Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Summer 2013 issue.
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A Church for the People and a Priest for the Common Man: Charles. W. Savidge, Omaha’s Eccentric Reformer (1882-1935) - Paul Putz
The hum and bustle of reform seemed to be everywhere in Omaha in July of 1892. Economic instability and uncertainty hovered, foreshadowing the impending Panic of 1893. Midwesterners took aim at the perceived causes of their pecuniary distress with a gathering in Nebraska’s Gate City. Frustration with the inequalities produced by the Gilded Age had been combined in the 1880s with a number of agricultural grievances to produce a conglomeration of Western and rural reformers eventually known as the Populist movement. In the summer of 1892, the movement came of age as the Populists gathered in Omaha to give their movement a formal political platform and to select a candidate for their party. The new People’s Party approved the Omaha Platform on July 4, which included such demands as the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, and direct election of senators.
The winds of reform remained even after the Populists left town. A mere ten days later, another group of citizens claiming to represent the common people gathered in Omaha. Believing that the current establishment did not meet the needs of the masses, they formulated a mission statement and instituted a set of rules for their new movement. There was little doubt as to the eventual name of the organization. It would be named after the source of its energy and the reason for its existence, the people. On July 14, 1892, the First People’s Church of Omaha was formally incorporated. Although the new church and the new political party shared a common impulse for reform and claimed to speak for common folk, they had divergent ideas about how to best represent the people.
To Charles W. Savidge, the founder and leader of the First People’s Church of Omaha, the 1892 incorporation of his congregation inaugurated a new epoch in the religious life of the Midwest. Savidge spent over half a century in Omaha, most of it (from 1892 until his death in 1935) at the helm of the People’s Church. Upon his death, the Omaha World-Herald described Savidge as an “Omaha institution” whose “frock coat, black hat, stiff collar and black tie were a familiar sight in downtown Omaha.” His unique physical features combined with “his courtly manners, his vast store of homespun humor . . . and his frank utterances” to make him “a distinctive figure.” Yet despite his distinctiveness and reputation in Omaha and beyond as an eccentric preacher and reformer, very little about Savidge has been passed down in the narrative histories of Omaha or in the scholarly analysis of the radical holiness movement with which Savidge had at least a loose affiliation. It is within those two contexts—Omaha and the holiness movement—that Savidge’s importance and place in history can best be analyzed and assessed. The nineteenth century nationwide holiness movement—a collection of loosely affiliated, fervent evangelical Protestants who emphasized the importance of powerful post-conversion spiritual experiences that would enable believers to live a pure and holy life—informed the spiritual vocabulary and provided the impetus for Savidge to understand both his own personal religious experiences and his perceived duty to lead the way in helping others eliminate sin and establish holiness. The city of Omaha, meanwhile, provided the arena in which Savidge could carry out his duty. As he told a newspaper reporter in 1899, “the city is my parish.”
Even if his accomplishments hardly match his aspirations, there is historical insight to be gained from analyzing his aspirations in the first place and his attempts to make them a reality. On the one hand, they are a reflection of what Jackson Lears called a nationwide “yearning for regeneration” characteristic of the American cultural milieu in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. On the other hand, they are born out of Savidge’s unique experiences. Bringing Savidge’s career to light adds to recent historiography related to the evangelical reform impulse so prevalent in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, an impulse which recent historians have shown cannot be neatly divided into the “liberal/modernist” and “fundamentalist/reactionary” camps that became prominent in the 1920s. Although one of the few historians to investigate Savidge described him as a fundamentalist, Savidge does not exactly fit that label. The early fundamentalists were a collection of conservative evangelical Protestants who gained a national identity in the 1920s. They were militantly opposed to modernism and placed a very high value on having, in historian George Marsden’s words, “a strong concern for the exact meaning of the printed word.” Savidge, although he shared the fundamentalist desire to repel creeping liberalism, tended to be rather loose in his theological precision.
For example, Savidge claimed that “a living Christian is better than an acute theologian,” and he utilized a vast array of ideological influences in his sermons. Also, unlike the later fundamentalists of the 1920s, Savidge incorporated social welfare as an integral part of his ministry. Far from being a reactionary and separatist zealot, he proved to be a thoroughly modern innovator, a religious entrepreneur whose product was an idealized version of the old-time Methodism of America’s recent past applied in practical ways to the problems created by the emerging industrialized city of Omaha.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2013 issue.
“Definitely Representative of Nebraska”: Jeanine Giller, Miss Nebraska 1972, and the Politics of Beauty Pageants - David C. Turpie and Shannon M. Risk
In 1982, the Lincoln Journal published an article entitled, “Miss Nebraskas rate pageant experience: Great!” For the article, the reporter, Charles Flowerday, had interviewed seven of the previous ten winners of the Miss Nebraska pageant. As the title makes clear, the article put a positive spin on the state beauty pageant. The former Cornhusker State queens made a point of mentioning the importance of the scholarship money that was awarded to winning contestants at both the state and national pageants. In a telling remark about the expanding public roles for women, Flowerday wrote, “All the former Miss Nebraskas who were interviewed have attended college. Some have opted for a family while still working part-time and others have developed their careers.” One of the former queens interviewed was Jeanine Giller, Miss Nebraska 1972.
As Flowerday noted in his article, Giller had graduated from college, later received a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan University, and, at the time, was teaching courses at Mitchell Community College in Statesville, North Carolina. Like many of the other former queens, Giller became an accomplished woman. The case of Jeanine Giller, Miss Nebraska 1972, and her participation in the Miss Nebraska and Miss America pageants in the summer and early fall of 1972, illuminates the continuing controversy over pageants and their attempt to portray the ideal American woman. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists began protesting beauty pageants for being exploitative of women—there were few, if any, male beauty pageants, they correctly pointed out. Beauty pageants seemed a cogent example of the ills of a patriarchal system because they celebrated the power of a woman’s beauty. But when that beauty faded, the power was revealed as hollow. Yet, thousands of women continued to enter the pageants and claim that they did not feel exploited. Jeanine made the case for beauty pageants in numerous interviews before, during, and after competing in the Miss Nebraska pageant in June 1972.
Beauty pageants have received scant attention from scholars. As historians Elwood Watson and Darcy Martin point out, most scholars probably view pageants as trivial events, while most feminist scholars undoubtedly “would dismiss writing about an institution that so clearly oppresses and commodifies women as a waste of time.” Most works on the Miss America Pageant take broad, sweeping views of the contest. Scholars, in fact, have probably paid as much attention, if not more, to the feminist protests and critiques of pageants as they have on views and experiences of pageant contestants. The experiences of one contestant allow for a more intensive study of the political dynamics of pageants during a time of rapid changes for women in America. Despite the feminist protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the show went on. Feminist groups correctly pointed to the negative aspects of beauty contests; yet that tells only part of the story. Jeanine’s experience as Miss Nebraska 1972 points to the good and bad qualities of the modern Miss America Pageant and its state affiliate pageants, and demonstrates that the pageant experience had the potential to empower women, even as it could also objectify them.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2013 issue.
“A Celestial Visitor” Revisited: A Nebraska Newspaper Hoax From 1884 - Patricia C. Gaster
One of the oddest events in Nebraska’s history was said to have taken place about thirty-five miles northwest of Benkelman on June 6, 1884, when a “blazing aerolite” crashed almost within view of a group of Dundy County cowboys, who found metal machinery scattered over the prairie in the wake of the mysterious object. Intense heat at the crash site prevented them from investigating much further. The Daily Nebraska State Journal’s reports of the singular event (and of the following disappearance of crash debris) have been the source of much interest and controversy ever since.
The June 8 report in the State Journal is as riveting today as it was in 1884. Headlines announced: “A Celestial Visitor. A Startling and Curious Story from the Ranges of Dundy County. A Blazing Aerolite Falls to the Asounded Earth. It is Evidently a Machine of Human Manufacture.” On June 6 rancher John Ellis and several of his cowboys were said to have witnessed the impact of “a blazing meteor of immense size,” leaving “fragments of cog-wheels and other pieces of machinery lying on the ground,” with heat so intense they could not approach the crash site. After returning the next day they discovered the remains of an object “about fifty or sixty feet long, cylindrical, and about ten or twelve feet in diameter.”
The article was filled with names and details. A cowboy named Alf Williamson had supposedly had his face blistered and his hair singed by the heat. Williamson was taken to Ellis’s house to recuperate, and a telegram sent to Williamson’s brother in Denver. Brand inspector E. W. Rawlins, “from whom full verification of particulars is obtained,” and others were said to have visited the crash site on June 7. Ellis supposedly intended to file claim to the land on which the remains of the mystery object then rested. The Journal’s “Topics of the Times” column speculated that the “air vessel” might be from another planet “[u]nless the alleged facts are greatly magnified or distorted.” The details “are given with a fullness and particularity that almost command belief” and reflected “the intelligence of the writer, who is a man that generally knows what he is talking about.”
This strange story was succeeded on June 10 by one still more bizarre in which the Journal announced that the aerolite had completely dissolved in a rainstorm: “The Magical Meteor. It Dissolves Like a Drop of Dew Before the Morning Sun. The Most Mysterious Element of the Strange Pheomenon.” The remnants of the mystery vessel had supposedly melted with the rain into “small jelly-like pools,” which soon disappeared. The article said ingenuously, “The whole affair is bewildering to the highest degree, and will no doubt forever be a mystery.”
The discerning might have noted that the June 10 report seemed suspiciously eager to discourage prospective visitors to the crash site by assuring them that all trace of the strange vessel had disappeared. The Journal on June 11 tried to dismiss the subject in “Topics of the Times” by turning it into a political joke, speculating that the celestial visitor had actually been a Democratic presidential candidate because of its disappearance upon contact with water. The Democrats, opposed to prohibition and its promotion of water as a beverage, in the presidential election year of 1884 held their national convention in July, selecting Grover Cleveland as their nominee from among a number of competing candidates whose campaign speeches had filled the columns of American newspapers in June.
Predating by a dozen years the wave of airship sightings across America in 1896 and 1897, this odd tale from the yellowing pages of old newspapers has been given new life by the ready availability of today’s microfilmed periodicals and the Internet. Although widely regarded as a practical joke, it is considered by some UFO enthusiasts to be evidence of early extraterrestrial visitors to the plains of Nebraska. It’s been linked with another early “crash” story, which supposedly occurred in April of 1897, when a mystery airship collided with a windmill in Aurora, Texas, leaving the body of a Martian in the wreckage.
Modern searches have been undertaken to locate the Dundy County crash site and whatever remains of the craft that may have survived its mysterious meltdown. Even when explained more than forty years after its supposed occurrence in 1884, the story refused to fade away. The later discovery of chunks of a greenish, glass-like substance with white inclusions (described by one account as resembling “lime jello with cottage cheese”) in the McCook area has fueled recent speculation that these objects may be connected with the 1884 event.
The Nebraska State Journal in 1927 exposed the two 1884 stories as a hoax, created in the fertile brain of James D. Calhoun, then managing editor. Calhoun’s former assistant, Horace W. Hebbard, recalled the event (and its unintended consequences) for the Journal’s sixtieth anniversary edition of July 24, 1927. Hebbard, who had been associated with the Journal since 1879 and later served in his mentor’s old job as managing editor, said:
“The story was written by J. D. Calhoun, managing editor, and among those who read it was Charles W. Fleming, an employee of the business office of the Journal. Mr. Fleming saw visions of a fortune if he could obtain this meteor or whatever it was and exhibit it for a fee to the curious thruout the country. Accordingly he took the train for Benkelman the morning the story appeared bent on obtaining possession of the wonder and bringing it home with him. He was disillusioned when he arrived at Benkelman and found no one who had heard anything about the thing.”
Newspaper hoaxes have probably been around as long as there have been newspapers, but their popularity peaked during the late nineteenth century. Journalists sought to entertain as well as inform their readers—and fill space—with stories that were wildly exaggerated and sometimes complete fabrications. Columnists and editorial writers who could supply colorful copy that attracted readers were in demand and their writings were widely reprinted.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2013 issue.
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