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  Winter 2009 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the 2009 issue.
Call us toll-free at 1-800-833-6747 to become a member or to order just this issue.

Growing up on the Farm: Nebraska Farmer Youth Pages, 1904-1965 - Kylie Kinley

The term "farm children" is an oxymoron. Especially in the times before mechanized farming, young people on the farm were expected to work from the time they could walk to the time they left the household. In many ways, they weren't children in the modern sense, but simply mini-adults--small beings who worked side by side with their parents in the fields, barns, and kitchens of rural America.

And not only did they have to be equal with their parents; they had to be better. Farm children were expected to attend school whenever their work allowed them to and learn to read, write, do math and speak English better than their parents could. However, while children spent a great deal of time working in fields and farmsteads, their hopes and dreams were much bigger. The children of rural Nebraska found a place to voice those dreams in the youth column of the Nebraska Farmer magazine.

Over its fifty-year existence, the column gave farm children a place where they did not have to be mini-adults; they could be young people, and share their trials and triumphs with their peers who understood them, express their creativity with riddle, drawing and story contests, and, in later years, ask for and give advice to their fellow teenagers on everything from acne treatment to asking a girl to go steady.

The Nebraska Farmer magazine was the only outlet most farm children had to reach the world outside their schools and farms. Perhaps for this reason, the editors of the magazine apparently did not censor the letters, but published the real, raw emotions of the young people of Nebraska, leaving behind a candid look into their everyday lives.

The youth page debuted as the "Work and Play Club" on March 3, 1904, and encouraged children to send in letters that described their chores, pets, families, and school activities. The editor of the magazine wrote in the first column, "We want it to be the best part of the paper, as well as the best children's page in the state." The first column boasted two letters (and one was from the editor's daughter), but the page soon took off, and the editor received so many letters that only the best could be printed.

The children's favorite topic was the animals, both domesticated and wild, that they came in contact with. Many of these stories were tragic. One six-year-old told how the family dog had found him when he had gotten lost carrying his father's supper to the field (the boy had been four at the time), and then the very next day the dog ate rat poison and died. Other articles related the stories of countless wild animals dying from the children's well-intended forced captivity, or gave the details of accidents that were constantly depleting the number of their pets; one letter even told how a pet rabbit had died from eating ginger snaps:

One evening when papa came home from the field he brought my sister and I a little rabbit. He told us to give him to the cats, but we couldn't bear to do that so we put him in a box and gave him grass to eat and milk to drink. At first, he was very wild, but he soon got acquainted with us, and when we would bring him into the house he would jump and play around with us like he thought we were rabbitsat first Kitty wanted to eat him, but we whipped her for it and she soon got so she thought he was her own kittenone time when Mamma came home from town she brought some ginger snaps. He liked them so well that we gave him all he wanted to eat. Two days after that we got up in the morning and found him lying dead on the dead on the floor. So that was the end of "poor Bunny."

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2009 issue.


"Omaha Charley" and the Bristol Collection of Native American Artifacts - Tina Koeppe

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have come
To show these relics at your home;
The best collection of the kind,
To show the skill of Indian squaws,
Which on your curiosity draws,
To see and hear explained entire,
Their handy work at your desire.
You listen as we pass around
And unto you these things expound"
--Poem from handbill for "An Exhibition
of Indian Relics" by Elisha Blakeman, 1892.

In 1906 Nebraska State Historical Society curator Elmer Ellsworth "E. E." Blackman traveled by train from Lincoln to Homer, Nebraska, to visit a man named David Charles Bristol. Locals in Homer knew Bristol as a "Buffalo Bill-like gentleman . . . driving his four high-stepping horses, hitched to a 'Democrat' wagon." People from Dakota County knew about the expansive Indian artifact collection he maintained in a building on his property. He took pride in showing friends and neighbors his personal museum and telling stories about his experiences living and working with Indians in the late nineteenth century. Blackman planned to view this private museum, rumored to contain nearly five hundred objects, and introduce himself to its owner and caretaker.

"This collection was arranged and packed in cases which stood in a small frame building where four incubators . . . heated with oil lamps, kept going day and night," Blackman later said of his first visit to Homer. Bristol had grown weary of caring for hundreds of objects. Realizing the danger of fire, he "seemed anxious to place this collection in a safe place," and expressed his desire to make the collection "a memorial to his life." Blackman, convinced that this was the most valuable and best authenticated collection in the West, began to talk to Bristol about moving his collection to the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Using the name "Omaha Charley," Bristol toured the United States during the 1870s-1890s, giving lectures about Indian life and culture and presenting a touring museum complete with performers to entertain the crowds. An early biographical sketch explains, "In the early days among the scouts and trappers it was the custom to address individuals by the given name only and it was modified by some significant term to distinguish him from others by the same name, i.e. Mountain Charley and Pawnee Charley." Because of his close association with the Omaha tribe, Bristol became known as "Omaha Charley."

Clippings in Bristol's scrapbook illustrate his years traveling the dime museum and lecture hall circuit in cities across the Midwest and eastern United States. In 1891, a Chicago newspaper advertised one of Omaha Charley's appearances in Chicago: "The principal attractions in the main curio halls of Kohl & Middleton's Clark Street dime museum will consist of Madame Carver the fat lady, and her midget son; Omaha Charley, the famous cowboy scout; Quebo, the marvelous razor walker"

Bristol came from a prominent East Coast family, but little is known about his early life. He was born in 1834 at Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York, to David Bristol, Sr., and Sarah (Knickerbocker) Bristol. One account explains, "Farm life in upper parts of the Empire State held no lures for the boy." He went to work for the railroad at age seventeen. Interviews with descendants suggest that youthful rebelliousness and a preference for spending time with Indian friends may have led to family estrangement. He worked as a brakeman on the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway.

At the age of twenty-one, he established a trading post thirty miles east of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, where he did business with and befriended members of the local tribes. In 1865 he married Mary Eleanor Thompson of Union City, Pennsylvania. The 1870 census places David and Mary Bristol in Greenfield, Wisconsin, where his occupation is listed as "huckster."

Bristol moved to Nebraska in his thirties, living and working in Decatur, Gordon, Rushville, and finally in Homer. He often chose to live on Indian reservations. Mary, perhaps tired of this lifestyle, sought a divorce and moved to Neligh, Nebraska, where she remarried Judge Robert Wilson in 1873.

After his divorce, Bristol said that he worked as a manager and costumer for Indian performers in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West. Records from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center contain no mention of Bristol's name, but he did claim to live in Rushville at some point during the late 1870s and early 1880s. According to one source, "Many South Dakota Indians and cowboys who took part in the Wild West Show outfitted in Rushville, Nebraska and took the train from Rushville in special cars." Cody employed hundreds of staff and crew members for his show during the 1880s. In the early days of the Buffalo Bill show, newspapers reported on incidents of fights and heavy drinking amongst Cody and his crew, so it's possible that record keeping was not a priority. It's also plausible that Bristol may have exaggerated his professional connections in order to advance his own career. Family legend suggests Bristol and Cody ended their professional relationship due to a disagreement about money.

The next step in Bristol's career involved the largest traveling medicine show of the nineteenth century: the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. Modeling its selling techniques after the Wild West shows, the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company sold a variety of "cure alls" and entertained customers with vaudevillian style performances featuring Indians hired straight from the reservations. At the height of their success, the Kickapoo Medicine Company employed around eight hundred Indians and fifty white "medicine men" and "agents" touring the country selling their products. The best selling product from the Kickapoo Medicine company was "Sagwa," a laxative made with a combination of herbs and alcohol, and promoted as a cure for ailments such as rheumatism and dyspepsia.

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2009 issue.


Creating an "Image Center": Reimagining Omaha's Downtown and Riverfront, 1986-2003 - Janet R. Daly Bednarek

In July 2001 the city of Omaha officially dedicated a new city park. The twenty-three-acre riverfront site was formerly home to the Asarco lead refinery, an enterprise with roots in the 1870s and a symbol of Omaha's early industrial development. Initially, the city council approved the name "Union Labor Plaza." However, after an election in May 2001, which witnessed the ousting of the incumbent mayor and five city council members, the new mayor and council decided to review the earlier choice. After asking for public input, the council decided on "Lewis and Clark Landing." In many ways the new name was perhaps more fitting given the decided transformation of Omaha's downtown and riverfront involving not only the new park, but also a host of other developments from the ConAgra headquarters project in the late 1980s to a burst of large-scale corporate, civic, and residential projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Omaha's leaders had first promoted "back to the river" ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the early twenty-first century, those ideas witnessed a full flowering.

Omaha's return to the river, though, involved not just massive physical transformation, but an extensive reconceptualization of the downtown and riverfront. Omaha's historic downtown riverfront had been home to commerce, transportation and industry. Omaha's new downtown riverfront was home to open space, recreation, leisure and cultural amenities. "Union Labor Plaza" evoked the historic, somewhat gritty downtown riverfront. "Lewis and Clark Landing," on the other hand, hearkened back to a past that pre-dated Omaha itself by a half century and evoked more pristine images of frontier, wilderness and adventure. Though the plaza eventually held a statue dedicated to Omaha's working people, the choice of name suggested the degree to which Omaha's civic leadership had reconceptualized and transformed the downtown and riverfront to serve as a new "image center" for the city.

Though certainly no longer functioning as the center of America's urban areas, downtowns still command a great deal of the attention, energy, and imagination of those concerned with the future of America's cities. Downtown history has also proved of interest to urban historians. The last decade in particular has witnessed the publication of two major works on the history of this crucial urban area. Robert M. Fogelson's work is essentially a political history of the downtown, focused, as he said, on power--who held it, how they exercised it, and how that shaped downtowns from the 1880s to the 1950s. Alison Isenberg, on the other hand, has produced a social and cultural history of the nation's downtowns, taking the story into the 1960s.

Both works ended in the first decades following World War II. By that time, both argued, downtowns had ceased to serve their traditional function as the central place within cities and were being redefined and rebuilt--with varying degrees of success--for a new role or roles in the future. Carl Abbott focused on the issue of the redefinition of downtowns. He noted that since World War II and through the 1980s the very idea of the downtown had changed multiple times and, as a result, planning strategies for the area had changed as well. He identified five different conceptualizations of the downtown and the planning strategies associated with them. From 1945 until 1955, downtown was still regarded as the "unitary" center of the city. The planning strategies employed--mostly involving transportation--aimed at preserving the downtown in that role. By 1955, however, there was a growing realization that downtown no longer functioned as the retail center. To make the downtown accessible and inviting to shoppers once more, planners emphasized urban clearance to, among other goals, clean up "blighted" downtown areas and provide parking. The next major shift came in the mid-1960s as planners began to think of downtown not as a unitary center, but as a "federation of sub-districts," a conceptualization of downtowns that remains to the present. During this period, planners placed emphasis on the variety of experiences provided by downtowns and pushed for conservation, the preservation of historic structures, and efforts to make the downtown a pedestrian-friendly environment.

By the mid-1970s, though still interested in the pedestrian, emphasis shifted to issues of design and the provision of cultural facilities, open space and other "urban" amenities. Since the mid-1980s, however, focus has shifted from the pedestrian to plans that serve the needs of headquarters personnel and other office workers. By that time, downtown had been redefined once more, this time as the "command post" of not just the urban economy, but the emerging global economy.

Robert Fogelson emphasized in his work that the "downtown of the past is gone--and gone for good." Perhaps the most striking evidence of that in Omaha was the fact that as its leaders sought to revitalize the downtown and its riverfront, they actually created something new. The traditional center of downtown was Sixteenth Street. In many ways the new center of the new downtown is Tenth Street. Omaha's "new downtown," in going "back to the river" has involved, therefore, a shift in the center of gravity from Sixteenth to Tenth Street. Furthermore, as suggested, the downtown's riverfront has been completely reconceptualized. As with most cities in the United States, Omaha began on the river. The riverfront hosted docks, manufacturing, and transportation uses. The river itself served as both a means of transportation and as a convenient sewer. In reclaiming the riverfront, Omaha's civic leadership reconceived and rebuilt it as a center of open space, recreation, leisure, and suburban-like office parks. And what had been the oldest part of the downtown is now the newest, with a new function as "image center" for the city.

Omaha's civic leadership, public and private, has repeatedly addressed the issues that have faced downtown Omaha. To a certain extent since the late 1950s and certainly since the 1960s, various plans were developed to first preserve the central place of downtown and later to re-imagine the downtown as one of many centers in the city. The latest period in downtown planning, that since the late 1980s and continuing into the early twenty-first century, witnessed a significant physical transformation of much of the downtown and riverfront area. Though Carl Abbott suggested a certain level of discontinuity between planning strategies shaping downtowns from 1975 to 1985 and those since 1985, the planning for downtown in Omaha would suggest a certain level of continuity between the two periods. While much of the physical transformation of downtown involved the construction of new corporate headquarters and other office structures, those projects developed within a planning framework that also anticipated the further realization of plans from the 1970s to "return to the river" and provide downtown with open space and recreational amenities, as well as cultural facilities.

This article will trace the major components involved in the transformation of downtown Omaha and its riverfront from the late 1980s through about 2003. First, by all accounts, the key event leading to the rebuilding was the 1986 announcement that Enron was moving its corporate headquarters from Omaha to Houston. In many ways, the Enron decision and its aftermath provided the context and momentum for a number of related actions and events: the announcement that ConAgra would build its new headquarters in downtown Omaha, passage of tax reform at the state level, and the successful negotiations by public and private entities that resulted in the clearance of the Jobbers Canyon historic district near downtown's riverfront. The late 1980s and early 1990s then witnessed a private sector effort to complete the "back to the river" plans first developed in the 1970s, but largely unfulfilled, as well as city initiatives including development of a new master plan and the designation of the entire downtown as blighted. The pivotal events in the reconstruction of the riverfront, however, came between 1995 and 2003: the mayoral terms of Hal Daub, the decisions of other Omaha companies to headquarter downtown, and the successful efforts to bring new corporate facilities to the downtown, clean up the riverfront all along the downtown and north to the airport, and build new cultural/recreational facilities in downtown, including a new arena/convention center, a new performing arts center, and riverside parks and trails. The article will end with an examination of the degree to which Omaha's downtown and riverfront have been rebuilt, transformed and reconceptualized to serve as an "image center" for the city and to what extent Tenth Street has supplanted Sixteenth Street as the main street of the downtown.

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2009 issue.


For the People: Nebraska's New Deal Art - Deb Arenz
Selected works from a current exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum

To most Americans, the stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. While the crash certainly affected Nebraska, by the early 1930s other factors contributed to the state's bleak situation. Farm prices plummeted. Farmers were financially overextended, and faced drought and dust storms.

Like the rest of the country, Nebraska supported the progressive ideas of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR began his presidency with a sweeping agenda of assistance programs known as the New Deal.

The New Deal included assistance to the jobless through federally-backed employment. In early 1933, the government established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and its sub-agency the Civil Works Administration (CWA). They funded temporary employment programs during 1933-34. The first federal art project was the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP). It was part of the CWA and ran from December 1933 until June 1934.

The PWAP did more than provide much-needed jobs. In the words of Ernest Witte, administrator of FERA in Nebraska, it helped people "out of the despair of the spirit." It also stimulated artistic ambitions and interests. Program administrators felt that art benefitted society, and they encouraged PWAP artists to select subject matter from the "American Scene." They wanted art that was descriptive, recognizable, and accessible to all.

The program was administered by regional directors and volunteer advisory committees. In Nebraska, artists were chosen by Thomas R. Kimball, an Omaha architect, and Wilda Chase Reeder, a Fremont artist and art teacher. They made their selections based on qualifications and financial need, and classified them as "A" or "B" according to skill. (Not all of the artists had formal training.) "B" artists received $26.50 per week ($421.63 today). "A" artists received almost twice as much.

In all, PWAP employed thirty-two Nebraskans. Much of their work was displayed around the state in tax-supported buildings. Although the program ended in 1934, federally funded art projects continued under the United States Treasury and the Works Progress (then Projects) Administration.

The art in this exhibit--six examples of which are reproduced here--was produced for the PWAP, and remains property of the United States Government. The Nebraska State Historical Society maintains this collection on long-term loan so that it can be exhibited periodically for the benefit of all Nebraskans.

The exhibit For the People: Nebraska's New Deal Art runs through October 3, 2010. All artwork in this exhibit is Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration Commissioned through the New Deal art projects.

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2009 issue.




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