Just like the community that forged him, the dreams of South Omaha native and historian Gary Kastrick don’t die easy. The educator developed the Project Omaha teaching museum at South High, but when he retired the school didn’t want it anymore.
For years he stored his collection’s thousands of artifacts at his home while seeking a venue in which to display them. An attempt at securing a site fell through but a new one recently surfaced and has given birth to the South Omaha Museum. The nonprofit opened March 15 to much fanfare. Fittingly, it’s located in a building at 2314 M Street he helped his late father clean as a boy. It’s also where he found his first artifact.
Building owner Marcos Mora of the South Omaha Arts Institute wanted Kastrick’s font of history to have a permanent home.
“He’s got this knowledge and we need to share it with everybody,” said Mora. “If we don’t preserve that history now, it’s going to go away.”
A $10,000 City of Omaha historical grant helped but it still took 12-hour days, sweat equity and hustle to open it. Kastrick’s family, friends and former students pitched in. Artist Mike Giron designed the exhibit spaces.
Funding is being sought. Donations are welcome.
The founders are pleased by the strong early response.
“People are overwhelmed,” said Kastrick.
“People come in with expectation and come out with gratitude,” Giron said. Offers of artifacts are flooding in.
The free admission museum marks the third leg of Kastrick’s three-pronged campaign to spark interest in “a South Omaha renaissance.” Between the museum, historical walking tours he leads and the South Omaha Mural Project he consults, he aims to bring more people to this history-rich district.
“My main goal is to generate traffic.”
The museum’s opening exhibition, “The Smell of Money,” which runs through April 15, chronicles the stockyards and meatpacking plants that were South O’s lifeblood and largest employer.
Kastrick said, “There was a pride in this industry. The owners did everything first-rate. They put money into it. They made innovations. They created state-of-the-art sheep barns. They did everything right. It’s why Omaha’s stockyards kept growing. It wasn’t expected to be bigger than Chicago but in 1955 it became the world’s largest livestock market.”
He estimates it generated $1.7 million a day.
“It was an extremely wealthy area.”
Ancillary businesses and services sprung up: bars, cafes, hardware stores, feed stores, rendering plants, leather mills, a railway, a newspaper, a telegraph office, grocers, banks, brothels. South O’s red light district, The Gully offered every vice. The Miller Hotel was notorious.
Fast growth earned South O the name Magic City.
Rural families taking livestock to market also came for provisions and diversions.
“This was their visit to the big city,” Kastrick said, “so they’d do their shopping, playing, gambling here. It was a treat to come into South Omaha.”
For laborers, the work was rigorous and dangerous.
“There was a comradeship of hard labor. It defined who we were and that definition gave us a color and a flavor other parts of the city don’t have,” Kastrick said. “We’ve always been tougher than those who have it easy.”
The packing plants drew European immigrants and African-American migrants. Then the antiquated plants grew obsolete and got razed. The loss of jobs and commerce triggered economic decline. The South 24th Street business district turned ghost town. New immigration sparked revival. New development replaced the yards and plants. Only the repurposed Livestock Exchange Building remains. Kastrick’s museum recalls what came before through a scale model layout of the yards, photos, signs, posters, narratives. He has hundreds of hours of interviews to draw on.
“It’s a fascinating history.”
He envisions hosting classes and special events, including a scavenger hunt and trivia night.
Future exhibits will range from bars, brothels and barber shops to Cinco de Mayo to ethnic groups.
Kastrick, Mora and Giron all identify with South O’s melting pot heritage as landing spot and gateway for newcomers.
“There’s that common gene in South Omaha of the immigrant,” said Kastrick, whose grandparents came from Poland. “Wherever people are from, they uprooted themselves from security to come here and start over. It takes a lot of guts. It’s a great place because you run into so many different nationalities. We’re such a compact area – it’s hard not to be with each other.”
Mora, whose grandparents came from Mexico, said.
“South Omaha is in our heart.”
Iron, the son of Cuban emigre parents, said, “What I see and identify with here is the underdog. People willing to sacrifice, to work hard, to do what it takes but also knowing how to have a good time. It isn’t an area where everybody takes everything for granted.”
Giron said the museum’s “not just about history and facts, it’s about expressing their experience.”
Once a South Omahan, always a South Omaha, said Mora. “People might have moved out, but they still have that connection. Those roots are still down here. It’s a neighborhood community and extended family network.”
Kastrick said, “We have our own unique identity. It’s something special to be from here. We enjoy who we are. We have kind of a defiant pride because we’ve always been looked down as the working class, the working poor and everything else. We don’t care. We created our own nice little world with everything we need.”
Through changing times and new ethnic arrivals the one constant, he said, “is the South Omaha culture and concept of who we are – tough, good people” who “won’t be stopped.”
For hours, visit www.southomahamuseum.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.