Often referred to as Jobber’s Canyon, Omaha’s wholesale/distribution/manufacturing complex sandwiched between the city’s downtown core and the Missouri River, grew primarily from the 1880s, but by 1989 all but one of the landmark district’s 26 buildings had been razed to attract one major corporation. That lone remaining structure is the only visible remnant to tell the story.
The firm of Smith & Crittenden, a wholesale and retail dry goods concern, was formed about 1868 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, by M. E. Smith and A. J. Crittenden on Fifth Street near First Avenue. Also in 1868 Edward Watrous Nash and his bride Catherine Barbeau Nash moved to Omaha where Edward became interested in the city’s street railways, banking and real estate.
Nash, as president of Omaha Smelting Co., expanded that firm into the American Smelting and Refining Co., one of the largest lead smelters in the U.S.
Smith & Crittenden crossed the river and established a second dry goods store in Omaha in 1884. Two years later Crittenden disposed of his interest in the firm, which was joined by A. C. Smith of New York state, and George M. Tibbs of New Jersey with the firm renamed M. E. Smith & Co.
The retail portion of the enterprise closed with the wholesale division moved into the six-story Ames Block at 11th and Douglas, which had just been built for them by Frederick L. Ames of Boston. The business began growing so rapidly that they quickly had to also lease space in the Mercer Building across the street and the Paddock Block also at 11th and Douglas.
In 1890 Walter D. Smith had joined the firm, which advertised itself as “importers and jobbers of dry goods.” 1890 also saw M. E. Smith & Co. move into the 132 by 66 foot, seven-floor building at 1101-07 Howard Street. They also said they employed 18 traveling salesmen covering the country “from Western Iowa to Portland, Oregon.”
The first floor was then dedicated to the manufacturing of clothing, including all “shirts except white.” The manufacturing division claimed that they employed 150, mostly women, who used 120 of the most modern electric-powered machines and that “twice a year several trains, often containing 20 or 30 cars, loaded exclusively with this firm’s goods, would arrive from New York.”
M. E. Smith died in 1897 with his son Arthur Crittenden Smith, a recent Harvard graduate, becoming president with another son Floyd M. Smith appointed treasurer and Ward M. Burgess from St. Louis, as vice president. At that point the firm was identified as “the largest and most important wholesale dry goods house in Omaha” with orders accepted by mail or telegraph at their five-story, 66 by 150 foot building in Omaha or their New York City office at 338 Broadway. Sales were reported at $1,500,000.
In 1905 Edward Nash’s widow Catherine hired Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball to design the Renaissance, $190,000, Nash Blocks at 902-912 Farnam Street on Block 124. The primary building was described as being eight-stories tall, of limestone and brick over cast iron columns and heavy timber. The buildings were also considered ahead of their time, being fitted with automatic sprinklers and the most up-to-date fireproof construction possible.
Ultimately three buildings were erected in the complex with the two major structures connected overhead. The Nash Blocks were immediately leased to M. E. Smith & Co. then noted as “manufacturers of Ideal Brand shirts, pants, overalls and Duck clothing.”
In 1969, with A. C. Smith still president and W. M. Burgess vice president, and now with 400 employees, a separate company, Burgess-Nash Department Store, was created through the purchase of Orkin Bros. store. The new retail venture expanded into a nine-story, block-long presence between 16th and 17th streets on Harney. The department store was, though large, never very successful.
In 1922 M. E. Smith & Co. was declared insolvent. Mark Woods of Lincoln was invited to Omaha hoping that he would invest capital to resurrect the firm. Ultimately the Woods brothers agreed to invest $500,000 if additional funds could be obtained. The firm was reorganized in 1924 but the following year was declared bankrupt.
In the 1930s portions of the Nash Block were leased to McKesson-Robbins a wholesale drug distributor from New York, but in 1979 they vacated the building moving to LaVista. The north half of the twin building and the third structure were razed as part of the Leahy Mall in 1981, but the south building survived and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The extant south building was totally renovated in 1987, converting it into the Greenhouse apartments and offices remaining the only survivor of Omaha’s Jobber’s Canyon, which originally filled over six square blocks bordered by Eighth, 10th, Farnam and Jackson streets.
Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at email@example.com.