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Omaha Magazine

The History of Omaha's Hayden Family

Nov 01, 2021 10:44AM ● By Wendy Townley
Hayden house in omaha 1926 in snow

Photo Provided    

The retail shopping experience in downtown Omaha has certainly changed over the years. Department stores, locally owned boutiques, and the like have long been a part of the downtown experience for both residents and visitors.

One such store—the Hayden Brothers General Store—opened its doors along South 16th Street between Douglas and Dodge streets in the late 1880s. The space was small: a single room with six employees.

The namesakes of the store, Irish immigrants and brothers Edward and William Hayden, first opened Hayden Brothers in Chicago in 1885. Following advice from friends paired with aspirations to continue seeking the dream of American prosperity, the brothers moved to Omaha. 

Success soon followed and a third Hayden brother—Joseph—joined the family business. 

A variety of goods, paired with strong community ties, signaled growth for the small general store. Following a handful of years in business, Hayden Brothers moved a stone’s throw away to a 40-thousand-square-foot space that became part of Omaha’s downtown history.

Researches and records show that the store, at its height, boasted nearly 80 departments: from household items to fashion, groceries, and even coal. Business upon opening was brisk, matching the foot traffic and sales of another well-known and historic downtown Omaha retailer, Brandeis. 

In October 1935, when the store celebrated its 50th anniversary, it was reported in The True Voice newspaper (today known as The Catholic Voice) that the doggedness and determination of the three Hayden brothers contributed greatly to the store’s success:

“Despite their limited capital, their untiring efforts and keen foresight enabled them not only to carry on but to increase the size and importance of the store until it had become one of Omaha’s leading retail institutions. The slogan of the store ‘Try Hayden’s First’ has helped make the institution known from coast to coast.”

The Hayden name was quickly recognizable and became a jewel of Omaha. Such recognition and notoriety would continue for several decades, thanks to philanthropy and community efforts by Edward’s daughter, Ophelia. 

Born in 1889 to Edward and Mary Hayden, Ophelia would come to work in the family store. Success of the Hayden Brothers General Store continued well into Ophelia’s teen and young adult years. 

Ophelia became active in Omaha’s charitable causes and high society events. She even ventured into the role of activist when she traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1913 with a group known as the Omaha Equal Franchise Society. Their goal: march in the National Suffrage parade and attend the inauguration ceremony of America’s 28th president, Woodrow Wilson.

She joined the Christ Child Society Board of Directors. Working alongside other community volunteers, Ophelia distributed items and gifts to Omaha’s poorest children. Her interests in family preservation also led Ophelia to the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). WONPR was created to help families and communities who were negatively impacted by prohibition.

Ophelia’s generosity extended to religious causes, too. She was an early supporter of St. Margaret Mary Parish, which opened its doors in 1919. The church, located at 61st and Dodge streets, was just a few blocks east of Ophelia’s future home.

Ophelia and her mother built their spacious home in 1926 at an estimated cost of $80,000, according to archives at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The archives also mentioned that the revivialist-era Hayden House retains some of its distinct residential features, including a hitching post outside the entrance, a safe in one of the walls, and other hidden panels. The large brick structure includes dark wood, arches between rooms, and lots of built-in storage. Located on the west end of UNO’s Dodge Street campus, the sprawling historic house still stands today. Its original address was 200 South Elmwood Road. (Also worth noting: Ophelia’s sister, Mary—who would become the wife of Adolph Storz—lived for years in the nearby Storz mansion.)

Ophelia’s father passed away in 1909. When his brother, William, later died, Ophelia was named president of Hayden Brothers. She oversaw all operations of Hayden Brothers, which had become one of the largest department stores west of Chicago. 

In 1938, Hayden Brothers closed and became a J.C. Penny’s. Ophelia retained ownership of the building, leasing the retail space for years.

Throughout much of her adult life, Ophelia remained committed to Omaha and its people. She neither married nor had any children. 

Upon her death in February 1972, at age 83, Ophelia left her home to her alma mater, Duchesne College Convent of the Sacred Heart. A year later, UNO purchased the home. It was first known on campus as Annex 24. 

Through the years, Hayden House served as the dean’s office for the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, a welcome center for new and prospective students, and a central hub for learning groups such as Project Achieve, and the Success Academy. 

Visit unomaha.edu for more information

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.