Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Summer 2015 issue.
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“Everything Seems to be Going Backwards These Days”: The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha - Thomas M. Spencer
Like much of the nation, Omaha in 1895 was struggling in the doldrums of the Panic of 1893, one of the worst and longest economic downturns in the nation’s history. Some Omahans were genuinely concerned that nearby Lincoln—already the state capital and site of the state university—might overtake Omaha in population and prosperity. These fears were heightened by Omaha’s disastrous experience hosting the state fair in 1894, when hundreds of people were stranded at the fairgrounds each night, unable to arrange transportation. The state fair board threatened to cancel Omaha’s five-year contract to host the event, but in January 1895 allowed the fair to remain in the city after listening to promises from city leaders.
The 1890s were a pivotal time in Omaha’s history. In addition to problems related to the economic depression, Omaha was also competing for agricultural commerce with two major Midwest trade centers, Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri. By 1895 those two cities already had their own fall harvest celebrations. St. Louis had the older of the two festivals, the Veiled Prophet celebration, founded in 1878. Kansas City’s Priests of Pallas had been organizing parades and debutante balls since 1887. City leaders in Lincoln, Nebraska, had even attempted their own parade with a mythical creation story, the short-lived Tartarrax Pageant, in 1889. While Omaha leaders probably knew they were not in the right location to compete with Chicago and St. Louis, the two largest Midwestern cities at the time, they clearly saw Kansas City as a potential rival. And like Kansas City and St. Louis, Omaha leaders wanted a fall celebration to do economic battle with their regional rivals.
The celebrations in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Omaha were all originally designed to boost attendance at fairs in their respective cities. Fall was a crucial time for the mercantile elite. Omaha merchants, for example, wished to draw farmers to sell their crops to them rather than to merchants in Kansas City or Des Moines. While often cloaked in philanthropic or altruistic language, these celebrations were viewed by city leaders primarily as a way to increase the profits of the mercantile elite and other businessmen who would benefit from the influx of tens of thousands of tourists.
In response to the state fair board, in 1895 Omaha’s Commercial Club committed resources for an adequate transportation system and for improving buildings for the fair. They even built a “White City” at the fairgrounds, evoking the memory of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago two years earlier. In March 1895 the Commercial Club’s executive committee proposed that Omaha create its own Mardi Gras-style celebration. A few weeks later, like their counterparts in St. Louis nearly twenty years earlier, several of these men went to New Orleans to secure floats and parade costumes from one of the Mardi Gras Carnival Societies. (Contemporary newspaper accounts do not specify which Krewe sold the Omaha businessmen the floats.) The committee arranged for these floats to be shipped to Omaha via a special fifteen-car train. Thus the celebration was literally a second-hand Mardi Gras.
Many newspaper accounts and histories of Ak-Sar-Ben erroneously claim that its members visited the pageants of the Veiled Prophet and the Priests of Pallas on their train ride back to Omaha in April 1895. In fact, both celebrations took place in October, but it’s possible that on the return trip the Omaha men visited their counterparts in St. Louis and Kansas City, and from them learned the basics of putting on such spectacles, and began to ponder their use of mythology.
As the story goes, it was on the train ride back from Kansas City that the men came up with the name of their organization. Dudley Smith observed, “Why not reverse the name of our beloved state, since everything seems to be going backwards these days? Nebraska hyphenated and spelled backwards is Ak-Sar-Ben.” They consulted with a Catholic priest on the train, Father Enright of Kansas City, who told them that “Ak” was the word for “head of household” in Syrian, “Sar” was the word for “household” in Arabic, and “Ben” was the word for “brother” in Hebrew. Thus, Enright contended that the whole word stood for the King, his Domain, and his Retainers. Enright and the Omaha men also decided that the proposed “domain of Ak-Sar-Ben” be known as the Kingdom of Quivira, named after the mythical golden kingdom that Coronado had sought in the Great Plains in 1541. And thus was created the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, which still exists to this day. With these preliminaries out of the way, the new organization began to prepare in earnest for their celebration.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2015 issue.
1,733 Miles from Where? Kearney, Nebraska’s 1733 Identity - John T. Bauer
On June 30, 2013, the Lincoln Highway Association, along with the rest of America, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the country’s first booster highway. Although the festivities started nearly a week earlier and continued in cities along the Lincoln Highway route, nowhere were they larger than in Kearney, Nebraska. On June 21 twin automobile tours departed San Francisco, at the western terminus of the highway, and New York City, on the eastern terminus, and headed for Kearney. More than twelve thousand people crowded downtown Kearney to witness their arrival nine days later.
The association chose Kearney because the city has long been regarded as the highway’s approximate midpoint. According to the 1915 Lincoln Highway guide, Kearney measured 1,752 miles from San Francisco and 1,632 miles from New York City, which placed the midpoint of the highway sixty miles west of town. However, the centennial celebration promoters described Kearney’s location not with mileages from the official guide, but by referring to 1,733 miles, a mysterious measurement that places Kearney exactly halfway across the continent and which is believed to be fact by many of Kearney’s residents. A centennial brochure explains, “Why Kearney? Kearney is known for the 1733 Ranch, located 1733 miles from Frisco and 1733 miles from Boston, and 50 miles from the 100th Meridian. Razed in the 1930s, the 1733 Ranch’s barn at one time was the world’s largest, a block long and 3-stories tall.”
Indeed, the barn was a commanding presence at the ranch. Built by H. D. Watson and originally named the Watson Ranch, the operation was broken up in 1917 and new owners renamed it the 1733 Ranch because of its presumed location 1,733 miles from either coast adjacent to the Lincoln Highway. A Lincoln Highway directional sign was even erected near the ranch to inform travelers of the ranch’s curious location. The only reminder of the ranch and its great barn today is a historical marker at the west edge of the city along U.S. Highway 30.
For many years I have been fascinated with this measurement of 1,733 miles. Somehow, in my mind, the placement of Kearney exactly equidistant between San Francisco and Boston seems improbable. But, is it? Perhaps Kearney really is 1,733 miles from those two cities. After all, distance is measured along a route or path, so by changing the route or path, one can change the distance. Thus Kearney could arguably be equidistant between thousands of pairs of cities so long as a person chose the right route or path. But if this is so, what route or path provides the 1,733-mile measurement? Who measured it, and when and how was it measured? They certainly did not use the Global Positioning System (GPS). Why does the idea continue to be a part of Kearney’s identity even now in 2015?
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2015 issue.
“One Can Be an Influence”: Nebraska Farm Wife Doris Royal’s Successful Campaign Against the Widow’s Tax- Amy Helene Forss
For much of the twentieth century, a provision of the federal estate tax known as the “widow’s tax” held surviving spouses liable for estate taxes on jointly held property. This burden fell more heavily on women, not only because they were more likely to be the surviving spouse, but also because the law generally failed to acknowledge a wife’s contribution to the estate’s value. This burden was accepted until a forty-nine-year-old Springfield, Nebraska, farm wife named Doris Royal challenged it with a petition campaign. Royal’s successful effort involved the administrations of three United States presidents and was supported by a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats, and by both feminists and traditionalists.
In a series of legislative victories, Royal’s grassroots campaign changed the law on three levels: first, it raised the dollar amount of estate tax exemptions; second, the government officially acknowledged a woman’s “non-working” labor contribution as added value to the estate; and finally, surviving spouses no longer had to pay estate taxes at all. This is the story of how Doris Royal demonstrated that one person can indeed be an influence.
The origins of the modern estate tax predate the American Revolution. It began as part of Great Britain’s colonial Stamp Tax and was intermittently reinstated by the fledgling United States government. The U.S. used it as a way to raise funds during times of crisis, such as the Civil War and the Spanish American War. Estate taxes became a permanent fixture with the Revenue Act of 1916. Progressives such as former president Theodore Roosevelt favored estate taxes as a way to “prevent or moderate the unreasonable accumulation of wealth and its transmission from generation to generation.”
Small estates were exempt from the tax. Between 1916 and 1942 exemptions were adjusted several times until the maximum exemption reached $60,000, where it stayed for decades. Due to inflation, the law’s reach gradually spread. In 1945, just 1 percent of all estates were taxed; by 1975 it was just over 11 percent. Several congressmen throughout the twentieth century noted the degree to which the estate tax had expanded and questioned its fairness, but due to fairly stable land property values and subsequent tax assessments during the post-World-War-II years until the late 1960s, it was not a widespread concern for the American populace.
Federal estate taxes became a nationwide issue by the mid-1970s due to several years’ worth of inflation sharply increasing estate values and taxes. By 1975, sixteen estate tax reform bills were being considered in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Nebraska Republican Senators Carl T. Curtis and Roman Hruska’s Senate bill (S) 1173 and Texas Democratic Congressman Omar Burleson’s House of Representatives bill (HR) 1793 were the congressional frontrunners. These almost identical proposals included a marital deduction for surviving spouses and raised the estate tax exemption from $60,000 to $200,000. However, neither these nor the other bills passed.
The catalyst for reform was Doris Royal, a farm wife not previously associated with any political organization. Royal’s road to estate tax success started a few weeks before the infamous Nebraska blizzard of January 1975. On the advice of a concerned neighbor, Doris and her husband Lloyd attended an extension service estate planning seminar offered to Springfield-area residents. Doris, who as a young woman attended three months at Wayne State College, taught rural school, and later raised two children, was politically na´ve and unaware of many of the provisions of estate tax law. The law recognized the state of matrimony but failed to recognize a wife’s “non-working” contribution as beneficial labor; it was understood that her unpaid contribution to the family home or business was part of her marital duties. Thus, unless she could verify her material participation and show proof of her monetary contribution toward their estate, a widow was responsible for paying 100 percent of any estate taxes if her husband died first.
Listening to this information, a shocked Doris hoped someone at the meeting would present a solution. No one did. During a recent interview, she recalled the moment when she decided to be that person. Worn out from spending a twelve-hour day helping her husband Lloyd throw hay and feed their cattle and hogs during the Nebraska blizzard of 1975, Doris turned to Lloyd and said, “Do you realize I haven’t contributed a dime to this farm today according to the IRS?” She was correct. In fact, if Lloyd had died in 1975, Doris, his legal spouse of thirty-one years, would have paid $32,000 in estate taxes on their 240-acre farm valued at $320,000.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2015 issue.
The 1890 Lincoln Giants: Professional Baseball’s Unlikely Return to Nebraska’s Capital City - Kent Morgan
Omaha, Nebraska, 1890
By any reasonable standard of their place and time, William Lewis and William Pope were top-notch waiters. The duo practiced their trade in the well-appointed dining room of the “Strictly First-Class” Millard Hotel, which graced the northeast corner of Douglas and Thirteenth streets in downtown Omaha. Their evolving friendship soon included a shared residence at 1612 Jackson Street, just half a mile from the hotel. The unassuming boarding house offered convenient and affordable lodging, as well as time together to ponder opportunities beyond their otherwise prosaic vocation. The pair shared a vision that endured independent of their daily routine. Simply put, they longed to be proprietors of a professional baseball team.
From a distance their vision seemed credible. William Lewis knew and enjoyed the game of baseball. Over the prior two years he’d performed admirably for the Lafayettes, a respected Omaha-area amateur baseball team. During the 1889 season, Lewis’s Lafayettes competed forcefully against town squads from across Nebraska, leading the Omaha Daily Bee to proclaim, “They now stand at the head of the amateur clubs of the state.” William Pope complemented Lewis’s athletic abilities with his business acumen. Pope took well to commerce, owning a healthy aptitude for business creation and management. His people skills served him well in his present occupation as a waiter, but he harbored thoughts of other realities.
Fulfilling their vision would not be easy. It demanded assembling a squad of talented baseball players, along with the requisite financial backing. They did not want a barnstorming squad of vagabonds, but rather a bona fide company of athletes who would compete within a league against the foremost teams in the region. When all was said and done, Lewis expressed their mutual intent to do all within the duo’s “power to make the club a success, both financially and artistically.” Should this yearning not present enough challenges, William Lewis and William Pope were beset with potentially an even greater trial. As providence would have it, both men were African Americans.
Being African American as the nineteenth century drew to a close, the pair found themselves saddled with centuries of inherited racial enmity. Twenty-five years removed from a tumultuous civil war, America still faced a host of pernicious forces. Bigotry and intolerance already divided the nation, ushering in the era of discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws. Within six years, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson would affirm the constitutionality of “separate but equal” facilities.
Baseball was not immune to this national trajectory. Black baseball players were systematically marginalized from the game’s mainstream. Baseball’s formal racial divide first emerged in 1867 when an amateur African American baseball club’s application to the National Association of Baseball Players was unanimously rejected. The association subsequently established a rule excluding “the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” Other discriminatory maneuvers followed, including outright bans on black players and on-field incidents meant to force African American players from the dawning professional game.
If prejudicial racial attitudes were not disadvantageous enough, Nebraska’s demographics presented additional hurdles for the two energetic waiters. The 1890 U.S. Census identified little more than one million inhabitants in the Cornhusker State. Of these, less than one percent was “persons of negro descent.” Only 8,913 African Americans, of a nationwide aggregate of almost 7.5 million, claimed Nebraska as their home. And with few exceptions, the preponderance of black Nebraskans worked as domestic servants, barbers, hairdressers, and hotel workers.
Were William Lewis and William Pope embarking upon a foolhardy undertaking or a compelling quest? Consider for a moment the prospects of a late nineteenth century professional baseball team located in eastern Nebraska that would be composed entirely of African American players, performing under an African American field captain, overseen by an African American business manager, owned largely by a consortium of African American entrepreneurs, with two young African American waiters leading the effort to form a previously nonexistent baseball league to be made up, with the exception of their squad, of nothing but “white teams.” This improbable storyline forms the remarkable narrative of what would ultimately become the 1890 Lincoln Giants and the return of professional baseball to the Capital City.
The entire essay appears in the Summer 2015 issue.
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