Tag Archives: history

Going to the Fair for 140+ Years

June 20, 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. 

Curly Martin

June 14, 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

May 15, 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. 

Larry Lundquist

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. 

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: