Secret Omaha: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, by
Ryan Roenfeld, is essentially 200 pages of why Omaha isn’t as boring as most people think. Secret Omaha contains the history of over 80 odd places around the Omaha Metro area, most of which are free to visit.
In each entry, Roenfeld casually inserts a fact that is impossible not to look up - for example, one of the sites is the grave of John O’Neill, who invaded Canada to free Ireland from England. I had to look that up because it made no sense, but it is true.
Other crazy examples include a Danish building with a “dragon’s tail” spire, a church with its front door 20 feet off the ground and a 56-ft-tall concrete railroad spike painted gold.
Other places’ histories are more interesting than their appearance, such as the site of a riot against Greek immigrants and the site of a “war” between the
Bishop of Omaha and a Polish nationalist over a church. Some seemingly
uninteresting places sneak their way in (think the empty lot
where the Civic Auditorium once stood, or empty rail yards), but even those entries have some fascinating history. Roenfeld’s curation and commentary often contain such intriguing tidbits that the two-pageper- entry format can be limiting.
Briefly summarizing the history of all the rumors that surround Hummel Park, for example, leaves a lot of information to be desired. I could’ve read the book quicker had I not been Googling more information about some of the places.
Some entries could probably warrant entire books. Roenfeld’s writing is casual and inviting. Each entry feels conversational but manages to focus on the information instead of on the writing itself. Every entry is unique and
can stand alone. The sequence of the entries seems entirely random - flipping from page to page can jump you from Council Bluffs to West Omaha, or from a grave site to a former amusement park.
A short list of information is provided for each entry. It contains a summary of the entry, its address, its cost and some “pro tips,” some of which include other nearby attractions or links to helpful websites. Every entry also includes
an adjacent fun fact and a picture or two. The book is all grayscale except for a few color photo pages in the middle.
I read the entire book in a day. It is thoroughly engaging and a must-read for both lovers of Omaha and lovers of oddities. Omaha has so many more quirks than I ever expected.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some exploring to do...