South Omaha has always been distinctive, more than a mere point on a compass, and now it has another distinction — its own museum.
Its first exhibit, “The Smell of Money,” about the livestock industry, runs through Saturday, and another is planned for Cinco de Mayo.
Others this year will focus on sports legends, wartime life and its past seedy underside, “Bars, Barbershops and Brothels.”
The nonprofit museum at 2314 M St. celebrates the area’s accomplishments and its reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants and other newcomers.
“It’s fantastic,” said Gary Kastrick, the museum’s curator, “that South Omaha has always been a harbor for ethnic groups.”
South O was known as “the Magic City” for its rapid growth even before it was annexed by Omaha in 1915. Starting in the 1880s, European immigrants arrived to take hard jobs in the livestock industry, such as working on kill floors.
Other ethnicities, including African-Americans from the South, later joined them. Meatpacking plants — a euphemism for slaughterhouses — were very big business.
If the area was distinctive, it was also “stink-tive” from the odor of the Stockyards. People dismissed it as “the smell of money.”
Poet Carl Sandburg had called Chicago the “hog butcher of the world. ... City of Big Shoulders.” In 1922, he wrote: “Omaha, the roughneck, feeds armies. ... Omaha works to get the world a breakfast.”
As a livestock center, Omaha later surpassed Chicago and everyone else. On display at the South Omaha Museum is a 1955 letter from a Stockyards official, saying: “Let the Chicago boys know where the livestock center of the world is located.”
Omaha held that title from 1955 to 1972. But the industry decentralized and Omaha lost thousands of jobs with the closing of the Big Four packers: Cudahy, Swift, Armour and Wilson.
The thousands of wooden pens were eventually dismantled, but Kastrick scavenged and saved some of the wood, which was used to construct a pen-fence at the museum.
Now a retired South High social studies teacher, Kastrick in his youth sold bologna sandwiches to truckers who brought cattle, hogs and sheep to the Stockyards.
He has long studied the history of South Omaha and brought it alive to students. He was a Buffett Award recipient and is a member of the high school’s hall of fame.
Kastrick, whose surname is an Americanized spelling of the Polish name Kasprzyk, has worked closely on the museum with real estate agent Marcos Mora and consultant David Catalan, as well as other volunteers.
The exhibit features lots of photos, advertising signs and accounts of history, as well as a detailed replica of the Stockyards by artist Doug Kiser.
Also displayed are a massive cash register from the 1890s, a standup wooden console radio and much more.
Admission is free, and hours for the museum this week are 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It opens at other times by appointment and is available to rent for group events. The website is southomahamuseum.org.
The museum also offers talks as well as tours that include neighborhoods, ethnic murals and “a taste of South Omaha.”
The Cinco de Mayo exhibit opens with a reception from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on May 3 and runs through the month.
After the meatpacking plants closed, Kastrick noted, the area suffered.
“It was a ghost town in the ’80s,” he said, “but now look.”
Immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia have changed the face of the South 24th Street business district and given the area new vitality.
The museum hopes to be a part of that with “exhibits that reveal the character of South Omaha.”