The Omaha area is rich with history, far too much for me to cover in one article, but as winter stir-crazy starts to set in, I encourage you and your kids to load up the car and head out exploring what’s right here in our town.
The Western Historic Trails Center located in Council Bluffs has enjoyable trails, some leading to views of the Missouri River overlook and others around the property. The center has educational exhibits (sculptures, films, etc.) detailing the history of the four western trails (Lewis and Clark, Oregon, Mormon, and California) that passed through the area. My kids and I enjoyed viewing the interactive center and hiking one of the paths.
The Lewis and Clark original 1804 landing site along Omaha’s riverfront is a picturesque spot to visit. You can enjoy splashing in a splash pad during the summer, walking along the riverfront trail, crossing the famous Bob Kerrey Bridge, or visiting the National Park Service Regional Headquarters building. There are a small gift shop, knowledgeable rangers, and hands-on exhibits to view. My children like to touch all the different animal pelts.
Throughout the Downtown Omaha business district, you can see large sculptures depicting the pioneer wagon train and spirit of the Nebraska wilderness. The sculptures are the largest installation of bronze and stainless steel work of art in the United States and one of the two or three largest in the world. You can find the Pioneer Courage statues at 14th and Capitol, five Bison statues heading down 15th street, which lead to the Spirit of Nebraska’s Wilderness sculptures at 16th & Dodge. My children loved running around the park and seeing/touching the sculptures. In the warmer months, this is a beautiful picnic spot, and the water is turned on at the Spirit of Nebraska sculpture park.
My eight-year-old was very into history when we moved to Omaha. He had spent quite a bit of time learning about the US Presidents, so the Gerald R. Ford birthplace and Gardens was a top stop for us. The monument marks Ford’s birthplace, but the original house he was born in was demolished in 1971 after a fire. The gardens are quite pretty, with a rose garden dedicated to Betty Ford. There is a bust of Gerald Ford, a few interactive exhibits outside, and more exhibits inside. Still, please make an appointment to visit the inside of the museum.
Offutt AFB was initially known as Fort Omaha, later named Fort Crook after General George Crook. The fort was used as a dispatch point for conflicts in the Great Planes. Part of the original Fort Crook can still be seen on the Parade Grounds at the base as well as surrounding red brick buildings and the oldest operational jail in Nebraska.
“The Museum is the authentically restored home of Civil War and National Indian Wars hero, General George Crook, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was constructed in 1879, while General Crook served as the Commander of the Department of the Platte. General Crook is known for his supporting role in the landmark 1879 trial of Standing Bear v. Crook.” (Douglas County History website) The Crook House hosts teas, tours, a museum, and a view of a Crook statue in the garden.
The Joslyn Castle was home to George and Sarah Joslyn, Omaha’s first millionaires, and philanthropists. They came to Omaha after the establishment of the transcontinental railroad. They started a newsprint branch, later named the Western Newspaper Union, the largest supplier of “ready to print” newsprint.
The house is a four-story home with 35 rooms. The castle and the grounds are beautiful, and my kids enjoyed walking around the property. The castle is an Omaha Landmark Historic Structure and on the National Register of Historic Places for national significance. The grounds are part of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum. The castle is open for tours at specific dates and times, so review their online schedule before visiting if you want to see the interior.
Nestled in a North Omaha neighborhood sits the Malcolm X Foundation building and the Malcolm X Omaha Historical Marker marking the location of Malcolm’s birthsite. The Malcolm X Foundation is still developing the plaza and complex. The memorial site is open to the public, but guests are encouraged to call before visiting.
The Florence Mill is an agricultural site on the National Register of Historic Places of Nebraska. It was initially constructed in 1846-47 by Mormon Pioneers under the leadership of Brigham Young. After the Mormons left their winter quarters at the mill in 1848, the Florence Mill was taken over and continued to provide agricultural support to the town of Florence, the oldest community in Nebraska. The mill is open seasonally. You can also visit the nearby Mormon Trail Center.
My boys loved running around the Fort Atkinson State Historical Park. This was the site of the first meeting between the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Missouri-Otoe Nation. You can visit the reconstructed 1820s log fort that is on 157 acres atop “Council Bluff.” The Missouri-Otoe members gave the name Council Bluff because the area is on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River and was the location of their council meetings. Clark, in his journals, mentioned that it would be a good location for a Fort.