Tag Archives: legacy

House of Trains

December 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

David Mrsny can show customers how model trains have changed since his grandfather opened the family’s sales and service shop 81 years ago with a three-part answer pulled from storage: First, there is a clunky metal 1930s-era model train caboose, with rudimentary windows and few other details. Second comes a train car kit from 1940 (in the original box), comprised of wood and metal bits that require complete assembly.

He contrasted these ancient pieces with a modern-day N-scale engine car—a three-inch long piece of mechanical wizardry complete with sounds and tiny details, including impossibly small blades in the roof’s air vents. No assembly required.

Like the trains themselves, the model train business and its technology has changed dramatically throughout the decades at the House of Trains, a Benson neighborhood fixture since Leonard and Verna Mrsny moved their shop from east Omaha to 81st and Maple streets in 1952.

David and his father, Dick Mrsny, bought the shop from grandpa Leonard in 1989. Today, David and his wife, Marci, keep the trains running for hundreds of model train hobbyists. Dick also runs Omaha Stamp Co. next door, another long-running family enterprise.

Operating a hobby store, David says, has been transformed by technology where parts and advice can be sought online, and in a culture where iPads and other electronic toys have replaced traditional hobby pursuits.

“Being able to help people has helped keep it going, especially in the last five years,“ says David, who also repairs unique items such as music boxes and electronic Christmas ornaments to boost his revenue. “I like being able to help people enjoy the hobby. [Because it is] altruistic…you can make a living doing that,“ David explains with a laugh.

The clientele is diverse, but a common thread is older men with extra time and disposable income who remember when model train sets were the hobby of their youth.

House of Trains customer George Sinos remembers those days well.

“I’m in my 60s, and growing up in the ’50 and ’60s, a model train was like the Xbox of today,“ says Sinos, who retired after a long career at OPPD. “Model railroads were something you did as a kid, and then you get away from it. Then with more time and money, you drift back in.“

When Sinos re-caught the model train bug in 2013, he turned to David, who gave him pointers about the hobby and helped him build his setup.

Sinos finds pleasure in newfangled digital control systems and the electronics behind how the trains work. Others, David says, like the pre-made setups that came on the scene more than a decade ago. Some like the assembly, which today is less about constructing trains and more about putting together the parts to create a train environment, including buildings and even whole cities.

Marci sums up the appeal of modern-day model railroading by stating, “We’ve had a lot of people tell us that they can shut themselves off from work and it’s like their own little world. They can do what they want and can make the hobby as hectic or as relaxing as they want it to be.“

Visit houseoftrains.net for more information.

This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.

David Mrsny

Mayhew Cabin

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To speak in archetypal clichés—without knowing where you came from, it can be difficult to understand where you are going. Nestled just south of Omaha in Nebraska City lies a piece of history that offers a window into the American love affair with slavery, and the fight for its abolition.

Built in 1855, Mayhew Cabin was once a stop on the famous Underground Railroad. Back then the cabin may have been inconspicuous, but as you drive through what is now Nebraska City, the small cottage sticks out like a sore thumb.

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Cathy Briley is the vice president of the board of directors for Mayhew Cabin. She says the relationship between slavery, racism, and present day prejudice makes Mayhew Cabin a valuable teaching tool in educating children about this segment of American history.

“Racism in all forms is wrong,” Briley says. “Slavery was abolished, so why does our museum matter? It matters because unfortunately, people of several colors still face racism today.”

MayhewCabin2Walking around the different displays and artifacts in the Mayhew welcome center, Bill Hayes could go on for hours explaining every detail regarding the rich history of the abolitionist movement. He has a master’s degree in history, and volunteering at the museum is a hobby. 

“The site (Mayhew Cabin) was privately owned from the late 1930s until 2002,” Hayes says. “What we want to do is try to focus on the history of slavery, and how you have the movement of people being opposed to it.”

Hayes says the geographical placement of Mayhew Cabin makes it a critical stop on the
Underground Railroad.

“Nebraska City was an important stopping point because across the river is Iowa, and any more south you would cross back into Missouri (a pro-slavery state).”

Walking into the cabin, the air seems inundated with mixed feelings of hope, fear, and freedom—emitted by those who sought safe harbor there. The furnishings are basic: two rocking chairs, a trunk, and a small bed in the loft upstairs. In the cellar below there is a shocking surprise. A tunnel, now accessible to the public, once led escaped slaves from the ravine 40 yards away right into the cellar itself.

Briley says the museum focuses less on the horrors of slavery, and more on the stories of those who risked their lives to aid in the freedom of slaves.

MayhewCabin4“John Kagi, our hero at the museum, sacrificed his life fighting for the freedom of others,” Briley says. “He gave so much. He was jailed, beaten, shot, hunted, and eventually killed for his involvement in the abolitionist cause.”

According to Hayes, Mayhew Cabin represents an ongoing legacy that needs to be part of American culture.

“We talk about equality, freedom, and justice,” Hayes says. “Those may not be very many letters, but those are big words. They’re big ideas, and that’s what this country has always thought of itself representing.”

Visit mayhewcabin.org for more information. Omaha Magazine

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Our Livestock Legacy

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A: Ted and Jerry Ramm

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Builders Ted and Jerry Ramm have a long family legacy in residential construction. Several generations of Ramms have built homes in the Omaha metro, dating back over a century. Today, the brothers head up Ramm Construction, Inc. We asked Ted Ramm to share with us a bit about their business, their family history in the trade, and just what’s in store for home construction in the months to come.

Q: When did you and Jerry start Ramm Construction, Inc.? What kinds of homes do you build?

A: We established Ramm Construction in 1999. Both Jerry and I are owners. We build 20 or so homes per year in the Omaha area, specializing in ranch and two-story homes in the $250,000-$600,000 range. Our “Normandy” model home is at 3116 N. 192nd Ave. in the Elkhorn View Estates subdivision in Elkhorn.

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Q: Tell us a bit about your family history in the trade. How did you get your start?

A: Jerry and I were born into this business. We are actually four generations deep in homebuilding going back to the 1800s. Joseph Ramm, our great grandfather, moved to Omaha from Germany in 1905 and began a homebuilding business. His son, Al, continued the tradition, as did his son, Thomas Ramm, our dad. Dad built about 10 or so homes per year his entire career, right here in Omaha. In Dad’s business, we performed a big percentage of the work ourselves, including framing and finish carpentry, cabinets, roofing, exterior decks, siding, and hardware installation. We literally grew up on and around the jobsite. We were trained as carpenters in the business we love. Dad is an incredible role model.

Q: How do the two of you share the responsibilities of managing the family business?

A: I act as project manager on our homes. I oversee the sales, and I’m the customer’s start-to-finish contact, helping with design, pricing, design and finish selections, contract modification, customer support, etc. I have a Construction Management degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jerry has 15 years’ experience running a framing crew and is an accomplished trim and framing carpenter. He performs most of the trim carpentry on our homes. Jerry’s duties also include acting as job superintendent. We both offer day-to-day supervision [at the jobsite].IMG_7986 (2) copy 2

Q: Who make up the majority of your clients? Have you focused on that segment of the market?

A: Our niche seems to be with young families. Both Jerry and I are married with children, and I feel like I can relate very well with young, growing families. We feature great family plans and build in many subdivisions in the Elkhorn area and West Omaha popular with young families. My mother has told me that it is a privilege to build homes for people…You are fulfilling a basic need of shelter and that is very special. I enjoy getting to know our customers and becoming part of their lives.

Q: What is your forecast for the Omaha housing market in the next year or so?

A: We are very bullish about the housing environment. We have experienced strong sales over the last six months or so, especially in the Elkhorn area. We are fortunate to offer lots in most of the Elkhorn neighborhoods, including the recently developed Andersen Meadows on 178th and Blondo, and Windgate Ranch, which will have buildable lots later this year. The combination of the low interest rates, an elevated housing demand, and the strong economy in Omaha make it a great time to build.20090828_cc_3178 copy

Q: Tell us a bit about the two of you personally, and what you’re involved in locally.

A: I was the 2011 Metro Omaha Builders Association president and a longtime board member. I’ve performed as both an estimator and project manager on multi-million-dollar commercial construction projects as well. I’ve also been mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands for 15 years, and been head coach of multiple kids’ sports teams, including soccer, basketball, and baseball. I currently coach my son’s sixth grade baseball team. I can’t wait for it to warm up and hit the baseball diamond! Jerry is married with two children. He’s an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing and hunting, as well as attending sporting events. He also likes to build things even in his spare time. He volunteers with Habitat for Humanity.

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg

August 20, 2012 by
Photography by Nebraska Jewish Historical Society

The late George Eisenberg, 88, appreciated the historic Old Market the way few people do because of his many relationships to it. His experience encompassed the Market’s life as a wholesale produce center and eventual transformation into an arts-culture destination and trendy neighborhood.

He began working in the Old Market as a peddler’s son, manning a fruit stall alongside his father, Ben, and brother, Hymie, in what was then the Omaha City Market. Later, he founded and ran a successful niche business with Hymie supplying national food manufacturers’ thrown-away bits of onions and potatoes. The brothers, known as “the potato and onion kings of the U.S.,” officed in adjoining warehouses their father kept for storage and distribution. Eisenberg held onto the building even after the produce market disbanded and the area fell into decline. As the area transitioned and property rates skyrocketed, he became a well-positioned landlord and active Old Market Business Association and Omaha Downtown Improvement District member.

“He went to the meetings and spoke his mind,” son Steve Eisenberg says. More than speak his mind, Eisenberg oversaw the careful renovation of his building and secured many of the lamp posts that adorn the Old Market.

The Eisenberg property at 414-418 South 10th Street housed many tenants over the years, and today is home to J.D. Tucker’s and Stadium View sports bars.

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Eisenberg was half of the wholesaler Eisenberg and Rothstein Co.

As the Old Market grew, he became one of its biggest advocates and enjoyed playing the role of unofficial historian. He’s remembered as a gentle lion who proudly shared the district’s past with business owners, visitors, media, and anyone interested in its history. He loved telling stories of what used to be a teeming Old World marketplace where Jewish, Italian, and other ethnic merchants dickered with customers over the price of fruit and vegetables.

“Something he really enjoyed doing, especially in his retirement, was going down there and letting people know where the Old Market came from and where it’s going. Up till his last days, he saw such a bright future for the Old Market and was very proud of what all was going on down there,” says Steve.

“George was just terrific, a real gentleman, also a wonderful character with a great sense of humor and compassion. He was revered as an ‘elder statesman,’” says Old Market Business Association member Angela Barry. “He was very sharp and knowledgeable about the neighborhood’s history. Even in his later years, he lovingly and passionately cared about the business of the Old Market.

“He really was something special. When I heard of his passing, it was a sad day.”

Nouvelle Eve owner Kat Moser will remember Eisenberg for his wise and generous business counsel.

Steve Eisenberg will remember his father as “a very hard worker who, even in retirement, kept busy promoting other people’s businesses and the Old Market area itself.”

The Eisenberg presence will live on there. “My siblings and I promised him we’re never selling the building,” says Steve. “It’s staying in the family, and we’re going to run it like he did.”

With Eisenberg’s passing and his peddler pal, Joe Vitale, preceding him in death a year earlier, the last sources with first-hand knowledge of the Omaha City Market are gone. But they leave behind an Old Market legacy not soon forgotten.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.