Discover | The Old Market in Omaha

Updated: May 21, 2021

For thousands of years, plains tribes shaped Nebraska and the rest of the plains into an ideal habitat for the bison they depended on. Pre-contact peoples living in what would be Nebraska included the Arikara and Arapaho, plains societies who combined agriculture with a strong reliance on bison. The Native Americans encountered by Europeans/Americans in this area included Missouria and Omaha, groups that originated East of the Mississippi but moved west in the wake of conflicts following contact with Europeans. Early European/American involvement in the area included the Lewis and Clark expedition stopping at present-day Omaha. As well as several fur trading posts and a short-lived Mormon community.

A series of treaties gradually eroded Native American sovereignty in Nebraska. In 1854, coinciding with the Kansas-Nebraska act, the Omaha ceded a large section of eastern Nebraska, including the site of the present day city of Omaha.

With its advantageous position on both land and water routes to the West, Omaha was claimed as soon as the land was opened to settlers. Its early economy depended on this traffic of pioneers moving west, and the mining, fur, and agricultural products moving east. Soon, the river and wagon trail trade was joined by railroads.

In many ways early Omaha epitomized the idea of the “Wild West” town, with a reputation for violence and lawlessness, encouraged by 8-term mayor “Cowboy Jim” Dahlman.

After the East-West trade slowed in the late-19th century, the stockyards and meatpacking trade moved in, and it is for this that Omaha is best known. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, Omaha was one of the great meatpacking centers of the United States.

Omaha was a site of high racial tensions, often overlapping labor problems. In 1919, a mob burned the courthouse to get at Will Brown, a Black suspect held there. He was lynched, and the courthouse sustained over $1 million in damages. This was the most notorious, but far from the only instance of lynching in Omaha.

Changes in the railroad and meatpacking industries led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, and throughout the second half of the twentieth century Omaha struggled with widespread poverty.

omaha old market
The Old Market today

The Old Market district began its life as a residential area, but was soon converted into a huge produce market. The Old Market became a collection of grocery stores, warehouses, and open air produce vendors. In its heyday it was a vibrant hub of the city. Trade in the Old Market consisted of everything from wholesale transactions facilitated by the proximity of the railroad, to everyday retail purchases by local customers. People from all walks of life mingled in the Old Market, and locals rubbed shoulders with travellers and large-scale buyers from out of town. It was packed with people, and the din of conversation was punctuated by the constant calls of vendors trying to attract customers. Foot traffic competed with innumerable horse-drawn wagons, later replaced by trucks and automobiles.

For decades the Old Market was the heart of the produce trade, until changes in the grocery industry led to its precipitous decline. Coinciding with the decline of the railroad and meatpacking industries, this contributed to the rapid loss of so much of the heart of Omaha in the 1950s and 60s. Property owners struggled to weather the change, trying to convert the now vacant warehouses and produce shops to other uses.

sam mercer in the omaha old market district
Sam Mercer

From very early in its existence, the Mercer family were influential property owners in the Old Market. Watching the decline of the neighborhood, Sam Mercer began a project to remake the Old Market into an entertainment district. Mercer began acquiring many of the now much cheaper properties in the Old Market. In 1970 he began the transformation by converting the Gilinski Fruit Company building into a French restaurant, originally the French Café, now Le Bouillon, still one of Old Market’s signature spots.

More restaurants followed, all locally owned, offering a great variety of food, drink, and atmosphere. It became a destination for artists. In 1983 the old Bemis Bag Company building was converted into the Bemis Project, a non profit artist community. Though it was badly damaged by fire in 1999, the Old Market has remained a center for artists and for the arts.

The Old Market has also reclaimed its importance as a produce market. Drawing on over 100 years of tradition, a farmer’s market thrives in the revitalized district. Farmer’s market is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, take in the historic neighborhood, and support local businesses and local growers.

Old Market is a growing neighborhood, with residential options including Old Market Lofts, originally constructed in 1901 as a warehouse and converted over 100 years later into apartments.

In addition to art galleries and restaurants that range from the tiniest coffee shop to a variety of high end cuisine, the Old Market is known for unique shopping opportunities. Like everything else in the district, this ranges from high end shopping to second hand stores and funky gift shops.

Shops and restaurants come and go, and each that closes its doors is replaced as a new local entrepreneur makes their vision a reality. No matter how many times you visit, there’s always something new and exciting to be found. This fresh atmosphere is only heightened by street vendors, street performers, and some of the best people watching anywhere.

The Old Market is a beautiful blend of the old and the new. Walking along the brick paved streets or under covered sidewalks, within or outside the old brick buildings you can find the newest in art and cuisine.

Discover what's new in the Old Market district by joining one of the Nebraska Tour Company walking tour experiences: