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Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid’

August 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Once upon a time, it was possible to be assigned depth stories about authors, artists and musicians by various Nebraska newspapers and magazines. Alas, those days are long gone in this age of byte size, SEO-rich content that favors style and graphics over substance and text. One of the few print sanctuaries for long-form features left in the state is the New Horizons newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. This monthly may not be on your reading list or radar but it should be, I dare say, for the long form features that Nick Schinker, Jeff Reinhardt and I do for the publication. If you like to dig into a subject, then you will have your fill and then some, especially when it comes to my New Horizons stories, which are four or five times the length of today’s average feature. A perfect example is my new profile of author Ron Hansen in the September 2016 issue. That Hansen profile is featured in this post. The Omaha native is a hihgly respected novelist, short story writer and essayist. He is a true literary star on the national scene and yet in his hometown he and his work are not well known outside perhaps the most informed literary circles or the Creighton Prep and Creighton University communities – he is a graduate of each school. I did a fair amount of writing about Hansen in years past but it had been awhile since the last piece. It’s been good to re-engage with him and to once again share his work with others. My new story about Hansen largely focuses on his new historical novel “The Kid” about Western outlaw Billy the Kid. The well-reviewed book is being released this fall by Scribner. The Old West and its outlaws have been subjects of two previous Hansen novels: “Desperados” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The latter was made into a fne film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.

For this new story Ron generously sat down with me for a long interview, just as he’s done in the past, and he later answered several more questions via email. I am grateful to New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt for giving me the space I need to explore subjects as rich and complex as Hansen and his meticulously researched work. The September 2016 New Horizons with my cover story on Ron Hansen will be hitting the stands and arriving in mailboxes the end of August. Make sure to pick up a copy or two. You can subscribe to the paper for free. My extensive profiles of fascinating Nebraskans have appeared in its pages for 20-plus years and represent some of my favorite work about some of the most unforgettable people I’ve ever met. You can find many of those stories on my blog.

 

 

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively, in the film adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

 

 

Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Ron Hansen, the author of such esteemed novels as Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) and Atticus (1996), long ago joined the ranks of Nebraska literary greats such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris and Loren Eiseley.

The Omaha native is also a among Creighton Prep graduates to have made their mark in arts and letters, including Alexander Payne, Richard Dooling and Conor Oberst. Hansen’s Jesuit education continued at Creighton University. The 1970 graduate went on to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was a student of American novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp), and Stanford University.

Hansen is a devout Catholic and permanent deacon in the church. His work is funneled through the prism of faith and morality. Even though he writes about deeply flawed souls who are sometimes psychopaths and murderers, he doesn’t caricature them. Instead, he creates multi-dimensional characters through careful observation rooted in context and circumstance and tinged by occasions of grace. He has a historian’s penchant for the truth rather than some convenient approximation to satisfy the story.

Writing is his vocation for not only expressing his Christianity but his boundless curiosity and creativity.

His humanism and Catholicism are most evident in some of his essays: Hearing the Cry of the Poor: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvado; Affliction and Grace: and The Pilgrim: Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Yet there’s nothing overtly religious about his fiction with the exception of Mariette and even it’s framed in spiritual, psycho-social, emotional terms, not religious.

Hansen lives in Northern California with his wife, novelist Bo Caldwell, and teaches at Santa Clara University.

He’s the author of acclaimed collections of essays (Stay Against Confusion) and short stories (Nebraska Stories) and historical fiction books across wide subject matter and eras. Atticus was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was also a PEN/Faulkner finalist .

His novels often draw on historical figures and incidents. One that does not, Mariette in Ecstasy, details the intense inner journey a postulate faces when the stigmata appear on her body and the experience causes a crisis of faith in her and in her convent. Hitler’s Niece imagines the romance the dictator may have engaged in with a niece with whom he was infatuated. Exiles explores what made a tragic ship wreck the inspiration for a famous poem. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion examines what led illicit lovers to plan and commit murder in a real-life case that inspired Double Indemnity.

Hansen’s particularly fond of the 19th century, owing partly to his late grandfather being a conduit to its Old West legacy. His latest novel, The Kid, is in his estimation the most accurate portrayal of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid yet produced.

“All the events in it are true,” Hansen said.. “In some ways they’re my interpretation of what occurred. I think there’s a lot of newness to what I did with this book as opposed to all of the other accounts. For one thing, this is the only time you see him with a sweetheart. None of the other treatments have had him speaking Spanish.”

A Publishers Weekly review called it  “entertaining and lively,” adding, “Hansen’s colorful description of the New Mexico Territory as a lawless land of lying politicians and thieving businessmen is historically accurate, resulting in an excellent, transportive read.”

 

 

The life and times of William H. Bonney have inspired many writers and filmmakers but they usually ignore facts for sensationalism. Disregard for history rankles Hansen, who takes great pains hanging his story on actual incidents. He authentically recreatsd the way people spoke and dressed then. Like all great storytellers, he immerses you in that world.

The Kid completes Hansen’s western trilogy that began with  Desperadoes (1979) – his take on the Dalton gang. He continued the outlaw theme with Jesse James  (1983) – another subject oft-interpreted in print and film. The latter book was closely adapted by Andrew Domink into a 2007 film starring Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as his assassin Bob Ford. Though a critical success. the film struggled at the box office. Hansen was delighted with the adaptation. Dominik consulted Hansen during the writing process and had him on set the entire shoot in Canada. The script is so close to the book that many passages from the novel are spoken verbatim in the film as voice-over narration or dialogue. Hansen was on hand to ensure costumes, sets, lines were historically correct.

He also enjoyed being an extra in a scene where he played a frontier dude reporter.

It wasn’t the first time a Hansen novel made it to the big screen. He adapted Mariette himself for a 1996 film directed by noted cinematographer.John Bailey. Hansen said he admired Bailey’s original vision but the film was taken out of his hands and “mangled by higher-ups.”  The book’s also been adapted to the stage, including an award-winning theatrical play in Chicago.

On a spring visit to Omaha for his Prep 50th class reunion, Hansen spoke at length about his work. He especially focused on The Kid, for which he has great hopes.

“I’m hoping at least it becomes a miniseries because there’s so much story to tell. I couldn’t imagine how to turn it into two hours. It could easily be six hours.”

He also touched on other projects, some realized, some not, and what we can expect in the future.

 

Ron Hansen

 

Billy: The Man and the Myth

To belong.

To be liked.

To be famous.

To be feared.

Hansen has Billy say those four things to a trail mate who asks The Kid what he wants. They’re the aspirations of a mercurial man-child who lived fitfully and died violently at 21.

“In the movies especially he’s often portrayed as illiterate and a psychopath and when you read memoirs of other people they never say that about him,” Hansen said of Billy. “They say he was really smart, loved to read and was always very pleasant to be around. Billy obviously was very intelligent because even with very little schooling you can see in his letters he was very literate. He wrote a lot of letters actually. Maybe six have survived, mostly because they were letters he sent to the territory’s governor, Lew Wallace.”

Billy, like other outlaws, also enjoyed reading stories about himself to see where fact left off and fiction took flight.

“He once wrote an editor after reading an article about himself and said, ‘Whoever wrote that had a very vivid imagination because I didn’t do all those things,'” Hansen noted. “But he could have been denying what he really did do, too. That’s the way criminals act.”

For a lover of words like Hansen, it’s important he capture the richness of language people used then,

“There was a kind of grandeur to speech. Most of the time in Westerns people talk very simply, not very interestingly, but reading these accounts you realize people were very literate and very self-conscious about the way they wrote. They took time with things. For a lot of cowboys, their literature was basically the Bible and so there was an ancient sound to a lot of their language because that’s the only thing they’d read or heard. It was a different kind of education then and maybe a reverence for the written word that caused people to be careful how they spoke and wrote.”

Saying the wrong thing to Billy could be fatal, Hansen said, if The Kid’s “dark side” erupted after Insult or injury.

“That complexity naturally draws a novelist to show the shadings and not try to explain it really, just experience it.”

He said like other famous figures “Billy is basically everybody’s wild invention.” “Nobody can pin him down. It’s like Jesse James – everybody has an attitude about him. For some, he’s still a hero and they name their kid after him. And I think the same thing is true of Billy the Kid. He was very charming in real life. Everybody talked about what a nice smile he always had, so it makes him more likable than a lot of the outlaws.”

“So you have the possibility of two faces – the angry killer and the sweet guy all the women loved and liked to dance with. He learned Spanish somehow and the Hispanic people liked that  he would speak to them in Spanish and that he knew the Old World customs, so they protected him,” Hansen said. They thought what the authorities said was all untrue. In fact, it was trumped up a lot of the time. The newspaper accounts show how the description of Billy changes. He has black hair when they make him a negative figure and he has blonde hair when they make him positive. The journalistic slant is so clear. He starts out as this viper, really awful man. and then as accounts go on and people start having a yearning or romantic feeling about the Old West, he starts to take on a different coloring.”

The Kid’s legendary status was secured as soon as he died at the hands of sheriff Pat Garret.

“Almost immediately after his death there were five books about Billy the Kid and he was largely a figment of people’s imaginations even then,” Hansen said. “Then he faded from memory until Walter Noble Burns wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid. It became an immediate best seller. A movie followed that. There’s been something like 30 movies about Billy the Kid.”

Hansen said the Burns book makes The Kid “this very romantic hero – like a knight-errant,” adding Burns had the advantage of starting “on the research when a lot of the people were still alive, so he actually had first-hand accounts.”

Hansen read all he could find about The Kid, including the Burns book. Another resource he used to get a handle on him was the Enneagram of Personality Types. Applying what he knew about The Kid, he determined he fit the melancholic type.

“I sprinkled those aspects throughout the book,” he said.

Part of that type is wanting to be noticed and Hansen said that fits with a studio photograph of Billy dressed shabbily – a direct contradiction to how folks garbed for special occasions. Hansen has someone ask Billy, “You want to be photographed in that?” and The Kid replies, “I don’t want to be ordinary.”

Another trait of the melancholic, Hansen said, is having one hurt in life that can’t be assuaged. For Billy, he said, it was the loss of his mother, to whom he was devoted. The more Hansen dug into his subject the more he discovered what a complicated figure his protagonist was and how bereft he felt after losing her.

“He never really had a father and then she married this other guy who he didn’t get along with. The guy made him change his name from William to Henry. He never had much connection with his brother either. So, Billy basically had his mother and then she died and so he felt like an orphan.”

Hansen believes the fires raging inside Billy were fueled by abandonment and rejection. Billy also caught much grief for his slight build and fancy, fussy ways. When bullied, assaulted or cornered, he could be deadly. The great conflict within him was a desire to be accepted, even respected, and an urge to rebel.

“It was a real hot and cold thing going on with him,” Hansen said. “I think I have Paulita Maxwell, who was almost certainly his girlfriend, toward the end telling him he attracts people and repels them at the same time. They never know where they stand and they make him more and more anxious to please him. That’s why he became the leader of almost any group he was in – nobody could quite figure him out because of those contrary aspects of his personality.”

Given his charms, it’s no wonder The Kid won over a dandy land baron in the New Mexico Territory named John Tunstall, whose high breeding did not prevent their hitting it off. Tunstall became his boss and benefactor, remarking to others his admiration for The Kid’s wit and guile. When Tunstall was killed by arch enemies, Billy swore revenge and got it,

 

 

Western stirrings

There’s no telling if Hansen would have developed his same interest in the Old West without the influence of his grandfather. But there’s no doubt that crusty old man and his tales stirred something in him.

“My grandfather Frank Salvador had a ranch in eastern Colorado. He was from Spain originally. He and his mother and father seem to have sailed from France to America and settled in Utica, New York, where his mother died, then his father — in a gruesome mining accident.”

As a child Salvador was put on an orphan train bound for Iowa.

“Orphan trains began conveying children from the East — mostly New York City — in the early 19th century and didn’t stop until after World War I.,” Hansen said via email  “The idea was to get orphans out of the slums and into better living conditions of the wide open spaces farther west. Unfortunately, children sometimes became indentured servants to farm owners, as was the case with my grandfather on the farm near Adair (Iowa).”

While there, his grandfather swore he had a close encounter with an infamous outlaw.

“My grandfather told the story of when he was really young a group of guys rode up to the farm to water their horses. Then they heard galloping in the distance – it was a posse after them – and they jumped on their horses and ran off. He thought that was Jesse James. Jesse James actually robbed a train in Adair. It could have been another outlaw gang. But he was convinced of it and he had a reputation for being really honest.”

Salvador settled a score, peacefully, before lighting out for the West to make his own way.

“When he was in his late teens, my grandfather filed suit against the farm owner who’d misused him and never paid for his labor. The court ruled in his favor and he left Iowa for eastern Colorado where he bought land with his court settlement and called the ranch ‘Wages.’ He was a real interesting character because he was a 19th century man essentially. He would go someplace and nobody would see him there again for a year and they’d still remember him because he was so charismatic. He chewed tobacco and always carried around this coffee can he’d spit tobacco juice into, and I was charmed by this. Once I got a bee sting and he put a wad of chewing tobacco on it to take the hurt away and maybe it was a child’s imagination but I thought it really did work. The sting went away after he applied that poultice.”

The impressionable Hansen loved hearing the old man’s yarns and perhaps inherited some storytelling prowess from him.

“He would tell me stories – how some hands still wore their Civil War overcoats. He must have worked on horseback for a good while because it was only when he became prosperous he bought the first tractor in the county. He was also the first rancher (there) with indoor plumbing. He still had a bunkhouse that must have held at least 12 men. It was remarkable to visit there and think what a different life that was back then. So I felt like I had contact with the 19th century just through him.”

Naturally, once a writer Hansen drew on his grandfather – making him the subject of the essay A Nineteenth-Century Man. He’s the model for the title character in Atticus. Hansen said, “Some of his attitudes survive in Jesse James and all my Westerns have some element of my grandfather.”

There were other Western models in his life, too.

“There were a lot of farmers in my family and I remember visiting them and hearing them talk and they had a completely different vocabulary than the people I knew in Omaha. I think even being in Omaha you have a sense for the past you don’t have in other cities. Like where I am, the city of Cupertino, California, it didn’t exist really until 1970 and so there’s such a newness about it, whereas here (Omaha) you can still see houses and buildings from the 19th century. It would only take me about five minutes from West O to be in cornfields.”

He said growing up in Omaha in the 1950s, “the West was very much alive” because open country was just beyond the then city limits of 72nd Street. Plus, the stockyards in South Omaha found ranchers bringing livestock to market in epic volumes.

Hansen also saw his share of Western movies as a kid. Though steeped in images, artifacts and stories, he didn’t burn to write about the West until poverty sparked inspiration.

“I was really poor and I thought what can I think I can sell to a magazine, and I ran across this book about the Dalton gang. I knew they weren’t well known. They were a violent gang. I was charmed by the fact they tried to rob two banks at the same time in their hometown where everybody knew them. I thought that’d be a great story. I was writing it as a short story and then I realized I had like 30 pages and I hadn’t even touched the whole story, and so I decided I’ll write this as a novel.”

That story became Desperadoes.

“The same thing happened with Jesse James,” he said, when a short story he started morphed into his novel about the outlaw.

Much as he came to be with Billy the Kid, he said, “I was entranced by the differing opinions about Jesse James – how the newspapers thought he was the worst guy possible and then you saw memoirs where people said how gentle and fun he was and that he was very witty. Those kinds of complexities of character draw me to writing about these characters.”

 

 

Billy the Kid’s West

That rascals and varmints inhabited the West and that deadly conflicts happened with alarming frequency is not surprising given the conditions of that wild place.

As Hansen explained, “The area of Lincoln County (New Mexico) was the size of the state of Connecticut. It had one lawyer and one sheriff to cover all that, so people had to make do on their own basically. They had to be the law themselves. This was open range with no fences, Cattle would run away all the time – mavericks they called them.”

People claimed, worked and defended land they had no clear title to. When questioned or challenged, disputes arose, and with no practical legal remedy in sight, opponents often settled things with a gun. The same held for disputes over cattle, cards and any number of other things. If you killed someone in a conflict, you invoked the Code of the West, which roughly translated to, “He left me no choice.” Billy used that one himself.

Men protected their honor by any means necessary. Feuds often resulted in bloodshed. A wanted outlaw might take his chances with the Army, a sheriff or a posse. Hired guns targeted anyone, wanted or not, their employers wanted “regulated.” Frontier justice could mean death by assassination or lynching. On the run, dangers included Indians and bandits. At one time or another, Billy was on every side of these fights and pursuits.

“New Mexico residents thought of the government as being in Washington and they were their own government, so in some ways it was almost like the secession the South did with the North. They were rebels against this government that was being imposed on them,” Hansen said. “There weren’t telephone lines, there weren’t fences, there weren’t roads. There were trails, so it was really open country. The Apaches and the Comanches were still on the warpath and you constantly heard about people losing their lives. It affected Billy, too. He was attacked by Apaches and they stole his horse once. I don’t know how he got away with his life but he did.”

Billy specialized in stealing cattle and Army horses. Hansen said neither practice was uncommon. “A lot of people did it back then,” he said. “What’s ironic is that when Pat Garrett started his own herd of cattle, they were all stolen.”

Then there were the big ranchers who acquired their holdings by various expedient and questionable means. Hansen said, “Billy saw all that and thought, Why can’t I do that, too?”

Hansen makes no apologies for Billy’s crimes but insists he “kept getting blamed” for things he didn’t do. “Anytime he was around he got blamed for the murder when in fact many times he didn’t fire his gun. Partly that’s why he became so famous – that round up the usual suspects. He was always one of them.”

Not all outlaws are created equal.

“Jesse James was far more of a psychopath than Billy the Kid,” Hansen said, “because Jesse James was very violent – and intentionally that way. When we were shooting the movie Andrew (Dominik) and I both agreed it’s not really a Western, it’s really a gangster story. Typical of the gangster movie, a guy has accumulated wealth and power and all that stuff but then he gets paranoid and he starts killing off all the guys who made him famous. That’s what was happening with Jesse James. He was looking up all the guys and killing them.

“Yet he had these kids he loved and his wife loved him and all that. But at the same time he was capable of murder and robbing banks and trains. His wife must have known what he was doing but she pretended he was a cattleman and made money in the stock market.”

Hansen said though “Billy the Kid was like that, it was more impetuousness, especially when all these people were out to get him. He was constantly facing mobs and a lot of times they didn’t have warrants, and so in some cases it’s justifiable homicide. He was not as vicious as Jesse James. I have that scene where Jesse James meets him and Jesse gets vicious with him and then he finally gives up and walks away and Billy thinks, ‘If that’s an outlaw, I’m not an outlaw.’ Sure he was stealing cattle to make a living but so did almost everybody. That was the way people started their herds. That was the natural way of doing things back then.

“Billy’s crimes were never against people unless they shot at him or were trying to kill him, and then he shot back. He had lots of reasons for killing Bob Olinger, who was really nasty to Billy. Plus, Bob killed one of Billy’s best friends. He didn’t really want to kill Jim Bell but he felt forced to because they were going to hang him. So there were all these mixed motives going on.”

Billy’s death wasn’t accepted by everyone even though he clearly did die at the hands of Garrett.

Hansen said, “All these people who knew Billy were on this committee or jury that Pat Garrett urged be put together to say that the body was that of Billy the Kid and he did get killed by Pat Garrett – but it was justifiable homicide.”

Further evidence The Kid’s life ended then, Hansen said, was that his flame, Paulita, never saw Billy again.

The author finds Paulita an intriguing figure. Despite coming from a respectable family, she fell for this brash miscreant and after he was gone she denied being his girl.

“She thought of all the reputation Billy was carrying with him,” Hansen said. “In the Walter Noble Burns book she comes off as a woman wrongfully accused of being Billy’s sweetheart. She said she liked him very much and if they had been sweethearts she would have run off with him. So I actually have her say some of the things in the book she said to Burns. I don’t think she realized because of the book and the movies how famous she was going to be. She kind of hid out for the rest of her life.”

Years later. people claimed to be Billy under assumed names.

The same claims attended Jesse James after his death. “Officials finally did do a DNA sample and found out Jesse really was in that grave in Missouri,” Hansen said, “but I always knew he was in that grave because he was well known as a good family man and yet he left his wife destitute and it’s very unlikely he would have allowed that to happen.

“People just don’t want these legends to die.”

 

 

 

Projects

Just as no two outlaws are alike, no two writing projects are either. One constant of the craft is that it’s hard work. But some projects are more enjoyable than others. Though it took much research and imagination, The Kid was a relative breeze.

Hansen said, “I had more fun writing this than almost any other book I’ve done just because there’s such a variety of activity – so many different things are described. He’s a fascinating character. My wife was kind of irritated because I was writing in earnest for one year and she’s been on her book for four years. But it just came quickly to me.”

Not all his books perform as well as he’d like, including his 2011 historical novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion drawn from a real life “case of the century” that saw a tryst lead to a 1927 murder. The culprits, Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray, were both executed at Sing Sing in 1928 after being found guilty of killing Ruth’s husband Albert Snyder.

Hansen happened upon the case and couldn’t shake it. There was a wealth of material about the crime and the trial. Gray even wrote a memoir about it while awaiting execution.

“Judd Gray was a corset salesman who had dropped out of high school,” Hansen said, “and yet at the trial the judge said, ‘We can see what a well-educated man you are.’ While in prison, to make money for his daughter, he wrote a very literate memoir about how he ended up killing Albert Snyder.”

Hansen’s own book about the case “didn’t do very well at all,” he said, which he attributes to early negative reviews in trade publications that outweighed later positive reviews. “I thought it was going to be a movie and it didn’t become a movie but people who have read it liked it. I like it.”

He had been with Harper Collins before parting ways and going to Scribner, which published Wild Surge. “Then Scribner published my book of stories She Loves Me Not  (2012). I wanted them do a paperback of it and they said we won’t until you give us a novel, so I decided to write The Kid.”

Then there was the feature film script he co-wrote with good friend and fellow novelist-short story writer Jim Shepard (The Book of Aron). Their script Lie Down with Me, which tells another 19th century story, though this one in the East, was written for Casey Affleck to produce and direct for Relativity Media. Everything was a go before things fell apart.

“Casey Affleck was counting on doing this as a labor of love and in the same week we were expecting our writing checks in the mail, Relativity declared bankruptcy.”

Hansen said Affleck still wants to get the movie made and is trying to secure a name actress in the key role of Abigale.

“It’s set in farm country in upstate New York in the 1850s. He wants it filmed in all four seasons, so he would get people on the set for one week and let them go home and get them for another week, and so on. It’s much voice-over. He wants it to be basically a diary of Abigale, who’s telling all these things that happened. It has very ornate language because she’s concentrating hard when she’s writing her diary, but when she’s talking it’s very plain language.

“A female actress would really be intrigued by this project just because it’s so much her (Abigale). Virtually every page is her and there aren’t many big parts like that for women.”

Asked why he’s so drawn to the past, Hansen said, “Some of my fascination as a fiction writer is the requirement to imagine so much more than if I were writing about a contemporary world or from autobiographical experience. I have to take on unfamiliar roles in unfamiliar settings, so I feel more creative. Even the spoken language is different. And it’s intellectually satisfying that there’s so much learning that needs to go on in order to persuade the reader that a scene must have happened pretty much as I present it.”

As for a next project, he said, “I want to do a sequel to Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette would be like 80 years-old and she will have moved from upstate New York to Big Sur, California, but I don’t know anything else about the plot. The idea for a sequel just came to me. People like Mariette in Ecstasy a lot and wouldn’t it be nice to see what she’s up to. That was a book I liked writing. I had kind of a ready-made plot with that and I don’t have a plot with this.”

It’s a chance for his imagination to take full flight with one of his favorite characters whose life details he gets to fill in. Sounds like a state of bliss for the author.

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

 
 

Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture


Historically, South Omaha is the city’s receiving community for new immigrants and refugees, though North Omaha plays some of that role, too. Blue collar jobs in the commerical, industrial labor sector have provided the livelihood for succeeding waves and generations of ethnic groups to have settled there. South O once had and to some extent still does have neighborhoods with distinct concentrations of ethnic groups. Traditionally, these ethnic enclaves become communities within the larger community. At one time, there were neighborhoods where Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Croats and other peoples of Eastern European origin established their own enclaves. There were also strong Italian, Irish and Mexican contingents. And the Great Migration brought many African Americans from the Deep South here as well. The railroads and packing houses were the main employers for many of these new arrivals. World War II-era manufacturing jobs were lures as well. The residents living in the various ethnic neighborhoods that took shape were bound by their shared birthplace, language, customs, religious affiliation and so on. They had their own churches and  community centers that reinfoced their tight-knit connections. Festivals celebrated their hertiage and traditions. Having long ago assimilated and with second-third generation descendants moving to other other sections of the city and with the wartime, railroad and packing house jobs disappearing, those once ethnic-centric areas in South Omaha became more homogenized over time. Today, only trace elements of their once ethnic identities remain. The last three decades have seen the emergence of new emigrees from Latin and Central America, Asia and Africa, thus repeating the patterns that happened with earlier groups in the late 19th century through the late 1920s. All of this is context for an art project now underway in South Omaha that celebrates the different heritages that have made it such a melting pot over time. The South Omaha Mural Project is creating a mural for each of the major ethnic groups that have populated the area. A future mural may also commemorate the stockyards-packing plant epoch that dominated the South Omaha landscape for decades with that industry’s acres of buildings and structures that emplpyed thousands of people and with all the ancilliary businesses that served those workers.

 

Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico

 

What began as a one-off neighborhood mural by Richard Harrison and his daughter Rebecca Van Ornam has morphed into a project with several artists depicting historical South Omaha ethnic groups and landmarks.

When historian Gary Kastrick saw the South 13th Street mural Harrison and Van Ornam did illustrating the area’s Czech heritage, it sparked an idea for a mural culture series celebrating South Omaha’s role as a gateway for ethnic immigrant and refugee assimilation.

More murals followed through the help of the South Omaha Business Association (SOBA), who secured grants for a history mural at the Metropolitan Community College south campus and a Magic City Mural at 24th and N. Thus, the South Omaha Mural Project was born.

Artist Hugo Zamorano joined the team for a Lithuanian mural on the Lithuanian Bakery at 5217 South 33rd Avenue. A Mexican mural in the Plaza de la Raza was unveiled July 10. New murals are planned for the Polish, Irish, Croatian, Italian, Jewish, African-American ethnic enclaves that traditionally called South Omaha home. The more recently arrived Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran communities will get murals, too. There’s talk of one celebrating South O’s stockyards-meatpacking legacy as well.

The Polish mural will adorn a wall of Dinker’s Bar at 2368 South 29th Street. The Irish mural will grace another popular hangout, Donohue’s Pub, at 3232 L Street.

“We’re looking for walls that have good visibility in relationship to the neighborhood,” Harrison said. “Size is a good thing.”

Every wall poses its own challenges.

“When a wall is rough and covered with obstacles like water meters and things we are coming up with solutions of putting up

profile cut sign boards with characters and symbols on them, so the wall has sort of a pop-up book, three-dimensional feeling to it,” Harrison said.

Project funding comes from SOBA, the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mayor’s Neighborhood Grants Program, the City of Omaha’s Historical Grant initiative and various community sources.

David Catalan served as SOBA president when the organization decided to support the mural project. He said the project aligns well with SOBA’s mission of “preserving the diversity and heritage of South Omaha.”

Some ethnic organizations hold fundraisers to help underwrite their individual murals. The South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance is a new partner.

Harrison is a project facilitator and a supporting artist. Giron and Zamorano trade-off as lead artist. Kastrick serves as the history consultant. Catalan is an advisor and liaison.

 

 

This labor of love entails extensive community engagement and input for each mural. Multiple public meetings elicit information and ideas. The public can view the final sketch projected on a wall and can join community paint days.

“We are connecting with a lot of people in each successive community we focus on,” Harrison said. “We’re happy how fast this connects with people and how much it matters to them. They come to the meetings and share their stories and memories. Everybody we talk to finds it meaningful to them.”

He believes the community taking ownership of the murals explains why none have suffered graffiti.

After the communal paint days, Harrison, Giron, Zamorano and other artists paint for a month or two – working in acrylics to sharpen images and to apply shading and highlights. A clear protective sealer is added at the end.

When a mural’s finished, a public celebration is held.

This community-based approach is much more involved than the private commissions Harrison does under his A Midsummer’s Mural business but he said it’s all worth it.

“What’s really special is bringing the community together to talk about what’s important to them and what memories they have.”

Kastrick, a retired Omaha South High history teacher who leads South Omaha history tours, hopes the murals educate and entertain about South O’s long, unfolding melting pot story.

“It’s about rekindling South Omaha roots in people who moved away and reestablishing those roots with their children and grandchildren. I envision people coming to see the murals and talking about the people and the history they see on them.”

He and Harrison believe the murals can be destination attraction urban maps for residents and visitors wanting to learn about the area’s cultural history.

None of the primary artists working on the project are originally from Omaha and for these transplants each mural is an education.

“There is a lot that I did not know before this project and still more to learn.,” said Zamorano.

The Mexican mural he took the lead on is a perfect example.

“Almost everything I learned was new information to me. I learned about some of the different waves of Mexicans that moved to Omaha, why they moved, and where they came from.  I never knew how much the Catholic church and Lutheran church were involved in the community helping people move forward in education and empowerment. The list goes on. I never knew how much history there is in South Omaha alone.”

Fostering appreciation for place is what the project team wants every mural to encourage. Zamorano said Mexican mural images represent “topics and themes about unity, struggle, education, work, identity, education and celebration.” A working couple eats dinner with their family. A “Dreamer” graduates high school. Community anchors, such as the American GI Forum and Chicano Awareness Center, loom large. “In the center,” he said “an ancient Aztec god and two children share a history book to symbolize the past and future.”

Follow the project’s progress at http://www.amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/.

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It was a different breed then: Omaha Stockyards remembered

June 24, 2016 3 comments

I have been meaning to post this story for some time and only now got around to it. It’s a Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story from 1999 that takes a look back at the Omaha Stockyards only months before the whole works closed and was razed. Its demise, after years of decline following decades of booming business, ended a big brawny empire that at its peak was a major economic engine and a dominant part of the South Omaha landscape. I interviewed several men and one woman whose lives were bound up in the place and they paint a picture of a city within a city about which they felt great pride and nostalgia. The Stockyards was its own culture. These stockmen and this stockwoman were sad seeing it all go away, as if it was never there. Around that same time, I wrote a second depth story about the Stockyards for the New Horizons that gave even more of a feel for the scale of operation it once maintained. Here is a link to that story–

From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards

 

 

 

 

It was a different breed then: Omaha Stockyards remembered

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Unfolding a stone’s thrown away from a South Omaha strip mall is a scene straight out of the Old West. A sturdy codger called B.J. drives a dozen burnt orange cows through a mosaic of wooden pens and metal gates. As he flogs the recalcitrant beasts with a whip, his sing-song voice calls to them in a lingo only wranglers know.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey…yeh, yeh, yeh…Whoa! Get up there. Whoa! Yeh, yeh, yeh…Go, get up there. High, high, high, high. Whoa. Gip, gip, gip, gip…High, high, high, high…Yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh…C’mon, babies. C’mon, sweethearts. C’mon, darlings. Get up there.”

Welcome to the Omaha Stockyards, a once immense marketplace and meatpacking center which, owing to changing marketing trends and public attitudes, has gone to rack and ruin. Since 1997, when Mayor Hal Daub announced a city-led plan to buy the site, raze nearly the entire complex and redevelop it, the Omaha Livestock Market, which operates the yards, has been marking time. In March, market staff and traders vacated offices in the Livestock Exchange Building and have since taken up makeshift quarters in a nearby cinder-block structure. The yards are expected to close early this fall, possibly by October, and the market will move from the site it has operated at for 116 years and re-open in Red Oak, Iowa. Just as the Stockyards will soon disappear, its halcyon days are now distant memories.

But for survivors of those times, like Bernie J. McCoy, the past is very much alive. As painful as the impending end is for them, they revel in the spirit of the people who worked there and their special way of doing business. To the hard physical labor performed, the injuries incurred, the grueling dawn to dusk schedule and harsh elements endured.

“You had to want to be here and work those long hours. It was a different breed then,” McCoy says.

Yes, the fat times are long gone, never to return, but their legacy lives on in the work McCoy and others still do there. They retrace the very paths taken by countless others before them, forging a direct link to the area’s frontier past. In the yards’ cavernous, skeleton-like environs, McCoy’s voice blends with the sound of bawling calves, squealing hogs and creaking gates to resonate like the mourning, wailing echo of restless souls from long ago. Requiem for the Stockyards.

 

 

Recently, McCoy and some fellow Stockyards veterans recounted for The Reader the good old days at this soon to be vanished landmark. Their memories unveil a rich, vibrant, muscular chapter of Omaha’s working life well worth preseving. Their words celebrate an enterprise that dominated the landscape and shaped the city unlike no other. Where the once overbrimming yards pulsed with the lifeblood of Omaha’s economy, it is now a relic condemned to the scrap heap – a decript place largely given over to pigeons and rats. Blocks of abandoned, weed-strewn pens stand empty. Crumbling, sagging buildings blight the landscape. Where it took hundreds of men many hours to drive, feed, water, sort, weigh, trade and load livestock daily, now all activity unfolds in an hour or two amid a dozen pens holding perhaps a hundred cattle, a few hands putting them through their paces.

The traffic whooshing past on L Street overhead is a metaphor for how this forsaken former juggernaut has been passed by in the wake of progress, leaving it an anachronism in a city grown intolerant. Yet, it lingers still – a ghostly visage of another era.

By the close of 1999 only tracts of of dilapidated pens and barren livestock barns will remain. Soon even these meager traces will vanish when the city levels the whole works in a year or two. leaving only the looming presence of the massive Exchange Building  – for decades the focal point and symbol of the sprawling , booming market. Even its future is not secure, hinging on if if developers find  financing for its pricey renovation.

 

Exterior view of unloading docks at stockyards

 

We helped build this city

Today, from atop the weather-beaten wooden high walk spanning the grounds, it’s hard imagining when the yards teemed with enough acitivty to make it the largest livestock market/meatpacking center in the nation. Oh, animals still arrive at market every week but comprise only a trickle of the mighty stream that once flowed around the clock.

Unless you’re pushing middle age, you never saw the Stockyards at its peak. When tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and sheep arrived daily by rail and truck. Millions of animals a year. All transactions, each worth many thousands of dollars, were consummated by word of mouth alone. Trading generated millions of dollars a day, perhaps billions over time.

Livestock were sold primarily to the big four packing plants and the many smaller independent plants then dotting the yards’ perimeter. Stock were also shipped to other parts of the country, even overseas. The place was once so big, its impact so vast, that the Omaha market helped set the prices for the industry nationwide and ran its own radio station and newspaper. As a center of commerce, the Stockyards ruled. At their peak, the packing plants employed more than 10,000 laborers. The Stockyards company itself employed hundreds, including office staff to manage the business as well as outdoor crews to handle animals, maintain pens, chutes and barns and run its own railroad line. Hundreds more did business there as livestock commission salesmen, order-buyers, inspectors, et cetera. The people converging there on any trading today ranged from frugal farmers to rough-hewn truckers to smooth-talking traders to well-heeled bankers.

Besides being THE meeting place for anyone who was anybody in the agriculture industry, the Exchange Building offered an oasis of comfort with its cafeteria, dining room, ballroom, bar, soda fountain, cigar stand and barbershop. Basement showers let you wash the stink off but somehow you always knew when a hog man was around. Nearby watering holes, eateries, stores and hotels catered to the stock trade’s every pleasure. The aroma of sweat, blood, manure, hay, grain, cologne, whiskey and tobacco created what Omaha historian Jean Dunbar calls, “The smell of money.”

“Fifty years ago the Stockyards and packing plants were the hub of Omaha, Nebraska. Nowadays, young people don’t appreciate what the Union Stockyards Company did for Omaha. We helped build this city. Everyone wanted to work here. You don’t know the pride we had. Come November, there will be nothing left to remember we were ever here or even existed. Nothing,” declares McCoy, 69, a livestock dealer who’s worked at the Omaha Stockyards for 54 years.

 

 

  • Aerial stockyards, circa 1950. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Chicken plant. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Meat inspectors. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Omaha: World’s largest livestock and meat-packing center. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Ak-Sar-Ben stockyard judging pens. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Stockyard view of the pens, circa 1927. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Trucks backed up to chutes, circa 1926. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Wentworth stockyards. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.

 

 

It was the people

From 1934 to 1969 Doris Wellman, 83, was one of the few women executives in the livestock trading business. Her ties to the place run deep. Her grandfather and father worked there, as did her late husband Ralph and his grandfather and father before him. Incidentally, she never minded the stench because she never forgot “that was my bread and butter.” Above all, the genuineness and the esprit de corps of the people there impressed her. “Every man at that Stockyards was a gentleman as far as I’m concerned. Everybody was always very cordial to you. Everybody spoke to everybody else. There was nothing phony about it. We had our own little community there. That camraderie you will never find anyplace else.”

“When someone was in the least anount of distress,” she adds, “a collection was taken up.” McCoy says, “One trip through the Exchange Building might net  10 or 15,000 dollars,” like the time enough funds were raised to stop foreclosure on Carl “Swede” Anderson’s house.

“Of course, it was the people that made the Stockyards. They took care of their own. That’s what I miss more than anything about it,” says Jim Egan, 66, whose memory of the place goes back before World War II, when as a boy he hung around his father, a livestock order-buyer. Egan later became a livestock dealer himself. “I kind of grew up there as a little kid. I looked up to the head cattle buyers for the big packers, but they were as common as could be. They didn’t look down at anybody. There was never any airs put on. Absolutely not.”

Not that there wasn’t a caste system owing to one’s position and seniority. “There was kind of a pecking order,” Egan says. The more experienced men bought and sold the prime, top-dollar beef, while the green ones learned the trade from the bottom up. Those who carried the most weight and the longest length of service, he says, earned a wider berth, a choicer selection and a primer office location. “Back in the ’50s the head cattle buyers with Armour. Swift and Wilson all wore suits and ties. They had on boots, too, in those days. If you wanted to sell one some cattle you didn’t call him by his first name – it was Mister,” says Ron Ryhisky, 63, a packer-buyer now in his 46th year at the yards. “They thought they were God,” says cattle seller Art Stolinski, who adds that cattle buyers were made even more intimidating by working on horseback.

Men only advanced after an apprenticeship learning breeds, grades, weights. “I drove cattle 10 years for Omaha Packing Co. before I got a chance to buy a few cows, Ryhisky says. Stolinski, now in his 61st year, adds, “I came to work as a yardman for my father. I was a gofer – I cleaned pens, I shook hay, I drove cattle. That’s how you came up the ladder.”

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

Doing business

Haggling in the yards got heated. Bidding became a pitched battle. Harsh words exchanged between buyers and sellers were soon forgotten though because everyone understood being an S.O.B was just part of doing business. “That was the other guy’s way of trying to beat you,” Ryhisky says. “Sure, the guys argued and everything, but as soon as the trade was done, it was done. Nobody stayed mad,” Egan notes. He adds that men cursing each other over the price of bulls played cards or shared a meal and some drinks a few hours later.

Egan found no “softies” among buyers. “The only time they’d be a soft touch is if they were really desperate for cattle.” Stolinski says some shippers made for tough customers. “Some guys were just hard to sell for. They’d go, ‘Well, that ain’t enough. Get more. Them cattle are worth more than that.’ So you didn’t sell them cattle and then risked not getting them sold for what they were bid, and getting set.”

Like any other traded commodity, livestock were subject to supply and demand dynamics. As Egan explains, “The buyer was trying to buy the cattle for as cheap as he could. The salesman was trying to get as much as he could for his customer. Both knew pretty close where those cattle were going to sell. When it got right down to the nitty-gritty, if the buyer had another load of cattle he thought he could get, then he probably had a little leverage. If he didn’t, then the man selling the cattle had the leverage. That knowledge moved around the yards fairly quick.”

One way the latest market updates and bid orders reached buyers and sellers was by runners. “The packer might decide to take off 50 cents or a dollar (per hundred pounds) and the only way to tell those buyers was to send a runner, usually some kid, who’d run around that high walk trying to get the word to the cow buyers, the heifer buyers, the steer buyers. That kid was running, too,” Stolinski says. “When you saw that kid running fast, you knew he had something to tell the packer-buyer.” Later, radio transmitters replaced runners.

Ball-busting tactics aside, the yards brooked no dirty deeds. As soon as a swindler got exposed for “welshing on a deal,” Egan says, the word spread and he was banned. “You’d never get another animal.”

“If you were a cheat,” Ryhisky adds, “you never came back in.”

Badmouthing a competitor was strictly taboo. Wellman explains, “I can remember whenever my husband Ralph hired a cattle salesman the first thing he told him was, ‘When you go to the country to solicit business, don’t knock any of your opponents. Every knock is a boost. I never want to hear you maligned another commission man on the road.’ We trained people like that and they grew up knowing that’s the way to do business.”

A sense of trust and fair play permeated the yards. It’s what allowed trading to unfold entirely by spoken word – with no written contracts. A man’s word or handshake was enough. It’s still done that way.

“The uniqueness of the way business was conducted,” distinguished the stockyards industry,” Egan says. “Everything was done by word of mouth. It was an honor system you adhered to. It’s just the way it was.”

“Integrity is a word that comes to mind. Anyone that was here any time at all had it. There was nothing signed,” Stolinski says, adding sarcastically, “Now, you go buy a necktie and you gotta make three copies.”

As Wellman put it, “Do you of another business where you can transact millions of dollars worth of business everyday without signing a paper? Where you word is your bond, and if it isn’t, you won’t last?”

According to Gene Miller, a long-time commission man, any livestock deal was the sole province of the buyer and seller. The shipper or producer who consigned his livestock for sell to a commission firm was usually present but only participated if the salesman conferred on the bid. Rare disputes were mediated before a board of livestock exchange officials. “It was up to the buyer and seller to settle. If they couldn’t settle then they went before the Livestock Exchange Board. At any rate, your word had to be all of it or otherwise you had no market.”

Consistent with its open market concept, the Stockyards brought many buyers and sellers together in one spot to arrive at the fairest market price. A single load of cattle might be shown to and bid on by any number of buyers. To prevent a free-for-all, rules governed the bidding process.

If a buyer looked at a load of cattle and made a bid that the salesman accepted, the buyer was bound to take them. However, if  the buyer left the salesman’s alley before the bid was accepted, the buyer was not obligated.  Similarly, Egan explains, “If a guy was buying, say, steers and another order-buyer or packer-buyer came along, he had to wait outside the alley until the salesman got through showing that first buyer. If the salesman got the price, he might sell a load of cattle to the first guy that looked at ’em. But that buyer wouldn’t sit on a load of cattle and let everybody in the Stockyards look at ’em because he’s got the pressure of the second buyer breathing down his neck.”

Once cattle arrived at the yards, they were usually bedded down a night before traded. The idea was to feed and water stock in order to put weight back on lost (shrinkage) during shipping. While the market didn’t open until 8 or 8:30 a.m., commission men started their workday by 4:30 or 5 in order to get the cattled consigned to them out of holding pens and driven to their firms’ alleys and pens. As the cattle were locked up, sales agents had to find a “key man” at the yards to unlock the pens. Each saleman hustled to get his cattle released ahead of the others.

Stolinski says tempers often flared over who was first in line. “If he happened to be bigger than you, you wouldn’t argue, but some of that happened, too.”

The volume of livestock being traded was so thick that men often had to wait hours in line to get their bunch released or weighed. Each time cattled were moved they were counted, a serious business too given the sheer numbers of animals and the hefty dollar values they represented. A paper trail of receipts and weigh bills followed each load.

Livestock being led to a local packinghouse were driven through an underground tunnel. To help track each load chalk marks were applied to animals. Aptly named Judas goats were used to lead the packs, mostly sheep, placidly through. Steers were run through to chase out the foot-long rats. To control fighting bulls cows were often mixed in. Even with this confluence of activity – trucks and trains arriving and departing and assorted livestock being sorted and driven through a mazework of pens – the stockmen agree there were few major screwups. “It was amazing to me that with the thousands and thousands of livestock that moved through here, we kept them straight,” says Carl Hatcher, a 44-year veteran of the yards and today manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.

“It was amazing how few miscounts we had,” Stolinski says.

More amazing still because despite the paper trail dealers kept most of the figures in their head. “When I went to work for my dad I came out with a tab and pencil and started writing stuff down, and he said, ‘Throw that away. If you have to start writing everything down, forget it. Learn to remember.’ You did,” Stolinski recalls. “You developed your memory that way. Even now, I can remember cattle I sold a couple weeks ago – what they were, what they brought, what they weighed. A lot of buyers could just look at cattle and remember, too.”

 

In this January 1942 photo, a line of cattle trucks extended 4 miles at the Omaha Stockyards. THE WORLD-HERALD

In this January 1942 photo, a line of cattle trucks extended 4 miles at the Omaha Stockyards. THE WORLD-HERALD

 

Out of harm’s way

As smoothly as it all ran, some things could still foul up the works, like one of the 11 scales breaking or an animal going down and not being able to get back up. Then there were close calls with ornery animals. Some broke containment, leaping fences and escaping into surrounding streets, where crews shooed them into the yards or cowboys roped and dragged them back. The wildest ones were shot dead. A mean animal in an alley or a pen sent men scurrying for the fences; the lucky ones clambered atop unscathed; the less fortunate ones got pinned, stomped or gored. Every man can tell you about his close calls and rough scrapes. Harold Hunter, a 78 year old cattle delaer who’s been hit by a heifer and rolled by a bull, among other things since his 1944 start, recalls, “I’d only been here two weeks when I was holding a gate while my boss was on a horse sortin’ these steers. They were probably 3 and 4 year-olds, weighing 1,250, and they moved fast. Two of ’em went by me just like that. My boss said, ‘Kid, they ain’t going to hurt you, just stop ’em.’ Well, the next one went right through the gate and broke it down. Those western range cattle had never seen a man on foot, They respected a horse, but not a man on foot.”

It paid knowing how to stay out of harm’s way. “If you had the gate,” Stolinski says, “you didn’t get behind it to hold ’em back because they’d hit that gate and you’d go with it. You always had to have that gate on the side of you, so when they hit it the gate went and you climbed up the fence…maybe.”

Hatcher, who saw plenty of busted noses and broken bones from swinging gates, says you were well advised “to have your escape route” planned. “Like when we unloaded cattle off the box cars, the way the railroad set the cars , they wouldn’t match up with the opening into the chute. Well, when you’d open a box car door and flop a board in for them to come out, you hoped you could shout and move ’em into the chute opening. But sometimes they’d get upset seeing the fences and turn the wrong way and go down the dock where you were standing. One night a fellow named Dale Castor was there with our night foreman, Orlin Emley, when some old western wild cows came out and turned down the dock, Emley already had the escape route figured. He was climbing the fence when Castor, who hadn’t figured his out, grabbed a hold of Emley and tried to crawl right up his back. Emley was shouting, ‘Get off me, find your own goddamn fence.’ That happened a lot.

“The sound of a gate slamming or people yelling can cause soome animals to run over or through everything they can fin. A wild or mean one like that won’t stop no matter how much you yell or wave a stick or whip or cane or anything else. You know which ones are comin’ out lookin’ for you. you can’t top ’em. You look for your spot on the fence and keep your distance. You gotta know what your doin’ and pay attention.”

Egan says hard to handle animals were often red-flagged on the paperwork accompanying them to give men a heads-up warning.

The risk of injury never goes away. Only two years ago Bernie McCoy had a run-in with a heifer that left him with three cracked ribs. There’s no end of hazards either. Try negotiating a narrow, icy, wind-swept high walk in winter. Or lashing a cow with a whip and a piece of leather tearing off into your face or leg. “It’s like getting shot with a pellet gun,” says Stolinski.

Bulls, because of their size and disposition, pose real trouble. As Stolinski says, “If a bull hits you, he don’t (sic) let you fall to the ground. He just keeps hittin’ you into the fence. Gettin’ kicked would hobble you most because you either got it in the knee or hip.”

But other animals could hurt you, too. Stolinski recalls a yardman named Dale Lovitt who had a leg ripped open by a boar in the hog yards and, true to the stockmen’s macho creed, got stitched and returned for a snort.

“They took him to the hospital, sewed him up, and he got back here and went rght to the bar and had a shot.”

Hatcher witnessed the grit of yardman Hubert Clatterbuck, who took a nasty spill “when the wild horse he was training reared up. causing him to lose his balance. He went right over the back of the horse and fell right on the concrete in the alley…landing on his shoulders and head. Hell, I thought sure he was dead. I called a rescue unit but, shoot, he just shook it off.”

 

 

You gotta have it in you

“The hours got terrible with the commission firms, let me tell you,” says Gene Miller. “Today, you couldn’t pay any man enough to work the way we did, and those hours, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. The hours were too long . The work was too hard. It was seven days a week.” Yet, to a man, they say they don’t regret any of it. Not one hour or day.

And Bernie McCoy adds, “You were always moving,” whether fetching cattle from the hill (the west yards stretching clear to 36th Street) or driving them to the hole (the sloping southwestern yards). “I don’t how many miles we walked a day,” Ryhisky adds. The work went on regardless of the weather. “Sometiimes the conditions were just just rotten,” Stolinski notes. “Standing out there weighing cattle when it was rainy and sloppy like hell. The cattle snapped their hoofs in a puddle and it would splash all over you. We didn’t have rain suits in those days. You had a jacket and you just got wet. You had to keep just working. There wasn’t time to go in and change because those cattle had to be weighed in so many minutes.”

Away from the yards, commission men traveled weekends soliciting business from farmers and ranchers. It was not uncommon for a salesman to put 40,000 miles a year on his car. Since the advent of direct selling in the ’60s. packer-buyers like Ryhisky now solicit customers.

Yardmen have always had it the roughest, facing the same risks from animals and the same dismal weather conditions while building and repairing pens, throwing bales of hay, cleaning alleys and chutes, et cetera. “You gotta have it in you,” Stolinski says. Plenty haven’t. Hatcher saw many men quit after a day or two slogging through muck and shoveling manure. He says the worst jobs included clearing snow atop the auto park, aka, Hurricane Deck, in the winter and picking up animal dumps and hauling them away in the summer.

 

Stockmen's and farmers' and truckers' hotel near Union Stockyards. South Omaha, Nebraska

Stockmen’s and farmers’ and truckers’ hotel near Union Stockyards. South Omaha

 

They played hard

After a hard day’s work or big sell, men unwound bending an elbow at nearby gin joints. A few braced themselves before punching in each morning, like notable imbiber Claude Dunning, who is said to have drained a half-pint daily before the market even opened. “Some of the old guys would walk in the front of the building, make a left turn into the bar and get a drink of whiskey, then change clothes and off they’d go,” Stolinski says. “Most of the commission men had charge accounts in the bar. If you were a regular, they’d give you a second shot free.”

Fights inevitably broke out.

“They played hard,” Hatcher says, so much so the yard company cracked down. Still, there were ways, like riding in the caboose of a train shipping bulls to Chicago. Two men went along to see the bulls go watered and got tanked themselves on a case of beer. “We had fun,” Ryhisky says.

Other diversions ranged from regular craps and gin rummy games to sports betting. Once, the Stockyards took up a collection to bankroll local gin rummey king Art Jensen, a livestock trader, for a Las Vegas tournament. “They bought shares in him,” Jim Egan says. “He lost.” A good friend of Jensen’s was future Nevada gambling maven Jackie Gaughan, then a bookmaker, who allegedly used a livestock trading office as a bookie front. “You could get a lot of bets laid down there,” recounts Egan. Legend has it local stockmen sold cattle on a cash-only basis to one shady character back east who reputedly once brought a suitcase with $250,000. It’s said the fellow eventually ran afoul of the mob and was killed.

Francis “Doc” Stejskal, a former livestock commission salesman and later a packer-buyer, says people at the yards were not necessarily the raucous bunch many outsiders assumed. “I think a lot of folks thought it was rough and rowdy. That when business was over we all went down to some South Omaha cathouse. It wasn’t that way.”

Doris Wellman adds, “It was the wrong interpretation completely.” That’s not to say there weren’t establishments where women of ill repute rendered certain illicit services. “The dollies were in the Miller Hotel. The guys would take care of things there,” Harold Hunter says. “Big Irene” is said to have been a favorite among johns frequenting the whorehouses and clip joints comprising South O’s red light district.

Those who could not control their appetites were brought down. “Wine, whiskey and women ruined quite a few guys out here,” Ron Ryhisky contends. “I’d hate to have seen the casinos here back in the ’50s. We would have had a lot of broke men.” Adds Stolinski, “A lot of money was made and a lot of good men were lost to high living.”

But for most a big night on the town meant downing a few drinks and eating a hearty meal at Johnny’s Cafe, where stockmen had carte blanche. Many a farmer came to market with his family. While his stock was traded his family waited in the Exchange Building and later, fat check in hand, they went for a shopping spree. Philip’s Department Store was a favorite stop. In an industry that was a crossroads for people from nearly every strata of society – rural-urban, rich-poor – the Stockyards saw its share of memorable characters. Take Gilley Swanson, for instance. The stockmen say Swanson, a farmer, had such utter disregard for his own hygeine that he was infested with lice and slept in the yards’ hay manger. It got so bad, they say, that he was barred from the Exchange Building and people steered clear of his approach. Then there was Bernard Pauley, a mammoth shipper who overwhelmed his bib overalls and had a habit of stepping right from the feedyard into his latest Cadillac, soiling the interior. Forbidden from drinking at home by his wife, he went on benders in the big city, buying endless rounds for himself and his cronies.

Looks could be deceiving. A rancher might pass for a ripe vagrant after traveling by rail with his cattle, yet could pocket enough from one sale to pay cash for a new car and still have ample money left over. Eastern dudes passing through often didn’t know one end of a cow from the other, but knew balance sheets and some say the New York-based Kay Corp., which bought the ailing ards in 1973, simply wrote it off.

These are Stockyards people

Then, as now, money talked. For decades the Stockyards pumped the fuel powering Omaha’s economic engine. Sotuh Omaha owed its existence to the place. The Stockyards wielded power and commanded respect via the jobs it provided, the charitable works its 400 Club performed, the goodwill tours its members made and the boards its executives served on. This far-reaching impact is why stockmen feel such pride even today. “More than you’ll ever know,” says Ryhisky. As business there steadily declined the last 25 years the Stockyards saw its influence wane, operations shrink and grounds deteriorate. Now, with the City of Omaha practically running the Stockyards out of town and erasing any remnant of the past (although, as bound by law, the city is paying the relocation costs and commissioning a historic recordation of the site), it’s no wonder survivors feel forgotten and belittled.

Doris Wellman tells a story about Johnny’s Cafe founder Frank Kawa that sums up how stockmen were once regarded and would like to be remembered. “A group of us were having dinner at Johnny’s one evening years ago and the people nest to us thought we were a little too noisy, so they complained to Mr. Kawa. He told them. ‘If you don’t like it, get up and leave. These are Stockyards people. They built this place.'”

Omaha’s Old Market: History, Stories, Places, Personalities, Characters


Omaha’s Old Market: History, Stories, Places, Personalities, Characters

 

The Old Market represents different things to different people but it is undeniably one of the few go-to destinations Omaha has to offer. It is a concentrated mish-mash of local culture, though still predominantly a white-bread, precious experience. It could use a healthy dose of diversity and grit, which is to say it could use some broader community representation that brings in some fresh entrepreneurial and cultural experiences and perspectives. But however you feel about it or view it, the Old Market holds some of the richest history in this city and it has been home to a fascinating mix of places, personalities and characters. Here is a compilation of some of my Old Market stories featuring some of that history and some of those venues and figures.

 

One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died.  George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district.  As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market.  Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center.  When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member.  In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog.  George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market.  He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more.  His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed.  I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication.  That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale.  You can find the Vitale story on this blog.

George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha‘s Old Market Never Grows Old

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.

The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.

He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.

Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.

As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.

A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”

All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”

Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.

“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”

He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.

In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.

“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.

He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”

Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”

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Oh, for the days when there was almost literally a grocery store on every corner and a movie theater in every neighborhood.  I only know those days through articles, books, movies, photographs, and reminiscences and I am sure the reality did not match my romanticism about them.  As fate would have it, the Mom and Pop grocery phenomenon I only got a glimmer of during my childhood became the subject of an assignment I was offered and gladly accepted: as co-editor and lead writer for a NebraskaJewish Historical Society book project that commemmorates and documents the Mom and Pop Jewish grocery stores that operated in and around the Omaha metropolitan area from approximately the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s-1970s.  But it was Ben Nachman, along with Renee Ratner-Corcoran, who I worked with on the project, that truly realized the book .  Ben’s vision and energy got it started and Renee’s commitment and persistence saw it through.  I just helped pick up the pieces once Ben passed away a year or so into the project.  Ultimately, the book belongs to all the families and individuals who contributed anecdotes, stories, essays, photos, and ads about their grocery stores.

Immediately below is Jewish Press story about the project, followed by an excerpt from the book.

The book is dedicated to the man who inaugurated the project, the late Ben Nachman, who was responsible for starting what is now my long association with both the Jewish Press and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  Ben led me to many Holocaust survivor and rescuer stories I ended up writing, many of which can be found on this blog.  My stories about Ben and his work as an amatuer but highy dedicated historian can also be found here.  I also collaborated with Ben and Renee, as the writer to their producder-roles, on a documentary film about the Brandeis Department Store empire of Nebraska.  A very long two-part story I did for the Jewish Press on the Brandeis family and their empire served as the basis for the script I wrote.  You can find that story on this blog.

Historical Society publishes grocery store history

by Rita Shelley

11.11.11 issue, Jewish Press

Freshly arrived from Europe a century ago, thousands of men and women found work in South Omaha’s packinghouse and stockyards.

South 24th Street grocer Witte Fried, also a first generation American and a widow with children from ages 2 to 7, knew something of her neighbors’ struggles to survive and prosper. She also knew they needed to eat. According to her descendants, Fried took care to mark prices on the merchandise in her store in several languages. She wanted her customers, regardless of their German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek, Czech or other origins, to have an easier transition into their new world.

Fried’s story is one of many featured in Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. Scheduled to be published in November by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), the book includes recollections of Jewish grocers and members of the families who operated stores throughout Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and surrounding areas from the early 1900s to the present.

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“A history of Jewish owned stores is also a history of the grocery business,” Renee Ratner-Corcoran, NJHS executive director, said. “Beginning with peddlers who traveled from farm to farm to trade their wares for farm produce to sell in the cities, through one-room Mom and Pop stores with adjoining living quarters, to the first large self-service grocery stores, to today’s discount stores that sell housewares and groceries under the same roof, the Jewish community played a vital role in the grocery industry.The book was a dream of Dr. Ben Nachman, an NJHS volunteer whose father owned a small store on North 27th Street. Dr. Nachman died in 2010; publication of the book is dedicated to his memory.

Children of early Jewish grocers who were interviewed for the book or submitted recollections recall the hustle and bustle of buying produce from open air stalls downtown (today’s Old Market) as early as 4 a.m. to stay ahead of the competition. Before there were automobiles, grocers’ children were responsible for the care of the horses that pulled delivery buggies. Mixing the flour and water paste to use for painting prices of the week’s specials on the front window was also the responsibility of children. So were dividing 100-pound sacks of potatoes into five- and 10-pound packages, grinding and bagging coffee, and feeding the chickens. (A kerosene barrel and a chicken coop were located side-by-side in at least one family’s store.).

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The book’s publication was underwritten by the Herbert Goldsten Trust, the Special Donor Advised Fund of the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation, the Milton S. & Corinne N. Livingston Foundation, Inc., the Murray H. and Sharee C. Newman Supporting Foundation, Doris and Bill Alloy, Sheila and John Anderson, Edith Toby Fellman, Doris Raduziner Marks, In honor of Larry Roffman’s 80th Birthday, and Stanley and Norma Silverman.Increasing prosperity meant housewives had more money to spend. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration also brought changes to the grocery industry, and Jewish grocers were among the first to embrace those changes. More recently, Jewish Nebraskans “invented” some of the country’s first discount chains and wholesale distribution networks, as well as the data processing innovations that made them profitable.

For additional information, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at rcorcoran@jewishomaha.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.

Excerpts from the book-

©by Leo Adam Biga

Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores                                                                                Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa

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Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers.

Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here.

At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II.

The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same – to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era, from roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time.

Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home.

Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted.

Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.

Jewish grocery stores almost always became multi-generation family affairs. The classic story was for a husband and wife to open a store and for their children to “grow up” in it. In some families there was a definite expectation for the children to follow and succeed their parents in the business. But there were as many variations on this story as families themselves. In some cases, the founder, almost always a male, was joined in the business by a brother or brothers or perhaps a brother in law. Therefore, a child born into a grocer family might have one or both parents and some combination of uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins working there, too.

Of course, not every child followed his folks into the family business. Because most early Jewish grocers did not have much in the way of a formal education, the family business was viewed as a springboard for their children to complete an education, even to go onto college. It was a means by which the next generation could advance farther than their parents had, whether in the family grocery business or in a professional field far removed from stocking shelves and bagging groceries.

Some Jewish grocers went in and out of business in a short time, but many enjoyed long runs, extending over generations. Some proprietors stayed small, with never more than a single store, while others added more stores to form chains (the Tuchman brothers) and others (like the Bakers and the Newmans) graduated from Mom and Pop shops to supermarkets. Some owners made their success as grocers only to leave that segment of the food business behind to become wholesale suppliers and distributors (Floyd Kulkin), even food manufacturers (Louis Albert).

Whatever path Jewish grocers took, the core goal was the same, namely to provide for their families and to stake out a place of their own that offered continued prosperity. For a Jewish family, especially an immigrant Jewish family, owning a store meant self-sufficiency and independence. It was a means to an end in terms of assimilation and acceptance. It was a real, tangible sign that a family had arrived and made it. Most Jewish grocers didn’t get rich, but most managed to purchase their own homes and send their kids to college. It was a legitimate, honorable gateway to achieving the American Dream, and one well within reach of people of modest means.

For much of the last century Jewish grocery stores could be found all over the area, in rural as well as in urban locales, doing business where there were no other Jews and where there was a concentration of Jews. In Nebraska and Western Iowa there have historically been few Jewish enclaves, meaning that Jewish grocers depended upon Gentiles for the bulk of their business. Dealing with a diverse clientele was a necessity.

In some instances, Jewish grocers and their fellow Jewish business owners catered to distinct ethnic groups. For example, from the 1920s through the 1960s the North 24th Street business district in Omaha was the commercial hub for the area’s largely African-American community. During that period the preponderance of business owners along and around that strip were Jewish, including several grocers, some of whom lived in the neighborhood. These circumstances meant that Jews and blacks in Omaha were mutually dependent on each other in a manner that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since. When the last in a series of civil disturbances in the district did significant damage there, the last of the Jewish merchants moved out. Only a few Jewish owned grocery stores remained in what was the Near Northside.

Until mechanical refrigeration became standard, customers had to shop daily or at least every other day to buy fresh products to replenish their ice boxes and pantries. Having to shop so frequently at a small, family-run neighborhood store meant that customers and grocers developed closer, more personal relationships than they generally do today. Grocers not only knew their regular customers by name but knew their buying patterns so well that they could fill an order without even looking at a list.

Home delivery was a standard service offered by most grocers back in the day. Some stores were mainly cash and carry operations and others primarily charge and delivery endeavors. Taking grocery orders by phone was commonplace.

Most grocers extended credit to existing customers, even carrying them during rough times. It was simply the way business was conducted then. A person’s word was their bond.

Fridays were generally the busiest day in the grocery business because it’s when most laborers got paid and it’s when families stocked up for the big weekend meal most households prepared.

Jewish grocers were among the founders and directors of cooperatives, such as the United Associated Grocers Co-op or United AG and the Lincoln Grocers Association, that gave grocers increased buying power on the open market.

With only a few exceptions today, the intimate, family neighborhood stores are a thing of the past. As automobiles and highways changed the landscape to accommodate the burgeoning suburbs, newer, larger chain stores and supermarkets emerged whose buying and selling power the Mom and Pops could not compete with on anything like an even basis. Thus, the Mom and Pop stores, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, began fading away.

Because Jewish grocers were such familiar, even ubiquitous fixtures in the community, the majority population gave little thought to the fact that Omaha Jewish merchants like the Bakers (Baker’s Supermarkets) or the Newmans (Hinky Dinky), who began with Mom and Pop stores, led the transition to supermarket chains. For much of the metro’s history then, Jews controlled a large share of the grocery market, helping streamline and modernize the way in which grocers did business and consumers shopped.

It is true the one-to-one bond between grocer and consumer may have all but disappeared with the advent of the supermarket and discount store phenomenon. The days of grocers filling each customer order individually went by the wayside in the new age of self-service.

One thing that’s never changed is the fact that everybody has to eat and Jews have been at the forefront of fulfilling that basic human need for time immemorial. The Jewish grocer was an extension of the friendly neighborhood bubbe or zayde or mensch in making sure his or her customers always had enough to eat.

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation


Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Some thoughts about Marlin Briscoe in the year that he is:
•being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame
•having a life-size status of his likeness dedicated at UNO
•and seeing a feature film about himself going into production this fall

 

For years, Marlin Briscoe never quite got his due nationally or even locally. Sure, he got props for being a brilliant improviser at Omaha U. but that was small college ball far off most people’s radar. Even fewer folks saw him star before college for the Omaha South High Packers. Yes, he got mentioned as being the first black quarterback in the NFL, but it took two or three decades after he retired from the game for that distinction to sink in and to resonate with contemporary players, coaches, fans and journalists. It really wasn’t until his autobiography came out that the significance of that achievement was duly noted and appreciated. Helping make the case were then-current NFL black quarterbacks, led by Warren Moon, who credited Briscoe for making their opportunity possible by breaking that barrier and overturning race bias concerning the quarterback position. Of course, the sad irony of it all is that Briscoe only got his chance to make history as a last resort by the Denver Broncos, who succumbed to public pressure after their other quarterbacks failed miserably or got injured. And then even after Briscoe proved he could play the position better than anyone else on the squad, he was never given another chance to play QB with the Broncos or any other team. He was still the victim of old attitudes and perceptions, which have not entirely gone away by the way, that blacks don’t have the mental acuity to run a pro-style offensive system or that they are naturally scramblers and not pocket passers or that they are better with their feet and their athleticism than they are with their arms or their head. Briscoe heard it all, and in his case he also heard that he was too small.

After Briscoe swallowed the bitter pill that he would be denied a chance to play QB in The League after that one glorious go of it in 1968, he dedicated himself to learning an entirely new position – wide receiver – as his only way to stay in the NFL. In truth, he could have presumably made it as a defensive back and return specialist. In fact, he was primarily on the Broncos roster as a DB when he finally got the nod to start at QB after only seeing spot duty there. Briscoe threw himself into the transition to receiver with the Buffalo Bills and was good enough to become an All-Pro with them and a contributing wideout with the back to back Super Bowl winning Miami Dolphins. As unfair as it was, Briscoe didn’t make a big stink about what happened to him and his QB aspirations, He didn’t resist or refuse the transition to receiver. He worked at it and made it work for him and the teams he played on. The successful transition he made from signal caller to received is one of the most remarkable and overlooked feats in American sports history.

About a quarter century after Briscoe’s dreams of playing QB were dashed and he reinvented himself as a receiver, another great Omaha athlete, Eric Crouch, faced a similar crossroads. The Heisman Trophy winner was an option quarterback with great athleticism and not well suited to being a pro style pocket passer. He was drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams as an athlete first, but ostensibly to play receiver, not quarterback. He insisted on getting a tryout at QB and failed. The Rams really wanted him to embrace being a receiver but his heart wasn’t in it and he loudly complained about not being given a shot at QB. He went from franchise to franchise and from league to league chasing a dream that was not only unrealistic but a bad fit that would not, could not, did not fit his skills set at that level of competition. Unlike Briscoe, who lost the opportunity to play QB because he was black, Crouch lost the opportunity because he wasn’t good enough. Briscoe handled the discrimination he faced with great integrity and maturity. Crouch responded to being told the truth with petulance and a sense of denial and entitlement. That contrast made a big impression on me. I don’t know if Crouch would have made a successful transition to receiver the way Brsicoe did, but he certainly had the skils to do it, as he showed at Nebraska. I always thought NU should have kept him at wingback and Bobby Newcombe at QB, but that’s for another post.

But the real point is that when the going got tough for Briscoe, he rose to the occasion. That strong character is what has allowed him to recover from a serious drug addiction and to live a sober, successful life these past two-plus decades. John Beasley is producing a feature film about Briscoe called “The Magician” and its story of personal fortitude will touch many lives.

Link to my profile of Marlin Briscoe at–

Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

Link to my collection of stories on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends: Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness at–

OUT TO WIN – THE ROOTS OF GREATNESS: OMAHA’S BLACK SPORTS LEGENDS

Deadeye Marcus “Mac” McGee still a straight shooter at 100

March 15, 2016 2 comments

I met the late Marcus “Mac” McGee shortly after he turned 100 years old.  He was a small man in stature but he exuded high character in the way he conducted himself.  He spoke with rhythmic charm and he dressed in classic style.  He was a gentleman through and through.  Having come out of the Deep South to make a life for himself and his family in Omaha, you knew that he had seen a few things.  The more I talked to him and to others who knew him from back in the day, I learned he had built a thriving business in North Omaha, the Tuxedo Barber Shop, that made him a pillar in his community.  He gave and commanded respect.  He was also something of a legend in his own time for his deadeye marksmanship as a hunter and trapshooter.  He and his shop and the role they played in the community when a village really did raise a child represented something treasured and lost.  Here is a profile I wrote about this unforgettable personality.

 

 

black barber shop

 

 

 

 

 

Deadeye Marcus “Mac” McGee still a straight shooter at 100

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

 

As Americans enjoy increasingly longer life spans, octogenarians and centenarians grow more commonplace. But as 100-year-old Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha proves, no one who has lived a century should be taken for granted. Start with the fact this lifelong boxing fan sounds uncannily like one of his favorite prizefighers from the past – Muhammad Ali. Right down to the soft, melifluous voice and braggadocio style. A fiercely proud and stubborn descendant of both African-American slaves and white slave owners, McGee can be a cantankerous sort these days. He is entitled to sone orneriness though after spending the better part of a century forging a life of substance against all odds.

It would be easy to ignore McGee or any of his fellow residents at the Maple-Crest Care Center in Benson. But that would be a mistake, for these ancient ones are reservoirs of rich life experiences. Take McGee, for example. Talk to him for awhile and you soon learn about the beloved Tuxedo Barber Shop he owned and operated for decades on the Near North Side.  While strictly against nursing home rules, McGee still plies his barber skills now and then by giving his roommate a trim and shave. He fussily lays out the tools of his trade on a tray. Clippers, tweezers, brushes, combs, creams, tonics, lotions. His small hands are surprisngly steady and his nimble fingers move with well=practiced precision. You learn too this avid sportsman was a crack shot and expert small game hunter. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 of 100 targets at trapshooting ranges. Even now, he maintains the lean body of an athlete. One of his fondest memories is going to New York City to see his idol, the great heavyweight black boxer Jack Johnson fight at Madison Square Garden.

“I sat there live and watched Jack Johnson knock a man’s natural teeth out of his mouth. I saw him do that, yeah,” he said.

 

Louis McDowell demonstrates how to sharpen a straight razor at his shop in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1994. Via the Library of Congress.

 

Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are bedridden or wheelchair-bound, he navigates the sprawling complex on his own two feet, albeit with the aid of a cane. And where most residents appear disshelved, his features always remain well-groomed and his dress nattily-attired. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to one of his barbering proteges. Last September McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at the social hall of Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Avenue. A crowd of friends and family, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds.

When he ponders what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barber shop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the North Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this survivor of Jim Crow and participant in the Great Migration.

One hundred years sure is a long time, someone suggested.

“It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen.

Escorted into the hall by his five daughters, his entrance sparked a rousing round of applause and cheers. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996. After two earlier marriages failed, McGee finally got it right with the former Laverne Lawson, who kept all the books at his shop. “They were quite a team,” said daughter Marcia Butler, an Omaha school teacher. As well-wishers offered congratulations or shared reminiscences, the party put in focus all that McGee once was and still is – a meticulous man of many roles and skills. While not as physically spry or mentally sharp as he would like, he remains a vibrant soul with a lifetime of stories to tell.

Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border in a period when the Ku Klux Klan still reigned, his family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. Kizzie, who lived nearby, maintained contact with the black side of the family. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the Delta. The runt of the litter, McGee, toughened himself working on the livestock-laden farm. It was there he learned two skills that he would build his life around – shooting and barbering.

His father taught him how to handle a gun at a young age. Even though it was too much weapon for him at the time, he often used a single-barrel 12-gauge shot gun as a boy. He recalls an incident when the gun nearly got the better of him. “I was about 10 or 12 years old. A hog got out after the chickens. My mother ran out hollering at the hog. I got the gun. I dragged it outside by the barrel. My mother said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I said, ‘I’m going to kill that hog.’ I broke it (the gun) down, I put the shells in and I closed it up. I raised it up but the stock was too long for me. I looked down the barrel with my eyes open and I pulled the trigger, and the hog went one way and the gun went the other way and I went to the ground. My mother laughed. But from then on I could go out with my gun hunting and kill everything I shot at.”

He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table with his deadeye marksmanship and cutting people’s hair for spare change with his dexterous mastery of scissors.

Just out of his teens he followed the path of many Southern blacks in what became the Great Migration to the North, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentful. During his wanderings he picked up spending money by cutting heads, including those of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road. Never one to back away from a challenge, he recalls how a large man in Falls City, Neb. teased him about his diminuitve size, whereupon McGee promptly threw him to the floor and pinned his shoulders down until the man begged for mercy.

He eventually made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s. Before the Great Depression hit the still new century was a fat time for most Americans, unless you happened to be black or Hispanic. “The hardest times I had was when I first got here. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a job.” Like many new arrivals to the area he finally found employment in the Omaha packing plants. “I went to work in a packing house cleaning hog innards. I didn’t like working there. I said to myself, What am I doing here? I should be in a barber shop. So, after two or three weeks there, I quit. I walked out and I never went back. I started cutting heads.”

That decision changed his life, as did his earning a state barber’s license in 1928. “When I got that license, that’s all I needed,” he said. He eventually opened his own place and it was at the Tuexedo Barber Shop in the historic Jewell Building on North 24th Street that he became his own man.

“The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them, and I worked on them, too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber, Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor. We sure did.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An abiding perfectionist. McGee has always been a sticler for doing things a certain way. His way. As a former barber under him said, “There may have been a better way, but his way stood.” For more than 50 years, McGee’s will prevailed. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. For one thing, no profanity was allowed in the shop. And no drinking or smoking on the job was tolerated. Obsessive about running a clean clip joint, McGee swept the floor incessantly and pressed his family into serve at night to wipe things down. “I didn’t let nothing get dirty,” he said. “I had it looking good.”

His fastidiousness no doubt led to him being appointed the state’s first black barber shop inspector, a post he held several years. Together with his longtime and equally bullheaded partner, the late James Bailey, the two made an indomitable pair.

Even into the 1970s the Tuxedo was strictly an old-school establishment – from the atmosphere to the discourse to the service. No fancy hair styles there. Just a neat, clean cut and a smooth, close shave. “If you didn’t see things the way Daddy and Mr. Bailey saw them, you might as well have gone to another shop. It was their way or no way, even down to the haircut,” said another daughter, Leanna Simmons. “If you said, ‘I’d like my hair this way,’ it was, ‘Nope,’ zip, zip, zip, okay, goodby. They cut it the way they wanted it cut.”

Leanna’s son and one of McGee’s many grandchildren, Anthony Lawrence Simmons, confirms that’s how it was. “Every grandchild would go down there to get their hair cut. Grandpa didn’t care what hair style you wanted. If it was the latest style out, you were not getting it. You only got what he wanted. He knew what was right. Yet his place was always busy, so everybody liked him. He gave a clean haircut. It may not have been what you wanted, but it looked good. He made sure you left his shop looking sharp.”

For proof of just how particular McGee and Bailey could be, the shop’s third chair sat vacant many years because the barbers they tried out turned out to be “loafers” in their eyes. Finally, an enterprising young clipper by the name of Clyde Deshazer measured up to their expectations and they took him on to stay. Except they couldn’t get used to his tongue-tripping name, so they nicknamed him Youngblood. The name stuck. Today, Youngblood’s Barber Shop is THE haircutting emporium in North O.

When McGee finally closed his own shop in the late ’70s, he went to cut at Youngblood’s, where he remained until 1988. It was a case of the master working under the former pupil. “He was set in his own ways,” Deshazer said,  “He still wanted to charge like $2.50 for a haircut but we were charging $4 by then. I said, ‘When I worked for you, I went by your prices, now that you’re working for me, you go by my prices. Things have just changed a little bit.’ After that, we didn’t have any more problems. We got along fine. Like father and son.”

The Tuxedo was among dozens of thriving black-owned businesses in North Omaha before the expansion of the Interstate system and the explosion of the riots in the late ’60s resulted in disruption and decline. In its heyday the Tuxedo drew an eclectic mix of customers. Businessmen. Blue-collar workers. Squares. Hipsters. Pool sharks frequented a popular billiards hall adjacent to it. Jazz and blues musicians played the Dreamland Ballroom above it. In classic barber shop tradition, the Tuxedo was a hangout for guys to talk guns and sports, politics and women. McGee’s favorite topic, of course, was shooting.

“If you started talking about trapshooting you might be in that chair an hour, ” Deshazer said. “He loved that.”

For Keith A. Ross, who shined shoes there during the tumultous civil rights era, the shop was an awakening and an education rolled into one. “Besides learning to shoot pool at the pool hall next door, the shop was where I first learned about the NAACP and the Urban League. It was a friendly shop where people gathered and had conversations about different issues affecting the North Omaha community. It was grownup talk.”

 

 

 

John Butler, former head of the local chapter of the NAACP, recalls, “We talked about a lot of issues there. As a matter of fact, Mr. McGee was instrumetnal in helping us and molding our ways,” he said, referring to early Omaha activists like himself.

Beneath the hard core exterior of the proprietor resided a soft heart.

“As ornery as he and Bailey were, they were good people,” Leeana said. “I remember Momma saying Daddy would sometimes accept in lieu of payment for a haircut a watch or a ring. It was kind of like a little pawnshop. Adds Marcia, “People would come in and get loans from him if they lost their job and they needed to pay their rent or something like that.”

Ross recalls McGee as a stern but benevolent figure. “The first job I ever had was shining shoes in his barber shop. He really treated me well. He was very protective and very caring. In order to get to the shop I had to walk through an area where the boys on the corner, so to speak, were dealing. Theirs was a flashy life, but it was ugly. I could have been on that track, too, but I always kept his form of discipline in mind. He said, ‘Always be on time or otherwise you suffer the consequences.’ I never found out what those consequences were because I was never late. I really didn’t want to let him down. I still don’t. It’s why I think I’ve got such a healthy work ethic now.”

According to Ross, his mentor was part of a different breed then. “Mr. McGee and owners of the other small businesses there gave you a real sense of the history of the development of the area. They would come out on the street and interact with us. It was a community feeling. I don’t see where we have that now. He probably developed in me my sense of peoplehood.”

Back in the day, North O was a community within a community where everybody looked out for everybody else and where, decades before the Million Man March, strong black men took a hand in steering young black males. McGee and Bailey were among a gallery of mentors along North 24th Street.

Richard Nared recalls, “Oh, we had a bunch of role models. John Butler, who ran the YMCA. Josh Gibson. Bob Gibson. Bob Boozer. Curtis Evans, who ran the Tuxedo Billiards. Hardy “Beans” Meeks, who ran the shoe shine parlor. Mr. McGee and Mr. Bailey who ran the Tuxedo Barber Shop. All of these guys had influence in my life. All of ‘em. And it wasn’t just about sports. It was about developing me. Mr. Meenks gave a lot of us guys jobs. In the morning, when I’d come around the corner to go to school, these gentlemen would holler out the door, ‘You better go up there and learn something today.’ or ‘When you get done with school, come see me.’

“Let me give you an example. Curtis Evans, who ran the pool hall, would tell me to come by after school. ‘So, I’d…come by, and he’d have a pair of shoes to go to the shoe shine parlor and some shirts to go to the laundry, and he’d give me two dollars. Mr. Bailey used to give me free haircuts…just to talk. ‘How ya doin’ in school? You got some money in your pocket?’ I didn’t realize what they were doing until I got older. They were keeping me out of trouble. Giving me some lunch money so I could go to school and make something of myself. It was about developing young men. They took the time.”

McGee’s son-in-law Larry Simmons (Leanna’s husband) values the life lessons his elder taught him. Simmons said McGee instilled in him and his friends a respect for rules, manners and traditions. “It was a high standard he made for all of us. You did not walk into his house with a hat on your head or your shirt outside your pants. He’s always been a fanatic about that kind of stuff. Even with his own dress today, his tie is neat, his shoes are shined, his belt is in its proper place. He has everything down to a tee. He taught us all of that.”

 

Louis Armstrong gets a haircut in his local barbershop in Queens, New York, circa 1965. Via "LIFE" Magazine.

 

The fussy McGee’s penchant for tidiness and exactness extended to other areas of his life. At home, for example, he operated a sewing machine to make and mend his own own shooting-hunting vests and related apparel items. Veteran trapshooter Dick Gradowski  of Blair, Neb. said McGee was a veritable fashion plate even at the range. “He was always neatly dressed. I don’t think I ever saw him in a pair of blue jeans. He was always very particular about his appearance. ” McGee was just as finicky about the shells he used – fashioning his own with a special machine. Hr built his own shooting gallery in his dirt basement. He carefully cleaned his large collection of Browning rifles and kept them safely locked in a case. Brought up to be self-sufficient, he harvested fruits and vegetables from country fields and his own backyard gardens for canning and freezing.

Choosy about what he ate, he avoided pork and salt and he whipped up elixder-like brews of honey, hot water and milk and blended fruit and vegetable concoctions. He bagged pheasants, quail, squirrel and all manner of small game on hunting outings and he hooked fish by the stringer-full at area lakes and rivers. He was, by all accounts, a good cook, too.

He won countless turkeys and hams, in addition to trophies, at area trapshootung tournaments. He also pocketed cold, hard cash from the many side bets he won from shooting companions. A member of an amateur trapshooting hall of fame. McGee’s love of the sport is such he turns most any conversation over to the many guns he owned, many of which are now classics, and to the many shooting exploits he compiled.

“Oh, man, I loved to shoot. I’d go out every Sunday. I don’t know how many turkeys and hams I won, but I had to rent a locker at Bickel’s Meats to store all that meat in a freezer there. I don’t know how much money I made, but I’d come home with a potful sometimes. Maybe $200-$300. My wife would say, ‘What’d you bring home?’ I’d say, ‘I brought a little change home.’ And she’d go, ‘Well, let me have it then.'”

 

Silhouette of a young man shooting with a long rifle against sunset sky

 

His reputation for dominating the field scared off some in shooting cirlces. Fewer and fewer challengers were willing to take him on.

“I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.

Butler, Deshazer and Gradowksi all saw him in action and attest to the fact his skill could discourage others. Butler said, “He had an eye. When he went hunting he used to wait for everybody else to shoot and if you missed your quail he would get it.”

DeShazer said, “Oh, yeah, he was a marksman. He once killed 17 quail out of 18 shots. Not too many people beat him. If you neat him, he was going to try to figure out a way a way to beat you,”

Gradowski added. “He was a very, very good shooter in his time. you had to watch out for him.”

At age 88 McGee finally had to give up his two loves – shooting and barbering – following a motor vehicle accident in which he suffered a severe head injury. He lapsed into a coma but regained consciousness a few days later. He made a full recovery except for the loss of some motor skills. Through a rehabilitation program that included weight training he got back most of his motor functions, although his shooting days were over. Shooting is never far from his thoughts, however.

“I miss everything about shooting,” he said.

He said he sometimes dreams of being back on the range. There he is again, locking, loading, sighting the soaring trap and firing. Naturally, he never misses.

“Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”

 

 

 

 
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