Jose Garcia, left, and Gary Kastrick prepare to open the South Omaha Immigrant History Museum. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

OMAHA — A new museum spotlighting Nebraska’s “Magic City” is preparing to open in May, its birth boosted largely by a $100,000 federal pandemic-related grant.

Situated in a bay of the state’s oldest indoor shopping mall, the South Omaha Immigrant History Museum will kick off with “The Smell of Money” exhibit, an homage to the lucrative albeit odorous local livestock industry that drew immigrant workers from around the world.

 Looking south over the cattle pens in the Stockyards from about L Street, circa 1917. (Courtesy of Durham Museum, Bostwick-Frohardt Collection)

Indeed, explosive growth led to the nickname of “Magic City” before South Omaha was annexed by Omaha in 1915. The area’s Stockyards, from about 1955 through the 1960s, stood out as the world’s largest livestock market. 

Nestled in the Center Mall, near 42nd and Center Streets, the community museum is to feature an assortment of fun nostalgia from that fast-paced era. 

There are remnants of the last-standing cattle pens. (Museum co-founder Gary Kastrick said he grabbed the wood as demolition was underway.)

There’s a bust of Laddie Kozeny that was on its way to the dump when someone swooped in for the rescue. (Kozeny was the familiar and friendly face of Packers National, a bank that sprang up to support meatpackers.)

Spread across a table in the mall museum is artist Doug Kiser’s mini rendition of the Stockyards in its heyday near 33rd and L Streets. (The model comes complete with scores of tiny animal figures in pens surrounding the high-rise where business was conducted.)

 Supporters start to set up the model of the Omaha Stockyards created by artist Doug Kiser. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Also among the storied parts of the operation are its two still-very-much alive founders who, in their own right, have claimed a piece of South Omaha history.

Jose Garcia, director, and Kastrick, curator, are long retired from their day jobs and for decades have been personally collecting and showing artifacts representing South Omaha and its people.

“We have 147 years of American history between us,” said Jose Garcia, who is 77. Kastrick is 70.

Most recently, their respective collections have been stored in their basements or in warehouse space.

Douglas County Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh, aware of Kastrick’s past efforts with museums that fizzled, approached the former Omaha South High teacher with a way to put the history back on display, Kastrick said.

Kastrick said that he, in turn, asked fellow history buff Garcia to be a partner in the venture.

Garcia at the time also had no public home for the cultural artifacts linked to his Mexican American Historical Society, a nonprofit supported by the Sherwood Foundation. Over the years he had run a few storefront cultural museums.

With backing from Douglas County Commissioners Cavanaugh and Roger Garcia, the county awarded federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that will enable a mid-May opening.

The museum is far from elaborate, and differs from more formal institutions that bring in outside collections for display. 

“We have lived and possess this history,” said Garcia. “We’re offering a comfortable, warm setting for people to come in and see their own history.”

He and Kastrick are striving for a socially interactive site with entertaining events to draw people in. When an upcoming baseball exhibit is presented, for example, they hope to roast hot dogs, serve Cracker Jack and host a related community program or baseball-related guest appearances.

The museum is backed by a board of trustees representing various ethnic groups that since the late 19th century emigrated to the area to work in grueling slaughterhouses and railroad yards.

And while Kastrick, of Polish descent, and Garcia, of Mexican roots, grew up in different cultures and cities, they reflect the diversity, grit and welcome mat of the South Omaha they hope is reflected in the museum.

 Gary Kastrick, retired teacher, and Jose Garcia, retired manager at Union Pacific Railroad, have a place to showcase their respective collections. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Raised in Kansas City, Garcia moved to Omaha in 1976 and opened a hypnosis center that  helped people drop habits like smoking.

Active in the Chicano movement and his culture, he quickly found a base at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and other South Omaha institutions and became director of the Chicano Awareness Center (today known as the Latino Center of the Midlands).

He married local artist and storyteller Linda (Rivera Garcia), and the two have teamed up on various projects that showcase her indigenous art and his photographic accounts of local history.

Later, while working as a manager for Union Pacific Railroad, Garcia organized exhibits celebrating Latin American culture. His team’s displays, for example, educated many in the downtown corporate world to Dia de Los Muertos and Mexican icon Frida Kahlo.

Meanwhile, Kastrick, a Buffett Award recipient for teaching, was passing along knowledge of his hometown of South Omaha to his students at Omaha South High. Much of it was first-hand experience, or learned from loved ones.

“My dad used to sit out on the swing in the front yard and tell me stories,” said Kastrick, adding that his dad was a bartender and, in addition to his own experiences, relayed yarns about the community that he heard from customers.

 Nostalgic pieces of South Omaha, which was annexed in 1915 by Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Kastrick recalled a pivotal moment as a teacher when he was charged with assembling a history project related to the closing of a South Omaha junior high school. He asked students to  interview residents of the inner city area. They learned about struggles, perseverance, success stories. 

“All of a sudden these kids, living in a blighted area, started lifting their heads a little higher. They’d say, ‘You know what happened here?’”

Kastrick saw a shift: History became less of a textbook subject for them.

“They could see it, touch it,” he said. “Kids of all backgrounds were finding connections in their roots.”

Kastrick went on to dedicate much of his teaching career to keeping the history of South Omaha alive, sometimes with grants and often with youth alongside him.

Around 2015, Kastrick and Garcia paired up on a historical display of local ethnic churches. They crossed paths over the years as they pursued their shared interest in South Omaha and its waves of immigrants from Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa.

In the past few weeks, the two have been busy with supporters transforming the leased mall space into a portal into the past.

They see the museum as part of other new activity headed to South Omaha, much of that tied to the Legislature’s Economic Recovery Act, which has earmarked tens of millions of dollars for North and South Omaha.

And they hope the effort becomes a connection and rallying point for diverse populations.

“We welcome their story,” said Garcia.

Cinco de Mayo fundraiser

OMAHA — The South Omaha Immigrant History Museum will hold a Cinco de Mayo celebration and fundraiser Friday at the Benson Theatre, 60th and Maple Streets.

The event, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., also is to recognize families and people who, over the past century, have made South Omaha a destination for Spanish-speaking people.

Cinco de Mayo itself is a day that marks the anniversary of Mexico’s victory, against great odds, over the French Army in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The battle, and the day, has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, and is recognized more in the United States than Mexico.

General admission is $10 (or $25 with a tequila tasting segment).

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