Tag Archives: local

Her Fountain of Youth

July 11, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Few visitors who sneak a peak at Betty Davis’ treasure trove of soda fountain collectibles can appreciate their impact on generations of Americans who grew up before the 1950s.

The ice cream molds, dippers, five-headed malt mixers, banana bowls, trays, tall glasses, tin Coca-Cola signs, and a 12-foot-long counter with a gray marble top and marble frontage—stored in Davis’ spacious Council Bluffs home and garage—recall a more innocent age: a time when a boy and girl slipped two straws into one ice cream float and sipped as they leaned toward each other, and when soda jerks, in their white jackets and bow ties, had more swagger than Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Cocktail.

“The soda jerks were what bartenders are today,” says Davis, retired executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society in Omaha. “They knew everybody, they listened, they gave everyone personal service—mixing the concoction in front of you. They were the biggest big shots in town,” she says with a laugh.

From the early 1900s through the soda fountain’s heyday in the Depression-era 1930s, most jerks were men (no kidding!), until women filled in during World War II. “They got the name when they jerked the pull handles of the carbonated water in two different directions to regulate the flow into the flavored syrups,” she explains.

An unabashed romantic about the era, Davis grew up across the river listening to stories about how her parents “courted at the soda fountain” at Oard’s Drug Store, now Oard-Ross, on 16th Avenue in Council Bluffs.
And she vividly remembers holding the hand of her “tall, Danish” grandfather as they walked to the drug store to get ice cream.

Years later, in the late 1980s, while volunteering at the old Western Heritage Museum in what is now Omaha’s Durham Museum, those memories came flooding back when a group of former “fizzicians” from the region gathered for a reunion around the museum’s established soda fountain.

“Over 500 people showed,” she marvels. “I discovered that the soda fountain was implanted in people’s memories. The public came just to look at the soda jerks and talk to them. It was magic.”

The overwhelming success of that first reunion led Davis in 1990 to found the National Association of Soda Jerks. The association grew quickly, swelling to more than 1,000 members in less than two years. “I got a personal letter postmarked Washington, D.C., from a former soda jerk. It was from [former U.S. Senator from Kansas] Bob Dole. He’s a member.”

But age has caught up with the dwindling ranks of soda jerks, as it has with Betty Davis. Now 83 and experiencing mobility difficulties, she realizes the window of opportunity to open a soda fountain museum showcasing her happy hobby has closed. “This is of no value to me locked in a garage,” she reasons quietly.

After months of searching for a “worthy” home for her collection, Davis heard about a multi-pronged, ambitious nonprofit headquartered just a few blocks north of the Historical Society, where she worked for many years.

The mission of No More Empty Pots, located on North 30th Street in the historic Florence neighborhood of north Omaha, revolves around food. The organization not only provides access to locally grown, affordable, nutritious food, it offers culinary arts training in one of two commercial-grade kitchens, located in the labyrinthine basement of the renovated turn-of-the-20th-century row of buildings.

Another component of this food hub, the Community Café at 8503 N. 30th St., slated to open to the public in the fall, caught Davis’ attention on many levels because of its parallels to the soda fountains.

“Betty told us how drug stores started selling sodas and ice cream to draw people into the store to buy things, and the fountain was never meant to be a moneymaker,” says Nancy Williams, co-founder and executive director of No More Empty Pots. “This cafe will help our employees learn how to converse with people and really serve them, and not just with food. That will translate into many different career paths.”

Believing the cafe can become “a beacon…to unite all the ethnic differences we have,” Davis signed over her soda fountain collection and the trademarked National Association of Soda Jerks to Williams and No More Empty Pots. A display case in the middle of the cafe will house Davis’ relics of the soda fountain era, her contribution to the preservation of an American tradition.

The 12-foot-long World War I-era soda bar, which Davis picked up years ago in Soldier, Iowa, will stand behind the large windows of the storefront, beckoning people to come in, enjoy a freshly made soda, and socialize.

“We’re going to make our own soda syrups and extracts from seasonal fruits and herbs and then add the carbonated seltzer water,” Williams says. “And we’ll have local seasonal ice cream.”

Confident that her goals and the mission of No More Empty Pots align, Davis sees her soda fountain breaking barriers, inspiring conversation, and making people happy for many years to come.

Visit nmepomaha.org for more information about the nonprofit receiving the soda fountain and memorabilia.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

Vintage Charm Restored

July 10, 2017 by

As the saying goes, one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. Last year, I struck gold with two vintage chairs that I uncovered during a thrifting trip.

The find just goes to show how little things can bring the greatest joys in life. Looking at these chairs in the thrift shop, I could already see how to revive them with a little work and creative thinking.

Normally, I have a rule for thrifting: Always designate space for a piece of furniture before dragging it home. But these chairs were an exception. Home with me they came.

They sat in a spare bedroom until I decided how to incorporate them into my year-long Omaha Home room remodeling project.

With this particular installment of the project, I wanted to achieve a classic look (with a little glamour added, of course). That’s where the white and gold paint came into play for the color scheme.

Choosing the right fabric would either make or break the look I was trying to achieve. Just throwing any old material on them was not going to work. I wanted something timeless, classic, and durable enough to stand the test of time.

I have many different pieces I’m bringing together for this entire year-long project. Each component will bring something unique stylistically to the room. Don’t be afraid to mix and match different styles and textures; it adds more interest to the room.

DIRECTIONS:

There are several steps that you need to get right when staining or painting wooden furniture. These steps ensure that all of your hard work pays off, and you can then proudly display your piece. You cannot skip the important prepping steps.

Prepping

Step 1—If you have a seat cushion on your chair, remove that first. Save the old fabric and cushion for later.

Step 2—Sand the chair until you remove all the glossy finish. This will allow the paint to better adhere to the chair.

Step 3—Use a tack cloth to remove all the sanded paint/material from the surface.

Step 4—Prime. I used a spray primer, which was easier to get in all of the detailed parts of this chair. Make sure each coat of primer is a light layer, almost dusting it. This way, your chair won’t suffer from paint runs. You may want to sand between coats if you are seeking a super-smooth finish. Also, using the correct paint is very important. Latex paint worked best for me.

Step 5—Use your hand sponge applicator to get your paint in all the hard-to-access areas and detailed spots. Once you have done this, you can take your foam roller to cover the entire piece. Go over the chair several times (or until you feel there is good coverage).

Step 6—If you are doing a detailed accent color, first make sure all your paint is dry. Then tape off the selected area and use a small brush for all detail work. I used what I had on hand—gold spray paint—but I sprayed it into an old cup and dipped my brush into that. You can also buy a small bottle from a craft store if you require a smaller amount.

Step 7 (optional)—Apply a top coat to seal the paint on the chair. I skipped this step and used a semi-gloss finish instead.

Step 8—Now for your cushion. Remove all the old staples from your chair cushion. You can use a flathead screwdriver and then pull them out with needle-nose pliers. Once the old fabric is off, determine if you need to replace the batting material or foam cushion. Mine was still intact, so I went to the next step.

Step 8—Cut out a piece of new fabric large enough that will wrap around the seat of your chair; leave about three inches of material (you will trim it off later). Or you can use the old piece of material as a template, allowing a few inches all the way around. Lay the seat cushion facedown on your material. Starting on one side, grab the material in the middle and wrap it around the cushion, pulling tightly, and place a staple in the middle.

Then do the opposite side, pulling tightly to the middle and placing a staple. Work your way around each side until you just have the corners left.

Step 9—Grasp one corner of your cover and pull the point toward the center of the seat cushion, staple. Arrange the remaining unstapled corner fabric into small even pleats, pulling tightly, and staple. Repeat this until all corners are complete. Make sure you don’t staple over the screw holes. At this point, you could add a piece of liner or dust cover (a dust cover is a black fabric that is generally seen under “store bought” chairs, concealing springs, nails, staples, etc.). Adding the dust cover is optional.

Step 10—Attach the cushion back on the chair, and you are done.

Note: I watched several tutorials for “chair restoration” and “chair refurbishment” on YouTube before beginning this vintage chair project. I suggest doing the same video tutorial research before beginning your own project as this can be very helpful. Good luck!

ITEMS NEEDED:

Two vintage chairs (or upholstered seat dining chairs), 1/2 yard fabric per seat cushion, and 1/2 lining per seat cushion

Scissors, tape measure, staple gun, staples, screwdriver, safety glasses

Sandpaper (in medium and fine grit)

Four cans of primer (I used Rustoleum Painters Touch 2X paint and primer), two cans per chair

One quart of latex paint (I used White Dove paint from Benjamin Moore elsewhere in the room, and Home Depot staff helped match the latex paint for the chairs)

Sponge roller

Several hand sponge applicators (different sizes)

One can gold spray paint (or a small bottle of gold paint from a craft store would suffice)

Fabric of choice

Sandy’s yearlong DIY remodeling series began with an introduction to the room in the January/February issue. The first of five projects, a coffee filter lamp, debuted in the March/April issue. Rustic wall vases followed in May/June. Stay tuned for the next installment. Visit readonlinenow.com to review back issues.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

A Glamorous, Functional Basement Remodel

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Tom Grady

Seeking a grand basement remodel, a client came to me with hopes of creating a unified space with smaller intimate areas instead of an open floor plan. The original space felt very disconnected with no visual interest.

My solution focused on two separate spaces of the floor plan. Both sections of the basement would feature multiple functions: one area revolved around a sunken kitchenette/bar, and the other was an empty space transformed into a theater/display area.

The first part of the challenge was to create a properly lit display while providing storage within the bar area. We needed to add a dynamic visual element without altering the integrity of the existing brick veneer.

Our solution was to add horizontal reclaimed wood panels that pull the whole space together while providing a pub-like entertaining area. The resulting contemporary space makes use of layers of depth and dimension to provide a central focal point for social gatherings.

The asymmetrical design of the sunken bar area is enhanced with LED lighting, which further enhances the sophisticated environment. Bespoke finishes infuse rustic charm into the modern basement, forming the perfect union of domestic utility and alluring elegance. Displayed sentimental objects stand in harmonious contrast with time-worn salvaged materials and the interplay of light and shadow.

A large circle on the bar wall offers a crucial design element unifying the space. The scale of the circle balances the weightiness of the massive bar. Radiant light offsets and enhances the circle, giving the illusion that it is floating in air. The circle’s LED under-lit shelves provides plenty of space for the liquor bottles, and the offset shelving allows for additional personal items to be displayed.

By adding the walnut shell and lights to the existing metallic wood console table, it became repurposed and connected to the bar area.

Two guitars on an adjacent wall, mounted on a wooden circle, became a piece of art grounding the empty space leading to the guest bathroom.

To satisfy the clients, who are avid sports fans, the most challenging part of the basement’s theater space was to showcase their collection of jerseys while allowing the ability to watch multiple televisions at once. At the center of this design, I strived to cultivate a sensory experience that transcends the utilitarian functionality of the theater setting. Contemporary aesthetics find a careful balance of personal whims and fancies in the second of the basement’s main spaces. Relaxing here, the homeowners feel like they are in a high-end Las Vegas casino private suite while watching their favorite teams play.

The design conceptualization for the theater and display area stems from a faithful adherence to well-defined boundaries. JaDecor wall covering offers remarkable appearance with excellent acoustical properties. The round custom fiber optics and the dark-oak Melinga panels in the ceiling add spectacular visual interest to the space that once was a rectangle tray.

I really wanted the sports theater walls to properly light their jersey collection—which changes annually—while not interfering with the theater environment. Back-lighting the twelve individual panels with LED strip lights cleverly works into the overall aesthetic. The picture lights illuminate the symmetry of the jerseys and provide a side drop for the TV wall.

The purposeful ornamentation of the jerseys provides a dramatic display satisfying even the most discerning homeowner.

The experience of the finished project is such an amazing space to entertain and enjoy life with family and friends.

From the bar to the theater, and across the entire basement, the overall design embodies simplicity and modern functionality, leaving a lasting impression that makes you want to enjoy the space in good company.

The end result achieves the client’s goal of balancing personal expression and functional glamour with youthful exuberance. It is a welcoming space for any time of the day—and any season—for many years to come.

Visit artisticodesign.net to see more of the designer’s work.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

La Famiglia di Firma

Photography by Contributed

Like a good book title, the names of the Firmature brothers’ bars and restaurants could almost paint a picture of what awaited customers.

At The Gas Lamp, you could savor a prime rib and listen to a live ragtime band from your marble-top table (provided you wore a suit or a nice dress during its early years of operation). A Sidewalk Cafe offered diners a chance to people-watch at Regency while they ate a crab salad. The Ticker Tape Lounge gave downtowners a brief respite from work and prominently featured an antique stock market ticker tape. And if you really had a rough day, you could always drop by Brothers Lounge, get a cocktail, and flop down on a couch or a rocking chair.

With the exception of Brothers Lounge at 38th and Farnam streets, none of these places exist anymore. When Robert Firmature turned Brothers Lounge over to current owners Trey and Lallaya Lalley in 1998, it ended nearly 70 years where the Firmature family had a major presence in the Omaha restaurant community.

In the early 1930s, Helen and Sam Firmature opened Trentino’s, an Italian restaurant, at 10th and Pacific streets (which would later become Angie’s Restaurant). The restaurateur family also consisted of Sam’s brother, Joseph, and his wife, Barbara, along with their three sons: Robert “Bob,” Jay, and Ernest “Ernie.”

Ernie cut his teeth bartending at Trentino’s and at a motor inn (The Prom Town House, which was destroyed in the 1975 tornado) before he opened The Gas Lamp in 1961. He also briefly managed a club called the 64 Club in Council Bluffs.

Located in the predominantly middle-class neighborhood of 30th and Leavenworth streets, The Gas Lamp was a destination spot for anniversaries, promotions, and proposals. Flocked wallpaper, antique lamps, and Victorian velvet furniture was the décor. Live ragtime was the music. Prime rib and duck à l’orange were the specialties. In an era where female roles in restaurants were still primarily as waitresses and hostesses, The Gas Lamp had two women with head chef-style status. Katie Gamble oversaw the kitchen. And Ernie and Betty’s son, Steve Firmature, and daughter, Jaye, were routinely corralled to help with clean-up—the cost of living in a restaurant family.

The Italian family name was originally “Firmaturi.” A popular account of the spelling change involves a bygone relative trying to make their name more “Americanized.” After researching family history, Steve suspects the name changed as a result of a documentation error—a mistaken “e” in place of the final vowel. Steve says those style of errors were common back then (due to errors in ship manifests or as depicted in a scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II).

Before she was even a teenager, Jaye Firmature McCoy was tasked with cleaning the chandeliers and booths. While cleaning, she would occasionally dig inside booths for any money that may have accidentally been left by a customer. At 10, she was promoted to hat check girl. At 14, she was the hostess. Steve did everything from bus tables to help in the kitchen.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have titles for people that cooked. Today, I think we’d call them a sous chef and a chef. We had two cooks,” Steve says with a laugh.

In the early ’60s, Ernie enforced a dress code for customers.

“When we first started, a gentleman couldn’t come in without a coat and tie. A woman couldn’t come in wearing pants [dresses only],” Jaye says.

The dress code (which eased in the late ’60s) may have been formal, but the restaurant retained a friendly atmosphere where some patrons returned weekly.

William and Martha Ellis were regulars. Speaking with Omaha Magazine over the phone from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, they recalled going to The Gas Lamp almost every weekend. They became good friends with Ernie, to the point where all three of their children eventually worked for the Firmature brothers (mainly at A Sidewalk Cafe).

“Ernie wanted you to think he was this sort of tough Italian mobster, but he was really sort of amusing,” Martha says.

The Gas Lamp came to an abrupt end in 1980 when a fire destroyed the restaurant. It was ruled as arson, but a suspect was never caught. Instead of rebuilding, the family decided to “transfer” some of the signature dishes of The Gas Lamp to A Sidewalk Cafe. The Firmature brothers had purchased the restaurant from Willy Theisen in 1977.

Along with the three brothers, another Firmature, Jim (Helen and Sam’s son), was also a partner in owning A Sidewalk Cafe. Bob spent much of his time managing Brothers Lounge. Ernie managed A Sidewalk Cafe until he retired. Jim and Jay also helped manage the place. Jay (who is the only surviving member of the three) primarily worked in the business area. He was brought in by Ernie from Mutual of Omaha.

“He always said, ‘I should have stayed at Mutual,’” Steve says with a laugh.

Though not as formal as The Gas Lamp, A Sidewalk Cafe was still a destination spot. Located in the heart of the Regency neighborhood, the cafe aimed to pull in people who may have assumed Regency was out of their price range. Still, the cafe maintained an upper-end dining experience. DJ Dave Wingert, who now hosts a morning show on Boomer Radio, would routinely take radio guests to the Sidewalk Cafe in the ’80s. One guest was comedian and co-host of the NBC pre-reality show hit Real People—the late Skip Stephenson.

“I remember the booth we were sitting in, and telling him about being shot at Club 89,” Wingert says.

Since A Sidewalk Cafe closed its doors in the late ’90s, Omaha’s food scene has only grown in regard to available dining options and national recognition. Wingert says A Sidewalk Cafe would fit with today’s culinary landscape. Jaye agrees.

“It was probably the one [restaurant] that was the most survivable, I think,” she says.

Jaye has left the restaurant business. She is now owner and president of FirstLight Home Care, an in-home health care business. Though the industries are vastly different, Jaye says much of her experience with the restaurants has carried over to health care.

“Restaurants and bars are something that get into your blood,” she says. “It’s about the people and taking care of people.”

Find the last remnant of the Firmature family bar and restaurant empire at @brothersloungeomaha on Facebook.

From left: Ernie, Robert “Bobby”, and Jay Firmature

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

Food for the Heart

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marie Losole still laughs when telling what she calls “the story of our escapade,” a 1967 elopement by train to Idaho, one of two states where 18-year-olds could get married at that time without parental permission.

Fifty years after running away together, Don and Marie Losole are still running—running a restaurant together. Its name, Lo Sole Mio, is a play on words, combining their last name and the famous Italian love song “O Sole Mio.”

Like their love, the restaurant has endured. August marks 25 years for the venture that embodies their passion and lifelong dream.

The couple, who met at Central High School, both come from restaurant families and began their restaurant careers at age 14. Don was head chef at a large country club by the time he was only 21.

In 1975, the couple opened their first restaurant, Losole’s Landmark, a favorite with the downtown lunch crowd. A job opportunity briefly took the family to California a few years later, but they soon realized the West Coast was not a good fit for them.

After their return to Omaha, Don worked on the supply side of the restaurant industry while Marie began creating dishes for delivery, a side business that “pretty soon got so big that we knew we couldn’t keep doing this from home,” she says.

In 1992, the family took a leap of faith that became Lo Sole Mio. Villa Losole, an event venue, followed in 1997.

Both facilities are located near the Hanscom Park area, tucked away in a quaint neighborhood, exactly the sort of location that the Losoles were seeking—a destination. The charming ambiance is a perfect backdrop for the Italian cuisine and family atmosphere.

“We are a family supporting other families…We are very blessed to have some good employees who’ve been here a long time and some loyal customers who have become friends,” Marie says. “I like to walk around and visit with my customers and see what brings them in, just thank them for coming here…I love being a part of people’s memories.”

Lo Sole Mio has employed all six of their children over the years and now some of their older grandchildren (they have 17).

“My mother always used to say to me, ‘as you get older, time goes by faster.’  Well, my summation of that is that time doesn’t go any faster, it’s just taking us longer to do what we used to do,” Marie says.

Sure, the couple boasts some artificial joints between them, and Marie says “my feet ache a little more, my back aches a little more,” but the Losoles are proud to continue maintaining their “old-school” work ethic and hands-on management approach.

“We make sure it’s something we’d want to eat; quality is very important for us,” Marie says. “We are now at the point where we can enjoy life a little bit more without having to be here 80 hours a week or more. But this is still our first priority. We will probably be here until we pass away, I would imagine.”

In fact, she says, “My husband says to me, ‘This is what’s keeping us young.’”

Visit losolemio.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

The Next Generation 
of Family Farming

Photography by Sarah Lemke

Surrounded by tomato seedlings, purple carrots, and strange-looking peppers—whatever’s freshest at Theilen Produce Gardens—Kristy Theilen is a blonde-dreadlocked ambassador for a farm that has been in her family since the 1800s.

The cheerful 36-year-old and her veggies can be found at summertime farmers markets in the Omaha area, including Saturday in the Old Market and Sundays at the Florence Mill.

From left: Kristy Theilen, Fernando Castrorena, Brennen Settles, Jacquie Theilen, Linda Theilen, and Eldon Theilen

Back in Schuyler, Nebraska, an old farmhouse anchors Theilen Produce Gardens’ home base. Kristy’s great-grandfather built the farmhouse in 1910, but it has been renovated and remodeled several times over the years.

Kristy and her mother both grew up in the home. After returning to Nebraska from Arizona in 2013, the two generations are back under one roof on the family’s 1,200-acre farm.

“When I was living in Phoenix, I came across a mask-maker who had mask-making traditions in their family for thousands of years,” Kristy says. “I thought about that—and how people in the city were surprised to hear I grew up on a farm—and got to thinking how important it is not to break that occupational chain. Farming has been on both sides of my family since forever.”

Her parents, Linda and Eldon, moved into the farmhouse in the late 1980s after they were married. “It used to be white wood panel siding,” says Linda, whose grandfather (John Bailey) built the home. Asbestos siding replaced the wood during her childhood; Eldon added the olive-green vinyl siding when they overhauled the structure.

Kristy’s older brother, his wife, and their children live on the other side of a creek, in a residence that previously housed their grandparents (near the original Bailey family homestead, which burned down and was rebuilt in the early 1900s).

The Theilen family’s ancestors by the (burned-down) farmhouse.

Her maternal ancestors in the Bailey family passed through Nebraska during a cross-country cattle drive to California in 1853. “We have a journal written by someone on the trip,” Linda says. “When they passed along the Platte River, they thought it was heaven, so they came back.”

After Linda’s father, Tom Bailey, assumed leadership of the family farm, he raised four kids in the old house. Linda was one of them. They farmed corn and alfalfa, and they sold eggs from Rhode Island red hens.

Eldon grew up on a farm north of Columbus. For the 33-some years since he and Linda took charge of the farm, they have continued the family’s agricultural tradition under their married name of Theilen.

At peak pork production, Eldon raised 3,000 hogs. Then, the market fell out just prior to the turn of the millennium. “There were so many hogs that packing houses couldn’t process them all,” Eldon says.

Today, they focus on corn and soybeans (but “mostly corn,” Eldon says). Kristy’s brother, Jeremy, helps manage the crops. Meanwhile, Kristy takes care of their smaller quantities of diversified livestock: chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and more. She is also in charge of the garden-fresh produce, starting seedlings in outdoor greenhouses (built by her father), and caring for the plant nursery. (The nursery was an addition to the home, also built by her father.)

After a 10-month stint with the Peace Corps in Macedonia, three semesters studying abroad in Austria, and several years working as a community organizer in Phoenix and Tucson—including gardening in a vacant lot next to a Phoenix artist commune—Kristy returned to the family farm with the goal of implementing the latest sustainable agriculture trends.

Kristy and her fiancé, Fernando Castorena, have helped Theilen Produce Gardens expand into community-supported agriculture. Their CSA sells shares that entitle customers to receive weekly supplies of fresh produce and eggs, which are delivered in the Schuyler area and to farmers market pick-up points in Omaha.

“We were planning to be the world’s youngest snowbirds, but I didn’t want to leave my chores to my brother,” Kristy says, adding that 2017 was (almost) her first full year back in Nebraska, minus two months when they traveled to Arizona.

 

“These new things are all Kristy’s doing. I think they’re great,” Linda says. “I think we need to be diversified in future years with grain prices the way they are.”

Other new initiatives that Kristy has developed include programs for kids and eco-tourism: Easter egg hunts, a Halloween pumpkin patch, hosting campers from the website Hipcamp, and welcoming boarders with the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (volunteers who work in exchange for room and board, also known as “WOOFers”).

During the Halloween pumpkin patch, Linda tells real-life horror stories of the criminals hanged at the old Colfax County courthouse. Her father (Tom Bailey) bought the old jail cell at an auction to protect irrigation pumps. Now, the jail cell is a historical relic tucked away in the back of their property.

Brennen Settles

On the edge of bountiful cornfields, a tall signpost points to the farm’s various attractions: Shell Creek Path, corn maze, pumpkin patch, horses, animal barn, Bunnyville, and Coffee Quonset.

In Linda’s childhood, the “Coffee Quonset” was a storage barn for corn and machinery. She remembers playing on the piles of corn. Later, her husband built a new barn for the modern combine and larger machinery. The old barn was going under-utilized when Kristy suggested making a little shop for coffee and tea.

“These new things are all Kristy’s doing. I think they’re great,” Linda says. “I think we need to be diversified in future years with grain prices the way they are.”

Linda and Eldon tell the story of their land and farmhouse from a dining table, with a spread of fresh vegetables and hard-boiled eggs.

When they moved in, Eldon personally replaced all of the walls, installed new electrical wiring, added central air conditioning, and made subsequent upgrades to the home over the years.

Eldon has always encouraged his daughter to think outside of the box, because that’s how he looks at the world. He designed and constructed a “chicken tractor” that allows him to move chickens over cropland while replenishing nitrogen in the soil with their manure. Last year, he also hand-built their chicken “gypsy wagon,” a mobile hen house trailer.

Inside the house, he rearranged the floor plan of the traditional farmhouse. It’s now a four-bedroom home, with three bathrooms. The old master bedroom on the main floor became an office with the latest computer tech.

“In the ’80s, I had the first computer in Colfax County,” Eldon says. “I always try to stay on top of technological developments.”

Kristy’s fiancé has meanwhile brought crucial Latin cultural perspective and Spanish language skills to the family farm business.

Fernando grows vegetables common in traditional Mexican dishes—huitlacoche (a corn fungus that was a delicacy in Aztec cuisine), squash blossoms, and tomatillos—and he helps sell goats and other animals to local Spanish-speaking residents.

Before moving to the area, he didn’t know what to expect. But he was surprised by the large Hispanic population working in local agricultural industries and living in Schuyler and Fremont. He quickly found himself perfectly at ease in the rural Nebraskan setting, he says: “About 40 percent of our customers [who come to the farm] are Guatemalan or Mexican.”

Fernando’s dream is to launch a farm-to-table restaurant and/or food truck that could service the Schuyler area. His family works in the food industry in Phoenix, so he is confident that he could make it work.

The future is ripe with potential on the Theilen family farm. Who knows? Nebraska’s first farm-to-table Mexican restaurant might just sprout 75-minutes northwest of Omaha.

Kristy also has several other ideas for the future of the farm: expanding into wine production, hosting weddings, and growing their goat herd. “Wine, weddings, and goats, that’s my dream,” Kristy says with a laugh.

Visit theilenproduce.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Living with 
Livestock in Omaha

June 19, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hungry for a taste of the simple life? You don’t have to sacrifice the convenient luxuries of living in the Omaha metro.

Nick Batter, a lawyer who raises livestock in the Ponca Hills area, knows how to get the best of both worlds.

From left: Nick Batter and Jill Stigge

Batter owns five acres near Hummel Park, just outside of the city limits. He says he can’t imagine any other place where a young professional can raise a pig or shoot a shotgun in his or her front yard, and then drive 10 minutes to have sushi or see a Broadway show.

Urban Logistical Hassles

After first determining whether barnyard animals are allowed in your neighborhood, Batter says there are some challenges to raising livestock in the Omaha metro.

“There’s not many people to buy livestock from,” he says. He has to go on road trips to get animals. He must be selective about breeds due to space limitations: He raises a more docile breed of pig and a shorter-legged sheep (it runs slower). He doesn’t have space to overwinter animals either.

Batter’s livestock selection changes throughout the year to accommodate his space. He gets baby animals in spring and slaughters them after the first frost. By the end of April, he already had sheep, lambs, goats, rabbits, laying hens, and was expecting four pigs to arrive soon.

Limited access to feed stores presents another logistical challenge in the Omaha metro,  he says. For a variety of reasons (including his professional schedule), he has to buy feed on Sundays, and only one store is open when he’s available—and it’s in Irvington.

Nevertheless, he says the perks of animal husbandry outweigh any hassle.

Perks of Residential Livestock

Batter says his animals mostly “live off the land,” and their diet is only supplemented by feed. His rabbits and sheep eat grass. “Goats eat everything green,” he says.

He pens the pigs under mulberry, walnut, and oak trees. So, the pigs eat plenty of berries, nuts, and acorns. Batter finishes fattening them on black walnuts, a “very American walnut,” he says.

Batter doesn’t need to mow the lawn. The sheep do it. His two border collies make sure the sheep don’t leave the property.

He says the animal pens are near his home due to space limitations. His window faces the pens, so if predators are in the area—and his animals are distressed—he knows quickly.

Batter eats fresh eggs and chicken. “Keep them warm, keep them watered, keep them fed,” he says of the chickens. “They really do the rest.” He gets two to three dozen eggs a day. “They’re producing eggs like crazy,” Batter says. “I’m not even feeding them.”

The chickens eat bugs and grass, which they prefer. Batter enjoys sharing eggs. “Sharing eggs is expressive,” he says. “Time goes into it. It’s a way to share your personal time with somebody.”

Batter practices ethical husbandry and reaps the rewards, both in food and in spirit. “I’m not divorcing myself from the process [of processing animals],” Batter says. He knows his animals have a good life. “Every day of their lives is terrific except for the last day,” Batter says, adding that it pains him to waste meat: “You realize it came from a life.” And in the case of his backyard farm, a life that he nurtured and raised.”

Do It Yourself

Before investing in urban livestock, would-be farmers must research the zoning of their neighborhood. Circumstances are different all across the Omaha metro. To be safe, the University of Nebraska’s Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office encourages homeowners to check with neighborhood associations or county planning and zoning offices.

“There are so many different situations, SIDs, acreages, in city limits, out of city limits,” says Monte Stauffer, an educator with the county extension office. “The person who can make that decision is at the county courthouse; you just have to give them an address.”

For advice on raising chickens, Stauffer suggests reaching out to Brett Kreifels, an extension assistant with a master’s degree in poultry production. Meanwhile, Stauffer (an animal sciences and animal husbandry expert) can answer any questions about pigs, calves, horses, sheep, and goats.

Kreifels and Stauffer are available by phone at 402-444-7804. A receptionist at the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Office directs queries to the relevant experts on staff.

“You can do it for several reasons: to try to generate additional income, to produce your own food, or provide an educational opportunity to young people—giving them some chores to do, some responsibility that they may not get them in trouble,” Stauffer says.

Visit extension.unl.edu/statewide/douglas-sarpy for more information.

Eggs, sausages, and bacon harvested from the farm.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

The Morel of the Story

April 5, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs
Illustration by Mady Besch

Morel-mania usually begins around mid-to-late April. Inconsistent Midwestern weather prevents forecasting the exact start of morel mushroom season year-to-year.

Morel (aka morchella) mushrooms begin to flush en masse when spring rains alternate with patches of sunshine atop warming ground temperatures.

Morels are distinctive and easy to identify, with their porous and sponge-like brownish heads atop tan/white stems. Their caps might also be described as honeycombed and cone-shaped; they come in grey (smaller) and yellow (larger) varieties.

Foodies covet the delicious morsels of fungal delight. Morels are known for a unique nutty flavor. Popular recipes include: battered and deep-fried, scrambled with eggs, used as garnish, or dried for later consumption.

As a general rule, the morel season coincides with the blooming of lilacs. Morels also return to the same place every year—if their mycelium underground remains healthy. That means avid mushroom hunters often keep their favorite spots a secret.

If you see one morel, stop. Slow down and scan the ground. They grow in clusters. Morels hide in the deep woods, near the bases of old-growth trees, overturned trunks, and decomposing vegetation. They pop from grassy areas, near the banks of rivers, and on hillsides.

Along with monitoring lilac bushes, paying attention to the weather forecast helps foragers to prepare for morel season. Be ready for periods of sudden downpours of rain combined with warm daytime temperatures (70 degrees or more) and nights that linger above 40 degrees for at least four days in a row.

If you anticipate a sunny day following a torrential spring downpour, get ready. Put on your rain jacket, and rush to your favorite mushrooming spot as soon as the rains lift.

Grab some good mud boots (or old sneakers), and make sure you have a mesh bag that allows the mushrooms’ spores to escape and spread. Local outdoors shops sell mesh bags for morels. Onion or potato sacks from the grocery store also work well.

If you’ve never been mushroom hunting, it’s time to start begging friends to show you how. Or, do a little research and go explore any publicly accessible backwoods along local rivers.

There are several popular local destinations for morel hunters. But any densely vegetated public land (with plenty of overturned trees) along the Missouri River or Platte River could yield a plentiful haul of morels. That is, if the area hasn’t been picked over already.

The website morels.com hosts a useful and interesting Nebraska forum. Other useful resources can be found at thegreatmorel.com, morelhunters.com, and the “Nebraska Morels” Facebook group.

Beware of gun-toting hunters in the woods. Morel season corresponds with the spring turkey hunting season. Also, avoid trespassing. Common courtesy (and the law) necessitates seeking permission to hunt for mushrooms on private property.

Remember that wild mushrooms can be deadly. Only pick and cook mushrooms you can identify with complete confidence. Search online for “false morels” and make sure you can tell the difference. False morels are poisonous.

In 2016, the website of Nebraska Game and Parks maintained weekly morel reports from April 13 through May 11. The Game and Parks website also provides tips for locating morels, and even suggests a few popular mushroom hunting grounds.

Proactive scouting is a good strategy—if only to monitor the human traffic in the woods. The morel season around Omaha usually only lasts from two to four weeks, depending on weather conditions. Sometimes the peak of the season takes place in May.

Evidence of over-picked stems and decaying mushrooms indicate that the morel season is well progressed.

Remember: if you share a mushroom hunting spot with a “friend,” there is a very good chance they will tell someone else. Then, all those other folks might just go pick all the morels while you’re stuck at work, in school, or caught in some other less fulfilling endeavor.

Heed the moral of this morel story. When the lilacs bloom, somebody is probably picking over your favorite morel grounds. So, if you’ve got a good spot, consider keeping it a secret.

Visit outdoornebraska.gov/morel for more information.

Morel Mushroom Hunting Sites

Suggested by Nebraska Game and Parks:

Public areas near rivers:

  • Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
  • Indian Cave State Park
  • Louisville State Recreation Area
  • Platte River State Park
  • Schramm Park State Recreation Area
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area

Old-growth forests and creeks at:

  • Branched Oak State Recreation Area
  • Burchard Wildlife Management Area
  • Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area
  • Pawnee Lake State Recreation Area
  • Twin Lakes Wildlife Management Area
  • Yellow Banks Wildlife Management Area

 

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Frequent Flyers

March 29, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

When the world’s elite horses (and riders) arrive in Omaha, an entourage of police and first responders—including mounted patrol—will escort them to the location of the Longines FEI World Cup. The international championship for show jumping and dressage begins March 29 and continues through April 2 at the CenturyLink Center.

European competitors depart from Amsterdam, Netherlands, aboard a chartered Boeing 777 cargo plane that takes more than nine hours to reach Omaha.

The flight requires horses to be loaded into specialized containers called “jet stalls,” which resemble an enclosed stable stall. Jet stalls can hold up to three horses. The charter flight includes a “pro groom,” nine shipper grooms, and a veterinarian—all provided by the company overseeing the transportation, the Dutta Corporation.

Horses at this elite level are well-seasoned air travelers, making the journey seem almost routine, says J. Tim Dutta, the founder and owner of the international horse logistics company.

“Horses are just like human beings,” Dutta says. “Some get jittery, some read the rosary, some like some gin and tonic, some go to sleep before the plane leaves the gate, and the rest are worried about life two days afterward. Everybody’s an individual, and we are ready for each and every situation.”

Any concerns or worries, he says, are the things that can’t be entirely controlled or predicted—such as poor weather conditions or a horse getting sick during transportation.

“You’ve got a couple hundred million dollars worth of horses on the plane, so that’s serious business,” he says. “You want everything to go smooth, and there’s always challenges. But for a guy like me who’s been at it for 28 years, and has done quite a few of them, it’s just another day at the office.”

Once the horses arrive in Omaha, they will be quarantined at the CenturyLink Center for up to three days while the USDA checks for diseases and other potential health concerns.

Veterinarian Mike Black—based out of his Nebraska Equine Veterinary Clinic just outside of Blair—says any adverse effects of a long journey would be the same for horses whether they traveled by trailer or airplane. It’s not unusual for humans and animals to struggle through temporarily weakened immune systems due to stress and long periods of confinement with other travelers.

“Whenever the animal is put under stress, it will compromise some of their ability to respond to infections,” Black says. “And a lot of horses are carriers of viruses and things. So, as they’re around other horses that they’re not normally around, then things can be spread.”

When the competition opens March 29, folks without a ticket will have an opportunity to get a closer look at all the horse-and-rider teams. The practice area will be free and open to all.

Mike West, CEO of Omaha Equestrian Foundation, hopes to create a fan-friendly and carnival-like atmosphere.

The World Cup is the first international championship of its kind to be hosted in Omaha, he says. Sure, there have been championship boxing bouts in the city. And the NCAA crowns the champions of college baseball in Omaha. But never before will so many world champions prove themselves on local grounds.

Back in 1950, when the College World Series first came to Omaha, nobody could have expected how the “Gateway to the West” would become a Midwestern sports mecca.

“They didn’t know about swim trials; they didn’t know about NCAA basketball or wrestling or volleyball and all the great events that we have now,” says West, a veteran Omaha sports-marketing professional. He previously held management positions with the Lancers, Cox Classic Golf Tournament, and Creighton’s athletics department.

The Omaha Equestrian Foundation is not only dedicated to putting on a good show. West and his colleagues are committed to continuing the city’s relationship with the FEI, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (aka, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports), the governing body for the sports of show jumping and dressage.

“We have an opportunity, but we also have an obligation as an organizer to do a good job. Because if we do a good job, we don’t know what it will lead to, but we know it will lead to something [positive],” he says.

A successful 2017 World Cup in Omaha could improve chances of the World Cup returning, along with its estimated economic impact of $50 million.

“We have to be better than anybody—by far—at listening and delivering on our promise to the fans of this sport,” West says. “And if we do, I think we’ll develop a reputation that if you want to be treated like a fan [of sports], go to Omaha, Nebraska.”

Visit omahaworldcup2017.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Revamped Radio

March 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When the band Train came to Omaha’s Baxter Arena for a concert in December 2016, there were plenty of flashing lights and excited fans. “But when the lights go out and the audience starts screaming, there’s no rush like it in the world,” says Andy Ruback, general manager of NRG Media. Ruback knows a great deal about screaming fans—when a big concert comes to town the likelihood is that Ruback had his hand in the planning. His role as general manager has evolved over the years from managing radio stations to include managing events brought to town by NRG Media Live.

The business is a natural fit for NRG, which owns stations ranging from Power 106.9 to 1290 KOIL. The company was looking to the future for broadcasting and leaning toward live shows as a way to increase profitability. NRG used their strengths in connecting people to music to expand into the business of concert production. With the radio stations’ on-air talent knowing their listeners’ preferences, the media company naturally knew what acts had potential to bring in revenue, and which ones might not.

Ruback came to Omaha from Lincoln, where he served as general manager for their NRG stations. Upon his arrival at the NRG offices in Omaha in 2012, Ruback went full speed ahead. He says the intention was never to focus on live shows over radio shows; rather, he called his plans a method for “diversifying for growth.”

Concert production is a challenge that Ruback gladly accepted, but in it, found unique bumps in the road. Some of those bumps included special requirements, such as permits, that needed the legal team’s help. Shock rocker Alice Cooper, for example, required the team to acquire special insurance because of the pyrotechnics involved with his show. Ruback and his team figured out how to get the right insurance, and now know who to ask the next time someone wants to light up fireworks onstage.

Ruback says some of the more surprising challenges he and his team have faced come from smaller, more routine details.

“I would say it’s more about the crowd experience logistics,” Ruback says. “How do we try to work with the arenas to make sure there’s enough concessions on the floor? What should be the entry ticket price? What should be the price for the front row?”

Logistics is the simplest description for the business of producing concerts. Is the specific artist available at the time? Is there enough interest in this artist to fill the seats? Is a venue available on the day needed?

“We could have the great idea, and the right price, but there could be a UNO hockey game and a Lancers game on the night we want, and we’re out of luck,” Ruback says.

It is a revenue stream in which many community businesses desire to participate, and there are many ways for them to participate, including attaching their name to experiences such as meet-and-greets with the band before or after the show, and attaching their name to souvenirs. Attendees at the Train concert, for example, vied for flashing bracelets and cups branded with a sponsor’s logo. Signage prominently displayed throughout Baxter Arena featured sponsor logos.

The scenario is beneficial to everyone involved: the band gets to play to a well-attended venue, the fans get to enjoy the band, and the sponsors get to present their message in an effective way.

“On that day, no other media group is producing a concert,” Ruback says. “So you’re looking at content that advertisers want to be a part of, but no other client can do.”

The diversification proved wildly successful. Ruback says that since 2014, more than 100,000 people have attended an NRG Media Live event. Associate athletic director for University of Nebraska at Omaha Mike Kemp enjoys his business dealings with NRG Media Live and says that when Ruback puts on a concert at Baxter Arena “… it’s not just a concert—it’s an event. He has great vision and ideas and that’s the true charm of what he does.”

“I think NRG Media does a great job of engaging the community to get behind the events,” adds Kemp. NRG Media has the ability to promote coming shows using the radio stations on their roster and their strong social media presence. This equals solid attendance numbers at concerts and happy sponsors.

“Andy’s full of energy and great ideas,” Kemp says of Ruback. “He’s an honest guy with great enthusiasm for what he does.” Rubak’s vision has evolved NRG Media into much more than an organization simply running local radio stations. In fact, the next time there is a popular concert in town, there is an excellent chance that Ruback can be found there, smiling and enjoying the rush.

Visit nrgmedia.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.