Tag Archives: J. Sterling Morton

Nebraska’s Capital

January 25, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

When Nebraska achieved statehood on March 1, 1867, it was the turning point in a 12-year-long, bitter, and sometimes violent struggle to move the capital from Omaha to…well, anywhere except Omaha.

“Divisiveness festered the moment Congress organized the Nebraska Territory on May 30, 1854. The first territorial governor, Francis Burt, arrived in October to determine the capital’s location. In ill health, Burt was besieged by “every influential man in the territory”—especially those with large landholdings in fledgling towns near the Missouri River. Though Burt appeared to favor Bellevue, a more established settlement predating Omaha, he died just 10 days later and “sought in the grave that repose which it was evident he could never find in Nebraska,” according to James Savage and John Bell in their 1894 book, History of Omaha.

“Our pioneer urban developers knew getting the seat of government would help drive their community’s economy. There was no tax base, and they needed all the federal money they could get,” says Harl Dalstrom, retired history professor, University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Even today we may complain about federal spending, but it becomes legitimate and welcome when the dollars come our way.”

The battle for the capital took shape on both sides of the Platte River, a geographical barrier for people north and south of it, and a political dividing line. The Kansas-Nebraska Act that created the Nebraska Territory also focused on slavery’s expansion. The act would destroy Democratic unity in 1860; it split the U.S. into two political parties, with Republicans primarily in the north and Democrats in the south.

Using the Platte as a line of demarcation, Thomas Cuming, territorial secretary and acting governor, divided the Nebraska Territory into eight counties: four north and four south of the river. Although a census showed more people lived south of the Platte, Cuming announced the first legislative session would convene in Omaha.

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A rising young Iowa Democrat, Cuming undoubtedly was influenced by his ties to Council Bluffs and his landholdings in Omaha. “Both cities were interdependent as the West expanded. It’s unlikely Omaha would have existed without its ties to Council Bluffs,” says Dalstrom. The Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Co. supported Cuming’s decision, offering its meeting house on Ninth Street between Farnam and Douglas streets for the session beginning Jan. 16, 1855.

Rancor soon was apparent, with delegates from Bellevue and south of the Platte arriving dressed as Indians, wearing red blankets “to indicate their ‘savage’ intentions toward Cuming,” according to Upstream: An Urban Biography of Metropolis Omaha & Council Bluffs, co-authored by Lawrence Larsen, Barbara Cottrell, and Harl and Kay Calame Dalstrom.

Cuming ignored the blanketed delegates. A.J. Hanscom, unofficial leader of the Omaha delegation, was elected Speaker of the House, supported by his friend, Andrew Jackson Poppleton, a master of debate and parliamentary skill. Buoyed by rich Omahans who bribed delegates with money, land, and promises, the two led a joint resolution on Feb. 22, 1855, naming Omaha the capital, with the ferry company’s meeting house becoming the first capitol building.

The second territorial capitol was built in 1857 on the site of today’s Central High School at 20th and Dodge streets. Scarcely had the mortar set when Omaha’s adversaries introduced a bill in January 1858 that would move the capital to a new, non-existent town. Omaha did not have enough votes to stop it, so Hanscom and Poppleton began a carefully orchestrated showdown using parliamentary procedure, writes David Bristow in A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha.

Through a technicality, Poppleton succeeded in getting Nebraska City’s James Decker, the new House Speaker and an Omaha foe, out of the speaker’s chair, and temporarily replaced him with J. Sterling Morton, an Omaha ally. Intending to filibuster until time ran out on the session’s remaining eight days, the Omaha contingent drew the wrath of Decker, who vowed to regain the chair “or die trying.”

Decker attempted to pry the gavel from the chair’s occupant, then tried to tip him out. Hanscom engaged Decker in a tug-of-war, igniting a brawl with bloody noses and black eyes too numerous to mention, writes Bristow. On the following morning, the anti-Omaha crowd adjourned to Florence (then its own city) and carried a motion to move the legislature there. However, Acting Governor Cuming refused to recognize the Florence legislature, supported by incoming Gov. William Richardson.

The struggle to relocate the capital continued year after year until December 1866, when the U.S. Congress passed a resolution naming Nebraska as the country’s 37th state, effective March 1, 1867. President Andrew Johnson opposed the statehood and vetoed the bill. But Congress overrode it, the only time in U.S. history that a statehood bill became law over a presidential veto, writes Tammy Partsch in It Happened in Nebraska: Remarkable Events that Shaped History.

To placate those south of the Platte River who were considering annexation to Kansas, the legislature voted to place the capital city in Lancaster County. Prior to the vote, Omaha Sen. J.N.H. Patrick attempted to thwart the move by naming the future capital city after recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It was assumed Democrats would not support a capital named after the Republican president, but the Removal Act successfully passed in May 1867.

Gov. David Butler and others toured sites and, by September, had zeroed in on the village of Lancaster, renaming it Lincoln. The state capitol building was completed Dec. 1, 1868, but despite the intervening months, nothing had been done in Omaha to prepare for the move. Many officials, including Butler, didn’t believe Omaha’s citizens would let the capital go.

So, during an evening snowstorm in late December 1868, men surreptitiously entered the Omaha capitol and cleared it of all documents, deeds, and certificates related to the governance of Nebraska, writes Partsch. By midnight the men and pack horses departed, spiriting the documents to Lincoln’s new capitol building, where the Nebraska Legislature would meet within a month. Like the history preceding it, the change was made under a cloud of politics and controversy.

Visit nebraskahistory.org for more information.

The Tale of Disney Elementary

November 27, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Walt Disney Elementary School in the Millard School District is a wonderful world, but you won’t find a castle anywhere on the grounds. Students don’t spend their days watching animated films, and there are no beloved Disney princesses and mascots roaming the halls.

Forty years after its opening in the Roxbury neighborhood off 108th and Q streets, staff and students still find that community members can be a little puzzled by the Disney name.

“I do get questions frequently about where that name came from,” says Principal Bethany Magana, who’s been with Disney six years. “I explain the process of how Disney got its name and we share the story.”

If you think Disney sounds like a name chosen by schoolchildren, you’re right. All Millard Schools are assigned a name by the Millard Board of Education, and in the early 1970s all Millard elementary schools were named for deceased famous Nebraskans like Mari Sandoz and J. Sterling Morton or for the neighborhood in which they were located (Holling Heights, Montclair). In 1974, only eight years after the death of Walt Disney, a 5th-grade girl—whose name has been lost to history—submitted an essay advocating for the Roxbury neighborhood school under construction to be named for Disney. The Walt Disney company agreed to give permission for use of the Disney name, the school board approved, and the children were involved in the process as well.

“We got to vote on the name of the school and we got to vote on the name of the mascot,” recalls former student Brad Utecht. “I remember them announcing to us that Disney won and we cheered.”

“Of course you’re thinking Disney World and Disneyland with Walt Disney, all those fun things for kids,” Micki Finkenbiner remembers, adding: “Mickey Mouse wasn’t there.”

“As kids, you do have this expectation of walking into this school and seeing Disney characters everywhere,” Mark Klein says. “Of course it was nothing like that, but it was nice because it was new.”

Before construction was complete, some of the teachers and students had to spend a few months in temporary space at what is now the Roxbury Plaza strip mall. Not only were they located next to a restaurant/bar (Robin Hood’s), but resourceful teachers had to hang butcher paper-wrapped cardboard to serve as dividers and sound batting, and they also wrapped cloth around the feet of the students’ chairs to counter the noise of the large, open space. There wasn’t much they could do about the cricket infestation, however, and everyone was thrilled to move to the new building, retired teacher Jane Slovenske says.

The Jiminy Crickets could have been a perfect mascot name, but with Disney officials denying rights to any of their characters, the students voted to become the Disney Dolphins.

“We thought, ‘Dolphins? We’re in a landlocked state and we’re the Dolphins?’” Slovenske says. “But the kids liked it and that was the main thing.”

It should also be noted that the Miami Dolphins were wildly popular at the time. The 1972 squad ran the table for the only undefeated season in NFL history, and the Dolphins had won back-to-back Super Bowls at the time of voting.

Utecht says that although he finds it a little amusing now, “We seriously thought, ‘How cool! We’re the Disney Dolphins!’”

Slovenske says that teachers and staff quickly learned to roll with the unusual name.

“When the school first opened, the first week or two the office kept getting these phone calls: “Is Mickey there? This is Minnie,” she says. “And then a few weeks later somebody else called and said,
‘This is Mickey. Have there been any messages for me?”

But soon everyone was taking the Disney name in stride.

“We just kind of laughed it off and just go on with making sure we were giving the kids the best education we could and prove that we weren’t just a ‘Mickey Mouse’ operation,” she says.

“I remember the staff was fantastic and a lot of those teachers I’m still in touch with,” Klein agrees. He’s now a Millard Public Schools teacher himself. “It was positive memories for me.”

“One thing that stands out with Disney Elementary school—within our school and within the community—is that we have a huge compassion for other people and a caring family,” Magana says. “The school community, the teachers staff, the students, they’re all such a strong family and that’s one of the traditions that’s always been here.”

It’s a small world, after all.

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