Tag Archives: history

A Revolutionary Meeting

March 6, 2018 by

Down in the old Chinatown, underground tunnels and hidden rooms were just some of the mysteries reported by The Omaha Daily Bee newspaper in August 1894.

For a former frontier community, Omaha’s media was well-attuned to international dispatches on foreign Chinese news; meanwhile, Bee journalists frequently reported on Omaha’s own domestic Chinese community.

In the Bee’s coverage of the “Sixth Annual Convention” of the Douglas County chapter of the Temperance Union in August 1894, Mrs. D. C. Bryant “reported excellent progress in the missionary work among Omaha’s Chinese.” That same month, as the First Sino-Japanese War broke out between China and Japan over control of Korea, the Bee noted that Chinese forces received support from Koreans everywhere their army went.

In the Aug. 31, 1894, edition of the Bee, headlines on page-seven declared that the Chinese community’s “Local Geehing” were “After Toong Chee’s Scalp” as “Omaha Chinamen Swear Allegiance to the Order that Has for Its Object the Removal of the Present Emperor of the Flowery Kingdom.”

That would have been Guangxu Emperor, the 11th emperor of the Qing dynasty, whose reign started in 1875 even though Empress Dowager Cixi remained the real ruler of Imperial China. (The name “Toong Chee” likely refers to the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor, who Guangxu succeeded in 1875.)

“Strange Chinamen” had come to Omaha from “Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles.”

The Bee elaborated that it was “not generally known to the public” but remained “a fact nevertheless that there exists in this city a society that is as determined in its plans and has for its object as deadly a purpose as did the dreaded Mafia of New Orleans.”

Numerous “strange Chinamen” had come to Omaha from “Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles.” It was an “intelligent fellow” named Ling Gee who “tipped off” a Bee reporter about what was going to take place. Ling Gee worked at Hong Kee’s Harney Street laundry and told the Bee reporter of a “very important meeting held in the basement of Ging Loo’s laundry” on 10th Street.

The reason so many Chinese were in the city was “that a number of the Omaha Chinese would be initiated into the mysteries of a new society that was about to be organized.” Ling Gee claimed that “even the walls would not divulge any of the secrets which would be told.”

After that one Bee reporter “who speaks Chinese like a native” was sent to Mr. Gee to “complete arrangements for a report of the meeting.” Gee remained hesitant until a “goodly quantity of coin” were shown. He finally said there was potential “to secrete a man in the room where the meeting was to be held, but intimated if the intruder was discovered his chances for again seeing his relatives would not be worth speaking of.”

Naturally, the Bee reporter was “willing to take all of the chances” and just before sunset he “wended his way down” 10th Street and “obeying instructions, knocked at the back door of a small wooden building.” The reporter was “at once admitted by Ling Gee” who led him “down a stairway that was as dark as a sinner’s heart” to “a long, crooked and dark passage for a distance, finally coming into a brilliantly lighted room, fully fifty feet square.”

There, “Mr. Gee conducted The Bee man to a wall that appeared to be as solid as the eternal hills” but “reaching his hand to the height of his head, Mr. Gee pressed upon one of the boards of which the side of the wall was constructed and instantly a section slipped aside, revealing a room eight feet high and some six feet square.” The unnamed reporter described “his prison for several hours” was “elegantly furnished.”

After an hour, he “heard the sound of voices, and a moment later a couple of celestials entered the room and made a tour of inspection, examining chairs, tables, sofas and walls to see that they harbored neither intruders nor spies.” After that, a variety of “strange Chinamen were escorted into the room by Sing Pong” who was a Webster Street “laundryman.” Those escorted in by Sing Pong were introduced as “Ching Chung, Ah Fong, and Tee You,” all of Deadwood, South Dakota. After that there “was a rapid gathering of the clans” as “almond eyed gentlemen” arrived “singly, in pairs, and in quartets until there were fully 150 present” that came from “about every city between the Pacific coast and Chicago, and from St. Paul on the north to St. Louis on the south.”

The unnamed reporter described “his prison for several hours” was “elegantly furnished.”

When it seemed the “auditors” were all present, Wo Kung of Omaha, “dressed in a robe of the richest material and ornamented with jewels,” went to the platform to introduce “Hi Ooo Pong of San Francisco, who, he said, would fully explain the object of this meeting.” With that, “Mr. Pong advanced to the platform” while “bowing and scraping” as “the entire audience bowed to the floor.” At a “given signal” they all stood and “remained standing until Fo Lee, the sentry at the door, repeated in Chinese the words, ‘All is well.’’” After that, and “without any ceremony”, Pong “explained that the swords hanging over the chairs were the emblems of secrecy and death, and a rapid death, too, would pursue the man who so far forgot himself as to give to the outside world a word of what was to take place.” After Pong asked “Are you content?” every member of the crowd agreed and he then “invited Joe Fow of Denver, and Wo Tong of Kansas City to the chairs to his right and left.”

Hi Ooo Pong then “said that he had come to Omaha for the purpose of establishing a branch of the Geehing, a society for which had its object the disposition of T’oong Chee, the present emperor of China.” After the Omaha organization they would “elect delegates to the Geehing, which is to be held in Chicago on September 9” where “some plan would be developed.” Pong then went through the history of China as “some centuries ago the Chinese were a law-abiding, peaceful race of people, skilled in the arts, prosperous and happy and well supplied with the goods of this world.” Then came 1643 and the invasion of “the Tartars, better known as the Manchoos” (i.e., Manchurians) bent on “killing the peaceful natives, not even sparing the women and children” as they “burned, sacked, and murdered” their way through Peking and continued their “march of devastation until the sea was reached.” They then returned to Peking and “placed T’oong Chee I upon the Chinese throne” although the war continued until 1649.

Then Pong took “from his pocket a copy of the Wah Tsz Yat Po, published at Hong Kong” and “read extracts” that showed Chinese support to “depose Emperor T’oong Chee, and that for that purpose branches of the Geehing were being organized all over China.” He told the gathered crowd that “now was the time to strike” as the “iron was hot” with the Japanese war and “if the loyal subjects of the land of their birth would throw themselves into the breach, they could attack the armies of the emperor from the rear and give them more than they could handle.” Pong assured them that at next month’s meeting in Chicago they would “adopt heroic measures.” The response was much applause with Pong telling them “the necessity of going down in their pockets and contributing to the fund” that would be “appointed at the Geehing” in Chicago. Pong’s pleas were followed by “short speeches” from “Chung Choo of St. Louis, Kee Woo of St. Paul, and Hee Fow of Sioux City” who all supported Pong’s positions.

The oath continued that they would “swear by the blood of Twang Gee Hong, the first ruler of the empire of China, that I will never rest until every Manchoo is driven off the face of this earth.

It was midnight when Pong asked for any further comment on the proceedings before “he would initiate candidates into the order of the Geehing, he having a special dispensation for the entire territory west of the Mississippi River.” There were 50 people out of the crowd who “arose and expressed a desire to become members, after which they were invited to step to the platform.” With that the “couches and chairs were shoved back to the walls and the wearers of the queue marched to the front, where they were blindfolded by men appointed for the purpose.” After they were blindfolded, the men “repeated the oath” that the Bee reporter loosely translated as “By the bones of Confucius I swear that I will never divulge the workings of the Geehing, and if I do may my body be cut in quarters and be cast to the uttermost parts of the earth, there to rot and to become food for the vultures.” The oath continued that they would “swear by the blood of Twang Gee Hong, the first ruler of the empire of China, that I will never rest until every Manchoo is driven off the face of this earth; that I will kill his first and his last born, sparing neither women nor children; I swear by the blood of Ho Ping Woo, one of our martyred heroes, that I will not rest until the last hated Manchoo is killed; that I will not return to my home until T’oong Chee is driven from the land of China, and this and more do I know forever swear.”

That was followed by other oaths before the “candidates were led about the room three times, each and all humming one of the old-time war songs of China, when the hoodwinks were removed from their eyes.” It was then “the three swords were taken down from where they had been suspended and their edges examined” before they were given to “Gee Fong of Milwaukee, one to Hee Doo of St. Joe, and the other to Yee Lee” of Omaha. Those three were “told to perform the last binding oath and the last act of the initiation” and then “told to bare the left arm to the elbow” and then “proceeding rapidly along the line the sword bearers gave each man a gash about an inch long and deep enough to draw blood, the cutting being done on the front of the forearm, about midway between the wrist and the elbow.”

Pong “caught the blood in a silver plate about the size of a soup bowl” and had “fully a pint” by the end of it all. Then, “Dr. Gee Hong of Salt Lake” came through to administer a “healing lotion to each of the mutilated arms.” The silver bowl of their blood was then passed around as every “took a small sip” before they were “declared full-fledged members of the Geehing.” After the initiation ceremonies, “Ning Fee of Denver, Tol Ye of Kansas City, Lee Lung of Omaha, Tee Gong of Sioux City, and Ah Han of Dubuque” were selected as delegates to the September meeting in Chicago. At last, “as quietly as they had entered the men departed the hall” and the newspaper reporter was finally let go at 3 in the morning.

It remains somewhat of a mystery why Omaha’s Chinese allowed the Bee reporter a glimpse into their otherwise private world. One can only conclude that it was to announce an organized opposition to the Qing dynasty. One could also speculate just how many American newspapers in 1894 had a reporter who was fluent in Chinese. Likewise, the elaborate ruse of the secret room was surely to keep the reporter informed but otherwise well out of the way.

Three months after the Omaha “Geehing” meeting Sun Yat-Sen organized the Revive China Society while in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii. Eighteen years later in 1912, the goal of removing the Qing dynasty was completed. Imperial China came to an end after 2,000 years with the establishment of the Republic of China and Sun Yat-Sen as the country’s first president.

Potential involvement in the creation of the Republic of China by those who attended that August 1894 meeting in Omaha deserves further investigation. The only modern reference to any “Geehing” is the Gee Hing Chinese Company Charitable Trust, established in 1987, that maintains the Tong Wo Tong Chinese cemetery in Kealakekua, Hawaii.

See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:

Ryan Roenfeld is a local author and historian. He is a fifth-generation resident of Mills County, Iowa, and former president of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County. His most recent book, Wicked Omaha, was published in 2017. Omaha Magazine featured his profile in the May/June 2017 issue. 

About the Cover

March 2, 2018 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Downtown Omaha once featured a small Chinatown. Omaha Magazine imagines how the local Chinatown would look today if it hadn’t vanished. Senior Graphic Designer Derek Joy illustrated a Chinatown gate with Omaha’s iconic First National Tower over the horizon. The gate features “奧馬哈” (which translates to “Omaha” in traditional Chinese characters). Other cover headlines appear translated in street signs. Translations by Michele Fan. The cover of the print magazine also opens to an ad for Greater Omaha Packing and the company’s big China news in 2017.

A version of this text was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:

Chinatown Lost and Found

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are only a few remnants of early Chinese-American history left in Omaha. The city’s former Chinatown is almost forgotten.

The building at 1415 Farnam St. (now occupied by Kitchen Table) was for many years the home of the King Joy Oriental Cafe, opened by Leo Wing in 1913. The iconic structure at 315 S. 16th St. (where King Fong Cafe operated for almost a century, from 1920 until 2016 when it closed “for repairs”) remains standing. And there is also the recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places at 1518 Cass St. (added to the federal registry in November 2017), the On Leong Tong House.

Tongs were male-only social organizations for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans. Literally, tong translates to “hall” or “gathering place” in Cantonese (the Chinese language spoken by most early Chinese immigrants to the United States). Not everyone in the local Chinese community would have been a member of Omaha’s On Leong Tong, which was essentially a secret society.

The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912 (but some form of the tong might have been present in the city earlier). The tong house moved to the Cass Street location in 1938. Although the tong eventually disbanded in Omaha in 1959, branches of the nationwide organization continue to operate in the form of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association in several U.S. cities with large Chinese populations.

On Leong was one of several tongs operating across the U.S. in Chinatowns at the dawn of the 20th century. The era of tong expansion featured bloody conflict as rival tongs fought to control turf, opium, prostitution, and gambling rackets. Omaha’s Chinese community, for the most part, avoided spillover from the Tong Wars (1880s-1930s) of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. The local branch of On Leong Tong, however, suffered no shortage of historical intrigue.

For the most part, the local story of the On Leong Tong is a story of people acclimating to, struggling, and thriving in a city that looks very different from the Omaha that residents know today. At the tong house, members could socialize while speaking Chinese, celebrate common holidays, and find community.

Omaha’s Chinese community—more so than most other immigrant communities—was alien to the daily life of the city. They were often victims of prejudice and exploitation, and they had no real political representation. What they had—for what it was worth—was a social organization led by businessmen that would carry on their collective rituals, where they could forge their identity and find their power as a local community.

The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912

The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha—sometime after acquiring the land in 1884. When the building was being razed, a World-Herald story (from Dec. 3, 1963) suggests that the building remained in the hands of Anna Wilson until her death in 1911. At that time, and for many years, the street level space would be occupied by Chinese grocers, the first owned by Wing Sing. Across the street to the west sat Omaha’s first fire station. Just to the north at 117 N. 12th St. was Q.W. Lee’s grocery, and the Sing Long grocery was at 123 N. 12th St. Across the road toward Capitol Street, at 122 N. 12th St., was a grocery owned by Wing Tang. These addresses typically had private residences on upper floors, and it is likely that the block was densely populated by a poor and often transient population of mostly Chinese men. A block to the east, at 11th and Capitol streets, was the Sam Hai Laundry, while a large, four-story police headquarters occupied the block between 10th, 11th, Capitol, and Dodge streets.

This is an area that would come to be known, at least for history, as Omaha’s Chinatown. Some local newspaper accounts suggest that Omaha’s Chinatown occupied a four-block area northeast of 12th and Dodge streets. In a Dec. 3, 1961, World-Herald article titled “Gay Dragons Once Danced in a Thriving Chinatown,” journalist Robert McMorris paints a picture sourced from secondhand accounts of the “four-block area” where men wore Manchu-style braids (common during the Qing Dynasty in China) and women walked in “short, mincing steps” (a consequence of the now-discontinued practice of binding girls’ feet) at the turn of the century.  Later writing from Edward Morrow on the city’s early Asian community (in a March 5, 1978, Sunday World-Herald Magazine) claims that 200-300 Chinese once resided in “ancient red brick buildings at Eleventh and Dodge” streets.

Old city directories don’t support his claim of Chinatown occupying a four-block area. More likely, Omaha’s Chinatown took up a single block between Dodge and Capitol on 12th Street, with additional concentrations of Chinese restaurants along 14th and Douglas streets and clustered near North 16th Street.

Among the Chinese restaurants grouped together on Douglas Street, the first to open as an upscale establishment—competing for Omaha’s business and night-time entertainment clientele—was the Mandarin Cafe at 1409 Douglas St., with a large “Chop Suey” sign hanging from the front of the building. Opening in January 1912 by Gin Chin (who would later open King Fong Cafe), it was located on the floor above the Budweiser Bar, just at the east end of Omaha’s theater row, which occupied most of Douglas to 16th streets. The Budweiser Bar was run by Billy Nesselhaus, business partner of Tom Dennison, Omaha’s most notorious gangster, who ran a gambling operation out of the bar below the Mandarin Cafe.

The year after the Mandarin opened, in September 1913, Leo Wing opened the King Joy Cafe, at 1415 Farnam St., in a second-story space above the Farnam Theater. Like the Mandarin House, the King Joy offered American dishes along with its Chinese menu, advertising “steaks and chop suey” in particular, as well as live music in the evenings. Opening night at the King Joy did not go off without incident, but it did land a story in the World-Herald (Sept. 19, 1913). Firecrackers were lit on the balcony of the restaurant that somehow started a fire inside. Patrons ran to the street, fire trucks came, crowds gathered, and traffic was stopped for much of the evening.

In the Douglas Street cluster of Chinese restaurants, there was also Louie Ahko’s at 1419 Douglas St. (moving to 1417 Harney St. in 1917), open since at least 1910, the Canton restaurant at 1404 Douglas St., and the Elite Cafe at 209 S. 14th St. run by Sam Joe. Another Chinese restaurant, the Los Angeles Restaurant owned by Sing Yep, was located at 105 S. 13th St. At 1306 Douglas St. was a restaurant run by Charles Sing, and at 1313 Douglas St. was the Nanking Restaurant run by Wong Ching.

Among the Chinese restaurants concentrated in the vicinity of North 16th Street, Sam Sing had been operating a restaurant at 1516 Webster St. since 1901. (It moved to 1520 Webster St. at some point and would close in 1918 upon Sing’s arrest for bootlegging.) The 1914 city directory lists Joseph Wing as proprietor of a restaurant at 304 N. 16th St. (in the Edward Hotel, later run by Sam Huey as Edward Cafe) and Hung Lew at 517 N. 16th St. In 1918, Leo Wing is listed as proprietor at 517 N. 16th St. and Chin Chung as restaurant owner at 606 N. 16th St. The directory also shows Chinese laundries at 509 and 604 N. 16th St.

Leo Wing was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago

Among the problems facing Chinese merchants in Omaha was a corrupt police department. The police commissioner, John Ryder, would be removed from office in 1914 and forced to switch positions with A.C. Kugel, head of the department of street cleaning and maintenance, for his inability to control the police force. The move came Jan. 19, 1914, three days after the World-Herald criticized Ryder for allowing a “protected house of commercial vice” to remain in operation just a few blocks from police headquarters, at 13th and Dodge streets. The house in question belonged to Hazel McVey of 414 N. 14th St., the sometime romantic partner of Billy Nesselhaus.

On Jan. 31, 1914, Ryder’s last night as police commissioner, a series of secret raids would be made on “every place in town suspect of law violation,” according to the World-Herald. Most were Chinese restaurants, including “All of the lower Douglas Street Chop Suey restaurants.” At the Mandarin, “there were certain evidences that didn’t suit the officers,” so the manager, probably Gin Chin, was arrested and later released on $25 bond. Louie Ahko was also raided and arrested. Across the street at the Canton, two men were arrested and several women were “hustled out of town.” At midnight, the police returned to the Canton, “They didn’t like the looks of the place,” so the proprietor was returned to police headquarters.

The King Joy was also raided, but nothing was found out of order. Louie Ahko and Gin Chin were to appear before a judge Feb. 3. Louie Ahko paid a $25 fine, but Gin Chin did not show up, to the outrage of the city prosecutor, and he forfeited his bond. The charge was “running a disorderly house,” and the evidence was beer found in teapots. But on Feb. 6, Gin was able to show, to the satisfaction of the judge, that the beer was brought in by patrons, which was perfectly legal, and the charges against Gin and Ahko were dropped.

Despite problems, and perhaps because of them, the thriving Chinese-American business community officially organized in 1916 with the founding of the Omaha Chinese Merchants Association. On Nov. 22 of that year, the World-Herald reported, “More than two million firecrackers, yes, two million, were discharged in Omaha last night,” to celebrate the opening of the new hall of the Merchants Association at 111 N. 12th St. There was live music, the Merchants Association band, and a feast to celebrate the event. If there was any symbolism in the event, any message being sent to Omaha, it was delivered by the firecrackers. It took more than a half hour to shoot them all off, on a Tuesday evening, just one block from police headquarters.

The police may have taken offense. Two weeks later the president of the Merchants Association, Leo Wing, was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago to a newly formed tong in Omaha directing the assassination of the two men who did not belong to the tong or the Merchants Association. Wing denied the accusation, claiming that the issue merely involved a minor dispute over an unpaid debt, and it apparently went no further. However, a month after his arrest, the King Joy caught fire, with firemen finding evidence of arson, gasoline, and kindling in the Farnam Theater below. Two months later a midnight explosion and fire, again in the Farnam Theater below, sent King Joy patrons running into the street. No motive or possible perpetrators are mentioned in the news coverage.

The building at 111 N. 12th was never listed as the Chinese Merchants Association in the city directory. In 1914, its sole occupant listed is Wing Sing Grocers.

By 1918, it is Soon Lee Grocer and the Wa Wing Club. For 1923 and 1925 the directory lists Soon Lee Chinese goods and On Leong Chinese goods. Only in 1934 and then in 1936, just before moving to 1518 Cass St., would it be recognized in the directory as a tong house, listed then as On Leong Tong Hall along with Leo Wing.

The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha.

The tong house in Omaha included gambling rooms, mahjong and lotteries, a bunk room where opium smoking could be found, and a shrine room with an altar and a statue of Buddha. No other illegal activities were ever reported by the World-Herald. Nevertheless, individual members would continue to have problems. A spokesperson for the Merchants Association, Gow D. Huie, was arrested in March 1917 for assault with intent to kill, the victim identified as Yen Huie. Gow Huie allegedly “smote him on the head with a cleaver” while the two were working at a Douglas Street restaurant. It seems the two were related and that the charges were dropped. Gow Huie would later open the Mon Yen Lo Cafe at 1508 Howard St. (by 1925), and in 1932 he would take over both the Mandarin Cafe and the Peacock Inn at 1818 Farnam St. He would remain an active community leader until Dec. 7, 1935, when he was arrested on a federal narcotics charge. In the summer of 1936 he was convicted and sentenced to two years in the Leavenworth Penitentiary, but he disappeared immediately after sentencing and was never heard from again.

During the Depression, many Chinese-Americans would leave Omaha. This may explain why key restaurants changed ownership. Early in 1930 it was announced that Sam Joe opened a new chop suey house at 1415 Farnam St., previously Leo Wing’s King Joy. Gin Chin gave up the Mandarin Cafe in 1932, to be reopened by Gow D. Huie that year as Huie’s Cafe. It may simply be that the Chin and Wing families had fewer relatives to employ. A New Year’s notice of the tong celebration in 1933, with Chin Soo Leong named as president, reported that membership once at 220 had dropped to 50, with most leaving in the past year. The restaurant industry in general was hit hard during the Depression, and it had a dramatic effect on Chinese restaurants in Omaha. Those who worked at the restaurants, those who remained in town, were suffering economically. According to the newly elected spokesperson for the tong, Sam Joe, in a 1936 New Year’s notice, the prior year was the first time any members of the colony had to accept outside charity. A dozen or so went on government relief.

One effect of the economic conditions was reported in the World-Herald on Nov. 1, 1937. The day before, Anna Chin, 7-year-old daughter of Jimmy Chin, died of pneumonia. She had 12 siblings; one of which, Phillis (or Lotus Blossom), had been born six weeks earlier. Her mother had remained sick in bed ever since. Two of her siblings, 4-year-old Billy and 1-year-old Jeanette, were also sick. All lived at 1517 Burt St. Jimmy, a World War I veteran, had worked at the “famed restaurant” Mandarin Cafe with his father, Gin Chin. Both then worked at King Fong’s. The story goes on to point out that Jimmy had to support his family on $40 a month—$12.50 in salary and the rest in tips. He had made double that “until a damaging story had circulated about the place where he works.” Evidently, some sort of rumor had spread about King Fong’s that severely curtailed business.

As an example of the general prejudice faced by tong members, consider the entry in the Nov. 26, 1935 World-Herald. Under a large photo with the header “Sam Joe and Soon Lee explain it all,” the two prominent Chinese-Americans are publicly degraded and humiliated. On the important topic of Japanese aggression against China, the reporter chose to parody their lack of facility with English, transcribing mispronounced words in a few broken sentences, and portray them as stupid and ill-informed. The truth is that both men were hard-working and successful leaders of their community.

On July 16, 1938, the World-Herald reported the dedication of the new tong house at 1518 Cass St. On the exterior of the building was placed a sign in Chinese characters identifying it as the On Leong Tong house. The interior was split into two large rooms. One side was devoted to mahjong and the other a meeting room with a Buddhist shrine.

Current Omaha resident Chu Huey, son of Sam Huey and nephew of Soon Lee, is now in his 80s and remembers the old tong house. He says it was very social space with people (adult men) there every day playing mahjong. Chu Huey arrived from China via Hong Kong in 1951, at 17 years old, and attended Tech High while working for his father at the Edward Cafe. He and friends would sneak into the tong house in the morning and play mahjong and be off to work at Chinese restaurants before adults arrived around lunchtime to play. Mahjong would continue through the afternoon and evening, often ending with a trek south on 16th Street to King Fong’s. If there was anything to celebrate, especially Chinese holidays (the Lunar New Year in particular), festivities would take place at the tong house. It was only on these celebratory occasions that women and children would come. Often new arrivals, with no money and nowhere else to go, would stay at the tong house. Extended family members would then have the obligation of finding them jobs and a place to live.

The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry.

Exactly why the tong moved remains a matter of speculation, but it is clear that the center of the Chinese-American population in Omaha had shifted to North 16th Street by the late 1930s. The established families, the Chins and Hueys in particular, lived several blocks north and west of Omaha’s former Chinatown. Soon Lee, president of the tong (brother of Sam Huey and Sam Joe’s cousin) lived at 1617 Cass St. Sam Huey lived at 1609 Cass St. while running the Edward Cafe a block away at 304 N. 16th St. Across the street from the Hueys at 1610 Cass St. was the Lee Kune laundry, next door to the Midway Tavern, a dance bar. Another Chinese laundry listed in 1938 was run by Lee Moy at 1514 Webster St. In 1939 Quong Wing Industry was located at 319 N. 15th St., perhaps a laundry as well. The Chin family had a large residence at 1817 Davenport St., Jimmy Chin lived at 16th and Burt St., and a few years later the family would have another home at 19th and Burt streets.

Another feature of the neighborhood where the tong had relocated was Cass Elementary School, between 14th and 15th on the north side of Cass Street. Cass School was attended by virtually all children of Chinese-American immigrants. It was, in fact, the most ethnically diverse school in Omaha, reflecting the diversity of the neighboring population (which also included many Swedes and Jews). Mary Simonds, principal in 1912, responded with indignation to the suggestion that her immigrant students were inferior. “I have the very best students in the city,” she said, quoted in the June 2, 1912, edition of the World-Herald.

The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry. Coal-burning smokestacks lined the view to the east. Union Pacific’s shops occupied most of the land from Dodge to Cuming streets, on an angle running from the river to 15th Street. Also included in that area near the river was Asarco (previously Omaha and Grant), Omaha’s now notorious lead smelter and refiner, the world’s largest in the late-19th and early-20th century. This was Omaha’s most noxious business and residential area. Those who would not be welcomed into other areas of the city would end up on near North 16th Street. This was partly exclusion and partly economics. It was also a cheap neighborhood to live in. Numerous inexpensive hotels lined 16th Street and side roads, between Davenport and Cuming: the Edward at 302, the Rex at 605, the Drexel at 618, and the Northwestern at 619 16th St., the California on the southwest corner at California street, and the Park at 1502 Cass St. On Chicago between 15th and 16th streets were the Chicago and the Midland Hotels. On the south end of the neighborhood, Capitol to Davenport on 17th Street was the Flomar Hotel, a block east on 16th Street was the Loyal.

Interspersed between hotels were markets, primarily grocers and hardware stores. And running through the center of neighborhood activity, and responsible for much of it, were streetcars that intersected with the rest of Omaha. It was the liveliest neighborhood business district in the city.

In the post World War II era, as activities in the tong house continued, the World-Herald stopped reporting them. Mahjong was played daily, holidays were celebrated, but membership in the On Leong Tong continued to decline, as did its role for the Chinese-American community in Omaha. Like Gin Chin’s son Carl, who worked as a chemist for the city, the children of tong members would increasingly see themselves as citizens of Omaha, Nebraska, rather than members of an immigrant community. They would speak perfect American English. They would be assimilated, in the sense that they would no longer accept or bear the burden of being treated as aliens in their native land. The function of the tong declined as identity with it became less necessary or useful.

After the death of George Hay in 1959 (who the World-Herald names as one of the last members), the tong disbanded. Chu Huey went on to open his own iconic restaurant, Chu’s Chop Suey House, in 1964, across from Aksarben on Center Street, which remained open until 2002. Chu’s father, Sam Huey died in 1965. Gin Chin died in 1962 at the age of 93, with 36 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren. His restaurant, King Fong’s, will be reopening in the near future.

Blue Line Coffee purchased the former tong house at 1518 Cass St. in 2009 to be used as a coffeehouse/diner in anticipation of a planned transit center at 16th and Cass streets. The transit center failed to materialize and plans for the building were put on hold. The building is currently used for storage while under preparations for development. The author of this article, Chris McClellan, is the owner of Blue Line Coffee. McClellan prepared a history of the building (from which this article is excerpted) for Restoration Exchange Omaha’s successful nomination to list the structure with the National Register of Historic Places.

Editor’s Note on Chinese Names

Chinese names traditionally feature family/surname first, followed by given names. In Chinese, Gin Chin’s full name would be presented “Chin Ah Gin.” Gin Chin is an Americanized presentation. Chinese around the world also often take an English first name. In addition, some of the Chinese names featured in Omaha Magazine’s in-depth look at the city’s historic Chinese community are based on early archival accounts (where names might have been distorted due to language barriers, reporting errors, or outright racism).

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:

Remember The Maine!

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Remember the Maine?

Press baron and Citizen Kane archetype William Randolph Hearst told us to do just that in 1898, but most have forgotten these days because we have so many other things to remember, like our Amazon Prime password and debit card pin number, let alone where we parked the car in the shopping mall parking lot.

In our defense, we do still remember Pearl Harbor and some of us even “remember the kind of September,” though revivals of The Fantasticks do seem to be thankfully decreasing in frequency.

Anyway, here’s a refresher. The USS Maine, an obsolete, poorly designed battleship, plagued by cost overruns during its construction—there is nothing new about military budget waste—sailed into Havana harbor to “show the flag.” That is, America wanted to show a little newfound muscle towards Spain, the last colonial power besides us left in the Western Hemisphere.

Well, our “muscle” sat there in the harbor for a couple of weeks until, tragically, it blew up along with 200 of its sailors. Immediately the American newspapers put forth the story that the Spaniards had treacherously used a mine to destroy the ship. Hence the headlines: “Remember the Maine!”

A nifty little war ensued. In short order, Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila and sank the Spanish Pacific fleet, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, in support of the African-American 10th Cavalry, charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba. (Teddy got all the press, of course.) Cuba was independent pending the later outcome of Michael Corleone’s casino scheme with Hyman Roth, and the Philippines, freed of its old Spanish overlords, were then happy to be governed by new American overlords. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Sorry, I can never resist tossing in a quote from Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. It’s my thing. Stick with me, I know where I’m going.

So—“Remember the Maine”—remember? Well, the thing is, it wasn’t blown up by a mine at all. Most experts now agree that the cause of the fateful explosion was a fire in a coal bunker. Yes, our old friend coal. It was big in 1898. Sure glad we’ve moved on from the stuff here in the “modern” world. The slowly growing fire in one of the battleship’s coal bunkers eventually ignited the ship’s powder stores. Boom! War! History!

And where do you keep the powder, and ammunition for a big ship’s guns? According to Merriam-Webster, you keep that stuff in a “magazine.” In this case, a magazine that changed the course of a nation.

Which brings me to my point—I know, finally, right?—a magazine.

Happy milestone to Omaha Magazine. This issue marks the completion of 35 volumes in print. Has this magazine changed the world? Maybe it has, a little here, a little there. Change does occur when facts and inspiration can join forces. Thirty-five volumes highlighting the people, places, issues, and interests of our community; giving writers, journalists, artists, and leaders a forum where they can share and inform; giving our city and region a chance to look clearly at our triumphs and tribulations.

So, here’s to more explosions of art and ideas. Here’s to Omaha Magazine.

Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Early Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

35 Years Of Omaha Magazine Covers

March 1, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke fondly remembers several magazine covers from his 35 years in the local magazine business. But he is particularly fond of the November/December 1993 issue—a poster of which hangs on his office wall. The cover features a beautiful model wearing a Russian fur hat and coat. The lead story? “Revelations on Russia.”

Here’s the behind-the-scenes scoop: Lemke and the author of the cover story, Sandy Stahlstein, had traveled to Russia over the summer. While abroad in the land of “czars, caviar, and communism,” Lemke had proposed to the writer. And she said, “Yes.”

For many years, covers of Omaha Magazine featured one person’s portrait. Often it was someone whom the public could easily identify and read about in the magazine’s inside pages. Five years ago, the 30th anniversary issue changed that idea like a light bulb popping over Lemke’s head.

“I was talked into being the cover subject by Bill Sitzmann, who told me that readers want to know the faces behind the names in business, and that includes our business,” Lemke says.

That was one of the first conceptual covers of Omaha Magazine. Lemke liked the idea so much, he and the creative team began creating unique covers for subsequent publications. 

As lead photographer, Sitzmann saw concept covers as a way to stand out from the crowd, also noting that his skill set suited him to the work. The covers have won awards, inspired and intrigued the viewer, and brought an unparalleled feel to the publication.

“The cover that has won the most awards was the black-on-black cover with the spot gloss on it,” Lemke says of 2014’s Best of Omaha issue. The spot gloss varnish meant that while nearly the entire cover was black, there were words on the cover that were glossy while the majority of the cover was matte. “You had to move the cover around under a light source to see the words, but the cover really engaged the reader.”

Conceptual covers also enable Omaha Magazine to feature Omaha stars in uncommon ways. One of Sitzmann’s favorite covers is the July/August 2014 issue featuring Chuck Hagel.

“I got that done in two days,” Sitzmann says. “I flew to New York and drove straight to D.C. with all my gear. I shot at the Pentagon, spent the night at a friend’s house in New York, and flew back to Omaha the next day.”

He also enjoyed shooting the July/August 2015 cover with Keystone Pipeline activist Jane Kleeb holding a black snake and covered in chocolate syrup to emulate oil.

“She was all in,” Sitzmann says. “I gave her the snake idea, and she went for it.”

Other favorite conceptual covers include Mayor Jean Stothert on the September/October 2013 issue featuring the headline “Leading in a Man’s World” (with her head Photoshopped above a man’s hairy arms) and the September/October 2017 issue’s double cover on indigenous language revitalization (tribal elders translated text into the Omaha, or Umoⁿhoⁿ, language for the front with equivalent English text on the inside).

Bringing together these covers involves strategic meetings of the minds of everyone on the creative and editorial team.

“I am proud that each cover is a team approach between edit, photography, and graphics as to the selection and the composition of the design,” Lemke says. “Not everyone agrees all the time, but we are able to respect one another’s opinions, and I think most people walk away from the table saying, ‘Yes, that will work.’”

See the magazine’s current staff at http://omahamagazine.com/articles/35-years-on-staff/

Read Omaha Magazine at omahamagazine.com. Subscribe to support community journalism. 

November/December 1993

March/April 2013

September/October 2013

Best of Omaha, 2014

July/August 2014

July/August 2015

September/October 2016

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Changing Face of Omaha

February 23, 2018 by
Photography by Durham Museum (provided)

A lot can change in 35 years, even in Omaha, a town where some places look like a glacier flowed over 2 million years ago and only unfroze a few weeks ago.

Of course, if you’re paying attention, there were decisions that changed the face of the city. Since 1983, the city has razed some of its notable historic structures, most notoriously Jobbers Canyon, a 24-building section of downtown Omaha that was torn down in 1989. It represents the nation’s largest demolition of National Register historic buildings, which remains a sore spot for preservationists.

But there have been subtler shifts. There was an exodus of businesses away from downtown to the suburbs, most visibly represented by the loss of the downtown Brandeis store in the 1980s, which both the razing of Jobbers Canyon and the development of the Gene Leahy Mall (conceived in the 1970s and named after Omaha’s mayor from 1969 to 1973) were intended to address.

The Brandeis move west—the company developed and settled in the Crossroads Mall—was perhaps the most visible “suburban” relocation of its time. Westward sprawl continued apace with additional suburban malls opening afterward, such as Oak View Mall, built in 1991. Now Crossroads, a shell of its former glory, is the city’s most visible evidence of the “retail apocalypse.”

Omaha’s once-upon-a-time peripheral neighborhoods have continued to see retail development, perhaps most notably with the redevelopment of the old Ak-Sar-Ben race track into Aksarben Village.

In recent years, the city’s westward trend has started to reverse itself, with a number of high-profile redevelopments downtown, including the building of the CenturyLink Center in 2003, the construction of TD Ameritrade Park in 2011, a variety of arts venues (including the KANEKO in 2008 and the Holland Performing Arts Center in 2005), new restaurants, and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the Missouri River (built in 2008). Meanwhile, almost overnight, it seems that Benson and now Blackstone have rivaled the Old Market as the city’s top districts for nightlife.

Jobbers Canyon being demolished in 1989

Additionally, the skyline of downtown has changed considerably in the past 35 years. In 1983, the city’s iconic tall building was Woodmen Tower. It has since been joined by First National Bank Tower, completed in 2002, and Union Pacific Center, completed in 2004.

Some things don’t seem to change much. For example, Omaha has always wrestled with what to do with its riverfront, an ongoing discussion that doesn’t seem anywhere near resolution. The city’s latest riverfront redevelopment proposals could once again change the face of downtown (whether the plans are an improvement remains uncertain).

Omaha’s population has consistently grown in that time. From 1982 through 2017, the city’s population has grown about 42 percent, from approximately 316,000 to 450,000 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau and University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research Coordinator David Drozd).

It helps that Omaha has a flexible economy, a product of a surprising legacy. Because the city was founded as the westward terminus for the transcontinental railroad, the city has always been able to capitalize on opportunities provided by the railroad.

One of the more recent opportunities is that railroad lines have offered an unfettered path for laying communications lines.

Early on, telegraph lines went along the railroad, but recently those have been replaced by high-speed internet lines and the like, allowing Omaha and Council Bluffs to serve as communications hubs for the rest of the country. In the ’90s, this encouraged the development of telecommunications jobs, such as the West Corp., which went public in 1996 with 2,000 employees. This later expanded to an entire communications technology industry, and nowadays both the University of Nebraska and Creighton offer degrees in technology and telecommunications.

Omaha’s semiskilled labor industries, especially in meat packing, have long been one of the city’s magnets for new citizens. The plants have, over the years, drawn from relocated African-American workers, rural Southern white workers, and even workers from Japan. While Mexican-Americans have been in Omaha since 1900, the packing plants, in particular, brought a wave of new residents from Latin America in the 1990s, who at first settled around South Omaha.

The Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant presence in Omaha is significant enough that the city has its own Mexican consulate. In 1999, Union Stockyards and the Livestock Exchange Building closed, and the “smell of money” left its longtime home in South Omaha.

Lately, the city’s largest growing population statistic has been its Asian residents, growing 23.5 percent between 2010 and 2015. Some of this increase is due to immigration, with the city becoming home to refugees from Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan. Even with this growing demographic representation, however, the Asian population of Omaha remains relatively small, about 2.6 percent of the total population according to the last census.

Visit census.gov for more information.

Jobbers Canyon, 1929

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Omaha’s First Neighborhood (Forest Hill)

February 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Big pine and oak trees, patches of green space, historic mansions, and single-family homes (many of which were built in the late 1800s, not long after Omaha first became a city)—that’s what you’ll find in the area affectionately known as Omaha’s First Neighborhood, located just south of the Old Market between 10th and 13th streets.

You’ll see grand, welcoming porches where neighbors stop to greet each other on picturesque walks; multi-story gables flaunting tall, stained-glass windows; and architectural styles ranging from Victorian to Romanesque.

You can stroll by Bishopthorpe (1240 S. 10th St.), a large Victorian mansion that Bishop George Worthington built as his residence while he served as Episcopal Bishop of Nebraska. Just down the street is the majestic St. Francis Cabrini Church (1248 S. 10th St.), a shining example of Spanish Renaissance Revival style designed by the renowned architect Thomas Kimball. A few blocks down is the Cornish Mansion (1404 S. 10th St.), known as one of the best examples of French Second Empire architecture in Omaha.

“The neighborhood has a lot of character and charm, which is what draws people here,” says Nancy Mammel, who has owned property in the area for several years.

The problem is, over the past several years, the neighborhood has also been drawing more and more new development, some of which residents believe is threatening the area’s origins and integrity.

“Many people who are living in the homes are concerned about the future of these homes and this neighborhood,” says Marie Sedlacek, who moved to the neighborhood in 1985.

02 December 2017- Marie Sedlacek is photographed in front of her home for Omaha Magazine.

In 2015, John E. Johnston & Son Funeral Home on 10th and William streets, formerly the Kountze Mansion, was demolished to make way for William Rows, a cluster of 27 row houses. Grace University’s announcement to halt operations at the end of the 2017-2018 school year has attracted a developer’s proposal for more high-density apartments on some of the property. Omaha Public Schools purchased land at 10th and Pine streets to build a new 600-capacity elementary school, which residents are concerned will take away green space and bring more commuter traffic.

Progress itself isn’t bad. But residents believe progress that changes the historic look and feel of the area—the quaint community vibe and distinguishing architecture that holds an important place in Omaha’s past—isn’t good, either.

“We just want people building and developing in a smart way,” Mammel says.

While it’s colloquially called Omaha’s First Neighborhood, the area’s official name is Forest Hill. The parameters go north to south from Pacific to Bancroft streets, and east to west from Sixth to 13th streets, according to Arnie Breslow, president of the neighborhood association, who owns the Cornish Mansion and other properties.

The residents who live in the area, either as homeowners or renters, are diverse in both age and ethnicity. Sedlacek says her neighbors range in age from 30 to 70 years old, including single people, families with kids, and people who are older or retired. And these neighbors represent many different ethnicities, including Latino, Italian, Czech, and Bohemian.

The neighborhood began to form in the late 1800s. Some of the city’s first businessmen built the first homes in the area because they wanted to live close to their downtown businesses, but not right downtown, to get away from muddy streets, odors, and a general abundance of soot and pollution.

Breslow says about 28 large-to-mid-sized mansions were originally built on the “hill,” and he estimates maybe five remain. As the development of railroads increased commercial development and a need for more workers, immigrants began moving south of downtown, building more modest homes around the parameter of the mansions.

The three things residents love most about the area—what they believe is important to maintaining the neighborhood’s authenticity—are these homes (big and small), the bigger plots of green space, and the walkability around the neighborhood as well as to several popular destinations (a trait that is also attractive to developers).

Depending on which direction you are headed, the Forest Hill neighborhood is roughly a mile’s distance from two of Nebraska’s most popular tourist attractions—the Old Market and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The Durham Museum and Lauritzen Gardens are also easily accessible. Residents who work downtown can easily walk to work. And everyone who lives in the area can enjoy walks to some of the area’s popular independent businesses, some of which have been around for generations, such as Cascio’s Steakhouse, Sons of Italy, Johnson Hardware Co., and Olsen Bake Shop.

In an effort to be proactive about the neighborhood’s future, Breslow, along with a group of several neighbors, worked with an architect to draft a plan to revitalize South 10th Street with more gardens and green space, new streetlights, and sculptures. The plan for “District 108” was approved by City Council about 10 years ago and even won Omaha by Design’s Neighborhood Leaf Award in 2009. Unfortunately, funds have not yet been made available to move significantly forward.

“Part of our plan is to do some things to try to slow the traffic down,” Breslow says. “People don’t like to walk down a street where a car is driving 50 miles per hour.”

Several aspects of the neighborhood’s future remain uncertain, and some are out of the homeowners’ control. However, Sedlacek, Breslow, and Mammel love this neighborhood. They love its history, its vibe, and how it has evolved since it was founded more than 100 years ago. And they will continue to do what they can to preserve it.

“We just really want our neighborhood to be sparkly,” Sedlacek says. “We have the kind of details people don’t realize we have until they are gone.”

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home.

Legendary Legacy

February 11, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite his retirement from a long, fruitful career in the restaurant business, Chuck Caniglia can still be found doing what he loves best.

“You caught me with my hands full. I’m making homemade Venice Inn pizza,” says Caniglia, washing up and settling in to tell the story of his tenure serving up warm hospitality alongside great food. 

The Caniglia family famously lit up the Omaha restaurant scene for decades, with local favorites like Caniglia’s Pizzeria (which introduced pizza to Omaha after World War II), Caniglia’s Italian Steakhouse, Mister C’s Steakhouse, Al Caniglia’s Drawing Room, Palazzo ’Taliano, Luigi’s, Top of the World at Woodmen Tower, and others. A longstanding cornerstone of this culinary empire was Chuck’s father Eli Caniglia’s Venice Inn at 69th and Pacific streets, which opened in 1957. 

Caniglia started pitching in at his father’s restaurant at age 13, and his younger brother Jerry later followed in his footsteps. When Eli passed away in 1983, the brothers took up the mantle and ran Venice Inn until it closed in 2014. Caniglia was there until the bittersweet end; he locked the doors for the last time on the restaurant’s final day of business. 

“I never worked anywhere else,” Caniglia says. “That was our life, we felt honored to continue Dad’s work, and we enjoyed our customers so much. I miss interacting with them the most. We had very loyal customers and got hundreds of letters before we closed telling us , ‘Congratulations and best wishes, but we don’t want you to close.’ It was very bittersweet. But we’re happy now, even though we do miss it.” 

Around Chuck’s 70th birthday, after decades in the demanding, labor-intensive restaurant business, the Caniglia brothers decided it was time to retire and spend more time with family. With all their children already invested in their own careers, there was no one to pass the restaurant on to — and that’s when another family entered the picture.

Brothers Jamie and Nick Saldi expressed interest in the site, and that’s when Chuck and Jerry analyzed things and decided the time was right to close Venice Inn and sell the land. The Saldis own Legends Patio Grill & Bar locations in Omaha’s Cherry Creek and Lincoln’s Haymarket. 

“It’s kind of cool that our property has been sold to the Saldis, because they’re two brothers also,” Caniglia says. “So, those two brothers will carry on the legacy of our family property.” 

The Saldi brothers are on track to open their third Legends location on the old Venice Inn grounds in March 2018. The development, dubbed Aksarben Pointe, will house two additional, yet-to-be-named tenants.  

“We both went to UNO, so we’re familiar with the Aksarben area and had been seeking an opportunity in the area for a long time,” Nick says. “When the Venice Inn spot became available, we jumped on it right away and we’re excited to be there.”

He describes Legends as a “sports-themed restaurant.” 

“I try to avoid using the term ‘sports bar’ because it really is family friendly,” Nick says. “Most of our clientele [at the original Legends] is the neighborhood, family crowd, and we have many repeat customers. As a customer, you have a thousand places you could go to get a burger and a cold beer, but what sets us apart is that we try to create the right culture and experience for each customer and employee.”

Caniglia says that same sense of focus on customer experience is what facilitated Venice Inn’s longevity. 

“If you have a good restaurant, you serve good food at a reasonable price, you treat your customers well, and you’re always there to greet them, you can’t miss,” Caniglia says. “That’s what my father taught me.” 

The Venice Inn was so successful at creating that sense of community and loyalty that people still approach Caniglia with stories of how the restaurant was an important backdrop for their first dates, family celebrations, and other milestone events.  

“People love to share their memories of occasions at Venice Inn,” Caniglia says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we had our prenuptial dinner there,’ or ‘We had our anniversary party there,’ and that makes me feel good.”

Soon, the Saldis will welcome neighbors to make new memories at Legends. Although they are building a new restaurant structure, the brothers maintain a special reverence for the past.  

“In our Legends concept we have party rooms, and it’s a big theme of what we do as far as hosting receptions, birthdays, and special events for people,” Nick says. “So, I told Chuck I’d like to name one of our party rooms ‘The Venice Inn Room’ and do a memory wall there. He agreed to share some memorabilia that will let us create something to keep that building, that was so iconic in Omaha for so long, alive on one of our walls.” 

“I’m very honored that they want to do a Venice Inn memory wall in their place,” Caniglia says. “The Saldis are the nicest people, and they were great to work with. We made the best choice selling our property to them. There’s nobody else I’d have rather sold to than the Saldis.” 

The feeling is mutual. Jamie says their families connected while sharing their stories, and they enjoyed getting to know the Caniglia brothers throughout the sale process.

“When we first created a relationship with the Caniglias, we hit it off right away,” Nick says. “We talked very little about real estate and the property, but a lot about restaurants. We’re a very different concept than they had, but it’s remarkable how much their core values and ours align in the sense that they take care of their people and their customers, and we aim to do the same.”

Visit legendsomaha.com for more information about the restaurant concept coming to
Aksarben Pointe.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

2017 Anniversary Overload

January 12, 2018 by
Photography by the Durham Museum

Nebraska has spent the past year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a state, and this seems about as good a time as any to look at some recent and forthcoming local anniversaries.

First and foremost, this past year was the 150th anniversary of Omaha losing something very particular. When Nebraska was first founded, Omaha was its territorial capitol. This was always an unpopular move, largely because there were likely more people south of the Platte River than north, and so picking a northern city was seen as being a poor representation of the state’s population.

The location of the capitol was the source of considerable friction for many years. In 1867, when Nebraska was made a state, it was moved to Lincoln, south of the Platte.

This was, in its own way, a final humiliation for Stephen Douglas, who drafted the legislation that created the state of Nebraska and after whom Douglas County was named. Douglas had, years earlier, dated a woman named Mary Todd—who went on to marry Abraham Lincoln. Douglas had been the Democratic candidate for president, but members of his party were so offended by Douglas’s politicking in the creation of Kansas and Nebraska (abolitionists, in particular, were furious that his legislation left the question of slavery up to the states) that they broke off and formed their own party, the Republican Party. They would nominate Lincoln as their presidential candidate, and he would beat Douglas.

And now, at long last, the capitol of Nebraska would be moved from a county named after Douglas to a city named after Lincoln.

This past year also marked the 100th anniversary of Boys Town, Father Edward J. Flanagan’s long-lasting and remarkably successful experiment—a self-contained, self-governed community designed to help at-risk youth (originally exclusively boys).

Although Flanagan, a native of Ireland, was likely partially inspired by movements for Irish self-rule in conceiving of a place where children ruled over themselves, Boys Town was very much a product of Omaha. Flanagan had originally sought to address a large number of itinerant laborers who used Omaha as a weigh station, creating a “workingman’s hotel” for those who were broke and needed a hand up.

But Flanagan soon found that there was a permanent underclass of adult men with chronic substance abuse problems and endless legal woes, most of whom seemed impossible to help. He realized he had to reach these men before they became adults, and so the idea for Boys Town was born.

2017 also marked a more contentious anniversary, the conclusion of Omaha’s attempts to annex several once-independent communities. Omaha has always been rather quick to annex nearby town and villages, and the city looked to absorb Dundee and South Omaha in 1915. But many residents weren’t eager to become part of Omaha and fought the annexation, mounting a two-year court battle that ultimately proved futile. Florence and Benson were also annexed in 1917.

The milestones keep on rolling. One hundred years ago, Fort Omaha set up its balloon school. The school was part of a series of experiments that would eventually lead to the development of the Air Force. In this instance, the school trained soldiers in the use of dirigibles, primarily for the sake of reconnaissance and forward observation for artillery.

Many of these soldiers went on to put this into practice during World War I, anchoring their balloons near the front lines in France, mapping the terrain, reporting enemy troop activities, and directing artillery where to target their munitions. This was a risky undertaking, as the dirigibles were appealing and poorly defended. Several German flying aces made their reputations as “balloon busters” for specifically targeting the dirigibles.

2017 was the 75th anniversary of another wartime venture, the 1942 Omaha scrap metal drive. The drive was started in response to a crisis in America’s steel factories, which were so overtaxed by the war effort that several were closing down.

Omaha World-Herald publisher Henry Doorly conceived of a three-week scrap metal drive to provide badly needed raw materials. At the end of the drive, Omahans had managed to locate or donate 67,000 tons of metal. The drive was so successful that it inspired a national scrap drive.

Now what? With the turning of the new year, what milestones can Omahans look forward to commemorating?

Here’s one for 2018: This is the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest quotes in political history, which came to us in 1988 courtesy of a vice presidential debate at the Civic Auditorium. The candidates were Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen.

The young, conventionally handsome Quayle styled himself after President John F. Kennedy, at least in terms of his senatorial experience (his actual style drew heavily from a Robert Redford film called The Candidate.) When Quayle made the mistake of mentioning Kennedy, Bentsen shot back at him, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

The line has since become political shorthand to deflate pretentious, self-serving statements from politicians, although it probably should be noted that Quayle, and his fellow candidate George H.W. Bush, would go on to win the election. 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Fancy Food in Historic Buildings

December 17, 2017 by
Photography by Michael Langfeldt

When Jennifer Coco and business partner Tom Simmons started thinking about opening a new restaurant somewhere in town, they considered a historic building in Dundee.

After all, the local celebrity chef’s namesake, J. Coco (at 5203 Leavenworth St.), has flourished in the charming ambiance of a location rich with local history—for 74 years, the space housed Omaha’s oldest grocery store, Wohlner’s.

“Everybody’s got stories about this building,” Coco says, adding that many customers will reminisce about how they used to get candy on grocery store visits with parents or grandparents in the structure that J. Coco currently occupies alongside Legends Comics.

J. Coco at 5203 Leavenworth St.

The concept of the new restaurant was to be quite different from J. Coco, with a more casual, grab-and-go feel. “The loose concept was a late-night lounge with food during bar hours,” Coco explains.

But buildings appearing on the National Register of Historic Places require special consideration as far as what changes can be made to the structure, and the limitations can be daunting to would-be business owners at these locations.

Coco says that she and Simmons were aware of what they were getting themselves into with a historic building. They did their due diligence with research and went through all the proper channels.

“The plans were drawn and submitted, and the state had approved them,” she says. “It was federal where it got hung up.”

Before receiving final approval for renovations, she heard back from the state that city codes had changed again. So, if she wanted to move forward, she was essentially back at stage one.

“The whole process is not made easy. If it were easier, we’d see a lot more businesses around [in historic buildings],” she says.

Though frustrated, Coco and Simmons surely did not want to upset the Dundee neighborhood in which the building is located. “We just hit a wall, so we said let somebody else have their dream here,” she says of the location at 4949 Underwood Ave.

At another historic location downtown, Flatiron Cafe manager Joe Jamrozy agrees that historic buildings have their challenges. But he insists that the charm of a heritage-rich space outweighs the drawbacks.

Flatiron Cafe

“This building has an extremely fun history,” Jamrozy says. “Tom Dennison opened the Flatiron Hotel and used it as a safe house for mobsters from Chicago and Kansas City who got in trouble. He was never mayor of Omaha, but he had his hands in everything.”

Jamrozy admits that they have to deal with “old building problems” such as plumbing and the upkeep, but without hesitation he says that he would never trade the wedge-shaped edifice for a newer, state-of-the-art facility.

Among the issues facing historic buildings are the shadows of the past that never quite seem to disperse. “Anybody who has been here long enough will say we have ghosts. There is an energy here late at night in the basement; it doesn’t always seem like you’re alone,” he says.

With the building’s colorful mob history, Jamrozy says he sometimes wonders what the basement walls have seen over the years. His voice trails off: “If these walls could talk…”

Sarah Wallace, general manager of 801 Chophouse, says that she sees ample benefits to their historical location in The Paxton downtown. “The building itself draws people in,” she says. “It’s a cool place for Omaha to have. Older people come in and remember attending dances in the ballroom when they were younger.”

Because of The Paxton’s historical significance, a board oversees the building and approves or denies any requests for changes to it. Wallace sees this more as a benefit than a hurdle. “If there were not a board in place, the building might lose character quickly because nobody’s looking out for the building.”

She remembers the long process of trying to get additional signage on the exterior of The Paxton for 801 Chophouse—the board was deeply involved and offered ample guidance. “The board must approve everything,” she says, adding that she is grateful for the care they take in making decisions.

A fan of old buildings and art deco architecture, Wallace feels right at home at The Paxton. “We’re lucky to be in a building that people seek out for the nostalgia factor,” she says. “When storms roll through, we all joke that we’re safe in such a strong building.”

801 Chophouse staff and guests claim their ghost is a tall gentleman in a suit, rumored to be a man murdered in the lobby of the hotel by his mistress. Wallace says the ghost has never been mischievous or caused any problems as far as she knows, so she doesn’t pay the matter much mind.

Like Jamrozy of the Flatiron Cafe, she says that she wouldn’t trade 801 Chophouse’s location for a newer building. “The building itself is a benefit to us,” she says.

Visit J. Coco (jcocoomaha.com), 801 Chophouse (801chophouse.com/omaha), and Flatiron Cafe (theflatironcafe.com) to learn more about the historic dining locations.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.