Omaha, Nebraska

I’m currently driving across the country from Chicago to San Francisco, and, instead of pushing myself to drive straight through decided to make a road trip out of it with several stops. My first leg was from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska – helping me check off my 47th state! Of course, I had a whole lot of Iowa to get through first, and made great time, stopping only for lunch in Des Moines at a trendy, artsy spot called the St. Kilda Collective. I appreciated that Iowa does have a variety of “themed” rest stops, and stopped at one that had a whole wind turbine blade out front, donated by Siemens! You don’t realize how huge they are until you’re standing right next to one and feel comically small.

My first evening in Omaha, I was exhausted from the drive, so I opted for dinner at the hotel bar. I got the golden beet hummus, which ended up being pretty awful. It promised to have raw and pickled veggies on top, but ultimately the “raw” veg was literally just a couple thin shreds of carrot and the “pickled” veg was dehydrated shredded carrot and radishes. The golden color also confused me – instead of tasting like actual, golden beets, it tasted strongly of store bought hummus and raw turmeric (which I assume was intended to color it yellow). Either way, it was bad enough that I opted to go to the steakhouse next door, where I figured Nebraska would shine (and it did!). I had a great prime filet mignon and a huge baked potato with lots of bacon and sour cream, and it really hit the spot.

My second day, I woke up significantly refreshed and had a very full day of sight-seeing within Omaha. I knew I wanted to visit the Jocelyn Castle, which only offered tours at 10:30am on Mondays, so I killed a bit of time by driving around the Gifford Park and Bemis Park neighborhoods of Omaha (north of where my hotel was located in the trendy Blackstone district). Both neighborhoods were a bit run down, although the old homes were probably gorgeous in their heyday. The architecture truly was incredible, despite the age and disrepair – a lot of Colonial Revival, Victorian, and Craftsman style homes with grand balconies (and, in many cases, inflatable pools and lawn equipment in various states of clutter out front).

I did see a couple notable items – first, an Oregon Trail marker (that happens to just be in someone’s front lawn). I wasn’t sure they’d be happy to see me snooping, but figured I’d check it out anyway!

Next, I saw the Smythe Home, which is located across from what appears to be a gorgeous prep school atop a hill.

Still having some time to kill, I attempted to find a coffee shop nearby (getting lost in the maze of Omaha’s roads – some are one way, some are bisected such that one direction is on a hill and the other is below and you need to navigate an underpass to enter / exit the way you would a highway). I did end up finding a cute little coffee shop, where it took approximately an hour to be served my iced coffee and avocado toast. That being said, I had the time and was excited to see a bright spot amongst the abandoned gas stations and burned out buildings, so I savored the good vibes and upbeat playlist.

The Jocelyn Mansion was worth the wait. Our guide, Bobbett (what a name!) was so enthusiastic and peppered the history with stories of her own childhood and her family’s life in Nebraska, which really brought everything to life. Apparently, the Jocelyns were incredibly generous with their time and property, using it to host a whole variety of events for orphans, veterans from WWI and later, the greater Omaha population (still today they keep the grounds open so that artists can use it as a backdrop for painting and community members can walk their dogs and otherwise enjoy the property).

The home has a fascinating history, first constructed in a Scottish style and with a variety of Scottish themes for the Jocelyn family; when the family passed, there wasn’t a trust in place, so the property was used by Omaha public schools for ~40 years until it was passed to the restoration society. The decor is fascinating and I learned a lot. One interesting thing was that when electricity first came to Omaha in the late 1880s / early 1890s, everyone was highly suspect – and, as a result, they elected to include gas “backups” in the home in case the new fangled technology was a bust. As a wealthy family, they included a lot of upgrades, including indoor plumbing (including for servants’ quarters, making it a highly desired place to work) and a sauna in the master bathroom, as well as a built in water dish for pets on the first floor. They also collected orchids and had some amazing windows designed for the orchid collection, allowing them to melt ice to cool the orchids in the summer, which then was collected in a basin for easy access by the staff who would use the runoff to water other plants.

In the photo below, you can see a couple of the motifs that were carried through the house (in addition to the thistle decor and roses in the stained glass; most rooms also had crown moulding as seen at the top below). The first is the “egg and dart” decor, which was present in nearly all of the rooms, regardless of the wood used (each room had a different, imported wood – including some rare woods such as a Russian walnut that was bombed in WW2 and now can no longer be grown in amounts needed for export; they were also meticulous with matching, so if one room had a different type of wood than the hallway, the exterior door facing the hallway would match the wood in the hall and the interior of the door would match the room for continuity). Similar to imported wood, they imported a variety of colors of marble from around the world, including red Nubian marble from Egypt and white marble from Italy. The second motif, below the egg and dart in this photo, was the “dental” motif, which looks like block teeth. This room included hand-painted wallpaper, which was also common throughout the home. Lastly, the rooms also included a “photo moulding” which was necessary as the walls were typically made from a mixture of plaster and horsehair that would crumble if nailed into. Clips would then be used to hang wires for photographs.

The decor was equally as impressive as the architecture, as exampled by the dining room.

After the Castle, I headed to the “old market” neighborhood of Omaha, which is in the “true” downtown area (about a 10 minute drive east towards the Iowa border). It apparently used to be a true “market” but now is host to a variety of shops, restaurants, and refurbished old buildings. On the advice of a friend whose spent considerable time here, I had lunch at Blue Sushi (despite my qualms about fresh fish in Omaha). I was pleasantly surprised – they have a partnership with the Monterey aquarium to support conservation and everything I tried was fresh and great. Next, I started my tour of downtown Omaha sites.

First, I tried to do a walking tour of the Old Market itself, but in the “feels like 108” degree heat, that was a sweat-inducing failure for the five minutes it lasted. Instead, I drove down towards the riverfront, where I snuck onto the Conagra campus to take a photo with the Chef Boyardee statue.

Then, I circled back around to visit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail visitor center, which is right along the riverfront. The visitor’s center provides a great view of the famous pedestrian bridge linking Omaha to Council Bluffs, IA as well.

The Lewis and Clark center wasn’t super exciting, but it did have a nice display of weaponry, furs, Sioux artwork, and a couple interesting tidbits – for example, apparently the expedition thought they might encounter wooly mammoths based on local lore!

After that, I headed back into downtown and was sidetracked by a very festive, bright yellow Union Pacific railway display trail running along the main drag. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get close enough without a pass, but it looked like UP is hosting an event for the college world series baseball event happening in town this week and has designated a whole train to host people for parties. Looked like fun! Pulling over to look at it through a fence, I realized I had secretly stumbled upon Omaha’s upcoming arts district, so I enjoyed some of the murals and window-shopping before continuing on.

Up next was the Durham Museum, which truly impressed me. A Smithsonian affiliate, the Durham is based in the old Union station. The property itself is a marvel, with incredible art deco architecture and three floors of exhibits.

The museum really includes a wealth of information about Omaha and the surrounding area, including history of the indigenous communities, pioneers, Mormon settlers, and, of course, the railroads! Interesting tidbits included: a) Swanson TV dinners originated in Omaha and even the trays were actually initially supposed to look like TVs; b) horses were not preferred for the trails (it turns out there were at least 5 famous trails, not just the Oregon trail) as they are picky eaters and do not like prairie grass; c) washing machines were a BIG deal out here – no fewer than three exhibits mentioned or featured washing machines, both exalting and bemoaning that the transition from washboard to “press” washing (you’d still scrub but could press water out to speed rinsing / drying) and then later to a real “mechanized” washer made housekeeping equally more efficient and more time consuming (as now you would be responsible for cleaning even more, since it was so ‘easy’). My favorite anecdote accompanied a donated ’39 Sears washer, gifted by a woman whose husband had promised to wash their new baby’s diapers by hand and, after one day, went straight to the store for the machine!

One of my favorite things was the model train set that ran the entirety of the bottom floor of the museum – probably at least 400 feet worth of model trains!

My second favorite item was the collection of 1940s-1950s trains they have on display. As you walk through, you can see the progression from elegance to utility, although I do have to say that all of these are more appealing than today’s Amtrak offerings.

After that, I headed back to the main area to grab a snack and ended up at their ’60s era “soda fountain”. They offered a variety of period drinks, so I opted to try a couple I’d heard of but never had the option of trying.

I ended up with the egg cream (essentially a carbonated chocolate milk, delicious!) and the Green River “phosphate”. Apparently, phosphates were a popular drink in the 1870s, and essentially a precursor to the modern soda, made with acid phosphate instead of modern carbonization techniques. I can see why we’ve moved on to modern drinks, but if I lived in a world without corn syrup and high fructose everything, I can see why it’d be highly delicious!

Then, I was on to my penultimate stop: the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters, a short drive north to Florence, NE.

Upon arrival, I was a bit surprised – from the history museum, I knew the Mormon Trail was obviously affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints, but I didn’t expect to walk into the center and to immediately be assigned a “missionary” to be my private guide through the museum. To be honest, I was a bit worried it would turn into an evangelical discussion, but she was super friendly and respectful of my goal to learn as a tourist.

I also learned a good deal of history here. Long story short, Joseph Smith, the original Mormon prophet, felt compelled to move his flock from Nauvoo, IL to “Zion” (at that point, a yet-to-be-determined location west of the Rocky Mountains) due to significant religious persecution and violence. Unfortunately, he was martyred before he could lead them, but passed that duty to his compatriot, Brigham Young. Some ~12,000 “Saints” (the term the guide used throughout, so I suspect that’s how they prefer to be called) set out from IL in February, braving horrible weather and an early spring in Iowa (so, essentially, several months of blizzards followed by months of mud), ultimately spending 16 weeks to get across Iowa to the modern day Nebraska border. After some fancy negotiating with the US government, they offered 500 soldiers to the US government in exchange for the ability to settle on Indian lands for two years – aka the “winter quarters” right next to modern-day Omaha across the river in Iowa.

Those soldiers walked some ~2000 miles to San Diego – but, as Brigham Young promised, never saw battle. In the meantime, the flock remained just east of modern day Nebraska in contested land; much of their time was spent fortifying their (very, very) limited provisions and using ferries to shuttle their covered wagons across the river to “US” land (aka, land where they were free to stay indefinitely, since it wasn’t indigenous land).

Ultimately, they settled semi-permanently in that new Nebraska settlement, where they began to display what can only be described as incredible ingenuity and business sense. As so many settlers were coming through on the Oregon Trail and other trails, they offered themselves as a permanent fortifications post – i.e., why lug all your stuff on a covered wagon from wherever you were before Nebraska, when you could buy it here and only carry it the remaining ~1700 miles? Apparently a good number of them also used “hand wagons” (i.e., hand-pulled wagons with smaller capacity but faster speed than covered wagons) – and some of those folks ended up making a job of going back and forth between what would later be Salt Lake or California with the hand wagons with subsequent waves of travelers!

Further innovation came as Brigham Young received revelation about “Zion” – aka, Salt Lake. Once a permanent home for the community was determined, almost all of those ~12k settlers (those who were left; there is a huge cemetery here which includes hundreds of folks who didn’t make it through the absolutely brutal winter, including many, many children under 5) packed up and continued their migration. My impression (both from the cemetery discussion, where it became apparent that they are using ground-penetrating radar and historical, genealogical records to identify every individual buried here and from the missionary’s continued described of “our records” in reference to the information underlying the exhibits) is that the Saints were an invaluable resource to all pioneers. They invented a way of not only tracking how many revolutions of a wagon wheel were in a mile, but later turned that innovation into a prototype for the modern odometer – even solving for the fact that the wood gears used to measure distance would expand in humid conditions!

Of course, transportation innovations in the late 1800s sped things up – some Saints were coming from the UK via sail ships, which was a horrible, weeks-long journey; the steamship solved that problem by reducing travel to a couple weeks and allowing consistent access to the deck. The train, once the Trans-Pacific railroad was completed, allowed the journey to be done in three days (although, from records referenced, it sounds like those three days were sitting upright, and with literally no personal belongings!).

Obviously, the Saints made it to Salt Lake, where they spent the next ~40 years building their beautiful Temple, which is apparently a sight to behold (the missionary was from Salt Lake and literally had tears in her eyes describing how beautiful it was as the culmination of this journey). Overall, a fascinating and really well done museum that I would absolutely recommend!

From there, I headed back into downtown Omaha to grab a drink at a tiki bar that came highly recommended by a friend, followed by the return to my hotel to write this and grab dinner before I head on to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota tomorrow.

I was skeptical about Omaha, but this has really been a great day and I’m so glad I ventured here and stopped for the extra day!

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