“Why Lincoln is a Most Desirable Place to Make a Home.”

“Why Lincoln is a Most Desirable Place to Make a Home.”

— Omaha Daily Bee 3 Sept. 1914.

“On Sheridan Boulevard in the south part of the city can be seen many beautiful and substantial residences. Among these are the homes of some … who have chosen the sightly [sic] place where they can look out over the city and enjoy the cool breezes during the summer …

“The home of Mark Woods is a beautiful place … and while his house is built on a high eminence, he provided for further observations by erecting on the top of the mansion a beautiful parlor where the surrounding country can be taken in [from] all directions and on warm nights a comfortable place to sleep is provided.”

Mark Woods' house on Sheridan Blvd, Courtesy Lincoln Planning Dept.
Mark Woods' house on Sheridan Blvd, Courtesy Lincoln Planning Dept.

This article from one hundred years ago remarks on a burgeoning Sheridan Boulevard stretching from about 25th and South Streets nearly two miles southeast to Calvert and 44th Streets. Laying it out was among the first steps in the Woods Brothers’ ambitious 20-year plan for Lincoln.

When they began development, there were major challenges. Chief among them was that many were reluctant to move past South Street, both because there was a railway there forming a perceived border, and because it forms a hilltop stretching from the west to about 25th Street. There, the hilltop widens and veers to the southeast. Mark Woods wrote that they conceived the plan for Sheridan Boulevard to help move Lincoln’s development south and east, to, “…draw the city over the hill and into our districts.”

As noted in the article, Sheridan Boulevard was, and still is one hundred years later, host to, “… some of the finest residences within a ten-minute ride of the state capitol.”

Lincoln remains a very desirable place to live. In the last year, Lincoln was named among the top places for well-being, business and careers, entrepreneurs, affordable healthcare, and was ranked among the Top 100 Best Places to Live.  See more top lists here.

Great Breeding

Percheron Horses
Percheron Horses

The Woods family was involved in the breeding and sale of European draft horses, including French draft horses called Percherons. Their importing company predated the beginning of the development firm of Woods Brothers. The purebred horse business they started with partners in 1880 may be the first use of the Woods Bros name that would become famous when they established Watson, Woods Bros., & Kelly. The office was located downtown at the Lincoln Hotel and the barns and exercise areas were located between 33rd and 38th Streets and between Holdrege and Apple Streets.

Early buying trips were conducted by Mr. Watson who was highly credentialed and came to be considered one of the greatest judges of horses in the world. The first importation totaled one dozen Percherons and took five grueling weeks to travel west – first across the Atlantic to Montreal, and then by train to Lincoln. As the business matured, Mr. Watson undertook four annual purchasing expeditions. He filled the bottoms of his suitcases with cash, covered the money with a change of clothing, and sailed for Europe to buy.

The process was streamlined and business grew. Ships would sail back to New York with as many as eighty of the massive horses, each weighing between three quarters and one ton. Express trains would convey the animals to Nebraska. The entire travel time from Europe to Lincoln for the horses, hostlers, and other staff was just eleven days.

The operation became incredibly sophisticated and featured sumptuous advertising materials, specially modified railway spurs and switches, and facilities for showing horses in inclement weather and even at night. Watson, Woods Bros., and Kelly Company became the largest draft horse operation in the Midwest and second largest in the United States. Visiting the establishment on a typical day was said to be like attending a fancy large horse show.

After several years, the Kellys took over purchasing and made frequent trips to the British Isles and Europe to buy purebred draft horses. In 1912 they met up in France with 17-year-old Pace Woods Sr., who was spending a year overseas. The First World War loomed. Woods was at risk of conscription in the French Army, and although he wanted to stay, it was clear to family and business partners that he needed to return to the United States.

The Kellys had booked passage on a magnificent luxury liner leaving from England, but young Woods was eager to introduce the Kellys to a special customer in France. Pace Woods promised to cut his time in France short and to return with the Kellys if they would cancel their plans, rebook passage on a different ship, and extend their visit just long enough to meet this important customer. This they did, and RMS Titanic departed Southampton without the Kellys and young Woods as passengers.

Selecting the right horses can be profitable. Selecting the right ship can save your life.

Exciting Days and Great Anticipations

When he was eighty years old Mark Woods sat in his office situated on the thirteenth story of the old Sharp Building. In 1950 his office provided a vista of south Lincoln and literally miles of neighborhoods that Woods had helped to create. That day he wore his characteristic pince nez style glasses and he was quick with a smile while recalling a story from his boyhood in 1885.

Col. F.M. Woods
Col. F.M. Woods

In Woods’ recollection, his father, Colonel F.M. Woods, was facing a fidgety crowd at a land auction. There was not much bidding on the land for sale around 27th and R Streets, and the Colonel tried to, “ . . . bark the sale from $39 to $40 an acre.” Mark Woods remembered his father trying to perk up the bidders by making what the boy imagined to be some wild claims. “This land . . . will be worth hundreds of dollars an acre… Lincoln’s [population] will some day be 50,000.”

The crowd, Mark Woods said, “Gaped and twittered . . . the population in 1885 was only slightly over 10,000.” In disbelief on the way home, he asked his father if he truly thought Lincoln would grow to 50,000, and he heard the earnest reply, “Yes, Mark. I do.”

By the time Mark Woods was sharing these memories, he and his brothers had already helped to propel the city’s population to over 100,000.

“The entire business structure of a city is dependent upon … successful residential development. If people are properly, healthily, and happily housed you will have an inviting and prosperous city.”

It had been a lifetime of hard work and commitment. “The heartaches and fights were many – exciting days and great anticipations. Disappointments, too. But hope for the future is always present in any real estate development.”

These many years later, the excitement of new development and Woods’ sentiment of hope are just as alive and true today.

Lilac Time in the Lilac City

lilacs_sm

Starting officially in 1946, Lincoln was known as the Lilac City. During the 1940s and 1950s, by proclamation of the Mayor, the city would enjoy two weeks each year of displaying and celebrating lilacs. The Women’s Division of the Chamber of Commerce spearheaded the initiative and their slogan was, “A Lilac in Every Yard.” Concerted plantings were encouraged at residences and were undertaken around all public schools and other public buildings, and in parks.

It appears that both Pace Woods, Sr. and his son, Pace, Jr., may have been unwitting trendsetters with regard to Lincoln and lilacs, and both had a strong affection for the flowering plants. When asked to share recollections of the two men as colleagues and as friends, associates independently brought up the flowers.

Vera Salmon, a veteran Woods Bros employee, worked closely with the men. “They both came to the office every day. They carried themselves differently, with the demeanor of old-world, courtly gentlemen. Very sharp and well dressed.” She continued, “Pace Sr. would bring in gorgeous antique vases of flowers to the Country Club office. I remember lilacs especially in spring.” There was a smile in her voice as she summoned this final memory, “Pace was aware of how beautiful his flower arrangements were. He would smile and say, ‘You may keep the flowers, but I would like to have the vase back.’”

Gib and Mary Eley were co-workers and close friends with the Woods father and son. In remembering their times at the office they recalled that, “Pace Sr. would bring in beautiful Cloisonné vases of lilacs and all kinds of flowers.”

Before its days as the Lilac City, the Woods family actively cultivated a love of the flower in Lincoln. The family grew lilacs at a nursery south of Sheridan Boulevard. Woods Bros developments of the early- and mid-twentieth century increasingly incorporated landscaping elements into their overall designs, and lilacs were regularly included.

Noted Lincoln landscape architect, Ernst Herminghaus, a designer for Woods Bros in the 1920s-1940s, often used lilacs as major landscape design elements. They were featured prominently in his plans for Pioneers Park and were included in a number of the sterling developments near the Country Club of Lincoln, including Woodsshire.

Lincoln: Weaving the spider web outward

OldSaleSignThe natural development of young cities often clustered in their centers. By 1908, Lincoln’s roughly 43,000 inhabitants mostly traveled by way of mud streets (with nearly 300 miles worth) and 75 miles of streetcar lines. The growing city’s edges were no longer so sharp and the time was right to continue moving outward from the cluster and connecting burgeoning additions.

In 1910 the area south of South Street (between 13th and 27th to Calvert) was still a beautiful tract of cornfield. It was about then the Woods Brothers began executing a 20-year plan for its development, and they purchased much of that land, some for as much as $600 per acre.

There was confusion in the growth of Lincoln at the time. Mark Woods reflected that, “… buildings just went up according to the owner’s urge.” It was time for much-needed residential planning, both to create order and to beautify his city. It was a major challenge to lure citizens past South Street, which mostly created the peak of a natural hill, and also to lure them past the railroad tracks to the east (Rock Island Line, today a hiker/biker trail that meets South Street at about 32nd).

Their plans for motivating people included winding streets with structures set back away from them, all landscaped with shrubbery and trees. These large areas would lend to the city a distinctive character and an aesthetic appeal that shines brightly still. Their innovations would guide growth east- and southward, and help add to what Woods called Lincoln’s “… spider web development.”

Lucky Thirteen

Col. F.M. Woods
Col. F.M. Woods

Frederick Moffatt Woods, the father of the Woods Brothers, was born August 13, 1844. He was told that it was a Friday. Friday the thirteenth. Counter to the growing superstition of his day that the coincidental phenomenon of day and date was unlucky, he came to consider it good luck. Lucky thirteen.

As a boy in Illinois, Woods was struck and bitten by a rattlesnake that had thirteen rattles. It was reported that the lad recovered from the attack, “without the aid of whiskey.” Throughout his successful career as an international auctioneer, he claimed to have conducted his best business on those rare Fridays the thirteenth.

Of F.M. Woods it was said that he, “possessed a peculiar style of eloquence—earnest, forceful, logical, and convincing always.” These skills were apparent in his proud crusade to promote the State of Nebraska and its resources, and to spread the word about the importance of good agricultural practices such as soil improvement techniques and livestock breeding enhancements.

This work ultimately resulted in Woods being recognized for his vision and tenacity on Friday April 13, 1923 by the University of Nebraska’s Department of Agriculture with an honorary Doctorate.

Of course, his descendants became extraordinarily savvy developers and businessmen in real estate. It is perhaps no surprise that in 1871 F.M. Woods sold his family’s farm in Illinois for a net profit increase of roughly 13 times—a pretty tidy sum.

In a way, Woods became inspired by 13, and especially by Friday the thirteenth. Who may guess what nuances or phenomena will motivate and inspire us, and why? Perhaps it is for the best that F.M. Woods never checked to learn that August 13, 1844 was actually a Tuesday.

A city of essence and the importance of balance

Reflecting upon Lincoln when it was young, John E. Miller wrote that in 1880 it was a proud place – but deficient of a few essentials of a city.

“What it lacked was at times conspicuous, as if a reveler should appear in shorts and a tuxedo.”

Like the city itself, Lincoln’s leaders of the time were young. The State’s Governor was 32. The city’s leading banker (and first millionaire) was 31. The average age in the legislature was 34. Youth literally ruled, and growth was rapid. To follow Miller’s tuxedo metaphor: the vibrant young city needed to upgrade from shorts to pants, so practical issues needed addressing.

An example: Formalities of staking out and connecting additions to the city’s perimeter were few, as no water or sewer utilities had to be planned.

As Mark Woods reflected,

“Sanitation was becoming a problem. Not everyone could keep a few hogs to eat the garbage.”

Mark, George and Frank Woods (clockwise)
Mark, George and Frank Woods (clockwise)

In 1889, Mark and George Woods founded Woods Bros Realty. When they entered the game with vision for growth, they not only planned for these types of practical matters, they also made certain that such intangibles as beauty and elegance were considerations of their projects.

They introduced curving streets to the city’s basic grid structure; they hired the nation’s best landscape architects; they even started their own nursery to fulfill their planting needs.

With their brother, Frank, and their father, “Colonel” F.M. Woods, their every touch seemed to positively mark the city and help it grow. They helped lead the way in business and community development.

Part of the reason that Lincoln became so fine is that they thought big, and they knew the importance of balance in establishing a city of essence.

From tallgrass prairie to silicon prairie, Lincoln continues to recreate itself. The decades of maturation have similarities because scales are balanced – growth and development equalizing tradition and maturity. Leading the way, Woods Bros Realty is an embedded fixture in the transformation of the city.

Kinship

Pace Woods, Jr., (second from top left) and Woods Bros agents go on a listing tour.
Pace Woods, Jr., (second from top left) and Woods Bros agents go on a listing tour.

The late 1970s and early 1980s was a boom time in Lincoln. Everyone working for Woods Bros Realty during the time of great growth felt a part of a family. Pace Woods Jr. really promoted that.

Any occasions for parties or celebrations, birthdays or holidays or even major sales, were seized upon with cakes and cookies. Interaction and relationships worked as strengthening bonds that would transcend business and amity. This kinship empowered agents to embrace change and growth.

Made up of two offices in 1975, (one at the Cornhusker with eight employees, and the second with about 20 employees at the Country Club,) the business family would come together on Tuesday mornings for weekly sales meetings.

Following the meetings, agents would carpool around town together touring new listings. After tours, they would gather together for lunch and more camaraderie.

There were discussions of strategy and opportunities to air different challenges that they may face.

Soon, agent numbers grew too large to carpool. Pace hired a bus so that everyone could tour together. Not long after that, a second bus became necessary to accommodate the growing family of agents. When two busses were not enough, a new idea was hit upon – individual agents would host open houses for colleagues at their new listings, luring their coworkers with promises of pizza or sandwiches or other snacks. This tradition continues today. The busses were let go and there was a return to carpooling.

Pace Woods’s determination to foster a family spirit led to great success.

He was busy galvanizing people and relationships so that it surfaced not only with results and prosperity, but also showed the power of belonging and affinity.

The Young City as a Garden

During the 1860s and 1870s, if they thought of it at all, most people considered Nebraska part of a great American desert. To many, our State was barren space to be traversed, an obstacle beyond which was the shimmering prize of a distant western goal. A common sentiment, both literal and metaphoric: what could possibly grow here?

Fortunately, some dreamed beyond that sentiment. Where others saw only desert, a few envisioned a robust garden. Roots were set and Lincoln rose up. The city’s emergence from the dust and soil was patient and steady as prairie flowers.

Settling a city was irresistibly alluring for a certain type of young person who found risk and adventure glamorous. But dreams alone wouldn’t make success, and risk can be tempered by order, mitigated by hard work.

A plat, originally made in 1867, roughly delineated the borders of the city from A Street north to U Street, and east from First to 17th Streets. Over the coming quarter century, land booms were under way. Within these borders the young city was a garden beginning to bud, outside the borders tendrils crept.

In 1889 Mark W. Woods and George J. Woods began city realty development in Lincoln. Platted additions stretched six miles north of the University, south of city hall to the penitentiary, and west of what is now Pioneers Park. Lincoln began to flower.

Like great gardens, fine cities demand dreams and creativity. The Woods Brothers added to the equation courage, compassion, and common sense. Lincoln thrived and so did they.

Lincoln in 1889
Lincoln in 1889

The Future

How do you want to be a part of the future? By creating a useful invention? By leaving a philanthropic or family legacy? Perhaps an artistic creation? All the things we can think of to extend the memories of ourselves may have a different context, but individuals and families living 100 years ago also wanted to be a part of the future.

The Woods Family has had a range of interests and abilities that put them in the position to help shape the future. Let’s take a look at a few of the family’s different businesses and concerns.

4generaWoods_webIn 1889, using their collective knowledge of law, land, and livestock, Colonel F.M. Woods and three of his four sons, Mark W., George J., and Frank H. Woods started the firm of Woods Brothers. Beginning with land and real estate development in Lincoln, they broadened their activities to nurture close contact within prominent financial and investment circles.

By the mid- and late-1920s, Woods Brothers had diversified to form Woods Investment Company; Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company; Standard Timber Company; and Woods Brothers’ Silo and Manufacturing Company. Planning was underway to engage in inland waterway development all around the country that would provide riverbank mitigation and bridge building work.

The list continues. Other Woods Brothers interests included the Lincoln Traction Company that ran the city’s trolleys; major holdings in Illinois’ O’Gara Coal Company; department stores; dry goods manufacturing; securities and insurance; and construction. They went into the ranching business, and they were leading breeders and dealers of purebred draft horses. They manufactured aircraft.

They were into so many interesting and diverse business activities, it is not surprising to find exotic bits of American history like this from historian Jim McKee, writing in the Lincoln Journal Star: “On March 3, 1931 the [Woods Brothers] corporation submitted a bid of $58.6 million to build Hoover Dam but was bested by a six-corporation combination whose bid of $48,890,955 was said to be only $4,200 more than the government calculated as the actual cost of construction.”

Although it was critical to the development of the city of Lincoln, their ambition and success came to help define so much more. Theirs are a series of fascinating stories that reach into the recent past of the United States and its development, as well. Their stories can remind us that a combination of vision, hard work, tenacity, and a dose of good timing can culminate not only a family legacy, they can come together to help shape the future.

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