Tag Archives: Nebraska

Taking Time To Design

April 9, 2018 by
Photography by Jeremy Allen Wieczorek

90 seconds.

In a little over a minute, a buyer falls in love with a house. That’s all it takes.

It happened to Aubrey Hess. She knew it immediately when she entered the front doors of the two-and-a-half-story American foursquare house. She called her husband Corey in a panic.

“This is it,” Aubrey said. “Get over here.”

Aubrey realized it needed some work. She should know. Aubrey, a realtor for the past 12 years with Better Homes and Gardens, has stepped into countless homes. Only a few have grabbed her attention.

But something in those seconds on 110 S. 52nd St. moved her. She looked beyond the peel-and-stick laminated tile, the orange-tinted wooden floors, and lackluster yellow walls. Aubrey saw potential. Corey, an architect with DLR Group, realized it despite knowing the electric wiring and roof needed work. No “little pink houses” on this block. Instead, the uniqueness of the midtown neighborhood appealed to the creative couple. The added space would be ideal for their two growing girls, Emerson and Montgomery.

The first month became a flurry of activity. Walls deserved a fresh coat of paint, light fixtures became interesting pieces of art, and wooden floors were unveiled. Birch on the main level, oak on the second, and pine on the third. Pine possibly due to the history of the almost 100-year-old house. Live-in servants typically utilized the third floor, so owners didn’t dish out the most expensive wood.

The bones of the house have remained, giving it a bygone vibe. The dining room has a small circle service bell built into the flooring from days past. Rooms have the original old-fashioned swinging and hidden pocket doors. The light switches don’t flip, but are still the same push buttons from the 1900s. Corey even cooked the heavily painted doorknobs in a crockpot with soap and vinegar to keep the novelty intact.

“We wanted to be respectful to the topology,” Corey says. “What’s the point of buying the house otherwise?”

The house has character, and little touches like these add flavor to the couple’s eclectic, “kick of fun” ideas. A gold chicken-legged end table stands next to a black cowhide in the “smoking room.” Meanwhile, a twisty white papier-mâché night table complements a slat metal headboard in the guest room.   

After the family moved in, Aubrey wasn’t sure how to finish off the last bit of the house. Luckily, interior designer Roger Hazard sat next to her at a charity event and the two talked wallpaper.

Every single project provides a challenge. In this case, it seemed to be a matter of cohesion. Hazard has visited with homeowners in every single state and made his mark making homes interesting. His bold style landed him three hit television shows on A&E—Sell This House, Move this House, and Sell This House: Extreme—as well as two Emmy nominations.

Hazard, along with husband Chris Stout, decided they wanted a change from the fast-paced lifestyle of traveling road shows. The two established Roger + Chris, “the home of the unboring home.” Hazard saw cool development opportunities and hype in Nebraska.

“Omaha is going to be a hot spot in the next 10 years,” Hazard predicts.

The two settled in to design different styles from contemporary to conservative to traditional. Hazard first created a presence in each room for the Hess family. The upstairs hall was painted with a large splash of emerald green while the color continues with a smaller presence in the velvet drapes in the smoking room.

In addition, Hazard and Stout make and name their own furniture. “Bunny” is a black-and-white striped loveseat with a hyacinth-colored interior, which will be placed to the right of the front door.

“Stripes are my favorite color,” Aubrey jokes.

The house is a mix of materials, fabrics, and textures. Plus, it harbors a touch of masculine and feminine. For example, pink velvet chairs in the dining room mingle with a gray tweed couch.

It is relaxed, yet stimulating. The family loves to entertain, so each room is a talking point. Rorschach flashcards are framed and hung on one graphite gray wall. Guests can interpret the psychological blots.

“I would rather buy something fun to mess up than something boring,” Aubrey adds.

This rustic refinement is perfect for a family that loves to eat, play, and have fun. It gives her daughters room to play. The custom-made walnut tree dining room table is strewn with a puzzle the girls started to piece together. Corey, along with a friend, designed the black-bottom base. The family also spends hours in the smoking room—not smoking—reading because the sun warms the area with light. A concrete coffee table in the living room can be moved aside when dance parties break out.

The Hess girls do spend time in their bedrooms, preferring alone time during the day, though the two are inseparable at night. Rather than the typical pink walls, both rooms are adorned instead with empowering quotes from strong women such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Emerson, 8, likes the big house but isn’t a fan of the kitchen (which the family still plans to redo). Other small parts also need fixing up, such as the bathrooms. 

And the basement is currently a work in progress. Corey exposed some bright brick and the trim has been replaced. Hazard plans to add hot pops of pink, blue, and orange to give it high energy. It won’t even feel like a basement, more modern and loft-like.

“We will hopefully be done by 2019,” Aubrey says with a laugh.

These two busy parents fit in bursts of inspiration when possible. Photos and framed artwork from their kids once took two long nights to finish. The grass out front has been replaced with synthetic turf so less time is spent on the lawn and more on relaxation. It’s one of the reasons why the two have spent time and effort designing it—so it will be a place of comfort and joy for the entire family.

Visit rogerandchris.com for more information about the A&E celebrity couple involved with the Hess family home’s redesign.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

A Revolutionary Meeting

April 3, 2018 by

Down in the old Chinatown, underground tunnels and hidden rooms were just some of the mysteries reported by The Omaha Daily Bee newspaper in August 1894.

For a former frontier community, Omaha’s media was well-attuned to international dispatches on foreign Chinese news; meanwhile, Bee journalists frequently reported on Omaha’s own domestic Chinese community.

In the Bee’s coverage of the “Sixth Annual Convention” of the Douglas County chapter of the Temperance Union in August 1894, Mrs. D. C. Bryant “reported excellent progress in the missionary work among Omaha’s Chinese.” That same month, as the First Sino-Japanese War broke out between China and Japan over control of Korea, the Bee noted that Chinese forces received support from Koreans everywhere their army went.

In the Aug. 31, 1894, edition of the Bee, headlines on page-seven declared that the Chinese community’s “Local Geehing” were “After Toong Chee’s Scalp” as “Omaha Chinamen Swear Allegiance to the Order that Has for Its Object the Removal of the Present Emperor of the Flowery Kingdom.”

That would have been Guangxu Emperor, the 11th emperor of the Qing dynasty, whose reign started in 1875 even though Empress Dowager Cixi remained the real ruler of Imperial China. (The name “Toong Chee” likely refers to the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor, who Guangxu succeeded in 1875.)

“Strange Chinamen” had come to Omaha from “Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles.”

The Bee elaborated that it was “not generally known to the public” but remained “a fact nevertheless that there exists in this city a society that is as determined in its plans and has for its object as deadly a purpose as did the dreaded Mafia of New Orleans.”

Numerous “strange Chinamen” had come to Omaha from “Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles.” It was an “intelligent fellow” named Ling Gee who “tipped off” a Bee reporter about what was going to take place. Ling Gee worked at Hong Kee’s Harney Street laundry and told the Bee reporter of a “very important meeting held in the basement of Ging Loo’s laundry” on 10th Street.

The reason so many Chinese were in the city was “that a number of the Omaha Chinese would be initiated into the mysteries of a new society that was about to be organized.” Ling Gee claimed that “even the walls would not divulge any of the secrets which would be told.”

After that one Bee reporter “who speaks Chinese like a native” was sent to Mr. Gee to “complete arrangements for a report of the meeting.” Gee remained hesitant until a “goodly quantity of coin” were shown. He finally said there was potential “to secrete a man in the room where the meeting was to be held, but intimated if the intruder was discovered his chances for again seeing his relatives would not be worth speaking of.”

Naturally, the Bee reporter was “willing to take all of the chances” and just before sunset he “wended his way down” 10th Street and “obeying instructions, knocked at the back door of a small wooden building.” The reporter was “at once admitted by Ling Gee” who led him “down a stairway that was as dark as a sinner’s heart” to “a long, crooked and dark passage for a distance, finally coming into a brilliantly lighted room, fully fifty feet square.”

There, “Mr. Gee conducted The Bee man to a wall that appeared to be as solid as the eternal hills” but “reaching his hand to the height of his head, Mr. Gee pressed upon one of the boards of which the side of the wall was constructed and instantly a section slipped aside, revealing a room eight feet high and some six feet square.” The unnamed reporter described “his prison for several hours” was “elegantly furnished.”

After an hour, he “heard the sound of voices, and a moment later a couple of celestials entered the room and made a tour of inspection, examining chairs, tables, sofas and walls to see that they harbored neither intruders nor spies.” After that, a variety of “strange Chinamen were escorted into the room by Sing Pong” who was a Webster Street “laundryman.” Those escorted in by Sing Pong were introduced as “Ching Chung, Ah Fong, and Tee You,” all of Deadwood, South Dakota. After that there “was a rapid gathering of the clans” as “almond eyed gentlemen” arrived “singly, in pairs, and in quartets until there were fully 150 present” that came from “about every city between the Pacific coast and Chicago, and from St. Paul on the north to St. Louis on the south.”

The unnamed reporter described “his prison for several hours” was “elegantly furnished.”

When it seemed the “auditors” were all present, Wo Kung of Omaha, “dressed in a robe of the richest material and ornamented with jewels,” went to the platform to introduce “Hi Ooo Pong of San Francisco, who, he said, would fully explain the object of this meeting.” With that, “Mr. Pong advanced to the platform” while “bowing and scraping” as “the entire audience bowed to the floor.” At a “given signal” they all stood and “remained standing until Fo Lee, the sentry at the door, repeated in Chinese the words, ‘All is well.’’” After that, and “without any ceremony”, Pong “explained that the swords hanging over the chairs were the emblems of secrecy and death, and a rapid death, too, would pursue the man who so far forgot himself as to give to the outside world a word of what was to take place.” After Pong asked “Are you content?” every member of the crowd agreed and he then “invited Joe Fow of Denver, and Wo Tong of Kansas City to the chairs to his right and left.”

Hi Ooo Pong then “said that he had come to Omaha for the purpose of establishing a branch of the Geehing, a society for which had its object the disposition of T’oong Chee, the present emperor of China.” After the Omaha organization they would “elect delegates to the Geehing, which is to be held in Chicago on September 9” where “some plan would be developed.” Pong then went through the history of China as “some centuries ago the Chinese were a law-abiding, peaceful race of people, skilled in the arts, prosperous and happy and well supplied with the goods of this world.” Then came 1643 and the invasion of “the Tartars, better known as the Manchoos” (i.e., Manchurians) bent on “killing the peaceful natives, not even sparing the women and children” as they “burned, sacked, and murdered” their way through Peking and continued their “march of devastation until the sea was reached.” They then returned to Peking and “placed T’oong Chee I upon the Chinese throne” although the war continued until 1649.

Then Pong took “from his pocket a copy of the Wah Tsz Yat Po, published at Hong Kong” and “read extracts” that showed Chinese support to “depose Emperor T’oong Chee, and that for that purpose branches of the Geehing were being organized all over China.” He told the gathered crowd that “now was the time to strike” as the “iron was hot” with the Japanese war and “if the loyal subjects of the land of their birth would throw themselves into the breach, they could attack the armies of the emperor from the rear and give them more than they could handle.” Pong assured them that at next month’s meeting in Chicago they would “adopt heroic measures.” The response was much applause with Pong telling them “the necessity of going down in their pockets and contributing to the fund” that would be “appointed at the Geehing” in Chicago. Pong’s pleas were followed by “short speeches” from “Chung Choo of St. Louis, Kee Woo of St. Paul, and Hee Fow of Sioux City” who all supported Pong’s positions.

The oath continued that they would “swear by the blood of Twang Gee Hong, the first ruler of the empire of China, that I will never rest until every Manchoo is driven off the face of this earth.”

It was midnight when Pong asked for any further comment on the proceedings before “he would initiate candidates into the order of the Geehing, he having a special dispensation for the entire territory west of the Mississippi River.” There were 50 people out of the crowd who “arose and expressed a desire to become members, after which they were invited to step to the platform.” With that the “couches and chairs were shoved back to the walls and the wearers of the queue marched to the front, where they were blindfolded by men appointed for the purpose.” After they were blindfolded, the men “repeated the oath” that the Bee reporter loosely translated as “By the bones of Confucius I swear that I will never divulge the workings of the Geehing, and if I do may my body be cut in quarters and be cast to the uttermost parts of the earth, there to rot and to become food for the vultures.” The oath continued that they would “swear by the blood of Twang Gee Hong, the first ruler of the empire of China, that I will never rest until every Manchoo is driven off the face of this earth; that I will kill his first and his last born, sparing neither women nor children; I swear by the blood of Ho Ping Woo, one of our martyred heroes, that I will not rest until the last hated Manchoo is killed; that I will not return to my home until T’oong Chee is driven from the land of China, and this and more do I know forever swear.”

That was followed by other oaths before the “candidates were led about the room three times, each and all humming one of the old-time war songs of China, when the hoodwinks were removed from their eyes.” It was then “the three swords were taken down from where they had been suspended and their edges examined” before they were given to “Gee Fong of Milwaukee, one to Hee Doo of St. Joe, and the other to Yee Lee” of Omaha. Those three were “told to perform the last binding oath and the last act of the initiation” and then “told to bare the left arm to the elbow” and then “proceeding rapidly along the line the sword bearers gave each man a gash about an inch long and deep enough to draw blood, the cutting being done on the front of the forearm, about midway between the wrist and the elbow.”

Pong “caught the blood in a silver plate about the size of a soup bowl” and had “fully a pint” by the end of it all. Then, “Dr. Gee Hong of Salt Lake” came through to administer a “healing lotion to each of the mutilated arms.” The silver bowl of their blood was then passed around as every “took a small sip” before they were “declared full-fledged members of the Geehing.” After the initiation ceremonies, “Ning Fee of Denver, Tol Ye of Kansas City, Lee Lung of Omaha, Tee Gong of Sioux City, and Ah Han of Dubuque” were selected as delegates to the September meeting in Chicago. At last, “as quietly as they had entered the men departed the hall” and the newspaper reporter was finally let go at 3 in the morning.

It remains somewhat of a mystery why Omaha’s Chinese allowed the Bee reporter a glimpse into their otherwise private world. One can only conclude that it was to announce an organized opposition to the Qing dynasty. One could also speculate just how many American newspapers in 1894 had a reporter who was fluent in Chinese. Likewise, the elaborate ruse of the secret room was surely to keep the reporter informed but otherwise well out of the way.

Three months after the Omaha “Geehing” meeting Sun Yat-Sen organized the Revive China Society while in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii. Eighteen years later in 1912, the goal of removing the Qing dynasty was completed. Imperial China came to an end after 2,000 years with the establishment of the Republic of China and Sun Yat-Sen as the country’s first president.

Potential involvement in the creation of the Republic of China by those who attended that August 1894 meeting in Omaha deserves further investigation. The only modern reference to any “Geehing” is the Gee Hing Chinese Company Charitable Trust, established in 1987, that maintains the Tong Wo Tong Chinese cemetery in Kealakekua, Hawaii.


See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:


Ryan Roenfeld is a local author and historian. He is a fifth-generation resident of Mills County, Iowa, and former president of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County. His most recent book, Wicked Omaha, was published in 2017. Omaha Magazine featured his profile in the May/June 2017 issue. 

Chinatown Lost and Found

March 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are only a few remnants of early Chinese-American history left in Omaha. The city’s former Chinatown is almost forgotten.

The building at 1415 Farnam St. (now occupied by Kitchen Table) was for many years the home of the King Joy Oriental Cafe, opened by Leo Wing in 1913. The iconic structure at 315 S. 16th St. (where King Fong Cafe operated for almost a century, from 1920 until 2016 when it closed “for repairs”) remains standing. And there is also the recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places at 1518 Cass St. (added to the federal registry in November 2017), the On Leong Tong House.

Tongs were male-only social organizations for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans. Literally, tong translates to “hall” or “gathering place” in Cantonese (the Chinese language spoken by most early Chinese immigrants to the United States). Not everyone in the local Chinese community would have been a member of Omaha’s On Leong Tong, which was essentially a secret society.

The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912 (but some form of the tong might have been present in the city earlier). The tong house moved to the Cass Street location in 1938. Although the tong eventually disbanded in Omaha in 1959, branches of the nationwide organization continue to operate in the form of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association in several U.S. cities with large Chinese populations.

On Leong was one of several tongs operating across the U.S. in Chinatowns at the dawn of the 20th century. The era of tong expansion featured bloody conflict as rival tongs fought to control turf, opium, prostitution, and gambling rackets. Omaha’s Chinese community, for the most part, avoided spillover from the Tong Wars (1880s-1930s) of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. The local branch of On Leong Tong, however, suffered no shortage of historical intrigue.

For the most part, the local story of the On Leong Tong is a story of people acclimating to, struggling, and thriving in a city that looks very different from the Omaha that residents know today. At the tong house, members could socialize while speaking Chinese, celebrate common holidays, and find community.

Omaha’s Chinese community—more so than most other immigrant communities—was alien to the daily life of the city. They were often victims of prejudice and exploitation, and they had no real political representation. What they had—for what it was worth—was a social organization led by businessmen that would carry on their collective rituals, where they could forge their identity and find their power as a local community.

The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912

The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha—sometime after acquiring the land in 1884. When the building was being razed, a World-Herald story (from Dec. 3, 1963) suggests that the building remained in the hands of Anna Wilson until her death in 1911. At that time, and for many years, the street level space would be occupied by Chinese grocers, the first owned by Wing Sing. Across the street to the west sat Omaha’s first fire station. Just to the north at 117 N. 12th St. was Q.W. Lee’s grocery, and the Sing Long grocery was at 123 N. 12th St. Across the road toward Capitol Street, at 122 N. 12th St., was a grocery owned by Wing Tang. These addresses typically had private residences on upper floors, and it is likely that the block was densely populated by a poor and often transient population of mostly Chinese men. A block to the east, at 11th and Capitol streets, was the Sam Hai Laundry, while a large, four-story police headquarters occupied the block between 10th, 11th, Capitol, and Dodge streets.

This is an area that would come to be known, at least for history, as Omaha’s Chinatown. Some local newspaper accounts suggest that Omaha’s Chinatown occupied a four-block area northeast of 12th and Dodge streets. In a Dec. 3, 1961, World-Herald article titled “Gay Dragons Once Danced in a Thriving Chinatown,” journalist Robert McMorris paints a picture sourced from secondhand accounts of the “four-block area” where men wore Manchu-style braids (common during the Qing Dynasty in China) and women walked in “short, mincing steps” (a consequence of the now-discontinued practice of binding girls’ feet) at the turn of the century.  Later writing from Edward Morrow on the city’s early Asian community (in a March 5, 1978, Sunday World-Herald Magazine) claims that 200-300 Chinese once resided in “ancient red brick buildings at Eleventh and Dodge” streets.

Old city directories don’t support his claim of Chinatown occupying a four-block area. More likely, Omaha’s Chinatown took up a single block between Dodge and Capitol on 12th Street, with additional concentrations of Chinese restaurants along 14th and Douglas streets and clustered near North 16th Street.

Among the Chinese restaurants grouped together on Douglas Street, the first to open as an upscale establishment—competing for Omaha’s business and night-time entertainment clientele—was the Mandarin Cafe at 1409 Douglas St., with a large “Chop Suey” sign hanging from the front of the building. Opening in January 1912 by Gin Chin (who would later open King Fong Cafe), it was located on the floor above the Budweiser Bar, just at the east end of Omaha’s theater row, which occupied most of Douglas to 16th streets. The Budweiser Bar was run by Billy Nesselhaus, business partner of Tom Dennison, Omaha’s most notorious gangster, who ran a gambling operation out of the bar below the Mandarin Cafe.

The year after the Mandarin opened, in September 1913, Leo Wing opened the King Joy Cafe, at 1415 Farnam St., in a second-story space above the Farnam Theater. Like the Mandarin House, the King Joy offered American dishes along with its Chinese menu, advertising “steaks and chop suey” in particular, as well as live music in the evenings. Opening night at the King Joy did not go off without incident, but it did land a story in the World-Herald (Sept. 19, 1913). Firecrackers were lit on the balcony of the restaurant that somehow started a fire inside. Patrons ran to the street, fire trucks came, crowds gathered, and traffic was stopped for much of the evening.

In the Douglas Street cluster of Chinese restaurants, there was also Louie Ahko’s at 1419 Douglas St. (moving to 1417 Harney St. in 1917), open since at least 1910, the Canton restaurant at 1404 Douglas St., and the Elite Cafe at 209 S. 14th St. run by Sam Joe. Another Chinese restaurant, the Los Angeles Restaurant owned by Sing Yep, was located at 105 S. 13th St. At 1306 Douglas St. was a restaurant run by Charles Sing, and at 1313 Douglas St. was the Nanking Restaurant run by Wong Ching.

Among the Chinese restaurants concentrated in the vicinity of North 16th Street, Sam Sing had been operating a restaurant at 1516 Webster St. since 1901. (It moved to 1520 Webster St. at some point and would close in 1918 upon Sing’s arrest for bootlegging.) The 1914 city directory lists Joseph Wing as proprietor of a restaurant at 304 N. 16th St. (in the Edward Hotel, later run by Sam Huey as Edward Cafe) and Hung Lew at 517 N. 16th St. In 1918, Leo Wing is listed as proprietor at 517 N. 16th St. and Chin Chung as restaurant owner at 606 N. 16th St. The directory also shows Chinese laundries at 509 and 604 N. 16th St.

Leo Wing was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago

Among the problems facing Chinese merchants in Omaha was a corrupt police department. The police commissioner, John Ryder, would be removed from office in 1914 and forced to switch positions with A.C. Kugel, head of the department of street cleaning and maintenance, for his inability to control the police force. The move came Jan. 19, 1914, three days after the World-Herald criticized Ryder for allowing a “protected house of commercial vice” to remain in operation just a few blocks from police headquarters, at 13th and Dodge streets. The house in question belonged to Hazel McVey of 414 N. 14th St., the sometime romantic partner of Billy Nesselhaus.

On Jan. 31, 1914, Ryder’s last night as police commissioner, a series of secret raids would be made on “every place in town suspect of law violation,” according to the World-Herald. Most were Chinese restaurants, including “All of the lower Douglas Street Chop Suey restaurants.” At the Mandarin, “there were certain evidences that didn’t suit the officers,” so the manager, probably Gin Chin, was arrested and later released on $25 bond. Louie Ahko was also raided and arrested. Across the street at the Canton, two men were arrested and several women were “hustled out of town.” At midnight, the police returned to the Canton, “They didn’t like the looks of the place,” so the proprietor was returned to police headquarters.

The King Joy was also raided, but nothing was found out of order. Louie Ahko and Gin Chin were to appear before a judge Feb. 3. Louie Ahko paid a $25 fine, but Gin Chin did not show up, to the outrage of the city prosecutor, and he forfeited his bond. The charge was “running a disorderly house,” and the evidence was beer found in teapots. But on Feb. 6, Gin was able to show, to the satisfaction of the judge, that the beer was brought in by patrons, which was perfectly legal, and the charges against Gin and Ahko were dropped.

Despite problems, and perhaps because of them, the thriving Chinese-American business community officially organized in 1916 with the founding of the Omaha Chinese Merchants Association. On Nov. 22 of that year, the World-Herald reported, “More than two million firecrackers, yes, two million, were discharged in Omaha last night,” to celebrate the opening of the new hall of the Merchants Association at 111 N. 12th St. There was live music, the Merchants Association band, and a feast to celebrate the event. If there was any symbolism in the event, any message being sent to Omaha, it was delivered by the firecrackers. It took more than a half hour to shoot them all off, on a Tuesday evening, just one block from police headquarters.

The police may have taken offense. Two weeks later the president of the Merchants Association, Leo Wing, was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago to a newly formed tong in Omaha directing the assassination of the two men who did not belong to the tong or the Merchants Association. Wing denied the accusation, claiming that the issue merely involved a minor dispute over an unpaid debt, and it apparently went no further. However, a month after his arrest, the King Joy caught fire, with firemen finding evidence of arson, gasoline, and kindling in the Farnam Theater below. Two months later a midnight explosion and fire, again in the Farnam Theater below, sent King Joy patrons running into the street. No motive or possible perpetrators are mentioned in the news coverage.

The building at 111 N. 12th was never listed as the Chinese Merchants Association in the city directory. In 1914, its sole occupant listed is Wing Sing Grocers.

By 1918, it is Soon Lee Grocer and the Wa Wing Club. For 1923 and 1925 the directory lists Soon Lee Chinese goods and On Leong Chinese goods. Only in 1934 and then in 1936, just before moving to 1518 Cass St., would it be recognized in the directory as a tong house, listed then as On Leong Tong Hall along with Leo Wing.

The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha.

The tong house in Omaha included gambling rooms, mahjong and lotteries, a bunk room where opium smoking could be found, and a shrine room with an altar and a statue of Buddha. No other illegal activities were ever reported by the World-Herald. Nevertheless, individual members would continue to have problems. A spokesperson for the Merchants Association, Gow D. Huie, was arrested in March 1917 for assault with intent to kill, the victim identified as Yen Huie. Gow Huie allegedly “smote him on the head with a cleaver” while the two were working at a Douglas Street restaurant. It seems the two were related and that the charges were dropped. Gow Huie would later open the Mon Yen Lo Cafe at 1508 Howard St. (by 1925), and in 1932 he would take over both the Mandarin Cafe and the Peacock Inn at 1818 Farnam St. He would remain an active community leader until Dec. 7, 1935, when he was arrested on a federal narcotics charge. In the summer of 1936 he was convicted and sentenced to two years in the Leavenworth Penitentiary, but he disappeared immediately after sentencing and was never heard from again.

During the Depression, many Chinese-Americans would leave Omaha. This may explain why key restaurants changed ownership. Early in 1930 it was announced that Sam Joe opened a new chop suey house at 1415 Farnam St., previously Leo Wing’s King Joy. Gin Chin gave up the Mandarin Cafe in 1932, to be reopened by Gow D. Huie that year as Huie’s Cafe. It may simply be that the Chin and Wing families had fewer relatives to employ. A New Year’s notice of the tong celebration in 1933, with Chin Soo Leong named as president, reported that membership once at 220 had dropped to 50, with most leaving in the past year. The restaurant industry in general was hit hard during the Depression, and it had a dramatic effect on Chinese restaurants in Omaha. Those who worked at the restaurants, those who remained in town, were suffering economically. According to the newly elected spokesperson for the tong, Sam Joe, in a 1936 New Year’s notice, the prior year was the first time any members of the colony had to accept outside charity. A dozen or so went on government relief.

One effect of the economic conditions was reported in the World-Herald on Nov. 1, 1937. The day before, Anna Chin, 7-year-old daughter of Jimmy Chin, died of pneumonia. She had 12 siblings; one of which, Phillis (or Lotus Blossom), had been born six weeks earlier. Her mother had remained sick in bed ever since. Two of her siblings, 4-year-old Billy and 1-year-old Jeanette, were also sick. All lived at 1517 Burt St. Jimmy, a World War I veteran, had worked at the “famed restaurant” Mandarin Cafe with his father, Gin Chin. Both then worked at King Fong’s. The story goes on to point out that Jimmy had to support his family on $40 a month—$12.50 in salary and the rest in tips. He had made double that “until a damaging story had circulated about the place where he works.” Evidently, some sort of rumor had spread about King Fong’s that severely curtailed business.

As an example of the general prejudice faced by tong members, consider the entry in the Nov. 26, 1935 World-Herald. Under a large photo with the header “Sam Joe and Soon Lee explain it all,” the two prominent Chinese-Americans are publicly degraded and humiliated. On the important topic of Japanese aggression against China, the reporter chose to parody their lack of facility with English, transcribing mispronounced words in a few broken sentences, and portray them as stupid and ill-informed. The truth is that both men were hard-working and successful leaders of their community.

On July 16, 1938, the World-Herald reported the dedication of the new tong house at 1518 Cass St. On the exterior of the building was placed a sign in Chinese characters identifying it as the On Leong Tong house. The interior was split into two large rooms. One side was devoted to mahjong and the other a meeting room with a Buddhist shrine.

Current Omaha resident Chu Huey, son of Sam Huey and nephew of Soon Lee, is now in his 80s and remembers the old tong house. He says it was very social space with people (adult men) there every day playing mahjong. Chu Huey arrived from China via Hong Kong in 1951, at 17 years old, and attended Tech High while working for his father at the Edward Cafe. He and friends would sneak into the tong house in the morning and play mahjong and be off to work at Chinese restaurants before adults arrived around lunchtime to play. Mahjong would continue through the afternoon and evening, often ending with a trek south on 16th Street to King Fong’s. If there was anything to celebrate, especially Chinese holidays (the Lunar New Year in particular), festivities would take place at the tong house. It was only on these celebratory occasions that women and children would come. Often new arrivals, with no money and nowhere else to go, would stay at the tong house. Extended family members would then have the obligation of finding them jobs and a place to live.

The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry.

Exactly why the tong moved remains a matter of speculation, but it is clear that the center of the Chinese-American population in Omaha had shifted to North 16th Street by the late 1930s. The established families, the Chins and Hueys in particular, lived several blocks north and west of Omaha’s former Chinatown. Soon Lee, president of the tong (brother of Sam Huey and Sam Joe’s cousin) lived at 1617 Cass St. Sam Huey lived at 1609 Cass St. while running the Edward Cafe a block away at 304 N. 16th St. Across the street from the Hueys at 1610 Cass St. was the Lee Kune laundry, next door to the Midway Tavern, a dance bar. Another Chinese laundry listed in 1938 was run by Lee Moy at 1514 Webster St. In 1939 Quong Wing Industry was located at 319 N. 15th St., perhaps a laundry as well. The Chin family had a large residence at 1817 Davenport St., Jimmy Chin lived at 16th and Burt St., and a few years later the family would have another home at 19th and Burt streets.

Another feature of the neighborhood where the tong had relocated was Cass Elementary School, between 14th and 15th on the north side of Cass Street. Cass School was attended by virtually all children of Chinese-American immigrants. It was, in fact, the most ethnically diverse school in Omaha, reflecting the diversity of the neighboring population (which also included many Swedes and Jews). Mary Simonds, principal in 1912, responded with indignation to the suggestion that her immigrant students were inferior. “I have the very best students in the city,” she said, quoted in the June 2, 1912, edition of the World-Herald.

The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry. Coal-burning smokestacks lined the view to the east. Union Pacific’s shops occupied most of the land from Dodge to Cuming streets, on an angle running from the river to 15th Street. Also included in that area near the river was Asarco (previously Omaha and Grant), Omaha’s now notorious lead smelter and refiner, the world’s largest in the late-19th and early-20th century. This was Omaha’s most noxious business and residential area. Those who would not be welcomed into other areas of the city would end up on near North 16th Street. This was partly exclusion and partly economics. It was also a cheap neighborhood to live in. Numerous inexpensive hotels lined 16th Street and side roads, between Davenport and Cuming: the Edward at 302, the Rex at 605, the Drexel at 618, and the Northwestern at 619 16th St., the California on the southwest corner at California street, and the Park at 1502 Cass St. On Chicago between 15th and 16th streets were the Chicago and the Midland Hotels. On the south end of the neighborhood, Capitol to Davenport on 17th Street was the Flomar Hotel, a block east on 16th Street was the Loyal.

Interspersed between hotels were markets, primarily grocers and hardware stores. And running through the center of neighborhood activity, and responsible for much of it, were streetcars that intersected with the rest of Omaha. It was the liveliest neighborhood business district in the city.

In the post World War II era, as activities in the tong house continued, the World-Herald stopped reporting them. Mahjong was played daily, holidays were celebrated, but membership in the On Leong Tong continued to decline, as did its role for the Chinese-American community in Omaha. Like Gin Chin’s son Carl, who worked as a chemist for the city, the children of tong members would increasingly see themselves as citizens of Omaha, Nebraska, rather than members of an immigrant community. They would speak perfect American English. They would be assimilated, in the sense that they would no longer accept or bear the burden of being treated as aliens in their native land. The function of the tong declined as identity with it became less necessary or useful.

After the death of George Hay in 1959 (who the World-Herald names as one of the last members), the tong disbanded. Chu Huey went on to open his own iconic restaurant, Chu’s Chop Suey House, in 1964, across from Aksarben on Center Street, which remained open until 2002. Chu’s father, Sam Huey died in 1965. Gin Chin died in 1962 at the age of 93, with 36 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren. His restaurant, King Fong’s, will be reopening in the near future.

Blue Line Coffee purchased the former tong house at 1518 Cass St. in 2009 to be used as a coffeehouse/diner in anticipation of a planned transit center at 16th and Cass streets. The transit center failed to materialize and plans for the building were put on hold. The building is currently used for storage while under preparations for development. The author of this article, Chris McClellan, is the owner of Blue Line Coffee. McClellan prepared a history of the building (from which this article is excerpted) for Restoration Exchange Omaha’s successful nomination to list the structure with the National Register of Historic Places.


Editor’s Note on Chinese Names

Chinese names traditionally feature family/surname first, followed by given names. In Chinese, Gin Chin’s full name would be presented “Chin Ah Gin.” Gin Chin is an Americanized presentation. Chinese around the world also often take an English first name. In addition, some of the Chinese names featured in Omaha Magazine’s in-depth look at the city’s historic Chinese community are based on early archival accounts (where names might have been distorted due to language barriers, reporting errors, or outright racism).

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:

Remember the Big Joe Polka Show?!

March 1, 2018 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

The Jimmy B Orchestra, Barefoot Becky & The Ivanhoe Dutchmen, and The Sauerkrauts—these bands witnessed the heyday of polka in Omaha.

The musical groups were just some of the acts featured on the Big Joe Polka Show, which aired on dozens of radio stations nationwide for more than two decades. Hosted by Omaha native Joseph “Big Joe” Siedlik, the weekly program showcased performances by some of the region’s best-known and beloved polka bands and orchestras.

For many in the heartland, including immigrants who longed for the music and traditions of the old country, the hour-long show was a staple of their Sunday afternoon family time. Thousands tuned in to enjoy the happy, rhythmic sounds of polka, which Siedlik called “happy music for happy people.” At its height, the program aired on more than 30 stations, including a few in California and New York.

In 2000, the Big Joe Polka Show made its television debut on the newly launched RFD-TV cable network, which devotes its programming to agribusiness, equine and rural issues, and traditional entertainment. The dance and variety program garnered strong ratings among RFD-TV’s audience—estimated on its website at 40 million-plus available households—and ran through December 2010.

Today, thanks to digitization, fans of the toe-tapping, cheerful music genre can watch airings of Big Joe Polka Classics on RFD-TV. 

Many people believe there was no bigger champion for polka music than “Big Joe,” who passed away in 2015 at age 80.

Joe Siedlik’s son, Mike, agrees. “He wasn’t a musician himself, but he was a great promoter of all kinds of polka music,” he says from his sign shop in Columbus, Nebraska. “He could play the drums a bit, and a cymbal, more or less for a party atmosphere,” he joked. “But he really appreciated the talent those musicians had and was always promoting them.”

Mike says his dad, who grew up around polka music in his ethnic South Omaha neighborhood, began recording polka performances on reel-to-reel. “I’d tag along with him going station to station, pitching his show. He’d buy airtime, with the condition he’d sell the advertising himself. He became well known throughout the state, and was even asked by the governor to put on a polka dance for the Nebraska centennial celebration,” he says proudly.

Big Joe went on to become a regular emcee for polka dances at ethnic festivals and fundraising events throughout the region, as well as founding Polka Days at Ag Park in Columbus, where he and his wife settled to raise their family. He also founded Polka Cassettes of Nebraska (a mail-order music business) and published Polka World (a bimonthly newspaper) for over a decade.

“At 13, I was helping distribute papers and putting labels on eight-tracks. Dad would hire us high school kids to get the job done…He could get the troops fired up to do anything,” Mike remembers.

He is happy to know his father is still entertaining after all these years: “It makes people smile to watch his show and see their relatives, or even themselves and their friends, dancing away, enjoying the music…saying ‘I can’t move like that anymore!’”

Ed “Sonny” Svoboda, coordinator for the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame, also credits Big Joe for his major contribution to polka: “He was quite a promoter, doing radio station promos and fundraising. He put on the first polka festival at Peony Park. Back then, it was a lucrative business and Joe was passionate about it.”

Like Big Joe, Svoboda grew up in South Omaha. “It was a great place to be raised. The area was full of Czech families and businesses. We lived about a half block from Sokol Hall.” Polka music was a fixture in family life and community in South O, says Svoboda, whose own family emigrated to the U.S. from Bohemia.

Svoboda began playing polka music professionally at age 15, and later took over accordion-playing duties for his musician father in the Red Raven Orchestra at age 18. A Red Raven performance at the Starlite Ballroom in Wahoo, Nebraska, aired on the Big Joe Polka Show years ago.

“Joe was a good friend,” he says. “I only have good things to say about him.” Though Big Joe has not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Svoboda adds, “I expect that will happen, as we have a category for nominees that are [deceased]. Though not a musician, he was a real ambassador for polka music.”

The six-piece Red Raven Orchestra continues to perform, playing annual events including Omaha Oktoberfests, Taste of Omaha, and Fort Omaha Car Club. Occasionally, they still play Starlite Ballroom. Svoboda still plays accordion and books all the group’s engagements. “Mostly, though, we do a lot of assisted living facilities. The folks light up like Christmas trees when they hear the music,” he says. “We don’t make a lot of money, but we like to give back.”

He says it makes him sad to see so few young people today taking an interest in polka music. “I think [those in the industry are] doing a better job in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota and places back East,” where polka dances and festivals have bigger youth turnout. “We need to do a better job of promoting here among the younger generation. Families today are just so focused on their kids’ activities. Cultural things are just getting lost.”

Maybe introducing young kids to polka through Big Joe Polka Classics is a start.

Check rfdtv.com/schedule for program dates and times to view digitized footage of the Big Joe Polka Show.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Home And Away

January 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

One fun side effect of travel is that warm, wistful feeling you get when you’ve been away long enough to remember just how much you love home. For Wendy and Todd McMinn, home is a corresponding reminder of just how much they love their travels.

The walls, shelves, and surfaces at the McMinn house feature a mosaic of global artifacts, telling the story of a lifetime of adventures. A German cuckoo clock, Chinese mask, Turkish lamps, Dutch wooden shoes, dolls from Guatemala and Colombia, glass piggy bank from Austria, and artwork from all over the world are just a few examples of the cache of vibrant items that decorate their Omaha home.

“We’ve been really blessed with the opportunity and ability to travel. When we first got together, I told Todd, ‘You have to have your passport,’” says Wendy, a nurse with a lifelong love of experiencing far-flung places. “Our home and spaces around the home reflect the places we’ve traveled and the different cultures and people we’ve met along the way.”

When Wendy’s military father was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, the family spent several years of her childhood in Spesbach, Germany. Her parents were intentional in ensuring that she and her brother got a full cultural experience.

“I never knew any different, and my parents always made it fun. My mom is from Louisiana, so she said, ‘Guten tag, y’all,’” recalls Wendy of the way she witnessed the blending of cultures from a young age.

She has many vivid memories from those formative years, like volksmarsching (a recreational walk meant to help engage American military families with the community), learning to swim at the schwimmbad, and trading chocolate chip cookies for sweet bread at the bäckerei downstairs.

The family also traveled throughout Europe during this era, and though they returned to settle in Nebraska in 1983, Wendy’s love of travel endured.

“My mom took me to Holland when I was 10; we saw the windmills and dams and had a really neat experience,” Wendy says. “We went to Heidelberg and all these different places…I felt such a value in those experiences and wanted my kids to learn that value and see different parts of the world like I did.”

Todd, a physician who grew up with more of a domestic family road-trip exposure to travel, agrees that their children—Harrison, 22; Emily, 20; and Grace, 18—have benefitted from seeing the world.

“Wendy encourages international travel, whether that’s mission trips she’s done with the girls, study abroad opportunities, or other travels,” Todd says. “Traveling with the kids has been a great learning experience for them.”

Some of the McMinn family’s favorite journeys have taken them to France, Germany, Holland, and the United Kingdom. On a crowded list of future travel wishes, Wendy says Spain, Australia, Russia, South Africa, and Iceland top her list.

The McMinns like to strike a balance of planning without rigid overplanning when they travel; they use public transportation when possible, and they always travel light. They especially love to visit art museums and historical sites, and they have a family tradition of grabbing a snack or coffee in museum cafes. When the kids were younger, Wendy and Todd would ask them each to pick an attraction in their destination city to research, then when the family was on-site, they would share information they’d gathered about those places with the rest of the family.

“For example, one of my kids picked the Trevi Fountain when we visited Rome, so when we got there it was her job to tell us all about it,” Wendy says. “It gave them some ownership and got them excited about the upcoming trip.”

The McMinns have certainly succeeded in passing their love of travel on to their three children, which Wendy says comes not just with its obvious pleasures, but also with an expanded worldview.

“I realized very young that there are lots of people out there, and many of them are so different than me, but that’s so cool. There’s a lot of difference out there, but it’s not to be feared,” Wendy says. “Travel is just such a deep-down part of who I am. Seeing other people and cultures when I was younger, I got a sense of the bigger picture and just how big the world is.”

Just like a typical McMinn itinerary, their travel-related home décor isn’t overplanned.

“It wasn’t preplanned; it just is,” Wendy says. “All of this stuff is just a part of us and our memories.”

“There’s no structure or plan to it,” agrees Todd. “But every item has a story that goes with it and sentimental meaning to our family.”

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Home

2017 Anniversary Overload

January 12, 2018 by
Photography by the Durham Museum

Nebraska has spent the past year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a state, and this seems about as good a time as any to look at some recent and forthcoming local anniversaries.

First and foremost, this past year was the 150th anniversary of Omaha losing something very particular. When Nebraska was first founded, Omaha was its territorial capitol. This was always an unpopular move, largely because there were likely more people south of the Platte River than north, and so picking a northern city was seen as being a poor representation of the state’s population.

The location of the capitol was the source of considerable friction for many years. In 1867, when Nebraska was made a state, it was moved to Lincoln, south of the Platte.

This was, in its own way, a final humiliation for Stephen Douglas, who drafted the legislation that created the state of Nebraska and after whom Douglas County was named. Douglas had, years earlier, dated a woman named Mary Todd—who went on to marry Abraham Lincoln. Douglas had been the Democratic candidate for president, but members of his party were so offended by Douglas’s politicking in the creation of Kansas and Nebraska (abolitionists, in particular, were furious that his legislation left the question of slavery up to the states) that they broke off and formed their own party, the Republican Party. They would nominate Lincoln as their presidential candidate, and he would beat Douglas.

And now, at long last, the capitol of Nebraska would be moved from a county named after Douglas to a city named after Lincoln.

This past year also marked the 100th anniversary of Boys Town, Father Edward J. Flanagan’s long-lasting and remarkably successful experiment—a self-contained, self-governed community designed to help at-risk youth (originally exclusively boys).

Although Flanagan, a native of Ireland, was likely partially inspired by movements for Irish self-rule in conceiving of a place where children ruled over themselves, Boys Town was very much a product of Omaha. Flanagan had originally sought to address a large number of itinerant laborers who used Omaha as a weigh station, creating a “workingman’s hotel” for those who were broke and needed a hand up.

But Flanagan soon found that there was a permanent underclass of adult men with chronic substance abuse problems and endless legal woes, most of whom seemed impossible to help. He realized he had to reach these men before they became adults, and so the idea for Boys Town was born.

2017 also marked a more contentious anniversary, the conclusion of Omaha’s attempts to annex several once-independent communities. Omaha has always been rather quick to annex nearby town and villages, and the city looked to absorb Dundee and South Omaha in 1915. But many residents weren’t eager to become part of Omaha and fought the annexation, mounting a two-year court battle that ultimately proved futile. Florence and Benson were also annexed in 1917.

The milestones keep on rolling. One hundred years ago, Fort Omaha set up its balloon school. The school was part of a series of experiments that would eventually lead to the development of the Air Force. In this instance, the school trained soldiers in the use of dirigibles, primarily for the sake of reconnaissance and forward observation for artillery.

Many of these soldiers went on to put this into practice during World War I, anchoring their balloons near the front lines in France, mapping the terrain, reporting enemy troop activities, and directing artillery where to target their munitions. This was a risky undertaking, as the dirigibles were appealing and poorly defended. Several German flying aces made their reputations as “balloon busters” for specifically targeting the dirigibles.

2017 was the 75th anniversary of another wartime venture, the 1942 Omaha scrap metal drive. The drive was started in response to a crisis in America’s steel factories, which were so overtaxed by the war effort that several were closing down.

Omaha World-Herald publisher Henry Doorly conceived of a three-week scrap metal drive to provide badly needed raw materials. At the end of the drive, Omahans had managed to locate or donate 67,000 tons of metal. The drive was so successful that it inspired a national scrap drive.

Now what? With the turning of the new year, what milestones can Omahans look forward to commemorating?

Here’s one for 2018: This is the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest quotes in political history, which came to us in 1988 courtesy of a vice presidential debate at the Civic Auditorium. The candidates were Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen.

The young, conventionally handsome Quayle styled himself after President John F. Kennedy, at least in terms of his senatorial experience (his actual style drew heavily from a Robert Redford film called The Candidate.) When Quayle made the mistake of mentioning Kennedy, Bentsen shot back at him, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

The line has since become political shorthand to deflate pretentious, self-serving statements from politicians, although it probably should be noted that Quayle, and his fellow candidate George H.W. Bush, would go on to win the election. 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The State of Volleyball

December 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For generations, football gave Nebraska a statewide identity. But with Husker gridiron fortunes flagging, volleyball is the new signature sport with booming participation and success.

Here and nationally, more girls now play volleyball than basketball (according to the National Federation of State High School Associations).

“It’s the main or premier sport for women right now,” Doane University coach Gwen Egbert says.

Omaha has become a volleyball showcase. The city hosted NCAA Division I Finals in 2006, 2008, and 2015, with the Cornhuskers competing on all three occasions (winning the national title in 2006 and 2015).

Packed crowds at the CenturyLink Center will once again welcome the nation’s top teams when Omaha hosts the championships in 2020. Meanwhile, Creighton University is emerging as another major volleyball powerhouse, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha has made strides in the Mavericks’ first two years of full Division I eligibility since joining the Summit Conference.

In the 2017 NCAA tournament, Creighton advanced to the second round (but fell to Michigan State). As this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press, the Cornhuskers headed to regionals in hopeful pursuit of a fifth national championship.

“The fact Nebraska has done and drawn so well, and that kids are seeing the sport at a high level at a young age, gets people excited to play,” says Husker legend Karen Dahlgren Schonewise, who coaches for Nebraska Elite club volleyball and Duchesne Academy in Omaha.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln first reached a national title game with Schonewise in 1986. The dominant defensive player set Nebraska’s career record for solo blocks (132)—a record that still stands—before going on to play professionally. (The Cornhuskers didn’t win the national championship until 1995.)

Skutt freshman and future Husker Lindsay Krause and current Creighton standout Brittany Witt (a Marian grad)

“I think the amount of kids that play in Nebraska is No. 1, per capita, in the country. I think the level of play is far higher than many states in the country,” says Omaha Skutt Catholic coach Renee Saunders, whose star freshman, 6-foot-3 Lindsay Krause, is a UNL verbal commit.

Volleyball’s attraction starts with plentiful scholarships, top-flight coaching, TV coverage, and professional playing opportunities.

Few states match the fan support found here.

“We have probably the most educated fans in the nation,” Saunders says. “They’re a great fan base. They know how to support their teams, and they’re very embracing of volleyball in general.”

The lack of physical contact appeals to some girls. The frequent team huddles after rallies draw others.

Omaha Northwest High School coach Shannon Walker says “the camaraderie” is huge. You really have to work together as a unit, communicate, and be six people moving within a tiny space.”

Volleyball’s hold is rural and urban in a state that has produced All-Americans, national champions, and Olympians.

The Husker program has been elite since the 1980s. Its architect, former UNL coach Terry Pettit, planted the seeds that grew this second-to-none volleyball culture.

“He really spearheaded a grassroots effort to build the sport,” says Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. “Besides winning, he also worked diligently to train our high school coaches.”

“It’s important to realize this goes back many years,” former Husker (2009-2012) Gina Mancuso says, “and I think a lot of credit goes to Terry Pettit. He created such an awesome program with high standards and expectations.”

Pettit products like Gwen Egbert have carried those winning ways to coaching successful club and high school programs and working area camps. Egbert built a dynasty at Papillion-LaVista South before going to Doane. Several Papio South players have excelled as Huskers (the Rolzen twins, Kelly Hunter, etc.).

Their paths inspired future Husker Lindsay Krause.

“Seeing the success is a big motivation to want to play,” Krause says. “Just watching all the success everyone has in this state makes you feel like it’s all the more possible for you to be able to do that.”

Many top former players go on to coach here, and most remain even after they achieve great success.

Walker says quality coaches don’t leave because “it’s the hotbed of volleyball—they’re staying here and growing home talent now.”

“It’s us colleges that reap the benefits,” Bernthal Booth says.

Pettit says it’s a matter of “success breeds success.”

Schonewise agrees, saying, “Once you see success, others want to try it and do it and more programs become successful.”

“The standard is high and people want to be at that high level. They don’t want to be mediocre,” UNO coach Rose Shires says.

Wayne State, Kearney, Hastings, and Bellevue all boast top small college programs. In 2017, Doane was the first Nebraska National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program to record 1,000 wins.

“We’ve got great Division I, Division II, NAIA, and junior college volleyball programs,” says Bernthal Booth, who took the Creighton job in part due to the area’s rich talent base. She feels CU’s breakout success coincided with the 2008 opening of D.J. Sokol Arena, which she considers among the nation’s best volleyball facilities.

“All these colleges in Nebraska are in the top 25 in their respective divisions,” Saunders says. “It’s crazy how high the level of play has gone, and I think it’s going to keep going that way.”

“It’s really built a great fan base of support,” Mancuso says, “and I think the reason the state produces a lot of great volleyball players is the fact we have great high school coaches, great college programs, and great club programs.”

Club programs are talent pipelines. There are far more today than even a decade ago. Their explosion has meant youth getting involved at younger ages and training/playing year-round. Nebraska Elite is building a new facility to accommodate all the action.

“The athleticism found in the state has always been pretty high, but the level of play has definitely improved. The kids playing today are more skilled. The game is faster,” Egbert says. “When I started out, you’d maybe have one or two really good players, and now you could have a whole team of really good players.”

“You have your pick of dozens of clubs, and a lot of those clubs compete at the USA national qualifiers and get their players that exposure,” says Shannon Walker, the Northwest High School coach who is also the director of the Omaha Starlings volleyball club.

“Volleyball is such a joy to be a part of in this state,” Mancuso says.

Gina Mancuso

“It’s cool to be a part of everything going on in Nebraska and watching it grow and develop,” Skutt freshman phenom Krause says.

“My goal is to make Lindsay ready to play top-level Division I volleyball by the time she graduates here,” Saunders says. “She already has the physicality, the competitive edge, the smarts. Now it’s just getting her to play to her full potential, which she hasn’t had to yet because she’s always been bigger than everybody. She’s definitely not shy of challenges. I feel like every time I give her a challenge, she steps up and delivers.”

Krause values that Saunders “gives great feedback on things I have to fix.”

Native Nebraskans dot the rosters of in-state and out-of-state programs. Along with Krause, Elkhorn South freshman Rylee Gray—who holds scholarship offers from Nebraska and Creighton—may emerge as another next big name from the Omaha metro. But they are both still a few years from the collegiate level.

UNO’s Shires says “impassioned” coaches like Saunders are why volleyball is rooted and embraced here. Shires came to Omaha from Texas to join the dominant program Janice Kruger built for the Mavericks at the Division II level. Kruger, now head coach at the University of Maryland, was previously captain of the Cornhuskers’ team (1977).

Further enhancing the volleyball culture, Shires says, is having former Olympian Jordan Larson and current pro Gina Mancuso come back and work with local players. Mancuso’s pro career has taken her around the world. She wants the players she works with at UNO, where she’s an assistant, to “see where it can take them.”

As volleyball has taken off, it’s grown more diverse. Most clubs are suburban-based and priced beyond the means of many inner-city families. The Omaha Starlings provide an alternative option. “Our fees are significantly lower than everybody else’s,” says Walker, the club’s director and Northwestern’s coach. “Anybody that can’t afford to pay, we scholarship.”

Broadening volleyball’s reach, she says, “is so necessary. As a result, we do have a pretty diverse group of kids. I’ve had so many really talented athletes and great kids who would have never been able to afford other clubs. We’re trying to even the scale and offer that same experience to kids who have the interest and the ability but just can’t afford it.”

“It’s very exciting to see diversity in the sport—it’s been a long time coming,” Schonewise says.

Forty-five Starlings have earned scholarships, some to historically black colleges and universities. Star grad Samara West (Omaha North) ended up at Iowa State.

Starlings have figured prominently in Omaha Northwest’s rise from also-ran to contender. Eight of nine varsity players in 2017 played for the club.

Walker knew volleyball had big potential, yet it’s exceeded her expectations. She says while competition is fierce among Nebraska coaches and players, they share a love that finds them, when not competing against each other, cheering on their fellows in this ever-growing volleyball family/community.

“It’s awesome,” Walker says. “But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to reaching our peak yet.”

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

With A Beard and a Smile

October 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Walking into Lookout Lounge is a different experience than entering other music venues around Omaha. Admittedly, it feels a little strange driving into a business plaza just south of 72nd and Dodge streets for a punk show. But what distinguishes Lookout (formerly The Hideout) is more than just location. It is the bearded man sitting at the entryway, checking IDs and working on his laptop, that sets this venue apart.

Raised in Copperas Cove, Texas, Kyle Fertwagner knew from a young age that his destiny lay in music. At 6 years old, he was mesmerized by blues concerts in nearby Austin. “Those experiences are ingrained in my memory. There were thousands of people out there enjoying music, sharing that common bond of whatever that music meant to them.”

By the time he moved to Omaha at age 15, he and his younger brother, Keith, were playing together in punk bands. They got their start at The Cog Factory. Like many area music fans, Kyle is eager to share fond memories of that nonprofit venue, which closed in 2002. “That was our stomping grounds,” he says. “That’s where I basically grew up as a musician, as a punk rocker, as a person.” Before their first show at The Cog Factory, Fertwagner recalls that the owners greeted the band and “it just immediately felt like home.”

Recreating that welcoming DIY vibe is what drove him to quit his job as general manager of a local restaurant and take over The Hideout in 2015. Keith had already learned how to work sound systems, and Kyle had learned how to run a business from years in the restaurant industry.

With “a little TLC” and a lot of elbow grease, the brothers made the place their own. Kyle proudly showcases a sign from the original Cog Factory over the pool table. Next to it is the hand-painted mural featuring the venue’s name and the radio tower logo that has become an Omaha icon. Endless layers of screen-printed posters paper Lookout’s walls, and concert-goers have enthusiastically decorated the bathrooms with a vibrant collection of friendly graffiti.

Kyle describes himself as “owner/operator,” but upon attending a show at his venue it is immediately apparent that he does much more than the typical owner. Besides personally welcoming patrons into shows and tending bar, he works the lights and often shadows his brother on sound. But before any of that can happen, “it starts with the band.”

When asked about his work with local promoters and artists, Kyle can’t quite hold back a grin. Lookout is known around Omaha as a starting point for bands that have never played in public before. Its owner is the main reason for this reputation. His voice softens when asked about his role in helping young local artists get their music off the ground: “I think it’s important when you’re first starting out to have a venue you can call home.” This determination to give back to the music community makes Lookout special.

Kyle’s unique philosophy on booking shows is “to not try to take everything on ourselves.” This means more cooperation between venue staff, bands, and promoters. “It’s a team effort.” The additional networking and communication is more work, but well worth it.

From his days in small punk bands growing up, he knows the obstacles and struggles of getting a band onstage. This knowledge helps him guide others through the process.“We try to use our experience to help younger bands grow,” Kyle says. “That’s good for everybody.” He is always happy to reach out to local promoters and say “we’d love to work with you.”

When Kyle works to foster those relationships to put a show together, that’s when the energy of the DIY venue is created. “It’s ‘Alright, cool, we did it, we sold the place out!’ Instead of ‘I sold the place out.’ It’s more of an ‘us’ thing.” Shows that are assembled with teamwork are more rewarding for the band, everyone behind the scenes, and the audience. Those packed concerts are a staple of Lookout’s imprint on the musical community.

After taking care of the band, Kyle’s next focus is his role as head of security. At any show, he can be seen roaming around the audience, keeping out a watchful eye for any sign of trouble. He accepts personal responsibility in creating a positive energy at Lookout, and takes the security of the audience very seriously: “People shouldn’t feel unwelcome here for any reason.”

In order to ensure that everyone feels welcome, anyone exhibiting abusive behavior of any kind will be personally warned and, if need be, escorted out by Kyle himself. He is quick to explain, “Anything that happens here I take to be a personal reflection on me.”

Visit lookoutomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Kyle Fertwagner

Great Scot!

October 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He began serving as the vice president of LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Heartland Pride last fall, but David Kerr hails from nowhere near Nebraska. The Glasgow, Scotland, native followed love to Omaha in 2013, and although his relationship ended, his business venture, The Tavern, blossomed in the heart of the Old Market. Today, Kerr jokes about printing cards to answer the daily question of how and why he ended up in the middle of America, but maintains he’s found a good fit in his adopted city.

“Omaha is hugely supportive of young entrepreneurs and business startups, and they have a sense of community here that you would never find anywhere else to nurture someone like that,” he says. Kerr prides himself on running an inclusive establishment that welcomes all; he’s even one of the first locally to offer gender-neutral bathrooms.

In turn, his business supports numerous nonprofits by serving as an event venue, participating in giving program Together A Greater Good (TAGG), and even directly supporting fundraising efforts. Kerr’s interest in giving back to the community began an ocean away, but one particular cause will always be close.

David Kerr

“Before I called Omaha my home, I volunteered for an LGBTQ+ organization in London called ‘The Albert Kennedy Trust,’ and they did some incredible work. And it really gave me an appetite to work for change no matter where I am,” he says.

The 1969 Stonewall riots are largely regarded as the catalyst that brought forth the U.S. gay pride movement. Heartland Pride’s official beginnings trace back to 1985. It’s a better world today for most LGBTQ+ people, Kerr says, but there’s still work to be done.

“Since then it’s remained crucial to our community to remain visible and proud. It’s easy to get complacent when we make strides,” he says. “For the gay community, it’s still relevant because honoring and celebrating our culture is still relevant.”

Dozens of countries around the world still criminalize same-sex activities, Kerr points out, and in eight countries death is a legal punishment.

“It’s important to remember the tradition of honoring those who went before us, the ones who were denied their human rights, and the ones who physically lost their lives as well. It’s important to still get out and be proud to honor those lives and shine a beacon of hope to people around the world. There are people who are suffering way more than people here in the United States,” he says. “We’re not acing it here by any means, but at least we’re making strides.

Allies should take notice, too, he adds. Locals may associate Heartland Pride with its annual June parade and surrounding events, but it’s also an important fundraiser for the nonprofit—run completely by volunteer efforts—whose activities include a scholarship program, a community action grant, and several youth programs.

“It’s obvious in this political climate that anyone’s rights can be called into question at any point by any government, and that’s not just true for the United States. Things are not static; they’re constantly moving, so we need to remain proud and visible so that no one ever does infringe upon our rights again,” Kerr says. “And that’s true for many communities, not just LGBT.”

Visit heartlandpride.org for more information about Omaha’s LGBTQ+ community.

This article appears as part of the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

2017 September/October Explore!

September 1, 2017 by
Photography by contributed

State of Nebraska

Apple Jack Festival in Nebraska City Sept. 15-17.

Apple Jack Festival Sept. 15-17, various locations, Nebraska City. Drawing 60,000-80,000 people to Nebraska City every year, this festival celebrates the beginning of apple harvest. Named one of the Top 10 Fall Harvest Festivals in the United States by USA Today, everything is entirely apple-themed. Apple pie, apple cider, candy apples, caramel apples, apple fritters, and more goodies will be available. 402-873-8757.
gonebraskacity.com/festival/apple-jack-festival

Harvest Festival Sept. 16-17, Legacy of the Plains Museum, 2930 Old Oregon Trail, Gering. Now in its 21st year, this event attracts thousands of travelers from throughout Nebraska and neighboring states. There will be a pick-your-own potato patch, demonstrations of antique farm equipment, a corn maze, and more. 308-436-1989.
legacyoftheplains.org

Annual Ogallala Indian Summer Rendezvous Sept. 21-23, Rendezvous Square, 112 E 2nd St., Ogallala. The 33rd annual event features a chili cook-off, car and bike show, 5K and one-mile run/walk, music, and entertainment. 308-284-4066.
ogallalaindiansummerrendezvous.com

Lincoln Symphony Orchestra presents Joshua Bell & Bruch Sept. 26, Lied Center for Performing Arts, 301 N. 12th St., Lincoln. Performing composer Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell will join the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra for their season-opening performance. 402-476-2211.
—lincolnsymphony.org

Luke Bryan Sept. 28, Bob Benes Farm, 701 S.W. 63rd St., Lincoln. Billboard’s top country artist in 2016 is bringing his “Farm Tour” to Lancaster County resident Bob Benes’ farm. With special guest Jon Pardi, the show is the first of the ninth year of the tour that brings country music to rural farm fields. No phone number available.
lukebryan.com/farm-tour

Lincoln Calling Sept. 28-30, various locations, Lincoln. The annual non-profit music festival put on by Hear Nebraska will feature emerging artists as well as some better-known ones, such as headliner Charli XCX. No phone number available.
lincolncalling.com

B-52s at Lied Center for Performing Arts Sept. 30

B-52s Sept. 30, Lied Center for Performing Arts, 301 N. 12th St., Lincoln. Known for their hit singles “Love Shack,” and “Rock Lobster,” the B-52s have sold over 20 million albums, bringing a party with them to every city they visit. 402-472-4747.
liedcenter.org

Prairie Loft Harvestfest Oct. 1, Prairie Loft Center for Outdoor & Agricultural Learning, 4705 DLD Road, Hastings. This free annual event celebrates the harvest season in Nebraska, offering kids’ activities and music, a tractor display, hayrack rides, farm animals, food vendors, and more. 402-463-0565.
prairieloft.org

Trevor Noah Oct. 6, Lied Center for Performing Arts, 301 N. 12th St., Lincoln. The host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show will perform an evening of stand-up. He was the first South African stand-up comedian to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. 402-472-4747.
liedcenter.org

Great Pumpkin Festival in Crete Oct. 6-8

Great Pumpkin Festival Oct. 6-8, along Main Street in Crete. Downtown Crete will be packed full of autumn fun. Highlights include hayrack rides, carnival games, food, and the Great Pumpkin Giveaway. 402-826-2136.
cretepumpkinfest.com

Prairie Lights Film Festival Oct. 20-22, The Grand Theatre, 316 W. Third St., Grand Island. This three-day film festival promotes and showcases Nebraskan-made films and encourages networking and public support. This year includes the world premieres of the documentary Prairie Pints and short film The Bagman Died First. 308-381-2667.
prairielightsfilmfest.com

Motown the Musical Oct. 21-22, Lied Center for Performing Arts, 301 N. 12th St., Lincoln. This show follows the American Dream story of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who assisted in launching the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and others. Motown the Musical features hit songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” 402-472-4747.
liedcenter.org

Boo on the Farm Oct. 22, Wessel Living History Farm, 5520 S. Lincoln Ave., York. This Halloween event is for children in preschool through fifth grade. Games, treats, wagon rides, and Starbucks coffee will be available all day long. Each child will receive a pumpkin to take home. 402-710-0682.
livinghistoryfarm.org

Boo at the Zoo Oct. 26-30, Lincoln Children’s Zoo, 1222 S. 27th St., Lincoln. With over 40 trick-or-treat booths, Boo at the Zoo is Lincoln’s largest Halloween event. All of the money raised directly supports the animals, and children can see their favorite critters while snacking on candy. 402-475-6741.
lincolnzoo.org/events

The Good Life Halfsy Oct. 29, throughout Lincoln. This half marathon goes through several area green spaces. Runners also pass stadiums and iconic buildings before finishing downtown. 402-937-8515.
goodlifehalfsy.com

Punkin’ Chunkin’ Oct. 29, along Highway 32 one mile east of Petersburg. Competitors enter their machines to shoot, launch, throw, or fly pumpkins weighing 6 to 12 pounds. Pumpkins will be flung across fields all day long, and the event is held in conjunction with the World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’ Association. 402-386-5551.
ci.petersburg.ne.us

Iowa

Iowastock 2017 Music and Art Fair Sept. 1-4, Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater, 3357 St. Charles Road, St. Charles. This new festival to central Iowa has a major goal in mind of highlighting the state’s homegrown talent. Along with music, the four-day event will feature food vendors, arts and crafts, and after-parties. 515-770-1218.
iowastock.com

Harvest Wagon Rides at Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa, throughout September and October.

Harvest Wagon Rides Sept. 9, 16, and 23, and Oct. 14, Living History Farms, 11121 Hickman Road, Urbandale. This evening of horse and wagon rides through fields and country roads also includes light refreshments and other autumn fun. 515-278-5286.
lhf.org

World Food & Music Festival Sept. 15-17 in downtown Des Moines. This food festival celebrating cuisine from around the world is returning with live entertainment, cooking demonstrations, and a fireworks show. 515-286-4949.
worldfoodandmusicfestival.org

ZZ TOP Sept. 17, Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines. The legendary rock band has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide and was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. 515-246-2300.
desmoinesperformingarts.org

Oktoberfest in downtown Des Moines Sept. 22-23

Oktoberfest Sept. 22-23, downtown Des Moines from Mulberry Street to Grand Avenue. Featuring polka bands, authentic German food, a rooftop bier garden, beer villages, dance lessons, and a stein holding competition, the 14th annual Oktoberfest is held in the heart of the Historic Court District. 515-286-4950.
oktoberfestdsm.com

Halloween Hike Oct. 23, Annett Nature Center, 15565 118th Ave., Indianola. Trek down a trail lit by jack-o’-lanterns and meet several costumed characters along the way. Crafts and snacks will follow the adventure through the woods. 515-961-6169.
warrenccb.org

Family Halloween Oct. 26-29, Living History Farms, 1121 Hickman Road, Urbandale. This non-scary family event includes horse-drawn wagon rides, storytellers, pumpkin bowling, trick-or-treating, and jack-o’-lanterns. 515-278-5286.
lhf.org

Steve Martin and Martin Short Oct. 27, Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines. An evening of stand-up, film clips, musical numbers, and conversations of their lives in show business. The comedians will be joined by the Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band with whom Martin performs. 515-246-2300.
desmoinesperformingarts.org

American Alpaca Showcase Oct. 28-29, Iowa State Fairgrounds, 3000 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines. This livestock competition will feature animals from both the American Alpaca Showcase and the Illinois Alpaca Show. The event is free and will feature alpacas from farms from all over the county. 603-610-6010.
americanalpacashowcase.com

Kansas

Spooktacular Weekend Oct. 20-22 throughout Atchison. Visit the most haunted town in Kansas during the spookiest time of the year. Events include tours by the Haunted Trolley, and of the Sallie House, which has been featured on paranormal shows such as The Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and BuzzFeed Unsolved. 800-234-1854.
visitatchison.com/explore-experience/haunted-atchison

Edgar Allen Poe History Mystery Walking Tour Oct. 29 at Atchison Theatre, 401 Santa Fe St., Atchison. Beginning with a tour of the old railroad town, the eerie evening returns to Theatre Atchison to enjoy an evening of mystery as the theater’s Encore Players recreate the drama of Edgar Allen Poe from the golden age of radio. 1-800-234-1854.
visitatchison.com

Missouri

Joestock Music Festival Sept. 1-3, Felix Street Square, 2601 Frederick Ave., St. Joseph. This free music festival is for all ages. Produced in conjunction with the Missouri Music Hall of Fame, the festival is a celebration of local art and music. 816-676-1112.
stjosephmusicfoundation.org

Independence Uncorked Wine Festival Sept. 9, 313 W. Pacific Ave., Independence. Featuring 25 local wineries, the largest Missouri wine festival includes art, music, and food booths. Proceeds from the event go towards national and local charities, and the event is held on the grounds of the historic Bingham-Waggoner Estate and 1852 mansion. 816-820-2112.
independenceuncorked.com

Midwest Tea Festival in Kansas City Sept. 9-10.

Midwest Tea Festival Sept. 9-10, Ararat Shrine Temple, 5100 Ararat Drive, Kansas City. An event completely dedicated to tea, the Midwest Tea Festival focuses on tea preparation, tea culture, history and tons of tea tastings. A tea market featuring vendors from across the Midwest and country will run the entire length of the festival. 816-923-1995.
midwestteafest.com

Gorillaz Sept. 22, The Sprint Center, 1407 Grand Blvd., Kansas City. Fresh off of the release of the band’s latest album, Humanz, Gorillaz is better known as their virtual selves. The group is known as the most successful virtual band of all time, after selling over 7 million copies of their 2001 self-titled debut album Gorillaz. 816-949-7100.
sprintcenter.com

The xx—”I See You Tour” Oct. 3, Star Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road, Kansas City. The British indie-pop band expanded their 2017 North American tour following the release of their third studio album, I See You. 816-363-7827.
kcstarlight.com

Pony Express Pumpkinfest Oct. 13-15, Pony Express Museum, 914 Penn St., St. Joseph. The lighting of the Great Pumpkin Mountain—where hundreds of carved, electrically lit pumpkins come to life at the flip of the switch—opens the Pony Express Pumpkinfest. Following the lighting ceremony, a festival featuring a children’s costume parade, festival rides, food, and crafts takes place. 816-279-5059.
ponyexpress.org/pumpkinfest-201