Lilac Time in the Lilac City

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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.

Ghost Stories

Woods cabin on Madeline Island
Woods cabin on Madeline Island

With such a long and storied family history, it is no surprise that a few of the Woods family’s haunts are rumored to actually be haunted. For instance, Nebraska Row is a “street” of vacation homes on Madeline Island, Wisconsin, that are owned and enjoyed by Nebraska residents. The island has been the Woods family’s summer getaway since the early 1900s. Ghost gossip has long been part of the Woods family lore during summers up in Wisconsin.

The stories run from puzzling and eerie, to warm and welcoming. Family member ‘LB’ describes the mystical feeling of the island and of the Woods family cottages as, “safe, loving, and mostly magical.” ‘LB continued to say that she took from the spectral presences, “… a welcome feeling.“ She described a time from earlier in her life when she was alone in one of the Woods family cottages. In the spacious and beautifully decorated room there was a pleasant warmth. The room filled with dancing flashes of light, like sunlight diffused through water playing on every surface of the walls, floor, and ceiling. This visitation from family ghosts gave her a longstanding feeling of family community, like the opposite of loneliness. “It makes me want to be there.”

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

The original Woods family patriarch, Colonel F.M. Woods, built a cottage that still stands called the Dew Drop Inn. It has a haunter that some believe to be the ghost of the Colonel’s wife, Eliza. Others think that from time to time Eliza has even crept over to the cottage next door that was built for Helen Woods Haecker.

Of the Colonel himself, his spirit has been seen a number of times in the cottage that was originally owned by his son George. The family claims that the Colonel’s ghost has been seen only once by a blood relative. The incident involved a young woman of the family who was too young to have known the Colonel but knew him from photographs and family stories. She awoke in the night to see him standing at the foot of her bed. She added with a shiver, “He did not look happy.” The Colonel is apparently a stern apparition, and the main targets of his hauntings have been prospective husbands and husbands newly wed into the Woods clan. They have often been paid visits from the Colonel’s spirit as if in ominous warning.

George Woods
George Woods

Of all the Woods Brothers, perhaps George has the most claims to the Madeline Island title “resident poltergeist”. He loves to play tricks. According to ‘GH’, a family member and longtime Madeline Island summer habitué, “Uncle George” (the ghost of George Woods) “favored paying his visits to the younger ladies of the family.” Maybe they are more fun to trick.

Uncle George was married to Aunt Rachel. Of Rachel’s spirit, multiple family members have said, “You know if Rachel is in the room because you can smell her perfume.” Rachel had a signature fragrance of lavender perfume. Even now, the hallways in their former cottage will take on the surprising, distinct, and pleasant bouquet of lavender, and the current residents of the cottage feel her friendly presence.

GH’ went on about his Uncle George, “While he was living, Uncle George was a kindly soul. As a very little boy, I once found myself alone and a bit lost downtown in Lincoln. This was the early-1940s. Uncle George found me. Without hesitation, he pointed me in the right direction, and gave me a quarter—lots of money then—to catch the streetcar back home.” He concluded wistfully of the ghost of his kind uncle, “I myself can confess no visit (from the spirit), but I liked him so well and would be glad to say hello and see how things are going.”

Clark Pace Woods, the wife of Mark Woods, was a rather eccentric woman who is the subject of lots of wonderful stories. Her nickname was Gigi, and, Great Grandmother Gigi is referred to as, “one ghost you don’t want to mess with.”

At a recent summertime cocktail party held at Uncle George’s former island cottage, one family member, ‘SW’ was telling an eccentric Gigi story to a group of guests. Included in the group was ‘SW’s cousin, who was filming the story with his phone. As the story was unfolding, a framed photo of Gigi and Mark’s island cottage fell off the wall. Everyone gasped. All supposed that Gigi was mad or offended by the story. In the film, one can see a tiny glow of light that goes from the photo on the floor into the dining room where the lights began to go on and off. Then the lights began flickering in the downstairs bedroom as well. Startling the guests – well, that is one way to shake up a cocktail party!

Back to George’s ghost and the spookier side. Perhaps, as ‘GH’ said, “younger ladies” were more fun to trick, but George’s ghost has, at least on one occasion, provided a trick so chilling, that it has kept a family member away from the beloved island.

LB’ related the story of her husband. One day he was in a basement room where boat rigging and sails were kept. He decided to rest for a bit and dozed, but was sleeping lightly. On that day there were workmen in the house. He was awakened and assumed that one of the workmen had needed something – had joined him in the sail room. But what ‘LB’s husband saw, no workman or live soul could do: Recognized from hundreds of photographs, it was the ghost of Uncle George. He was in a hat and a fisherman’s vest and he was hovering -missing the lower half his body. Staring over his shoulder, Uncle George floated away from the awakened man, not through an open doorway, but through a solid wooden door.

The specter of paranormal activity is all around us at this time of the year, and it is noteworthy that the Lincoln Ghost Tour (with several stops in the Country Club area) is sold out months in advance. If you are interested in learning more about the spirits in our midst, visit: http://www.ghostsoflincoln.com or http://www.spiritexpeditions.com.

A White Halloween

pumpkinsnowLate October 1997 brought massive ice- and snowstorms to Lincoln. The trees were still clinging to nearly all their leaves. Branches and limbs were taxed by the great weight of building snow and ice. Trees bent until snapping, alternating with electrical transformers in making the sounds that many recall being as startling as gunfire. Images taken of the city for several days following the storms recall a warzone. Conditions were so unsafe for traveling that Mayor Mike Johanns “cancelled” Halloween.

Bob Moline, President and COO of HomeServices of America, was Woods Bros’ comptroller at the time and still new to the career. He recalled that Halloween was a time for some serious fun around the Woods Bros offices. “We had open houses, and the agents decorated. Everyone was in a costume. People worked on decorative themes, and we even had judges come in, so Halloween was lots of fun and intensely competitive.”

Moline remembered that the conditions outside were, “Horrific.” He continued, “Everyone figured the Halloween open house was off.” In spite of the mayor’s call for foregoing tricks and treats, Moline said, “I got an afternoon call from one of my bosses – I think it was Gib Eley – and he said, ‘Bob, call the radio station and let them know that we’re not cancelling. We’ll have that open house and give people a place to come and trick or treat.’ So, I followed Gib’s order.”

A little later that day the young Moline, new to real estate, looked up to see standing in his office doorway a very unhappy and stern Pace Woods Jr. “Mr. Woods had a red face, and I never saw him so angry,” Moline said. “He looked at me and asked evenly, ‘What are you trying to do, override the mayor?’ I was stunned, and I knew I had to fix it.”

Moline called the radio station to call off the event, and Gene Brake, managing broker of the Pioneers office at the time called the TV station, though he did end up keeping his office open that night. Agents agreed to leave decorations up and return to the office in their costumes a few days later for a postponed open house. “It was after Halloween by a few days, but everyone had a great time,” Moline said.

Gene Brake, now CEO of HomeServices of Nebraska, remembers the mayor later answering that his biggest mistake as a mayor was cancelling Halloween.

“Bob and I were vindicated,” Brake said.

Traditions of Excellence

Some special kind of anticipation begins to sweep across the state each year when the old pigskin is set to appear in Memorial Stadium. For many Husker fans football seasons bring a wonderful mix of eagerness and hope that spans from the still hot days of August to the crisp days of the holiday season.

Just like Woods Bros Realty, Nebraska football began building its rich traditions nearly 125 years ago, and many of those traditions remain. For instance, releasing balloons to celebrate each of the Huskers’ first touchdowns is a tradition begun in the 1940s.

Some newer traditions have evolved. For example, the Tunnel Walk, which is already about 20 years old, gets periodic tweaks. It has served to fire up the team and the crowd with straight game-faces, theatrical smoke, and even a house cat.

Perhaps the proudest Husker tradition of excellence: Nebraska leads the nation in the number of Academic All-Americans in football, (and all NCAA sports).

Success naturally follows solid leadership. Nebraska’s teams have had a great variety of leaders on the field executing plays, and on the sidelines calling them. Bob Devaney, beloved by the fans, was a decisive and creative coach on the sidelines and a colorful character off the field.

Nebraska’s football traditions are richer for the efforts of Tom Osborne. His rock steady demeanor and his dignified approach will always be associated with Husker football, and of course his legacy reaches well beyond sport to make him a distinguished Nebraskan. Among Osborne’s achievements is his incredible record of victories, (255 wins out of 307 games coached). He made Nebraska a consistent winner.

In 1976, the bicentennial year, Nebraska was a preseason favorite to contend for the National championship. Tom Osborne was not yet 40 years old and was already in his third season as head coach. Many people felt that the finest game of the bowl season was that year’s Astro Bluebonnett Bowl in Houston where Osborne’s Nebraska team met Texas Tech on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes you have to shake it up, and Osborne pulled out all the stops to allow the Cornhuskers’ quarterback Vince Ferragamo to lead the team to a big win.

In that same 1976 season, the Woods family made a donation that added the delightful Little Red Fire Truck to the traditions of the state’s great game.

Pace Woods, Jr. with the "Little Red" Fire Engine Woods Bros Realty donated to the University in 1976.
Pace Woods, Jr. with the "Little Red" Fire Engine Woods Bros Realty donated to the University in 1976.

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