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Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of his memoir

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Holocaust survivor stories come in every conceivable variety, just like the people and lives behind them.  I’ve had the privilege of telling many such stories in the course of profiling survivors who settled in Nebraska after World War II or later.  Each story, each survuvor, is distinguished by elements that make them singular.  I thought I had heard and read it all when it comes to these sagas but then along came Milton Kleinberg’s story.  There may be more dramatic or traumatic tales but I can’t imagine one that covers as much time and distance as his tale.  It is epic in terms of sheer scale yet it’s also achingly intimate.  I don’t pretend to capture more than just the surface of his story in the following Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article, but it should give you a sense for the aamazing rc of his surivival experience.  For a full appreciation of what he endured, you must read his book Bread or Death.

 

 

 

20141001_bs_4865Milton Kleinberg

Milton Kleinberg

Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of his memoir

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
November 5, 2014
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a child in Poland, Milton Kleinberg got caught up in a little known chapter of the Holocaust when he and his family were among Jews exiled to Soviet labor camps. The forced journey took them from occupied Poland to the siege at Stalingrad to the vast wastelands of Siberia. To be uprooted, thousands of miles from home, was awful, but it also meant being beyond the reach of death camps.

The 77-year-old native of Poland and longtime Omaha resident endured many hardships. Forced to travel on foot and by train, he was confined to warehouses, barracks, and institutions. He witnessed starvation, disease, suicides, beatings, executions. He weathered illness, injuries, predators. The epic ordeal spanned thousands of miles and many years. He experienced things no child should face. To defend himself and others he took actions no one should have to take.

His saga continued after the war in displaced person (DP) camps. After reinventing himself in Milwaukee, he went years not saying anything about his odyssey, not even to his wife and children. After moving to Omaha in his middle-years he still kept quiet. Keeping silent is not uncommon among the survivor community, for whom the trauma of loss is difficult to relive.

“When I came to America I made a pledge to myself I was going to put this behind me, that I was not going to dwell on the past, and that I was going to start a new life,” Kleinberg says. “My whole attitude was that the past was the past and I didn’t care to look back.”

Then circumstances conspired to break his silence. His grandchildren visited Holocaust sites and pestered him with questions. In applying for Social Security benefits he discovered his birthdate was different than what he thought it was. A genealogical search turned up two step-sisters, with whom he shared a father. The women posed more questions.

Always alert to anti-Semitism and to events in Israel, which he’s visited several times, he’s grown concerned by the rise of militant, extremist elements around the world. Finally, he decided, he should recount his story. In 2010 he self-published Bread or Death. He gave it to friends and relatives as well as clients of his successful business, Senior Market Sales Inc., which employs more than 170 people.

This past year he expanded the book with the help of professionals, including Institute for Holocaust Education staff who developed a teacher’s guide, a glossary, study questions, and historical background sections. IHE develops Holocaust curriculum for schools state-wide.

Released in August, the new edition is available to schools and youth-serving organizations as an educational tool. IHE executive director Liz Feldstern says Kleinberg’s made a valuable contribution to understanding the Holocaust survivor experience.

Bread or Death adds another important voice to understanding a narrative that affected millions of people in millions of different ways,” Feldstern says. “Anne Frank has become the voice of those who went into hiding. Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi are the voices of Auschwitz. Gerda Weissman Klein is the voice of the death march. Hadassah Rosensaft is the voice of the DP camps. Perhaps Milt Kleinberg will be the voice of those deported to Soviet labor camps.”

The memoir completes an obligation Milt felt to himself and his family.

“I wrote the book as a legacy for my children, grandchildren, and siblings that were born after the war,” he says. “Everyone had bits of information on what happened during the war. I was the only one with all the pieces of information. I could connect all the dots. So, I have written it all down.”

“Milt has fulfilled his responsibility admirably to share his story and break a lifetime of silence so that others can learn from that history…and hopefully not repeat it,” Feldstern says.

Milton M. Kleinberg shortly after arriving in America

Though reticent most of his life about his own experience, he’s never shied from confronting anti-Semitism. While residing in Milwaukee he actively opposed a neo-Nazi group there through the Concerned Jewish Citizens of Wisconsin, a group he helped form.

“We decided we were going to respond to the Nazis rather than stand silent or lay down. Some of us had learned hard, tragic lessons and sacrificed far too much to allow these haters to get a foothold in our city, in our neighborhood.”

It wasn’t the first time he stood up. He and his wife, Marsha, co-hosted a Milwaukee radio program. They bought the air-time for themselves in order to present and comment on Jewish news.

His book is a cautionary tale of what occurred as the world slept. It may help ensure another holocaust doesn’t happen in this new era of hate.

“After what happened to me and my family and to millions of Jews in the war, I simply would not keep silent about things I perceived to be wrong.”

Ultimately, Bread or Death is a testament to how a life well-lived is more powerful than any retribution.

 

 

Milton Kleinberg Omaha Magazine Cover Story

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War.  Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25.  This is my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires.  The film has been airing on PBS.

NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.

 


 

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.

An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.

In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.

“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”

Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.

“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”

Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.

“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”

Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”

From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.

“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”

mariaaguifull

To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.

“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.

As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. “

The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.

“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.

“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”

Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.

“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”

She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..

See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.

For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.

Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art Together at Florence Mill

August 1, 2014 1 comment

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

 

If you ever doubt what difference an artist can make in a community, consider Linda Meigs.  The Omaha native has found a way to connect her love of history, art, and preservation in a labor of love project and site, the Historic Florence Mill in North Omaha, that is equal parts museum, gallery, installation, and gathering spot.  In so doing , she has gifted one of Omaha’s oldest neighborhoods with an attraction and resource that, were it not for her, would probably have never happened.  She saved the Mill, which has a rich history closely related to the Great Western Mormon Migration, from almost certain demolition and she’s lovingly preserved it as a landmark and transformed the site into a communal space that connects agriculture, history, and art.  It is a story of one woman’s passion and magnificent obsession, which if you read this blog you know by now is the kind of story I love to sink my teeth into.  You can find this story in the August 2014 New Horizons.

 

 

Linda Meigs, ©Allen Irwin blog

 

Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art Together at Florence Mill

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Artist, history buff, preservationist Linda Meigs didn’t set out to be the Mill Lady but that’s what she’s known as at the Historic Florence Mill, 9012 North 30th Street. It’s appropriate, too, because ever since saving this landmark from likely demolition it’s been her baby.

The wood structure dates back to the 1840s and boasts direct ties to the Great Mormon westward migration and to Church of Latter Day Saints leader Brigham Young. After near continuous use as a flour and lumber mill it was abandoned in the 1970s-1980s. Sitting vacant, the interior was exposed to the elements from a damaged roof and broken windows. Vandals released stored grain from the chutes. Heaps of matted oats and dried pigeon-rodent droppings covered the floors.

Meigs acquired the Mill in 1998 when no one else wanted it. She purchased the-then wreck for $63,000 and much more than that has gone Into its cleanup, repair and restoration. The Mill’s become her magnificent obsession and all-consuming art project.

Today, Meigs, 64, operates the site as a historical museum. Photographs, interpretive text panels, tools, implements, letters and posters tell the story of the Mill and the people behind it. Because she’s retained the historical character of the building, including original timber, the Mill also speaks for itself. The ArtLoft Gallery she created on the second floor is dedicated to her late son Connor Meigs, who followed her path to become an artist. He was a sophomore at her alma mater, the University of Kansas, when killed in a 2004 automobile accident. She was already six years into the project when he died and since then she’s only thrown herself more into it.

An outdoor farmer’s market happens Sundays on the grounds, which she leases from the Nebraska Department of Roads. She also hosts special events at the Mill. This full-fledged cultural attraction began as a cockeyed dream that nearly everyone but her architect husband John Meigs tried talking her out of. It’s turned into a life’s work endeavor that’s preserved history, created a new community space and spurred tourism in one of Omaha’s oldest sections. Her efforts have earned recognition from several quarters.

She’s owner, caretaker, curator and everything else there.

“I’m doing everything here the executive director of any historical society does, only they have paid staff,” she says. “I’m the executive director, docent, historian, janitor, public relations person, events programmer, grant writer, and it just goes on and on.”

She could have added market master. She “runs the show” at the Florence Farmers Market on Sundays in her gaudy market hat.

Those roles are in addition to being a wife, mother and rental property owner-manager. The Mill though requires most of her attention.

“I’m the unpaid slave of the Mill.”

She’s glad to be in service to it, saying, “This is my gift to the city – to keep it open to the public.” She adds, “I’ve always been interested in preservation. My husband John, too. He worked on the restoration of the Orpheum Theatre and Union Station. We have a hundred year-old apartment building, the West Farnam, at 3817 Dewey Avenue.

“I was an officer with Landmarks Inc.. It makes me sick when we tear our history down and go to Europe for history. The Mill is wonderful history. The building is really an encyclopedia of the grain industry. It has a unique niche as the only building in this region that bridges the eras of the overland pioneer trails and territorial settlement. I get a lot of visitors from outside Omaha, really from all across the country, who retrace the Mormon and Gold Rush trails.”

 

 

The Mill today

 

 

This intersection with history would probably have been razed if not for her passion and perseverance.

The Mill’s been endangered several times, first by the people who built it, the Mormon pioneers, when they left their winter quarters settlement to journey west to Utah. Brigham Young himself supervised the Mill’s construction. But after serving its purpose for that caravan of faithful it was left to the Indians and nature. Scottish emigre Alexander Hunter was on his way to the California Gold Rush when he saw an opportunity to rescue the Mill. He rebuilt it. An employee, Jacob Weber, later bought it. The Mill remained in the Weber family for more than a century, thus it’s often called the Weber Mill and Elevator.

A 1930s flood nearly claimed it. The threat of future floods motivated Jacob’s grandson, Lyman Weber, to move the building, intact, to higher ground. In 1964 the Webers sold out to Ernie and Ruthie Harpster. Interstate 680 construction in the 1970s was slated to run right through the property before Ernie Harpster secured historic status for the site, which necessitated the Interstate being re-routed around it.

Meigs first learned of the Mill when Haprster put it up for sale in 1997. Despite its awful condition Meigs saw potential where others saw ruin.

“My role was to have it make a career change from an obsolete mill and grain elevator into a cultural site. And it took me years to figure out what its theme was, and it was just in the last year or two I recognized the obvious – it connects agriculture, history and art. I never would have thought I’d be able to choreograph my life so that those very separate things would come together in anything as good as this building. It’s like they all tied together in this serendipity project.

“I feel I was the right person at the right time for this to steer it in a different direction – in an attraction direction.”

Indeed, it’s unlikely anyone else possessed the necessary skills and interests, plus will and vision, to take on the Mill and repurpose it.

The oldest of three siblings, Meigs is the only daughter of Francis and Pauline Sorensen. Her parents grew up on north-central Neb farms. Linda spent her early childhood in the Dundee neighborhood, where she and John have resided since 1975, before her family moved to southwest Omaha’s Sunset Hills.

Though she grew up in the city, Meigs gained an appreciation for agriculture visiting her maternal grandparents’ farm.

“My mother’s family farm was my second home. We went out there weekends and holidays. In fact. I’ve used it for my artwork quite a bit,” says the veteran visual artist who’s shown at the Artists Cooperative and Anderson O’Brien galleries.

In contrast to this bucolic idyll was her “Edgar Allan Poe childhood.” Her mother sang at funerals and Linda accompanied her to the dark Victorian gothic mansions where these somber services were held.

She’d sit on a red velvet settee outside the viewing room and wait for mom to finish “Danny Boy,” “In the Garden” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Meigs traces her love of old buildings to those times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linda’s talent for art asserted itself early. As a girl she drew and colored on any paper she could lay her hands on, filling reams of notebooks with her Childcraft book-inspired designs,

“i won a Walt Disney coloring contest before kindergarten. I got free tickets to Westward Ho the Wagons at the Dundee Theater. That was the payoff. In grade school I got a scholarship to an art class at Joslyn Art Museum. The teachers were always reinforcing about my artwork.”

Westside High School art teachers Ken Heimbuch and Diane (Hansen) Murphy were particularly “encouraging.”

“I still keep in touch with them and they come to my art shows here at the mill. We have a nice relationship.”

Her talent netted a scholarship to the University of Kansas art camp, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her. Heartbroken though she was she still fixed her sights on studying art in college. She started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before switching to KU.

“I went to UNL my first year but I wasn’t very happy there. The art department wasn’t as large then as it is now. (Landscape painter) Keith Jacobshagen was a graduate student at the time and he encouraged me to check out KU, where he’d gotten his bachelor’s degree.”

The state university in Lawrence proved a good fit.

“It turned out my current husband was down there. It all came together. I loved the campus – you’re on a hill and you can see the horizon from three directions. Aesthetically, it’s very beautiful.”

Her insurance adjustor father and homemaker mother never opposed her pursuing art.

“My parents were very accepting, they knew I had a gift in that area and we’re encouraging. They were proud of me – even to the day I graduated with a totally useless BFA in printmaking. My folks never pressured me about how I was going to make a living. I never worried about it because I always felt, and I raised my kids this way, that if you’re a creative person you could figure out what to do.”

She and John made a go of it after marrying in 1975. He worked as an architect for Leo A. Daly before going into the building supplies business. She worked in a design studio before going off on her own as a freelance illustrator. She’s taught art at Joslyn and Metropolitan Community College and more recently with Why Arts?

She kept her hand in art in other ways, too.

“I was the cultural arts chair of Washington Elementary School for nine years. I invented a theme every year. The first one was Artists in Our Midst and every month I brought in a different artist. Whether they did pottery or silkscreen or painting, there was an artist in residence in the hallway demonstrating their work. I leaned on my artist friends for that to make this program for the school.

“One year we did a history theme and we had an all-school quilting bee. Each class designed a different block for this school quilt that won two blue ribbons at the Douglas County Fair. All of that was practice for events at the Mill. I learned how to be an event producer.”

Her and John’s appreciation for history developed into a hobby of driving around to admire houses and buildings in the old parts of town.

When they had four kids in six years, including twins, they developed an extra income stream by buying older residential properties and renting them out. That led to her day job as “a landlady.”

 

 

 

Then in 1997 she saw an Omaha World-Herald article that changed her life. Headlined “History for Sale,” it detailed the Mill’s colorful past. Having come to the end of its commercial life, the Mill was for sale.

“When I read the article I had a sinking premonition it (the Mill) would be my job,” she says with a laugh.

When she and John toured the Mill for the first time it marked her first visit to Florence. The building was a mess.

“It was boarded up and pitch black inside. We used flashlights to see. It had 2,000 pounds of fermented grain in a bin. Another 12,000 pounds were on the floor. We shuffled through piles of grain, dirt, dead animals and pigeon poop. It was stinky, dark, scary and unhealthy in there.

“Another couple went through it. The woman was Mormon and wanted to do a restaurant there. She asked me, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s pretty rough,’ and I said, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, it’s too far gone for me.”

It wasn’t too far gone for Linda, though. Not by a long shot.

“I thought, I can do this. It was a commitment, sure, but I thought this was a gem. I wasn’t afraid of it. I was used to working with old buildings. I didn’t know why there weren’t hundreds of people that wanted to buy an 1800s building.”

Still, it was a huge decision. After weeks hemming and hawing about its potential she recalls, “On Valentine’s Day my husband came home with a loaf of my favorite bread, I set it out on the counter, and he said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to open it?’ So I opened it and underneath the bread was a purchase agreement that if I wanted to do this he would stand with me. That was lovely.”

If she hadn’t gone through with it, she says, “the Mill probably would have been bulldozed. It was falling on its own. There were letters to the editor asking why doesn’t somebody tear that ruin of a building down and others saying it needed to be fixed up. So there were two sides – there always is in preservation. There are those who think it’s served its purpose, and so let it go. Then there’s those who say it’s a link to our past and heritage that should be salvaged, and I’m in that camp.”

“The writer David Bristow may have best captured its magic when he said, ‘I feel like I’m standing inside of a tree with the rings of history around me.’ I love that – I think it’s such a perfect metaphor for this building. From the outside you don’t know what to expect from this industrial-looking building but the inside is very lovely and soulful.”

For Meigs, the Mill is a living history lesson.

“The wood in here tells a story if you know where to look.”

She says the original hand-hewn timbers felled and erected by the Mormons are intact, as are the timbers Alexander Hunter used in rebuilding it. The circular marks from Hunter’s saw are visible in the timbers. There are vintage signs, pay stubs and time cards about.

Getting things up to code meant addressing myriad problems, from fixing huge holes in the roof to replacing rotted windows to draining fetid water in the basement she called “a stinky swimming pool” to removing seven tons of gunk.

“It was a big project.”

 

 

 

 

Her first order of business was cleaning all the walls and floors and open surfaces – “I scrubbed the entire building with trisodium phosphate and a brush” – and repairing the leaking roof.

She got a pleasant surprise when she discovered all those strewn oats acted as a sealant that protected the wood floors. “So the bane of the building was its blessing,” she says.

The building today “is a lot more solid than it was,” she says thanks to the new roof, siding, windows and insulation. “We did the restoration on the outside to preserve the inside because it’s the inside of this building that’s historical. It’s just the opposite of most restoration projects, where they’ll keep the facade and gut the inside. We didn’t want to do that because it would ruin the building.”

It wasn’t long before she got a sense the Mill just might be the attraction she thought it could be.

“That first summer I was in here cleaning I had a thousand visitors and it wasn’t even open. Actually the Mill told me through all those visitors that it needed to be open as a historical site. I had very vague ideas what to do with it. It’s an odd building functionally. As an artist I thought there would be a good gallery space here.

“I decided to open it up to the public as a museum.”

Meigs may have come to Florence as an outsider but she soon established herself as a good neighbor dedicated to building community and boosting economic development.

“It bothered me the historic sites of Florence were closed most of the summer, the Mill included, except for the Mormon Trails Center,” she says. “Kiwanis was keeping the historic depot and bank open on summer Sundays. I got a grant from the Mammel Foundation to staff those sites every day during the summer. It was a three-year grant and we kept them open with paid staff from Kiwanis clubs. It was a lovely relationship of improving Omaha.”

When the grant ended the depot and bank went back to being open a few select days but she decided to keep the Mill open on a regular basis, she says, “because I could do it – I’m donating my time.”

The Mill’s open seasonally, May through October. It goes in hibernation for the winter as it’s without heat and indoor restrooms.

Although still a newcomer to Florence, she’s become one of its biggest champions and feels it’s often overlooked considering its rich history.

“This is an unknown part of town. I call it the forgotten fringe. When i got the Mill and I started doing the research I realized the depth of the history here and I got involved in the neighborhood.”

She chaired the group Florence Futures that developed the master redevelopment plan for the Florence neighborhood.

When the Mormon Winter Quarters Temple opened she organized a  Lunch in Historic Florence event that gave visitors to the Temple a button for a discounted lunch at area restaurants.

“It was the first time the community had done a project with the Temple,” she says, adding the promotion won a state tourism award.

Much sweat equity and money went into getting the Mill into its present restored state.

“It’s taken 17 years to do what we’ve done. It’s not been overnight.”

With no paid admission, the trickle of income from vendor rentals and gift shop sales isn’t nearly enough to keep the Mill open and maintained. She depends on grants and donations. She and John also “pitch in money to keep this afloat.” She estimates more than $300,000 has been invested in the building thus far from various sources.

“I have a Friends of the Mill group and people kindly donate to that. It fluctuates from year to year but the funds from that do not cover the operating costs.”

Some major donors have come through for pricy projects, such as automatic barn doors. The Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Lozier Corporation helped fund their purchase and installation.

“A Questers group won a grant from the statewide Questers to replace the basement windows. It’s not like that happens all the time but there’s enough that it helps. When the need arises, good things happen, angels appear.”

She’s proud of how she converted the mill’s loft into a rustic art gallery bathed in natural light.

“I put some things up there early on. The first show was a show of my farm photographs with fiber art by Dorothy Tuma.”

The space didn’t become a full-fledged gallery though until her son Connor’s death.

“Loss is hard. Losing a child is pretty unacceptable because it’s out of the order of things. He died from injuries in a car accident on Christmas Eve of 2004. He was 19.”

 

 

Two images above are of the ArtLoft Gallery

 

 

 

Connor was an award-winning editorial cartoonist with the Omaha Central High Register and the Daily Kansan. He was home for the holidays, driving with his twin brother Doug, when the collision happened near the south side of Elmwood Park.

“We were over at John’s parents’ house waiting for Doug and Connor to come over to play board games with us,” says Linda. “The roads turned to black ice. Both boys suffered injuries and lost consciousness.

“Doug came out of it and Connor did not.”

There was a huge outpouring of support, including $10,000 in memorial gifts to the Mill.

She also wanted to do something to commemorate his love for art.

“It was actually in the wilderness of British Columbia that the idea came to me to give an art award in his memory,” Meigs explains. “I had promised Connor a show at the gallery when he graduated. I decided to give one young person a year what I promised to give Connor.”

The Connor Meigs Art Award is a merit award to help launch a young artist’s career. It includes a month-long solo exhibit, mentoring, artist’s reception, lodging and $1,000 honorarium.

Because Connor was an organ donor his mother knew he helped give life to others and would live on through the recipients.

“I wrote a letter to the families of the transplant patients who received his organs about what kind of a young man he was. I wrote that he was a hockey player and an award-winning artist. It had been six months since his passing and I had not heard any response.”

Linda had been waiting for a letter but she got a personal visit instead.

“We were here working at the Mill on a Sunday cleaning pigeon poop when a couple drove up in a car with outstate license plates. The woman got out and said, ‘We’d like to see Connor’s work.’ I said, ‘How did you know there was an exhibit?’ She looked down and after a pause she looked up to say, ‘I have Connor’s liver.'”

There had been a recent article about the Mill’s renovation and Connor’s show. Maggie Steele of Norfolk, Neb. contacted the Nebraska Organ Donors Society saying she wanted to meet Connor’s family. She was told protocol requires a recipient correspond a year with the family before a meeting is set. Meigs says Steele persisted until the organization finally gave in and said, “follow your heart.”

“Maggie and her husband Phil stop by to visit the Mill nearly every summer,” Meigs says. “Though I wrote a letter to all the organ recipients, Maggie was the only one we heard from. We are grateful to have heard from her.”

 

Another view of the ArtLoft Gallery at the Mill

Plaque commemorating Linda’s late son Connor

Maggie Steele with Connor’s work in background, ©Dennis Meyer/Norfolk Daily News

 

Historically, the Mill’s always been a landmark for travelers. whether on foot, by wagon or motor vehicle, and it remains a magnet for all kinds of visitors and events.

“Its still a natural meeting place,” Meigs says. “It’s right next to the Interstate, it’s very easy access, it’s on the way to the airport.”

Warren Buffett’s been there. The grounds have accommodated campers following the Mormon Trail. it hosted a Great Plains Theatre Conference program in May that drew hundreds. Each fall it’s a site on the North Omaha Pottery Tour. The gallery hosts several exhibits annually. The farmers market features dozens of vendors on Sundays from June through September.

Meigs says the Mill gets 8,000 to 10,000 visitors each summer and the farmer’s market, begun in 2009, is a major draw. It’s an eclectic scene where you can listen to live bluegrass music and get a massage. Children can ride ponies and pet alpacas. Linda sometimes joins the circle jam of fiddle and dulcimer musicians to play the washboard.

The laid-back vibe is largely attributed to Meigs.

“I get a lot of thank yous and gratitude from some people for saving this building but it’s blessed me back. I’ve met so many wonderful friends in this part of town. It’s enriched my life.”

Two measures of how much her efforts are appreciated happened this summer. She went with her family on a Bucket List trip to British Columbia and artist friends ran the Mill in her absence. “I almost wept when people stepped forward to say, ‘I’ll help.'” Folks in Florence organized a Thank You for the Mill party. “What a nice thing for people to do,” she says. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

She says fellow creatives “always understand the building itself is my art project – it is the creation, it is an art and history installation.”

She feels she’s part of a long lineage of people who have been entrusted with the Mill.

“All of the owners of the building have honored that pioneer heritage and have had a role to play in the building’s preservation”

Meigs doesn’t have a succession plan for handing-off the Mill when she retires or dies. She says the Douglas County Historical Society or the Nebraska State Historical Society may be possibilities. She even thinks there’s a chance the Mormon Church might have interest in it.

She’s not giving it up anytime soon, though. Besides, she’s become so identified with it that she and the Mill are synonymous.

“People want me to be here. When they come here and I’m not here they’re disappointed. I guess my personality’s ingrained in this thing.  I’m the Mill lady.”

It may not be exactly what she she had in mind as a young artist. Nevertheless, she says, “it’s my dream.”

For Mill hours and activities visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.

 

KETV President-General Manager Ariel Roblin Leads Effort to Make Historic Burlington Station the ABC Affiliate’s New Home


The woman leading the effort to make the historic Burlington railroad station the new home of Omaha ABC affiliate KETV is Ariel Roblin and my short Omaha Magazine profile of her and of her passion for the project and her work follows.

 

Feature-Image

Ariel Roblin

Building the Burlington Station’s Future

May 8, 2014 by 
Photography by Bill Sitzmann & Leo A Daly
Appearing in Omaha Magazine

Almost as soon as Ariel Roblin became president and general manager of Omaha ratings leader KETV in 2011 she faced the momentous decision of finding a new site for the ABC network affiliate.

This next generation media executive succeeded Sarah Smith at the Hearst Television Inc. station and barely into Roblin’s watchshe was tasked with leading a search made necessary because KETV had outgrown its 27th and Douglas digs. That near downtown facility has been home to the station since it went on the air in 1957. Roblin looked at potential properties all around the metro before fixing on a location that took many by surprise. When she announced last June KETV would move to the historic Burlington Station south of the Old Market it meant the iconic rail depot would be saved after decades of neglect and repurposed for a new use few could
have predicted.

It also marked the first time viewers had likely ever heard of the engaging TV boss, par for the course for a behind-the-scenes administrator who sets the course for the station’s on-air talent and content but who is seen on-camera only weekly for special segments. She used the moment to cast the Burlington decision as a win-win.

“It’s a really special place that means a lot to Omaha, and so it was the right thing to do,” she says. “It was built for the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition to show off Omaha. As a passenger train station it’s where stories and memories were created. It’s this big open space that has so much to say and so much history behind it.

 

 

“I feel KETV is the perfect business to go in there because we’re going to capture those stories.”

Designed by noted Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball, the Burlington was long a fitting neighbor showplace to the adjacent Union Station. Unlike that station, which was turned into a museum many years ago, the Burlington sat unused and uncared for after closing in 1974. What became an albatross and eyesore will need a complete makeover. The $22 million renovation designed by Leo A. Daly architects is well under way. When completed in the summer of 2015 the building will not only house KETV’s operations and 100-plus employees but a dedicated public space charting the history of KETV and the Burlington. This new life for a grand old space is expected to bolster redevelopment in the area and add another anchor along the South 10th Street corridor from North Downtown to the Henry Doorly Zoo.

“In broadcasting we talk a lot about making a difference in the community,” Roblin says, “and this is an opportunity for us to do that in a tangible way.”
She views local TV as a positive agent  for change and she enjoys overseeing what KETV does to impact things.

“I’ve worked in different facets of the business, and I have a great amount of respect for what goes on in every position. There’s intensity and passion in every aspect. I love that I’m able to affect a positive outcome in all aspects. I feel fortunate I’m able to do it.”

The Omaha transplant has followed a managerial track since starting in the industry in the mid-1990s. The Ohio native graduated high school early (age 16) and studied theater and communications at the University of Miami. It was there she met her husband, Ablan Roblin, a theater professional who works on stage and backstage at various Omaha theaters. The couple have two boys, Aiden and Kian. Kian played Tiny Tim to his father’s Bob Cratchit two successive years in the Omaha Community Playhouse production of A Christmas Carol.

Ariel’s own love for theater extends to serving as a board member of the Blue Barn Theatre, whose new building will be near the Burlington.

Her first media job was as a program director at USA Networks’ WAMI-TV in Miami. Her next career stops were in Dayton, Ohio, Honolulu and Redding, Calif. She joined KETV in 2010 as general sales manager. Though Roblin always desired to be a GM she was surprised when it happened at age 35. When she asked Hearst management why they selected her she was told it was because she cared.

She acknowledges, “I put myself into my work. I’m all in.”

Why does she care so much? “This is an opportunity to get to make a difference in people’s lives. You can’t get that wrong. The news consumption here is very strong compared to other markets—it really does matter to people what you do and how you do it in your news.”

Omaha has become home.

“I’ve never lived in a city and loved it as much as Omaha and I’ve lived in a lot of places. I love this town, my family loves this town. It’s got a great balance for life. We find we can do it all here. We appreciate the sports and the arts. The schools are great.

“I feel Omaha is an incredibly inclusive community. Even though I’m not from here I’ve always felt if I was willing to chip in and do some good work for Omaha I was more than welcome. That’s a really special characteristic Omaha has.

“If I ever did leave I would really miss that.”

 

 

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten.  A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of  the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century.  The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own.  In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here.  My story about this art  imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.

The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.

Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.

“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.

“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.

“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.

“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”

The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”

Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”

Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.

“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”

 

 

Ray Metoyer

Ray Metoyer

 

Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.

“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying   themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”

As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.

Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.

The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”

Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.

The events made an impression on Camille.

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.

Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.

The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.

“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”

On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.

The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.

Goin’ Down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha Music Guru Nils Anders Erickson

October 1, 2013 1 comment

If historic highways could speak, oh, the stories they would tell.  That’s one of the appeals of the Old Lincoln Highway to Omahan Nils Anders Erickson, whose love of old things extends from highways to automobiles to buildings to music.  This musician, sound engineer, and owner of Rainbow Music, a combination retail store and recording studio, has indulged his Lincoln Highway fascination by writing a song about the roadway and erecting signage about it outside an old mill he owns that sat on the highwway’s Omaha route.  My story about Erickson and his magnficent obsession appeared The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Nils Anders Erickson

 

 

Goin’ Down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha Music Guru Nils Anders Erickson

by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early July Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson takes me for a ride in his PT Cruiser to opine about his magnificent obsession with old things.

The singer-songwriter-musician owns Rainbow Music, a combined recording studio and music store at 2322 South 64th Ave. that features vintage sound equipment and instruments he’s passionate about.

He’s also into Golden Oldie songs, historic buildings, classic cars, and early roadways, especially the old Lincoln Highway. His Cruiser’s adorned with a chrome hood ornament from a 1951 Chevrolet he saved to repurpose in just this way.

The self-styled preservationist opposed CVS building a pharmacy at 49th and Dodge that took out old structures he deemed historic for lining the Lincoln Highway during its Jazz Age heyday.

The highway was not just a practical conveyance when there were few reliable roads but an expression of America’s new liberation, ambition, optimism and restlessness. He advocates saving whatever remnants stand from its active years (1913 to 1929), whether grain elevators, feed mills, silos, barns, office buildings, churches, homes, signs.

He owns what may be the oldest surviving structure still in use on the highway, John Sutter’s Mill, a circa 1875 Mormon-built structure where Saddle Creek Road and Dodge Street meet at 46th. “I just knew it was kind of a magical building and I didn’t know why,” he says. “My building is the last of the Nelson B. Updike empire.” Updike was a feed, grain, lumber and coal magnet and publisher of the Omaha Bee.

“Mormons used to refer to it in diaries as ‘the mill west of Omaha.’ It was painted bright orange a century ago to attract the attention of cross-country travelers.”

He says the site began as a water wheel grist mill before being turned into a planing mill and an outfitters store. He admires its construction.

“When I realized that behind all the crappy two-by-fours and dry wall were 10-by-10 solid chunks of cedar 50 feet long I had a new found respect for the building.” He hopes it one day becomes a Lincoln Highway museum or antique shop or coffeehouse.

 

 

The huge billboard Erickson erected above his Sutter’s Mill in midtown Omaha

 

 

The two-story 4,000 square foot building most recently housed National Cash Register, whose machines he would gawk at as a kid.

“When I was little I’d walk by it and be fascinated with the weird stuff in the windows – those mechanical things and different colored cash registers. So I was always drawn to the building.”

Erickson’s mounted an enormous billboard on site to commemorate his beloved highway’s legacy and Omaha being mid-point on the coast-to-coast route. The billboard replicates the L logo design and red, white and blue motif of the highway’s signage. An arrow pointing east informs eastbound travelers they have 1.353 miles to go to New York City. An arrow pointing west alerts westbound travelers they are 1,786 miles from San Francisco. Generations ago a large Welcome sign with Lincoln Highway above it greeted travelers at 18th and Farnam.

He’s also erected a Lincoln Highway marker that replicates the official markers that once dotted the side of the road every mile along its entire 3,400 mile path.

He feels Omaha could do more to celebrate its highway heritage.

“Before I put a sign up outside my building there was no Lincoln Highway sign in the whole city designating its history.”

Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus has a photo display of the highway under construction. The Boys Town archives traces the highway’s connection to the home. There are highway displays at the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney. “They’ve done a wonderful job with the exhibits,” Erickson says of the attraction..

If Erickson had his way every building the highway ran by would sport a sign or plaque about it.

“There’s car nuts, there’s building nuts, there’s highway nuts, and I find it aggravating that I’m all three and no one else is,” says Erickson, who could have added music nut to the list.

Given his musical bent it’s not surprising he wrote a theme song for the Lincoln Highway Association’s recent centennial celebration in Kearney and took photos of landmarks along the Omaha route to accompany the music. His countryesque ditty set to images is on YouTube.

I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, Ga ga golly, I’m going down the Lincoln Highway.

“My song and video are trying to raise awareness of the Lincoln Highway all over the United States.”

He’s also created a website about the highway and his mill.

When it comes to motor vehicles and roads he prefers some age-worn history and character to them. Memories attach themselves to places and things and the Lincoln Highway carried the hopes, dreams and experiences of people. Road trips are part of the American DNA. Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured this spirit in his existential On the Road:

“In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns – Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus – unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked.”

 

 

 

 

Built entirely by private interests to be the nation’s first coast-to-coast thoroughfare, the highway opened at a time when most roads, including many sections of the highway itself, were unpaved. As more folks sought the freedom a motor vehicle promised it was obvious the country’s roads needed improving.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower cited the arduous cross-country convoy he took on the highway as a young military officer with motivating him to authorize the creation of the U.S. interstate system.

As the first of its kind the highway owns a romantic mystique among history buffs and nostalgia fans. Much fanfare attended its October 31, 1913 dedication. Burgs across America celebrated with torchlight parades, bonfires, speeches, auto races, fireworks and cannon volleys. Some credit Omaha with the biggest celebration of all. A crowd estimated at more than 10,000 gathered outside city hall for a giant bonfire fueled by three train carloads of railroad ties from Union Pacific Railroad. Smaller bonfires lit up the sky in towns along the Platte River.

Long before the fabled Route 66 and decades before heavily traveled Interstate 80 was even imagined, Lincoln became known as America’s main street because it connected so many cities and towns all the way from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The highway spurred much development along its route.

“I think it’s basically a national hidden treasure,” says Erickson. “You can actually drive the Lincoln Highway and there’s parts of it where the original brick surface is still intact and you can reexperience what your great-grandfather did. It’s America the way it used to be without the bad parts.

“My dad would be out selling grain elevators all over the country and he’d throw two or three of us in the back seat of the car and half the time we were on the Lincoln Highway in our family’s Pontiac. No air conditioning. When you finally got to a little cafe it was heaven. You’d eat at these special places on America’s hIghway.”

The pull of those times is still great 60 years later.

“I don’t know, it’s in my blood.”

His fixation has something to do with his first love, music. He likes that big bands on the Midwest circuit traversed the highway “in those torpedo-shaped trailers” to get from gig to gig. Decades later he did the same, only in trucks, to run sound and lights for national acts.

“So it ties back to Omaha and to my recording studio and my background in music.”

For our Lincoln Highway sampler we make a circuitous 18-mile trek from the Omaha riverfront’s Lewis & Clark Landing to Elkhorn, where a three-mile stretch of brick survives, With nearly each landmark we pass  Erickson offers historical tidbits and traces his fascination with the highway that long ago was rerouted and renamed US 30.

“In Omaha most of the Lincoln Highway is still there. It’s just under two or three layers of asphalt. We have a few things in Omaha that are one of a kind and the only ones left.”

The route starts on Douglas, snakes to Farnam around midtown, cuts over to Dodge, then jumps to Cass before resuming on West Dodge.

 

 

The former Hupmobile dealership in downtown Omaha

 

 

When it comes to highway landmarks, Erickson’s prefers old ones but appreciates new ones as well. “To me the Holland Center is a new landmark on the Lincoln Highway,” he says of the performing arts venue at 12th and Douglas.

“One of the most famous (old) landmarks is the Brandeis Building,” he says of the flagship for the J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire that reigned at 16th and Douglas for most of the 20th century.

He considers St. Mary Magdalene Church at 19th and Dodge a distinctive site for having “a door to nowhere” after downtown was lowered by dozens of feet.

A beautiful ballroom is among the distinguishing features of the Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 20th and Douglas.

He admires the “beautifully restored” former Riviera and Paramount theater, later known as the Astro and now The Rose at 20th and Farnam.

He likes that the Fraternal Order of Eagles building at 24th and Douglas hosts swing nights. “It’s kind of fun being in a historic building with the jitterbug,” he says.

Two of Omaha’s most impressive edifices, Central High School and Joslyn Art Museum, are only a block north of the highway.

He feels one of the most significant highway buildings is the former Hupmobile dealership at 2523 Farnam. The Hupp Auto Company built the popular car before being squeezed by the industry’s major players. He says the vacant building’s original showroom floor is intact as is the freight elevator for moving cars from floor to floor.

“I hope someone that cares will do something with that building. It would make a great auto museum,” he suggests.

The dealership was part of Omaha’s original Auto Row.

The All Makes Office Equipment and Barnhart Press buildings on the north side of Farnam are handsome structures housing multi-generation family businesses but what really makes Erickson excited is “a wonderful one-block stretch of brick north of them that enables you to actually experience what it felt like,” he says.

Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church at 2650 Farnam is one of Omaha’s oldest worship places.

He says hungry, weary highway travelers found eateries (Virginia Cafe, Tiner’s Drive-in) and hotels (the Fontenelle, the Blackstone) up and down its eastern Omaha route, Motorists would have gawked at Gold Coast mansions such as the Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam.

The Tudor-style building housing McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe was once a White Rose gas station. Erickson recalls, “We’d be coming back from church and I’d always want Mom to get gas at that ‘castle’ across the street from the Storz mansion with gargoyles and trolls leaning out of the windows. These buildings were right out of children’s books I read. White Rose built odd buildings and this was one of their prettiest. I think it’s one of the few of its type left in the country.”

 

 

The Welcome to Omaha and Lincoln Highway sign that greeted motorists

 

 

The Admiral Theater sat at 40th and Farnam until it was razed.

Erickson says. “My slogan in Omaha is, ‘…and then the bastards tore it down.'” Jutting over to Dodge, he notes the Joslyn Castle is worth a stop a block north on Davenport. Continuing west on Dodge we arrive at his building. Since acquiring the former mill he’s used it as a staging space to assemble sound and lighting equipment for installs.

“That business has sort of fallen off, so I need to do something with the building now,” says Erickson.

As we reach 49th and Dodge he says, “Up until two years ago all four corners were intact from the Lincoln Highway. The Hilltop House duplicated a Bavarian restaurant. It was all pine inside. Reniers Piano was the Dundee Hotel and the Sunset Tearoom. The three buildings CVS tore down were all historic because they were on the Lincoln Highway. The 49er was a bakery. The coffeehouse was a pharmacy, The third was one the first self-service grocery stores in Omaha.”

He anoints historic status to the Dundee Theatre. The same to the Saddle Creek underpass and the pedestrian tunnel at 51st and Dodge.

He says long ago “there was a camp grounds at Elmwood Park” where motorists could spend the night before resuming their journeys. The park also contained a lagoon with a structure for monkeys. “The city fathers didn’t know monkeys can swim, so Monkey Island eventually became Monkeys in Dundee because after a week of getting free food they got bored and went all over Dundee.

The renowned Omaha Community Playhouse is a block north of the highway’s route.

We go another mile west and he says, “So here we are on 78th and Dodge. We’re taking a hard right because that’s the way the Lincoln     Highway went. The New Tower Inn was at 78th. Before that it was the Tower Motor Court and before that it was a camp ground called

Towers Tours Village.” We arrive on Cass Street and the site of what used to be Peony Park and the extensive peony fields of Carl Rosenfield. Both were right on the highway’s path.

Erickson’s found brochures and postcards illustrating how attractions on the highway, such as Peony Park and Boys Town, marketed themselves as way-stops for travelers.

Following Cass west we merge onto West Dodge Road, where almost everything post-dates the highway. A major exception is Boys Town. Founder Father Edward Flanagan relocated his residence for homeless boys from downtown Omaha to the Overlook Farm right on the highway in 1921. Boys Town historians say Flanagan publicly touted the highway as a great avenue to see America and he invited motorists to follow it right up to Boys Town’s front door. Many did just that. Boys walked or hitchhiked their way on the highway to the home. So many made their way to Boys Town via the highway that in the ’30s Flanagan had some of the youths build a covered travel stop, of which there were few and far between then, as a comfort station.

The 1938 movie Boys Town includes scenes shot on the highway, including Pee-Wee being hit by a car.

Finally, we reach the ribbon of bricks in Elkhorn, where Erickson says, “You actually get a feel for driving on the road. This vista right here could be any day, any time. This is kind of what I remember driving in our old Pontiac with Dad. We’d hit a stretch of brick and, vroom, he’d put on the gas more. I don’t know why. I suppose he liked it, too. The highway was a lot nicer then because it was flat and smooth. Today it’s used as an access road. That’s part of the problem. The trucks are getting bigger and heavier and the road gets wavier.”

 

 

Stretch of the Lincoln Highway in Elkhorn, Neb.

 

 

He says the brick remains because people knew well enough to leave it alone.

“I mean, the reason it’s still here is that nobody needed to make it all pretty and nice and concrete. If they had, that concrete would be destroyed by now. The bricks are still here. Bricks will last forever, Concrete lasts maybe 20 years.

“If it had been in Omaha we would have paved it a long time ago.”

The Douglas County Board passed a resolution to preserve the brick segment for future generations. Milepost 1437 to 1438 was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The historic mile was rededicated July 17, 1988. State historical markers offer background.

It’s all music to Erickson’s ears, whose eclectic music pedigree is the root of his love of history and nostalgia for bygone eras. He grew up listening to Johnny Mathis, James Brown, Motown. Then came the British Invasion bands. He was steeped too in traditional tunes from his family’s Swedish heritage. It’s why his repertoire today ranges from the Swedish folk song Can You Whistle Johanna? to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and pretty much everything in between.

“The best compliment I ever got was that my music is a cross between Frank Zappa and Bob Marley.”

His older siblings played in bands and he tagged along with them.

“They played at Mickey’s A-Go-Go and the Peppermint Cave and they dragged me around when I was like 6. I thought I was a roadie and they thought they were babysitting. So I was exposed to this wonderful monster music. I wrote my first song when I was about 4. I’ve written about 4,000 songs. Some of them are good and some of them are appreciated by people. ‘Shit Head, the Love Song’ was the most requested song the Fish Heads did, and it’s one of my mine.”

Erickson’s fronted several bands. He says his Wee Willie and the Rockin Angels broke attendance records at Peony Park. Today he gigs with his own Paddy O Furniture jam band. He’s sat in with many other groups. He’s been a fixture on the Omaha music scene not only for his music but for his work as a sound and lighting engineer. He’s made custom speaker cabinets and sound systems for decades.

Lincoln Highway National Museum & Archives

 

 

“We provided sound for Sprite Night at Peony Park all those years. Those were the original raves – 3,000 kids outdoors dancing to ‘dashboard light’ with a sound system you could hear pretty clear about two blocks away. It’s just cool to have that volume switch. You need it a little louder?”

He’s worked with musical artists of every genre:

REM

The Beach Boys

The Ramones

Joan Jett

Robert Palmer

B.B. King

Steppenwolf

The Isley Brothers

Willie Nelson

“When we were doing sound jobs for national acts all over the country  sometimes I’d scoot on an old highway for awhile.”

Sprite Night At The Royal Grove Has Been Gone For Decades, But The Memories — The Aqua Net, Drama, Dancing, Rebellion, Romance — Are Still As Bright As A Neon Shirt. By Casey Logan • World-Herald Staff Writer: Dancers at Sprite Night at the Royal Grove on July 22, 1980. Teens flocked to the Peony Park dances that ran for more than a decade. – Sebi Breci / The World-Herald

 

 

 

When North O thrived as a jazz, R&B, funk and soul hub he did sound and lights for enough African American bands here – L.A. Carnivale, Crackin’ – to get inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.

311, Boyz to Men and Jordan Sparks have all recorded at his funky Rainbow Music. But it’s the audio gear he buys, sells, trades and records on that really gets him amped up.

“We have all the new digital gear but to make the digital sound good you have to bring in some old tube gear. We basically made all of our own equipment because they hadn’t invented it yet. The old stuff still sounds better. We’re like the dinosaur on the block. Today you’d need about 24 of the hip new boxes to equal the sound pressure four old ones produce. At Rainbow you can record through some of the best gear they had back in the ’50s and ’60s to give it that fat, warm sound.

“We started acquiring all this tube analog tape gear and every piece we came up with was tied to famous recording studios and artists. We’ve got half the PA system used for the Grateful Dead, all the tube mixers Motown would have had. We have equipment from Sun Studio in Memphis, Sound City in L.A. and from other legendary studios.”

He’s no Elvis or Dylan, but he carries his catchy Lincoln Highway tune with great aplomb.

Got my baby sittin’ by my side, ’40s chop top, I got the ultimate ride

Since 1913…100 years ago today

Everybody’s driven’ cross the USA

I’m goin’ on the Lincoln Highway

I’m hopin’ to see you…somewhere along the way

He’s happy if his music video homage to the highway spurs wider interest in the history behind it.

“It’s been buried for so long, it’s almost like we destroy or shy away from history.”

He loves discovering and sharing that history, saying, “Give me a little kernel of information and I’ll go dig up some more stuff. That’s half the fun.” He also believes fate led him to the mill and its highway lineage.

“Magical things like that happen to me all the time. People call it coincidences. I call ‘em little tiny miracles.”

Visit his website at lincolnhighwaynebraska.com.

Omahans Recall Historic 1963 March on Washington

August 12, 2013 Leave a comment

There can’t be too many people who’ve done what Dan Goodwin and Robert Armstrong of Omaha have done.  Both men we’re at the historic 1963 March on Washington that became famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  In 1995 Goodwin went to D.C,.for the Million Man March.  In 2009 Armstrong journeyed to the nation’s capital for Barack Obama’s first presidential inaugration.  That’s a lot of history between these two African American gentlemen.  Those weren’t their only brushes with history either.  They recently spoke with me about their memories from the ’63 March on Washington for the following story to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  My path has interesected with them before.  You’ll find on this blog a cover story I did about Goodwin and his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop that I refer to in the story.  That earlier piece is called “We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds Too.”  Also available on the blog are two cover stories I did about the noted race documentary A Time for Burning, which as I allude to in the story shot some pivotal scenes at the shop.  And I was embedded with a group of Nebraskans, among them Armstrong, who bused to the 2009 O’Bama inauguration.  That story can be found under the heading, “Freedom Riders: A Get on the Bus Inauguration Diary.”

 

 

 

 

Omahans Recall Historic 1963 March on Washington

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omahans Robert Armstrong and Dan Goodwin were among the estimated quarter of a million people gathered 50 years ago on the National Mall for the historic event. As young black men active in the civil rights movement they went to show solidarity for the cause of equality. Each was a military veteran and family man. Each had felt the sting of racism and gotten busy confronting it.

Armstrong had been a member of the NAACP Youth Council in his native St. Joseph, Mo., where he participated in demonstrations. He led the integration of a movie theater in his hometown. By 1963 Omaha native Goodwin already made his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop a haven for political discourse. It’s where Ernie Chambers held court en route to winning election to the Nebraska Legislature. Goodwin was involved in the social action group 4CL and its efforts to combat discrimination. Goodiwin helped organize a local speaking appearance by Omaha native Malcolm X the next year and his shop played a prominent role in the 1968 race documentary A Time for Burning.

At the time of the march Armstrong was teaching high school with his wife Edwardene in east Texas. The couple moved to Omaha a year later. She embarked on a teaching career with the Omaha Public Schools, whose quota of black male teachers denied him getting on there. He broke barriers as the first black professional to work at Mutual of Omaha’s home office and went on to a city government career, eventually heading the Omaha Housing Authority.

He attended the 1963 march to honor his late father, an AFL-CIO field representative. The union co-organized the march. In 1960 the family home hosted AFL-CIO titan Walter Reuther, other labor leaders and King. Mere months before the ’63 march Armstrong’s father, who was slated to attend, was killed in an automobile accident and his son felt compelled to go in his place.

Goodwin says he attended the march because “I felt I needed to be involved…” He shared the expectations of Armstrong and others that it would foster change. “We hoped it would bring people together. Of course we needed more than a feel good moment.”

Despite oppressive heat that summer day the crowds were larger than anticipated and none of the predicted disturbances occurred. Neither Armstrong nor Goodwin had ever seen that many folks assembled at one time. They couldn’t get anywhere close to the Lincoln Memorial, where the presenters were, and the sound from the speakers wasn’t always clear but both men were struck by the prevailing calm mood.

“The atmosphere was tremendous, it was awesome,” recalls Goodwin. “In a word what I saw was unity. People felt for the day or for that period of time empowered. It made you feel like some things were really going to change.”

Armstrong remembers “the sense of purpose of people knowing why they were there – the fight for freedom, integration,” adding, “We had no idea of the magnitude of the people that were going to be there. That was overwhelming, seeing all the people from so many different places.”

Before King came on civil rights stalwarts Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins spoke. Artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson performed. As the program drew on the crowd grew a bit restless, anxious to get out of the sun. That changed when King launched into what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

“About three minutes into it you realized this is a different kind of speech,” says Armstrong. “You could hear the attention go back to the podium. When he got to the point about the blank check (“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”) people really got into listening to what he was saying. From that point all attention was on him.

“When people talk about Dr. King’s speech they concentrate on the ‘I Have a Dream’ portion because that’s what people wanted to hear. But they seem to have forgotten he also talked about accountability and responsibility…We saw his speech as a call to action.”

It was the culmination of a black pride-filled gathering.

“I felt like it was our day,” says Goodwin. “I just felt like we really had something going on.”

Armstrong says, “You felt good about the day, the day had gone well. We’d heard a great speech and we hoped the nation would rally to offer more freedom, jobs, integration.” Back home, pragmatic reality set in that “the discrimination you faced yesterday” was still there.

“People went back and fought for the things they talked about that day. It still took a lot of work by a lot of people in different locations in different ways to make these things happen.”

Goodwin saw the march as a positive thing that ushered in major civil rights protections but he says the dream MLK and others envisioned is far from being fulfilled.

“I feel a strong sense of disappointment about the way things are today. Racism is hot and heavy in this country.”

Both Goodwin and Armstrong returned to the site of the ’63 march for more recent history-making occasions, In 1995 Goodwin bused into D.C. for the Million Man March and in 2009 Armstrong and his wife joined other area residents on a bus trip to the Obama inauguration.

Armstrong says Obama’s swearing in as the nation’s first black president “was a much happier occasion than the March on Washington,” adding, “The inauguration was a celebration – the march was a plea for justice.” Goodwin feels Obama’s presidency has been rendered more symbolic than anything by partisan politics.

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

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