Once-sleepy Millard got an (Western) Electric jolt before annexation shocked it

Millard was getting the trappings of a small town after its incorporation in 1885.

Churches. A school. A main street business district.

Yet it didn’t translate into population growth. The 1890 count of 328 was more than the 315 a half-century later in 1940.

Even in 1950, the town listed only 391 residents — much smaller than a current graduating class at one of Millard’s three high schools.

Then Western Electric arrived.

Our story of Millard from last week picks up with the town’s first church, the German Lutheran congregation now known as St. Paul’s Lutheran on Millard Avenue. Its original 1887 sanctuary was struck by lightning on Aug. 18, 1891. The organ and some furniture were saved.

In the rebuilt sanctuary, services were in German only until 1909.

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Millard’s Fifth Street, on the south side of the Union Pacific tracks, as it was in 1956, the year it was announced that Western Electric would build a plant at 132nd and L Streets.

St. Paul’s by 1914, it was the only church in Millard until Bethany Baptist (now Marshall Drive Baptist) was formed in 1961.

Millard’s School District 17 dates to 1868. The first classes were held, depending on the source, on the farm of either Dr. Harvey Link or the Durnall family. The two parties had adjoining quarter-sections northwest of the original Millard plat. The Durnalls were the issuers of a 99-year lease in 1869 to the school district for one acre in the southwest corner of their land.

George Potwin, a Civil War veteran and future chief of engineers for the War Department, was the first teacher. He had three pupils (some sources say six) and his salary was drawn from a budget of $600.

The school moved to town in 1876. First to a one-room school across from the Union Pacific depot, and eight years later to a building on Millard Avenue on three lots purchased from town founder Ezra Millard and his wife.

A frame-structure school built in 1894 was destroyed by fire in January 1930. That building was full of controversy. Townspeople argued for more than three years whether it should be built of brick or keep with a frame structure.

“It has gotten to the point,” The World-Herald reported in May 1893, “where women for the first time are taking a hand. For the first time in the history of Millard eight of them turned out and cast their ballots (for a wooden structure).”

Millard finally got its brick school in 1931. The upper grades of high school were added in the mid-1930s and the first graduation — for a class of eight — was held in 1938.

Fifth Street, now 135th Street, became the town’s main business street because it was next to the railroad and depot.

Advertisers in an 1891 edition of the town’s Friday Morning Post newspaper included Chris Koch’s City Hotel and Dance Hall with livery stables; John Arff’s hotel, sample room and dance hall; Chris Popenhagen’s Millard Hotel with saloon, dance hall and stables; H. Frohm’s meat market; Chris Holstein’s blacksmith shop; William Welch’s barber shop; Chris Dahmke’s harness dealership; A.D. Christensen’s brickyard and John Lempke’s livestock business.

And those were the ones on the front page. On the back page were ads for general-store merchants William Kaelber, William Peters (coffins were among his goods), William Andersen and William von Dohren.

Von Dohren’s business, which dealt in grain, lumber, lime, hair, coal, paint and agricultural implements, started in 1883. It stayed in the family for 65 years until sold to George Russell, who renamed it Millard Lumber and Grain. The Russells now have owned Millard Lumber for 75 years. Before they moved Millard Lumber in 2008 to accommodate new development, there had been a building materials company in downtown Millard for 125 years.

Aaron Burd Detweiler opened German Bank of Millard, the town’s first, in 1892. He was its president, and the town treasurer, for 39 years. The Farmers State Bank was organized in 1916. It became the Bank of Millard and in 1985 merged with Norwest Bank Omaha West.

August Paul and John Peters were among the other longtime Millard businessmen.

Paul started by peddling merchandise on foot, then with horse-drawn wagons. He bought out 14 stores during his career before selling his business to John Peters in 1923.

William Peters’ store, which dated to 1886, stayed in the family with John Peters. John’s brothers were his partners first, then his sons. Theirs was one of the first businesses on D Street (Millard Avenue). After their fourth fire in the 1930s, the Peters gave up retailing and went across the street to be the next owners of Millard’s longest-running restaurant — the Stockade.

Saloonkeeper Fred Marode’s two-story brick building opened in 1912. It was known as McGoogans and Schmidt’s Chicken Dinner Place before the Peters gave it the Stockade name in 1936. After several owners and a 1997 sale, it became the Millard Road House and stayed open until 2019.

The oldest business building is Olympia Cycle at 4910 S. 135th St. It was first the Farmer’s Home hotel (1901), then the grocery of Charles Paul (August’s son) from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The last years of Paul’s Grocery’s coincided with the Western Electric construction that began in 1956. The subsidiary of AT&T was the crown jewel of the nonprofit Omaha Industrial Foundation that started in 1952.

The plant, opened in 1958, was built at 132nd and L Streets on farmland purchased from Mr. and Mrs. August Bartels, Mr. and Mrs. Chris Neuhaus and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Sohl.

Millard took off. The 1960 census showed 1,014 residents, a 159% increase from 1950. The 1970 count was 7,460, a 636% jump.

Harry Andersen was Millard’s only elected mayor — known as the reluctant mayor. He had been on the village board for 17 years, its chairman for seven, before the building boom required a mayor.

During his tenure, Millard High School moved to new buildings at 126th and L Streets in 1960 — L Street wasn’t extended west from 84th Street to Millard until Western Electric was built — and 150th and Q Streets in 1970.

And he stubbornly couldn’t stave off Omaha’s annexation desire. As with Elkhorn 35 years later, Millard was fast approaching the 10,000 population threshold that would make it off limits to Omaha.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Millard’s appeal, and the once-sleepy little village became part of Omaha in 1971.

And how Harry Andersen hated that phrase. One time when a World-Herald writer interviewed him, the mayor lamented about the cliché. Andersen bet the writer a steak dinner that he couldn’t refrain from using it.

The writer won the bet, called the mayor to claim his prize, and Andersen said he wouldn’t welch.

A few weeks later, the writer was sent a free ticket to a steak dinner — at a testimonial honoring Andersen.

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