Living in the Midwest, my family—my wife, Susie, daughter, Shelly, and son, Dan—and I have traveled extensively throughout the area. We love hopping into the family minivan and venturing into new—and sometimes familiar—locales, discovering new sites and learning about our great country.
Last weekend we decided to visit Omaha, a favorite destination of ours that we’ve been to several times. Amazingly, in all our visits, we had never really experienced or gotten to know its unique history. To broaden our horizons and do something new, Omaha’s past became our vacation present.
This trip was all the kids had been talking about for days. In fact, they were so excited the night before we left, they planned out our entire trip. Dan, a budding historian, wanted to see some of the transportation landmarks—the Durham Museum (a former train station) in particular—that have defined Omaha as a Midwestern gateway. Shelly is equally interested in history, and brought up some quirky fun facts like that the TV dinner and Reuben sandwich were both invented in Omaha.
We began our Omaha history lesson almost as soon as we arrived in town. Shelly reminded us that the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge connects more than 150 miles of scenic trails. We drove up the 10th Street Bridge for a stop at the Durham Museum, a tremendous example of Art Deco architecture that harkens back to the days when it was known as Omaha’s Union Station. The tall, hallowed main hall is replete with beautiful terrazzo floors and benches from the days of waiting for the next train arrival or departure. Walking in, past the former ticket window that now welcomes visitors to the museum gift shop, I could hear the voices of the past telling stories and whispering secrets near each statue. Dan sat next to a bronze figure of a passenger, mimicking him as if he too was waiting for the next train.
“Look at these beautiful marble walls and tall ceilings, guys!” pointed Susie. “And these chandeliers hanging are gorgeous, too.” We later found out those beautiful chandeliers are actually 13 feet tall and five feet in diameter, making their shimmering suspension even more impressive.
Within the museum, we viewed exhibits on early settlers and the famed railroad, particularly the O scale model train layout—a delight for young and old, including the depot representing Union Pacific’s double-track mail line. Dan was especially excited to stroll through antique train cars. We both stood in front of President Truman’s famous press car where he gave his famous “Whistlestop” campaign speeches, pretending to be Truman himself.
Meanwhile, the girls found their way over to the Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and papers. Shelly was in awe—mouth literally hanging open—when she saw the Roman Imperial coins, as well as coins from Ancient Greece and Egypt.
Before we left, we had ice cream sodas at the museum’s old-fashioned soda fountain. As he drank his strawberry soda with ice cream, Dan told me with a big, bright red-tinted, ear-to-ear smile that he had a fantastic time learning about history in person.
Before we made the trip back home, we took a drive out west to visit Boys Town, the internationally famous home that was founded as a haven for orphaned and homeless boys. Originally started in downtown Omaha in 1917, Boys Town moved to its current location a few years later, evolving into a self-sustaining village and then town (it has its own police department, town hall and mayor).
Because of its layout, we didn’t even need to leave the car to tour most of the scenic campus created by Father Flanagan, a Catholic priest who saw the need to provide care and shelter to boys in the community. We were greeted at the main entrance by a statue of a young boy riding the back of an older boy—the famous “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” statue—and during our drive, we paused to look at the unique homes where the young men and women live today. We also saw the tranquil Garden of the Bible and Father Flanagan’s house (now a museum).
Before leaving the sprawling campus, we got out of the car and went inside the Hall of History. What we found were multiple items that make Boys Town unique, including Spencer Tracy’s Academy Award for the movie Boys Town. We then walked over to the Visitors Center to see the world’s largest ball of stamps. The sphere is 32 inches in diameter, weighs 600 pounds and contains a reported 4,655,000 canceled stamps. It was stuck together, layer upon layer, by the sticky tongues and fingers of the Boys Town Stamp Collecting Club starting in 1953.
Heading back east, Susie and the kids adamantly requested visiting a few other historic locales, including the Morman Trail Center, the birthplace of President Gerald R. Ford, and Fort Crook House.
Arriving at the Mormon Trail Center, we learned about the struggles and triumphs of Mormon pioneers during their winter migration of 1846. Inside the trail center, Dan and Shelly wandered throughout the numerous displays of historic artifacts and memorabilia from the era, commenting on the size of the small log cabin and what life must have been like during the harsh winter as the Mormons made their way west. Neither could imagine not having today’s technology to rely upon—they’d both miss video games and their iPods and iPads.
Heading south, we made a quick stop at the General Crook House, built in 1879 for General George Crook. Dan and Shelly both commented about the fact that General Crook entertained President Rutherford B. Hayes and General Ulysses S. Grant while living in the mansion. How cool to have a former president standing in the same room where we were!
Our final stop before heading home was the Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens on Woolworth Avenue. Even though he only lived there for a couple of weeks before moving to Michigan, the city created beautiful memorial gardens where Ford’s paternal grandparents lived. There’s even a portico onsite that evokes the north side of the White House. The memorial was dedicated in 1977, and the former president returned in 1980 for the dedication of a rose garden in honor of his wife, Betty Ford.
At the conclusion of our day, we made a gas and snack stop and everyone climbed back into the car for the ride home. Susie and I were both grateful that we took the time to explore Omaha’s history. It was fun, we all learned something and together we created new memories for our family.
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