It’s surprising, really, how fully the man faded into the shadows of time.
His name is scarce in Omaha. It appears on no skyscrapers, streets or statues. To know him, to really know him, you must look for him — scour dusty bookshelves and reels of microfilm for hints.
But there is one place where the name, if not the man behind it, has been common knowledge for more than a century: Omaha’s Masonic Lodge No. 268, the George Washington Lininger Lodge.
Lodge members Chris Carter and Doug Lewis have spent almost a decade traveling the country and rifling through documents to answer the question: Who was George Lininger?
He was a Warren Buffett of his day, they found. Extremely wealthy. A world traveler. A Nebraska state senator. An art collector. He was instrumental in the civic development of early Omaha. He even had an indirect hand in the creation of Mount Rushmore.
In 2008, Carter and Lewis’ quest culminated when they tracked down more than 200 artifacts, including ancient weaponry, art and even a couple of mummies, from Lininger’s personal collection almost forgotten in storage at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s State Museum.
Through it all, Carter and Lewis’ goal has been to right a wrong, to make Omaha remember the patriarch it forgot.
“I’ve always felt as though I owed George Lininger something,” Carter said. “And the more you learn about him, the contributions, the bigger the injustice it seems. This isn’t right. More people should know.”
The men’s quest began in 2006 when Lewis joined the Lininger lodge, housed in the Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 202 S. 20th St.
Lewis, a government research analyst, wanted to know more about the namesake of his new brotherhood. So he asked around.
The responses were vague: Lininger was rich. Really rich. He was into art. And he traveled a lot.
For Lewis, a man who became a Mason to learn more about a grandfather he never knew, the faint scraps of information weren’t enough. So he and his friend Carter, a manager of billing resolution services at the First National Bank of Omaha, started to dig.
First, they tried Google and Ancestry.com. Before long Lewis was spending days off working at the W. Dale Clark Library, poring through newspaper clippings. They hunted down wills, deeds, death certificates and tax records. They traveled to the Iowa Masonic Library and Museum in Cedar Rapids and to Lininger’s hometown, Peru, Illinois.
And what they found only pushed them to keep going.
Lininger was born in 1834, the son of a farmer and tailor. The family settled in Peru, where the young Lininger established a business selling tinware. There, he began to amass his fortune.
In 1868 Lininger moved to Council Bluffs and started selling farm implements. Five years later he moved the business to Omaha, branding it the G.W. Lininger Co.
In a World-Herald article published at his death in 1907, Lininger told how he came to live in Omaha. He was already wealthy, he said, and he and his small family traveled the world looking for a place to settle.
“We visited many cities of wealth and refinement and went into foreign lands seeking a home. And after months of this, we turned our eyes toward Omaha, feeling that no city we had yet found could ever seem so much like home to us as Omaha did,” Lininger said.
It was a smart move. Lininger established himself as a community leader in a city that, at the time, was considered a dirty, underdeveloped backwater. He served on the City Council and was the president of the first Omaha park commission, helping design areas such as Hanscom Park and planning the early stages of the boulevard system that eventually would link the city’s parks.
In 1887 the people of Douglas County elected Lininger to represent them in the Nebraska Legislature. He didn’t even run.
“On their own, (the people) wrote George Lininger in because of the respect that they had for him,” Carter said.
At home, Lininger urged the city to establish its own waterworks. Abroad, he met twice with the pope and once with a prince of England.
A dedicated Freemason, Lininger established the Masonic Home in Plattsmouth, where elderly Masons and their families still receive care today.
After Lininger’s death from a stomach illness, the Masons rushed to establish an Omaha lodge in his honor. They hoped he and his work would always be remembered.
About a century later, Carter and Lewis were stuck. They were working to track down Lininger’s extensive collection of art and artifacts.
Six years after he moved to Omaha, Lininger sold his business and began touring the world. He was always an art lover — so much so that in 1890, he paid for a man named Gutzon Borglum to travel to Europe to study art. Borglum, a sculptor, would later carve Mount Rushmore.
Throughout his travels to places such as England, Russia, Italy, Greece and Egypt, he began to collect things. A lot of them.
When he died, Lininger willed everything to his wife, Caroline. After she died in 1927, much of the art collection found its way into the Joslyn Art Museum, which opened in 1931.
But there were still the other items. Lininger paid the government of Egypt to be present at the opening of a tomb and he arranged for 10 tons of ancient Egyptian goods — statuettes of the god Osiris, mummified hawks, carved masks and even two full human mummies — to be shipped back to Omaha for display at the Omaha Public Library. He owned suits of armor, musical instruments and tools from around the world.
He also owned an extensive collection of antique weapons — pistols, swords and shields.
These, too, had been willed to Caroline. And when she died, many were given to the Masons through the Grand Lodge of Nebraska, which oversees all the local lodges in the state.
So where were they?
In May 2008, after another fruitless day of searching, Lewis placed a weary call to a curator at UNL’s State Museum at Morrill Hall. He told the woman what he and Carter were looking for.
“Oh, you mean the Lininger-Monell collection,” the men recall the curator saying. “If you’ve got time, you can come over right now and look at it.”
“Embarrassingly enough, when we got there, my knees were shaking,” Lewis said.
The museum still houses more than 200 artifacts from the Lininger estate. In the early 1940s, Grand Lodge officials determined they didn’t have enough space to properly store Lininger’s items and those of another Mason named John J. Monell. So they loaned them to the university for safekeeping. Over time, through dozens of leadership changes, the arrangement was largely forgotten.
“I think the main thing many people don’t realize is that museums such as ours ... have very large research collections that are way beyond what’s on exhibit,” said Priscilla Grew, director of the State Museum.
Several of Lininger and Monell’s items — flintlock pistols from Turkey, engraved Indo-Persian dhal shields, swords from Japan and China — are on display in Morrill Hall. But the bulk of the collection is packed away.
On a recent day, Naomi Szpot, collections assistant with the museum, wore white gloves as she carefully removed several items from storage: ancient Egyptian masks carved out of wood, engraved ceremonial Masonic swords, one of Lininger’s mummified hawks. But specific details about many of the items are difficult to come by.
In collections such as this, acquired years ago, Grew said, the items were often only cataloged and stored, awaiting interest from an outside researcher.
At the Lininger lodge’s centennial celebration in 2008, Carter and Lewis presented their findings to the rest of the lodge. It was thrilling, they said, to introduce their brothers to their patriarch. Today, a display dedicated to Lininger stands in the Grand Lodge’s new museum and research library, which opened in Lincoln earlier this month.
But Carter and Lewis aren’t satisfied with Lininger being known only in Masonic circles. In life, his reach extended further — Omaha, they said, wouldn’t be what it is if not for his influence.
Carter would like to see a statue of Lininger in the city. Lewis is thinking of writing a book.
In Masonic symbolism, light represents knowledge.
Lininger’s portrait now hangs opposite a row of windows in the lodge’s meeting room in the Scottish Rite center. On most days, the blinds are open to the city, and the sunlight falls on Lininger’s face.