Whether preparing and preserving food or discussing neighborhood concerns, bountiful activity goes on at this clubhouse meets social settlement house at 2737 Mary Street in northeast Omaha.
An endeavor at sustainability and community building, it takes its name from the neighborhood, Minne Lusa, it sits smack dab in. Minne Lusa runs east of 30th Street, between Miller Park and Florence, Two women residents of the area, Sharon Olson and Beth Richards, bought and restored an old, run down house there for the express purpose of making it a place of social engagement. It's an expression of their shared love for people, conversation, canning and community.
The tan, stucco, California Bungalow-style home hosts private canning lessons, public workshops and the every Saturday Morning Brew open house. Groups hold meetings there. Writers, artists and others use it as a quiet sanctuary for creative inspiration and meditation.
The women fixed up the house with the sweat equity of friends, neighbors and local contractors. They've done it all with their own money and without the aid of a community organization or government program. "And never will as far as I'm concerned," says Olson, who believes in self-sufficiency.
The cozy home includes a pantry with metal shelving units filled with jars packed to the brim with canned tomatoes, bruschetta, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pickled peaches, sweet and dill pickles, relishes, jams and jellies. The pantry has a hanging scale and pestle and mortar from Olson's druggist grandfather. More shelving units store the pickling spices, flour and other ingredients used in the canning and baking that goes on there.
When truck loads of corn or bushelfuls of tomatoes come in from community gardens and local farms during the summer folks gather to shuck, peel, chop, boil, spice and can the bounty. It's a throwback to the canning parties and barn-raisings of yesteryear.
Millard resident Betsy Scott has become a Saturday devotee.
"Instantly I felt welcomed," she says. "It's all about the apple turnovers and the fresh biscuits with the homemade jelly, it's about ,'Here, try my tomato jam.' It brings people together and that's never a bad thing."
Scott says the dozens of people who make it to those coffee klatches are attracted like she is to what Olson and Richards embody.
"Their passion for community and for the house itself, their love of canning and their love of people. By the time you leave you feel like you've known them forever. I think everyone walks away feeling like they've made some new friends. t's kind of like Cheers but without the beer and without Norm."
Diane Franson-Krisor grew up in Minne Lusa and she cherishes what the project provides.
"I think it's wonderful because every neighborhood needs a gathering place and they have really changed this area a lot. I've been here 52 years in a house on the corner and growing up was all about neighbors communing. That was the thing to do. All the mothers got together and the kids played. And this is bringing it back. It's like we're all one little family here."
"Somebody referred to Beth and Sharon as the porch ladies, and that's how it was when we were growing up."
Because it's neutral ground, elected officials and public servants come to hear concerns from their constituency. It's a safe house for children and adults escaping trouble at home. When there's an issue in the neighborhood, residents view Olson and Richards as the go-to resources to contact the authorities. When there's something that needs organizing, the "old ladies" at the Minne Lusa House are among the first ones people reach out to to get things done.
The house sometimes hosts arts and crafts shows. It organizes an annual Trick or Treat on Minne Lusa Boulevard during Halloween. It's currently sponsoring a Christmas decorating contest.
Efforts are underway to get Minne Lusa designated a National Register of Historic Places district. Olson and Richards support the initiative.
These women of a certain age grew up when tight-knit neighborhoods were the rule, not the exception. Olson, a retired phone company employee, resides in the same Minne Lusa house she was raised in. Richards is a newcomer to Minne Lusa by comparison. She "fell in love with the people" delivering mail there. It's how she met Olson.
"Our goal always was just bringing the neighborhood together," says Olson. "People don't talk to each other the way they used to. When I grew up neighbors spoke to one another. You didn't have to love them, you didn't have to break bread with them, but you were nice to them and talked to them. We don't do that anymore. Well, we do on my block. So the goal was always to bring that back somehow."
For both women it's a personal mission. Opened in 2011, the house has become the conduit for interaction the women envisioned
"When this house became available it was primary for us to say, 'Let's try this and see if it will work,' and the means to doing that was canning. Canning brought people in," Olson says, "When you're canning you have to talk to each other or you won't have a very good product when you get done."
Follow what's happening there at www.facebook.com/minne.house.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.