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Secret Omaha: New book is a guide to "weird, wonderful and obscure" history of the city

Secret Omaha Cover
Posted at 3:46 PM, Jul 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-26 16:48:16-04

Regional historian Ryan Roenfeld recently authored a new book about the Omaha metro area. This one — Secret Omaha: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure — might contain surprises for even well-informed metro area natives. In fact, the author admits he learned a thing or two while researching his latest project.

An airfield in the Aksarben neighborhood

“I had never even heard of the Transcontinental Air Race,” said Roenfeld. “Even people who’ve lived in Omaha their entire lives have told me they found out about a few things that they had no idea about.”

Before Aksarben Village was an entertainment and shopping district, it was a horse track and arena. In the early days of the horse track, Roenfeld writes that the neighborhood contained an airfield. It was a stop on the Transcontinental Air Race, a 1919 event that was used as a proof-of-concept for an airmail route across the country. The neighborhood now sits in the center of the city and it’s hard to imagine that it was once on the outskirts.

Organized crime and an infamous lynching

Douglas Co Courthouse
Inside the Douglas County Courthouse, which was the site of the 1919 riot.

In recent years Omahans have learned more about the 1919 lynching of Will Brown. Even those familiar with this shameful chapter in local history might not realize that organized crime boss, Tom Dennison, was behind the riot and lynching.

“It did not come out of the blue, it was entirely planned and entirely intentional,” said Roenfeld. “And it did exactly what they wanted it to do. It made the reform government look bad and it got the ‘good ‘ole boys’ back all into office at the next election.”

SEE ALSO: Remembering the 1919 lynching of William Brown; historical marker at Douglas Co. Courthouse

Roenfeld said at that time most city government officials were on the payroll of Dennison’s organization.

He also said he learned from his research, “just how widespread the corruption was and how, from top-to-bottom, people knew who was to blame but no one wanted to say it.”

Mormon history

Florence Mill.JPG
Florence Mills hosts farmer's markets during the summer months

Not all residents may realize how great a role the area played in the history of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church. In the Florence neighborhood near the Mormon Bridge sits The Florence Mill. It was originally built in 1846 and, possibly, funded by Brigham Young. The mill is now owned and operated by artist Linda Meigs. It’s open on Sundays during the summer for a farmer’s market and features a mini-museum with the history of the mill.

READ MORE: Florence Mill farmers market opens back up following pandemic closure

Secret Omaha covers other aspects of the area’s Mormon past including Winter Quarters in North Omaha, where Mormons settled after fleeing persecution in other states, followed by the community’s decampment from the Florence area to Kanesville (now Council Bluffs). The book gives readers a sense of the scope of LDS history in Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa.

Roenfeld said that Alpheus Cutler is one of his favorite characters in the book. A church leader, Cutler eventually fell out with the LDS church started a reform version. His followers eventually settled in the present-day town of Shenandoah, Iowa. According to Roenfeld, about 2,000 pioneers dropped off the Mormon Trail and settled in Southwest Iowa. Council Bluffs, Thurman, and Glenwood are among the towns with early Mormon roots.

Diverse immigrant communities

Monument to John O'Neill
Monument to John O'Neill

Secret Omaha shines a light on the different immigrant groups that settled the area. The book highlights the story of Edward Rosewater, a Jewish Czech immigrant who was partly responsible for recruiting the large Czech population in Nebraska. He also mentions veterans of the Mexican revolution who lived in boxcars in South Omaha and the Druid Hall building, which was once home to the Prince Hall Masons — a group of Black Masons that were founded in New England but were recognized by the English Masons because the American Mason groups didn’t accept Black members.

Fans of Irish-American history will be intrigued by the story of John O’Neill. The namesake of O’Neill, Nebraska was born in Ireland and served in the American Civil War. According to Roenfeld, he joined a group of Irish nationalists who developed a plan to free Ireland by invading Canada.

“It just seems like a strange response to invade Canada to free Ireland,” Roenfeld said.

After a series of exploits, O’Neill settled in Nebraska and encouraged Irish immigration to the state. When a monument to him was erected in 1919, Irish leader Eamon De Valera showed up to dedicate it. The monument and grave can be viewed at Holy Sepulchre Cemetary.

Giant Fork.JPG
Giant fork sculpture in Omaha's Little Italy

The fun of Secret Omaha is that it offers insight into neighborhoods that are part of our everyday lives in and around Omaha. It also reveals hidden gems and quirky historical facts that most of us would never have known about this city.

Roenfeld, who has long been known as a historian and author in the area, said that writing the book gave him a chance to discover new attractions as well.

“I had never been to Westlawn Cemetery, and I had never seen that mausoleum and it was really cool. I mean, it seriously looks like somebody just dropped a Greek temple down in Omaha,” he said.

Roenfeld leads walking tours around the city including Wicked Omaha and Secret Omaha.

Secret Omaha can be purchased at local booksellers and online, including from the publisher Reedy Press: reedypress.com

To learn more about the walking tours visit: Historywalksnebraska.com

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