Councilman Gernandt points out. “Greater Omaha Packing, Nebraska Beef, and XL Four Star Beef [now JBS].”

The workforce now consists mainly of Hispanics, Sudanese, Somali, Asians, and some Hmong. “The [melting] pot’s still percolating; it just has different ingredients,” says Gernandt.

John Roth & Son, at 5425 S. 43rd St., got out of the slaughter business in 1986. A few years later, it began manufacturing edible dried animal plasma and rotary-dried blood meal. In 1995, Bob Buscher, Jr., became the fifth generation to work there.

Ironically, the Simon family business that never owned a slaughterhouse or sold retail became the nation’s largest direct marketer of premium beef and gourmet products, single-handedly making “Omaha” synonymous with “steak.”

“They would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks.’” – Todd Simon

“[Momentum] started in the late 1940s,” explains Todd Simon. That’s when his grandfather, Lester—whether by luck or design or a little of both—secured a contract with Union Pacific Railroad to supply beef products for the dining cars.

“Customers were impressed with the quality of the food, and they would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks,’ which is how Table Supply marketed them,” says Todd. “And that’s when we started getting calls from around the country for our steaks.”

The business soon began shipping products directly to restaurants and customers in wax-lined cardboard cartons filled with dry ice. In 1966, capitalizing on its best-known commodity, Table Supply Meat officially changed its name to Omaha Steaks.

Today, Todd and his first cousin, Bruce Simon, president and CEO, helm the multi-million-dollar enterprise. Their fathers, Fred and Alan, remain public ambassadors of the company’s philanthropic largesse. Omaha Steaks boasts three million active customers; ships four million coolers of its beef throughout North America each year; employs a permanent workforce of 1,800 Midlanders; uses cutting-edge technology to drive sales, just as it pioneered direct mail, telesales, and the internet as marketing tools; and remains dedicated to Omaha.

A labyrinth of alleyways, fences, and pens stretching through acres of muck and mire became the measure of success for Omaha’s beef industry in its first century. Perhaps the prosperity of Omaha Steaks, the resiliency of South Omaha, and the honesty and loyalty of our modern cattlemen will become the hallmark of the next 100 years.