Musty newspapers, photos, archives, public records, presentations, and endless hours of research. Sure, the life of a modern folk historian sounds glamorous, but it’s not all like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In many ways, history is an occupation reserved only for those obsessive truth-seekers disconnected from their place on the space-time continuum.
Local historian, author, teacher, and Glenwood native Ryan Roenfeld has been making history entertaining for nigh on two decades. The 44-year-old nontraditional UNO student describes himself as a “hick-from-the-sticks.” A quasi-Luddite with a passion for the past, he doesn’t have a cell phone but he uses Facebook.
“I don’t know how I got so interested in history,” Roenfeld says. “Most folks see history as dry and dull, but it’s not. It really is—good, bad, or indifferent—the story of why things are the way they are.”
While decrying the modern age, Roenfeld helped popularize one of Omaha’s most frequented social media sites: Chuck Martens’ “Forgotten Omaha” Facebook page.
As one of three administrators, Roenfeld has seen “Forgotten Omaha” grow to more than 45,000 likes over the last year.
“I was surprised at the interest. Omahans didn’t know as much of their history as I thought,” says Roenfeld, who also teaches classes on Omaha history for Metropolitan Community College at Do Space. “History really is the story of us all, and I like telling people their stories.”
A folksy populist with an encyclopedic knowledge of colorful locals and criminals, Roenfeld tells the lesser-known tales of underrepresented populations, colorful characters, and swept-under scandals. He has self-published a dozen books and contributed to many articles on topics ranging from old postcards, railroads, steamboating, and local 19th-century brewers. To date, his most popular book has been Tinhorn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes, a colorful history of vice in Council Bluffs, which offers a glimpse at the city’s exploitation of prostitutes in the late 19th century.
“The highlights are always the lowlifes,” Roenfeld says. “People like hearing stories of cowboy shoot-outs in the street. People think the Old West happened in Arizona, but this area was really the archetype for every Wild West trope.”
The popularity of Western depravity was also obvious to Roenfeld’s publisher, The History Press. Roenfeld’s latest book, Wicked Omaha (not to be confused with David Bristow’s book, Dirty, Wicked Town [Omaha], published by Caxton Press in 2000), looks closely at “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Omaha’s red-light district in the 1880s.
Hell’s Half-Acre stretched from the Missouri River to 16th Street and from Douglas to Cuming streets. The city portrayed in Roenfeld’s Wicked Omaha makes all the stereotypes of Deadwood seem trite.
“People don’t realize that anything went in Hell’s Half-Acre,” Roenfeld says. “It was a different Omaha, when the saloons ran all night and strangers were victimized by every scheme going, all right downtown, nothing secret about it. Brothels were illegal, but ran in the open. There was drug addiction, suicide, and systematic exploitation. Prostitutes paid ‘fines’ monthly to keep operating. If they couldn’t pay, the city gave them a few weeks before they were hauled in front of a judge to either pay up or get shut up.”
Wicked Omaha made its debut Thursday, March 9, at the UNO Criss Library’s Read Local Author Showcase. Roenfeld plans to present his book at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark library May 6. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.
Visit arcadiapublishing.com for more information.
This article appeared in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.