Tag Archives: Missouri River

Where Dignitaries Waited

October 6, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Out of the Douglas County Historical Society’s collection of 6 million artifacts and records, the biggest showcase is the General Crook House Museum. The Italianate-style brick home was built in 1878. Now located on Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus, the museum is named for its first occupant, Gen. George Crook.

general-crook-house-6Just inside the museum’s front doors is the reception room, which displays fine objects like Battenberg lace, embossed leather tables, and dried flowers under glass. There are scenic oil paintings depicting simpler times and curious antiques, such as Bohemian ruby glass vases and candlesticks dripping with crystals.

“The reception room would have been a place that servants would have greeted guests,” says Kathy Aultz, director of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Aultz says the reception room is an intimate space where the general’s wife, Mary Crook, might have enjoyed tea or entertained friends. Today, the reception room holds weddings, baby showers, anniversary parties, and is also a popular spot for holiday photo sessions. In recent years, the great-great grandson of Charles Dickens, Gerald Dickens of Oxford, England, greeted fans in the reception room after performing adaptations of his ancestor’s classics.

A silver-plated tray that rests off the entrance hints at the popular Victorian ritual of using calling cards, where guests would leave their cards to see if the lady or the general were accepting visitors.

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History indicates that the height of a woman’s card pile might be interpreted as a clue to her social standing. One can just imagine Mary Crook’s calling card pile overflowing, as dignitaries such as President Ulysses S. Grant and President Rutherford B. Hayes visited. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, the founder of Howard University, was also a guest.

Aultz says she loves to sit on the Rococco-style velvet-upholstered loveseat and soak it all in. “The furniture is different than what I am used to. Look at the design. Look at the quality craftsmanship and how it was built. Notice how small the furniture is and how low to the ground it is when you’re sitting on it. That’s because people were just so much smaller then.”

general-crook-house-3Some pieces in the room are original: the fireplace, the flooring, and the cherry woodwork with maple trim. The room’s focal points are the Regina music box that plays metal disks and the rosewood Steinway square concert grand piano that was brought up the Missouri River by steamboat.

Aultz spearheads the maintenance of the house. She recently ordered new carpet for the stairs from Europe. “We want it to be loomed the exact width that they would have used during the time, and we can’t get the correct width here.”

The Douglas County Historical Society also studied wallpaper authentic to that period from the John Sautter Farmhouse in Papillion. “We used that pattern to have new wallpaper reproduced that would have been paper not only authentic to the period, but also authentic to this area of the country,” she says.

Aultz welcomes volunteers who want to serve as greeters. “We really strive to make people feel like you’re welcome in this house. We’ve done all this work to restore it and preserve it for you to enjoy and see a piece of history of Douglas County.”

Visit douglascohistory.org/visit.html for more information. OmahaHome

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OJs Enchilada

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ground beef and cottage cheese on an enchilada. The combination sounds strange, but it tastes amazing.

Creamy, melted cottage cheese oozes over hearty meat and shredded lettuce, tucked into a flour tortilla. Douse the whole plate with ladles of finely chopped hot salsa (made fresh every day), and dig in.

The menu warns in all-caps: “GUARANTEED A GUT-BUSTER!” It stretches across the plate like a log, coated with a blanket of cheddar and sprinkled with black olive slices. Twin mounds of rice and refried beans huddle beside the delicious monstrosity.

OJs1Ever since I learned of cottage cheese enchiladas, OJ’s Cafe on the edge of the Missouri River has called to me like a siren song for fat kids.

Mexican food is fairly common in the Midwest nowadays, but OJ’s Cafe was a trendsetter. Located next to the Florence Mill, just south of I-680’s 30th Street exit near the Mormon Bridge, OJ’s wood-paneled facade harkens back to the days of the Wild West.

The recipe for cheese and beef enchiladas belonged to the owner’s mother. The owner, 70-year-old Olga Jane Martinez (whose married name is Vlcek) was born in Anaheim, California. She opened the cafe 40 years ago. Vlcek says they added the Western-style facade a few years after opening.

Mexican food was hard to find in Omaha back then. The restaurant was situated in the site of a former dairy that sold milk, eggs, ice cream, hamburger, and cheeseburgers. At first, Vlcek followed suit. She kept the menu and added a daily special. Mexican dishes were the Thursday and Friday special.

“Then customers started asking for more Mexican food,” Vlcek says. “I said, ‘You know what? I am going to try to make a business of this.’ So, I cut everything else (about a year after opening).”

OJ’s now offers a full menu with tacos, burritos, vegetarian options, nachos, and a wide range of Mexican fare. The kitchen will even switch out flour tortillas for corn upon request.

Walk inside OJ’s today and find heavy wooden lacquer tables and booths. Kitschy decorations abound. Ceramic suns cover one wall. Promotional mirrors for imported Mexican beer cover another. There’s a stained glass window with cacti and a sombrero, a crucifix, family photos, and lots of other trinkets contributing to the down-home atmosphere.

A waitress asks for our order. I know what I want, but ask her suggestion anyway. She recommends the cottage cheese and chicken enchilada. I pause for a moment. I didn’t know the meat choice could be switched. I take a risk. Chicken and cottage cheese it is.

When I order a plate of tortilla chips, I ask for a mix of corn and flour ($3.75) and a Pacifico on-tap ($3.75 glass) from an ample selection of Mexican beers. The beer arrives in a frosty mug. A margarita ($4) with salt on the rim follows with the entrée.

Word to the wise couple: Those with smaller appetites should consider splitting the enchilada ($10.25). After essentially chugging half of the dish, I slow to contemplate the merits of beef vs. chicken and cottage cheese. The chicken is fairly bland, aside from the rich cheesiness common to both. I still prefer the beef (which seems more savory, possibly cooked with more seasoning); however, I’m not disappointed. Being perfectly honest, I dump so much homemade salsa on my plate that it probably doesn’t matter what I’m eating.

OJs3To wrap up the meal, a sombrero ($5.50) arrives. Luckily, I’m eating with a dinner companion. We share the two heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream towering over a cinnamon and sugar-coated tortilla, all drizzled with Mexican caramel. 

Completely stuffed, I wonder about the origins of my favorite enchilada. Who better to ask than Olga Jane Vlcek herself. She still works at her namesake restaurant every day (OJ’s is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a mid-day break that closes the cafe from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

“That’s my signature enchilada,” Vlcek says of the beef and cottage cheese enchilada, which happens to be her favorite, too. The cottage cheese and beef enchilada was on the menu in the early days of OJ’s, but it wasn’t popular. “Ironically enough, I couldn’t sell them,” she says with a laugh. “People wouldn’t buy them, so I took it off the menu.” She made a commitment to herself that if her restaurant became established, she would bring back her mom’s enchilada recipe. And that’s exactly what she did. Omaha Magazine

Quartermaster Depot

January 8, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed by Wikimedia Commons

There is probably only one famous quartermaster in history: The character Q from the James Bond books and movies, currently played onscreen by Ben Whishaw as a bedheaded computer nerd, previous played as tweedy arms specialists by actors including Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese. Long John Silver, from the novel Treasure Island, was also a quartermaster, although the fact isn’t well-remembered.

Which makes the position of quartermaster sound somewhat marvelous, which it may be, but to simply describe the job sounds more quotidian: Quartermasters are responsible for distributing supplies and provisions in the military. There is an entire Quartermaster Corps in the U.S. Army, and besides general supplies, they are also responsible for Mortuary Affairs—identifying, transporting, and burying the deceased. The Quartermaster Corps actually predates the United States as it was established in 1775.

A grassy bit of train tracks runs through downtown, just off 13th Street, leading to part of this Corps legacy in Omaha: The Omaha Quartermaster Depot Historic District. This series of small, antiquated structures dates back to a rarely remembered Omaha institution: The Department of the Platte. Long headed by General George Crook, this department oversaw military support along the Oregon Trail and the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1866, the Army built its first depot near 13th and Webster streets, nicknamed the Old Corral. Trains going from there took supplies up the Missouri River and transported them west.

The Old Corral quickly proved insufficient, and the current depot was built in 1879 in its current location at 22nd and Woolworth streets, which also became known as the Old Corral. Most of the buildings on the depot date back to 1886, and, amazingly, remain largely the same as when they were built. The depot provided supplies for the dwindling, tragic final years of the Indian Wars, culminating in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.

After this the depot went largely unused until the United States involvement in World War I, when the depot was responsible for moving enormous amounts of supplies. The site’s application for the National Registry of Historic Places estimates that during the 18 months of the war, about 278 million pounds of supplies passed through the depot.

The Quartermaster Depot has been offered for sale many times over its history. After World War I, it was unsuccessfully put on the auction block in both 1927 and 1932. Without a buyer, the Old Corral went through its most unusual period, housing people rather than supplies. During the Roosevelt administration, it was used as a transient shelter, and then, during World War II, it housed Italian prisoners of war.

After the war, the depot became a National Guard base, first for the Iowa-Nebraska National Guard and later for the 561st Support Group for the U.S. Army Reserve. The location also housed   the Army Corps of Engineers during the 2011 floods.

The Quartermaster Depot was put up for sale again in 2013, although at the time its seller wondered who might be interested. Because of its historic landmark designation, new owners would be limited in what changes they could make to the property. It was purchased in 2014 by Monte Froehlich of Lincoln-based U.S. Property, with intentions to transform the depot into a facility with a variety of uses: An event center and restaurant, an outdoor concert venue, an auto repair shop, and a boxing club.

This is a perfect example of how flexible Omaha’s historic buildings can be: Buildings that once shipped supplies for the military and housed the homeless and prisoners can now house businesses and events. With a little vision and creativity, Omaha’s history can live on. 

Visit douglascohistory.org for more information.

Quartermaster Building

From Pioneers to Prosciutto

January 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Until not that very long ago, the only major rumbling in Fort Calhoun was the result of the teeth-shattering vibrations made by a never-ending parade of 18-wheelers lumbering through town along the busy commercial corridor that is Highway 75.

“Straightening picture frames is a daily chore here at the museum,” explains Julie Ashton, director of the Washington County Historical Association. “We go through the space to straighten things that forever seem to be just a little out of whack.”

The community first platted in 1855 and now with a 2010 census population of 908 is experiencing something of a youth movement as new businesses launched by an equally new generation of entrepreneurs have opened their doors up and down the main drag of 14th Street. The sleepy little bedroom community, perhaps best known for the Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, is increasingly becoming an attractive day trip offering a folksy alternative to the bustle of Omaha.

Fort Atkinson was the first U.S. Army military installation west of the Missouri River in the then unorganized lands of the Louisiana Purchase. The fort was erected in 1819 and abandoned in 1827. The present structure is a replica constructed by the state on the original site that housed a brickyard, lime kiln, stone quarry, grist mill, saw mill, and cooper shop.

The site’s position on a bluff above the Missouri River led William Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to recommend the plot of land as being ideal for a military outpost, one that was built 35 years before Nebraska became a territory. Colonel Henry Atkinson, who also became its first commander, established the fort.

Which takes us to the question of why the town itself does not carry the Atkinson name. Legend has it that it was a split decision on the naming of the hamlet, with the winning faction opting for the name of then Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who would later go on to become a U.S. Senator after acting as Vice President under John Quincy Adams.

Back in modern-day Fort Calhoun, cash registers are ringing in a series of new and not so new businesses.

Sandy and Dane Kucera operate Too Far North, a charming little wine, craft beer, and gift shop. A faded Metz Beer sign is a clue to the space’s unique heritage. The building dating to 1904 originally housed a Metz Beer saloon in an era when brewers most often also operated their own taverns.

“We like to think that Fort Calhoun is a great place for a fun outing,” Sandy says. “The drive from Omaha is beautiful and there’s now lots more to do here, especially after the last few years. It’s an eclectic, friendly little community.”

Almost right next door at Cure Cooking, owner Chad Lebo was busy preparing some of his savory Vietnamese potbelly pig prosciutto and pungent, stir-cured cheddar. Lebo’s robust selections of meats, cheeses, and extras are sold mainly at Provisions in Midtown Crossing and at farmers markets.

Lebo shares the space with Big Green Tomato, whose array of specialty granola products are sold at Hy-Vee, Tomato Tomato, and other outlets.

The old blends seamlessly with the new in Fort Calhoun. Lunch at the seemingly always-crowded (and legendary) Longhorn Bar revealed something telling about small-town life. Glancing up from a plate of yummy, crowd-favorite chicken wings, this writer was suddenly struck by what one didn’t see—cellphones. No texting. No calls. None. It must surely be something of an anomaly even in the small town of Fort Calhoun, but there wasn’t a single cellphone being wielded. Which also meant no annoying ring tones competing with my attempt to tackle a heavenly pork tenderloin sandwich too big for the bun that struggled unsuccessfully to contain it.

The scene was probably much more sedate than in the earlier part of the 20th century when the bar was a roadhouse situated below a hotel that attracted by all manner of rambunctious souls.

The Longhorn is also where we found regular Ron Ferring, whose wife happens to be on the board of the Fort Atkinson Foundation. He was chatting about the easygoing vibe at the place, but he could just as easily have been talking about the quaint little community as a whole.

“These are good people here; real people,” Ferring says. “Blue collar, white collar, it doesn’t make any difference here. It’s the kind of place where if I happen to forget my wallet, it’s all good. They know it’ll be made right on my next visit.”

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Rediscovering the Platte

September 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann & Doug Meigs

Three hundred years after Europeans first documented the Platte River, I push a canoe into the current and head downstream. The two-day excursion takes us back in time to a French explorer’s arrival.

We depart from Two Rivers State Park near Waterloo. The Platte is high and rising, due to flooding on the Elkhorn. Floating logs and debris rush past. The foamy water surface resembles a road of chocolate milk, draining the riparian woodlands of eastern Nebraska.

Huge cottonwoods and willows stand sentry along the Platte’s swollen banks. Leafy branches stretch high into a clear blue sky. A steady south wind blows 30 mph against the current, shaking the shoreline’s long green wall.

Storms filled the weekly weather forecast. Rains would continue every day, except for a sweltering two-day window during midweek. We set out on a Tuesday. The tri-centennial of Bourgmont’s arrival at the mouth of the Platte—the day prior—had just passed with little fanfare.

Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont led a small French expedition to map the uncharted Missouri River and establish friendly trading relations with Native tribes along the waterway. His journey was part redemption. He had deserted his military post at Fort Pontchartrain in Detroit, and had allegedly eloped with a fellow officer’s wife for a life in the wilderness. The Governor of Louisiana, Sieur de Cadillac (for whom the car takes its name) offered to pardon Bourgmont in exchange for assistance. The 35-year-old voyageur from Normandy accepted 

Cadillac’s challenge.

Bourgmont came as far as the Platte. His round-trip journey upstream from the Mississippi River took half the year. Our present-day canoe trip is far less arduous. This is an expedition of rediscovery.

I grew up in Omaha. My great-grandparents farmed along the Platte. As a kid, I spent countless summers playing on the river’s shifting sandbars. Yet, never before had I visited the mouth of the Platte. The river remains essential to all life in Nebraska. But its significance for many local residents has shrunken to a roadside landmark. For many, it simply demarcates the halfway point between Omaha and Lincoln on I-80.

Today, the Platte offers some of Omaha’s most convenient nature destinations. Parts of the river feel almost pristine (except when pesky airboats spoil the ambiance with their jet-engine roars). Nearby Platte parks include Two Rivers, Mahoney, Schramm, Platte River State Park, Louisville State Recreation Area, Schilling Wildlife Management Area, and more.

As I paddle into the wind, trying to maintain course in the main channel, I wonder how anyone could have navigated upstream. Then my mind wanders, tangled in the drifting scenery.

A bald eagle takes flight from a nearby branch, circling overhead. A spotted fawn startles back into the shadowy woods. Two beavers stampede from the underbrush, kerplunking underwater like a couple of cannonballs.

Civilization is nowhere to be seen until an hour after Two Rivers. Then a lone camper trailer appears on the far shore. A few more hours pass. Bridges emerges on the horizon. Eventually we paddle underneath. A feathered spectacle appears.

Swallows flutter from hundreds of mud nests. Their homes hang on inaccessible sides of the bridge. The birds bring a smile to our faces. Then we remember. Our final destination—Bourgmont’s arrival point—still requires more than a day of paddling.

When he arrived at the mouth of the Platte, Bourgmont met the Otoe tribe living along the river’s confluence with the Missouri. The Frenchman asked what they called the river. Nibraskier, they replied in the Otoe language, “Flat Water.”

“This is the first recorded mention of the name that was to become attached to the state,” says Harlan Seyfer, the town historian of Plattsmouth.

Seyfer has researched Bourgmont since 2010, when he accepted his non-paying historian position at Plattsmouth city hall. Seyfer realized that the 300th anniversary was approaching, so he wrote two academic papers for the Missouri Valley Historical Conference, and he began planning a weekend celebration for the milestone with fellow history buffs.

Bourgmont wrote in his navigation logs: “Saturday 16 (June, 1714) travelled north one league; at the start an island of half a league; to the west a prairie of one league, at the end of which the river of the Pawnee (the Platte River) is found. Its mouth is wider than the Missouri at that point. About 30 leagues up this river are 10 villages of the Indians called the Pawnees.”

The Platte’s nom du jour entered usage only after a subsequent French expedition. “It wasn’t until 1739 that the Platte got its current name (La Rivière Platte, or simply, the Platte),” Seyfer says. “The Mallet brothers—Paul and Pierre—met the same Otoe Indians, and asked for the name of the river. The Otoe again said Nibraskier. Well, what does that mean? The Mallet brothers, being French, translated “Flat” into Platte.”

Nibraskier didn’t merely translate into the Platte River. The waterway has literally and geographically defined the state. Its braided channels and twisting sandbars originate in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, and extend across Nebraska via the North and South Platte rivers. The two branches converge at North Platte and continue downstream through their aptly named river valley. All of Nebraska’s interstate traffic travels the same corridor, hence the state’s undeserved reputation for pancake-like topography.

Around Omaha, the river frames the western and southern boundaries of the metropolitan area. When the Platte cuts south, it slices off some of Omaha’s biggest street names. Maple, Dodge, Pacific, and Center halt in the river’s buffer woodlands, levees, and trailer parks. Past the I-80 bridge, the river curves again before emptying into the Missouri near Plattsmouth. Ultimately, Nebraska and Nibraskier both end at the mouth of the Platte.

Back in the 18th Century, Seyfer says the mouth of the Platte would have stretched for a mile and a half. The Missouri River was likewise much wider (by a multiple of four) and much slower (before modern channelization). “We’ve tamed things down considerably,” he says.

Bourgmont observed huge buffalo herds in the area. But they vanished long ago. Gold Rushers, Mormons, and pioneers would use the river for westward navigation. Nebraska towns (including Omaha) built wells to siphon the river. Nebraska corn farmers remain dependent on the Platte for irrigation. Damming the river in Colorado and Wyoming, and at Lake McConaughy in Nebraska, has further stymied the river’s natural flow.

Meanwhile, the Platte has sunken flatter and lower. Segments of the river sometimes go completely dry. “We love the Platte so much, we’re loving it to death,” says Gene Zuerlein, a planning administrator for Nebraska Game and Parks.

Zuerlein says that Nebraska is currently working with Wyoming and Colorado to raise the Platte’s flow to avoid periods when the river runs completely dry in central Nebraska.

The Platte is changing always. During summertime, it dries to a sandy ribbon stretching the entirety of Nebraska. But spring snowmelt and storms transform the waterway into a gushing torrent.

During our trip, the river is unusually high. We skirt along levees made from giant tractor tires and piles of broken concrete. We pass dense underbrush and sunken trees. The gnarled roots of giant cottonwoods, caught on some hidden obstruction, protrude from the water like bony, white claws.

Logjams clog underneath bridges, forming white-water chutes. Our canoe snags at one especially blocked bridge span near Platte River State Park. But we escape without harm.

After eight hours of paddling into the wind, we reach the Louisville SRA. The one-day route might take anywhere from 6-12 hours depending on river conditions.

We unpack the canoe and pitch camp as the sun dips below the flat-water horizon with a tangerine blaze. The park superintendent, Patrick Bogenreif, stops by on his evening inspection. He offers a ride to the main office to pay for the campsite.

Bogenreif has been canoeing the Platte ever since his days studying animal science and agronomy at UNL. His friends would rent canoes and float to Louisville from Two Rivers. Then he bought his own canoe, and he’s still using it.

“Just last week, I took my grandson out in the old canoe,” he says, from behind the steering wheel of his pickup. “The river was down to about 3.5 feet, and we had to work hard paddling to find a channel deep enough.”

Today, the river has surpassed six feet. The Platte is even higher downstream, Bogenreif says, warning us that the flooding Missouri has submerged boat ramps near the mouth of the Platte. By the weekend, the river depth at Louisville would rise above eight feet, its highest level since the 2011 Missouri flood.

“From ice out until mid-April, the Platte can be too high to canoe today and fine tomorrow; just make sure to check the river level (at the National Weather Service website) and you’ll be fine,” he says. “When the river is below five feet, it’s very safe. Wear a life jacket, and make sure your kids wear a life jacket. However, when it gets above five feet, you’d better be experienced.”

Back at camp, we cook dinner on a propane stove. Fireflies blink across the darkening shadows. Soon, our bodies crash into a deep slumber.

Aching arms and clear skies soon greet us. Fluffy cottonwood seeds float through the park like fairy dust. We reload our canoe and push back on course. Only four hours remain until the final destination.

Splash! A creature jumps from the water. A ten-pound carp hits me in the shoulder. Then it disappears. For a moment, I don’t know what happened. Then the scaly surprise repeats. Large fish are jumping at us, into the canoe, bouncing out, flipping and flopping. Asian Carp.

The invasive species has spread up the Missouri and into the Lower Platte. We had startled one Asian Carp on our first day of canoeing. We see more than a dozen during the second day, as we try to keep our course close to the right/south bank in preparation for exiting at the Schilling Wildlife Management Area.

After the Highway 75 bridge, the Platte grows rough, back-feeding. White-capped waves increase in frequency. We crowd the shore and travel slowly, searching anxiously for an exit. Then we spot a flooded trail. We squeeze around the leafy tops of sunken trees. I pull the canoe ashore right at the mouth of the Platte.

Three hundred years ago, Bourgmont lingered around the mouth of the Platte to gather information about the different area tribes. Then he went back down the Missouri. He was rewarded with a grand title, “Commandant of the Missouri River.” He did some further adventuring in the Midwest, exploring Kansas, before retiring with an estate in his French homeland.

I wave to a passing vehicle. He stops and gets out, unable to believe we just canoed down the river. “The water is over 15-feet-high right now,” he says. “Yesterday, I called in a search-and-rescue for a fishing boat on the far shore.”

Uprooted tree trunks are zipping downstream just 100 yards ahead on the Missouri River. The buoys and signs that normally identify the approaching Missouri are all underwater. The fisherman points to an especially massive tree floating past. “If you had gotten onto the Missouri right now in that canoe, you would’ve been screwed,” he says.

The passerby is an avid fisherman scouting his favorite catfishing spots. Like most Nebraskans, this is the first time he’s heard of Bourgmont.

Bourgmont’s navigational logs eventually headed to Paris, where a cartographer transferred them into maps by hand. The maps were never published. Instead, they landed in the French national archives, where Plattsmouth historian Harlan Seyfer says they were lost until 1969.

Settled safely upon dry land, I reconnect to the modern era. I turn on my smartphone. I snap a screenshot of our Google Maps location. I send it to the person en route who will give us a ride home.

A mere 30 minutes on the road take us back where we started. After two days on the Platte, we carry a greater appreciation for 300 years along the river, the Nibraskier, the Cornhusker State’s flat-water namesake.

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Going with the Flow

August 30, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Southeast of Tekamah, Neb., Jack Savage savors a chunk of watermelon as he peers out over the Missouri River from his picture window. Prairie grass and sapling cottonwoods undulate in the foreground. Just above eye level, purple martins flitter around a Colonial-style birdhouse. That roiling, fickle river flows deceptively placid through the middle ground. Farmland and a stand of mature cottonwoods in the riparian plain of Iowa take the eye to the Loess Hills far beyond.

This is a vantage point he designed more than two decades ago and, with occasional help from Nature, one that has been evolving ever since. The noted architect, arguably the biggest single influence on the skyline of Omaha, designed his dream home in his dream space fully expecting that Change would visit.

Retired now, Savage’s more than half-century career helped nudge Omaha from big-shouldered market town to budding metropolis. Woodman Tower, Omaha Douglas Civic Center, ConAgra Twin Towers, Union Pacific Headquarters, the Mutual of Omaha Dome Addition. He’s had a hand in dozens more iconic structures. In 1975, Savage even led the groundbreaking renovation of the Orpheum Theater.

Drive the lonely gravel road for several miles from Highway 75, wind in through cottonwoods along the river and you arrive at a structure that, knowing some of his groundbreaking work, is almost anti-climactic at first glance. It looks like a farmhouse with common ag-land out buildings.

The mastery is in the details, for one, in the crafted open-space livability and flexibility, absolutely paramount in Savage’s mind when he thought of his ideal living space. Openness. Light. Views in all directions. A connection to this land, now a federally designated conservation easement. A place he could decorate in tune with his wildly eclectic tastes and penchant for whim buys and new hobbies. This is not a modern masterpiece of design. It’s a place that fits this particular guy and his peculiar menagerie of interests.

“When you’re younger, you’re trying to make your name and impress people with new things and bold ideas,” he says. “I wanted a Nebraska feel here, something comfortable that fit this place and fit me. I don’t have to impress anyone out here. It’s just my little corner of the world.”

Eclectic and evolving. Early on, Savage went on a bit of a salvaging binge. The carriage house brags a cupola from a fallen barn, for one. Most notably, perhaps, visitors pass through the dark oak doorway and dual coat closets that once graced the entry to the law offices of William Jennings Bryan.

Next to the small antique table where Savage eats his breakfast sits both a banjo and a ukulele. The furniture throughout the house comes from myriad design eras. Look closely, though, and you realize many of the pieces (and works of art) could just as easily be displayed in a museum.

His reading chair, which also looks out over the river, is surrounded by books that range from beginning music guides to the grand tomes of literature. Currently, Savage says, he is using the solitude of this perch to “try to figure out” Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. “I think I’m getting some of it,” he says sheepishly.

“There’s a big difference between solitude and loneliness,” he says. “Solitude is peace. This is my place of solitude.” As part of that solitude, Savage has cultivated a preserve. “With that Conservation Easement designation, this will be a lovely habitat for birds, animals, and fish forever.”

This refuge, both for the architect and fauna, was always designed to evolve. It weathered the great flood of 2011. (The house stayed dry. The road to the property had to be rebuilt, utilities restored. Savage still is chain-sawing downed and dead trees). The work has had unintended benefits, he says. “You haul a chainsaw around a lot, you get in shape.” (Savage even whips out his bicep for his guest. Pretty dang buff for an 83-year-old).

A side room designed as a small theater has morphed into a first-story bedroom. He has increasingly lost interest in television. At the same time, he wanted a sleeping space on the first floor. He has reconfigured several spaces for the enjoyment of his grandkids.

His favorite space all along, though, has been the picture-window view of the river. Savage even purchased land across the river so “it couldn’t become a dump I had to look at.” When he first saw this piece of land while hunting back in the late 1980s, this spot was where he imagined himself at sunset reading a book, ham-handing a new instrument, or chewing on concepts of space/time.

“I love it,” he says. “Lovely solitude. It just feels right.” 

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How to Ride the River City Star

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The strains of “Folsom Prison Blues” as played by a one-man band is the perfect soundtrack to a riverboat tour. I bet there’s rich folks eating/In a fancy dining car/They’re probably drinkin’ coffee/And smokin’ big cigars. You are not those rich people, and this is not their sophisticated evening. This is where you embrace the river rat heritage bestowed upon you by dint of being in Omaha.

For the past eight years, the River City Star has hosted 60- and 90-minute cruises up and down the Missouri River from early April through mid-October. Just north of the Lewis and Clark Visitors Center and off of Gallup Drive, plastic palm trees and tropical trinkets guide you down a gangplank to a two-story riverboat. On blistering summer days, the kitschy décor fits.

Sightseeing tours happen every Sunday, no reservations required (but you really should anyway). Lunch and dinner cruises do require reservations and feature a cash bar and live entertainment, either by Win Lander or Joey Gulizia. Bartender Katie serves up Watermelons, exactly the drink that was so popular at the now-closed Anchor Inn. “It’s the drink on the river,” says Tami Bader, director of sales. “And there’s not a bit of watermelon in it.” Vodka and a few other liquors form the secret recipe.20130515_bs_6243_Web

Arrive. Early. If your dinner cruise is at 6:30 p.m., that means the River City Star pulls away from the dock at 6:30 p.m. Get there 15 minutes ahead of time to pick up your tickets at the office and get settled on the boat. Top floor definitely, if it’s a sunny day.

Take the time to soak in your surroundings. Stand at the back of the boat as it pushes off and watch as the twin John Deere diesel jet-drive engines froth up the water for the first time. If there’s a speaker on the sightseeing tour or live music during the dinner cruise, listen to it all. Try to get Lander to tell you why he doesn’t play Elvis.

The River City Star chugs north on the Missouri past the Illinois Central swing bridge, now permanently swung open. “The only way to see it now is from the boat,” Bader says. At Narrows River Park in Council Bluffs, the boat turns south to go underneath the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, breeze past the Downtown Omaha riverfront, and make a final turn just before Harrah’s Casino.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Depending on the day, your captain might be Stephen Hosch or Ken Merlin. Captain Hosch isn’t shy about divulging his knowledge of the river. As the River City Star trundles past Freedom Park within the first few minutes of the cruise, he waves his hand to encompass the variety of navy relics on the Nebraska shore. “That’s the Marlin there,” Captain Hosch says. “A ’50s training sub. And the Hazard over there, that’s a minesweeper from World War II. It supported a convoy in Okinawa. It was one of the few steel sweepers.” Incidentally, the USS Hazard is listing a tad these days, after floating on the 2011 flood that reached her on-shore resting place. When the flood finally receded, the Hazard settled back down at a bit of a tilt.

The Missouri is an adaptable lady, but if you look closely, you can still see the damage from the flood a couple years ago. Captain Hosch points out that the eddies swirling between manmade jetties and flood-deposits of sand may produce holes 20 feet deep underneath the river’s surface.

The Loess Hills are in perfect view at this point of the cruise, all golden with evening sun and accented by the earthy smell of the Missouri. As the River City Star turns south, a completely different view presents itself, the Downtown Omaha skyline.20130515_bs_6355_Web

It’s about this time that you should really head down to the buffet (if you’re on a dinner or lunch cruise) to enjoy some grilled barbecue chicken or roast beef, roasted potatoes or perhaps green beans with almonds. If you eat quickly, you can be done in time to see pedestrian reactions when Captain Hosch lets a kid sound the foghorn underneath the Pedestrian Bridge. Stay above deck to see how many swallows’ nests you can count, neatly lined up in the hundreds underneath the lip of the I-480 overpass.

On the way back north to the River City Star’s dock, Captain Hosch points out a channel cut into the Iowa bank. It may look like one of the Missouri’s natural changes in character, but the captain says it’s manmade, a place for catfish and sturgeon to lay eggs in safety. He’s seen deer, beaver, catfish, and huge paddlefish on his many tours up and down Omaha’s section of the river. “And have you seen all these geese?” he asks. “Looks like they’re all out dating tonight.”

The River City Star is inspected by the Coast Guard annually and certified for 149 passengers. Find the latest information on cruise times and prices at rivercitystar.com.

Great Plains Theatre Conference

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Plays and playwrights remain the heart of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan Community College-hosted stagecraft confab four years ago, he’s brought more focus to a smaller selection of plays and playwrights and deepened the conference’s community connections.

The conference revolves around readings or performances of new plays by emerging playwrights from around the nation and master theatre artists responding to the work in group and one-one feedback sessions.

“We used to bring somewhere around 70 plays out, and we didn’t have time to read the full play, which was unfair to the playwright,” says Lawler, who writes and directs plays himself. “And 70 plays meant 70 directors and 70 casts, which our local theatre community wasn’t quite able to properly support, so there was always kind of a heightened energy of struggle trying to fulfill all those roles and spots.

“We’ve reduced that number to about 30 plays, so now we’re able to really find great directors, great casts, and we’re able to have a performance of the full script.”

Playwrights find a nurturing environment during the event.

“They’re getting a lot of great attention. It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that [the event] is moving them forward as theatre artists.”

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve says, “It’s been phenomenal. Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of, and finding a playwrighting community was very important.” She and others who participate there formed the Omaha Playwrights Group, and two of her own plays read at the conference have been produced, including Recommended Reading for Girls at the Omaha Community Playhouse this spring. As interim artistic director of the Shelterbelt Theatre, Struve regularly draws on conference scripts for productions.

“It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that [the event] is moving them forward as theatre artists.” – Kevin Lawler, artistic director

“Ellen’s a shining example of somebody who was really able to find their feet at the Great Plains and really go from there and grow and take off,” says Lawler.

He adds that other local theatres also source plays and contacts at the conference.

“There’s an aspect of community building that occurs here,” Lawler says. “We try to foster that. There are many folks who leave here who stay in very close contact with others they meet here, supporting each other, sharing work, working on each other’s projects, helping get their work made. A national network is starting now.

“There’s a great exchange that happens.”

Featured plays are selected from 500-plus submissions. Guest artists who serve as responders also teach workshops. These artists are nationally known playwrights and educators who lead “various new movements in theater expanding what theatre might be, widening the horizons a bit,” says Lawler.

Works by featured guests are performed, including a water-rights drama by 2013 honored playwright Constance Congdon. The drama is slated to be presented on the edge of the Missouri River.

The conference’s PlayFest is a free festival that happens citywide. This year, “neighborhood tapestries” in North and South Omaha will celebrate the stories, music, dance, art, and food of those communities.

“We’re trying to be more rooted in the community,” Lawler says. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s not working very well?’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theatre is just priced out [of some people’s budgets]. That doesn’t work.”

“Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of, and finding a playwrighting community was very important.” – Ellen Struve, playwright

StageWrite is a conference initiative to nurture women playwrights and their work in response to the disproportionally small percentage of plays by women that get produced in America. A writing retreat for women playwrights is offered and funding is being sought for year-round women’s programs.

Another way the Great Plains supports playwrights is by publishing an anthology of select scripts to get those works more widely read and hopefully produced.

Lawler says Omaha’s embrace of the conference has allowed it to grow. Actors, directors, and technicians from the theatrecommunity help put in on. Donors like Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith help bring in guest artists.

For the conference schedule, visit mccneb.edu/gptc.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.