1802 Wirt Street

A question from my cousin prompted me to look at Signe Bolin’s obituary from 1955 which in turn prompted me to look up her address because I’m always curious about people’s dwellings and Omaha architecture.

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Omaha World Herald, Saturday, January 1, 1955, page 16.

Imagine my surprise when a search of 1802 Wirt St. on Google Maps showed this:

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1802 Wirt Street. Photo from North Omaha History: Forgotten, Neglected and Denied Nebraska History by Adam Fletcher Sasse.

What would Signe be doing living in a house like this? At first I thought that maybe Google Maps dropped me off at the wrong location but an internet search of 1802 Wirt Street turns up numerous photos of this house. Turns out it’s the George F. Shepard House. Shepard was a stonemason who used his skill to personalize the house with marble and stone etchings, including his name carved into the front steps. It was designated an Omaha landmark in 1981. You can read about this and other lovely homes on Wirt street on Adam Fletcher Sasse’s blog, North Omaha History.

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George F. Shepard from Find A Grave.

Since Shepard died in 1930 I thought that maybe the house had been turned into apartments by the time Signe was living there in 1954. However, a 2004 Omaha World Herald article called “Sense of Family Keeps Neighborhood United” says that a family named Mercer has owned the home since 1956. The late Charles Mercer bought the 20-room house for his family with wages from his Cudahy packing plant job.

Lucille Mercer and her eight siblings grew up in the grand Queen Anne-style house with its richly carved oak woodwork, butler’s pantry, maid’s quarters, double staircase, sliding oak parlor doors and secret safe that enthralled the Mercer children (until they discovered it was empty).

Little has changed over time. The inlaid wood floor, the marble fireplace and the mirrors shine.

‘We’re trying to keep it up,’ said Lucille Mercer.

Sounds like it’s in mint condition and always has been. (By the way, for you sports fans, the article quotes Johnny Rodgers, former Husker wingback and 1972 Heisman Trophy winner, who also lives on the street.)

I can’t find Signe in the 1954 Omaha City Directory on Ancestry.com to see where she was living but the whole thing is a mess; half of it appears to be missing — there are no names after “Rivard” and there are no addresses whatsoever. The 1953 Omaha City Directory is a little more revealing since it appears to be intact. I still can’t find Signe but a search of 1802 Wirt Street shows that George Shepard’s widow, Georgia, is the owner and is living there with two other people. Perhaps Signe was a boarder?

My only other guess is that maybe Signe’s obituary was wrong. There are other typos in it — her name and her daughter’s name are spelled wrong for one thing — so possibly they got the address wrong too.

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Another view of 1802 Wirt Street from Wikipedia.
1802 Wirt St. as it appeared in 1907, from the North Omaha History blog.

Hilda or Signe?

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From the photo album of Rose Carlson Nystrom.

Initially when I was going through my grandma’s photo album, I had no idea who this woman was and was sadly resigned to the fact that I would never find out. No name on the back and no name written underneath it in the album. Coming back to it later, though, I noticed the family resemblance. It looks a lot like my grandmother, Rose Carlson Nystrom. And having seen a photo of Hilda, her sister, when she was older, I can see how it might be her — long face, upswept hair. I can equally imagine it being her sister, Signe, for the same reasons. I’m quite sure now that it’s one of Rose’s sisters, but which one? The date on the back says the film was processed the week of July 2, 1955. Signe died in 1954 and Hilda in 1955 so maybe it’s safe to say it’s Hilda.

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From the photo album of Rose Carlson Nystrom.

However, Hilda was single. So who is this little boy and younger woman in the second photo obviously taken on the same day? Friends of Hilda? Relatives of Rose? Maybe it’s Signe and the date on the back just means that the film wasn’t developed right away. Are these Signe’s relatives? Did they drive Signe to visit Rose? Does anyone recognize these people? Where are the photos taken? Ideas anyone?

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Date stamp on the back of the photos.

Perhaps equally intriguing is how infrequently the siblings met. My uncle didn’t even know he had an aunt (Hilda) living close by in Omaha. When my grandmother visited her brother, Albin, in Magnet, Nebraska in the 1970s, they hadn’t seen each other in 25 years. I think that’s why these two photos interest me so much — evidence that the siblings finally met again, or at least corresponded.