Tag Archives: Omaha history

Bill Gonzalez

April 6, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Chat with Bill Gonzalez for a short while and one thing becomes clear: It really is hard to keep a good man down.

Nearly 20 years ago, Gonzalez was down. In August 1999, while working at an Omaha warehouse, Gonzalez tripped while crossing over a machine. Its drive belt caught his leg, shattering it from his knee down and damaging his back. Despite a handful of operations on his leg and back, Gonzalez was disabled.

“I couldn’t do physical work anymore,” he says, “and I didn’t have the skills to do anything else.”

He was homebound but realized that wasn’t the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

“That’s a quick way to die,” he says. “I had to get out of the house and do something other than sitting home eating painkillers and going nuts.”

A newspaper article noting that the Durham Museum was seeking volunteers for its archives department changed all that. Gonzalez thought back to his days at now-defunct Omaha St. Joseph High School when, during his senior year, someone presented photos of Omaha from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, then in the possession of KMTV (Channel 3).

“I was just blown away seeing these old pictures of what Omaha used to look like. I always remembered that.”

From the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, this 1911 image was taken on top of the Union Pacific Railroad Building at 14th & Dodge streets looking east.

Now the collection was on permanent loan to the Durham. Gonzalez, who lives just 2 minutes from the museum, wanted in. He joined the Durham as a volunteer March 15, 2005, working one day a week.

“As soon as I started working here I knew I’d found a home,” Gonzalez says. “I just kept coming back.”

Soon he was working four days a week. After a couple years, the museum hired him on a permanent basis as photo archive associate with its curatorial and education services. Today he oversees collections totaling more than 1 million photographs of Omaha from the 1860s to 1990s—from its rise as a frontier town with shanties on the banks of the muddy Missouri River to a sophisticated metropolis with a bustling downtown straddling those same banks. Many of the photos are digitized and available through the museum’s website. Gonzalez has written many of their descriptions. 

  When a visitor comes to the museum seeking a specific photo, Gonzalez is the man they turn to. He already possesses great personal recall of the city. Though his parents were immigrants from Mexico, 67-year-old Gonzalez was born and raised in South Omaha.

“A lot of stuff, I know what I’m looking at. The younger interns don’t have an idea,” he says of decades-old Omaha scenes and long-gone iconic structures from his youth. “Someone said I’m the organic memory of archives. I guess that’s true.”

Using that memory and his knowledge of Durham’s vast photo archive helps him connect people to pictures, past to present.

“The best part, the part that really gets me high, is when I find a picture that a person has some kind of emotional attachment to,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of the pictures we have are really family pictures of people. They mean something to somebody.”

They’ve got a good man to find them.

Visit durhammuseum.org for more information.

Favorite Old Omaha Photos

What are Bill Gonzalez’s favorite photos in Durham archive? He has many. Among his favorites, he includes: an aerial of Omaha taken in 1947 and looking west from the museum, formerly Union Station. “A spectacular shot,” he says. Another, from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, was taken on top of the former Union Pacific headquarters near 14th and Dodge streets and looks southeast. “A lot of what you’re looking at is no longer here,” he says.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Preservation of King Fong Cafe

March 3, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To walk upstairs from 16th Street to the dining area of King Fong Cafe was like passing through a time-warp. Destination: Southern China, more than 100 years ago. Pagoda chandeliers hovered above lavish teakwood tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Golden camphor carvings decorated the trim of private booths and tearooms. Silken embroideries adorned walls.

But the cuisine was another sort of time-travel experience. At least until King Fong’s—considered Omaha’s oldest restaurant—closed “temporarily” for renovations in 2016. King Fong’s menu featured old-school Chinese-American dishes such as chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young.

Back in the early days of Chinese immigration to the U.S., entrepreneurial chefs invented chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young to appeal to American taste buds. The dishes became staples at Chinese restaurants throughout the United States, but they have gradually faded from Chinese-American menus in recent decades. The trend is evident in New York City’s Chinatown. Likewise among the Chinese restaurants of Omaha.

Omaha-born director Alexander Payne was involved in a company’s purchase of King Fong’s in 2007. He has expressed desire to ensure that a Chinese restaurant remains at the site of King Fong’s for future generations; however, the restaurant remained closed for renovations as this edition of Omaha Magazine headed to press.

Preservation of King Fong Cafe represents a continuation of the last-remaining continuous link to Omaha’s early Chinese community. The restaurant’s founder, Gin Chin, was born in California; Chin’s father was a potato farmer in Stockton who gained citizenship while working as a houseboy for the mayor of San Francisco. Chin eventually left California to open a Chinese restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. Upon visiting Omaha for the 1896 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, he decided to relocate to Omaha’s relatively more-temperate climate. He opened the Mandarin Cafe and then King Fong Cafe in Omaha.

King Fong’s opened in 1920 at 315 S. 16th St. The building previously housed dining entrepreneur Tolf Hanson’s Cafe Beautiful, an ambitious French restaurant that ended up a financial disaster (the bankrupted Hanson committed suicide in 1909, a year after Cafe Beautiful opened). To remodel the magnificent space, Chin went all the way to Canton (present-day Guangdong province) to retrieve the traditional furniture and décor that would fill King Fong’s second and third levels. Chin even took the boat back to America with his teak tables, chandeliers, and silk embroideries to keep the investment safe.

Subsequent generations of the Chin family would leave the restaurant industry behind. Chin’s son, Carl (the eldest male of eight children), became a chemical engineer and chief chemist for Omaha Public Works. Although Carl personally helped out with accounting at King Fong’s, none of his own children would work there. Among Carl’s five children, his second-eldest son—Dennis Chin—is the only one still residing in Omaha. He became an accountant for Union Pacific before switching careers to education as a Bellevue school teacher/administrator and wrestling coach.

Dennis’s first language was Toisanese—a regional dialect of Cantonese—but says he’s no longer conversational in Chinese. His Chinese-American wife, Betty, grew up in Pittsburgh’s small Chinese community. Her first language was also Toisanese.  Dennis and Betty (who remains bilingual) speak English with each other, their children, and granddaughter. Their household conversations demonstrate how English often becomes the language of familiarity for second and third-generations of Chinese-American families.

Just like the culinary landscape of Chinese-American communities has changed—with chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young becoming increasingly rare—the linguistic landscape has also changed with subsequent waves of Chinese migration.

Mandarin has replaced Cantonese as the dominant Chinese language in Chinese-American communities. (Cantonese is the regional language/dialect of Guangdong province and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while Mandarin is spoken throughout mainland China and Taiwan.)

Meanwhile, with recent waves of Chinese immigration, the great variety of Chinese cuisine has found more authentic representation in American cities: from Sichuanese (a spicy Chinese cuisine from the interior of the country, available in Omaha at China Garden), to Shandong specialties (available at Blue & Fly in Omaha), and even back south to the Cantonese-speaking region of China with authentic dim sum (available in Omaha at Gold Mountain’s two locations and Grand Fortune Chinese Restaurant).

King Fong’s in 2018

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. Interior photos of King Fong’s published in the September/October edition of Encounter Magazine.

See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:

2017 Anniversary Overload

January 12, 2018 by
Photography by the Durham Museum

Nebraska has spent the past year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a state, and this seems about as good a time as any to look at some recent and forthcoming local anniversaries.

First and foremost, this past year was the 150th anniversary of Omaha losing something very particular. When Nebraska was first founded, Omaha was its territorial capitol. This was always an unpopular move, largely because there were likely more people south of the Platte River than north, and so picking a northern city was seen as being a poor representation of the state’s population.

The location of the capitol was the source of considerable friction for many years. In 1867, when Nebraska was made a state, it was moved to Lincoln, south of the Platte.

This was, in its own way, a final humiliation for Stephen Douglas, who drafted the legislation that created the state of Nebraska and after whom Douglas County was named. Douglas had, years earlier, dated a woman named Mary Todd—who went on to marry Abraham Lincoln. Douglas had been the Democratic candidate for president, but members of his party were so offended by Douglas’s politicking in the creation of Kansas and Nebraska (abolitionists, in particular, were furious that his legislation left the question of slavery up to the states) that they broke off and formed their own party, the Republican Party. They would nominate Lincoln as their presidential candidate, and he would beat Douglas.

And now, at long last, the capitol of Nebraska would be moved from a county named after Douglas to a city named after Lincoln.

This past year also marked the 100th anniversary of Boys Town, Father Edward J. Flanagan’s long-lasting and remarkably successful experiment—a self-contained, self-governed community designed to help at-risk youth (originally exclusively boys).

Although Flanagan, a native of Ireland, was likely partially inspired by movements for Irish self-rule in conceiving of a place where children ruled over themselves, Boys Town was very much a product of Omaha. Flanagan had originally sought to address a large number of itinerant laborers who used Omaha as a weigh station, creating a “workingman’s hotel” for those who were broke and needed a hand up.

But Flanagan soon found that there was a permanent underclass of adult men with chronic substance abuse problems and endless legal woes, most of whom seemed impossible to help. He realized he had to reach these men before they became adults, and so the idea for Boys Town was born.

2017 also marked a more contentious anniversary, the conclusion of Omaha’s attempts to annex several once-independent communities. Omaha has always been rather quick to annex nearby town and villages, and the city looked to absorb Dundee and South Omaha in 1915. But many residents weren’t eager to become part of Omaha and fought the annexation, mounting a two-year court battle that ultimately proved futile. Florence and Benson were also annexed in 1917.

The milestones keep on rolling. One hundred years ago, Fort Omaha set up its balloon school. The school was part of a series of experiments that would eventually lead to the development of the Air Force. In this instance, the school trained soldiers in the use of dirigibles, primarily for the sake of reconnaissance and forward observation for artillery.

Many of these soldiers went on to put this into practice during World War I, anchoring their balloons near the front lines in France, mapping the terrain, reporting enemy troop activities, and directing artillery where to target their munitions. This was a risky undertaking, as the dirigibles were appealing and poorly defended. Several German flying aces made their reputations as “balloon busters” for specifically targeting the dirigibles.

2017 was the 75th anniversary of another wartime venture, the 1942 Omaha scrap metal drive. The drive was started in response to a crisis in America’s steel factories, which were so overtaxed by the war effort that several were closing down.

Omaha World-Herald publisher Henry Doorly conceived of a three-week scrap metal drive to provide badly needed raw materials. At the end of the drive, Omahans had managed to locate or donate 67,000 tons of metal. The drive was so successful that it inspired a national scrap drive.

Now what? With the turning of the new year, what milestones can Omahans look forward to commemorating?

Here’s one for 2018: This is the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest quotes in political history, which came to us in 1988 courtesy of a vice presidential debate at the Civic Auditorium. The candidates were Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen.

The young, conventionally handsome Quayle styled himself after President John F. Kennedy, at least in terms of his senatorial experience (his actual style drew heavily from a Robert Redford film called The Candidate.) When Quayle made the mistake of mentioning Kennedy, Bentsen shot back at him, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

The line has since become political shorthand to deflate pretentious, self-serving statements from politicians, although it probably should be noted that Quayle, and his fellow candidate George H.W. Bush, would go on to win the election. 

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.