Thumbing through the leather-bound annals of Omaha history or scrolling through current-day blogs, you won’t find much on Sheelytown.
But if you sit down with Joyce Synowiecki at Dinker’s for a half-hour, you’ll be tempted to write the bloodstained book yourself.
Her family runs Dinker’s, one of the last relics of Omaha’s unofficial Polish village, Sheelytown. Omaha’s oft-forgotten, rough-and-tumble neighborhood was named for the Sheely Brothers, Jewish German immigrants who operated a meatpacking plant near 27th and Martha Streets for six years in the 1880s. Irish laborers settled the area, loosely defined as Edward Creighton Boulevard south to Vinton Street and 24th Street west to 35th Street.
They were soon pushed out by Polish immigrants, who built an invisible wall around their section of town that lasted long after the meatpacking plant burned to the ground. The area was known for colorful nicknames, street dances, weeklong weddings and, above all, a party-hard, blue-collar mentality.
“It was a really tough neighborhood,” Synowiecki said. When an Irishman even a block away would come to date a Polish girl from Sheelytown, he might be beaten to a pulp. “Even real (Poles) didn’t come down to date the Sheelytown girls. They were very clannish.”
The fiery tempers of Sheelytown reached a crescendo in March 1895.
A schism formed in the Polish-speaking St. Paul’s Catholic Church at 29th and Elm Streets concerning who should own and operate the church. One faction, the “Lambs,” sided with the bishop. The other side, the “Goats,” sided with Stanislaus (or Stephen) Kaminski, a supporter of Polish nationalism implanted to take over the church by the Goats.
Some say Kaminski wasn’t Polish at all and wasn’t actually a priest, but rather an organist and lay teacher. Despite some possible biblical connections, the meaning behind the names Lambs and Goats may be lost to time.
The Goats managed to secure the property title to the church. And when the Lambs came to take their church back, Kaminski barricaded himself inside, guns drawn.
Kaminski buried bullets in both of Xavier Dargaczewski’s legs and Frank Krzycki’s hip. Neither died, but there was no turning back.
Two weeks later, at about 9:30 p.m., two pistol shots rang out into the night, and the church ignited into flames.
Witnesses told a World-Herald reporter at the time that they saw Kaminski fleeing the smoky church and four of his bodyguards carrying boxes out the church’s front door. He and the Goats holed up at a bar across the street, and a war of words began.
“They have been plotting against me ever since I came here,” Kaminski told the reporter after the fire. “They have tried to kill me or drive me from the church. When they could not do that, they tried another plan.”
Of course, the Lambs had a different take.
Supporters of the bishop told the same reporter that a Kaminski supporter named Joe was overheard in a saloon that week saying: “We have been beaten so far, but there is a way to get the best of the devils yet. We can burn the (expletive) church down, and that will settle it.”
So who torched St. Paul’s?
One month prior to the fire, District Court Judge Ambrose ruled that the bishop and the Lambs should reclaim possession of the church. The Kaminski Goats camp had until late March to get out or file an appeal.
The morning of the fire, Kaminski’s appeal bond was rejected. The Goats had until the next day to get out of the church and turn over the property to the Lambs.
Adding to the speculation, the property insurance on the church had recently been canceled, and the next-door neighbor reported seeing wagons being loaded with boxes from the church under cover of darkness in the week leading up to the fire.
A judge convicted several members of the Goats of arson one month later.
From the embers of that turmoil, the community built Immaculate Conception and St. Francis Churches. The ruins of St. Paul’s Church and the surrounding houses are paved now.
The fires at Sheely Bros. Packing and St. Paul’s transformed Sheelytown, but it remained vibrant through the middle of the 1900s. Longtime Omaha Mayor “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman was known for ending his political rallies in Sheelytown for good luck, and polka bands, street dances and taverns kept the area lively even as its main street moved from 27th Street to 29th Street, where Dinker’s sits in the modern day.
When the city planned for an Interstate highway through the city’s blighted areas west of downtown in the 1960s, Sheelytown fought back, but in vain. The new I-480 bisected Sheelytown, splitting the area’s main street literally in half — the buildings on the east side of the road from Dinker’s were demolished, and those on the west got to stay.
“When the Interstate went down through there, a lot of (Polish) moved to the Golden Hill area,” said Gary Kastrick, a South Omaha historian who earned the Sheelytown nickname “Galumpki” as a child.
Nowadays, the old-timers still gather at Dinker’s just as the residents always have, albeit with far fewer fistfights. They look back at Sheelytown fondly, not for the fighting, the drinking and the grit, but for the sense of community, of family and, OK, maybe a little bit for the fighting.
“It became legendary,” Kastrick said. “That’s the reason it’s still mentioned that way today.”
Unlike Dundee, Benson, Florence and other annexed villages or cities of Omaha’s early days, there are no noticeable historic markers for Sheelytown. Just a polka band that bears its name and a crowd of regulars at bars like Dinker’s.
More than 40 years ago, World-Herald writer Wayne Johnson, after attending a Sheelytown wedding, lamented the decline of this once-vibrant pocket of Omaha subculture. Even then, it appeared to be fading fast.
“The flavor of fellowship found there now perhaps is not so rich as it once was,” he wrote. “It has been diluted, no doubt, by the changing times.
“Still, it is there. May it never fade away. If it does, Omaha and America will have lost something fine.”