Omaha’s history as a livestock hub

Radio Station WOW morning market reporter Ray Winkler sits above the Omaha Livestock Market pens in this April 1955 advertisement postcard.

There is a lot of history depicted in this 1955 postcard advertisement from radio station WOW.

The first bit deals with WOW, a radio station in Omaha started by the Woodmen of the World in 1923 as WOAW. The call letters became WOW in 1926.

In 1929, the station began market broadcasts and billed themselves as the “FIRST farm station in the Missouri Valley.” Each morning the station announced the estimated livestock receipts and summary, as well as grain and produce reports. In 1939, the station began partnering with the USDA’s fledgling Agricultural Marketing Service.

The radio station was under the direction of noted broadcasters Mal Hansen and Arnold Peterson. Both were extremely knowledgeable of Nebraska agribusiness.

Hansen organized tours of European farms. He wrote an article about the first excursion entitled: “Radio Station WOW 1948 European Farm Tour”. It describes the experiences and observations of the 25 farmers who participated in the trip.

Peterson joined WOW Radio in 1952 as associate farm director and was there for 30 years, the last 23 years as farm director. He and his wife, Fern, hosted Farm Study tours to Europe, South America, Japan and Australia. Peterson was also synonymous with the “Farm Family of the Week” feature he hosted. The broadcast farm director received the Creighton University Professional Achievement in Journalism Award in 1980 and a Peabody award for his 1956 documentary, “Regimented Raindrops.” He was named Mr. Radio and TV by the Nebraska Pork Council.

The second piece of history deals with the signs on the pens, designated as belonging to the Berigan Brothers Livestock Commission Company. This was an Omaha-based company owned by brothers Frank and William Berigan.

Born Aug. 16, 1899, in Imogene, Iowa, Francis A. “Frank” Berigan spent most of his life in Omaha in the livestock industry. After his discharge from the Army in 1918, Berigan started working at the Omaha stockyards. He worked for the Ralston Livestock Commission Company for a number of years.

The Omaha City Directory of 1923 described Berigan as a 23-year-old yardman at Bowles Livestock Commission Company.

He and his siblings lived at 1514 S. 33rd Street. Most of them were stockyard employees. Jonathan worked in livestock; Lucille was a clerk at the Union Pacific Railroad; William was a yardman at J. H. Bulla & Company; and Vincent was a yardman.

In 1937, he formed the Berigan Brothers Livestock Commission Company with his brother William.

The 1940 U.S. Census listed Berigan, 40, married to Gladys, 37. The couple lived at 3001 S. 34th St. with their children: Patricia, 15; Frank Jr., 12; Bernard, 9; and Alfred, 6. It also registered their housekeeper, Minnie Rabiola, 23, from Iowa.

In 1941, the family moved to a 10-acre farm at 1002 N. 72nd St. There they raised livestock, including horses and Guernsey cows.

A photo in The Durham Museum Photo Archive shows Berigan walking along the pens with his horse, Pinto Pete. Berigan was fond of stopping and talking to workers. Pete was known to nip at Berigan’s coat until he “got back to work.”

The third portion of history concerns the Omaha Livestock Market.

In 1955, Omaha’s livestock market became the largest in the world. Every day, thousands of cattle, hogs and sheep were shipped to Omaha’s pens. The livestock pens spread out over 250 acres, dominating the landscape of South Omaha.

Kirby Roenfeld, of Mineola, Iowa, said he remembers his friends describe driving trucks to the market.

“My neighbor drove hogs from Mineola to Omaha in the 1950s,” he said. “The line of trucks went from south Omaha to 42nd Street.”

By 1957, the livestock industry — that included the stockyard company, 19 different meatpacking companies, 40 commission firms and a special railroad — employed half of Omaha’s workforce.

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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