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Archive for October, 2013

            Recently I found myself on a tour that stayed several nights in Omaha.  I have to admit I thought it wouldn’t be a very fun place, but I was pleasantly surprised.
               In Nebraska, the rolling prairie is so dominate that many pioneers used to compare it to an ocean as they sailed their prairie schooners across the Oregon and Mormon trails.  The land was made up of very rich soil and today the state is a leading producer of corn, wheat, and cattle; thus the nickname the “Cornhusker State”.  
            In 1854 Nebraska became a territory and the Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres to settlers for a nominal fee which created a land rush that helped Nebraska become the 37th state in 1867.  The state has more miles of rivers than any other state, which helped create good growing conditions for the settlers.
            Hardy pioneers settled on the west bank of the Missouri River which was the river that helped Lewis and Clark cross the continent.  In the north part of the city, the Mormons spent the harsh winter of 1846-47 as they pushed towards Utah (there is more about this in my Salt Lake City article).  With the Mormon and Oregon trails going through here, Omaha became known as the “Crossroads of the Nation” since it played a key role in western expansion.
             In 1854 the town was founded when the Omaha Indians signed a treaty with the US government and a flood of pioneers settled there.  The town was characterized by lawlessness and drunkenness, with only pioneer justice for law.  The name means “those going against the wind or current” which fit the attitude of the town at that time.
         The city was also the site of the groundbreaking for the first transcontinental railroad in 1863 which also started prosperity. In the 1870’s with the development of Omaha stockyards and packing houses, the town grew so quickly it was dubbed the “Magic City”.  Many immigrants and several regional breweries started. 
          Our city guide told us that the city has a very strong economy and ranks 8th among the nation’s 50 largest cities in per capita billionaires and Fortune 500 companies.  The Mutual of Omaha’s dome is very contemporary in architectural design and has seven floors underground.  There are also two dozen other insurance companies.  And nearby is the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Command Center in the suburb of Bellevue.
          Also famous there is Boys Town established in 1917 for troubled children.  The kids learned to become responsible citizens by the founder and administrator, Father Flanagan.  He directed the school from 1927-41 and it is still going strong today.  Hollywood even made a movie about it starring Spencer Tracy.   If you visit here, there is a neat museum (Spencer Tracy even donated his Academy Award statue) and also drive through the campus. Be sure and stop at the gift shop because it is always good to support the local economy!
            While we were there we spent time exploring many of the ethnic and culinary delights of the city.
            We started with a dinner cruise and music on the River City Star Riverboat.  Some of the things our guide showed us the next day on our city tour were Warren Buffet’s home, St. Cecilia’s Spanish Cathedral, the Blackstone Hotel—home of the first Reuben sandwich and TD Ameritrade Park—home of the College World Series.  We also saw the Omaha Community Theater where Henry Fonda started acting.  Did you know Marlon Brando’s mother gave Henry Fonda acting lessons?
          On another day, we spent the morning at the Henry Doorly Zoo.  This zoo often outranks both the Bronx and San Diego zoos as a favorite due to “total immersion exhibits”.  It is awesome when you are walking through tunnels and the animals are in natural habitats surrounding you. Because of all the wealth in the city, a lot of it has been spent on children and animals and you can see the love and money that has been given to this zoo.
          There are many great places to eat in Omaha but our tour had an emphasis on ethnic cuisine.  W had lunch at Big Mama’s Soul Food Kitchen on the Turning Point Campus (formally known as the Nebraska School for the Deaf).  This place was featured on the Food Network and also selected as the 56th best place to chow down in America by the Travel Channel.  Naturally we had southern fried chicken as our entrée and I can’t begin to tell you how awesome her desserts are.  Big Mama takes time out to speak to our groups.  She is a wonderful inspiration to the over 50 crowd.  She overcame a lot of obstacles to open her restaurant late in life and is still going strong.
            Some of the other ethnic places we ate at were the German American Society where we had German food and were treated to a show with German folk dancers and singers.  The Renaissance Mansion, the historic home of Minnie Storz Higgins, served us Swedish meatballs and cabbage rolls.  At the Bohemian Café we watched a Kolacky making demonstration and then headed over to the Lithuanian Bakery and Café.  Our final dinner was at St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church where we ate Greek chicken and naturally baklava for dessert while enjoying the dancing the folks put on.
          I think everyone gained at least five pounds on this particular tour.  But what else can you expect when you are in a state that is a leading producer of popcorn, Kool aid and spam and so many choices of food from “the old country”.
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       Continuing with my series on cities, I have always been intrigued by Salt Lake City, or abbreviated as SLC.  The first time I visited this city back in the 1980’s, I could feel the history as I walked down the streets.

The Mormon pioneers came here and worked hard to turn the desert into productive farm country, giving the state the nickname “The Beehive State”.  This stands for industriousness and hard working.  There was not a single indigenous tree in the Salt Lake City Valley when the pioneers arrived and now it is a lush valley irrigated by the melting snow in the mountains.

The southern half of Utah has terrain carved by water and wind into surreal shapes arrayed in dramatic vistas and red rock canyons.  There are a dozen national parks & monuments in that area.  It is a beautiful area to visit but the northern part of the state where SLC is located has a lot of beauty in a different way.

I have written an article about the National Parks of the Southwest you can read if interested in southern Utah but this article is about SLC, and that is where I want to focus.  As you come out of the Wasatch Mountains on the western side of the Rockies, you can see desert stretched out for miles and miles all the way into Nevada..

To understand this city, you need to know a little background on Mormonism.
When Brigham Young came out of those mountains with the first hardy pioneers (after traveling from the Omaha area), he looked down and said “This is the place” and I am sure those first 148 settlers thought he was crazy.  But they quickly begin building irrigation paths from the mountains and the snow up there helped bring water to the valleys.

The city was founded on July 24, 1847 by Mormon pioneers (members of the Church of Latter-day Saints—LDS Church).   They wanted to practice their religion free of hostile mobs and persecution since they had left New England and had been driven out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

On the very first day of arrival, they began tilling the soil and planting crops, turning the desert and sagebrush area into a green valley in just a few months.  In 1848 more emigrants came to the valley but a late frost, drought, and a plague of grasshoppers almost destroyed the harvest.  One bright sunny day millions of grasshoppers darkened the sky & descended the fields devouring everything in their path.  Then a miracle… First one and then in pairs, flocks of seagulls flew down and ate all the grasshoppers.  A statue to commemorate this event is inside Temple Square and the Seagull is Utah’s sate bird.

Construction on the temple started in 1853 and took 40 years to build.  The granite blocks

were hauled by oxen and wagon to the site until the railroad came through.  SLC and Provo are only about 50% Mormon.  When silver and gold were discovered in the mountains north of those cities, immigrants with great fortunes, who were not LDS, moved into the bigger cities.  But the other areas in the state, especially the farming communities, are 90-100% Mormon and the LDS church controls the politics.

By the 1960’s the suburbs were becoming the place to live, as happened all over the U.S.,  so the LDS church invested $40 million to develop the ZCMI Center Mall downtown—Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution.  This was a retail store started in 1868 and it was the first department store in the country.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s many buildings were restored & expanded such as the Salt Palace Convention Center & Delta Center.  Before hosting the Olympic winter games in 2002, the state did more face lifting and it is a beautiful city today where you can sense the history as you walk the streets.

Since SLC is the major base for the LDS Church, Mormons from all over the world come to visit the city.  Because of that everything downtown is free to get into and even the buses and light rail in the downtown area are free. And, did I mention the flowers in planters and baskets everywhere?  Truly beautiful.

So much to see and do here…  First up Temple Square.  Oxen hauled granite blocks fifteen miles down a canyon and across the valley to the building site.  Since hardwood was not available, they painted the Tabernacle wall panels by hand to resemble oak, which they had learned from their New England days.  The walls are 16 feet thick & 16 feet deep.  The highest spire is 210 feet & is topped by a 12 ½ foot copper with gold leaf statue of the Angel Moroni, who according to Mormon doctrine, appeared to Joseph Smith, the Church founder.

In Temple Square there is the Temple (which only Mormons of good standing can go into), a couple of visitor centers, Assembly Hall, and the Tabernacle which took twelve years to build and seats 6,500.  Legend says Young came up with the unusual design after seeing an egg shell cracked lengthwise.  He wanted the roof to be self supporting without pillars or posts to obstruct views.  The domed roof was created by using steam to bend massive beams like a bridge.  The organ has 11,000 golden pipes made from hand carved Utah lumber and ten pipes from the original organ still work.  The acoustics are remarkable.  You can sit in the back & hear a pin drop from the podium.  This, of course, is where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs.

Don’t worry about trying to get yourself around.  When you go into the Square there are tours going on throughout the day to guide you to the important areas.  And also in the Temple Square area is the Joseph Smith Building (the old Hotel Utah) where many presidents stayed.  There is a rooftop restaurant and if you go up to the top, there are picture windows overlooking Temple Square that you can take pictures from.

There is a very nice History Museum building and, of course, Beehive House which was one of Brigham Young’s homes.  The Church of the Madeline, Catholic, near the Square has awesome stain glass windows, and don’t forget the Capitol, one of the more beautiful ones in the country. There is an interesting pioneer women’s museum.  The woman all brought a good pair of shoes with them on their journey so they would have a nice pair to wear after they got to their destination.  However, after the long trek on foot, none of the ladies could fit into the shoes and they are now on display in this museum near the Capitol.

Since SLC lies on an earthquake fault a lot has been done around the city to shore up buildings and 16 feet walls will help the Temple survive a major quake.  There are also several new or redone malls in the downtown area with lots of places to eat.  If you go farther afield, there is the University, where many of the Olympic venues took place, Fort Douglas, and “This is the Place” Heritage Park.

I could go into detail about a lot of these things but I would be writing for pages.  And if you have a car, Park City is not far away where skiing is the thing and more Olympic venues were held.  And don’t forget a trip out to the Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats or the Kennecott Copper Mine south of the city.  Bet you didn’t know there are only three man-made places that can be seen from space of which the copper mine is one.  The other two are the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China.

As I said before, so much to see and do here in SLC, one of my favorite cities to visit in the US, no matter what your religious persuasion.   And the mountains are close by, beckoning you to Jackson, Tetons and Yellowstone if you desire or Highway 50, dubbed “the loneliest highway in America” taking you west to Reno and Lake Tahoe.

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