A recent history tour of Omaha allowed me to look at some of our areas from a different viewpoint. The trip with Nebraska Tour Company covered areas from the Old Market to both north and south Omaha.
Nebraska Tour Company was created by Jamie Thomas. Jamie is a friend of ours, so taking the tour had a special meaning for us. Bill Deardorff acted as tour guide. Bill is a retired teacher who has a strong knowledge of Omaha history.
The tour – with nine people (including two other bloggers) – started at the Omaha Visitors Center. We immediately got a taste of Bill’s historical knowledge with a quick stop at the Burlington Place. The building was built in 1879. It served as headquarters for the railroad. Today, it is an office building. The interior is beautiful. It combines the old with something new, as a Chihuly sculpture is located in the lobby. The building’s iron cast frame adds to the history.
The roof is a skylight. It contributes to the aesthetics of the Burlington. On a clear day, you can enjoy the blue of the sky.
As we walked around the Old Market, Bill encouraged people to look at buildings’ frames. The Old Market served as the retail center for early Omaha, with several shops selling fruits and vegetables. The current home of Overland Trails still has hooks in the ceiling. In Omaha’s early days, they would have been used to hang bananas.
Several buildings still have painted signs on their sides. Faded through the years, they help tell the story of Omaha. The cast iron frames can still be found framing windows and doorways.
Lisa and I tend to look at a building’s design rather than the frame. So, this Old Market tour provided a different way of exploring the area.
Following a short tour of the Old Market, we jumped on a tour bus for the remainder of the 2.5-hour tour. We headed to North Omaha, where we stopped along the 24th and Lake Streets area. We viewed the exterior of the Jewell Building. The top floor was once home to the Dreamland dance hall during the heydays of Jazz and Blues music in the city. During the 1920s, bands performed here, led by artists such as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. A short walk from the Jewell is the Love Center, created by former musician Preston Love.
The Omaha Star newspaper office is located across the street. The Star is considered one of the oldest African American-owned newspapers in the United States. Mildred Brown was one of the few female publishers. The newspaper has played a major role for the North Omaha community.
Bill discussed the 1968 riot that started at the former Civic Auditorium and ended near 24th and Lake. The National Guard was called out for the event and rolled down 24th Street to the area.
North Omaha, which was once a vibrant community, suffered through economic decline due to a few factors, according to Bill, including a hotel that was built in the middle of 16th Street which eliminated a route into the area and separated Omaha north and south. Another factor was the North Freeway, which split North Omaha in an East/West direction.
As we toured a section of North Omaha new to us, we found out about a house in the Bemis Park neighborhood that was nearly destroyed in a 1913 Easter Day tornado. As a woman stepped off a street car, she saw the funnel cloud – believed to have been a F4 or possibly F5 – bearing down in her direction. Figuring she was going to die, she dove into a deep gutter, which saved her life as the tornado rolled over her. The house atop a hill at that spot had its roof turn off. Seeing the picture of the damage compared to the house today, you can see the improvements made over the years.
An interesting part of the tour was a purple house in the Bemis area. It had unique designs, including wooden animal sculptures around the house’s frame.
The history tour includes a trip through South Omaha and the cultural history of the immigrants who have lived there. South Omaha, once its own city, was a true melting pot. It has seen immigrants from Eastern Europe and Latin America.
South Omaha was long known for the Omaha stockyards. The stockyards spread out across several blocks. It was the world’s largest stockyard during its heyday.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t tour the area due to major streets being closed for a community festival.
Overall, we enjoyed the history tour. The 2.5 hours flew by quickly. I think Nebraska Tour Company can fill a hole for Omaha tourism.
For more information on Nebraska Tour Company and additional tours, please visit www.nebraskatourcompany.com.