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Jim McKee: A history of the Home for Boys
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MEMORIES & MOMENTS

Jim McKee: A history of the Home for Boys

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The then-Omaha Masonic Boy’s Home at 2137 S. 33rd St. is shown here with many of the resident boys on the front porch of the old Megeath house about 1940.

When researching early organizations, from churches, to schools, medical institutions, charities and fraternal organizations, the examples that receive the most publicity and exposure overshadow others. One such example is the now century-old Omaha Home for Boys.

Frontier scout Maj. Frank North and others reported that a sort of Free Masonry existed in the area later encompassed by Nebraska Territory as early as 1849 and even left evidence of its existence in American Indians in the 1860s.

The first actual recorded Masonic lodge however was established in February of 1885 at Peter Sarpy’s Bellevue trading post. Omaha City’s first lodge, which was established Nov. 21, 1859, became Capitol (or Nebraska) Lodge in 1888 when the Bellevue lodge moved to Omaha where James Megeath was an early member.

When Boy’s Town moved from Omaha, west, outside the city limits, the juvenile court noted that homeless boys frequently roamed the downtown area after dark. The Chamber of Commerce then called for the establishment of a safe place for orphans within the city. This led the chamber’s president, jeweler Tinley Combs, who himself had been orphaned at the age of seven, to suggest the idea be adopted by the Masonic Lodge.

Jim McKee: A mysterious name change

A group of 12 Masons, each representing a separate group within the lodge, met and drafted plans for an organization to protect “orphaned, homeless, neglected, delinquent or underprivileged boys.” In October they incorporated the Nebraska Children’s Home Finding Association which changed its name the following month to the Masonic Home for Children.

The organization first considered locating in a large brick house at 14th and Martha streets but determined it was not close enough to the downtown area. That December the Paul Kuhns house and neighboring apartment building at 304 N. 22nd, the northwest corner of 22nd and Davenport, was purchased for $25,000.

Tinley Combs, the first corporation president, gave $5,000 and pledged $417 per month for the following year to the plan, enabling the organization to reorganize the house to accommodate 36 boys. In March of 1921, 10-year-old James King became the first orphan-resident and by year’s end the home had served 67 boys. Although only one year old, it had obviously already outgrown its site.

Jim McKee: An evolving University of Nebraska

In 1854 James Megeath arrived in Omaha on his way to the California gold fields but instead elected to stay. The following year he and his brother Samuel started a dry goods store near 14th and Farnam. Samuel and another brother, Joseph, later established Willow Springs Distillery as well.

James Megeath and Andrew Hanscom donated 58 acres of land to the city for a park, partially to inflate the value of their land holdings in the area. The only requirement to the city was that it was required to spend $25,000 to develop the park. What developed as Hanscom Park, later known as Omaha’s oldest park, soon had a greenhouse, bandstand, lakes, pavilion, dancing platform and flower beds connected by circular drives.

James’ son George Megeath owned a coal company in Omaha and in the 1890s became superintendent of the Union Pacific Railroad’s coal department. In 1923 James donated the family’s house and carriage house opposite Hanscom Park at 2137 S. 33rd to the Masonic Home for Children as an honor to his father George Megeath. The 18-room house was then remodeled so that the capacity was enlarged to house 60 boys. The house also had living and office accommodations for a supervisor and his family, a library and gymnasium.

The 59-acre Solomon farm at 52nd and Ames was acquired by the home in 1941, partially by trading a farm they owned near Elkhorn, allowing 80 boys to be quartered in the brick buildings. The following year the name was again changed, becoming the Omaha Masonic Home for Boys while Omaha architect George Prinz was hired to design a campus on the property beginning with three cottages, potentially growing to 10. Construction began in 1943 on the campus named Inspiration Hill with the boys living in cottages rather than a dormitory.

Bob Cooper donated a 72-acre farm on Mormon Bridge Road to the home in 1950 which was the site occupied by the Mormons which they called Cutler’s Park, before locating at Winter Quarters/Florence north of Omaha. This enabled various farm project classes including 4-H activities and stock raising with the farm able to house 11 boys while the entire home was able to care for 92 boys.

Known since 1952 as the Omaha Home for Boys, the home has also emphasized “child behavior modification and child welfare” as well as providing a home. The over 50-acre current campus at 4343 N. 52nd now also maintains a visitor’s center and museum and overall supports nearly 200 employees.

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Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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