Let the Horses Go Where They Will

Woods Bros Sale Day on Sheridan Boulevard
Woods Bros Sale Day on Sheridan Boulevard, photo courtesy of the Lincoln Planning Dept.

South Street at 25th in Lincoln is a hilltop. In the first part of the twentieth century if you were standing there, you would have had a nice view in all directions. There was surrounding countryside to the south, east, and west. Looking north, a view of the growing city. Mark Woods eventually built a beautiful home at the site. It provided an anchor at the north end of what would become Sheridan Place.

The beautiful and stately two-mile thoroughfare Sheridan Boulevard would become a main artery through the development, and later it would help connect the Woods developments that followed: Woodscrest, Van Dorn Park, Woodsdale, Woodsshire, and the Country Club additions.

Accounts vary about how this lovely street came to be laid out well over one hundred years ago, but it is accepted that a boy laid out the general path of Sheridan Boulevard. Mark Woods prepared a buckboard buggy with two horses for his son, Pace, then quite young. The boy would ride along and mark the pathway that would become Sheridan Boulevard.

He was to point them in the right direction, south and east through the countryside, and then simply, “… let the horses go where they will.” The idea was that the horses would follow the natural ridge top as they pulled the buggy along. Staying atop the ridge would help provide best views, breezes, and natural drainage.

There are some fun variations on the story of the way that young Pace Woods marked the path of the road. In one version, he rode on the step at the back of the wagon, and because it was shortly after Independence Day, he placed individual American flags in the ground every several feet. In another version, he had the family’s hunting dogs along with him and to mark the path of the future boulevard, he tossed large stones every few yards that the dogs would chase with delight.

In any event, it is clear that the method was successful – young Pace Woods and his horses forged a beautiful path through farm and prairie. The course that was eventually carved resulted in Sheridan Boulevard – still a signature thoroughfare in our city.

Red Deer

Lots of people actively avoid mixing business and pleasure. Not so for the Woods brothers. Measured in dollars, their ranches certainly provided them with fantastic profits, and they also afforded them the precious restoration of mind and soul one can only get in the natural world.

Red Deer: Biography of a Sandhills Hunting Club
Red Deer: Biography of a Sandhills Hunting Club, courtesy of AbeBooks.com

In his wonderful book, Red Deer, Biography of a Sandhills Hunting Club, (2005 – privately published by the Red Deer Hunting Club,) author Jon Farrar lays out a fascinating history of the Lake Country of Nebraska’s Sandhills region. Starting in the late-1800s, he provides a context for that history by focusing on the sport of waterfowl hunting. (This essay makes use of much information from Farrar’s book.)

Farrar’s book shines its spotlight on Cherry County and a number of area hunting clubs. Specific attention is paid to Red Deer Lake and the Red Deer Hunting Club, of which the Woods brothers, Mark, George, and Frank, were charter members.

Roughly 1,600 lakes bubble up from the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska’s Sandhills. (By the definition of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 15 surface acres or more of water constitutes a lake. Red Deer Lake qualifies by about 1,000 times at roughly 1,500 acres.) With plentiful food, the shallow waters furnished a paradise for migrating birds. Hunting was splendid, and participants’ experiences evolved from early days of “roughing it” in tents in this wonderland of game, to organizing very sophisticated and exclusive camps, lodges, and clubs.

The club officially incorporated in 1905, and its membership roster was (and still is) populated with Lincoln businessmen. The Cochrane family of Chicago owned the land on which Red Deer Lake is situated and members of the Woods family had hunted there since the 1890s. In 1906, George Woods purchased the 6,000-acre Cochrane Ranch. It then came to be known as Red Deer Ranch.

For club members, Red Deer was a haven for getting away from the city and enjoying the outdoors. Members ate well, played cards, and socialized without conducting business. For the Woods Brothers, their paradise in the Sandhills was used for similar purposes, except that in addition to relaxing at Red Deer, they also welcomed opportunities for entertaining potential business partners, dignitaries, and political leaders.

In the fall of 1926, U.S. Vice-President Charles G. Dawes, and General John J. Pershing were guests of the Woods brothers and spent a few days hunting at Red Deer. Their visit became the subject of a celebrated article in Field & Stream magazine the following year.

The club had its ups and downs – many such hunting clubs came and went in the early part of the twentieth century. The Woods family sold Red Deer Ranch in 1940, by which time the acreage of their properties swelled from 6,000 to about 20,000 acres, of which 9,000 acres run along the Niobrara River. Red Deer Hunting Club still exists today as an exclusive duck club with some 40 members.

Famous Ranch

In 1917 the Woods Bros were already in the farm business. They had a 5,600-acre farm near Tekamah, for example. But in that year the Woods Bros delivered a keen feat of diversification when they purchased the Watson Ranch near Kearney, Nebraska.

Better known as the 1733 Ranch (view a photo at Stuhr Museum site), (it was thought to be situated 1733 miles equidistant to San Francisco and Boston,) Woods Bros paid about half a million dollars for the ranch. The 4,200-acre showplace was a spot of local pride and one of the great “country places” in the whole state.

According to a Lincoln State Journal article from June 1917, “Everything connected with the ranch is pitched on a huge scale.” When Woods Bros took over ownership of the ranch it featured:

  • More than one thousand acres under irrigation.
  • Hundreds of head of cattle and pigs.
  • 100 head of horses and mules to work the land and livestock.
  • 42 men who live on the property employed as ranch hands.
  • Between 7,000 and 8,000 pedigreed poultry with 48 incubators.
  • Hundreds of fowls of other kinds, both tame and wild.
  • A kennel of Airedale dogs.
  • 3,000 cherry and apple trees, and a 15-acre cedar grove (for decoration, windbreak, and lumber.)

The property’s manor house had 40 rooms and there were 15 tenant houses located about the ranch. Dairy herds were fed from what was said to be the world’s largest silo, and the farm animals were housed in a four-story barn that spanned 320 x 80 feet (over 102,000 sq. ft.). Scattered on the ranch were three lakes stocked with bass.

As one might expect, the ranch was much coveted and very well respected because of its grand scope, its “precision as a large business enterprise,” and its “tremendous attractiveness.” It was considered possible that the Union Pacific might even want to take over the place because it was perfect as “advertisement [of] Nebraska territory by the use of money and intelligence in operating on a large scale.”

In true Woods Bros fashion, their famous ranch, as with their other endeavors, was bold, monumental, and full of grand vision.

Pioneers Park

Buffalo statuary in Pioneers Park
Buffalo statuary in Pioneers Park

It must have been a fabulous home that Mark Woods and his son, Pace Woods, Sr., were visiting in the late-1920s: the New York City home of John F. Harris. Harris had been a childhood friend of Mark Woods and his brothers, and he had become a successful investment banker. He was a Lincoln native who wanted to do something back home to honor the memory of his parents.

According to Pace Woods, Jr., his grandfather, “…suggested that [Harris] donate a park to the citizens [of Lincoln].” That he would do. Pioneers Park came to life on roughly 600 acres of rolling prairie north of Van Dorn in west Lincoln that Harris donated over the course of three years (1928 – 1930). The Harris family also donated several animal sculptures for the park, including the bronze buffalo that greets visitors at the center of the east entry’s roundabout.

Another Lincoln native designed the wonderful park. Ernst Herminghaus was a landscape designer for Woods Bros developments and was trained at Harvard University as a landscape architect. The easternmost 80 acres of the park, closest to Coddington, were the first to be designed, and the plans included incorporating vistas of the Nebraska State Capitol Building that was then under construction.

Pace Woods, Jr., wrote that his family’s nursery, located south of Sheridan Boulevard and east of South 33rd Street, donated evergreen trees and lilac bushes to line the Coddington Street approach to Pioneers Park.

Pioneers Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As historian Ed Zimmer noted in the site’s Registration Form, Lincoln was undergoing a period of phenomenal growth in the 1920s. During the Depression, the park provided much needed public recreation space. It likewise created employment for people and galvanized development opportunities for the city’s parks and recreation spaces.

True to their form, the Woods brothers and other families of means used a combination of creative and practical resources to make this civic opportunity meaningful and long lasting. In the spring/early summer of 2015, Woods Bros Realty will launch half of a 125-tree donation to the Pioneers Park area to commemorate this longtime relationship and its 125 years in the community.

Flight – Part 3: The Crash

In the summer of 1929, the aviation industry was literally flying high. In October the stock market crashed, and suddenly the already short list of people who could afford an airplane became very short indeed. The aviation market evaporated. It would take patience, imagination, and boldness to face the tests of the nation’s devastating financial collapse.

Pace Woods was determined to keep key employees from his aircraft manufacturing business on the payroll. He started a welding school for them and continued to manufacture one Arrow Sport bi-wing per month. They conceived of and began to develop an innovative new airplane that could be run from an automobile engine and would be a single-wing craft.

During the lean years between the crash and the Second World War, there were struggles. The new single-wing plane was deemed an industry “breakthrough” and according to Pace Woods, the factory, “…delivered 100 and they were a great success; however, in 1938 … we couldn’t get refinanced.” The plant was closed.

Later, the Woods’ Arrow Aircraft and Motor Corp. facility became a home for Goodyear in Havelock. When he reflected on the times, Woods expressed both great joy at being a part of an exciting, burgeoning industry and some wistfulness for what might have been if the bottom hadn’t fallen out of the world.

He did what he could to protect his business and his employees, and if the scales of fate had tipped a bit differently, Lincoln may have become a major private and commercial aircraft-manufacturing hub. As with so many endeavors, the Woods family would have been right in the thick of it.

The second version of the Arrow Sport, with Pace Woods, Sr., Gen. John Pershing, and test pilot Jimmy Hearst.
The second version of the Arrow Sport, with Pace Woods, Sr., Gen. John Pershing, and test pilot Jimmy Hearst.

Flight – Part 2: The Bear and the Windy City

In 1926 the Woods family entered the aviation business. By 1929, the Woods’ Arrow Aircraft and Motor Corp. was a world’s leading aircraft producer. Pace Woods must have been about 30 when he was doing the initial marketing of his family’s airplanes, and Chicago would have been ripe with clients for plucking.

Built in Lincoln and selling to the whole country, Woods decided that a bear would accompany him on his maiden flight to the Windy City. Maybe because the bear is a symbol of the city of Chicago, or perhaps it was simply because the sight of a small bear can be delightful. At any rate the pilot, the young Woods, and the young bear would fly and descend together, alighting in the landing field among hundreds of Chicagoans gathered to see the machine and the animal.

The bear tactic combined the kind of fun and audacity that the family would mix together to put their positive touch on all endeavors. But this was surely at least a somewhat complicated plan – arranging for a crowd in Chicago to meet the arrival of your company’s new product (A Glistening Arrow Sport Airplane!), printing fliers, obtaining a bear, etc.

Not everything can be considered, and in the wide world of unintended consequences, calculating for the effects of altitude pressure on the ears of a young bear did not get on the marketing plan. As the anecdote goes, they got the bear loaded in the plane and everything was fine for takeoff and during the flight. When they began to descend, the bear became restless and then agitated, breaking its restraints. When the airplane landed and came to a stop, the bear was able to let itself out of its seat and climb down off the wing. It promptly relieved itself in front of the crowd.

Some bears are more delightful than others, and some marketing plans are better than others.

Next: Flight – Part three: The Crash

Flight – Part one: The Take Off

The Woods family set trends and realized success in a number of areas. This was often due to an ability to look ahead to the future. In 1925 Pace Woods Sr. and his father, Mark, first saw the Arrow airplane. They were instantly beguiled. The aviation industry was still young, and thoughts of flight set imaginations into motion.

According to Pace Woods, his father, “…envisioned airplanes as the wave of the future.” In 1926 the family acquired an airplane manufacturing facility in Havelock and became part of that future.

Another foresighted aviation enthusiast, Charles Lindbergh, learned to fly, wing-walk, and parachute from airplanes in Lincoln, Nebraska. The former airfield where he trained sat next to one of jewels of the Woods’ development–the current Country Club of Lincoln. The airfield is memorialized at 20th and High Streets with a bronze plaque set in stone that sits next to the stately east gates of another of the Woods Bros development gems, the Woodsshire neighborhood. In 1927 “Lindy” made a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris, and became the most celebrated person the world had ever known.

By 1929, the Woods’ Arrow Aircraft and Motor Corp. was the world’s leading producer of the Arrow Sport bi-wing. The 1920s really roared and the wildly successful facility employed between 500 and 700 people. Crews built four aircraft per day and at its peak, the company had orders for a total of over 250 airplanes, which cost $2,500 apiece.

The Arrow Sport can now be found in the Lincoln Airport.
The Arrow Sport can now be found in the Lincoln Airport.

Pace Woods was prodigious and had an unquenchable, entrepreneurial spirit. He got his real estate license at age 17, about a dozen years before embarking upon the Woods family’s future in aviation. Engaging in such diverse interests and opportunities made for a life rich in fact and in anecdote. More broadly applied, such varied pursuits not only keep life interesting, they keep others interested as well.

Next Week: Flight – Part two: The Bear in the Windy City. Woods clients in Chicago were in for a treat.

“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.

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