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Omaha Magazine

Horses Run Early Statehood

Mar 01, 2017 03:56PM ● By Max Sparber

After Omaha’s territorial years, its favorite animal became both a local resource and a local problem. The early years of Omaha were a golden age for the horse, but Omaha was a rough and tumble frontier town, and the horses followed suit.

More horses equaled more horse-and-buggy and riding accidents. Runaway horses were a chronic problem, so much so that one local, James Findley, developed an unusual sobriquet: “The Horse Catcher,” celebrated in an Omaha Herald article from 1879.

His technique was to run alongside a rampaging horse, throw his arms around the animal's neck, and pull it to a stop, which he did with surprising frequency and effectiveness.

Horses were also beloved by gamblers. A gang of them, called The Big Four—Charles Bibbins, H.B. Kennedy, Charles White, and Jack Morrison—ran a two-story building on Douglas Street called The Diamond. This included a horse-betting parlor.

Horse races at that time were not especially honest. Newspapers tell of a gang of bunco men led by a man named Canada Bill who, alongside their usual tricks of cheating at cards, stealing from drunks, and scheming to rob places, also fixed horse races. They seem to have run out of steam around 1876.

This may have been in part because horse racing started to become professional. The Omaha Driving Park had opened a year earlier, in 1875, between Laird and Boyd streets, and between 16th and 20th streets.

The Driving Park was also the origin of one of Omaha’s most enduring horse legacies.  In 1880 the grounds were sold to a group of businessmen that included John Creighton, James E. Boyd, and William A. Paxton. The new owners spent $15,000 to improve the grounds. It was the occasional site of the Nebraska State Fair. As befits a frontier town, the Omaha state fairs were notoriously raucous, and in 1895 the State Board gave the city an ultimatum: Provide something “other than saloons, gambling houses, and honky tonks” or lose the fair.

A group of local businessmen headed down to New Orleans for inspiration, and, borrowing from the Mardi Gras tradition of parading secret societies (called “krewes”), created their own organization, the Knights of the Ak-Sar-Ben.

This group produced parades and live shows for decades. In 1920, they built their own racetrack, also called Ak-Sar-Ben, and, in 1927, started their own stock show and rodeo. This group would dominate Omaha horse racing for most of the 20th century, closing the track in 1995.

Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the fourth of those articles.The other articles in this series are:

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