Tag Archives: 1912

Groovy Gravy

January 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

UPDATE (Jan. 12, 2017) : After the publication of the January/February issue of Encounter Magazine, Cask Republic announced that it would no longer sell poutine.

“We realize that the food aspect, especially the poutine, was not financially viable,” says Ryan Frickel, co-owner of Cask Republic. Snacks will soon be available, and the bar allows patrons to bring in food from several area restaurants.

* * * * *

Foodies generally regard the 1950s as the nadir of 20th century cuisine in North America. It brought us TV dinners, jello salads, and tuna casseroles. However, it also brought us a Canadian dish that, depending on your disposition, is either a trinity of salty, starchy, fatty goodness, or a cardiologist’s dream for stirring up new business (in truth, it’s probably both).

Poutine is, essentially, french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Like the Reuben sandwich, there’s been a few claims to its origin, but the general consensus is that it came from rural Quebec in the late 1950s. It’s a prominent staple for restaurants downtown (Block 16) as well as Benson (1912, Benson Brewery). For the Cask Republic bar in Dundee, it’s their primary focus.

Co-owners Ryan Frickel and Craig Lundin opened Cask Republic this past summer in the former home of the popular French Bulldog restaurant. Frickel came to the decision to focus on poutine after eating it in Benson last year. Frickel says there have been poutine-focused eateries sprouting up on the West and East coasts for the past few years. Frickel wanted to be the first in Nebraska to have such an eatery.

“Who doesn’t like meat and potatoes in Nebraska?” Frickel says.

poutine1For their version of poutine, the Cask Republic double-fries their french fries to get them crispy enough to withstand the heavy coating of gravy. Their beef gravy (they also have chicken and vegetarian variations) is a combination of homemade beef stock, spices, herbs like rosemary, and some chicken. Finally, their cheese curds, served at room temperature, top the dish. When you bite into one of the curds, it should sound faintly like a dog toy.

“If it’s not squeaky, then people in the poutine world get super pissed off,” Frickel says.

Like other greasy spoon staples such as hamburgers and hash browns, there have been plenty of high-end takes on poutine. 1912 has a variation that includes duck. Block 16’s gravy incorporates a red wine reduction. The Cask Republic has poutines that include burnt ends, and even “seasonal” poutines, including turkey for the holidays. Still, focusing your menu on dish that’s basically french fries and gravy is risky. Frickel, however, compares poutine to other dishes that are now commonplace around Omaha.

“[We] kind of likened it to sushi, where 20 years ago, people in Omaha either didn’t know what sushi was or never tried it. But on the coast, it was starting to explode,” Frickel says.

Of course, if you’re going to clog your arteries with starch, cheese, and gravy, you might as well go all out and wash it down with a brew. That’s where beer comes in at Cask Republic. Frickel and minority- owner Alex Gunhus are both beer enthusiasts; they traveled to breweries throughout the United States to come up with their beer menu. Frickel says he eventually wants to build his own brewery inside the Cask Republic.

“There’s nothing like that in the Dundee area, which blows my mind,” Frickel says. “We want to be the first to do that.”

Visit facebook.com/caskrepublic for more information.

Al Fresco Fever

May 27, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The stars and seasons have aligned, giving you free time on a beautiful day. Birds chirp, parks bustle, flowers bloom. Eager to enjoy a cage-free couple of hours, you urgently text friends from your desk: “Get thee to a patio!” The clock strikes 5 and you’re off quicker than a cardigan on a sunny, 80-degree day. But where to?

Omahans have access to many fine restaurant and bar patios, but here are some standout gems you’ll want to bookmark for those most patio-perfect days.

Marks Bistro, voted 2016 Best of Omaha Outdoor Patio (alongside Salt 88 and 1912), is a superb option for everything from sharing an intimate, open-air meal with a first date to unwinding with an old friend over a bottle of wine. As you summit the steps from Underwood Avenue you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped into a lush, romantic secret garden of sorts. However, Marks’ quality menu, wine list, and unmatched atmosphere is no secret. Tucked behind the second level of a stately 1906 Dundee home, Marks’ patio is elegant without putting on airs, and peaceful even when packed with diners clinking glasses.       

“Most of us spend the majority of our workweek inside,” says co-owner Mark Pluhacek. “Sometimes nothing’s more relaxing than dining al fresco and enjoying some good conversation.”

Each spring, Pluhacek and his wife Kristin personally choose and plant the many colorful flowers that, alongside beautiful trees and ivy-covered fences, provide Marks’ trademark garden feel.   

Pluhacek says Marks is currently developing an additional street-level patio to allow guests a choice between the original garden patio and a more active, people-watching space along Underwood. But in both spaces, Pluhacek promises, “lots of flowers.”

Speaking of people-watching, La Buvette offers an excellent vantage point for taking in the sights and sounds of the bustling Old Market while simultaneously transporting patrons to France. Since 1991, this European-style cafe, wine bar, and market has been a popular spot to meet friends for a leisurely afternoon of wine, cheese, and chatting. The ever-changing menu is both basic and epicurean, with divine, fresh, house-baked bread perhaps the sole daily guarantee. The vibe here is “don’t worry, don’t hurry,” so come prepared to adapt to the pace and daily offerings. If you can’t nab a spot on the popular patio proper, don’t fret. When the weather’s right, La Buvette throws open wide doors on either side of its main entrance allowing a flood of sunshine and fresh air inside.      

El Aguila has an under-the-radar patio with high brick walls, colorful plants, and a Spanish colonial courtyard vibe. Lovers of Mexican food and jumbo margaritas will have no problemo finding patio paradise here—occasionally made even more magical by a roving Mariachi band.       

Nicola’s offers quaint romance, the Surfside rustic riverside atmosphere, and 1912 a rooftop option. More great al fresco dining options include Benson Brewery, Jimi D’s, Tracks Lounge, Salt 88, Corkscrew Wine & Cheese Blackstone, Upstream Old Market, Brix Midtown, Dante Pizzeria, and Varsity Sports Cafe & Roman Coin Pizza on the lake at 145th and F streets.

On the bar side of things, O’Leaver’s Beer Garden is Omaha’s outdoor space rookie of the year. Open since September 2015, the high-fenced, spacious outdoor area is a true oasis. O’Leaver’s already had a modest front patio, with a delightfully oddball Friends-themed fence (bearing the names Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe) and new ownership over the past few years has made several upgrades to the indoor space including the addition of a tiki bar area.    

“We wanted to create a whole new vibe outdoors and offer our customers the same special experience, but one that’s very different from the inside of the pub,” says co-owner Ted Stevens.

Indeed, the dimly lit pub contrasts with the bright beer garden, which has a full-service bar on Friday and Saturday nights. Varied seating lets patrons choose between laid-back Adirondacks, barstools, wooden banquettes and benches, small tables, and long, communal picnic tables under an attached pergola. Nature is a key design element, with built-in flower boxes lining the seating area, a miniature weeping willow tree, small pond, and other nice natural touches. Strings of lights hang overhead, twinkling at night with a just-right light.

O’Leaver’s is known for hosting live music inside, and Stevens says they hope to add outdoor movie nights and weekend brunch cocktail parties in 2016, also possibly opening the beer garden bar occasionally for weeknight shows.

Mister Toad’s Pub is a classic with cozy woodwork, stained glass, and book-lined walls, but in warmer months, it’s all about Mr. Toad’s Courtyard. Flower boxes stud the patio and wooden tables interlock around trees, offering the opportunity for privacy or neighborliness at your discretion. The passing action of the Old Market provides plenty to see.        

The Rose & Crown patio is a divey delight with large trees—some even decorated with woodsy faces. Other solid bar patio options include Dundee Cork & Bottle, Krug Park, Marylebone, Havana Garage, and LIV Lounge.

Whatever beer garden, courtyard, or veranda you land on, raise a glass to the patio season and enjoy greater Omaha’s great urban out-of-doors.


America’s Most Haunted House

August 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in Sept./Oct. 2015 Omaha Magazine.

It was a dark and stormy day when two sisters revisited their childhood home in Villisca, Iowa, for only the second time in two decades. They strolled through the tiny two-story frame house, reminiscing about their noteworthy hijinks, discussing childhood pals and the small town they remember fondly, relating where they played and slept in relation to where each of six children and two adults were ax-murdered in their beds in 1912 in the infamous, unsolved crime that still defines this western Iowa hamlet.

Much of the conversation during their first-ever extensive interview about their childhood home touched on what did and didn’t happen to the girls as 18-year inhabitants of what is often called “America’s Most Haunted House,” which sits on the edge of this farming community of 1,200 about 80 minutes southeast of Omaha.

For example, one night Jodi McGargill, the older of the two sisters, saw glowing eyes peering out of the attic that she first assumed belonged to Satan.

But more on that later. In ghost stories, the tormented dead don’t manifest themselves until later in the tale. Backstory comes first in this saga of McGargill, Jenn Belt, and, among other characters, their beloved cat that sometimes prowled the attic at night.

True Crime

It was cool and cloudy on June 9, 1912, the day of the annual Children’s Day service at the Presbyterian church in town, a show in which four children who, it had turned out, had only hours to live, would be stars.

After the Sunday evening event, which ended around 9:30 p.m., Josiah Moore, his wife, Sarah, and their children Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul, walked the three blocks back to their house. The children were particularly excited this evening. Two family friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, would be spending the night with them.

Sometime after the household retired, someone wielding Josiah’s own ax bludgeoned all eight inhabitants to death as they slept. Only one of the eight, 12-year-old Lena, appeared to have put up a fight.

The scene was both horrific and bizarre. All the victims were found in their beds with their heads covered with bedclothes. All had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an ax.

The murder weapon was left leaning against a wall and a four-pound chunk of slab bacon was placed next to the ax. Pieces of the family’s clothing had been used to cover the mirrors in the house. A plate of uneaten food was left on the kitchen table next to a bowl of bloody water.

The victims were discovered the next morning by a neighbor. News of the slaughter spread in a shockwave of both grief and terror. Beloved neighbors—six of them small children—had been brutally murdered. A madman was on the loose. Everyone was at risk. Everyone was a suspect.

Nearly 10 years of sweeping investigations netted several compelling suspects. But, ultimately, nobody was ever convicted of the crime, a grotesque event that crippled a community and frightened people across the country. Years of national coverage of the fruitless investigation followed. The cast of suspects was both wicked and freakish. These are the reasons that people still flock to the Villisca Ax Murder House 113 years after the crime.

True Life

Rick and Vickie Sprague were young parents with little money when they began house-shopping in 1975. They needed a cheap home, and the little fixer-upper at 508 E. 2nd St. with the horrendous past was as cheap as they came. “Nobody else would live here,” Belt said as she stepped into the living room for the first time in years.

Having spent less than they expected on a house, the couple set to work remodeling with the remaining money. Cracking plaster was replaced with drywall. They painted the house green and black and put up tie-dyed curtains. Gold shag carpet covered the floors. It was 1975, after all. And the couple, their daughters say, had a bit of hippie left in them.

The Spragues did not believe in ghosts. “Our parents had no fear of the house,” said McGargill, a photographer who lives near Imogene, Iowa. “Of course they knew something terrible happened here, but they didn’t believe anything supernatural was left behind.”

McGargill was five when the family moved into the house. She was given the room at the top of the stairs in which Josiah and Sarah Moore were murdered. Belt, who was a baby at the time of the move, later slept in the room down the hall in which the four Moore children were slain.

McGargill didn’t know the history of the house until family and friends came to help remove the crumbling plaster walls. As she played on the first floor, she heard her aunt scream from upstairs: “Oh God! There’s blood coming out of the walls!”

“So everybody runs up there and what they find is a red handkerchief that had been stuck in the wall years ago for insulation,” she said. “My aunt was crying. She was very, very upset.”

McGargill quickly learned that much of the town of Villisca was just as frightened by the house as her aunt. Over the years, for example, the girls began to notice that trick-or-treaters rushed by the house instead of stopping for one of their mother’s “famed popcorn balls.”

When it was time for a sleepover, friends would invite the Sprague girls to their house. “Nobody would stay with us,” said Belt, who now lives in Council Bluffs.

Their dad quickly grew tired of gawkers driving slowly by their house. “He would occasionally give them a hand gesture,” she said.

When McGargill was 12, she decided to write about the murders for a school research project. She began reading old newspaper clippings. She even interviewed an elderly man up the street who had worked at the town’s hardware store at the time of the murders. He remembered the store selling out of door locks shortly after the murder. The whole town shut down, he told her. Everybody had a theory, he explained.

Like so many others who have researched the crime, McGargill began to formulate her own theories. Maybe she could solve the case that nobody else could.

With all that research, with all that knowledge of what happened in her bedroom, she said she became unsettled by her home for the first time.

“Your mind starts to wander,” she said. “I’m very matter-of-fact about things, but that was a tough time learning so much about what happened here.”

And then, one night, she peered across her dark room and saw two glowing eyes staring back at her from the closet.

“I screamed bloody murder,” she said. “Sure enough, I looked again and realized it was my cat in the closet with the street lights shining on his eyes. I had let my imagination start to get the best of me.”



A Night at the Museum

The Spragues left the house in 1993. The outdated fixer-upper with the blood-soaked past had little value. Neighbors considered buying the house, leveling it, and adding to their own property.

But Darwin Linn, long fascinated by the house’s history, finally moved on a nagging dream of his: Using photos from the crime scene, he would restore the house to its original state and open it to the public as a museum detailing the crime and the sensation it caused across the country.

Linn even hauled a small abandoned barn from the country using his old Chevy Luv pickup. That barn now serves as a visitor center behind the house full of news clippings and other memorabilia.

“He felt very strongly that this was a piece of history—a story so compelling and such a big part of this town that the house should be saved,” said Johnny Houser, a neighbor and longtime true-crime fan who often leads the house tours when Martha Linn, Darwin’s wife, is unavailable (Darwin passed away in 2011).

Houser is quick to emphasize that Darwin’s passion was “first and foremost history.” “He felt he was providing a museum, and with that, a memorial to the people who suffered that awful tragedy. He thought the other stuff was pretty silly and disrespectful.”

But that “other stuff” is now a big draw—and significant money-maker. With the growth of ghost-hunter reality television shows, paranormal research groups, and websites dedicated to all things otherwordly, the Villisca Ax Murder House is now a major star in the pantheon of America’s most haunted places.

With the national attention (which includes numerous websites listing the house as one of the most haunted in America) came droves of people wanting to spend the night in the house. Now, up to six people can stay in the house for $428 a night.

Fans of the paranormal seem undeterred by the price. Houser said the house is often booked for weeks straight, “especially after some TV show runs.”

“It’s a very fair price,” said Martha Linn, who otherwise didn’t want to be interviewed for this story.

(She seemed concerned that the Sprague sisters had ulterior motives for telling their story. “I don’t know who those people are,” she said of the sisters. “I don’t know what they’re up to.”)

Houser certainly knows who the sisters are. He said he’s been hoping to meet them—and interview them—for many years.

“There are so many rumors in this town about the house,” he told the sisters. “I always
figured you could set the record straight on some things.”

Of course, the first issue of interest is whether the sisters ever experienced anything unusual in the house. Houser said he assumed they never did. “I’m pretty much a diehard cynic,” he said.

“It all so absurd,” Belt said.

“Bogus,” McGargill calls the claims that the house is haunted.

The Rumor Mill 

As the trio stepped into the upstairs room in which Belt slept and the four Moore children were murdered, Houser began relating some of the stories and rumors that have lingered in Villisca.

“I’ve heard a million stories of people saying they were babysat in this house,” Houser said. “I have always assumed you ran a daycare here.”

“Never,” McGargill said with a puzzled shrug.

“We did babysitting jobs,” Belt added, “but never in our own home. Parents wouldn’t bring their kids here. I only had one birthday party here. I only had a couple friends who would come play here. I’d always go spend the night at their house.”

“Did your mom have a sewing shop here?” Houser asked.

“Huh?” Belt looked perplexed.

“Wait,” McGargill said. “My dad would sew patches on people’s jeans every so often. Maybe people turned that into something in their heads.”

Houser asks more questions. The sisters continue to set the record straight.

Beyond the Buzzkill

“This house is known around the world,” McGargill said as she finished the walkthrough of the house. “Sometimes when people mention Villisca I will tell them I lived here, sometimes I don’t. Depends on how I feel. It’s weird, though. People will be upset when I tell them nothing happened to us in the house. People want to believe. They get upset when you take away the mystery.”

During the house tour, Houser was always quick to interject that he, like the sisters, is a skeptic. But he several times tempered skepticism with descriptions of several stories and personal experiences that continue to baffle him. One time, for example, Houser said he walked into the living room to turn on a space heater. When he turned around a few seconds later, he said, a chair was blocking the doorway to the kitchen.

“Maybe I put it there for some really strange reason and forgot it,” he said. “I’m sure there’s an explanation. I just don’t know what it is.”

And although most guests don’t encounter spirits during their stay, Houser said, there have been some “very trustworthy people who say they experienced some pretty interesting things. I started interviewing people who stayed the night. We’ll get priests, professors, nurses, cops—people you’d trust. Most say nothing happened. But then there are a few weird things. Strange things. Like this guy from Texas who said he heard a voice in the kid’s room saying, ‘I’m ready.’ That was five years after a guy from New York said he heard the exact same thing,” from the same room.

As the three leave the house, the sisters remain unconvinced that their old home is haunted. “It only holds happy memories for us,” Belt said.

But what about the voices that others have heard? What about the paranormal researchers who claim to have seen balls of light (called “orbs”) dancing around both inside and outside the house? Can that all be explained away as just hokum, aberrant psychology, or emotional neediness?

“Any experience we ever had was a case of somebody letting their mind play tricks on them,” McGargill said. “Everything weird ultimately had a logical explanation. That was just our own experience. Everybody experiences things differently. Maybe we were closed off to things that other people aren’t.

“I don’t believe in such things,” she said, “but who really knows for sure?”