Tag Archives: U.S. Army

The Historian’s Personal Collection

January 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Howard Hamilton, 82, has read every issue of every Omaha newspaper dating back to 1854.

The Omaha historian, who was once fluent in 12 languages, moved to the area at age 5 with his family in 1939 and has lived here ever since (with the exception of language immersion studies at Georgetown University and a three-year stint in Pakistan with the U.S. Army).

He remembers how busy downtown Omaha used to be. “At that time, all the way from Leavenworth to Capitol was crowded during the day,” he says, remembering all the shops and the post office at 16th and Dodge streets. “It would be like if you saw a picture of New York City’s Times Square.”

hamilton1It seems fitting that a man who has seen so much of the city during so many phases of time should have a passion for history. Hamilton fondly remembers his third-grade teacher making the students recite all the U.S. presidents, from George Washington up to then-president Truman, every morning. (He can still do it today.)

Hamilton has a particular passion for Omaha history. He taught it for years at Metropolitan Community College. In 1990, he founded and served as the first president of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition Historical Association, named for the 1898 event that brought 2.6 million visitors to the city, one of them U.S. President William McKinley.

Hamilton published a book of 500 trivia stories about Omaha history, as well as a series of calendars with every day of the year marked by an event in Omaha history.

In 2012, he donated thousands of newspaper clippings to The Durham Museum. The collection’s name? The Howard Hamilton Research Archive.

Now retired, he uses his house as a storage space for artifacts he has collected over the years.

A tour of his collection reveals some amazing stuff:

hamilton4A copy of the first issue of The Omaha Daily World from 1885. And a copy of the first issue of the The Omaha World-Herald from 1889.

A piece of human hipbone from Omaha Beach. Hamilton found it when he visited in 2002 and thought it may have come from when the Allies stormed the beaches at D-Day. So, Hamilton brought it back to Nebraska with the intention of donating it to veterans.

(A pathologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center revealed that it was human, but not from 1944. “This bone is 3,000 years old,” Hamilton says the pathologist told him. The bone likely came from someone who drowned in the Atlantic and washed up on the beach.)

hamilton3A piece of brick from a 1904 Omaha sidewalk that reads: “DON’T SPIT ON SIDEWALK.”

An article about the only man ever to survive being scalped, as well as a picture of the man and a picture of the scalp. The man was at the Plum Creek Massacre and was brought to Omaha afterward. “They attempted to have the scalp replaced after he recovered,” Hamilton says. When that did not work, “they gave it to him, and then he donated it to Omaha.”

These days, Hamilton seems to be feeling good about a pretty incredible find.

U.S. President Grover Cleveland visited Omaha in 1887 because his wife inherited property from a Council Bluffs family. Naturally, The Omaha Daily World devoted front-page coverage to the visit on Oct. 12. But not all of the copies were on newsprint.

“In 1887, [the paper] published this and made five copies on satin,” Hamilton says. Of those five satin copies, Cleveland received one and the heirs of Gilbert Hitchcock, the founder of The Omaha Daily World—who later bought The Omaha Herald and consolidated the two papers to form The Omaha World-Herald—received another.

And one is hanging on Hamilton’s wall, framed and in mint condition.

“It was at an antique store, in an envelope,” Hamilton says. “Twenty dollars.”

The storeowner knew it was original, but thought it was one of hundreds. Now it is behind glass at Hamilton’s house, a shiny newspaper with a story about Cleveland’s visit. The fold lines are prominent in the satin.

“About the time I bought this, I had seen one in Glenwood, Iowa, tattered,” Hamilton says. “But mine was in an envelope, just like this.” 

Visit durhammuseum.org for more information.

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Junk Bonds

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It doesn’t take long to discover some dirty business in Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov’s past—and that’s a good thing.

More than a century ago, Polikov’s paternal grandfather, Benjamin, left a small village outside Kiev, Ukraine, and came to the United States. A peddler in his native land, he did similar work here, earning enough to bring his wife and three children to the United States as well.

Eventually, Benjamin began Aksarben Junk Co. at 13th and Webster streets. His son Abraham—Lee’s father—joined the business.

Lee remembers accompanying him on the half-Saturdays his father would work. “We’d sit and watch the scale,” he says. Mostly, though, his father wanted him to “stay out of the way.”

Abraham wanted something different for his son: “Get an education, assimilate, adapt, and grow,” Polikov says.

Polikov has done that and more, establishing a career peddling justice rather than junk.

Lee-Polikov1He’s done so as Sarpy County’s attorney since 1999. He was first appointed to the position but has since earned re-election four times.

“I’ve had a fortunate career, both in law enforcement and prosecution as the chief law enforcement officer,” he says. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Even if it’s not the career he  initially envisioned.

A 1966 Omaha Westside graduate, Polikov earned a business degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a commission as first lieutenant with the U.S. Army while serving in ROTC. Next came a degree from UNL College of Law.

“My goal, my ambition, was to do federal law enforcement,” he says.

But the feds, he recalls, were under a hiring freeze then. Instead, Polikov made his way to Sarpy County, where Pat Thomas had taken over the sheriff’s office. Polikov joined him as an administrative assistant, but with an agreement that he’d be there just a year until he started looking again for a federal gig.

“That just never happened,” says Polikov, who eventually became chief deputy and counsel in the office.

Pat Thomas remained Sarpy County Sheriff for 32 years. Polikov stayed with him until he was appointed to his current post. Today, he manages a staff that includes 23 attorneys and 75 support staff. “Which is really a rather large law firm,” he says. “I’ve got a great team. We feel we’ve been able to provide a good, safe community for people.”

Polikov is 67 now and has been Sarpy County’s attorney for 17 years. A great time, perhaps, to call it quits and spend days of leisure with his wife of nearly 40 years, longtime Mannheim Steamroller director of communications Terry Calek?

Polikov says he has no plans to retire.

“It’s a great job. I enjoy it immensely,” he says. “I like the association with the staff and what we do, and those successes go beyond putting people in prison or setting people up to go to prison. It’s helping people that need help.”

Visit sarpy.com/attorney for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

Finally—A Final Resting Place for Veterans

May 25, 2016 by

It’s a long way from the early days of post-communist Ukraine to the silent, rolling hills of Sarpy County.

Today, Cindy Van Bibber is back in her native state, creating the Omaha National Cemetery southeast of where Highways 50 and 370 intersect. It’s just the second Department of Veterans Affairs national cemetery in Nebraska, a 236-acre tract that will serve the burial needs of area veterans and their families for the next 100 years.

It’s historic.

And in Van Bibber, the cemetery has a director who’s seen—and made—plenty of history herself.

She left Nebraska in 1983, a year after graduating from Grand Island High School. Plans to study for a career in the medical field fizzled, so she joined the Army and wound up serving for more than 10 years.

She began with the Cold War at its height. Part of her stint included an assignment with General John Shalikashvili, who later would become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Van Bibber was part of a two-person communications team that would set up secure lines wherever Shalikashvili went. Like a hotel in the Ukraine.

“It was a pretty exciting job to be able to travel worldwide with him,” Van Bibber says. “Wouldn’t change it for the world.”

But change it did. After discharge she moved back to the U.S., to Virginia, and after taking one more stab at the medical field, landed her first job in a cemetery career. That was in Richmond, where she helped open a new state veterans’ cemetery. Van Bibber was there from its first burial in 1997 until 2006. She then joined the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and worked at four VA cemeteries, including Riverside National Cemetery in California.

Not until last year did she come back home, becoming director of the yet-to-be-created Omaha National Cemetery.

Peter Young, who mentored Van Bibber at Riverside National Cemetery, has full confidence in his one-time protege.

“She is a great cemetery director always trying to improve herself and her cemetery so they can provide the best possible service to our veterans and their families,” Young says.

For now, the can-do attitude is coming in most handy.

Work at the cemetery began last fall. That’s mostly involved “lots of moving the earth,” Van Bibber says. Her office is a trailer but some of the footings for the four main buildings have been poured. She’s also building the staff, hiring a program specialist and foreman. Nearly a dozen staff will work at the cemetery when it’s at full strength.

They project to have 500 burials a year once it opens. The first should come this September. Van Bibber says she plans to have a dedication ceremony followed by burials for someone from each service branch.

A vet herself, Van Bibber is where she seems to belong.

“Even when I was in Europe I visited all of the cemeteries to pay my respects for those lost in the great conflicts,” she says. “It was something to do on weekends, never once thinking I’d come back and work at a national cemetery.”

Here she is, though, far from home no more.

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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