Tag Archives: history

Meriwether Lewis Suicide or Assassination

October 1, 2018 by and
Photography by Karissa Jobman
Illustration by Derek Joy

Kira Gale upset the historical establishment when she argued that the death of Meriwether Lewis was the result of assassination, not suicide. 

Research into the explorers Lewis and (William) Clark consumed her life, up until the very end. She died in Omaha on May 13 at age 76. On her deathbed, she finished the final page of her last book. 

Gale, 76, had written and self-published four books related to the early American explorers on her River Junction Press. She advocated an assassination theory in Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation (co-authored with James E. Starrs), published in 2009 and reissued in 2012 with new evidence.

Her faith in the conspiracy was rooted in research. Gale studied coroner reports, exhumation findings, and private letters. She was drawn to the story of Lewis—and his suspicious death—and she devoted years to pursuing the elusive truth.

The Conspiracy Theory

Lewis was a dashing Virginian who displayed gifts as an outdoorsman, naturalist, and leader. He served with the Virginia Militia, then joined the U.S. Army, where he rose to the rank of captain in 1800. During his military service, he met Clark—one of his commanding officers. 

The ambitious Lewis was eventually appointed as an aide by then-President Thomas Jefferson. As the United States nearly doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson commissioned an expedition to the nation’s new holdings and western reaches. He turned to Lewis to lead the 1804-1806 trek. Lewis then named Clark his second in command.

Lewis was 29 years old when he took command of this epic journey, and he would be dead less than three years after its completion. The circumstances of his death were still in dispute more than 200 years later when Gale—a self-taught historian who never finished college (she was one year shy of an English degree)—threw herself in the middle of the debate.

The basic facts of this still-unsolved mystery are that he died of two gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, in the Grinder’s Stand tavern on the Natchez Trace (a historic trail) near Hohenwald, Tennessee. The area was known to be a hazardous way-stop where robbers preyed on unsuspecting travelers. Conversely, there were reports that Lewis was under great strain and in serious debt. 

The mainstream consensus among historians is that he attempted to take his own life en route to his final destination.  Or was it a botched robbery and murder? Or maybe there was a darker plot? 

Lewis was buried on the property of the tavern, and his death was never investigated by law enforcement authorities. Roughly 40 years after the explorer’s death, the Tennessee State Commission authorized a gravesite monument in Lewis’ honor and exhumed his remains. The long-delayed medical examination was the only one that his corpse received. The commission’s final report concluded, “It seems to be more probable that he died at the hands of an assassin.”

In the 1990s, descendants of the explorer petitioned the government to exhume his body again from the national monument site now covering the property of Grinder’s Stand. The Department of Interior granted approval for opening his grave in 2008. But after an administrative change, the federal government reversed course and ruled against any future disruption of Lewis’ remains. 

Wading into Controversy

After examining the available records, Gale eventually rejected robbery/murder or suicide as possible causes of death. Although Lewis had a history of previous suicide attempts, was prone to depression, and—before embarking on his final trip through Tennessee—granted friends permission to distribute his property in the event of his death, Gale argued that Lewis was killed on the orders of General James Wilkinson. 

The motive? Greed.

She wrote: “I propose the motive for Lewis’ assassination was to prevent him from bringing information to Washington regarding crooked land deals involving Wilkinson and John Smith T, a mine operator in the lead mine district south of St. Louis. Wilkinson had been the first governor of Upper Louisiana in 1805-06. Lewis was bringing lead mine records to Washington. After his death, his papers were inventoried and bundled and entrusted to the care of Thomas Freeman, a Wilkinson associate. They arrived in Washington in total disorder.”

Gale assembled historical accounts and contemporary expert opinions that called into question the character of Wilkinson and Smith. The documents, she believed, pointed to foul play, forgery, and conspiracy.

“Wilkinson had a history of assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, people who were his rivals and possessed incriminating information that could jeopardize his career,” Gale wrote. “[Lewis] deserves to be remembered for his many accomplishments and for his true character. He was truly a man of ‘courage undaunted,’ as Thomas Jefferson described him. I admire him very much, and consider my time well spent in researching and writing about his life and death. He is one of the great American heroes.”

She went on C-SPAN and the History Channel asserting what to some was heresy. Nevertheless, she stuck to her guns in the face of skeptics, insisting that she had exposed Wilkinson—the man with the means and the motive to eliminate Lewis.

“She was pooh-poohed a lot in the Lewis and Clark world because of her, at the time, radical approach to Lewis’ death,” says friend and fellow Lewis and Clark “nerd” Shirley Enos.

Enos admired her tenaciousness: “She just never quit. She said, ‘To my dying day I will not believe this man committed suicide.’ She never gave up on it.”

“That was part of her basic character—very much so,” says Henry Gale, her husband of 58 years. “When she grabbed onto something, she didn’t let go. That applied to everything.” 

Together, they twice made cross-country drives in their Saturn sedan to trace Lewis and Clark’s expedition via highways. The result was Lewis and Clark Road Trips: Exploring the Trail Across America (published in 2006), featuring hundreds of handmade maps and tidbits about travel destinations.

Granddaughter Christy Jobman recalls the book as an effort involving the whole family: “My grandmother [Gale] employed my mom [Beth Jobman] to help her with the maps. She’d bring my preschool-aged sister and me over as they grappled with Adobe Illustrator. The knowledge of these two explorers is basically embedded into my DNA.”

An Unconventional Life

Henry and Kira Gale met as students at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier in Chicago. He was from the western suburbs; she was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park. She was an informal student of liberal arts. He was fresh from the U.S. Army. 

She had graduated high school early, the only child of a social worker mother and union executive father (who was also the town historian of Rochester, New York). The couple married in 1960 and soon moved from Chicago to Omaha, where Henry taught physiology at Creighton University School of Medicine.

They relocated with daughter, Beth, and son, Bill, in tow. In middle school, Beth acquired her mother’s old bicycle (which Gale had lugged across Chicago, balancing two babies plus groceries on trips to and from the store). Growing up, Bill remembers their Omaha home featured “a pinball machine in the dining room, sculptures, film gear, and people over all the time discussing avant-garde, leading-edge stuff.” She essentially turned the family living room into a production studio and theater.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Kira and Henry Gale were Vietnam War draft counselors for conscientious objectors. She became an experimental filmmaker and produced far-out light and film shows for rock bands. She organized film series. She taught filmmaking in Omaha Public Schools as a Nebraska Arts Council visiting artist. She studied under noted sculptor Lee Lubbers and was a board member of his international SCOLA satellite
education network. 

She became an Old Market counter-culture fixture. All the while, she kept an abundant garden and prepared amazing home-cooked meals for the family. 

In the ’80s, she photographed Mari Sandoz’s Sandhills homestead, and the images toured the state as a Nebraska Humanities exhibition. Enamored with iconic Nebraska authors, Gale also organized the first Nebraska Book Festival in 1991 (now in its 25th year after missing a few years over the decades).

Gale’s daughter, Beth, says her mother always had a new project in the works. “She was a museum-quality painter, and she was developing apps to go with books before I’d ever heard of an application for a smartphone,” Beth says, adding that her own six children benefited from their grandmother’s eclecticism.

“For years she took them on outings every Saturday,” Beth says. “They would go to powwows, museums, libraries, bookstores, parks. She loved cooking for them at her house.”

On top of her dedication to family and personal writing projects, Gale was an entrepreneur and cheerleader for fellow creatives. She published several other local writers, including The Erotica Book Club for Nice Ladies (fiction by Connie Spittler), Kids Around the Globe (a children’s series by Mary Duda), as well as the updated edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film (by Leo Adam Biga, reissued in 2013). 

But the Lewis assassination theory—and the documents supporting it—is what most drove her.

Undaunted Courage

“She’d get so excited about some new twist she discovered in her proof,” Enos recalls. “She would call me about it, and I would question what she was saying. It helped her clear her thinking.”

Enos was happy to help. “She always had something you could do,” she says. “That got to be a joke among our mutual friends. But it was such an affectionate thing. That was just Kira.”

Gale could be blunt when speaking her mind. She could monopolize a conversation when sharing her enthusiasms. But she could also be sweet, generous, and encouraging.

“She was never a person who sat still. She was always finding something new,” her husband, Henry, says. “Even when she got interested in history and looked backward in time, she found new things in old things.”

Cancer came as a surprise to the whole family. Her daughter was visiting from Texas in March, and she saw her mother busy as ever. Then, over the phone, Gale said she wasn’t feeling well—something about her liver. Beth came back to Omaha again in April when her mother was going to the hospital. She went in and checked herself out after a day, but was readmitted the following day. 

Then the doctors ran tests. The diagnosis: terminal colon cancer. It had spread to her liver, too. 

“My mother was extremely optimistic in her outlook in life, even when undergoing tests at Methodist Hospital,” Bill says. “There was a day in the hospital when a look crossed her face—a realization that she wasn’t going to beat this. It took about 30 seconds for her to process this, and then she started with, ‘OK, I’ve got this, this, and this I need to accomplish.’ She didn’t wallow in any pity for herself. She didn’t bemoan her situation.”

The doctors gave her two weeks. “The doctor said it was past the point of treatment,” Beth recalls.

Over the phone, she broke the news of her illness to friends and associates while still at Methodist Hospital. Her calls went something like: “I’m dying…I’m in the hospital…many things to do… important business to take
care of.”

She went into hospice after about four weeks. “At hospice, every day she was losing a little bit more of herself,” Bill says. “She requested, ‘Set me in the chair and give me my computer’ to write the final portion of her book. She had very little strength left. It was sheer will. She typed every period, she crossed every ‘t,’ she dotted every ‘i.’ I had never seen anything like that in my life. When she got done with it, she said, ‘Do not change a word of this, do not change the margins, this is the way it goes out.’ She basically gave it everything she had. It was absolutely incredible the concentration she put together to achieve it.”

In hospice, visitors were limited not for medical reasons, but because her workdays were limited. And she had a book to finish. Although diminished by the late stages of cancer, Henry saw his wife’s determination in classic form: “She had a goal in mind—she wanted to finish the book and she did, which was just like her.”

After a week in hospice, she closed her eyes for the last time.

One Last Book

Before dying, Gale requested her friend Paul Ehrenberger—who she had mentored over five decades as he experimented with rock music and filmmaking before finding his calling as a social justice minister—to organize and preside over a June 10 memorial service at River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs.

Along the Missouri River was a fitting location for the celebration of her life. After all, it was the route for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition, and the explorers had met with local tribes in the bluffs nearby.

She specified two songs be played at the service: the gospel hymn “It’s a Highway to Heaven” and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’” At the service, the music played; family and friends shared their fond memories. 

Beth says the family hopes to publish Gale’s final book (completed in hospice), Fifty Documents Related to the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis. 

“I think she’s up in heaven wanting the truth to be known about Lewis’ assassination, and she would like some closure on that,” Beth says. “Her mission was bigger than her book and herself. It’s not just about her. Whoever brings the truth to light, she would be happy that it is known.” 


Visit lewisassassination.com for more information. 

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Devil is in the Detail

August 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Jenny Gradowski drives up to her home each evening, she says the scene still gives her pause. “This is my home,” she says with awe. 

Gradowski and Joe Pittack live in a spacious white home at 3402 Lincoln Blvd., a grand place steeped in history. Their story here started last year, as they added their own touches to their new home. 

The couple shared what they know of its narrative one warm summer night on the house’s porch—a key selling point for Gradowski, who works at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. While the home lacks central air, and summer heat can be a challenge, the porch (luckily) remains a cool place to chat.

“It’s not really a wraparound, but it’s curved enough to feel that way,” she says. “The views, though—the views were enough for both of us.”

Designed to make a statement, Pittack and Gradowski’s home reigns over the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District from its hill on a large corner lot, much like it did when it was built in 1902. The neighborhood was one of the first in the city to be designed with the contour of the land in mind. The view today consists of towering trees, a playground in the distance, and further afield, Cuming Street. 

The 14-room home was one of several homes that prominent architect Frederick Henninger designed in Bemis Park. The neighborhood was a prestigious one when the home’s original owners resided there. It boasted the city’s finest Victorian-era homes and proximity to the Cuming Street streetcar line. Bemis Park remains quietly impressive, with a location that allows Pittack and Gradowski to walk to dinner and Pittack to bike to work. He co-owns Ted and Wally’s, with locations in the Old Market and Benson. 

The home has more than a century’s worth of stories. Pittack says they started looking into them only after they moved in. There are funny ones, tragic ones, and even the odd tale about a religious sect.

The 6,000-square-foot home was built for a well-loved restaurateur named Tolf Hanson and his wife, Jennie. 

Tolf was a Swedish immigrant who got his start selling sandwiches on the streets of New York before moving to Omaha and opening a popular restaurant, Calumet Café, in 1893. He went on to open Hanson’s Café Beautiful on 16th Street in 1906. It was supposed to be the “finest restaurant west of Chicago,” but failed in its first year and sent the Hansons deep into debt. Tolf Hanson went to New York to regain financial footing, but he ultimately committed suicide there.

Pittack says he knows that, tragically, another of the home’s former occupants also committed suicide. John Bryant was the new president of a farm implements and machinery business when he bought the home in 1912 from Louis Nash, an officer of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Co. Bryant had some trouble at work and, following disagreements with the company’s board of directors, drowned himself in a cistern in the backyard in 1913. That same year, the Easter Sunday tornado severely damaged the home, ripping the roof from the house.

It’s the home’s lighter stories, though, that Pittack shares more animatedly when he gives people tours. He shares one from the Gerken family, who moved in in 1954. The story involves one mischievous Gerken boy convincing his siblings to send him down the laundry chute. He got stuck midway and had to be rescued. 

Other owners came and went through the decades. There was the saloon owner Henry Keating and his socialite wife, Helen; the attorney Lysle Abbott and his wife, Mary; and the real estate developer George H. Payne. But not many homes have had a New Age religious monastic order as one-time occupants. The Holy Order of MANS moved into the home in 1975, converting it into their new “brother house.” Pittack believes religious services were held in one of the basement rooms. When the national monastic order dissolved in 1984, the Holy Order of MANS moved out.

In 2017, Pittack and Gradowski moved in and began a yearlong renovation. They installed a new boiler and water system and painted some interior rooms. When a hailstorm struck, the roof needed to be replaced and the exterior repainted. They’ve repurposed areas of the home while leaving the structure untouched. An old indoor phone booth is now a coat closet, the butler’s area is a food pantry, and one bedroom with an original coal fireplace is now a yoga studio. Furniture from Pittack’s grandmother’s home, which was nearby, is part of the décor now. 

By making this home their own, the couple adds their personal story while keeping hints of past inhabitants intact. 


This home is one of 10 Bemis Park residences included in Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 13th annual neighborhood tour on Oct. 13-14. Visit restorationexchange.org for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Curly Martin

July 29, 2018 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

If Curly Martin has something to say, you can best believe you will hear it if you’re within earshot. 

“Man, tell me who came up with this idea for a story about the Chitlin’ Circuit, I know it had to be a white boy,” Martin says during a boisterous conversation. “First, make sure he gets it straight; it’s not chitterlings. It was called the Chitlin’ Circuit!”

While chitterlings—chitlins for short—are a soul-food staple made from the small intestines of pigs, the Chitlin’ Circuit refers to venues in the South (and into the Upper Midwest) that supported traditional rhythm and blues acts. Martin finds the term as repulsive as its namesake.

“I know they think the Chitlin’ Circuit was for the mediocre musicians, but let me tell you, the Blues and R&B Chitlin’ Circuit was different from the Jazz Chitlin’ Circuit. Jazz players ruled Omaha and always stayed sharp. We dressed like pimps and players because that was our clientele.”

There are still jazz heavyweights living on Omaha’s northside, and Martin is testament to the fact. In the music room of his modest home, nestled near Belvedere Point, he collects an assortment of recording equipment and memorabilia: a 1972 Fender Rhodes keyboard, albums worked on with smooth-jazz innovator Grover Washington, and an award for the 2017 Best Jazz Musician in Omaha from the Omaha Entertainment and Art Awards.

“They told me I would have to pay to pick it up, but somehow it wound up here,” he says of the OEAA award. 2017 was an eventful year for Martin. In addition to the local award, he was also nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Album alongside his world-renown, West Coast producer/songwriter son, Terrace Martin.

“Grammy-nominated for Velvet Portraits and Homer’s didn’t even have the album,” Martin recalls. “I brought Terrace to Make Believe Recording Studios to record that album, but these fools in Omaha won’t acknowledge it! There’s even a song named ‘Curly Martin’ my son did with Robert Glasper. Now that’s a tough tune.”

When asked if there are remnants of the jazz scene he once knew in Omaha, Martin scoffs.

“The ‘decision-makers’ on the music scene don’t like me because I’ll tell them to their faces they can’t play,” Martin states unapologetically. “I don’t think Omaha artists have enough range, and they’ll get mad at me for telling them the truth!”

One of the few people Martin considers an ally is Kate Dussault, founder of the Hi-Fi House. After hosting a series of successful Jazz Labs with Martin, she acknowledges him as an unappreciated artist in the local music scene.

“Curly is a hoot, but he is passionate about passing his knowledge on to the younger generation,” Dussault says. “He is more akin to a mentor than an academic teacher. I can recall him saying that you can go to class all day and do your homework, but where is the inspiration?”

“They don’t even know that I sold out the Holland Center back in February, man,” Martin asserts. “I brought out some of the best guitarists in the world that still reside in North Omaha like Wali Ali and Calvin Keys or saxophonist Hank Redd. These guys have worked with The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Tony Bennett. Musicians around here aren’t as diverse as we were, so they can’t compare to back in the day.” 

Martin goes on to describe the Jazz Circuit lifestyle: thousand-dollar diamond rings, mohair suits, and alligator shoes that had to match the belt. They would play seven days a week traveling between the Blue Note in Minneapolis, Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha, O.G.s in Kansas City, KC Lounge in Denver, and the BTW Hotel and Lounge in San Francisco.

“Man, we rotated through those clubs throughout the ’60s,” Martin reminisces. “Mr. Allen at the Showcase let a lot of us jazz players get our feet wet, but there was also Alice’s Lounge, Shirley’s, and the Black Orchid in North Omaha. Even for the white folks, if they wanted to hear the baddest of the bad they had to come to the northside and downtown!”

Morning breakfast dances from 6-10 a.m. on holidays, Sunday jam sessions, and good music playing on every corner is the North Omaha jazz mecca that Martin remembers.

“I was probably 14 when I started drumming for my first band, Daddy Long Legs and the Rocking Nighthawks. I even had a gig downtown at Mickey’s with a checkerboard band called Danny and the Roulettes because mixed-race bands were popular. We were jamming downtown when the so-called riots of ’69 went down. After that uprising, our era started to wind down.”

These days, Martin focuses on the future. With a new album in the works and another project with Dussault upcoming, he is eager to give back to his community. 

“They tried to get me involved with WeBop, but I’m not trying to be a babysitter,” Martin says, referring to the early childhood education program. “I want to get kids when they’re serious about their craft, and show them that North Omaha has a rich background. I can’t let them bury our history; this generation can see me and say, ‘If Curly lived this wonderful life then I can do it, too.’”


Terrace Martin produced Velvet Portraits and is producing his father’s upcoming album. Follow @terracemartinmusic on Facebook for updates. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Daylight Factory

July 16, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

Daylight may be the most prominent feature of the Rail and Commerce Building at 10th and Mason streets. The banks of windows on every floor—including the lower level—were designed in the style of a “daylight factory,” a multi-story concrete frame industrial building that proliferated in the early 20th century, and that’s how they were restored. 

The multitude of windows was not happenstance. “We recognized the daylight as a resource worth harvesting,” says Jon Crane, president of Boyd Jones, the company responsible for renovating the building. “You need an environment conducive to attracting, retaining, and hiring quality people. Environment matters.” 

Crane motions through the conference room window to the Boyd Jones’ open-space office area. “This is a very collaborative space, which is an important value of our company. This space is very open, yet not disruptive.”

The open floor plan was a feature of the original building. The first floor Boyd Jones office was once meant for mail trucks—they drove right through the center of the building, from the 10th Street bridge to what was then the 11th Street bridge. Downstairs, in what is now the Commerce Village, there was a track so railcars could go through. When the building opened in 1926, it received nearly all the mail for western Iowa and Nebraska. It served in that capacity until the 1970s, when the existing post office next door replaced it.

Vacant for most of the years since then, the Rail and Commerce Building was condemned to be torn down when Crane and his team found it. “It was a cold, dilapidated shell on the inside. But the building itself, the structure was very sound,” Crane says. “We restored the façade and we completely cleaned out the inside and made it new. It was a historical preservation project, so we worked with the Nebraska Historical Society and also the National Park Service. We were able to preserve a lot of the neat historical aspects of the building.”

Building a new edifice for Boyd Jones’ headquarters was only a fleeting thought for Crane.

“It’s very important to remember where you come from—to embrace the past, but adapt it to the future,” Crane says. “Change doesn’t have to mean destruction. It can mean evolution.”

The location in Little Italy attracted Crane. He guessed it would attract others as well. The lower level of the Rail and Commerce Building houses the roughly 20,000-square-foot Commerce Village coworking space. With 16 private suites and 50 desks, it offers a variety of systems for renters: closed-door offices, set desks, floater desks, or one-day drop-ins. 

For the planning of Commerce Village, Crane brought in Matt Dougherty, who had prior experience with collaborative workspaces. His eight spaces at the Ford Building at 10th and Dodge streets “went so fast it became clear there is a real need for this type of incubator space,” says Dougherty. In his insurance business, he’s seeing a sort of “small business renaissance”—a trend of wanting to work for yourself rather than someone else.

That fit just right with Boyd Jones. “One of the values of our company is entrepreneurship,” Crane says. “We wanted an office space that would attract entrepreneurs and start-up companies—a collaborative atmosphere for collaborative people.”  

That energy drew Verdis Group, according to managing partner Craig Moody. “We’re excited for the opportunity for partnering with other organizations here,” he says.  

The daylight was another huge draw. An unexpected benefit? “The trains going by,” Moody says, grinning. “Sometimes I feel like an 11-year-old boy.” 

Verdis Group promotes sustainability, so they were pleased to find the building was equipped with solar panels. There’s also ample bike parking, as well as private showers and changing rooms so employees can freshen up after pedaling to work—or using the Rail and Commerce Building’s own fitness center. 

Conference rooms; access to a printer, mail, and package services; and a stocked kitchenette round out the amenities. Crane explains, “We really want people to be comfortable, like you’re in your [home] office.”


Visit boydjones.biz or commercevillageomaha.com for more information. 

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Going to the Fair for 140+ Years

July 8, 2018 by
Photography by Douglas County Historical Society
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

4-H played a big part in Tracy Behnken’s youth. The Nebraska Extension educator, who grew up on a dairy farm near Bennington, showed dairy cattle and participated in horticulture and entomology competitions from the age of 8 to 18.

So when the Douglas County Fair rolled around each year, Behnken and her siblings filled with excitement. “I’m the youngest of four, and we all showed [livestock] and looked forward to fair time. We’d spend morning ‘til night there, caring for our animals. My cousins were there, and I got to see many of my classmates. And we’d get to see kids from across the county…reconnect with friends we’d made.” 

Behnken, 54, says a highlight was riding the Zipper carnival ride with friends, over and over again. She’d also go to the open-air auditorium and watch the song competition and fashion review show. “And I remember us girls trying to keep away from the 4-H boys who’d try to throw you in the stock tank,” she says, laughing. “They were an ornery bunch.”

The Douglas County Fair has created great memories like Behnken’s for countless Nebraskans for more than 140 years. And that longevity is no small feat, considering the changing landscape of the county, both geographically and culturally.

Just a couple of years ago, the fair appeared to be near an end. Its events and entertainment had been cut to the bone, attendance was dismal, and fair planners wondered if it could survive. 

1906 Douglas County Fair Ribbons

But today, with a new home and management, the fair is poised to make a comeback. So believes Matt Gunderson, chair of the Douglas County Fair Advisory Committee and president of Friends of Extension Foundation, which took over management this year. The 2018 fair will be held July 10 to 15 at Village Pointe in West Omaha and Chance Ridge Event Center in Elkhorn. Chance Ridge won’t have parking, so visitors will need to take weekend shuttles from lots at Village Pointe or Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus. 

To say that the fair has weathered many changes is an understatement. The first fair (in the area now known as Douglas County) was during 1858 in Saratoga prior to Nebraska statehood, according to the Douglas County Historical Society. But the official Douglas County Fair got its start on a parcel of land in Waterloo in the mid-1800s. A portion of property taxes paid by Nebraska landowners went to the Douglas County Agricultural Society, which initially funded the fair. 

“County fairs started as a means for the rural population to showcase what they’d done all year,” says Vernon Waldren, executive director of the Friends of Extension Foundation. “The farmers came out to show the quality crops they’d grown, compare the size of their melons, and show off their best livestock.”

“Eventually they added home economics—baking, sewing, and other domestics. Then 4-H started in 1902 and became part of Extension, and joined the fair with the goal of educating people about these things.” 

The fair steadily grew, adding musical acts, carnival games and rides, and other family fun. Held in late summer, the event lasted from five to 10 days. The fair stayed in Waterloo for over a century, until the fairgrounds were sold.

In 1988, the Douglas County Fair relocated to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, with the Knights of Aksarben taking over management. The tract of land—bounded by 50th to 72nd and Leavenworth to Center streets—seemed a good fit, offering an indoor arena, a racetrack, and stables with plenty of room for exhibits, livestock, rides, and a midway. The location also brought the action closer to the population center, though not all were happy about the fair leaving a small-town setting. Participation by both 4-H and open-class competitors grew, as events were opened to kids from outside counties. The late-July fair was a boon to the city. 

In 2003, following the sale of Ak-Sar-Ben for development, the fair was forced to move again, this time settling at the Qwest Center Omaha in downtown. The fair combined with the River City Rodeo & Stock Show to become a four-day event in late September. The urban venue did not appeal to many traditional fair-goers, as events were moved indoors, and many complained the fair had lost its identity. But there was no denying the high turnout. “There were as many as 100,000 people in attendance during those four days,” Gunderson says.

The first few years at the Qwest Center (eventually renamed the CenturyLink Center), the fair offered carnival rides in the parking lot. “But economics dictated that that end pretty quick,” says Eddie Biwer, another Friends of Extension Foundation board member. “Too expensive.” 

“Also, the 4-H presence at the [Douglas County] fair was dropped,” Waldren says. “[The kids] went to the Sarpy County Fair. There were still open-class persons exhibiting, but not in those numbers.”

To keep the fair relevant in its new city setting, organizers recognized it had to become more diverse, Gunderson says. “We began hosting chess tournaments and robotics competitions. We worked to become more inclusive.” 

Douglas County Fair McArdle exhibit, 1910

In 2016, the Knights of Aksarben ended its oversight, and the rodeo/stock show parted ways with the fair. Management was turned over to the Douglas County Fair Foundation. During this uncertain time, the group chose to scale the fair back to three days in late July and sought out an inexpensive venue, choosing Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge streets. Mostly vacant, the mall housed most of the fair events indoors, with a few bounce houses and a small petting zoo in an outside lot. 

The bare-bones fair offered some live music, a magic show, a Disney film screening, and the traditional cake and quilt shows. But without carnival rides and livestock events (rabbits and chickens were showcased indoors), the fair proved lackluster and had disappointing attendance. Fair organizers knew big changes had to come for it to survive.

Last year, the Douglas County Fair Board moved the event to Chance Ridge Event Center in rural Elkhorn. The one-day July event was a trial run to see if the venue would suit the needs of the fair going forward. Its tagline was “Back to the Dirt,” referencing the fair’s return to the country and the basics of a county fair (minus the carnival rides). It had the regulars—quilts, bunnies, a “sugar arts” baking competition, as well as a progress show (a livestock event for youth to practice their showcasing skills for the state fair). Like in past years, all events were open class, meaning anyone could compete. A beer garden and music concert closed the event. Though the fair did not boast big numbers, competition entries were up and it was received well by attendees. 

The Friends of Extension Foundation is hoping to sign a multi-year contract with Chance Ridge to continue hosting the Douglas County Fair, Gunderson says. With the help of new sponsors and additional marketing this year, organizers hope to build on this momentum. 

This year’s event tagline is “Where Urban and Rural Meet,” as the fair focuses on educating fairgoers on how agriculture relates to all of us, as well as pathways to careers in agriculture.

“One-third of all industries in Omaha are tied to agriculture in some way,” Gunderson says. “You can work in IT, as an accountant, a welder, or in transportation, and still play a part in agriculture and food production.”

Adds Waldren: “Even if you don’t want to work in agriculture, there are skills we teach to help in everyday life, like how to pick fresh produce or selection of meat…[teaching] people how to be better consumers.”

Gunderson realizes that building the fair back to the size it once was is unlikely given the more urban nature of Douglas County, not to mention club sports, technology, and summer camps competing for kids’ attention. But he hopes parents will take the time out for the fair to “create those special memories with their kids and grandkids, and spur that fire and interest in agriculture. It’s great family time.” 


For more information, visit douglascountyfair.org and douglascohistory.org.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Larry Lundquist

May 15, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

Larry Lundquist’s success in Omaha construction is tied to the rise and rebirth of many local buildings.

The 69-year-old CEO of Lund-Ross Constructors says the company relies on roughly 50 employees who share his belief that preserving existing community structures matters. 

Rob Stargel, vice president of business development at Lund-Ross Constructors, says Lundquist loves the city of Omaha and is vocal about his enthusiasm for working on its historic and new buildings.

“You understand that when you’re riding with him to lunch or meetings,” Stargel says. “He always takes a new route to show you a building or view of Omaha you may have never seen.”

He adds it’s not surprising that ideology is embodied in the work accomplished by the company.

Enthusiasm applies to many parts of his life. In addition to his work, Lundquist served two consecutive three-year terms (from January 2009 to December 2014) as a board member for Girls Inc., and has been involved in professional organizations.

“Larry Lundquist was everything you would want in a board member—engaged, generous with his time, treasure, and talents, and 100 percent supportive of our mission,” says Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of Girls Inc. “Larry has a large professional footprint in this community and he has an even larger heart to go along with it. He really did care about the girls and would do anything to help them grow up strong, smart, and bold.”

But it’s that belief in preserving community structures that has prevailed. When M’s Pub was destroyed by a fire in January 2016, Lundquist and his team took the loss to heart. Lund-Ross employees frequented the popular restaurant, which reopened in late 2017. Lundquist himself met with a group of developers, lawyers, and friends, sitting at the same table every Friday night for more than 20 years to have drinks and chat about the week.

The initial assessment of the post-fire Mercer Building was that it was in danger of collapse. The liquid used to put out the fire on that frigid day turned to ice, and this danger would increase as the ice returned to a liquid form. Lundquist has experience with renovating many historic structures—one of the pluses in this story—and he wasn’t about to let this beloved structure fall.

“His passion for preserving our architectural heritage and progressive new development are at the core of everything we do at Lund-Ross,” Stargel says.

Lundquist describes repairs to the Mercer Building, which housed M’s Pub, as emotional and challenging. He adds, “It was an honor to be involved in rebuilding it.”

“I just like the atmosphere of it,” Lundquist says of M’s Pub. “It’s like a pair of old Levi’s. You get a hole on the knee, and you keep wearing them because they still fit. M’s is the same way.”

The Mercer Building project was given the Excellence in Construction award by the Associated Builders and Contractors. At presstime, they were in the running for other industry awards.

These days, you can see Lundquist and his colleagues at the storied bistro, thanks to his team, who put his exact table back in place, allowing his Friday night happy hours to commence again.


Visit lundross.com for more information.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Larry Lundquist

Omaha is 120 Years Old (In Tourism Years)

The year of 1898 was a huge tourism year for Omaha. It was the year that an event lasted five months and attracted 2.6 million people from around the world—the Trans-Mississippi and International Expo, also known as the Omaha World’s Fair.         

It was no accident that Omaha played host to this event; it was all by design. The tourist attraction was the innovative vision of a small committee of local businessmen who understood that tourism meant big business and could provide a boost to the local economy. The fair had an economic impact of almost $2 million dollars, an equivalent of more than $54 million by today’s standards.  And it all started with a small group of business leaders with an idea.

Omaha has a long history of small committees doing big things. In 1950, four men who loved baseball had the vision to bring the NCAA Men’s College World Series to Omaha—Ed Pettis of Brandeis Department Stores, Morris Jacobs and Byron W. Reed of Bozell & Jacobs, and then-Mayor of Omaha Johnny Rosenblatt. The first games played in Omaha had a total attendance of 17,805. Over the years, College World Series of Omaha Inc., a local nonprofit organizing committee, was formed to sell tickets, plan special events, and rally community support for the series. Today the average attendance is more than 20,000 people per game.

It was the belief of a local woman, Lisa Yanney Roskens, and her love of horses that played a big part in Omaha hosting the 2017 FEI World Cup Horse Jumping and Dressage Finals. While there were many people involved, she played a key role in presenting the proposal to the international committee members in Lausanne, Switzerland, and convincing them that Omaha was the right place to host the event. More than 50,000 people from around the world attended the competition, putting the city on an international stage. 

Junkstock is another Omaha event that started with an idea from Sarah Alexander, a stay-at-home mom with a passion for vintage pieces. She envisioned a place where junk enthusiasts could find some of the best antiques and repurposed art in the region. Junkstock started in 2012 with 29 vendors. This fall more than 200 vendors and 23 food trucks will be on site to welcome more than 10,000 guests through the gates. To accommodate the demand, Alexander purchased Sycamore Farms, a 135-acre century-old horse farm which now hosts three premier junk festivals every year. 

Some of the names you may recognize, while others may not be as well-known. Each person named helped with events that brought thousands of out-of-town visitors to our city and millions of dollars to our local economy. And they all started with an idea, a few creative minds, and faith in Omaha as a destination.


This column was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Wanderings Of A Wordsmith

May 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Frank S. O’Neal published his first book of poetry in 2010 at age 62. In 2017, the Nebraska Arts Council exhibited his surrealist poetry video (a collaboration between the scribe and cinematographer Jason Fischer) for O’Neal’s poem “I Do Not Use The N-Word.”

The African-American wordsmith uses his craft to actualize activism as a historian and North Omaha resident.

The versifier is also a voyager: “Had I not traveled, I would not be able to write,” O’Neal says.

He started globetrotting in 1968 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. He trained in the medical field and traveled with the Icebreaker Support Section. The seafarer sailed across the North Pole and the South Pole. During the return journey from his cruise to the Antarctic, he and his fellow Coast Guard members were pleased to learn that they would be coming through Rio de Janeiro during the famed Carnival—but Lady Luck was not on their side that night.

“We had to wait,” O’Neal says. “The last night of Carnival, we were sitting there, in Rio, waiting on a ship. By the time we got ashore—it was over. We got them back, though. My commander had us stay there three extra days.”

After his discharge from the Coast Guard in 1974, he worked for Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as an industrial paramedic driving an ambulance from the work sites when an injury or accident was reported.

O’Neal relocated to Omaha in 1978, but not for long. In 1980, he traveled with his then-girlfriend to Dallas, Texas.

“I figured it was a good opportunity,” the lighthearted lyricist says. He found a job with a hospital, and in 1983, he switched careers and began to work in communications installation for Motorola.

He also began to rework himself into a rhapsodist. At age 35, O’Neal began to write as a way to reflect on his experiences. He’d been in and out of relationships, of homes, of cities, and he saw a world that engaged and perplexed him.

“I think he’s a talented writer. He writes with honesty, authenticity, and courage,” says Lisa Pelto, president of Concierge Marketing Inc., the company that has published his books.

In 1990 O’Neal switched from a salaried employee to a contract position at Motorola. After the corporation secured a contract to provide a mobile-communications network in Kuwait, O’Neal joined the team arriving in Kuwait City one week after the U.S.-led military liberation of the Persian Gulf state in early 1991.

“We went through Kuwait…seeing all the broke-down cars, all the tanks, fires,” O’Neal says with a shake of his head. “I thought I was in hell.”

In a scrapbook filled with mementos, a fiery mushroom cloud rises over an oil field on the first page. Other photos in the book show the newly liberated city at its worst…and best.

“That was an experience I needed to have as far as the circle of life,” O’Neal says. “The beauty of working overseas was being able to hear stories from people in other countries.” 

During his time in Kuwait, he toiled 12-hour days, setting up the infrastructure to put in a computerized communications system for oil wells. It was a grueling job, but one O’Neal worked with his signature confidence, and not much sleep.

O’Neal’s time in Kuwait enabled him to float further. In 1993, he traveled to Jamaica to be part of the crew creating the infrastructure for a new communications system.

He waxes poetic about embracing the culture, and he picked up the Jamaican patois language within a couple of months.

“It was beautiful being on the island for that long,” O’Neal says. “You can take seeds of any kind, and within the germination period the plant will grow. I’ve never seen soil so fertile.”

He now considers Jamaica his second home. He contentedly adventured through the U.S. on communications assignments until 2006, when he returned to Omaha to help his ailing parents. He spent time with his father, Frank Seavron O’Neal, in the last three weeks of his father’s life gathering family history, listening to stories he never heard before…and garnering advice that would impact his life.

“Frank Sandy, finish it,” he says, recalling his father’s advice (both men had the middle initial “S.”). O’Neal had shown his father a collection of poems that would eventually appear in his first book of poetry.

He took his father’s advice. Three years later, O’Neal’s first book came out in print, and he began reading at poetry engagements, meandering the Omaha metro. He has assembled four anthologies, is regularly petitioned to perform, and he could not be happier.

“He has a voice that is worth listening to,” says Pelto, his publisher who is white. “Initially, when I read the poems, I thought it was a good peek into the life of a black man.”

Each step of O’Neal’s story reads like a chapter in a book.

“This has been a beautiful journey,” he says. “I enjoy my life to the fullest, because every bit of my life has had a purpose and a meaning to it.” 


Visit Frank O’Neal’s Facebook page, @franksoneal, for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Remember The Maine!

April 7, 2018 by
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.

A Revolutionary Meeting

April 3, 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.