Look at the trees — with changing leaves and bowed branches — casting shade on the ground.
Look at the stone steps, many half-crumbled, beckoning visitors up and down year after year.
Look at the rutted cliffs that drop off sharply toward the road below.
What do you see?
Hummel Park is many things to many people. For some, the 200-acre area nestled in the Ponca Hills neighborhood is a sentimental place, the site of childhood day camp adventures and playground games.
But for decades the park has been plagued by sinister stories, whispered by Omahans of all ages. For many, Hummel will always be the site of both supernatural terrors and all-too-real tragedies.
It’s a reputation Omaha parks administrators have worked hard to combat in recent years, adding amenities such as a nature center building and a disc golf course and investing money into cleanup, maintenance and security.
Hummel closes earlier than Omaha’s other parks, especially from October through April, discouraging any late-night Halloween revelers.
But the legends endure, experts say; that, after all, is what makes them legends.
“People just kind of gravitate toward it. … I wish I had a good answer for why it’s Hummel Park,” said Todd Richardson, associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Goodrich Scholarship Program who teaches about American folklore. “It just kind of absorbs legends.”
Urban folklore is fluid, Richardson said, and there’s rarely one definitive incarnation of a legend. But when he brings up the topic of Hummel with his students, he typically hears a few common themes.
The park, they say, is home to a family, or colony, of albino farmers who venture out only at night. It’s also a hotbed of satanic activity, they say, citing images of spray-painted pentagrams on park property. It’s home to the Morphing Stairs, which are cursed, they say, because no one going up will count the same number of steps going down. Some have said the trees in the park are forever bowed in solitude from lynchings.
Historians tell a far more grounded story: In 1930, the N.P. Dodge family donated 202 acres of land to the city in honor of Joseph B. Hummel, a longtime superintendent of Omaha parks.
According to the Douglas County Historical Society, there is no evidence lynchings ever took place at the park. The staircase is difficult to count because the steps are irregular. And, for good measure, “there has never been an albino farm at Hummel Park,” the historical society clarified.
But like many Omahans, when Jeremy Morong was young, he used to wonder about the place.
On hikes with his father, Morong, now 36 and a local author, said his dad would try to scare him with stories about the albino family or about a mysterious hermit who supposedly lived in the woods. During the hikes, Morong would peer into the trees, looking for signs of the hermit’s house.
Last year Morong published a short story collection, “The Legend of Hummel Park and Other Stories.” The first story in the collection combines several Hummel legends.
These days, Morong said, he’s not one to believe in ghost stories. To him the park is a scenic escape from the city, a place where his children can play and he can enjoy the outdoors. He gets the same number every time he counts the Morphing Stairs, he said: 188.
“I don’t really put any stock in this stuff,” he said.
So he struggled writing his story. To him, writing about the legends he knew to be false would be making light of the terrible things that he knew really took place at Hummel.
Today, many Omahans know of the park as the site where the body of 12-year-old Amber Harris was found in 2006. The man convicted of killing her, Roy Ellis, was sentenced to death.
There have been other crimes. In 1983 a passer-by discovered the beaten body of a woman in a ditch near the park. In 1992 a 15-year-old was killed in Hummel Park following a dispute about stolen car stereo speakers. In 1998 a teen was beaten and slashed writing the names of his attackers on his car in his own blood before staggering off to find help.
On a recent day, Donna Hronek, 57, waited on a group of cyclist friends to arrive at Hummel. She was a counselor at the still-popular Hummel Park Day Camp in the 1980s, she said, and she remembers other counselors talking about the place as a dumping ground for bodies.
For years Hummel’s reputation as a dangerous place endured. It wasn’t always like that, said Wendell Harden, 74, whose family has lived near the park for four generations.
Harden has been romping Hummel’s hills “since I hit the ground,” he said. And in its heyday it was the place to be. Visitors used to be able to ski there in winter. And during summers in the 1940s, he said, the park was packed with families visiting for the Fourth of July.
“It’s a neat place if you know what you’re looking for,” he said.
In the late 1950s, Harden said, things started to change. He began to hear stories that an albino family was living in the park where he had spent his youth. Around this time, he said, the park began to fall into disrepair. People began venturing onto the property after hours, he said, having “booze and sex parties.”
“That was going on in the ’50s and ’60s, and it got kind of rough, and people kind of stayed away from it,” he said.
Eventually, said Brook Bench, Omaha parks and recreation director, the park became a gathering place for a local gang. Graffiti covered surfaces. People began dumping trash. The park had turned.
So why did it happen? Why did Hummel suddenly become dangerous? And why does the park continue to inspire stories of satanism and black magic?
Some, including Douglas County Historical Society researchers, blame the park’s remote location. It’s quiet and shaded even in the daytime.
“Go out there at midnight and see how uneasy you feel,” Harden said. “You’ll hear noises you don’t normally think possible.”
It’s a narrative Omaha parks administrators still fight today.
“Our goal is to squash a lot of that stuff,” Bench said. The albino family, the satanic rituals, the cursed staircase — “95 percent of that is all junk,” he said.
“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have even walked around at that park,” he said.
Things are different today.
Over the past decade the city has worked to revitalize Hummel, which Bench called one of Omaha’s prettiest and most historic parks. Improvements include the construction of a $967,000 nature center, a $110,000 house for the park’s caretaker and more than $170,000 spent on a new playground, shelter and picnic equipment.
The park now is also home to an 18-hole disc golf course.
Over the years, Bench said, ghost hunters and thrill seekers have contacted his office asking for permission to stay in the park overnight.
“I don’t let anybody do that,” Bench said. Go to any park in the middle of the night and you’ll hear things or see things that make you jump, he said. Hummel is no different. But it’s not haunted.
“The biggest thing that I don’t want to do is go backward,” he said. “I don’t want people to not feel comfortable going there because of some old wives’ tales.”
But eliminating those rumors might be easier said than done. Legends endure, Richardson said, because they’re interesting. Because people who know them want to pass them on to those who don’t.
“This is an opportunity for average folks to be the expert,” Richardson said. “Because it’s unverifiable and because it’s spread person to person, it’s an oral manifestation of knowledge. It empowers the individual. It’s not disprovable.”
Bringing up the topic of Hummel Park with his students almost always results in a spirited round of legend swapping, Richardson said. He tells them what he knows, they tell him what they know. It equalizes the discussion.
And many have stories to share. For many American teenagers, visiting a place like Hummel Park, experiencing the legend for themselves, is a rite of passage. Adolescents gravitate to these places as a way to put themselves “in danger” safely, Richardson said. They pass their stories on to their children, who do the same.
So maybe this is one reason why legends last: because everyone has a similar story to share, even across the generation gap. For a moment, two people who might have little else in common can share what they know about their city.
It has little to do with whether or not the legends are actually true, Richardson said.
On a recent bright Sunday, the brothers of UNO’s Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter sought out some Hummel legends for themselves. Christopher Schmidt, Joshua Wiley and John Waller were at the park for a school assignment — an exercise in critical thinking in which they had to count the supposedly inconsistent number of stairs on the Morphing Stairs.
Walking up the stairs, each reported a different number of steps. But, they agreed, this was likely because some of the steps are broken and easy to miss.
Schmidt, an Omaha native, used to hike Hummel’s trails with his friends growing up. He led his friends to a pavilion near the top of the staircase where, he said, you can find all kinds of satanic symbols.
There were no symbols on the pavilion’s walls that afternoon. There were no sounds of ghosts.
But it was starting to get dark as the group walked toward the pavilion.
So maybe that’s why, when someone stepped on a twig, Schmidt jumped anyway.