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Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

June 6, 2018 1 comment

 

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

©by Leo Adam Biga, Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com)

The Mill Lady is hard to miss at the Florence Mill Farmers Market on summer Sundays. She’s the beaming, bespectacled woman wearing the straw hat adorned by sprays of plastic fruit and vegetables.

Market vendors include local farmers, urban ag growers, gardeners and food truck purveyors. It’s been going strong since 2009 thanks to Linda Meigs, aka The Mill Lady. As director of the historic mill, located at 9102 North 30th Street, she’s transformed a derelict site into a National Register of Historic Places cultural attraction “connecting agriculture, history and art.”

She “wears” many hats beyond the fun one. As market manager, she books vendors. She organizes exhibits at the Art Loft Gallery on the mill’s top floor. She curates the history museum on the main level. She schedules and hosts special events. She writes grants to fund operations. Supervising the mid-19th century structure’s maintenance and repairs is a job in itself.

 

 

 

Ever since she and her late husband John acquired the abandoned mill in 1997. Meigs has been its face and heart. An artist by nature and trade, she also has an abiding appreciation for history.

“Omaha would be such a beautiful city with some of the architecture we’ve torn down. This is not the most beautiful architecture in Omaha, but it is the oldest historic business site and the only still-standing building in the state that bridges the historic eras of the overland pioneer trails of the 1840s with the territorial settlement of the 1850s. That’s a very small niche – but what a cool one. And it has this Mormon heritage and connection to Brigham Young, who supervised its construction.”

It took her awhile to arrive at the ag-history-art combo she now brands it with.

“I had very vague, artsy ideas about what to do. But that first summer (1998) I was in here just cleaning, which was the first thing that needed to be done, and I had a thousand visitors and the building wasn’t even open. A thousand people found their way here and they were all coming to see those 1846 Mormon hand-hewed timbers

“It was like those timbers told me it needed to be open as an historic site after that experience.. This is my 20th summer with the mill.”

She made the guts of the mill into the Winter Quarters Mill Museum with intact original equipment and period tools on view. Interpretive displays present in words and images the site’s history, including the western-bound  pioneers who built it. She converted the top floor into the ArtLoft Gallery that shows work by local-regional artists. Then she added the farmers market.

“It was not really until after it happened I realized what I had. Then I could stand back and appreciate the integrity of it. I felt like it was a natural fit for that building because it was an ag industrial site and an historic site. The pioneer trails is certainly a significant historical  passage of our country.

“Then, too, I’m an artist and a foodie. I think supporting local is good for both personal health and for conservation of resources. It promotes individual health and the health of the local farm economy. It has less impact on the environment with trucking when you bring things in from close by as opposed to far away.

“I’m into fresh, locally-produced food. In the summer I pretty much live on local vegetables. I am a gardener myself and i do support my farmers market folks, too.”

Farmers markets are ubiquitous today in the metro. Hers owns the distinction of being the farthest north within the city limits. It proved popular from the jump.

“That first farmers market started with six vendors. Hundreds of people showed. It was a crush of people for those vendors. And then every week that summer the number of vendors increased. I think we ended up with about 40 vendors. I was pleased.

“Really, 30 is about the perfect number. It’s the most manageable with the space I have. I’m not trying to compete with the maddening crowd market.”

 

 

Finding the right mix is a challenge.

“You want to have enough variety to choose from, but you also have to have the customers that will support those vendors or they wont come back. If the community doesn’t support it, it’s hard to keep it going.”

Other markets may have more vendors, but few can match her setting.

“This one is quite unique. It’s in a field. It’s inside and    outside an historic ag building. And it feels like an authentic place for a market.”

She cultivates an intimate, upbeat atmosphere.

“It’s like a country fair. I have live music. Dale Thornton’s always there with his country soft pop ballads in the morning. The afternoon varies from a group called Ring of Flutes to old-time country bluegrass circle jams. Second Sundays is kind of a surprise. One time I had harpists show up. Lutist Kenneth Be has played here several times. I’ve had dueling banjos. Just whatever.”

A massage therapist is usually there plying her healing art. Livestock handlers variously bring in lamas, ponies and chickens for petting-feeding.

A main attraction for many vendors is Meigs.

“Oh, she’s beautiful. Nice lady, yeah,” said Lawrence Gatewood, who has the market cornered with barbecue with his T.L.C. Down Home Food stall.

Jared Uecker, owner of O’tille Pork and Pantry, said, “Linda’s exceptional to work with and really cares about the market and its vendors. She’s passionate about local food and is a frequent customer of ours.”

Jim and Sylvia Thomas of Thomas Farms in Decatur, Nebraska are among the produce vendors who’ve been there from near the start and they’re not going anywhere as long as Meigs is around.

“Everybody loves Linda. She’s what makes it,” Jim Thomas said. “She’s really doing a good job and she’s pretty much doing it for free. I mean, we pay her a little stall fee but for what we get its a deal.”

“Jim and Sylvia Thomas came in the middle of that first season and they’ve come back every year,” Meigs said.

“We kind of grew along with it,” Thomas said. “It’s a really nice friendly little market. We’re also down at the Haymarket in Lincoln, but it’s touristy, This (Florence Mill) is more of a real, live food market.”

Thomas is the third-generation operator of his family farm but now that he and his wife are nearing retirement they’re backing off full-scale farming “to do more of this.” “I like the interchange with the people. I guess you’d say its our social because out in the boondocks you never see anybody. The thing about Florence is that you get everybody. It’s really varied.”

That variation extends to fellow vendors, including Mai Thao and her husband. The immigrants from Thailand grow exquisite vegetables and herbs

“They came towards end of the first season and they’ve always been there since,” Meigs said.

Then there’s Gatewood’s “down home” Mississippi-style barbecue. He learned to cook from his mother. He makes his own sausage and head-cheese. He grows and cooks some mean collard greens.

Gatewood said, “I make my own everything.”

“I call him “Sir Lawrence,” Meigs said. “He’s come for the last three years. He smokes his meats and beans right there. He grills corn on the cob.”

Gatewood gets his grill and smoker going early in the morning. By lunchtime, the sweet, smokey aroma is hard for public patrons and fellow vendors to resist.

“He’s a real character and he puts out a real good product,” said Thomas.

Kesa Kenny, chef-owner of Finicky Frank’s Cafe, “does tailgate food at the market,” said Meigs. “She goes around and buys vegetables from the vendors and then makes things right on the spot. She makes her own salsa and guacamole and things. You never know what she’s going to make or bring. She’s very creative.”

Kenny’s sampler market dishes have also included a fresh radish salad, a roasted vegetable stock topped, pho-style, with chopped fresh vegetables, and a creamy butter bean spread. She said she wants people “to see how simple it is” to create scrumptious, nutritious dishes from familiar, fresh ingredients on hand.

“From a farmers market you could eat all summer long for pennies,” Kenny said.

More than a vendor, Kenny’s a buyer.

“She’s very supportive,” Meigs said. “For years, she’s bought her vegetables for her restaurant from the market.”

“It’s so wonderful to have that available,” Kenny said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meigs said that Kenny embodies the market’s sense of community.

“She comes down to the market and does this cooking without advertising her own restaurant. I told her, ‘You need to tell people you’re Kesa of Finicky Franks,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m not doing this to advertise my restaurant, I’m doing this to support the market and to be part of the fun.’ That’s a pretty unique attitude.”

“Kesa’s also an artist. She I knew each other back at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She quit to open a cafe-coffee shop and I quit to do an art project and then got the mill instead. It’s funny that we have reconnected in Florence.”

Jim Thomas likes that the market coincides with exhibits at the ArtLoft Gallery, which he said provides exposure to the art scene he and his wife otherwise don’t get.

“I really enjoy the artsy people and the crafts people. They’re so creative. I guess what I’m saying is for us it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the people.”

Being part of a site with such a rich past as a jumping off point to the West is neat, too.

“That’s some big history,” said Thomas.

He added that the variety and camaraderie keep them coming back. “It’s really diverse and we’ve developed a lot of friendships down there.”

“It’s a great mingling of different nationalities and cultures.” Sylvia Thomas confirmed. “All the vendors help each other out, which is very unique. At a lot of markets, they don’t do that. Here, if you don’t have something that someone’s looking for, we’ll refer you to who has it. After you’ve been there long enough like we have, vendors and customers become kind of a family. Our regular customers introduce us to their kids and grandkids and keep us posted on what’s going on, and they ask how our family’s doing.

“We kind of intertwine each other.”

The couple traditionally occupy the market’s northeast corner, where gregarious Jim Thomas holds court.

“Linda (Meigs) tells us, ‘You’re our welcoming committee.’ It’s very fun, we enjoy it a lot,” Sylvia Thomas said.

Lawrence Gatewood echoes the family-community vibe found there.

“It’s real nice there. Wonderful people.”

Even though business isn’t always brisk, Gatewood’s found a sweet spot on the market’s southeast side.

“Not every Sunday’s good, but I still like being out there mingling with the people.”

But food, not frivolity, is what most patrons are after.

“Our big deal in the summer is peppers and tomatoes,” Jim Thomas said. “We also have onions,p ottos,  cucumbers, eggplants. We do sweet corn but sweet corn is really secondary. Early this year, if we get lucky, we might have some morels down there. Morels sell like crazy. We can sell just as many as we’ve got.”

In the fall, Thomas pumpkins rule.

The veggies and herbs that Mai Thao features at her family stall pop with color. There are variously green beans, peas, bok choy, radishes, fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, kale, cilantro and basil.

Makers of pies, cakes and other sweets are also frequent vendors at the market.

The farmers market is not the only way the mill intersects with food. Meigs has found a kindred spirit in No More Empty Pots (NMEP) head Nancy Williams, whose nonprofit’s Food Hub is mere blocks away.

“We both have an interest in food and health,” Meigs said as it relates to creating sustainable food system solutions. “Nancy is also into cultivating entrepreneurs and I guess I am too in a way.”

Jared Uecker found the market “a wonderful starting point” for his start-up O’tillie Pork & Pantry last year.

“It was the perfect home for us to begin selling our meat products. I really enjoyed its small-size, especially for businesses new to the market such as ourselves. It gave us a great opportunity to have a consistent spot to showcase our products and bring in revenue for the business. I particularly enjoyed the small-town family feel to it. It’s filled with really great local people using it for their weekly shopping as opposed to some other bigger markets which can feel more like people are there more to browse.”

The mill and NMEP have organized Blues and Barbecue Harvest Party joint fundraisers at the mill.

Meigs has welcomed other events involving food there.

“I’ve hosted a lot of different things. Every year is kind of different. In 2014 the mill was the setting for a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest performance of Wood Music. The piece immersed the audience in reenactments of the mill’s early history, complete with actors in costume and atmospheric lighting. A traditional hoedown, complete with good eats and live bluegrass music, followed the play.

Kesa Kenny catered a lunch there featuring Darrell Draper in-character as Teddy Roosevelt. A group held an herb festival at the mill. Another year, crates of Colorado peaches starred.

“I occasionally do flour sack lunches for bus tour groups that come,” Meigs said. “I make flour sacks and stuff them with grain sampler sandwiches that I have made to my specifications by one of the local restaurants. It’s like an old-fashioned picnic lunch we have on the hay bales in the Faribanks Scale.”

The mill is part of the North Omaha Hills Pottery Tour the first full weekend of October each year. The Czech Notre Dame sisters hold a homemade kolache sale there that weekend.

Visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at https://leoadambiga.com.

 

 

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Harmonious, luminescent pairing of art – “Prayer” and “Share” – on exhibit at Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery

September 12, 2016 1 comment

A harmonious, luminescent pairing of art called “Prayer” and “Share” on exhibition at the Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery through October 10.

The show closes the 2016 ArtLoft Gallery season with an inspired “Amen.”

Pamela Jo Berry explores spirituality in mixed media and photographs. Katie Cramer explores grace and fellowship through vessels. It is an art show that feeds the spirit and nurtures the soul. A display of beautiful aesthetics and inspiring intentions by two artists in touch with their spiritual dimensions. 

Please come out and support these two Omaha artists and their heartfelt art. It is a pairing made in Heaven.

The exhibition continues through October 10.  

Gallery hours are the same as the Mill: Wed. through Saturday, 1 to 5 pm; Sunday, 10 am to 3 pm. Sundays feature a Farmers Market.

Florence Mill ArtLoft
9102 North 30th Street…Omaha
Next to I-680 & Exit 13
402-551-1233

 

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Artist Statement by Pamela Jo Berry for “Prayer”:
“Prayer is that down to earth conversation we have with God when we realize we are not in control and we need … want to know that God… someone greater than us is out there… right here waiting to help us with our needs, our mistakes, our direction , our provision… and is ready to give a miracle if necessary. Prayer is that sacred moment when we sit in silence… after going over every scenario with God…. exhausted, we surrender and finally listen willingly for our answers…our direction… our next step in this life. Prayer is what we do for others when we know we cannot help with what they are crying out for. Prayer is the thank you and praise we give to God for the blessings and miracles we see in our lives and the lives of others…each day. It could be a smile, a hug, a healing…favor or something that comes out of the blue to save our lives. Prayer is a community standing for one person to be healed… and it is one person standing for healing in a community without hope. Prayer can be as loud as shouting for help and as quiet as a whisper of praise or as silent as a tear of realization that we are heard. Prayer is as simple as saying ‘God are you there?'”
Pamela’s Artist Bio:
Pamela Jo Berry …. She is an artist… mixed media/ photographic. She is a writer/poet. For the last six years she has organized the North Omaha Summer Arts. She is an Omaha Native. Pamela Jo is the mother of Jesse Berry and Beaufield Berry Fisher. And she is the Gemma (grandmother) of Shine Avett Fisher… her little grandson.

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Artist Statement by Katie Cramer for “Share”
Food is the most common and diverse ways to bring people together. Sharing it is meaningful culturally and historically throughout all regions of the world. I view pottery as vessels that share not only food, but the conversation and company that occurs. Many of these items are meant to be viewed as a set. The surface and aesthetic qualities from piece to piece is completely different, just like the people sharing the experience. The fact that they are placed in the same setting is what makes them come together.
 
Katie’s Artist Bio:
Katie Cramer was born and raised in Omaha. She took her first summer pottery class when she was 10 years old and completely fell in love with clay and the potter’s wheel. Her experience at Omaha North High School heightened this adoration for ceramics and pushed her to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is in the process of earning her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Ceramics. She is currently a 3rd year student with full intentions of pursuing ceramics as a profession.

 

 

“Prayer” and “Share” art exhibition at Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery offers inspired “Amen”: Now through October 10

September 6, 2016 Leave a comment

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If you didn’t make it to the opening for the new exhibition at the Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery over Labor Day weekend, no worries – you have until October 10.

“Prayer” and “Share” at the Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery closes the 2016 ArtLoft Gallery season with an inspired “Amen.”

Pamela explores spirituality in mixed media and photographs. Katie explores grace and fellowship through vessels.

Please come out and support these two Omaha artists and their heartfelt art. It is a pairing made in Heaven.

The exhibition continues through October 10.  

Gallery hours are the same as the Mill: Wed. through Saturday, 1 to 5 pm; Sunday, 10 am to 3 pm. Sundays feature a Farmers Market.

Florence Mill ArtLoft
9102 North 30th Street…Omaha
Next to I-680 & Exit 13
402-551-1233

 

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Katie and Pamela

 

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The artists with Florence Mill ArtLoft director Linda Meigs

Two-person art show: “Prayer” by Pamela Jo Berry & “Share” by Katie Cramer – Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery

September 1, 2016 Leave a comment

Two-person art show: “Prayer” by Pamela Jo Berry & “Share” by Katie Cramer – Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery, Sept. 3 to Oct. 10

“Prayer  and Share” closes the 2016 ArtLoft season with an inspired “Amen.”
“Prayer” by Pamela Jo Berry & “Share” by Katie Cramer.

Pamela explores spirituality in mixed media and photographs.
Katie explores grace and fellowship through vessels.

Artists reception 1:30 to 4:30 pm this Saturday, September 3.

Please come out and support these two Omaha artists showing together for the first time. Join us for refreshments, good spirits and heartfelt art.

The exhibition runs through October 10.

Florence Mill ArtLoft
9102 North 30th Street…Omaha
Next to I-680 & Exit 13
402-551-1233

Pamela Jo Berry & Katie Cramer at Florence Mill ArtLoft: Saturday, Sept 3, 1:30-4:30

Florence Mill ArtLoft Reception for Artists
Pamela Jo Berry and Katie Cramer
This Saturday September 3…1:30-4:30 pm

“PRAYER” by Pamela Jo Berry
“SHARE” by Katie Cramer

We close the 2016 ArtLoft season with an inspired “Amen.”Pamela Jo Berry explores spirituality in mixed media and photographs.Katie Cramer explores grace and fellowship through vessels.

Please join us for refreshments, good spirits and heartfelt art.

The exhibition runs through October 10.

Florence Mill ArtLoft
9102 North 30th Street…Omaha
Next to I-680 & Exit 13
402-551-1233

Top: “Teapot” by Katie Cramer
Below: “Cross1” by Pamela Jo Berry

The Artist in the Mill: Linda Meigs brings agriculture, history and art together at Florence Mill

August 1, 2014 4 comments

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

 

The Artist in the Mill: Linda Meigs brings agriculture, history and art together at Florence Mill

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originall appeared 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.

 

Cover Photo

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

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

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.

 

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