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  • Writer's pictureColin Phelan

RT: West Through Dwindled Prairie-lands; Herbert Hoover; Finding Wattles and Buffett in Omaha, NE

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Note: If interested in reading other writing from this specific road trip, please go to ‘Travel Writing’ tab and click any title that begins with ‘RT’ which stands for 'Road Trip.'

Day 3: Drive from Chicago to Omaha

This part of the trip truly exposed us to the mass production of corn in the United States. From where we’re from, the New York City metropolitan area, Iowa is perceived as the land of corn and any Iowa-related photos which circulate never cease to show this. For reference on just how much corn grows in Iowa (the state between Chicago and Omaha, for any geography aficionados out there), take note that before the advent of industrial agriculture, prairieland covered about 85% Iowa’s territory. With an area of about 35,000,000 acres, this means that Iowa had about 29,000,000 acres of prairie. Today, however, what had once been a vast expanse has dwindled to about 3,000,000 acres of prairie. The math explains the story of Iowa pretty well; as the corn came, so went the natural landscape of Iowa. While Iowa is the corn-hub of the American midwest, this story also holds true for Iowa’s neighboring states of Kansas and Nebraska (and probably other regions of the great plains, too, but we did not drive through and thus did not see or experience the landscapes of these other states, so for the purposes of this recap I’ll stick to what we know). Down went the prairie, up went the corn, and so came the droughts and the infamous dustbowl of the 1930s; since the cornfields were not as water-absorbent as the camel-like, durable prairies, when the natural weather phenomena called a drought raged through the midwest, any remaining moisture was quickly wicked up; the dust spread.

Photo: Northward looking view of corn-fields in Iowa

President Herbert Hoover, who is unfortunately remembered as the Depression Era president, grew up along interstate-80, before there was an I-80, though. Similar to many of the other presidential towns, West Branch Iowa experiences significant historical preservation; further, since Hoover grew up surrounded by prairies -- before industrial agriculture had conquered much of Midwest America -- the National Park Service endeavors to reinstitute a ‘natural’ tract of prairie land adjacent to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. How could the visitor make sense of Hoover’s already modest, two-room boyhood home without first situating his upbringing to the remote prairies of late 19th century midwestern America?

Photo: Entering Herbert Hoover's boyhood home and national historic site

Photo: Herbert Hoover's modest two room boyhood home

Photo: Where Herbert Hoover would relieve himself as a youth

Day 4: Omaha Nebraska

We had high expectations before arriving to Omaha. As the trip approached I spent a fairly disproportionate amount of time researching Omaha; primarily, this was because we were going to Omaha! Plain and simple! I never had any plans to travel to Omaha so now that I was, I was especially excited. I don’t know anyone from Nebraska nor do I know anyone who is from Omaha, so I was excited for the aura of unknown which awaited us.

We were also excited for Omaha because, as one web-link led to another, I discovered that one of my best friends’ great, great grandfathers mobilized Omaha’s Worlds Fair in 1893 (technically, this was not a World’s Fair, it was the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, but operated as a de facto Worlds Fair when considering money spent and tourists attracted). Although I’ve spoken with this friend about his family’s history, he has always told me that the guy who made his family some significant money, Gurdon Wattles, made much of it by bankrolling early Hollywood. I’ve looked him up in the past and affirmed this; but, as I researched Omaha’s history and began reading about this 1893 Trans-Mississippi Exposition – which lifted Omaha out of a severe economic depression and statured itself as an economic rival to Chicago (see Chicago RT essay for more) – it turned out that before Gurdon Wattles went off to Beverly Hills he was first an Omaha businessman.

In addition to what we would call this “Wattles Tour” which included the Wattles Mansion that resides in the ‘Gold Coast’ region of the city, we had a walking tour planned, and hoped to catch some other cool historic sites.

Although we had these high hopes for Omaha, though, I felt relatively disappointed when, on our morning bike-ride, we seemed to have exhausted all that the city had to offer. We woke up early on our one day there and biked eastward – more like coasting eastward, since the whole city slopes downward to the Mississippi. Quickly, we checked off all the sites: Old Market, Lewis and Clark Landing, and the famous Kerry pedestrian bridge which links Iowa and Nebraska. The city was empty; of course, part of this we attributed to COVID, but COVID aside, the city seemed to have no pulse. Did anyone even live in Omaha? Why did we even come to Omaha?

Photo: Of Kerry pedestrian foot bridge connecting Iowa and Nebraska

Photo: Lewis and Clark Landing sculpture commemorating the American Worker, which is fitting as the footbridge lies in the background

Photo: Newly renovated Lewis and Clark landing. The Lewis and Clark museum lies in the far left background

Photo: Old Market

Photo: Old Market

Any doubts about Omaha quickly diminished as the day progressed. We returned home from our hour long ride and, after rinsing, we drove downtown to the Old Market where we were set to meet Bill, our tour guide. Immediately, it was evident that Bill was enthusiastic about his city, both its history and its present. An Omaha public school history teacher, Bill began his monologue by discussing Omaha’s reputation as a city built on vice. He described how in the 19th century as thousands of people headed up and down the Missouri river, or westward towards the coast or the gold-mining towns, they often stopped in Omaha to blow off some steam or blow away some of their cash: prostitution, gambling, murder, and organized crime became mainstays in this city. Omaha was on the map and was developing a fairly sleazy reputation. By way of more traditional business, too, Omaha faired well. Leather production was common, especially leather bags and boots. Much of what boosted the city’s official economy, though, were its stockyards, which lie just outside the city. In the 19th century, these stockyards were second-to-none, even considered more lucrative than those just to the east staked in Chicago.

Our tour with Bill focused on the Old Market itself, and on Omaha history more generally. Historically, the Old Market was exactly as it sounds, a market in which residents and travelers bought and sold products. For the most part, fresh produce was sold in this area, and as Bill explained, that’s why precarious awnings cover much of the sidewalk space; fruits and vegetables need shade. Now, the Old Market is bustling with shops and restaurants, all the while retaining that late 19th century architectural feel anchored by brick and steel.

Since there was another family on our tour, I waited to ask specific questions about Gurdon Wattles and the World’s Fair until after the formal tour had concluded. This took quite a while, though, since the formal tour lasted an extra 45-minutes or so after what had been scheduled. We didn’t mind, no, not at all; this is how things work in the heart of the midwest. Bill was a kind soul and he even told us, “I’ll end the tour whenever you want to end the tour,” as he enthusiastically shared and promoted his hometown.

When the tour concluded, though, I did ask him a question about Wattles. “So,” I said, “As you’ve explained, much of the leading Omaha businesspeople were connected with the mob in some form or another.” Citing the slide-show pamphlet which he had distributed at the beginning of the tour, I asked, “Do you think that Gurdon Wattles, the man who spearheaded the World’s Fair in Omaha, was in any way involved with organized crime?” Maybe I was prying a little bit too much, not at Bill, but at my friend’s descendant. Bill laughed. I added that Wattles was a distant relative of my best friend and Bill’s eyes lit up. He understood why I was so curious about this guy. “Well, Wattles probably didn’t negotiate with the gangsters directly, but he definitely had some connections through a third party,” Bill said. “Everyone who was wealthy did;” apparently accumulating a fortune in 19th century Omaha doesn't differ too much from the present day, with the ever-mixing web of wealth complicit in some way or another to crime, even if the law doesn't stipulate as such. In Omaha, Wattles made a name for himself; he is even said to have rode in a carriage around the site of his World’s Fair with President McKinley and prestigious midwestern politician William Jennings Bryan. According to both Bill and my research on Wattles, after the 1893 World’s Fair put Omaha somewhat back on the map, Wattles only conducted a bit more business before heading off to Hollywood where he would go on to make his financial fortune. Said otherwise, after Gurdon Wattles built Omaha’s street cars, a mansion, and led the World’s Fair which attracted about two million visitors over a few-month-span, he left the wild west that was Omaha and travelled further west into the unknown.

When the tour concluded, we made a point to check out a few more places which Bill had suggested: Hollywood Candy, and Ted and Wally’s ice cream, which is apparently Warren Buffet’s favorite ice cream shop. And, catering to our curiosity to see the extremely rich (understatement) investor's home, Bill gave us directions to Warren Buffet’s modest, 600K home in western Omaha.

Photo: Interior of Old Market. These cool, brick cellars were used as refrigeration sites in the 19th century. Now these cellars are restaurants and shops.

Photo: Bookstore / archive where I did a bit more digging about Wattles

Photo: Excerpt from a book about famous Omahans, with a page about Wattles

But before snooping around Buffet’s block, we planned to check out this Hollywood Candy place. From the outside, it looks like any of the other buildings in the downtown Old Market neighborhood of Omaha: brick building with the big-lettered, nostalgic name of the 19th century tenant slowly fading from the façade. But, as goes the mind of a youth, we noticed an old looking book store and stepped ourselves inside, completely forgetting our intended destination. There we spent about two hours, having quickly discovered that the store was more of an archive than it was a book store. And fresh off the shock that much of my best-friend’s great-great grandfather's tangential associations with the Omaha mob, I began digging a bit more, trying to find out more information about this Wattles. Despite a few photos and resident records which no more than listed Wattles’ name, this was to little success, and I ended up leaving the store with Mark Twain’s Innocent’s Abroad, a book which would be an especially timely read later in our trip, a bit further south on the banks of the Mississippi River in Twain’s home state of Missouri.

Next, we made it to Hollywood Candy. Man, oh man. What a place! Although we only spent an hour in there, we could have easily spent all day. Growing up, one of my family’s favorite traditions is to get our what we call, with a slight Victorian accents, our ‘provisions’ on Christmas Eve, for our family’s perennial holiday bash. On our list of stops are, in this order: Arthur Avenue for bread, McNulty’s Coffee in the West Village, some Ukrainian Kielbasa store which I don’t know the name of – and also which may not even have a name -- and lastly, Economy Candy. I’ve always perceived Economy Candy to be the coolest candy store around, with its unique, overwhelming blend of antiques and, well, candy; every visit shocks the senses, with colors and flavors and history and nooks and crannies. But Hollywood Candy blows that place right out of the water. Yes, a candy shop, and yes, an antique shop; but so large in scale and content you may as well call it a museum. Bound by the aging brick walls includes every type of candy and soda-pop you could ever imagine, including a strange pickle-soda rendition that I was tempted to buy but ultimately deemed a bit too excessive; in retrospect, I should have just tried the damn thing. Add on a record store, antique furniture shop, massive arcade, 50s movie theater, and a come-out-of-nowhere full-blown diner and you have Hollywood Candy. I bet Buffet likes this place, too, and the little rubber-duck exhibit devoted to his person.

Photo: The exterior of Hollywood Candy, located on the periphery of Old Market

Photo: Homage to the most famous Omaha native, Warren Buffett commemorated through ducks

Photo: Full-fledged diner which sneaks up on you inside of Hollywood Candy

Photo: Sensory overload and candies galore

Photo: Functional movie theater in the back of the store

The rest of the day entailed a visit to the Wattles Mansion, Buffet’s Home, to First National's Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park, and then capped our day off with a scoop of ice cream from Ted and Wally’s, Buffet’s favorite ice-cream store (apparently just the day before we ate there Buffet and Bill Gates were spotted eating ice cream outside the modest shop). The Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park, in particular, is quite a sight to see: life-size sculptures of American pioneers traversing through the American west. There is no better place for such a sculpture garden; after all, Omaha is, according to the state slogan, “where the west begins.” The next day, we’d continue this journey just that way.

Photo: Wattles Mansion

Photo: Warren Buffett's home in a modest Omaha neighborhood

Photo: For scale of the Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park

Photo: Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park

Note: If interested in reading other writing from this specific road trip, please go to ‘Travel Writing’ tab and click any title that begins with ‘RT’which stands for 'Road Trip.'

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