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druid

Although many of its windows have been boarded up in the above photo, Druid Hall near the former Saratoga is now on the National Register of Historic Places with its interior still set up for fraternal meetings in what is now usually simply termed North Omaha.

Omaha City had barely begun in 1854, but even before the federal survey of Douglas County was completed, land speculators as well as settlers were investigating nearby tracts in hopes of high profits as the population grew.

Many would-be towns popped up, some to wither and die, others absorbed into Omaha and now merely neighborhoods. Saratoga, like Blakesly, Briggs, DeBolt, Druid Hill, Gibson, Lane, Mercer, Parkvale and Seymour is virtually unknown today though silent reminders are hidden in plain sight.

Springs of Sulphur-rich water were discovered in 1856 at what today would be approximately 16th and Locust streets, then noted as three miles north of Omaha. Virtually instantly they were also discovered by dime novelist Erastus Flavel Beadle who revisited the site several times. In early 1857, he envisioned a community with a port on the Missouri River and a resort similar to the one at Saratoga, New York.

He immediately announced construction of the Trinity House Hotel at the springs in the proposed city of Saratoga and incorporated the Sulphur Springs Land Company, which began soliciting capital and immediately claimed 320 acres of land in its name which it quickly parleyed into 2,300 acres which today would roughly encompass the land between 14th, 36th, Locust and Fort streets just above Ames Avenue.

The hotel opened as the Central House Hotel, the steamboat Florence landed at the dock and Beadle immediately began construction of a warehouse. On July 8 the second steamboat landed, its capitan announcing that the landing was as good as any on the Missouri River and predicted that with sandbars forming at Omaha, all boats with Omaha freight would soon be landing at Saratoga.

The Nebraska Legislature even incorporated the University of Nebraska at Saratoga. Saratoga seemed poised to prosper but that fall and winter a national depression closed the hotel, emptied the village and even Omaha City lost a third of its population.

Much of the land in and around Saratoga was acquired by the Kountze brothers in 1859 and about 1862 the empty hotel and six adjoining acres were purchased by the Episcopal Bishop for $3,500 and refitted as Brownell Hall. The Episcopal school however moved to 16th Street between Jackson and Jones in 1868 leaving almost nothing in Saratoga.

In 1883 Jay Gould established the Omaha Belt Railway Company as a loop around the city as part of a ploy to get the Missouri Pacific Railway into Omaha. Near the top, northwest corner, of the loop was Druid Hill, a stop between Webster Street and Oak Chatham. Tickets were priced “purposely high” at 10 tickets for 75 cents between Webster and Oak Chatham, which were both a three-minute ride from Druid Hill. The route was immediately successful for commuters or simply those going for a ride in the country.

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When Joseph Cullen Root, founder of the Modern Woodmen of the World, arrived in Omaha in 1890 he spun off the first word in the name and the firm became the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal life insurance company. Two years later Druid Hill Camp 24 of the W.O.W. was formed with 52 members, with their name apparently taken from the meeting site. By 1913 Druid Hill Camp 24 had over 600 members with several of their number forming the Druid Real Estate Company to establish a site and build their own meeting hall.

Lots were acquired at 2412 Ames Avenue and, with financial help from the W.O.W. headquarters, Druid Hall was built. At the grand opening in April of 1915 the building, designed by Omaha architect Joseph P. Guth, was said to be a two-story, brick and limestone, 100 by 70 foot, 7,000 square foot building with library, lodge rooms, bowling alley, gym, billiards room and the “finest ballroom in Omaha.” Like many lodge halls, the first floor had rented bays, giving the organization rental income even when the upper floor meeting rooms were not in use.

In November of 1935 Druid Hall was leased to the V.F.W. which purchased the building in 1947 and met there until 1967 when it was rented by the Prince Hall Masons. The lodge was named for Prince Hall, an African American, who founded the Black branch of the Masonic order, after his death in 1807. Druid Hall was then purchased by the Prince Hall Masons later in 1967.

Saratoga was annexed to Omaha in 1889. The corner of 24th and Ames Avenue, opposite from the hall, became an integral transportation intersection with the extant 1898 Queen Anne streetcar barn which served until the last streetcar line closed in Omaha in 1955 and it became storage.

The name Druid Hall lives on in a cornice stone on the building and Druid Hill School which is located at 31st and Sprague streets south of Fort Omaha on the edge of what was the village of Saratoga. Druid Hall, nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, is extant while the three business bays on the ground floor have hosted numerous businesses from a bakery to a hardware store to a local bar/club.

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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