This River Beneath the Sky reads like an ode to sandhill cranes in the style of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. How fitting. Leopold was born in Iowa but produced his seminal work of ecological prose in Wisconsin. Doreen Pfost was likewise a transplant on the sandy banks of Nebraska’s Platte River.
Pfost moved to south-central Nebraska with her husband’s career. She admits an initial lack of appreciation for her new home. To escape a depressive funk, she began volunteering at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary between Grand Island and Kearney—a place of crucial importance to sandhill crane conservation and tourism—situated along the Platte River, a “dreary, inconstant river that as if through lack of initiative, followed the route of the interstate system.”
Her initial attitude soon changes. Pfost embraces fly-over country and comes to perceive the central Platte as a sort of essential “airport” hub on the bustling Central Flyway Migration Corridor. Her ensuing book is a beautiful work of woven memoir, ecology, journalism, history, and literature braided together (much like the braided stream of the Platte where Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart met her demise. Pfost even refers to Leopold and Cather alike.)
The bugling hubbub of sandhill cranes ignites Pfost’s passion for the once-seemingly dreary landscape: “This is how spring arrives at the Platte—not with the flip of a calendar page, but from the little clouds blown in on a southerly wind,” she writes of the cranes’ springtime arrival, which quickly amplifies from a “sprinkle” to a torrential “shower.”
She vividly captures the cranes’ sunrise wakeup call at the peak of their layover, a raucous tumult that echoes across the horizon as tens of thousands of large birds simultaneously burst from sandbar roosts midstream and blacken the sky before landing in nearby cornfields to refuel on grubs and grains.
Pfost’s book is organized into 12 chapters corresponding roughly to the calendar. Her first chapter concludes with an afternoon departure of cranes for Arctic summering grounds and a call for environmental stewardship: “The cranes will go north—for now—and those of us who stay behind will keep an eye on the river.”
Throughout most of her book, sandhill cranes are absent in seasonal migrations to the north or south. Yet their presence always seems near, even when Pfost is writing about bison, whooping cranes, bobolinks, or annelids. After the cranes’ departure from the Platte, Pfost mulls over the history of pioneer trails, human settlement along the river, and the taming of the once-unpredictable river to meet incessant water demands from hydroelectric power, reservoirs, and agriculture.
Pfost’s earnest dedication to botanical and zoological minutiae emerges in rich descriptions of the environment while she hikes and jogs along the river. Also fascinating are anecdotes of people-watching at the Rowe Sanctuary, where “gossamer threads” bind birdwatchers and cranes along the “wild, dancing stream that used to be.”
River Beneath the Sky follows a journalistic path providing the backstory of sandhill crane conservation in Nebraska, its necessary infrastructure projects, local grassroots opposition, and the families of homesteaders, concluding, appropriately, with the close of another migratory passing of sandhill cranes through the Rowe Sanctuary. The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website reveals that Pfost has migrated onward, now living in Wisconsin and giving tours at the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm—a site of resurgent sandhill crane populations some 80 years after Leopold mused about the birds’ potential extinction. Although a migrant in Nebraska, much of Pfost’s writing resonates with my sense of personal connection to ancestors who homesteaded along the Platte and the sandhill cranes’ primordial staging grounds.
When I first read her book in the spring, sandhill cranes were passing through Nebraska in record number. Yet I was stuck in Omaha, the place of my birth, with the cranes’ cacophonous chorus echoing in my memory from past trips to the river.
The Platte may not be visible from my home in urban Omaha, as the river curves south and around the city to meet the Missouri, yet I am always drawn to its presence. It nurtured my maternal ancestors, immigrants from Germany, and it nurtured me on childhood visits to the family farm.
In 2014, I had proposed to my wife after a trip to view the sandhill cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary. Like Pfost, my wife is a newcomer to Nebraska. Sometimes Nebraska can be difficult to appreciate through all four seasons. With the gift of this book, I hope the author’s enthusiasm may be contagious.
A version of this review was originally published in the summer 2017 edition of Western American Literature (Vol. 52, No. 2), the journal of the Western Literature Association published by University of Nebraska Press.
Chat with Bill Gonzalez for a short while and one thing becomes clear: It really is hard to keep a good man down.
Nearly 20 years ago, Gonzalez was down. In August 1999, while working at an Omaha warehouse, Gonzalez tripped while crossing over a machine. Its drive belt caught his leg, shattering it from his knee down and damaging his back. Despite a handful of operations on his leg and back, Gonzalez was disabled.
“I couldn’t do physical work anymore,” he says, “and I didn’t have the skills to do anything else.”
He was homebound but realized that wasn’t the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
“That’s a quick way to die,” he says. “I had to get out of the house and do something other than sitting home eating painkillers and going nuts.”
A newspaper article noting that the Durham Museum was seeking volunteers for its archives department changed all that. Gonzalez thought back to his days at now-defunct Omaha St. Joseph High School when, during his senior year, someone presented photos of Omaha from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, then in the possession of KMTV (Channel 3).
“I was just blown away seeing these old pictures of what Omaha used to look like. I always remembered that.”
From the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, this 1911 image was taken on top of the Union Pacific Railroad Building at 14th & Dodge streets looking east.
Now the collection was on permanent loan to the Durham. Gonzalez, who lives just 2 minutes from the museum, wanted in. He joined the Durham as a volunteer March 15, 2005, working one day a week.
“As soon as I started working here I knew I’d found a home,” Gonzalez says. “I just kept coming back.”
Soon he was working four days a week. After a couple years, the museum hired him on a permanent basis as photo archive associate with its curatorial and education services. Today he oversees collections totaling more than 1 million photographs of Omaha from the 1860s to 1990s—from its rise as a frontier town with shanties on the banks of the muddy Missouri River to a sophisticated metropolis with a bustling downtown straddling those same banks. Many of the photos are digitized and available through the museum’s website. Gonzalez has written many of their descriptions.
When a visitor comes to the museum seeking a specific photo, Gonzalez is the man they turn to. He already possesses great personal recall of the city. Though his parents were immigrants from Mexico, 67-year-old Gonzalez was born and raised in South Omaha.
“A lot of stuff, I know what I’m looking at. The younger interns don’t have an idea,” he says of decades-old Omaha scenes and long-gone iconic structures from his youth. “Someone said I’m the organic memory of archives. I guess that’s true.”
Using that memory and his knowledge of Durham’s vast photo archive helps him connect people to pictures, past to present.
“The best part, the part that really gets me high, is when I find a picture that a person has some kind of emotional attachment to,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of the pictures we have are really family pictures of people. They mean something to somebody.”
What are Bill Gonzalez’s favorite photos in Durham archive? He has many. Among his favorites, he includes: an aerial of Omaha taken in 1947 and looking west from the museum, formerly Union Station. “A spectacular shot,” he says. Another, from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, was taken on top of the former Union Pacific headquarters near 14th and Dodge streets and looks southeast. “A lot of what you’re looking at is no longer here,” he says.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
Trotlines catch every bottom-feeding fish imaginable in the Missouri River: channel catfish, freshwater drum, shovelnose sturgeon. Even the occasional blue sucker. But this boat’s crew of biologists and volunteers seek one rarity—the endangered pallid sturgeon.
Watching the line of hooks rise from the water, Dave Crane spots the prize. “Pallid!” he shouts, excitedly, as thick and bony cartilage plates breach the river’s surface.
He and three friends work in unison to pull the 200-foot line on board. Crane carefully removes the pallid sturgeon from a hook; then he passes the precious specimen to a Game & Parks staffer to take its measurements, weigh the fish on a digital scale, and check for hatchery-implanted tags.
“Looks like a shipper,” says fishery biologist Dane Pauley, as the sturgeon goes into a water tank on the boat. Pauley is one of four Game & Parks crew leaders checking trotlines between the Plattsmouth and Nebraska City boat ramps on April 9, 2017, during the annual pallid sturgeon recovery effort known as Broodstock.
A large pallid sturgeon on the scale
A “shipper” (i.e., slang for any sexually mature pallid sturgeon that is not hatchery-raised or has not been previously captured) is a sturgeon that the Game & Parks staff will send to a regional hatchery to ensure that its genetic stock is preserved and repopulated in the river ecosystem.
“I’ve been volunteering with Broodstock every year since 2009,” says Crane, a biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers. “As someone who works on planning and constructing Missouri River habitat restoration projects for a living, it’s a real treat getting hands-on with the fish and seeing firsthand the kind of biological response we’re having. My fieldwork doesn’t typically involve fish; I love getting out on the river like this.”
Broodstock collection—a regional conservation effort—is part of a larger, nationwide pallid sturgeon recovery initiative funded by the Army Corps of Engineers. Local participants include regional and federal stakeholders: Nebraska Game & Parks, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, volunteers from various state agencies, university biology professors, and students (along with their friends and family).
It’s not every day you come face-to-face with one of the American interior’s most endangered species. If you have the opportunity, be prepared to pucker up. Posing for a photo with a pallid sturgeon—and giving the fish a smoocheroo—has become a tradition on the Game & Parks’ boats.
“I’ve probably kissed a sturgeon at least three or four times. Only when we get a bigger one,” says Tim Shew, one of several friends that Crane has introduced to volunteering with Broodstock. “What has been really cool is that we have seen the effect of the program. There are a lot more and bigger pallids than when I started six years ago. Also more wild born. We never saw those for the first couple years.”
Dave Crane carefully handles a pallid sturgeon.
After checking 10 trotlines attached to buoys along the river, the boat crew has captured two shippers, and they caught-and-released countless non-targeted rough fish and hatchery-raised pallid sturgeon. When the boat stops on the side of the river for a sack lunch, it’s almost time to re-bait worms on 400 hooks to be replaced in the river for the next day’s crews.
By the end of the day, volunteers will have a dozen photos of themselves kissing a variety of fish—not just pallid sturgeon. Game & Parks staff record data on every fish pulled out of the water; it has become a valuable data set not only on the endangered species, but the entire Missouri River fishery.
Shipper sturgeons are transported via Game & Parks trucks (with water tanks), heading north to Gavin’s Point Fish Hatchery. After spawning in captivity, the adult fish will return to the river. Their offspring will remain in the tanks until the following spring when the space is needed for the next year’s broodstock.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, pallid sturgeon are “bottom-dwelling, slow-growing fish that feed primarily on small fish and immature aquatic insects. This species of sturgeon is seldom seen and is one of the least understood fish in the Missouri and Mississippi River drainages.”
Pallid sturgeon are strange-looking creatures with bony back plates, skeletal cartilage rather than bones (common among ancient fish), a reptilian-like tail, and a pointy snout (that is more narrow than its close relative, the shovelnose sturgeon). They have been documented living longer than 60 years and weighing more than 80 pounds. As an endangered fish, they are also illegal to catch and possess (unless you are participating in Broodstock or a similar government-sanctioned recovery effort).
Their fossils date back to the days of dinosaurs, and the fish have likely been swimming the Missouri River as far back as the river has existed. But in the modern era—following rampant dam construction and the Army Corps of Engineers’ channelization of the river for shipping and flood control in the mid-20th century—the pallid sturgeon population collapsed.
Nebraska Game & Parks staff and volunteers during the 2017 Broodstock
Kirk Steffensen is the coordinator of the Broodstock effort on Nebraska’s stretch of the Missouri River. A fisheries biologist with the Nebraska Game & Parks, he has managed regional pallid sturgeon recovery efforts since 2002.
“Before the river was highly engineered and managed, that spring pulse of water [from upstream snowmelt] usually cued sturgeon to make their migration run to the spawning grounds,” Steffensen says. “Now that the river is so regulated and managed, they don’t get that pulse anymore.”
The fish still make spawning runs. They just aren’t very successful. Dams block their migration, and mankind’s reshaping of the river has degraded remaining spawning habitats.
Seeking to reverse the species collapse, the government listed pallid sturgeon as a federal endangered species in 1990. A recovery plan went into effect soon after.
“Since their populations were so low and diminished,” Steffensen says, “it was decided that we need to supplement the population through capturing wild fish in the river, transporting them to a hatchery facility and spawning them, and then rearing their progeny up to a bigger size—so that when we stock them back in the river, they have a higher rate of survival.”
Starting in 1992, pallid sturgeon stocking began from local populations supplemented by fish from upstream (sourced from the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers near the Montana-North Dakota border). But it wasn’t until spring 2002 that Steffensen says Nebraska Game & Parks ramped up its pallid sturgeon stocking efforts. That lasted until scientists realized “that, genetically, fish in the upper basin are just slightly different than down in our reach of the river into the middle Mississippi River,” he says.
A 2007 federal moratorium on stocking upper basin fish in the lower Missouri followed. Suddenly, downstream recovery efforts faced heightened pressure to gather all the pallid sturgeon needed to stock lower stretches of the river from local fish.
“That’s when this whole thing developed of bringing in volunteers to maximize our efforts,” Steffensen says. “So we began fishing these local fish and shipping them to the area hatcheries so they could spawn them in their facilities and maintain our stocking program in this lower reach of the Missouri River.”
Game & Parks boats monitor pallid sturgeon in the Missouri nine months out of the year, but it is only during the 11 days of Broodstock that they will capture the fish to send to hatcheries. It is also only during this time when volunteers can get in on the action. Broodstock normally takes place in late April, but the 2018 dates were not confirmed when this March/April edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.
There’s a four-person volunteer limit per boat. And the slots fill up quick. Steffensen estimates that the weekend volunteering spots are usually snapped up within an hour or two of his initial call for volunteers via e-mail.
Boats from Nebraska Game & Parks
In 2017, they had 167 volunteers—many of whom worked two or three days. More than 700 individuals have volunteered with Broodstock since they began accepting volunteer participants in 2008.
“We go rain or shine,” Steffensen says. “Back in ’09, we had to cancel one day because we had a snowstorm come in. Otherwise we endure rain, wind, temperatures. After we set the gear one afternoon, we have to get it out of the water the next morning so we don’t harm any fish. We operate under endangered species handling protocol, and we are limited to having these trotlines in the water for only 24 hours.”
They operate four or five boats each day to check approximately 10 trotlines per boat. Each line, connected to a buoy in the river, has about 40 hooks baited with worms.
With four or five boats in the water each day, crews are running 17,600-22,000 hooks during the brief 11-day window of Broodstock. Steffensen says they select the program’s date range a month or two in advance to anticipate when pallid sturgeon will make their spring migration to spawn.
“It’s really a unique effort that we do here. You always hear about endangered species: Don’t approach them; don’t touch them; they are for observation only. But that’s birds and mammals, where you can look at them with spotting scope and binoculars. With fish, you have to pull them out of the water to tag, and you actually handle them. We get a lot of that message from volunteers—that this is awesome,” Steffensen says, adding that the stocking effort would not be possible at its current level without the outpouring of volunteer support.
Since 1992, Game & Parks has introduced approximately 177,000 hatchery-reared pallid sturgeon. More than 94,000 of those hatchery fish were introduced through the Broodstock program that began in 2008.
Although the fish remains listed as endangered at the state and federal level, Steffensen is cautiously optimistic: “Overall, our catch suggests that the wild fish who were naturally spawned and lived in the river their whole life appear stable.”
Due to high demand, the opportunity to participate in Broodstock is not advertised. Anyone wishing to volunteer can request to be included in the email notice by contacting fisheries biologist Kirk Steffensen at email@example.com.
From left: Dave Crane and Tim Shew share a kiss with an endangered pallid sturgeon.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
The first thing you notice about Wyman Heights is the beautiful view facilitated by the storied neighborhood’s riverside, hilltop perch. The petite enclave, situated on the cusp of Florence and Ponca Hills, spoons with a deep bend in the Missouri River where views of the adjacent waterway and nearby city provide an entirely unique perspective.
Speaking of perspective, Jody duRand has an interesting one, having grown up in Wyman Heights in the ’60s and ’70s, and returning to live there in 2010 when she and husband Roger duRand bought their dream home.
“Most people don’t know it’s there—this little gold mine in the hills,” she says of Wyman Heights.
Her parents left the neighborhood in 1991, and the self-described “North O girl at heart” lived for a time in a Florence home designed by her father, Del Boyer of Boyer & Biskup Architects.
The duRands nearly closed on a house in the Memorial Park area when her favorite Wyman Heights home—the one she’d admired since childhood, the proverbial belle of the neighborhood real estate ball—came up for sale.
“I loved this house more than anything in the world,” duRand says of her 1933 home. “When we got the chance to buy it, it was day one, full offer, we’re taking it as is. It’s a really special, beautiful house with so much charm and a view you just can’t get anywhere else in the city. Plus, this [neighborhood] is my home.”
Kristine Gerber, executive director at Restoration Exchange Omaha, agrees that Wyman Heights is a “hidden gem.”
“Very few know where it is,” Gerber says. “Its views of the Missouri River to the east and downtown Omaha to the south are incredible. Neighbors love that it’s this quiet oasis, yet in minutes they can be on I-680 to get to wherever they need to go.”
In 1905, Omaha real estate agent/banker Henry Wyman took a shine to the hills north of Florence—then known as Florence Heights and Valley View Heights. Wyman envisioned the area, with its breathtaking views, as the perfect spot for “an idyllic retreat for Omaha’s elite,” according to research gathered by Restoration Exchange Omaha in preparation for the organization’s 2017 neighborhood tour. Wyman spent two decades gathering land, planting trees, and grading and paving North 29th and 30th streets before the neighborhood was replatted and rechristened “Wyman Heights” in 1925.
Tudor Revival homes populated the area from the late 1920s into the 1940s, when World War II and a national housing shortage slowed development. But by the mid-1960s, Wyman Heights was fully developed, with midcentury modern homes filling in the gaps.
“I always have to explain that the house numbers are totally out of order,” says resident Cathy Katzenberger, who loves the area’s peace and quiet, perfect views, and combination of seclusion and accessibility. “It’s because the neighborhood started with great big lots. Then, through the years as people sold off parts of their lots, new numbers were put in.”
Katzenberger has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, in two different houses. She grew up in nearby Minne Lusa and was always determined that someday she would live “up on the hill.” Her current abode is informally known as the Hayden House (not to be confused with the welcome center on UNO’s campus), named for Dave Hayden, proprietor of Omaha restaurants from days of yore, such as the Birchwood Club and Silver Lining Restaurant.
“This [neighborhood] originally started off as the weekend country retreat for people who lived in central Omaha—now we’re talking back in the old days,” says Katzenberger, who recalls the hill being home to “all the fancy people.”
Between the stunning views and architectural diversity, Wyman Heights was indeed a magnet for Omaha’s interesting and elite, just as Wyman envisioned. According to Restoration Exchange Omaha, the neighborhood was home to many a local movers and shakers, including Claude Reed, owner of Reed’s Ice Cream; William Sealock, president of the Municipal University of Omaha, originally located at 24th and Pratt streets and now known as University of Nebraska at Omaha; Harry Shackelford, Nebraska State District Attorney; and Genevieve Detwiler, prominent socialite and local proponent of the Girl Scouts.
Roger and Jody duRand
Wyman Heights retained its allure into the ’60s, attracting prominent residents like mayor Gene Leahy and artist Tom Palmerton.
“[The neighborhood] was filled with successful, smart, interesting people,” duRand recalls.
While the neighborhood has become more economically diverse, duRand says Wyman Heights hasn’t changed too much—still offering its lovely views and solid, neighborly network.
“If you can find a house up here, you’re lucky. It’s a safe neighborhood and the neighbors are wonderful,” duRand says. “It’s nice to be able to look back all these years and see how it’s changed yet how it’s stayed the same.”
Katzenberger is pleased to see traditions like the annual neighborhood party endure, while several young families have moved into the neighborhood and livened it up with a new generation of kids at play.
“We’ve got very good neighbors. People are connected here,” says Katzenberger, noting that despite the lack of through traffic, children’s lemonade stands always do very well, as the neighbors all make a point to stop for a glass.
Katzenberger and duRand appreciate the unique blend of pastoral respite and urban access that comes with living in Wyman Heights.
“We’re so close to everything, yet we can sit outside and hear nothing but birds…see a fox running through the yard, or deer walking up the middle of the street,” duRand says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
“People here are really just being themselves—and we all are very different,” she says. “It’s classy, but very eclectic. We all have love for the neighborhood and that’s what stabilizes us. If one person has a tree fall in their yard, all of us are there to help; we’re all watching out for each other.”
Eating wild-caught fish from rivers, streams, and dam sites is almost as fun as catching them. But consuming too much of certain fish species is not advised. Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other pollutants can bioaccumulate inside some fish swimming in local waterways.
That doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t eat wild-caught fish—it just means that consumers should know what, how much, and how often they’re eating fish with potential trace amounts of contaminants.
A list of contaminated waters is maintained on the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality’s website. The department warns against long-term consumption of more than “eight ounces per week” of designated species of fish.
Mercury is a natural element in the environment, but it is often released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury that finds its way into local bodies of water can be transformed into methylmercury, which can then be absorbed by the aquatic life living there.
Mercury exposure affects nervous system and brain development. Developing fetuses and small children are the most affected, so parents and pregnant women should be cautious of mercury. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), on the other hand, are carcinogenic.
Testing for Pollutants
Greg Michl says the benefits of eating wild-caught fish outweigh the cons of mercury contamination, so long as one exercises proper precautions.
Michl has worked for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality for almost 27 years. As coordinator of the Nebraska Fish Tissue Program, he conducts investigations into surface water quality issues.
Methylmercury and PCB contamination in fish tissues are his primary concern. Michl says it’s easier to analyze bioconcentrations of these contaminants in fish tissues than it is to analyze in the water itself.
“We use fish as a surrogate,” says Michl, who is responsible for collecting tissue samples.
He uses electrofishing equipment to stun the fish before taking tissue samples—small biopsy plugs from near the dorsal spine—before returning the fish safely to the water. An Environmental Protection Agency lab then tests the samples, Michl assesses the data, and he reports his findings.
Methylmercury and PCB contamination appear to be under control in Nebraska. PCBs were first produced and marketed in the United States beginning in 1929.
PCBs gained widespread use as coolants and lubricants because of their remarkable insulating capacities and flame-retardant nature. Unfortunately, PCBs are extremely persistent in the environment and “bioconcentrate” within the food chain. As with methylymercury, fish absorb PCBs as they feed in contaminated waterbodies.
Fortunately, Michl reports that PCB concentrations in fish tissue are on the decline and only a few locations are still under advisory. EPA regulations banned the manufacture and use of PCBs in the late 1970s. Michl expects to see many PCB contamination sites fall off the radar in time.
As for mercury, “The U.S. has a pretty good system in place for regulating what goes into the air,” Michl says, “but eradicating contamination would have to be a worldwide effort. The U.S. can’t do it alone.”
Michl says methylmercury has been detected almost everywhere across the state of Nebraska “primarily in reservoirs and lakes,” and “we see it in some riverine systems’ fish.”
Beware of Predatory Fish
Sue Dempsey says there is “no solution at this time” to methylmercury contamination in local waters. For 25 years she has been a risk assessor and toxicologist for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in the Public Health division.
Her job, in part, is to help protect Nebraska citizens from contaminants in fisheries. “We monitor the fish and issue guidelines for fish consumption and ingestion,” she says. “We advise people on which species to choose.”
On methylmercury, she says bioaccumulation is a concern: “Big fish eat little fish, and it goes up the food chain.” She also warns that regional contaminants, such as pesticides, are a pollution concern for fisheries.
Nevertheless, she fishes, eats fish, and recommends others do the same while taking proper precautions. Dempsey’s advice on selecting and portioning fish to avoid contamination can be found in her “Eat Safe Fish in Nebraska” brochure, which she encourages the public to read.
Regarding wild-caught Nebraska fish, Dempsey says, “I’m big on moderation.” Her brochure advises that bluegill, crappie, perch, and rainbow trout have the lowest concentrations of methylmercury contamination. Catfish are acceptable, walleye and pike should be limited, and bass are not recommended.
Michl advises anglers to watch out for predator catfish such as the flathead, as they have higher concentrations of methylmercury than do channel catfish, which scavenge for food. But that does not mean avoid them entirely.
Dempsey says PCBs store in fat tissue of fish. “PCBs can be removed easily by removing portions and by baking,” she says. Baking allows the fat to drip away from the fish. Mercury appears throughout the entire fish.
So, the next time you’ve got a big Missouri River flathead on the line, and you have to decide whether to catch or release, consider the risk of contaminants when making your choice. I always advise catch-and-release of big catfish anyway.
Fish Species and Pollutants of Concern in Local Waters
A 2015 report from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality warns of pollutants in 142 bodies of water across the state. Ten of the waterbodies are located in Douglas and Sarpy counties. The department’s list does not “ban eating fish” from the contaminated waters. Instead, the advisory urges consumers to limit long-term intake of specified fish species from the identified waterbodies “to eight ounces per week (for adults).”
Carter Lake—Largemouth Bass—PCBs
Prairie View Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
Standing Bear Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
Two Rivers Lake No. 1—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
Zorinsky Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
Halleck Park Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury, Selenium
Photography by Provided by Douglas County Historical Society
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Omaha’s annexation of Florence—the historic and scenic riverfront community on the far northeast reaches of our city. The milestone warrants a look back at this contentious time in Florence’s history, when its rapidly rising southern neighbor unapologetically gobbled up the settlement despite the objections of many residents.
Why Annex Florence?
It helps to understand a bit of the community’s history. Best known as the site of Winter Quarters, the settlement for thousands of Mormon pioneers making their way West during the 1840s, Florence became a “city” in 1855 when Iowa businessman James C. Mitchell and his surveying team platted the land and officially incorporated.
Florence Kilbourn was the namesake of Florence, though her lineage is unclear. She has been referred to as the adopted niece of Mitchell’s wife or the granddaughter of Mitchell’s wife (depending on the historical account).
Mitchell recognized the busy frontier town’s big potential due to its convenient proximity to the Missouri River and frequent ferry service. The river’s narrow profile—at just 300 yards—and its solid-rock bottom just east of Florence also made it the most natural place to build a future bridge.
In the 1860s and ’70s, Florence grew into a bustling, young city. Early industry included a flour mill, brick manufacturing plant, lumber sawmill, and blacksmith shop, to name a few. Its population swelled well above 3,000, and its economy boomed.
Ana Somers, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, says pressure for Omaha to annex surrounding municipalities really began in 1910 with the Greater Omaha Proclamation. “This was a direct response to the growth crises of 1910 that created a need to annex neighboring towns and villages,” Somers says.
But by early 1915, despite high tax levies, Florence began finding it fiscally difficult to meet community needs. Business leaders in Florence began fearing for the financial solvency of the city moving forward. At the same time, Omaha was building a strong reputation as a Midwestern hub of business and industry. Most members of the Omaha Commercial Club, an organization of area business owners and leaders, became proponents of Florence’s annexation for the “great savings to the taxpayers” it would provide through reduced redundancies in government, and they claimed such action would “provide residents with more benefits, not fewer.”
With the Merger Bill of 1915, the State of Nebraska passed a controversial law allowing Omaha to annex neighboring communities unilaterally, providing these areas lie adjacent to current city boundaries, are situated within Douglas County, and have fewer than 10,000 residents.
A legal battle followed, with representatives from Dundee and South Omaha opposing the decision. Omaha was poised to annex Florence, but lawsuits to the Nebraska Supreme Court left the possibility in limbo.
Some in Florence, fearing taxation without representation, were convinced to join the pro-annexation cause after being assured they would have a Florence representative in city government. The Omaha Commercial Club appointed a committee to explore annexation further, then held a public meeting in January 1916. According to newspaper accounts, 76 in attendance voted in favor, while only nine voted against it. Although the club had hoped to complete annexation by the May 1916 election, it took more than a year longer for it to come to fruition.
Even train cars full of anti-annexation protestors from Florence, Benson, South Omaha and elsewhere flooding the state capitol in Lincoln during hearings could not kill the law. The fight dragged on for two years, until Feb. 14, 1917, when the Nebraska Supreme Court finally dismissed a lawsuit on behalf of the once-independent Dundee.
Confirmation of the new law was a welcome development to then-mayor of Omaha James Dahlman, or “Cowboy Jim,” as he was called, who saw it as a prime opportunity for his administration to grow the city quickly and gain tax revenue. The law allowed for the huge expansion of Omaha later that year with the annexation of Florence and Benson on June 6, 1917, while sealing the fate of South Omaha and Dundee.
According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald dated June 10, 1917, city officials reported the annexation of Florence and Benson expanded the city to 38 square miles. For reference, the present-day City of Omaha occupies roughly 127 square miles (according to the U.S. Census in 2010). Boundaries of the former City of Florence had been Read Street, 40th Street, Florence Heights Boulevard, and the Missouri River.
During subsequent years, the annexation law has been nicknamed “Omaha’s secret weapon,” allowing for continual expansion of its city limits, year after year.
Not all of Florence was convinced annexation was the best option. Among those in opposition: Florence’s mayor, Freeman Tucker, was concerned for the “political integrity of the village.” He vowed to take his fight against annexation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (though he never did). Another dissenter was Dr. Carr, a prominent local dentist and investor who feared that annexation would reduce the likelihood that Florence would be the site of a promised river bridge, says Rosemary Allen, a longtime member of the Florence Historical Foundation.
“There were concerns about a lot of promises [made by the city] not being delivered on, including security and safety services, such as a rescue squad. And, in fact, a lot was promised but never materialized,” Allen says.
“As I recall, the citizens of Florence didn’t end up having much to say about it all. It was just sort of pushed through. It was a very contentious thing,” she explains. “I do know there were a lot of residents who weren’t happy about it one bit, with some public meetings almost erupting into fist fights. And even years later, there were those that remained bitter about it.”
Allen says residents of Florence were also fearful that annexation would mean the loss of the community’s identity and important history. And in fact, through the years, many of the historic structures from its pioneer town days fell to ruin from neglect, fire, or normal decay.
Years later, it became the mission of the Florence Historical Foundation to keep its historic sites alive and maintain community pride—a mission the foundation has found great success with, preserving many historic landmarks, including the Fire Barn, Keirle House, Depot Museum, Bank of Florence, and Mormon Bridge Toll House. The foundation coordinates the annual Florence Days every May as well as other entertainment and holiday events.
The independently restored Florence Mill and another community group, Florence Futures, also collaborate on community and heritage initiatives. The neighborhood on North 30th Street has witnessed an uptick in activity in recent years, thanks in part to a lively restaurant scene. Blooming flowers (planted by the Northern Lights Garden Club) accent the booming streetscape.
The North Omaha Commercial Club—no relation to the historic Omaha Commercial Club that advocated for Florence’s annexation—is one of Omaha’s oldest civic groups, where Florence business owners meet regularly to discuss ways to keep the corridor alive and thriving. All celebrate the small-town and family-friendly feel of this unique river city community.
Despite being in the shadow of the Big O for nearly a century, Florence maintains an identity and appeal all its own.
Florence Days takes place on the second full weekend of May, with a parade Saturday. Visit historicflorence.org for more information. Archival resources provided by the Omaha Public Library archives of the Omaha World-Herald (omahalibrary.org) and the Douglas County Historical Society (douglascohistory.org).
This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.
“Are you ready to see some flying fish?” asks Rich Porter, tournament director for the Bowfishers of Nebraska. Porter steers toward the river’s confluence, and we nock arrows on bowstrings. We are ready. Or so we think.
Cruising the banks of the Missouri River, we are hunting for Asian carp—the invasive fish wreaking havoc across Midwestern waterways.
As we glide into the mouth of the Little Sioux River, Porter revs the boat’s outboard motor. It’s as if he flipped a switch, sending an electrical current through the water. The noise startles hundreds of silver carp, suddenly airborne in an explosion of shimmering scales and bulging eyes.
“Shoot them, shoot them!” Porter yells, laughing as he shields his face from floppy carp-missiles leaping in every direction. Carp launch themselves into the boat, crashing into our bodies, flip-flopping across our gear, bouncing over the steering wheel.
Omaha Magazine creative director, Bill Sitzmann, lets a barb-tipped arrow fly from a specialized “lever” bow (rigged with fishing reel and 200-pound test line). But the wriggling wall of flying fish proves to be a more difficult target than isolated underwater carp, which we have been stealthily approaching all day along the riverbanks.
Silver carp, grass carp, and bighead carp are three varieties of Asian carp that infiltrated the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. All three species are firmly established in Nebraska waters. They are different species than common carp, but they are all bad news.
Rich Porter displays a grass carp caught by bow.
Why are they bad? Silver carp, in particular, are notorious for jumping when scared. Most weigh between 10 and 25 pounds (and grow upwards of 50 pounds) and have been known to jump eight feet. Boats traveling at moderate speeds can suffer broken windows from collisions with the fish. Passengers on boats have reported cuts from fins, black eyes, broken bones, back injuries, and concussions.
Bigheads don’t jump, and grass carp seldom jump, Porter says. Both grow much larger than silver carp (Nebraska’s state bowfishing records for bighead and grass carp each weighed about 80 pounds). But all carp varieties have proven themselves disastrous for the North American ecosystem.
They are prolific breeders; a single carp is capable of laying millions of eggs each year, and they disrupt food chains by crowding out native fish. “The biggest problem with silver and bighead carp is that they are filter-feeders. They eat the plankton and zooplankton that all other fish fry [i.e., baby fish] rely on,” Porter says. Grass carp, on the other hand, feed on aquatic plants.
Common carp—also known as German carp—were introduced to North America in the 1800s. They are also considered a pest (and a target for bowfishers nationwide). Their bottom-sucking omnivorous feeding disrupts aquatic habitat, increases water siltation, and contributes to algal blooms.
Silver and bighead carp arrived in the United States around the 1960s. Aquaculture farmers in Arkansas introduced them into catfish ponds. After floodwaters breached the fish farms, Asian carp escaped and proliferated in the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.
“The first bighead and silver carp that I remember being shot was at Gavins Point Dam in 1993,” Porter says, adding that fisheries management officials worldwide have introduced grass carp in lakes to control aquatic vegetation. But he says grass carp have become a nuisance in rivers, too.
Major Mississippi River floods during the 1990s helped Asian carp migrate upstream to Nebraska. When they arrived, Porter was ready. “I’ve been shooting carp for 30 years. Invasive carp are a national problem, really,” he says, noting that he got started with common carp.
Porter makes a weighty contribution with his bow and arrow. “Last year I probably shot 20,000 pounds of fish, and my very best year was pushing close to 30,000 pounds,” Porter says. “Bowfishing is a great method for selective harvest of non-game fish. We removed close to 15 tons of invasive species fish during Nebraska tournaments in 2016, and that was just five tournaments.”
On May 13, the Bowfishers of Nebraska will host the 30th annual Carp-o-Rama. The tournament is open to the entire Missouri River Valley system (which includes the Missouri River itself and nearby lakes). Weigh-in takes place at Cottonwood Cove Marina in Blair at 5 p.m.
“Last year we had more than 60 teams, and this year we’re expecting 75-100 teams,” he says.
The months of May and June, Porter says, are the best time of the year for bowfishing carp, when warming water temperatures drive carp to spawn and feed. But we set out late in the season, on an overcast day in mid-August.
We meet Porter at a gas station in Tekamah, Nebraska (roughly an hour north of Omaha). Following him to the nearest Missouri River access ramp, we board his flat-bottom boat and embark on our mission to save the environment (and slaughter as many Asian carp as we can manage).
Porter’s camouflage-painted boat is the perfect seek-and-destroy attack vehicle in the war against invasive carp. It’s a 20-footer outfitted with an elevated platform for bowfishing anglers to scan the water for invasive prey.
The Missouri River’s water looks like chocolate milk. Recent rains have disrupted visibility, making it difficult to identify carp hovering underwater. Polarized sunglasses help cut glare from the sky’s reflection. Luckily, the river’s surface remains relatively calm. Porter says conditions are not optimal, but he is confident we will have plenty of action.
We start with some instructional target practice. The first carp we come across is a silver. Scared by the approaching boat, it jumps onboard with us. We don’t have a chance to shoot.
Porter offers a quick tutorial. “Look for shadows or backs sticking out of the water, or fish jumping,” he says. Upon identifying a shadowy form, Porter shows how it’s done. He draws fast and releases. He pulls in a large silver carp. Then, he effortlessly snipes a few more.
I miss over and over again. But, soon enough, we are all landing fish.
Turning off of the Missouri River, Porter steers his boat into an intersecting canal lined with homes and docks.
A local resident waves from her canal-facing porch. From her deck chair, she yells a greeting: “Shooting Asian carp?” Porter responds in a friendly drawl, “Yup.” She shouts back, “Great! Shoot ’em all!” as we float down the canal.
Ripples have begun forming about six feet ahead of the boat, like the wake of a hidden submarine. “Can you tell where the carp are?” Porter asks. We are herding them like a fish stampede. At the end of the canal, the carp scatter in all directions. We retrace our route, hunting back to the canal’s entrance.
Over the course of the day, the three of us fill the boat’s cooler with silver carp, grass carp, and gar. Gar are another species of rough fish popular with bowfishing anglers. Although native to Nebraska (not invasive), they are fun to catch with bow and arrow. But their armor-plated exterior makes their meat difficult to access.
In Nebraska, there is no particular season for bowfishing carp or other unprotected “rough fish” (any fish that is not game fish, such as carp or gar), though there are some practical limitations. First and foremost, a valid fishing license is required to bowfish in Nebraska waters.
In shallow bays during the spring, spawning common carp boil to the surface in massive piles that bowfishers target from shore or boat (this can be found statewide in waters). The most popular destination for shooting Asian carp, however, is Gavins Point Dam on Nebraska’s border with South Dakota (about three hours north of Omaha, where the Missouri River curves west).
Nebraska regulations prohibit bowfishing of game fish (e.g., trout, panfish, bass, pike, etc.) until after July 1, when bowfishing gear can be used to target both rough and sport fish. Using a bow and arrow makes catch-and-release impossible, so bowfishermen are responsible for being able to identify the fish species they target.
An often-discussed threat of environmental and economic catastrophe involves Asian carp reaching the Great Lakes via Chicago canals that connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk already into research, electrical gates, and various safeguards protecting the Great Lakes’ $7 billion commercial and sport fisheries.
It has been said: “If you can’t beat it, eat it.” Asian carp demonstrate the axiom with mouth-watering results. Unfortunately, carp have a bad reputation with many American diners due to the large quantity of bones in their flesh.
Porter has a secret recipe (and, no, it doesn’t involve baking carp on a wood shingle for 10 hours, then discarding the fish, and eating the shingle, as the jocular folk recipe suggests). He uses a dishwashing machine to poach fillets:
“Take a fillet of Asian carp, wrap it in aluminum foil with your favorite seasonings and butter, place it on the top rack of an empty dishwasher—believe it or not, I’ve told people this recipe, and they’ve tried it while doing dishes—run a full cycle, and when you remove it, the meat flakes off the bone and can be used in fish tacos, fried for fish sandwiches, or used in crab cakes. Once you poach it, you can use the meat for any recipe that calls for fish. Blackened fish tacos are my favorite.”
On a successful early summer day of bowfishing on the Missouri, Porter says he might take home 500-1,000 pounds of carp. Since he usually has more than enough at home, he donates the meat to the community.
Whenever he finds himself with a literal boatload of carp, he makes a call to a friend in the North Omaha neighborhood where he grew up. He pulls up to the house, and a crowd gathers around his boat trailer. Porter climbs up and hauls carp from the cooler until everyone is satisfied or the cooler is empty—whichever comes first.
“The guys I’m giving fish to know, but the general population does not realize how good these Asian carp taste,” Porter says. “It’s the association with the common carp. People don’t realize they are two different species.”
One of the best known Omaha establishments to serve carp is Joe Tess Place (5424 S. 24th St.), famous for its deep-fried carp, where the fish is cooked at such a high temperature that the bones dissolve. The carp is harvested fresh from lakes in Iowa.
“In Illinois, the government has started up a fish processing center for Asian carp, and on a national level, there is already one state that is trying to utilize a surplus of edible fish,” Porter says. “My understanding is that fishermen will bring them in, and they are selling them back to Asia or to the Asian markets.”
Aside from winning taste buds, Porter says hooking youths on the sport of bowfishing is the next best means of controlling the invasive species.
Carp-o-Rama’s family festival atmosphere offers one method of attracting future carp-hunters. The Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program, established by volunteer organizer Nick Tramp, is another lure.
The mentorship program is entering its fourth year. In 2017, Tramp (based out of Allen, Nebraska) will take students of all ages to Ponca State Park and Gavins Point in July. Meanwhile, Zac Hickle of Elkhorn will focus on Omaha youths with trips to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in May and June.
“We’re just doing it to get kids off the couch and away from video games and teach them some life skills,” Tramp says, adding the program starts with a bow tutorial. All the gear will be provided, and Bowfishers of Nebraska volunteer as instructors. Youths under the age of 16 do not need a fishing license in Nebraska.
Carp is not considered a “sport” fish, but the fight is comparable to many larger game fish in faraway locations expensive to reach from Omaha.
“If you stick an arrow in a 20-pound-plus river carp, you better sit down and hold on, because it’s going to strip your reel; you’re going to have a strong fish that has grown up fighting the current,” Tramp says. “They are going to pull you right around the river.”
Porter demonstrates the fight when he lands the biggest catch of Omaha Magazine’s bowfishing trip. He sinks an arrow into a massive carp. The fish runs. Ten minutes later, Porter lands the 25-pound grass carp.
By the end of the day, my arms are sore from shooting fish and hauling carp into the boat. I head back to Omaha content, with a pile of Asian carp fillets ready to deep-fry at home (or poach in my dishwasher, if I’m brave enough to follow Porter’s advice).
Visit carp-o-rama.com for more information about Carp-o-Rama. More information about the Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program is available on the group’s Facebook page.
Rich Porter’s Favorite Recipe for Asian Carp
Take a fillet of Asian carp.
Wrap it in aluminum foil with preferred seasonings and butter.
Place it on the top rack of an empty dishwashing machine.
Run a full cycle (without any dirty dishes).
When the dishwasher turns off, the fish is poached in the aluminum foil packet.
The poached meat flakes off the bone and can be used any recipe that calls for fish.
Rich Porter’s favorite: blackened Asian carp tacos.
This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.
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.
Photography by Nebraska State Historical Society (provided)
The city of Omaha is named after the Umonhon people. The state of Nebraska is also an Umonhon word, NiBlaSka, or “Land of the Flat Waters.”
Neither this city nor this state would be named as it is without horses. The Umonhon people originally lived in Ohio, migrating to Nebraska in the 1750s after horses were introduced to the tribe from trade networks. The Umonhon controlled extensive trade networks through their oversight of the Missouri River, or NiShude. The network extended as far north as Lake Winnipeg in Canada and as far south as St. Louis. The shonge or “horse” was acquired at this time from trade relationships, and by 1775, the main Umonhon village was located at TonwonTonga or “Big Village,” near current day Dakota County, Nebraska.
The Umonhon, or Omaha, are part of the Dhegiha linguistic group. Dhegiha means “people of this land.” Umonhon translates to “people who went upstream,” relating to the separation of the Umonhon and the other cognate tribes at the headwaters of the Mississippi River hundreds of years ago. Umonhon women were agriculturalists, breeding strains of maize, beans, squash, quinoa, and melons. They also gathered other foods and medicines that grew naturally in their environment and were herbalists. Men hunted large game, such as elk and buffalo. Buffalo was especially important as it was a staple food source and provided primary provisions for blankets, robes, moccasins, fuel, shelter, and utensils. The Umonhon had a complex kinship system based on the clanship, known as the Hu’thuga.
The Umonhon had a historical impact on the state of Nebraska that is evident in present day. The Umonhon were the first equestrian culture of the northern plains as the evolving economy of the horse and fur trade was occurring. The adoption of the horse into Umonhon society forever changed Umonhon culture.
Umonhon quickly developed a strong relationship with horses. Horses were highly prized and used as a form of currency. Men, women, and children could possess horses equally. Horses were seen as the highest form of a gift one could offer.Some marriage ceremonies consisted of women being led around the village on horseback followed by her husband’s gifts to her family.
Umonhon people loved their horses. Men frequently painted their horses for spiritual reasons or to illustrate rank. Horses would also be decorated with ribbons, and their tails would be painted or braided. Women embroidered the cruppers of their horses for decoration and spiritual significance.
Horses were used to assist with labor, often in the form of a travois, a historical A frame structure that was used to drag loads over land. Prior to the introduction of the horse, travois were pulled by dogs. The horse travois were often used by women in times of long distance travel. Parflesche, or rawhide bags are utilized to store materials, were used as saddlebags on horses.
Horse culture became an integral part of Umonhon life. They changed the trade economy and horses and Umonhon people maintained a strong spiritual and social connection that continues to exist today. In January 2015, the Omaha Tribe hosted “Spiritual Ride: Prayers for Generations to Come.” This ceremony consisted of a 21-mile horse ride in freezing conditions. The purpose was to pray and bring attention to the state of Nebraska suing the Omaha Tribe over reservation boundaries. In the end, the Supreme Court sided unanimously with the Omaha Tribe in preservation of their boundary.
Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the first of those articles.The other articles in this series are:
Ben Petersen has always been good with his hands. Growing up on the family farm in Exira, Iowa, Petersen spent a lot of time watching his father work with his hands to create beautiful pieces that also served a purpose. “Dad was always making something,” Petersen says with a smile, “but it had to be practical.”
It’s that commitment to quality that inspires the furniture that Petersen makes today. “I built my first stool when I was 12, and for my birthday, my parents gave me a small workshop of my own. I have been making furniture ever since.”
That small workshop in Iowa was the start. He now operates a large co-working space for other creatives, builders, and business owners in Omaha’s North Downtown District. Bench—founded by Petersen in 2012—offers hobbyists and professional makers a collaborative environment, equipment, and space to practice their trade.
Bench feels like a place where the past and present intersect. If you enter through the front door and walk up the narrow stairway, you will notice the exposed brick, the cracks in the concrete floor, and the smell of sawdust. After signing in on an iPad that notifies Petersen of your arrival, you will hear someone walking up an old wooden staircase. You will be greeted by the most impressive beard this side of the Missouri River. The building is also home to Petersen’s TimberSmith Goods.
“Every part of our furniture is functional. We take a great deal of pride in the furniture we create for customers and local businesses.”
TimberSmith Goods grew out of PhilipDesignLab, a custom furniture company that Petersen had established in 2009. TimberSmith Goods consists of a small team of furniture makers and craftsmen who specialize in Danish-inspired, hand-hewn goods. Much of the wood used in their furniture is locally sourced and milled at the family sawmill in Exira, Iowa.
Petersen, Kyle Petersen (custom furniture lead), Adam Findley (project manager), and Matt Williams (shop assistant) use traditional methods and time-tested joinery to make furniture out of hardwoods like cherry, walnut, and oak. Their designs are intended to be handsome, timeless, and practical.
“Every part of our furniture is functional,” Petersen says. “We take a great deal of pride in the furniture we create for customers and local businesses.” Like the Paul Lounge Chair, named after Petersen’s dad. “Dad had a tough time getting out of a chair I created, so I made him the Paul Lounge Chair. It sits higher and was much easier on Dad’s back.”
Or the Draper Sideboard, named after Don Draper of Mad Men. “It reminds me of furniture from that time period—around the mid-20th century. And because I like Mad Men,” Petersen explains.
Petersen and his team’s intense commitment to detail is obvious in each piece. Around town, their work is on display in the form of three gorgeous tables for The Market House Restaurant, and they made cabinets, desks, and credenzas for the KANEKO. But their work doesn’t just stay in Omaha.
TimberSmith’s Etsy page is full of five-star reviews and satisfied customers from all corners of the country who applaud Petersen’s work. Every custom project is an opportunity for Petersen and his team to express their creativity doing something they all love. For Petersen, furniture-making is all he’s ever known. It’s a skill he learned from his dad, who was taught by his dad. At 12, he started with a stool. And now, Petersen has his Bench.
“These last couple years have been a whirlwind,” he says with a laugh.