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Omaha Magazine

Independence City

Jul 10, 2014 03:44PM ● By David Williams
Confirming the population of any given city requires nothing more than a glance at census figures, right?

Not so fast. To best understand at least one local community, it would be advisable to also have a calendar handy. For 364 days

of the year, Ralston’s population is estimated at almost 7,000 people. But on that remaining day, July 4 to be exact, the city bursts at the seams when as many as 50,000 people swarm to the place known as the Independence City.

Carrying on that patriotic theme, the Fourth of July parade route wends its way along Independence Avenue, the honorary label of Miller Avenue. And the mini park downtown is named Independence Square.

Ralston Mayor Donald Groesser explains that the “Independence” label has dual meanings. Sure, the town’s star-spangled Fourth of July parade and surrounding events are crowd-pleasers that make the city the third largest in the state that day, but there’s more.

Omaha was positioning itself to annex Ralston in 1964, but the town had other ideas. A deal was struck where Omaha agreed to leapfrog Ralston so long as the suburb did not itself expand to the magic number of 10,000. State law mandates that Omaha may annex any burg with a population below that number without putting the issue to a vote by that community’s people.

“So I have my little pilgrimage downtown every four or eight years,” says Groesser, who is serving his fifth term and has been in office for 18 years, “just to reaffirm the deal and to repeat that handshake with each new mayor elected in Omaha.”

The same kind of casual, handshake aura defines the very nature of the close-knit community that has retained its distinct, small-town vibe even as the metro has grown around it. It’s a thriving, one square mile island of folksiness smack dab in the middle of an equally thriving city. And it’s the type of place where roots run deep.

Music teacher Ladonna Johnson has been a fixture at the Independence Day festivities for decades. “When I was a kid,” Johnson says, “we’d decorate our bicycles with crepe paper and ride in the parade. It was a lot simpler thing in those early days, but it was so exciting for all the neighborhood kids.”

Johnson took a larger role in last year’s affair. And there wasn’t any crepe paper involved this time. She rode in a convertible as Parade Marshall, an honor bestowed for her lifelong service to the little city on the hill, a place where the historical museum—The Frank and Velma Johnson Ralston Archive Museum—is named for her parents.

“Many of my current and former music students came to the parade and chanted ‘Ladonna! Ladonna!’ as I passed by,” she says. “It was such grand fun!”

Many of the local businesses have roots that run equally deep.

A crashing cacophony of 7-10 splits have been heard at Scorz, the local bowling alley, since the ‘50s. A quintessential corner hangout—the ancient Village Bar—may have a snazzy, new, and hip logo, but the everybody-knows-your-name atmosphere remains the same.

And then there’s the tacos. Since 1976, Maria’s Mexican Restaurant has been a magnet for margaritas and a hub for habaneros.

Michael Sanchez, son of the restaurant’s titular founder, Maria, goes “all in” when it comes to Ralston boosterism. He’s chairman of the Ralston Chamber of Commerce and is running for a seat on the city council. But what about his mother? Does Maria have a plan to retire any time soon? “My mom will probably one day be the Mrs. B of Ralston,” he says, “riding around the restaurant in a little scooter,” just like the late, iconic entrepreneur associated with Nebraska Furniture Mart who was, in her later years, known to (literally) wheel and deal from her perch atop a custom scooter contraption.

The rise of the Ralston Arena—home of Omaha Lancers hockey, University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s basketball, the arena football Omaha Beef, and more—has changed the city’s landscape in more than just a literal way. It is the anchor for an ambitious, 20-year development plan that Mayor Groesser dubs “The Hinge.”

“Think of 72nd Street as a hinge,” Groesser says. “The east side of the street is Omaha, and we can’t do anything about that. On our side of the street, picture a lake, parks, new businesses, all with a new, beautiful gateway approach that draws people up the hill and into town. It’s like a hinge that folds up onto Ralston, the city that we love today…but just wait for tomorrow.”

Did you know that the land upon which sits the Ralston Arena was once a lake? Or that the hill above it once held a magnificent castle?

Newspaperman George L. Miller of the Omaha Herald—which would later morph to become the Omaha World-Herald—is considered the founding father of Ralston. In 1887 he built a sprawling, 17-room mansion at what is now the northeast corner of 75th and Oakwood streets.

An almost accidental lake followed in 1892 when an exploration for oil, minerals, or water turned up water. Lots and lots of water.

A dike was constructed and Seymour Lake, named by Miller for his friend, Nebraska Congressman Horatio Seymour, was born. A resort-style club, park, and beach house soon grew around the lake and it became a summertime playground that drew crowds far and wide. In the off-season of those pre-refrigeration days, an ice-cutting operation operated on the lake.

The castle burned down in 1898, and the only remaining echo of the lake is a story that is told in cobblestones. The ancient pavers of South 70th Street just east of 72nd Street mark the winding road that once girded the lake that dried up in the ‘40s.

The Arts and Crafts-style home built in 1914 on the site of the castle is today owned by Susan and Larry Forman.

They raised six children there and now have 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, which means the property has been known to host some big-time family picnics, but none bigger than the one on Independence Day.

“My father took one look at the place before we bought it in 1979 and said that we were investing in a money pit, Larry says. “And he was right, but this is like a piece of history that deserved to be saved.” Susan agrees. “The lake may be gone,” she says, “and it’s not like we could just pick up this house and move it to Cape Cod. It’s been a great home for us and we joke that it is our favorite lake house…just without the lake!”