The Serendipity Project: Florence Mill is a Haven for Arts & HealingAug 29, 2022 03:54PM ● By Natalie McGovern
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Linda Meigs may be known as "The Mill Lady," around Omaha, but there’s more to this artist and preservationist than what meets the eye. She has a penchant for old things, including historic, abandoned buildings. What started as a passion project with the restoration of an 1846 mill built by Mormon leader Brigham Young became a journey loaded with American history, culture, and an intriguing story.
Meigs visited England in 1997, taking in its history, beauty, and architecture. During the trip, she mused how Americans travel overseas to experience arts and culture while locally built heritage often falls to the wrecking ball. After returning to Nebraska, she read an Omaha World-Herald article titled “History for Sale.” The ruins of the old Florence Mill faced likely demolition.
Then, on Valentine’s Day of 1998, she received a loaf of bread and a proposition from her husband, John Meigs, who worked in the local construction industry. As an architect, he was involved in the early restoration of the Orpheum and Union Station (now Durham Museum). The bread contained a purchase agreement offer on the Florence Mill. If she wanted it, he would stand with her. She accepted, and the rest was history.
A call to the Nebraska State Historical Society got the ball rolling to put it on the National Register of Historic Places. She soon had the Nebraska State Historic Site and Save America’s Treasures Project on board. Meigs found herself operating a 501c museum nonprofit.
In their first summer of digging out debris and cleaning, 1,000 visitors showed up unexpectedly to see the Mormon timbers that stand inside the mill. It was not even supposed to be open to the public. Meigs decided the ruin must be turned into a space of historical preservation, particularly for Nebraska’s Pioneer Trail roots. "I saw this preservation project as adding cultural potential to Omaha, the state and beyond,” she said.
The mill was then a condemned building cemented with decades of “dried pigeon excrement over the wood,” trash, animal decay, and fermented grain from years of being boarded up.
Meigs restored the site and it now stands as a national landmark in the heart of Florence in North Omaha. "Things happen around here. Serendipity happens here,” she said nonchalantly. The Mill apparently took on a life of its own, as the connections to the past and future forge stronger with each event. A chance meeting with a journeyman from Utah trekking the Mormon Trail led her to host the 175th celebration of the Mormon Trail (and the Mill's 175th birthday) this past May, complete with a chuckwagon dinner, epic journey tales, and traditional folk music.
Meigs eventually discovered her own connection to the mill, and its relation to the Florence community. The neighborhood, formerly a city, sits atop streets of Winter Quarters, where the Mormons first settled. North Omaha is steeped in rich Mormon Trail history, and the Mill is a historic remnant of that distant past.
The venue also serves as hub for a farmers market, complete with an animal educational experience for children to “teach them about animal husbandry in a fun way.” During summer, Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., animals ranging from mules to goats and alpacas can be found at the event. The market attracts tourists and locals who appreciates the bucolic things in life.
The Mill connects intersecting parts of Meigs’ life. Her interests include art, writing and illustrating a children’s book on Nebraska, preserving historic buildings, and collaborating on projects or community events. It’s also a haven for healing. John passed away about eight years ago, and a son in 2004. Art has been a creative outlet for her, and a place of solace to find deeper meaning.
The Florence Mill’s seasonal events keep the memory of the Mill and the history of Winter Quarters alive. The annual Omaha North Hills Pottery Tour, featuring 22 nationally acclaimed clay artists, takes place the first weekend in October. The run completes a two-day excursion with the Mill serving as the “southern anchor” of the Tour.
Sandy Kucera, who owns Too Far North Winery in Fort Calhoun, spoke to Meigs’ ingenuity and affinity for the project. “She’s a pioneer on the caretaking of the mill,” she said.
Kucera has known Meigs for years and can attest to her close involvement in the Florence community as a steward of the historical landmark. Meigs’ work speaks for itself through many accolades and awards. Her figurative and landscape art exhibits have been featured nationally, regionally, and locally.
Linda Meigs’ legacy has many stories to tell, whether that be lost tales of the Mill or that of her own journey. Her projects expand beyond paintings, with years spent collecting recycled water bottles for a sculptural waterfall and meticulously hand-painted corn glassware. Of the many mediums she works with, Meigs includes various styles of art, including figurative, landscape, conventional, and even conceptual pieces. Her 2009 piece “Many Waters,” was instrumental to her growth and healing. The Mill in and of itself continues to serve as a sanctuary.
“It feels very sacred” Meigs acknowledged about the building, its history etched in rustic wooden supports. A day spent picking thistles in the nearby brush affirms the ethereal healing energy the mill generates, surrounded by the tranquility of nature. The Florence Mill may be Meigs’ art and history installation, but it continues to serve as a profoundly historic beacon of Nebraska's settlement history.
Visit theflorencemill.com for more information.
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.