Tag Archives: Sheelytown

Sheelytown

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ever since the days of pioneer trails, immigrants from all over the world have managed to make their way to Omaha—smack-dab in the middle of the U.S.—to forge a new start for themselves and their families.

Today, the descendants of earlier generations of Omaha immigrants continue to build on the roots planted by their forebears.

Areas of town where many locals’ ancestors once lived and worked have been restructured within the city’s changing landscape, leaving behind unique traces of history and communities determined to maintain a connection to their heritage. One such local area is Sheelytown.

The City of Omaha annexed Sheelytown in 1887. Interstate construction in the 1960s cut through the neighborhood’s main street, flattening storefronts and homes. Much of the old Sheelytown is now buried under an endless stream of interstate traffic zipping past.

Sheelytown was once an important center of opportunity for Polish Americans. In the 1860s, the Stockyards thrived, and many in need of work headed here to be a part of that growth. The neighborhood—from Edward Creighton Boulevard to Vinton Street, and from 24th to 35th streets—was already occupied by Irish immigrants, but quickly expanded, promising steady income to the many arriving families.

Joseph Sheely, the area’s namesake, owned one of the meatpacking plants near Hanscom Park. Families there were hardworking, but low-income, and therefore generally looked down upon by the wealthier residents of Omaha. Still, they made their own fun, and even developed a reputation for throwing rambunctious parties and dance events.

John Szalewski, a second-generation Polish American and member of a local polka band named Sheelytown, says this kind of energy is representative of Polish culture. In his mind, Polish people are “hardworking, and enjoy their time away from work. They enjoy getting together.” In other words, Polish people work hard and play hard.

For Szalewski, this is a part of what he loves about polka: “People feed off the energy from the band. We grew up with it, and the Polish tradition brings us together.”

On the south side of Dinker's Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish Mural Project during the summer.

On the south side of Dinker’s Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish portion of the South Omaha Mural Project during the summer. Mike Girón was the lead artist with Quin Slovek as an assistant. Rhianna Girón, Richard Harrison, and Hugo Zamorano also assisted with the mural. 

Polka music, however, is not the only part of his family lineage that remains with him. “It’s very heartwarming when you walk into a South O establishment and they know your dad.” Other members of the Sheelytown band also have family ties to the neighborhood, including violinist Patrick Novak. Patrick is the son of accordion player Leonard Novak, a local musician who used to perform with The Polonairs.

These days, most of what remains of Sheelytown is the memory of what it once was. Szalewski continues, “I think most of the people that talk about the area talk about its history.” Still, he hasn’t lost the feeling of belonging, and says, “I don’t ever feel ill-at-ease going into that area.”

For younger generations, the memories are present, but not quite as clear.

Ryan Dudzinski, Omaha resident and third-generation Polish-American, is able to recall more general aspects of his heritage through stories and recollections of Polish family members. His great-grandparents came to Sheelytown as a young family with small children in the early 1900s.

“They couldn’t speak English. My grandfather (Edward) Dudzinski spoke fluent Polish, as could all of his brothers, but my dad (James) never learned it.” He says they all settled in South Omaha and remained there, with most of their descendants still in the area today.

Like so many immigrants, some level of assimilation was a necessary part of survival, and many traditions were ultimately lost. Dudzinski says grandpa Edward insisted that his father speak English only. While this meant that Ryan Dudzinski never learned the language, he understands why.

When asked to describe how he experienced Polish culture, Dudzinski echoes Szalewski’s sentiments, “There’s lots of drinking, singing, and dancing. They are fun people.” Regarding the cuisine, he’s not as much of a fan: “There’s lots of meat in tube form.”

Today, one of Sheelytown’s biggest draws is Dinker’s Bar & Grill, a family-owned establishment at 2368 S 29th St. The current owners are great-grandchildren of a Polish immigrant by the name of Synowiecki. The most popular fare at Dinker’s is quintessentially American—hamburgers—but Polish sausages with kraut are also on the menu.

Just as it occurs within families, much of what originally united the immigrants in South Omaha has given way to time. The melting pot of ethnic groups present here allows disparate backgrounds to commingle and adapt to an evolving cultural climate.

Still, the essence of what the Polish community brought to Sheelytown has not been lost entirely. It continues to be passed along by many who were raised here, and those who want to see future generations maintain an association with their history.

Though it may be hard to spot, Sheelytown holds onto a sense of pride in its Polish traditions and continues to celebrate them today. If you look for it, you can see the community’s impact on our diverse city, and you may even be able to catch the Sheelytown polka band warming up for a night of traditional Polish mayhem. 

Visit sheelytown.net for more information about the band, Sheelytown. 

Visit amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/ for more information about the South Omaha Mural Project.

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Dinkers Bar & Grill

July 31, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

Dinker’s. The name: hard to forget. The red sign with huge yellow letters proclaiming it the home of “Omaha’s Best Burger”: hard to miss. The food: hard to resist.

In a world filled with carbon copies, Dinker’s stands out for its longevity, unpretentiousness, and reasonably-priced quality. Perched on a hill at 2368 S. 29th St. and clearly visible from I-480 at the Martha St. exit, Dinker’s still packs ‘em in 50 years after the late Frank “Dinker” Synowiecki opened a small bar two doors up from the present site.

The son of an immigrant, Synowiecki (sin-oh-WICK-ee) spent his whole life in the area, a Polish neighborhood then known as Sheelytown. He used his smarts and vision to tap into the quintessential American fare: beer, a burger, friendly conversation, and sports. Today, two of his grandchildren make sure Dinker’s never deviates far from the original script.

“We don’t take any shortcuts,” says cook John Hutfless, whose mother is a Synowiecki. “We do things exactly the way they’ve always been done.”

John’s cousin, Kerry Synowiecki Mumm, assumed ownership of Dinker’s after her father, Robert, passed it on to her in 2013. She credits fresh ingredients and her grandmother’s recipes.

“We make homemade specials every day. We also make homemade soups, homemade salad dressings, even our pickles are hand-cut,” says Mumm.

Dinker’s gets its freshly-ground beef delivered three to four times a week from Del Gould Meats in Lincoln. As the self-proclaimed King of the Kitchen, Hutfless says he easily goes through 1,100 to 1,200 pounds of beef a week. Workers use a 7-ounce ice cream scoop to gather up the beef—almost half a pound of meat—then hand-pat the burgers every morning. But what makes them so juicy?

“The fat content. Fat equals flavor,” says Hutfless with no apologies.  And for those who don’t want to eat anything that can turn a take-out bag translucent? “We have salads,” he assures.

“Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t season our meat,” adds Mumm. “I think a lot of the flavor comes from our griddle.”

The hamburger meat may not be seasoned, but the griddle sure is. Hutfless primes the griddle every morning by cooking 50 pounds of bacon, which he then uses in dishes throughout the day. Dinker’s also goes through at least 35 dozen eggs weekly, delivered fresh from Thomas Farms in Decatur, Neb. They need them for their biggest seller.

“The Haystack is by far our most popular burger,” says Mumm. “That one has grilled ham, American cheese, and a fried egg on it.” The Haystack sits on a grilled Rotella’s kaiser bun—light and fluffy but sturdy enough to hold the hamburger and its toppings together.

Another popular offering, the Bluejay Burger, scores big with the Creighton crowd. It comes with melted Swiss cheese, bacon, and thick, homemade bleu cheese dressing.

“This place is shoulder to shoulder on Creighton basketball game nights,” says John. “Coach (Greg) McDermott and his staff come here. Doug still pops in whenever he’s in town.”

Customers also plow through Dinker’s signature onion rings—hand-battered, slender, tender, and slightly clumped together. Like the meat, Hutfless’ batter lacks seasoning, but the take-out onion ring basket comes with packets of salt for those who want the option. Among the appetizers, Dinker’s chicken wings soar. Crispy on the outside, fresh and meaty inside, they pack just enough heat to satisfy those with a “hot” preference without overpowering the “mild” crowd.

As subjective as the word “best” is, Dinker’s “best” claim comes with hefty backup. In numerous local, regional, and national publications; online blogs, travel sites, and social media, Dinker’s consistently ranks at or near the top of surveys on food, bars, and atmosphere. The latest accolade appears on Thrillist.com, which named Dinker’s the most iconic bar in Nebraska. The ability to “get a stiff drink” to go with “Omaha’s best burger” impressed the writers, as did the simplicity of the place.

If “Dinker” Synowiecki were to come back today, he would probably feel as comfortable as he did when he opened the original establishment in 1965, save for the eight giant TV screens and two Keno screens on the walls.

His old three-door beer cooler still works and sits in the corner of the bar area, its giant compressor whirring in the basement. The tables and chairs resemble some bygone faux wood-and-chrome era. Customers order their food at the kitchen counter, their drinks at the bar, and pay in cash only. Well-heeled lawyers sit beside, and talk with, construction workers with muddy boots.

Neighborhood regulars—retirees—come every day for their coffee, burgers, hot beef sandwiches, or flat iron steak specials. They come for the familiarity and the friendship. To them, Dinker’s has been, and always will be, the “best.”

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