Battle for Benson
Oct 18, 2017 09:57AM
By Linda Persigehl
The community of Benson, maybe best known today as a hub for live music, craft beers, and trendy restaurants in north-central Omaha, marked a significant anniversary this summer—100 years since its annexation to the City of Omaha. This year also marks the 130th anniversary of the once-independent community’s establishment, a milestone celebrated during the July 29 Benson Days festivities.
Benson was initially founded by land speculator Erastus Benson as Benson Place in March 1887. Its annexation was one of many community takeovers by Omaha between 1915-1917 (including South Omaha, Dundee, and Florence) during an aggressive push by business leaders and public administrators, including Omaha Mayor James Dahlman, to grow the city and its tax coffers.
As with most annexations, the move to absorb Benson—whose borders were approximately 52nd Street to 72nd Street (east-west) and Pratt Street to Blondo Street (north-south)—was controversial and met with fear and anger by many homeowners and local businesses. Some of the residents, whose number was estimated to be about 5,000 in 1917, were not willing to lie down and let annexation happen without a fight. One notable opponent was Benson Mayor Ed Sorenson, who declared in March 1915, “I think that Benson has everything to gain by maintaining her independence…and we won’t be annexed unless we act on our own initiative.”
In January 1915, an estimated 120 people convened in Fireman’s Hall in Benson and passed a resolution against “forcible annexation.” Later that month, an angry group of residents converged on Benson City Hall to announce their intention to protest at the state level. Then on January 28, 1915, along with dozens of residents from other proposed-annexation communities, about 50 “Benson pilgrims” who opposed the action filled nine Burlington train cars and headed to the capitol in Lincoln to protest passage of the Howell Bill in the Nebraska Legislature. The bill allowed for Omaha’s unilateral annexation of neighboring communities, so long as they lie adjacent to current city boundaries, fall within Douglas County, and have fewer than 10,000 residents. The residents’ main fear: annexation would mean that needs for civic improvements and services in their community, situated on the far outskirts of Omaha, would be ignored and suffer.
Sam Swanson, digital archivist with the Benson Historical Society, says this fear ushered in a rush of civic projects, including construction of a new combined fire station and city hall in late 1915. In the months that followed, road paving and grating work, and installation of water fountains and new ornamental street lights, were also completed. “[Benson civic leaders] passed bonds and spent as much money as they could, fearful the city would not make the improvements,” Swanson says. By completing the improvements ahead of annexation, they’d also be able to incur debt they could then pass onto the city.
Many in Benson’s business community were in favor of annexation. The Benson Commercial Club, headed by Benson Times publisher E.M. Jacobberger, sent a committee of four to advocate for the Howell Bill during a hearing. They also sent a petition to the legislature bearing 64 names of businessmen and representative citizens of the town in favor of the move, citing it as a “progressive measure” and “to the benefit of the great majority of the people.” At the same time, many members condemned the “force feature of the bill” and spoke about their preference to have the annexation happen only with “the consent and will of the people.”
One factor working in opponents’ favor was that a narrow tract of unincorporated land separated the city limits of Benson and Omaha. This territory, made up of Elmwood Park District and Clontarf Precinct, made Benson exempt from annexation, according to rules stated in the initial Howell Bill. To opponents’ dismay, in March 1915 the state senate municipal affairs committee attached a provision to the bill, allowing Omaha to annex municipalities that lie within two-thirds of a mile of Greater Omaha. The strip of land just a few blocks wide was no longer considered the buffer that protected them.
In the end, the Howell Bill was passed in the Nebraska senate and signed into law by Governor Keith Neville in March 1917, and Benson, along with Florence, was unilaterally annexed to the City of Omaha without Benson residents ever having a vote in the matter. Initially planned to take effect in late May, the city made a small concession at the request of the board of education to postpone official annexation until June 5, 1917, after graduation ceremonies at schools in Florence and Benson could be held.
In the years that followed annexation, Benson flourished, building a strong business district, as well as robust residential market offering many affordable housing options. “Maple Street became the core of the central business district, with family-owned shops, doctors’ offices, a lumber yard...” Swanson says. “And Benson had a mix of blue-collar workers and professionals, and seven churches.”
Krug Park, an amusement park on North 52nd Street in Benson, became a popular destination for Omaha families seeking a day of fun. And a host of neighborhood parks and schools, including Benson High School, made the neighborhood attractive to young families.
The 1980s and 1990s brought more challenges to Benson, as many commercial buildings and public areas began to show their age and fall into disrepair. Efforts to reinvigorate Benson Business Improvement District, which was established by the City of Omaha in 1977, got a jumpstart in 2010 and again in 2015 with a $1.3 million investment in a streetscape project that involved replacing curbs, widening sidewalks, adding traffic-calming devices, and installing safety lighting in alleys. Also added downtown were sidewalk benches, landscaping, and a street bicycle corral, the only one of its kind in Nebraska.
Sarah Johnson, owner of Omaha Bicycle Company at 6015 Maple St., which opened in 2012, is enthusiastic about of all the civic improvements made in recent years. (She spent a year on the BID board herself.) She’s also optimistic about Benson’s future. So much so that she purchased her commercial building and moved to the neighborhood last year, settling just a few blocks from her shop. “I really appreciate that there are so many owner-operated businesses here, and that we can bounce ideas off each other. There’s a neat sense of community. I also love the walkability of the area, and the fact that I can ride my bike to work. I’m hoping to stay for a while.”
Johnson says she takes advantage of Benson’s lively entertainment district, often enjoying First Fridays art walks, various music events at the Waiting Room and Reverb Lounge, and evenings at the Benson Brewery. “There’s so much to do, I feel spoiled. I love it here now.”
Liz Moldenhauer, vice president of the Benson Neighborhood Association, says the organization meets nine to 10 times annually, looking for ways to make life better for the 13,000 households that call Benson home. “We have about 300 members in the association, but it’s really a core group of committed local residents who are always working to make positive change in the area.
“We’re working to make sure services are provided such as trash pickup, addressing code violations, and asking for more citizen patrol and bike patrol services to deter crime. And we’re now using a City of Omaha mobile app to report issues like potholes and graffiti. That has been very popular and effective.” The association also uses the Next Door app, Twitter, and a Facebook page to communicate concerns and happenings with residents.
Moldenhauer says the association has raised funds for the renovation of several Benson public parks, as well as worked to expand participation in community events. “There are a bunch of events we sponsor, from Benson Days to the Benson Boo Bash every October, to spring cleanup, for which we partner with Keep Omaha Beautiful.”
The biggest testament to Benson’s revitalization is the return of families to the area, she says. “When I moved back to Benson 11 years ago, there weren’t as many kids on my street. Now I see lots of kids. Houses are selling fast. That’s an identifier of a strong neighborhood.”
Just as it was a century ago, Benson is a family-friendly community on the rise.