Tag Archives: history

Seeking Darkness in the Woods

October 31, 2018 by and
Photography by Durham Museum (provided)
Illustration by Derek Joy

Touring Hummel Park with Midwest Paranormal History Tours

story by Lisa Lukecart

Jamie Nestroyl walks up the short stone steps in the middle of the “Devil’s Punchbowl” at Hummel Park. The wind rips through the bowl one way, then rapidly switches directions. It feels like someone is watching, somewhere off in the covert corners of the woods. Tree roots sever the worn path, reaching skeletal fingers across the dirt. The hushed silence of the dense foliage seems an eerie reminder of rumored satanic rituals. 

The thick, humid air suffocates Nestroyl as the sun descends into twilight. Along with friend Kacie Ransome, they step from the stairs onto a road curving off into sinister shadows.

“Ohhhhhh…that’s scary. Take a picture of it,” Nestroyl says. 

She is dressed comfortably for the hike in a white Midwest Paranormal History Tours t-shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. As Ransome takes out her phone, Nestroyl turns around. 

Her blue eyes widen…widen…widen…as the primordial urge to flee tickles her spine.

Someone, no, something is standing in the middle of the road. It appears human in form with legs, arms, and a torso. Her boyfriend is 6 foot, 4 inches tall, but this thing is at least eight feet and more massive than any mortal man. Sure, it could be a tall person…but not with yellow glowing eyes. Oh no, it definitely wasn’t human.

The creature stares at them. The shadowy figure reveals no other discernible details. No clothes, no face, no hair. It reminds her of a grainy old photograph. And yet, the fading sunlight doesn’t penetrate its bleak blackness. 

It’s darker than the dark, Nestroyl realizes. 

Nestroyl’s limbs freeze and her chest feels heavy, as if weighed down by a cinder block. She swats at Ransome. When her friend turns around and catches a glimpse of those crazy gleaming eyes, Ransome bolts, screaming as she retreats. Nestroyl doesn’t stick around, either. She follows her hysterical companion, sneakers slapping down the stairs.  

 A dozen fellow hikers in their group rush over to discover the cause of commotion. The ghost hunt was on, but Nestroyl (the founder of Midwest Paranormal History Tour) knows the “Shadow Man” is gone. For now. 

This isn’t Nestroyl’s first brush with the unknown. She has seen full apparitions and really alarming things since she was a child. Now, as a side job, Nestroyl takes folks on supernatural tours to cemeteries, forts, and hikes all around Omaha for an apt-priced $13. Hummel Park is one of her destinations.

Hummel has a wicked history of freaking people out. Hell, even the entrance sign looks like a gravestone. The old pavilion, since torn down, once issued a written warning to “abandon hope all who enter.” Reports of inverted pentagrams, swastikas, and other graffiti have littered the walls. The Devil’s Punchbowl was rumored to be a place of satanic rituals, including animal sacrifices in a smoky fire pit. Most are unsubstantiated rumors, but the urban legends and myths have blackened the beauty of the unmanicured wild pathways. Several are rooted in evil reality while others are just tales told around campfires. 

The legends are tangled and distorted since most have been passed down by word of mouth. One of the urban legends suggests that cannibalistic albino people live in the trees at Hummel, ready to sink their sharp teeth into exposed flesh. Another version of the story claims that they perform the satanic rituals and live in a remote cabin somewhere in the woods. 

Some people claim to have seen the ghost of Jacob Clatanoff, an actual German immigrant who once lived there in the 1900s. His wife supposedly murdered him and then ran off with her lover. Or take the old hermit. He’s missing a nose in some cases, fingers in another. Either way, he’s out to get wanderers. Or try the Devil’s Staircase (also called the Staircase to Hell, or Morphing Stairs). Count the steps up. Then down. Get the same number? Probably not. The stairs are cracked and broken so getting the correct answer isn’t likely. Oh, if the count is the same, feel free to ask the devil for a wish. The price? Your soul. 

People have allegedly killed themselves in Hummel Park, plunging to their demise on the steep eastern side of a natural cliff called the Devil’s Slide. The Omaha Police Department reports most suicides are initially documented as simply a death report, which makes it difficult to search for an exact number at Hummel. 

It has been said that the trees bend and bow in terror because of all the lynchings during the Red Summer of 1919. Even though many of these crimes went unreported or undocumented, it is highly unlikely any happened at Hummel, and there is no historical evidence to support the theory.

After witnessing the shadowy figure on the road, Nestroyl still insists that “there is no way these 202 acres aren’t cursed.” 

Lisa Reda, who has been a member of the UNO Paranormal Society since 2014 and has her own group, Paranormal Energy, has not seen any evidence of supernatural activity in the park. After a meeting four years ago, members decided to do a short investigation of Hummel on a bright sunny afternoon. Spirits have no concept of day and night. Most of the infrared and ultraviolet equipment, though, is optimal after the sun has set. And nighttime provides less noise contamination. Most of what the group found could be explained. For example, any meter readings probably came from power lines. 

“Just because we didn’t get any evidence, doesn’t mean nothing is there. Anytime there is a slightest natural explanation, you have to go with the natural explanation first,” Reda explains. “But if you were going to kill someone and ditch a body, this is the place to do it. Paranormal aside, it is just a creepy place.”

Aside from the urban legends, Hummel Park also has a long and unfortunate history of real-life horror: petty crimes, stolen vehicles, assaults, rape, and murder. Nevertheless, teenagers continue to sneak in for spine-tingling fun, attempting to call up spirits with Ouija boards and violating the park curfew in the process.

Two years ago Greg Sokolik III, along with four friends, went to Hummel near midnight (it closes at 9 p.m., earlier than most parks) for just that kind of an adventure. The 20-year-old says he left right after he was approached by a woman in a tight mini-skirt and tube top who asked if he wanted a “missus for the night.”

“Pick up a prostitute. Dump a dead body. That’s Hummel Park,” says Sokolik, referring to the infamous murder of Laura LaPointe. The victimized sex worker’s nude and bloody body was left in a ditch near the park. An empty brandy bottle and a six-foot-long tree limb were close by her corpse. Four other prostitutes beat her to death for money, a sum of $25 in total. 

Victims of crimes at Hummel have included innocent children. The heavily wooded area made headlines again with the tragic murder of 12-year-old Amber Harris. She was found in a shallow grave at the park in 2006, nearly six months after her disappearance. A cross necklace clung to her remains. Roy Ellis was convicted of killing her and sentenced to death. Ellis allegedly liked to intimidate women, and his former girlfriend told investigators that Ellis drove her to Hummel, dug a grave, and threatened to put her in it.

Ransome lived a block and a half from Harris at the time of her murder. 

“It’s more real to me now than just high school ghost stories,” Ransome recalls. 

Tracy Stratman, the recreation manager for the City of Omaha Parks, has been fighting Hummel’s gory reputation for years. Hummel has been cleaned up to make it a positive experience for visitors. The day camp is focused on nature-rich activities such as hiking, camp games, and even a chicken coop. Camp counselors no longer tell ghost stories or urban legends.

“We see Hummel as a hidden gem for the city of Omaha,” Stratman says. “Our goal is not to scare participants off, but to have an experience they love and to embrace the park.”

And yet, people are still drawn in by the macabre. Nestroyl, along with a few others on her tour, claim to have seen the shadowy figure two other times. 

As the tour concludes, 37-year-old Dustin Sims, his girlfriend, and daughter are counting the steps. He is here for the legends. 

Once, Sims recalls, he visited the outskirts of the park on a late wintry night. He could hear a young child violently screaming inside. 

Did he help or call the police?

“No!” Sims responds, incredulous. 

Why not?

“Because it’s Hummel Park,” he says.

Visit mphtours.com for more information or to book a tour with Midwest Paranormal History Tours.

Historical photos courtesy of the Durham Museum’s Bostwick-Frohardt collection

The History and Mystery of Hummel Park

story by Ryan Roenfeld

Hummel Park’s murky forest conceals tales of dark lore in the loess hills, rising from the Missouri River floodplain on the northern outskirts of Omaha. Behind the dense foliage, there is Satan’s slide and stairs that supposedly change steps with every climb. There are also groves of old oaks, a disc golf course, and folklore aplenty.

The family of N.P. Dodge donated the 202-acre park to the city in 1930. Hummel Park took its name from the amiable Joe Hummel, Omaha’s long-time city park commissioner from 1912-1939 (excepting two terms). It was Hummel, a reliable cog in Tom Dennison’s political machine, who was lauded as “father of Omaha Parks” upon his death at age 79 in 1942.

A few centuries earlier, almost 220 years ago, Manuel Lisa first established the fur-trade post (dubbed Fort Lisa near the park). European demand for furs and fashionable beaver hats drove much of the area’s exploration and economic exploitation. From 1812 until 1823, Fort Lisa was considered the “most important post on the Missouri River” by historian Hiram Chittenden. This was where expeditions north and west were outfitted and launched into the mountains and where the Omaha, Pawnee, and Ioway traded furs for goods. From 1814 until his 1817 resignation, Lisa served as the government Indian Agent as the fur trade and American policy then went hand-in-hand. After Lisa’s 1820 death, the post was taken over by Joshua Pilcher, who abandoned Fort Lisa for Bellevue.

The exact location of Fort Lisa has been lost to time, unlike Cabanne’s Post (also located in the neighborhood and overseen by Jean Pierre Cabanne) established by Bernard Pratte’s “French Company” in 1823. It was from this post that 116 men left in 1824 for Taos (still part of Mexico at the time). By 1825, Cabanne’s Post had become part of the Western Department of Astor’s sprawling American Fur Company, which set about establishing a monopoly on the Missouri. 

Cabanne’s Post was where Peter Sarpy first apprenticed into life along the river, and in 1831, “Ioway Jim” killed a member of the Omaha Nation near Cabanne’s Post, the first recorded murder in an area known today for Hummel Park. It would not be the last. Like Fort Lisa, in 1833, Cabanne’s Post was abandoned in favor of Bellevue.    

A monument to both posts was dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in October 1928. It was rededicated in 2008 and then, within a week, “pretty well demolished” by vandals. Vandalism would plague the park, as would the dumping of trash. In April 2006, volunteers picked up 200 bags of garbage there, including tires, boards, barrels, and furniture, and they discovered the remains of a “1956 or 1957 Chevy” abandoned in a ravine. 

One of Hummel Park’s oldest legends—that it was the site of a colony of albinos—may be explained by the 1934 organization of a 250-acre camp adjacent to the park by Nebraska nudists. All those pale bodies must have looked awfully white, but that history seems to have been covered up. 

Hummel Park history is filled with picnics, egg hunts, nature hikes, and a beloved summer day camp dating from 1949. There is also a very real history of sexual assault, death, and murder. Some incidents took place in the park itself. Others occurred in the rural area nearby but close enough to leave a lingering reputation.

A Timeline of Dark History at Hummel Park

Disturbing Crimes Reported by Local Media

December 1933: 19-year-old Rose Engel was killed in the park when the car she was riding in overturned on a curve.

October 1947: A 19-year-old admitted to drinking heavily before his car smashed into a hayrack filled with University of Omaha students at the park; 20-year-old Freddie Freelin was killed.

January 1949: Two motorcyclists discovered George Rux’s frozen corpse on the outskirts of the park.

October 1950: Two men armed with a hatchet and hammer attacked two soldiers and their dates at the park and then forced the two women, one 15 and the other 21, to leave with them. Both were reportedly raped and then released on a random Omaha street corner.

August 1954: A reported sexual assault of three women at Hummel Park.   

February 1960: The “frozen body” of a woman was discovered near the park.

November 1970: 15-year-old Lori Jones was found dead, shot three times, after her companions claimed they’d left her sleeping inside a car at Hummel Park.

April 1973: A 20-year-old woman was carjacked in Omaha and forced to drive to Hummel Park, where she was raped and then driven back to the city where her assailant fled.

April 1983: The brutal softball-bat murder of 18-year-old prostitute Laura LaPointe happened southwest of the park. Her body was discovered “nude in a ditch” and four other prostitutes were later convicted.

May 1984: Two men were arrested for sexually assaulting a 25-year-old woman at knife-point in Hummel Park.

July 1984: Police had no suspects in the death of 21-year-old Michelle Lamere, who was intentionally run over and left to die north of the park. 

September 1985: A 36-year-old woman reported she was sexually assaulted at Hummel Park.

June 1986: A 34-year-old man was charged with the sexual assault of a 17-year-old Omaha woman at the park.

June 1992: Central High School sophomore Jeremy Drake was killed at the park over stolen car stereo speakers. Drake’s body was discovered by a woman walking her dog.

December 1999: Scott Addison was lured to Hummel Park to sell a stereo where he was beaten and stabbed. His two assailants left him for dead and Addison wrote their names in his own blood on the trunk of his car before he walked a quarter mile to find help.

June 2005: Jose Lucio survived being shot in the back in the park by a member of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang.

May 2006: Someone “ghost hunting” in Hummel Park discovered the shallow grave of 12-year-old Amber Harris. Roy Ellis was convicted of rape and murder and was sentenced to death.

February 2008: 16-year-old David Murillo lost control of his Honda in the park and died after he was ejected when his car went into a ravine.

December 2013: Washington County deputies found the body of an unknown man north of the park whose death was considered “suspicious.”

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Francis Burt

October 28, 2018 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

There was much excitement in October 1854 as the Nebraska pioneers eagerly awaited Francis Burt, the new territory’s first governor. That hope was felt most in Bellevue. After all, according to the Nebraska Palladium newspaper, the town of Bellevue was “destined by nature to become the metropolis of learning as well as of legis- lation and commerce in Nebraska.” Surely, Governor Burt would recognize the obvious. 

He’d been appointed by President Franklin Pierce in August after General William Butler of Kentucky turned down the posi- tion. Burt was then serving as Third Auditor of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., and this seemed another political leap as Nebraska Territory (at that time) stretched from the Missouri River north to Canada and west to what became Idaho. 

Burt was a Democrat who had served as South Carolina state legislator and treasurer. He was also a member of the 1832 nullifi- cation convention, nominally a dispute over federal tariffs, but in actuality a defense of slavery and a state’s right to “nullify,” or ignore, federal law. 

In the lead-up to Burt’s appointment as ter- ritorial governor, local European-American settlers advocated for the cession of Native American land rights. In 1852, Missouri traders gathered at Uniontown in pres- ent-day Kansas to agitate for territorial government. That year, a Missouri con- gressman introduced legislation to create the Platte Territory, covering lands west of the Missouri River. Likewise, in 1853, an estimated 150 Iowans ferried across the river to Bellevue to elect Hadley Johnson as their territorial delegate from the still non-existent territory. 

Bellevue boosters then truly jumped the gun when (on Feb. 9, 1854) Peter Sarpy, Stephen Decatur, and a host of Iowa speculators organized the Bellevue Town Co. After all, where else would Nebraska’s new metropolis appear other than the main American settle- ment where fur trade posts first appeared in the 1820s? 

The Kansas-Nebraska Act that created two new American territories was signed by Pierce on May 30. The floodgates opened as the 1820 Missouri Compromise was squashed by “squatter sovereignty,” allow- ing residents of the new territories to decide on the issue of slavery. Around this same time period, the Whig Party self-destructed with mounting North-South tension, the “Know-Nothing” American Party sought to keep the country safe from Catholic hordes of German and Irish immigrants, and “Anti-Nebraskans” coalesced into the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the country marched steadily toward Civil War. It’s also worth noting that treaties ceding eastern Nebraska to the U.S. by the Omaha and Otoe-Missouria Nations were not ratified until June (after already officially establish- ing the Territory of Nebraska). 

These were heady times that greeted Burt’s arrival at Bellevue on Oct. 6, 1854. But these qualms of mortal men would soon be of little consequence to the rising politician. Burt had fallen ill during his voyage and was too sick to attend the reception held in his honor, where grandiose speeches went on without him. He sought refuge at the Presbyterian Bellevue Mission House, located on what is now the east side of Warren Street between 19th and 20th avenues. That’s where Burt took his oath of office on Oct. 16, and where he died two days later. 

Burt’s death marked the end of Bellevue’s ambitions, as Acting Governor Thomas Cuming’s interests in Omaha City soon became clear. Today, the name of Nebraska’s first territorial governor is commemorated by Omaha’s Burt Street (a sore consolation to those early Bellevue boosters) as well as the state’s Burt County. Bellevue remained part of Douglas County until 1857 when Sarpy County was created (Bellevue served as the county seat of Sarpy County until 1875 when Papillion seized the distinction through election).” 

Territorial governors were appointed. State governors are elected. Remember to vote in Nebraska’s gubernatorial election on Nov. 6. 

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Provided by Boys Town

Xenophobic fears ran wild after the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. promptly entered World War II, and nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated or incarcerated in internment camps across the country.

The Rev. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, strived to calm the hysteria in part—while alleviating the trauma falling upon his fellow Americans—by sponsoring approximately 200 Japanese-Americans from internment camps to stay at his rural Nebraska campus for wayward and abandoned youths.

Among them were James and Margaret Takahashi and their three children.

They joined the individuals and families escaping to Boys Town from prison-like internment camps. Flanagan offered dozens of families a place to live and work until the war’s conclusion. Some remained in Nebraska long after the war. Many used Boys Town as a stopover before World War II military service or moving to other American cities and towns, says Boys Town historian Tom Lynch.

Few outsiders knew Boys Town was a safe harbor for Nisei (the Japanese word for North Americans whose parents were immigrants from Japan) who lost their homes, livelihoods, and civil rights in the fear-driven, government-mandated evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.

The oldest Takahashi child, Marilyn, was almost 6 when her family was uprooted from their Los Angeles home and way of life. Her gardener father lost his agricultural nursery.

“It was a very disruptive thing,” she recalls. “I was very upset by all of this. I can remember being confused and wondering what was going on and where are we going. I couldn’t understand all of it.”

She and her family joined hundreds of others in a makeshift holding camp at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Stables at the converted race track doubled as spare barracks. Food riots erupted.

By contrast, at Boys Town, the Takahashis were treated humanely and fairly, as the full citizens they were, with all the comforts and privileges of home.

“We felt welcomed and did not have fears about our environment. The German farmers nearby were friendly and kind,” remembers Marilyn Takahashi Fordney.

the Takahashi family outside their residence at Boys Town

The Takahashis were provided their own house and garden within the incorporated village of Boys Town’s boundaries. James, father of the family, worked as the grounds supervisor. The children attended school. The family celebrated major holidays—including unforgettable, bittersweet Christmases—in freedom, but still far from home.

None of it might have happened if Maryknoll priest Hugh Lavery, at a Japanese-American Catholic parish in L.A., hadn’t written Flanagan advocating on behalf of his congregation then being relocated in camps. Flanagan recognized the injustice. He also knew the internees included working-age men who could fill his war-depleted employee ranks. He had the heart, the need, the facilities, and the clout to broker their release from the Civil Exclusions Order signed into law by President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt.

Helping identify “good fits for Boys Town” was Patrick Okura, who ended up there himself, Lynch says. “It sort of started a pipeline to help bring people out,” and Flanagan “eventually took people of all different faiths,” not just internees from the Catholic parish that started the effort. “People from that parish went to the camps, and they met other Japanese-Americans, and they started communicating about this opportunity at Boys Town to get out of the camps.”

During her family’s four-month camp confinement, Marilyn’s parents heard that the famous Irish priest in Nebraska needed workers. James sent a letter making the case for himself and his family to come.

“People could leave if they had somewhere to go,” Marilyn says. “Permission didn’t come right away. It took writing back and forth for several months. Then, when we were all about to be moved to Amache [Granada War Relocation Center] in Colorado, the head of our camp sent a telegram to the War Relocation Authority. He received a telegram back with the necessary permission. We were released to Boys Town Sept. 5, 1942.”

Boys Town became legal sponsor for the new arrivals.

“It was very radical helping these people,” Lynch says. “Father thought it was his duty because they were good American citizens who should be treated well. But it wasn’t universally accepted. What made Boys Town unique is that we were way out in the country, so we were our own little bubble. Visitors really wouldn’t see the internees much. The men worked the farm or grounds. The women tended house. The kids were in school. But they were there all throughout the village.”

A similar effort unfolded at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 100-plus Nisei students continued their college studies after the rude interruption caused by the “evacuation.”

During her Boys Town sojourn, Marilyn first attended a nearby one-room public school. She later attended a school on campus for workers’ children taught by a Polish Franciscan nun. Besides the standard subjects, the kids learned traditional Polish folk dances and crafts.

The Takahashis started their new life in an old farmhouse they later shared with other arrivals. Then Boys Town built a compound of brick houses for the workers and their families. “Single men lived in a dormitory on campus,” Lynch says. “Boys Town didn’t host many single women because Father would find jobs for them in Omaha, where they would stay with families they worked for as domestics.”

From Santa Anita, the Takahashi patriarch was allowed to go to L.A. to retrieve his truck and what stored family belongings he could transport. James drove to Nebraska to meet Margaret and the kids, who went ahead by train.

Marilyn’s initial impression of Flanagan was of Santa Claus with a cleric’s collar: “Father came to meet us at the station. He had this big brown bag of candy. I will always remember that candy. It was so thoughtful of him to give us that special treat.”

According to the Takahashi family’s file in the archives of the Boys Town Hall of History, Margaret said she was taken by Flanagan’s humanity, that she “could feel this warmth. I’ve never felt that from another human being. He was so full of love that it radiated out of him.”

According to Lynch, Flanagan considered the newcomers “part of the family of Boys Town.” They could access the entire campus or go into town freely.

Leaving altogether, though possible, was not a realistic option.

“They could leave at any time, if they really wanted to, but there was nowhere to go [without authorization]. They would have been detained and returned,” he says.

Marilyn’s experience of losing her home and living in a camp was dreadful. Going halfway across the country to live at Boys Town was an adventure. Her fondest memories there involve Christmas.

“Christmas and midnight Mass was very special at Boys Town,” she says. “It was something we looked forward to. I will always remember getting bundled up to face the blizzard-like winds. My father would carry each one of us to the truck. We would head off in the dead of night in that blasted cold to get to the church, which was dark except for the altar lights. The boys would be in a long line in their white and black cassocks, with red bows, each holding a big lit candle. They would begin to sing and come down the main aisle. It was an awesome sight and a special experience. The choir was exceptional. There was always one singer with a high-pitched voice who did a solo. It was amazing.”

Father Flanagan and children during Christmastime

Flanagan is part of her holiday memories, she says, as “he always made a point to come to our Christmas plays, and we would always take a photograph with him.” For the resident boy population, Flanagan “played” Santa by visiting their apartments and handing out gifts.

“We were happy at Christmas,” Marilyn says. “In the farmhouse, my father would cut a pine tree and bring it in, and the decorations were handmade and hand-painted cones with popcorn strung. He always did the final placement of things so that it looked perfect. We had wonderful Christmas days even though it was difficult to get toys because many things were not available due to the war.”

She continues: “We built an ice rink and would skate in front of the farmhouse or in front of the brick house. We even made an igloo one time. It got so tall the adults came out to help us close the top with the snow blocks because we were too little to reach it.”

Weather always factored in.

“The summers were extremely hot and the winters so severely cold,” she says. “We had never experienced snow. That was a tremendous adjustment for my parents. But, as children, we delighted in it. We’d run out and eat the snow with jam and build snowmen.”

Marilyn recalls visiting Santa at J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store in downtown Omaha with its fabulous Christmas window displays and North Pole Toy Land.

The Takahashis were content enough in their new life that they arranged for family and friends to join them there. Marilyn and family remained in Omaha for two years after the war (and anti-Japanese hysteria) ended.

“Eventually, my parents decided they couldn’t withstand that cold, and we headed back to California in 1947,” she says.

They endured tragedy at Boys Town when Marilyn’s younger brother contracted measles and encephalitis, falling into a coma that caused severe brain damage. His constant care was a burden for the poor family.

Another motivating factor for the family to leave was the father’s desire to work for himself again.

Leaving Boys Town just shy of age 12 was hard for Marilyn.

“I was heartbroken because I loved the snow and cold and all my friends there,” she says. “I did not want to go to California and live three families to a house and struggle. I knew what was coming. I also had a pet cat I was sad to leave. My pet dog Spunky that Boys Town gave me had passed on.”

Her parents had also bonded with some of the resident boys, and with some adult workers and their families.

“We went by Father Flanagan’s residence to say farewell, and he came out to bless us and to bless the truck we drove to the West Coast,” she says.

As an adult, Marilyn shared her story with archivists just as her parents did earlier.

“We considered ourselves fortunate,” Margaret told interviewer Evelyn Taylor with the California State University Japanese American Digitization Project in 2003. (This article for Omaha Magazine merged excerpts from that oral history with original interviews conducted over the telephone and
e-mail correspondence.) 

There are occasions when Marilyn’s internment past comes up in casual conversation. “It is amazing how few people know about this,” she says. “It is now mentioned in history books in schools, but it wasn’t for a long time.” 

When she brings up her Boys Town interlude, she says, “It is always a surprise and I am asked many questions.”

The retired medical assistant, educator, and author now runs family foundations supporting youth activities. She credits her many accomplishments to what the wartime years took away and bestowed.

“The internment made me an overachiever. Because I was the eldest and experienced so much, I have become actually the strongest of the siblings,” she says. “Nothing can stop me from reaching my goals.”

Her late parents also felt that the experience strengthened the family’s resilience. Margaret said, “I think from then on we were very strong. I don’t think anything could get us down.”

The kindness shown by Boys Town to relieve their plight made a deep impact.

“We are forever grateful Father Flanagan hired my father to take care of the grounds,” Marilyn says, “because it enabled us to get out of that internment situation.”

She came to view what Flanagan did for her family and others who had been interned as a humanitarian “rescue.”

Then there were the scholastic and life lessons learned.

“A Boys Town education gives you the tools needed to succeed in life,” she says.

Even though discrimination continued after the war, the lessons she learned during the internment and the Boys Town reprieve emboldened her.

“I am grateful that I went through the experience because it made me who I am today,” she adds.

Internees were granted reparations by the U.S. government under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Marilyn received $20,000, and she gave it all away. 

She divided the reparations money into equal parts for four recipients: two younger siblings who also grew up in poverty (but did not experience the internment camps of World War II), to create the Fordney Foundation (for helping future generations of ballroom dancers), and Boys Town.

Forty-four years after the Takahashis left their safe haven in Nebraska, Marilyn returned to Boys Town in 1991. During the visit, she made her donation to the place that gave her family a temporary home and renewed faith in mankind. 

Uchiyamada and Takahashi families with Father Flanagan in March 1944

James Takahashi’s Letter to Father Flanagan

Soon after arriving at Santa Anita Assembly Center, James Takahashi learned that Father Flanagan was hiring individuals with certain skills to work at Boys Town.

James hand-wrote an appeal to Flanagan asking to be considered. He provided references. The priest wrote Takahashi back requesting more information, including how many were in his family, and checked his references, all of whom spoke highly of “Jimmy,” as he was called, in letters they sent Flanagan.

Here is the text of the original letter James wrote (references excluded):

Dear Father Flanagan,

Today in camp I heard that you are asking for some Japanese gardeners. I am very interested as I have been a gardener and nurseryman in Los Angeles for the past five years.

Just before the evacuation, I was gardener at St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles. I re-landscaped the grounds and put in several lawns. 

I am 30 years old of Japanese ancestry but was born and educated in this country. I was converted to the Catholic faith by my wife, who is half Irish and half Japanese. 

I studied soil, plants, insect control, and landscape architecture at Los Angeles City College, and am confident that I would be able to handle any gardening problem.

I would be so grateful if you would consider me for this position.

Very sincerely,

James Takahashi

Visit csujad.com for more information about the California State University Japanese-American History Digitization Project.

Visit boystown.org for more information about Boys Town.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Toshio “James” and Margaret Takahashi with their children at the Boys Town Farm, 1944


The Devil is in the Detail

October 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Jenny Gradowski drives up to her home each evening, she says the scene still gives her pause. “This is my home,” she says with awe. 

Gradowski and Joe Pittack live in a spacious white home at 3402 Lincoln Blvd., a grand place steeped in history. Their story here started last year, as they added their own touches to their new home. 

The couple shared what they know of its narrative one warm summer night on the house’s porch—a key selling point for Gradowski, who works at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. While the home lacks central air, and summer heat can be a challenge, the porch (luckily) remains a cool place to chat.

“It’s not really a wraparound, but it’s curved enough to feel that way,” she says. “The views, though—the views were enough for both of us.”

Designed to make a statement, Pittack and Gradowski’s home reigns over the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District from its hill on a large corner lot, much like it did when it was built in 1902. The neighborhood was one of the first in the city to be designed with the contour of the land in mind. The view today consists of towering trees, a playground in the distance, and further afield, Cuming Street. 

The 14-room home was one of several homes that prominent architect Frederick Henninger designed in Bemis Park. The neighborhood was a prestigious one when the home’s original owners resided there. It boasted the city’s finest Victorian-era homes and proximity to the Cuming Street streetcar line. Bemis Park remains quietly impressive, with a location that allows Pittack and Gradowski to walk to dinner and Pittack to bike to work. He co-owns Ted and Wally’s, with locations in the Old Market and Benson. 

The home has more than a century’s worth of stories. Pittack says they started looking into them only after they moved in. There are funny ones, tragic ones, and even the odd tale about a religious sect.

The 6,000-square-foot home was built for a well-loved restaurateur named Tolf Hanson and his wife, Jennie. 

Tolf was a Swedish immigrant who got his start selling sandwiches on the streets of New York before moving to Omaha and opening a popular restaurant, Calumet Café, in 1893. He went on to open Hanson’s Café Beautiful on 16th Street in 1906. It was supposed to be the “finest restaurant west of Chicago,” but failed in its first year and sent the Hansons deep into debt. Tolf Hanson went to New York to regain financial footing, but he ultimately committed suicide there.

Pittack says he knows that, tragically, another of the home’s former occupants also committed suicide. John Bryant was the new president of a farm implements and machinery business when he bought the home in 1912 from Louis Nash, an officer of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Co. Bryant had some trouble at work and, following disagreements with the company’s board of directors, drowned himself in a cistern in the backyard in 1913. That same year, the Easter Sunday tornado severely damaged the home, ripping the roof from the house.

It’s the home’s lighter stories, though, that Pittack shares more animatedly when he gives people tours. He shares one from the Gerken family, who moved in in 1954. The story involves one mischievous Gerken boy convincing his siblings to send him down the laundry chute. He got stuck midway and had to be rescued. 

Other owners came and went through the decades. There was the saloon owner Henry Keating and his socialite wife, Helen; the attorney Lysle Abbott and his wife, Mary; and the real estate developer George H. Payne. But not many homes have had a New Age religious monastic order as one-time occupants. The Holy Order of MANS moved into the home in 1975, converting it into their new “brother house.” Pittack believes religious services were held in one of the basement rooms. When the national monastic order dissolved in 1984, the Holy Order of MANS moved out.

In 2017, Pittack and Gradowski moved in and began a yearlong renovation. They installed a new boiler and water system and painted some interior rooms. When a hailstorm struck, the roof needed to be replaced and the exterior repainted. They’ve repurposed areas of the home while leaving the structure untouched. An old indoor phone booth is now a coat closet, the butler’s area is a food pantry, and one bedroom with an original coal fireplace is now a yoga studio. Furniture from Pittack’s grandmother’s home, which was nearby, is part of the décor now. 

By making this home their own, the couple adds their personal story while keeping hints of past inhabitants intact. 

This home is one of 10 Bemis Park residences included in Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 13th annual neighborhood tour on Oct. 13-14. Visit restorationexchange.org for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Meriwether Lewis Suicide or Assassination

October 1, 2018 by and
Photography by Karissa Jobman
Illustration by Derek Joy

Kira Gale upset the historical establishment when she argued that the death of Meriwether Lewis was the result of assassination, not suicide. 

Research into the explorers Lewis and (William) Clark consumed her life, up until the very end. She died in Omaha on May 13 at age 76. On her deathbed, she finished the final page of her last book. 

Gale, 76, had written and self-published four books related to the early American explorers on her River Junction Press. She advocated an assassination theory in Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation (co-authored with James E. Starrs), published in 2009 and reissued in 2012 with new evidence.

Her faith in the conspiracy was rooted in research. Gale studied coroner reports, exhumation findings, and private letters. She was drawn to the story of Lewis—and his suspicious death—and she devoted years to pursuing the elusive truth.

The Conspiracy Theory

Lewis was a dashing Virginian who displayed gifts as an outdoorsman, naturalist, and leader. He served with the Virginia Militia, then joined the U.S. Army, where he rose to the rank of captain in 1800. During his military service, he met Clark—one of his commanding officers. 

The ambitious Lewis was eventually appointed as an aide by then-President Thomas Jefferson. As the United States nearly doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson commissioned an expedition to the nation’s new holdings and western reaches. He turned to Lewis to lead the 1804-1806 trek. Lewis then named Clark his second in command.

Lewis was 29 years old when he took command of this epic journey, and he would be dead less than three years after its completion. The circumstances of his death were still in dispute more than 200 years later when Gale—a self-taught historian who never finished college (she was one year shy of an English degree)—threw herself in the middle of the debate.

The basic facts of this still-unsolved mystery are that he died of two gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, in the Grinder’s Stand tavern on the Natchez Trace (a historic trail) near Hohenwald, Tennessee. The area was known to be a hazardous way-stop where robbers preyed on unsuspecting travelers. Conversely, there were reports that Lewis was under great strain and in serious debt. 

The mainstream consensus among historians is that he attempted to take his own life en route to his final destination.  Or was it a botched robbery and murder? Or maybe there was a darker plot? 

Lewis was buried on the property of the tavern, and his death was never investigated by law enforcement authorities. Roughly 40 years after the explorer’s death, the Tennessee State Commission authorized a gravesite monument in Lewis’ honor and exhumed his remains. The long-delayed medical examination was the only one that his corpse received. The commission’s final report concluded, “It seems to be more probable that he died at the hands of an assassin.”

In the 1990s, descendants of the explorer petitioned the government to exhume his body again from the national monument site now covering the property of Grinder’s Stand. The Department of Interior granted approval for opening his grave in 2008. But after an administrative change, the federal government reversed course and ruled against any future disruption of Lewis’ remains. 

Wading into Controversy

After examining the available records, Gale eventually rejected robbery/murder or suicide as possible causes of death. Although Lewis had a history of previous suicide attempts, was prone to depression, and—before embarking on his final trip through Tennessee—granted friends permission to distribute his property in the event of his death, Gale argued that Lewis was killed on the orders of General James Wilkinson. 

The motive? Greed.

She wrote: “I propose the motive for Lewis’ assassination was to prevent him from bringing information to Washington regarding crooked land deals involving Wilkinson and John Smith T, a mine operator in the lead mine district south of St. Louis. Wilkinson had been the first governor of Upper Louisiana in 1805-06. Lewis was bringing lead mine records to Washington. After his death, his papers were inventoried and bundled and entrusted to the care of Thomas Freeman, a Wilkinson associate. They arrived in Washington in total disorder.”

Gale assembled historical accounts and contemporary expert opinions that called into question the character of Wilkinson and Smith. The documents, she believed, pointed to foul play, forgery, and conspiracy.

“Wilkinson had a history of assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, people who were his rivals and possessed incriminating information that could jeopardize his career,” Gale wrote. “[Lewis] deserves to be remembered for his many accomplishments and for his true character. He was truly a man of ‘courage undaunted,’ as Thomas Jefferson described him. I admire him very much, and consider my time well spent in researching and writing about his life and death. He is one of the great American heroes.”

She went on C-SPAN and the History Channel asserting what to some was heresy. Nevertheless, she stuck to her guns in the face of skeptics, insisting that she had exposed Wilkinson—the man with the means and the motive to eliminate Lewis.

“She was pooh-poohed a lot in the Lewis and Clark world because of her, at the time, radical approach to Lewis’ death,” says friend and fellow Lewis and Clark “nerd” Shirley Enos.

Enos admired her tenaciousness: “She just never quit. She said, ‘To my dying day I will not believe this man committed suicide.’ She never gave up on it.”

“That was part of her basic character—very much so,” says Henry Gale, her husband of 58 years. “When she grabbed onto something, she didn’t let go. That applied to everything.” 

Together, they twice made cross-country drives in their Saturn sedan to trace Lewis and Clark’s expedition via highways. The result was Lewis and Clark Road Trips: Exploring the Trail Across America (published in 2006), featuring hundreds of handmade maps and tidbits about travel destinations.

Granddaughter Christy Jobman recalls the book as an effort involving the whole family: “My grandmother [Gale] employed my mom [Beth Jobman] to help her with the maps. She’d bring my preschool-aged sister and me over as they grappled with Adobe Illustrator. The knowledge of these two explorers is basically embedded into my DNA.”

An Unconventional Life

Henry and Kira Gale met as students at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier in Chicago. He was from the western suburbs; she was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park. She was an informal student of liberal arts. He was fresh from the U.S. Army. 

She had graduated high school early, the only child of a social worker mother and union executive father (who was also the town historian of Rochester, New York). The couple married in 1960 and soon moved from Chicago to Omaha, where Henry taught physiology at Creighton University School of Medicine.

They relocated with daughter, Beth, and son, Bill, in tow. In middle school, Beth acquired her mother’s old bicycle (which Gale had lugged across Chicago, balancing two babies plus groceries on trips to and from the store). Growing up, Bill remembers their Omaha home featured “a pinball machine in the dining room, sculptures, film gear, and people over all the time discussing avant-garde, leading-edge stuff.” She essentially turned the family living room into a production studio and theater.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Kira and Henry Gale were Vietnam War draft counselors for conscientious objectors. She became an experimental filmmaker and produced far-out light and film shows for rock bands. She organized film series. She taught filmmaking in Omaha Public Schools as a Nebraska Arts Council visiting artist. She studied under noted sculptor Lee Lubbers and was a board member of his international SCOLA satellite
education network. 

She became an Old Market counter-culture fixture. All the while, she kept an abundant garden and prepared amazing home-cooked meals for the family. 

In the ’80s, she photographed Mari Sandoz’s Sandhills homestead, and the images toured the state as a Nebraska Humanities exhibition. Enamored with iconic Nebraska authors, Gale also organized the first Nebraska Book Festival in 1991 (now in its 25th year after missing a few years over the decades).

Gale’s daughter, Beth, says her mother always had a new project in the works. “She was a museum-quality painter, and she was developing apps to go with books before I’d ever heard of an application for a smartphone,” Beth says, adding that her own six children benefited from their grandmother’s eclecticism.

“For years she took them on outings every Saturday,” Beth says. “They would go to powwows, museums, libraries, bookstores, parks. She loved cooking for them at her house.”

On top of her dedication to family and personal writing projects, Gale was an entrepreneur and cheerleader for fellow creatives. She published several other local writers, including The Erotica Book Club for Nice Ladies (fiction by Connie Spittler), Kids Around the Globe (a children’s series by Mary Duda), as well as the updated edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film (by Leo Adam Biga, reissued in 2013). 

But the Lewis assassination theory—and the documents supporting it—is what most drove her.

Undaunted Courage

“She’d get so excited about some new twist she discovered in her proof,” Enos recalls. “She would call me about it, and I would question what she was saying. It helped her clear her thinking.”

Enos was happy to help. “She always had something you could do,” she says. “That got to be a joke among our mutual friends. But it was such an affectionate thing. That was just Kira.”

Gale could be blunt when speaking her mind. She could monopolize a conversation when sharing her enthusiasms. But she could also be sweet, generous, and encouraging.

“She was never a person who sat still. She was always finding something new,” her husband, Henry, says. “Even when she got interested in history and looked backward in time, she found new things in old things.”

Cancer came as a surprise to the whole family. Her daughter was visiting from Texas in March, and she saw her mother busy as ever. Then, over the phone, Gale said she wasn’t feeling well—something about her liver. Beth came back to Omaha again in April when her mother was going to the hospital. She went in and checked herself out after a day, but was readmitted the following day. 

Then the doctors ran tests. The diagnosis: terminal colon cancer. It had spread to her liver, too. 

“My mother was extremely optimistic in her outlook in life, even when undergoing tests at Methodist Hospital,” Bill says. “There was a day in the hospital when a look crossed her face—a realization that she wasn’t going to beat this. It took about 30 seconds for her to process this, and then she started with, ‘OK, I’ve got this, this, and this I need to accomplish.’ She didn’t wallow in any pity for herself. She didn’t bemoan her situation.”

The doctors gave her two weeks. “The doctor said it was past the point of treatment,” Beth recalls.

Over the phone, she broke the news of her illness to friends and associates while still at Methodist Hospital. Her calls went something like: “I’m dying…I’m in the hospital…many things to do… important business to take
care of.”

She went into hospice after about four weeks. “At hospice, every day she was losing a little bit more of herself,” Bill says. “She requested, ‘Set me in the chair and give me my computer’ to write the final portion of her book. She had very little strength left. It was sheer will. She typed every period, she crossed every ‘t,’ she dotted every ‘i.’ I had never seen anything like that in my life. When she got done with it, she said, ‘Do not change a word of this, do not change the margins, this is the way it goes out.’ She basically gave it everything she had. It was absolutely incredible the concentration she put together to achieve it.”

In hospice, visitors were limited not for medical reasons, but because her workdays were limited. And she had a book to finish. Although diminished by the late stages of cancer, Henry saw his wife’s determination in classic form: “She had a goal in mind—she wanted to finish the book and she did, which was just like her.”

After a week in hospice, she closed her eyes for the last time.

One Last Book

Before dying, Gale requested her friend Paul Ehrenberger—who she had mentored over five decades as he experimented with rock music and filmmaking before finding his calling as a social justice minister—to organize and preside over a June 10 memorial service at River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs.

Along the Missouri River was a fitting location for the celebration of her life. After all, it was the route for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition, and the explorers had met with local tribes in the bluffs nearby.

She specified two songs be played at the service: the gospel hymn “It’s a Highway to Heaven” and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’” At the service, the music played; family and friends shared their fond memories. 

Beth says the family hopes to publish Gale’s final book (completed in hospice), Fifty Documents Related to the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis. 

“I think she’s up in heaven wanting the truth to be known about Lewis’ assassination, and she would like some closure on that,” Beth says. “Her mission was bigger than her book and herself. It’s not just about her. Whoever brings the truth to light, she would be happy that it is known.” 

Visit lewisassassination.com for more information. 

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Curly Martin

July 29, 2018 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

If Curly Martin has something to say, you can best believe you will hear it if you’re within earshot. 

“Man, tell me who came up with this idea for a story about the Chitlin’ Circuit, I know it had to be a white boy,” Martin says during a boisterous conversation. “First, make sure he gets it straight; it’s not chitterlings. It was called the Chitlin’ Circuit!”

While chitterlings—chitlins for short—are a soul-food staple made from the small intestines of pigs, the Chitlin’ Circuit refers to venues in the South (and into the Upper Midwest) that supported traditional rhythm and blues acts. Martin finds the term as repulsive as its namesake.

“I know they think the Chitlin’ Circuit was for the mediocre musicians, but let me tell you, the Blues and R&B Chitlin’ Circuit was different from the Jazz Chitlin’ Circuit. Jazz players ruled Omaha and always stayed sharp. We dressed like pimps and players because that was our clientele.”

There are still jazz heavyweights living on Omaha’s northside, and Martin is testament to the fact. In the music room of his modest home, nestled near Belvedere Point, he collects an assortment of recording equipment and memorabilia: a 1972 Fender Rhodes keyboard, albums worked on with smooth-jazz innovator Grover Washington, and an award for the 2017 Best Jazz Musician in Omaha from the Omaha Entertainment and Art Awards.

“They told me I would have to pay to pick it up, but somehow it wound up here,” he says of the OEAA award. 2017 was an eventful year for Martin. In addition to the local award, he was also nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Album alongside his world-renown, West Coast producer/songwriter son, Terrace Martin.

“Grammy-nominated for Velvet Portraits and Homer’s didn’t even have the album,” Martin recalls. “I brought Terrace to Make Believe Recording Studios to record that album, but these fools in Omaha won’t acknowledge it! There’s even a song named ‘Curly Martin’ my son did with Robert Glasper. Now that’s a tough tune.”

When asked if there are remnants of the jazz scene he once knew in Omaha, Martin scoffs.

“The ‘decision-makers’ on the music scene don’t like me because I’ll tell them to their faces they can’t play,” Martin states unapologetically. “I don’t think Omaha artists have enough range, and they’ll get mad at me for telling them the truth!”

One of the few people Martin considers an ally is Kate Dussault, founder of the Hi-Fi House. After hosting a series of successful Jazz Labs with Martin, she acknowledges him as an unappreciated artist in the local music scene.

“Curly is a hoot, but he is passionate about passing his knowledge on to the younger generation,” Dussault says. “He is more akin to a mentor than an academic teacher. I can recall him saying that you can go to class all day and do your homework, but where is the inspiration?”

“They don’t even know that I sold out the Holland Center back in February, man,” Martin asserts. “I brought out some of the best guitarists in the world that still reside in North Omaha like Wali Ali and Calvin Keys or saxophonist Hank Redd. These guys have worked with The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Tony Bennett. Musicians around here aren’t as diverse as we were, so they can’t compare to back in the day.” 

Martin goes on to describe the Jazz Circuit lifestyle: thousand-dollar diamond rings, mohair suits, and alligator shoes that had to match the belt. They would play seven days a week traveling between the Blue Note in Minneapolis, Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha, O.G.s in Kansas City, KC Lounge in Denver, and the BTW Hotel and Lounge in San Francisco.

“Man, we rotated through those clubs throughout the ’60s,” Martin reminisces. “Mr. Allen at the Showcase let a lot of us jazz players get our feet wet, but there was also Alice’s Lounge, Shirley’s, and the Black Orchid in North Omaha. Even for the white folks, if they wanted to hear the baddest of the bad they had to come to the northside and downtown!”

Morning breakfast dances from 6-10 a.m. on holidays, Sunday jam sessions, and good music playing on every corner is the North Omaha jazz mecca that Martin remembers.

“I was probably 14 when I started drumming for my first band, Daddy Long Legs and the Rocking Nighthawks. I even had a gig downtown at Mickey’s with a checkerboard band called Danny and the Roulettes because mixed-race bands were popular. We were jamming downtown when the so-called riots of ’69 went down. After that uprising, our era started to wind down.”

These days, Martin focuses on the future. With a new album in the works and another project with Dussault upcoming, he is eager to give back to his community. 

“They tried to get me involved with WeBop, but I’m not trying to be a babysitter,” Martin says, referring to the early childhood education program. “I want to get kids when they’re serious about their craft, and show them that North Omaha has a rich background. I can’t let them bury our history; this generation can see me and say, ‘If Curly lived this wonderful life then I can do it, too.’”

Terrace Martin produced Velvet Portraits and is producing his father’s upcoming album. Follow @terracemartinmusic on Facebook for updates. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Daylight Factory

July 16, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

Daylight may be the most prominent feature of the Rail and Commerce Building at 10th and Mason streets. The banks of windows on every floor—including the lower level—were designed in the style of a “daylight factory,” a multi-story concrete frame industrial building that proliferated in the early 20th century, and that’s how they were restored. 

The multitude of windows was not happenstance. “We recognized the daylight as a resource worth harvesting,” says Jon Crane, president of Boyd Jones, the company responsible for renovating the building. “You need an environment conducive to attracting, retaining, and hiring quality people. Environment matters.” 

Crane motions through the conference room window to the Boyd Jones’ open-space office area. “This is a very collaborative space, which is an important value of our company. This space is very open, yet not disruptive.”

The open floor plan was a feature of the original building. The first floor Boyd Jones office was once meant for mail trucks—they drove right through the center of the building, from the 10th Street bridge to what was then the 11th Street bridge. Downstairs, in what is now the Commerce Village, there was a track so railcars could go through. When the building opened in 1926, it received nearly all the mail for western Iowa and Nebraska. It served in that capacity until the 1970s, when the existing post office next door replaced it.

Vacant for most of the years since then, the Rail and Commerce Building was condemned to be torn down when Crane and his team found it. “It was a cold, dilapidated shell on the inside. But the building itself, the structure was very sound,” Crane says. “We restored the façade and we completely cleaned out the inside and made it new. It was a historical preservation project, so we worked with the Nebraska Historical Society and also the National Park Service. We were able to preserve a lot of the neat historical aspects of the building.”

Building a new edifice for Boyd Jones’ headquarters was only a fleeting thought for Crane.

“It’s very important to remember where you come from—to embrace the past, but adapt it to the future,” Crane says. “Change doesn’t have to mean destruction. It can mean evolution.”

The location in Little Italy attracted Crane. He guessed it would attract others as well. The lower level of the Rail and Commerce Building houses the roughly 20,000-square-foot Commerce Village coworking space. With 16 private suites and 50 desks, it offers a variety of systems for renters: closed-door offices, set desks, floater desks, or one-day drop-ins. 

For the planning of Commerce Village, Crane brought in Matt Dougherty, who had prior experience with collaborative workspaces. His eight spaces at the Ford Building at 10th and Dodge streets “went so fast it became clear there is a real need for this type of incubator space,” says Dougherty. In his insurance business, he’s seeing a sort of “small business renaissance”—a trend of wanting to work for yourself rather than someone else.

That fit just right with Boyd Jones. “One of the values of our company is entrepreneurship,” Crane says. “We wanted an office space that would attract entrepreneurs and start-up companies—a collaborative atmosphere for collaborative people.”  

That energy drew Verdis Group, according to managing partner Craig Moody. “We’re excited for the opportunity for partnering with other organizations here,” he says.  

The daylight was another huge draw. An unexpected benefit? “The trains going by,” Moody says, grinning. “Sometimes I feel like an 11-year-old boy.” 

Verdis Group promotes sustainability, so they were pleased to find the building was equipped with solar panels. There’s also ample bike parking, as well as private showers and changing rooms so employees can freshen up after pedaling to work—or using the Rail and Commerce Building’s own fitness center. 

Conference rooms; access to a printer, mail, and package services; and a stocked kitchenette round out the amenities. Crane explains, “We really want people to be comfortable, like you’re in your [home] office.”

Visit boydjones.biz or commercevillageomaha.com for more information. 

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Going to the Fair for 140+ Years

July 8, 2018 by
Photography by Douglas County Historical Society
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

4-H played a big part in Tracy Behnken’s youth. The Nebraska Extension educator, who grew up on a dairy farm near Bennington, showed dairy cattle and participated in horticulture and entomology competitions from the age of 8 to 18.

So when the Douglas County Fair rolled around each year, Behnken and her siblings filled with excitement. “I’m the youngest of four, and we all showed [livestock] and looked forward to fair time. We’d spend morning ‘til night there, caring for our animals. My cousins were there, and I got to see many of my classmates. And we’d get to see kids from across the county…reconnect with friends we’d made.” 

Behnken, 54, says a highlight was riding the Zipper carnival ride with friends, over and over again. She’d also go to the open-air auditorium and watch the song competition and fashion review show. “And I remember us girls trying to keep away from the 4-H boys who’d try to throw you in the stock tank,” she says, laughing. “They were an ornery bunch.”

The Douglas County Fair has created great memories like Behnken’s for countless Nebraskans for more than 140 years. And that longevity is no small feat, considering the changing landscape of the county, both geographically and culturally.

Just a couple of years ago, the fair appeared to be near an end. Its events and entertainment had been cut to the bone, attendance was dismal, and fair planners wondered if it could survive. 

1906 Douglas County Fair Ribbons

But today, with a new home and management, the fair is poised to make a comeback. So believes Matt Gunderson, chair of the Douglas County Fair Advisory Committee and president of Friends of Extension Foundation, which took over management this year. The 2018 fair will be held July 10 to 15 at Village Pointe in West Omaha and Chance Ridge Event Center in Elkhorn. Chance Ridge won’t have parking, so visitors will need to take weekend shuttles from lots at Village Pointe or Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus. 

To say that the fair has weathered many changes is an understatement. The first fair (in the area now known as Douglas County) was during 1858 in Saratoga prior to Nebraska statehood, according to the Douglas County Historical Society. But the official Douglas County Fair got its start on a parcel of land in Waterloo in the mid-1800s. A portion of property taxes paid by Nebraska landowners went to the Douglas County Agricultural Society, which initially funded the fair. 

“County fairs started as a means for the rural population to showcase what they’d done all year,” says Vernon Waldren, executive director of the Friends of Extension Foundation. “The farmers came out to show the quality crops they’d grown, compare the size of their melons, and show off their best livestock.”

“Eventually they added home economics—baking, sewing, and other domestics. Then 4-H started in 1902 and became part of Extension, and joined the fair with the goal of educating people about these things.” 

The fair steadily grew, adding musical acts, carnival games and rides, and other family fun. Held in late summer, the event lasted from five to 10 days. The fair stayed in Waterloo for over a century, until the fairgrounds were sold.

In 1988, the Douglas County Fair relocated to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, with the Knights of Aksarben taking over management. The tract of land—bounded by 50th to 72nd and Leavenworth to Center streets—seemed a good fit, offering an indoor arena, a racetrack, and stables with plenty of room for exhibits, livestock, rides, and a midway. The location also brought the action closer to the population center, though not all were happy about the fair leaving a small-town setting. Participation by both 4-H and open-class competitors grew, as events were opened to kids from outside counties. The late-July fair was a boon to the city. 

In 2003, following the sale of Ak-Sar-Ben for development, the fair was forced to move again, this time settling at the Qwest Center Omaha in downtown. The fair combined with the River City Rodeo & Stock Show to become a four-day event in late September. The urban venue did not appeal to many traditional fair-goers, as events were moved indoors, and many complained the fair had lost its identity. But there was no denying the high turnout. “There were as many as 100,000 people in attendance during those four days,” Gunderson says.

The first few years at the Qwest Center (eventually renamed the CenturyLink Center), the fair offered carnival rides in the parking lot. “But economics dictated that that end pretty quick,” says Eddie Biwer, another Friends of Extension Foundation board member. “Too expensive.” 

“Also, the 4-H presence at the [Douglas County] fair was dropped,” Waldren says. “[The kids] went to the Sarpy County Fair. There were still open-class persons exhibiting, but not in those numbers.”

To keep the fair relevant in its new city setting, organizers recognized it had to become more diverse, Gunderson says. “We began hosting chess tournaments and robotics competitions. We worked to become more inclusive.” 

Douglas County Fair McArdle exhibit, 1910

In 2016, the Knights of Aksarben ended its oversight, and the rodeo/stock show parted ways with the fair. Management was turned over to the Douglas County Fair Foundation. During this uncertain time, the group chose to scale the fair back to three days in late July and sought out an inexpensive venue, choosing Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge streets. Mostly vacant, the mall housed most of the fair events indoors, with a few bounce houses and a small petting zoo in an outside lot. 

The bare-bones fair offered some live music, a magic show, a Disney film screening, and the traditional cake and quilt shows. But without carnival rides and livestock events (rabbits and chickens were showcased indoors), the fair proved lackluster and had disappointing attendance. Fair organizers knew big changes had to come for it to survive.

Last year, the Douglas County Fair Board moved the event to Chance Ridge Event Center in rural Elkhorn. The one-day July event was a trial run to see if the venue would suit the needs of the fair going forward. Its tagline was “Back to the Dirt,” referencing the fair’s return to the country and the basics of a county fair (minus the carnival rides). It had the regulars—quilts, bunnies, a “sugar arts” baking competition, as well as a progress show (a livestock event for youth to practice their showcasing skills for the state fair). Like in past years, all events were open class, meaning anyone could compete. A beer garden and music concert closed the event. Though the fair did not boast big numbers, competition entries were up and it was received well by attendees. 

The Friends of Extension Foundation is hoping to sign a multi-year contract with Chance Ridge to continue hosting the Douglas County Fair, Gunderson says. With the help of new sponsors and additional marketing this year, organizers hope to build on this momentum. 

This year’s event tagline is “Where Urban and Rural Meet,” as the fair focuses on educating fairgoers on how agriculture relates to all of us, as well as pathways to careers in agriculture.

“One-third of all industries in Omaha are tied to agriculture in some way,” Gunderson says. “You can work in IT, as an accountant, a welder, or in transportation, and still play a part in agriculture and food production.”

Adds Waldren: “Even if you don’t want to work in agriculture, there are skills we teach to help in everyday life, like how to pick fresh produce or selection of meat…[teaching] people how to be better consumers.”

Gunderson realizes that building the fair back to the size it once was is unlikely given the more urban nature of Douglas County, not to mention club sports, technology, and summer camps competing for kids’ attention. But he hopes parents will take the time out for the fair to “create those special memories with their kids and grandkids, and spur that fire and interest in agriculture. It’s great family time.” 

For more information, visit douglascountyfair.org and douglascohistory.org.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Larry Lundquist

May 15, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

Larry Lundquist’s success in Omaha construction is tied to the rise and rebirth of many local buildings.

The 69-year-old CEO of Lund-Ross Constructors says the company relies on roughly 50 employees who share his belief that preserving existing community structures matters. 

Rob Stargel, vice president of business development at Lund-Ross Constructors, says Lundquist loves the city of Omaha and is vocal about his enthusiasm for working on its historic and new buildings.

“You understand that when you’re riding with him to lunch or meetings,” Stargel says. “He always takes a new route to show you a building or view of Omaha you may have never seen.”

He adds it’s not surprising that ideology is embodied in the work accomplished by the company.

Enthusiasm applies to many parts of his life. In addition to his work, Lundquist served two consecutive three-year terms (from January 2009 to December 2014) as a board member for Girls Inc., and has been involved in professional organizations.

“Larry Lundquist was everything you would want in a board member—engaged, generous with his time, treasure, and talents, and 100 percent supportive of our mission,” says Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of Girls Inc. “Larry has a large professional footprint in this community and he has an even larger heart to go along with it. He really did care about the girls and would do anything to help them grow up strong, smart, and bold.”

But it’s that belief in preserving community structures that has prevailed. When M’s Pub was destroyed by a fire in January 2016, Lundquist and his team took the loss to heart. Lund-Ross employees frequented the popular restaurant, which reopened in late 2017. Lundquist himself met with a group of developers, lawyers, and friends, sitting at the same table every Friday night for more than 20 years to have drinks and chat about the week.

The initial assessment of the post-fire Mercer Building was that it was in danger of collapse. The liquid used to put out the fire on that frigid day turned to ice, and this danger would increase as the ice returned to a liquid form. Lundquist has experience with renovating many historic structures—one of the pluses in this story—and he wasn’t about to let this beloved structure fall.

“His passion for preserving our architectural heritage and progressive new development are at the core of everything we do at Lund-Ross,” Stargel says.

Lundquist describes repairs to the Mercer Building, which housed M’s Pub, as emotional and challenging. He adds, “It was an honor to be involved in rebuilding it.”

“I just like the atmosphere of it,” Lundquist says of M’s Pub. “It’s like a pair of old Levi’s. You get a hole on the knee, and you keep wearing them because they still fit. M’s is the same way.”

The Mercer Building project was given the Excellence in Construction award by the Associated Builders and Contractors. At presstime, they were in the running for other industry awards.

These days, you can see Lundquist and his colleagues at the storied bistro, thanks to his team, who put his exact table back in place, allowing his Friday night happy hours to commence again.

Visit lundross.com for more information.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Larry Lundquist

Omaha is 120 Years Old (In Tourism Years)

The year of 1898 was a huge tourism year for Omaha. It was the year that an event lasted five months and attracted 2.6 million people from around the world—the Trans-Mississippi and International Expo, also known as the Omaha World’s Fair.         

It was no accident that Omaha played host to this event; it was all by design. The tourist attraction was the innovative vision of a small committee of local businessmen who understood that tourism meant big business and could provide a boost to the local economy. The fair had an economic impact of almost $2 million dollars, an equivalent of more than $54 million by today’s standards.  And it all started with a small group of business leaders with an idea.

Omaha has a long history of small committees doing big things. In 1950, four men who loved baseball had the vision to bring the NCAA Men’s College World Series to Omaha—Ed Pettis of Brandeis Department Stores, Morris Jacobs and Byron W. Reed of Bozell & Jacobs, and then-Mayor of Omaha Johnny Rosenblatt. The first games played in Omaha had a total attendance of 17,805. Over the years, College World Series of Omaha Inc., a local nonprofit organizing committee, was formed to sell tickets, plan special events, and rally community support for the series. Today the average attendance is more than 20,000 people per game.

It was the belief of a local woman, Lisa Yanney Roskens, and her love of horses that played a big part in Omaha hosting the 2017 FEI World Cup Horse Jumping and Dressage Finals. While there were many people involved, she played a key role in presenting the proposal to the international committee members in Lausanne, Switzerland, and convincing them that Omaha was the right place to host the event. More than 50,000 people from around the world attended the competition, putting the city on an international stage. 

Junkstock is another Omaha event that started with an idea from Sarah Alexander, a stay-at-home mom with a passion for vintage pieces. She envisioned a place where junk enthusiasts could find some of the best antiques and repurposed art in the region. Junkstock started in 2012 with 29 vendors. This fall more than 200 vendors and 23 food trucks will be on site to welcome more than 10,000 guests through the gates. To accommodate the demand, Alexander purchased Sycamore Farms, a 135-acre century-old horse farm which now hosts three premier junk festivals every year. 

Some of the names you may recognize, while others may not be as well-known. Each person named helped with events that brought thousands of out-of-town visitors to our city and millions of dollars to our local economy. And they all started with an idea, a few creative minds, and faith in Omaha as a destination.

This column was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.