Tag Archives: Glenwood Iowa

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.

The Historian’s Personal Collection

January 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Howard Hamilton, 82, has read every issue of every Omaha newspaper dating back to 1854.

The Omaha historian, who was once fluent in 12 languages, moved to the area at age 5 with his family in 1939 and has lived here ever since (with the exception of language immersion studies at Georgetown University and a three-year stint in Pakistan with the U.S. Army).

He remembers how busy downtown Omaha used to be. “At that time, all the way from Leavenworth to Capitol was crowded during the day,” he says, remembering all the shops and the post office at 16th and Dodge streets. “It would be like if you saw a picture of New York City’s Times Square.”

hamilton1It seems fitting that a man who has seen so much of the city during so many phases of time should have a passion for history. Hamilton fondly remembers his third-grade teacher making the students recite all the U.S. presidents, from George Washington up to then-president Truman, every morning. (He can still do it today.)

Hamilton has a particular passion for Omaha history. He taught it for years at Metropolitan Community College. In 1990, he founded and served as the first president of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition Historical Association, named for the 1898 event that brought 2.6 million visitors to the city, one of them U.S. President William McKinley.

Hamilton published a book of 500 trivia stories about Omaha history, as well as a series of calendars with every day of the year marked by an event in Omaha history.

In 2012, he donated thousands of newspaper clippings to The Durham Museum. The collection’s name? The Howard Hamilton Research Archive.

Now retired, he uses his house as a storage space for artifacts he has collected over the years.

A tour of his collection reveals some amazing stuff:

hamilton4A copy of the first issue of The Omaha Daily World from 1885. And a copy of the first issue of the The Omaha World-Herald from 1889.

A piece of human hipbone from Omaha Beach. Hamilton found it when he visited in 2002 and thought it may have come from when the Allies stormed the beaches at D-Day. So, Hamilton brought it back to Nebraska with the intention of donating it to veterans.

(A pathologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center revealed that it was human, but not from 1944. “This bone is 3,000 years old,” Hamilton says the pathologist told him. The bone likely came from someone who drowned in the Atlantic and washed up on the beach.)

hamilton3A piece of brick from a 1904 Omaha sidewalk that reads: “DON’T SPIT ON SIDEWALK.”

An article about the only man ever to survive being scalped, as well as a picture of the man and a picture of the scalp. The man was at the Plum Creek Massacre and was brought to Omaha afterward. “They attempted to have the scalp replaced after he recovered,” Hamilton says. When that did not work, “they gave it to him, and then he donated it to Omaha.”

These days, Hamilton seems to be feeling good about a pretty incredible find.

U.S. President Grover Cleveland visited Omaha in 1887 because his wife inherited property from a Council Bluffs family. Naturally, The Omaha Daily World devoted front-page coverage to the visit on Oct. 12. But not all of the copies were on newsprint.

“In 1887, [the paper] published this and made five copies on satin,” Hamilton says. Of those five satin copies, Cleveland received one and the heirs of Gilbert Hitchcock, the founder of The Omaha Daily World—who later bought The Omaha Herald and consolidated the two papers to form The Omaha World-Herald—received another.

And one is hanging on Hamilton’s wall, framed and in mint condition.

“It was at an antique store, in an envelope,” Hamilton says. “Twenty dollars.”

The storeowner knew it was original, but thought it was one of hundreds. Now it is behind glass at Hamilton’s house, a shiny newspaper with a story about Cleveland’s visit. The fold lines are prominent in the satin.

“About the time I bought this, I had seen one in Glenwood, Iowa, tattered,” Hamilton says. “But mine was in an envelope, just like this.” 

Visit durhammuseum.org for more information.

OmahaHome

hamilton2

Jan Riggenbach

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Watch out for Jan Riggenbach’s green thumb. Gardening has been her passion since age 7.

She started writing a gardening column in 1974. That column, which she still writes weekly, is now syndicated in 12 newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald, Chicago Daily Herald, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She also wrote a gardening column for Midwest Living magazine for 22 years.

Her husband, writer Don Riggenbach, talked her into writing the newspaper column in the early 1970s. “He worked for Northwestern Bell public relations and came home with garden questions from people he worked with,” she says.

She writes books. Her most recent from the University of Nebraska Press is Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual. She has collaborated on various books and as a plant writer for HGTV Landscape books, too.

Riggenbach also has helped people with horticultural therapy.

With what?

Horticultural therapy is just what it sounds like. “Just about any gardener will tell you gardening is therapeutic. No matter what’s bothering you, working the soil helps,” she says. “It was a new field when I got into it.”

She has consulted on horticultural therapy for the senior population and helped several nursing homes build wheelchair-accessible garden beds.

Until three years ago, Jan and Don lived on 30 acres near Glenwood, Iowa. Their land was home to 700 varieties of trees. She says the trees and gardens became a draw for visitors who didn’t always understand what they were looking at.

“As visitors stood on the deck overlooking the wooded ravine on our Iowa acreage, now and then someone would point to a dead tree. ‘Do you know you have a dead tree?’ he or she would ask. We welcomed the chance to explain the value of leaving a few dead trees standing as long as they pose no danger to humans. Dead trees provide homes for many kinds of birds and other wildlife.”

JanRiggenbach2

When planting trees, the Riggenbachs often spaced saplings only 10 or 12 feet apart to mimic the forests of nature.

“People more accustomed to parks and golf courses than to woodlands asked, ‘Don’t you know you’re planting your trees way too close together?’” Jan laughs.

The 30 acres made a perfect home for the family. Don’s passion is trees. Jan had room on the acreage for her gardens. Their three children had room to play. The two writers worked out of a separate building they called The Word Barn.

The couple moved to Omaha three years ago to make life easier for Don, who has Parkinson’s disease. They had lived on the land in Iowa located between Council Bluffs and Glenwood for 35 years.

In southwest Omaha, a scaled-down version of her garden continues to produce flowers, vegetables, dwarf trees, shrubs, berries, and herbs. Downsizing for the Riggenbachs means one acre to work instead of 30, still not everybody’s idea of retirement.

“I do all my vegetables on raised beds, an easier way to garden,” says Jan. “There’s less bending and with the raised beds, I don’t have to worry about soil contamination, and drainage is good.” 

Some of their three children and eight grandchildren share the passion that Jan and Don, who have been together for 53 years, have for gardening.

“My son, David, is bitten bad. There’s no grass in his yard and it’s packed with every possible plant he can find,” Jan says.

Also into gardening are grandsons Nate, who is now a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Jackson, who at age 13 has his own garden.

Jan became an organic gardener before most people knew what that was.

“Organic then was looked at like there was something wrong with you. So I never said, ‘This is organic.’  Today I give programs about organic gardening.” 

She says readers’ questions help her as a writer to understand how a novice gardener may not understand gardening jargon. Examples: “How do you pinch a plant and where do you pinch it?” and “What does deadheading mean?”

As Jan kept writing, her garden’s reputation grew. People lined up to visit, primarily from garden clubs and local schools. She grew almost everything on the Iowa acreage, from fruits and vegetables to flower gardens. 

Jan remembers a fellow hiker who showed her a smartphone photo of the columbines he found blooming in his new yard: “He said, ‘I thought they were really pretty, but if they’re wildflowers, I’ll have to pull them out.’ 

Although most gardeners welcome native plants in their gardens, some newcomers still equate wildflowers with weeds.” 

Jan says she harvested a story every time visitors came to the sprawling acreage they once owned in Iowa.

“While conducting a tour for children, my husband Don pointed out an American hophornbeam tree. ‘Now this is a hop tree,’ he began. One little girl’s eyes got really big. ‘How far does it hop?’ she asked.”

JanRiggenbach1