Goin’ down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson

Taking a ride with a lover of American cultural artifacts

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early July Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson takes me for a ride in his PT Cruiser to opine about his magnificent obsession with old things.

The singer-songwriter-musician owns Rainbow Music, a combined recording studio and music store at 2322 South 64th Ave. that features vintage sound equipment and instruments he's passionate about.

He's also into Golden Oldie songs, historic buildings, classic cars, and early roadways, especially the old Lincoln Highway. His Cruiser's adorned with a chrome hood ornament from a 1951 Chevrolet he saved to repurpose in just this way.

The self-styled preservationist opposed CVS building a pharmacy at 49th and Dodge that took out old structures he deemed historic for lining the Lincoln Highway during its Jazz Age heyday.

The highway was not just a practical conveyance when there were few reliable roads but an expression of America's new liberation, ambition, optimism and restlessness. He advocates saving whatever remnants stand from its active years (1913 to 1929), whether grain elevators, feed mills, silos, barns, office buildings, churches, homes, signs.

He owns what may be the oldest surviving structure still in use on the highway, John Sutter's Mill, a circa 1847 Mormon-built structure where Saddle Creek Road and Dodge Street meet at 46th. "I just knew it was kind of a magical building and I didn't know why," he says. "My building is the last of the Nelson B. Updike empire." Updike was a feed, grain, lumber and coal magnet and publisher of the Omaha Bee.

"Mormons used to refer to it in diaries as 'the mill west of Omaha.' It was painted bright orange a century ago to attract the attention of cross-country travelers."

His says the site began as a water wheel grist mill before being turned into a planing mill and an outfitters store. He admires its construction. "When I realized that behind all the crappy two-by-fours and dry wall were 10-by-10 solid chunks of cedar 50 feet long I had a new found respect for the building." He hopes it one day becomes a Lincoln Highway museum or antique shop or coffeehouse.

The two-story 4,000 square foot building most recently housed National Cash Register, whose machines he would gawk at as a kid.

"When I was little I'd walk by it and be fascinated with the weird stuff in the windows – those mechanical things and different colored cash registers. So I was always drawn to the building."

Erickson's mounted an enormous billboard on site to commemorate his beloved highway's legacy and Omaha being mid-point on the coast-to-coast route. The billboard replicates the L logo design and red, white and blue motif of the highway's signage. An arrow pointing east informs eastbound travelers they have 1.353 miles to go to New York City. An arrow pointing west alerts westbound travelers they are 1,786 miles from San Francisco. Generations ago a large Welcome sign with Lincoln Highway above it greeted travelers at 18th and Farnam.

He's also erected a Lincoln Highway marker that replicates the official markers that once dotted the side of the road every mile along its entire 3,400 mile path.

He feels Omaha could do more to celebrate its highway heritage.

"Before I put a sign up outside my building there was no Lincoln Highway sign in the whole city designating its history."

Metropolitan Community College's Elkhorn campus has a photo display of the highway under construction. The Boys Town archives traces the highway's connection to the home. There are highway displays at the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney. "They've done a wonderful job with the exhibits," Erickson says of the attraction. The Lincoln Highway Natonal Museum & Archives is in Ohio.

If Erickson had his way every building the highway ran by would sport a sign or plaque about it.

"There's car nuts, there's building nuts, there's highway nuts, and I find it aggravating that I'm all three and no one else is," says Erickson, who could have added music nut to the list.

Given his musical bent it's not surprising he wrote a theme song for the Lincoln Highway Association's recent centennial celebration in Kearney and took photos of landmarks along the Omaha route to accompany the music. His countryesque ditty set to images is on YouTube.

"I'm goin' down the Lincoln Highway, I'm goin' down the Lincoln Highway, Ga ga golly, I'm going down the Lincoln Highway."

"My song and video are trying to raise awareness of the Lincoln Highway all over the United States."

He's also created a website about the highway and his mill.

When it comes to motor vehicles and roads he prefers some age-worn history and character to them. Memories attach themselves to places and things and the Lincoln Highway carried the hopes, dreams and experiences of people. Road trips are part of the American DNA. Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured this spirit in his existential On the Road:

"In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn't frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns - Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus - unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked."

Built entirely by private interests to be the nation's first coast-to-coast thoroughfare, the highway opened at a time when most roads, including many sections of the highway itself, were unpaved. As more folks sought the freedom a motor vehicle promised it was obvious the country's roads needed improving.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower cited the arduous cross-country convoy he took on the highway as a young military officer with motivating him to authorize the creation of the U.S. interstate system.

As the first of its kind the highway owns a romantic mystique among history buffs and nostalgia fans. Much fanfare attended its October 31, 1913 dedication. Burgs across America celebrated with torchlight parades, bonfires, speeches, auto races, fireworks and cannon volleys. Some credit Omaha with the biggest celebration of all. A crowd estimated at more than 10,000 gathered outside city hall for a giant bonfire fueled by three train carloads of railroad ties from Union Pacific Railroad. Smaller bonfires lit up the sky in towns along the Platte River.

Long before the fabled Route 66 and decades before heavily traveled Interstate 80 was even imagined, Lincoln became known as America's main street because it connected so many cities and towns all the way from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The highway spurred much development along its route.

"I think it's basically a national hidden treasure," says Erickson. "You can actually drive the Lincoln Highway and there's parts of it where the original brick surface is still intact and you can reexperience what your great-grandfather did. It's America the way it used to be without the bad parts.

"My dad would be out selling grain elevators all over the country and he'd throw two or three of us in the back seat of the car and half the time we were on the Lincoln Highway in our family's Pontiac. No air conditioning. When you finally got to a little cafe it was heaven. You'd eat at these special places on America's hIghway."

The pull of those times is still great 60 years later.

"I don't know, it's in my blood."

His fixation has something to do with his first love, music. He likes that big bands on the Midwest circuit traversed the highway "in those torpedo-shaped trailers" to get from gig to gig. Decades later he did the same, only in trucks, to run sound and lights for national acts.

"So it ties back to Omaha and to my recording studio and my background in music."

For our Lincoln Highway sampler we make a circuitous 18-mile trek from the Omaha riverfront's Lewis & Clark Landing to Elkhorn, where a three-mile stretch of brick survives, With nearly each landmark we pass  Erickson offers historical tidbits and traces his fascination with the highway that long ago was rerouted and renamed US 30.

"In Omaha most of the Lincoln Highway is still there. It's just under two or three layers of asphalt. We have a few things in Omaha that are one of a kind and the only ones left."

The route starts on Douglas, snakes to Farnam around midtown, cuts over to Dodge, then jumps to Cass before resuming on West Dodge.

When it comes to highway landmarks, Erickson's prefers old ones but appreciates new ones as well. "To me the Holland Center is a new landmark on the Lincoln Highway," he says of the performing arts venue at 12th and Douglas.

"One of the most famous (old) landmarks is the Brandeis Building," he says of the flagship for the J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire that reigned at 16th and Douglas for most of the 20th century.

He considers St. Mary Magdalene Church at 19th and Dodge a distinctive site for having "a door to nowhere" after downtown was lowered by dozens of feet.

A beautiful ballroom is among the distinguishing features of the Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 20th and Douglas.

He admires the "beautifully restored" former Riviera and Paramount theater, later known as the Astro and now The Rose at 20th and Farnam.

He likes that the Fraternal Order of Eagles building at 24th and Douglas hosts swing nights. "It's kind of fun being in a historic building with the jitterbug," he says.

Two of Omaha's most impressive edifices, Central High School and Joslyn Art Museum, are only a block north of the highway.

He feels one of the most significant highway buildings is the former Hupmobile dealership at 2523 Farnam. The Hupp Auto Company built the popular car before being squeezed by the industry's major players. He says the vacant building's original showroom floor is intact as is the freight elevator for moving cars from floor to floor.

"I hope someone that cares will do something with that building. It would make a great auto museum," he suggests.

The dealership was part of Omaha's original Auto Row.

The All Makes Office Equipment and Barnhart Press buildings on the north side of Farnam are handsome structures housing multi-generation family businesses but what really makes Erickson excited is "a wonderful one-block stretch of brick north of them that enables you to actually experience what it felt like," he says.

Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church at 2650 Farnam is one of Omaha's oldest worship places.

He says hungry, weary highway travelers found eateries (Virginia Cafe, Tiner's Drive-in) and hotels (the Fontenelle, the Blackstone) up and down its eastern Omaha route, Motorists would have gawked at Gold Coast mansions such as the Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam.

The Tudor-style building housing McFoster's Natural Kind Cafe was once a White Rose gas station. Erickson recalls, "We'd be coming back from church and I'd always want Mom to get gas at that 'castle' across the street from the Storz mansion with gargoyles and trolls leaning out of the windows. These buildings were right out of children's books I read. White Rose built odd buildings and this was one of their prettiest. I think it's one of the few of its type left in the country."

The Admiral Theater sat at 40th and Farnam until it was razed. Erickson says. "My slogan in Omaha is, '…and then the bastards tore it down.'" Jutting over to Dodge, he notes the Joslyn Castle is worth a stop a block north on Davenport. Continuing west on Dodge we arrive at his building. Since acquiring the former mill he's used it as a staging space to assemble sound and lighting equipment for installs.

"That business has sort of fallen off, so I need to do something with the building now," says Erickson.

As we reach 49th and Dodge he says, "Up until two years ago all four corners were intact from the Lincoln Highway. The Hilltop House duplicated a Bavarian restaurant. It was all pine inside. Reniers Piano was the Dundee Hotel and the Sunset Tearoom. The three buildings CVS tore down were all historic because they were on the Lincoln Highway. The 49er was a bakery. The coffeehouse was a pharmacy, The third was one the first self-service grocery stores in Omaha."

He anoints historic status to the Dundee Theatre. The same to the Saddle Creek underpass and the pedestrian tunnel at 51st and Dodge.

He says long ago "there was a camp grounds at Elmwood Park" where motorists could spend the night before resuming their journeys. The park also contained a lagoon with a structure for monkeys. "The city fathers didn't know monkeys can swim, so Monkey Island eventually became Monkeys in Dundee because after a week of getting free food they got bored and went all over Dundee.

The renowned Omaha Community Playhouse is a block north of the highway's route.

We go another mile west and he says, "So here we are on 78th and Dodge. We're taking a hard right because that's the way the Lincoln Highway went. The New Tower Inn was at 78th. Before that it was the Tower Motor Court and before that it was a camp ground called Towers Tours Village." We arrive on Cass Street and the site of what used to be Peony Park and the extensive peony fields of Carl Rosenfield. Both were right on the highway's path.

Erickson's found brochures and postcards illustrating how attractions on the highway, such as Peony Park and Boys Town, marketed themselves as way-stops for travelers.

Following Cass west we merge onto West Dodge Road, where almost everything post-dates the highway. A major exception is Boys Town. Founder Father Edward Flanagan relocated his residence for homeless boys from downtown Omaha to the Overlook Farm right on the highway in 1921. Boys Town historians say Flanagan publicly touted the highway as a great avenue to see America and he invited motorists to follow it right up to Boys Town's front door. Many did just that. Boys walked or hitchhiked their way on the highway to the home. So many made their way to Boys Town via the highway that in the '30s Flanagan had some of the youths build a covered travel stop, of which there were few and far between then, as a comfort station.

The 1938 movie Boys Town includes scenes shot on the highway, including Pee-Wee being hit by a car.

Finally, we reach the ribbon of bricks in Elkhorn, where Erickson says, "You actually get a feel for driving on the road. This vista right here could be any day, any time. This is kind of what I remember driving in our old Pontiac with Dad. We'd hit a stretch of brick and, vroom, he'd put on the gas more. I don't know why. I suppose he liked it, too. The highway was a lot nicer then because it was flat and smooth. Today it's used as an access road. That's part of the problem. The trucks are getting bigger and heavier and the road gets wavier."

He says the brick remains because people knew well enough to leave it alone.

"I mean, the reason it's still here is that nobody needed to make it all pretty and nice and concrete. If they had, that concrete would be destroyed by now. The bricks are still here. Bricks will last forever, Concrete lasts maybe 20 years.

"If it had been in Omaha we would have paved it a long time ago."

The Douglas County Board passed a resolution to preserve the brick segment for future generations. Milepost 1437 to 1438 was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The historic mile was rededicated July 17, 1988. State historical markers offer background.

It's all music to Erickson's ears, whose eclectic music pedigree is the root of his love of history and nostalgia for bygone eras. He grew up listening to Johnny Mathis, James Brown, Motown. Then came the British Invasion bands. He was steeped too in traditional tunes from his family's Swedish heritage. It's why his repertoire today ranges from the Swedish folk song "Can You Whistle Johanna?" to the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and pretty much everything in between.

"The best compliment I ever got was that my music is a cross between Frank Zappa and Bob Marley."

His older siblings played in bands and he tagged along with them.

"They played at Mickey's A-Go-Go and the Peppermint Cave and they dragged me around when I was like 6. I thought I was a roadie and they thought they were babysitting. So I was exposed to this wonderful monster music. I wrote my first song when I was about 4. I've written about 4,000 songs. Some of them are good and some of them are appreciated by people. 'Shit Head, the Love Song' was the most requested song the Fish Heads did, and it's one of my mine."

Erickson's fronted several bands. He says his Wee Willie and the Rockin Angels broke attendance records at Peony Park. Today he gigs with his own Paddy O Furniture jam band. He's sat in with many other groups. He's been a fixture on the Omaha music scene not only for his music but for his work as a sound and lighting engineer. He's made custom speaker cabinets and sound systems for decades.

"We provided sound for Sprite Night at Peony Park all those years. Those were the original raves – 3,000 kids outdoors dancing to 'dashboard light' with a sound system you could hear pretty clear about two blocks away. It's just cool to have that volume switch. You need it a little louder?"

He's worked with musical artists of every genre:

REM
The Beach Boys
The Ramones
Joan Jett
Robert Palmer
B.B. King
Steppenwolf
The Isley Brothers
Willie Nelson

"When we were doing sound jobs for national acts all over the country  sometimes I'd scoot on an old highway for awhile."

When North O thrived as a jazz, R&B, funk and soul hub he did sound and lights for enough African American bands here – L.A. Carnivale, Crackin' – to get inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.

311, Boyz to Men and Jordan Sparks have all recorded at his funky Rainbow Music. But it's the audio gear he buys, sells, trades and records on that really gets him amped up.

"We have all the new digital gear but to make the digital sound good you have to bring in some old tube gear. We basically made all of our own equipment because they hadn't invented it yet. The old stuff still sounds better. We're like the dinosaur on the block. Today you'd need about 24 of the hip new boxes to equal the sound pressure four old ones produce. At Rainbow you can record through some of the best gear they had back in the '50s and '60s to give it that fat, warm sound.

"We started acquiring all this tube analog tape gear and every piece we came up with was tied to famous recording studios and artists. We've got half the PA system used for the Grateful Dead, all the tube mixers Motown would have had. We have equipment from Sun Studio in Memphis, Sound City in L.A. and from other legendary studios."

He's no Elvis or Dylan, but he carries his catchy Lincoln Highway tune with great aplomb.

"Got my baby sittin' by my side, '40s chop top, I got the ultimate ride,
Since 1913...100 years ago today,
Everybody's driven' cross the USA,
I'm goin' on the Lincoln Highway,
I'm hopin' to see you…somewhere along the way."

He's happy if his music video homage to the highway spurs wider interest in the history behind it.

"It's been buried for so long, it's almost like we destroy or shy away from history."

He loves discovering and sharing that history, saying, "Give me a little kernel of information and I'll go dig up some more stuff. That's half the fun." He also believes fate led him to the mill and its highway lineage. "Magical things like that happen to me all the time. People call it coincidences. I call 'em little tiny miracles."

Visit his website at lincolnhighwaynebraska.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

posted at 09:21 pm
on Monday, October 14th, 2013

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