On March 1, 1867, Nebraska became the 37th state admitted to the Union. ‘Nebraska” is derived from the old ‘Otoe’ words ‘Ni Brasge’ or the Omaha words ‘Ni Bthaska,’ which means flat water. It makes a reference to the Platte River that flows through the state. I was born and raised in this wonderful state. So, to celebrate Nebraska’s 156th birthday, I want to share my pride in Nebraska by talking about 20 items that you may not have known come from Nebraska.
When blacksmith-turned-knifemaker Frank J. Richtig made a name for himself among knife enthusiasts by dramatically demonstrating his knives. Using a hammer, he would pound the blade completely through a ¾-inch-thick steel strap. Then he would slice a piece of paper with the knife that had cut through steel. In the process, he became the only person in Clarkson, Nebraska, to be featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Richtig’s feat was possible because the steel had been hardened through a process he both discovered and took to his grave in 1977. After the Ripley’s story, he became something of a celebrity, and orders for his knives came pouring in. He received thank-you letters for gift knives sent to notables such as President Franklin Roosevelt, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Gen. George C. Patton and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Richtig’s knives — many of which are in private collections — have been valued at more than $4,000 each.
Daytona 500 Trophy
The road to a Daytona 500 trophy literally goes through Omaha. The coveted winner’s award is sculpted by hand in the Cornhusker State by John Lajba, who crafts a replica of the Harley J. Earl trophy each year to be given to the winner of the “Great American Race.” The original trophy, named for automobile designer and second NASCAR commissioner Harley Earl, is kept on display at the Daytona International Speedway.
911 Emergency System
The 911 system of emergency communications, which is used nationwide and helps save millions of lives each year, was developed and first used in Lincoln. The first-ever 911 call was placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite from Haleyville City Hall to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill at the city’s police station.
The Reuben Sandwich
The tasty concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing was invented at Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel by Reuben Kulakofsky. It first appeared on a Blackstone menu in 1925 and is now served internationally.
Vise-Grip Locking Pliers
William Petersen, a blacksmith in DeWitt, came up with the idea for locking pliers in the early 1920s. He patented his first wrench in 1921, but the first Vise-Grip wrench with a locking handle was not patented until 1924. Petersen originally sold the pliers from the trunk of his car, but later formed a company and began manufacturing Vise-Grips in DeWitt in 1938. The company was acquired by Irwin Tools in 1993.
The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier was developed at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln between 1998 and 2002. Dean Sicking led a team of engineers to create the special safety wall for racetracks, which reduces the danger to drivers in a crash. The system is used today on IndyCar and NASCAR circuit tracks.
Butter Brickle Ice Cream
This is another treat that can be credited to the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha. Butter Brickle — the registered trademark of a toffee ice cream and a toffee-centered chocolate-covered candy bar — belongs to The Hershey Company.
Frozen TV Dinners
In the 1950s, Swanson met the needs of busy American families with the creation of a meal that was easy and fast to prepare in single portions. Several other frozen dinners had been developed by other companies, but Omaha-based Swanson developed the idea on a nationwide scale. Though it’s widely assumed that the term “TV dinner” came from families eating the frozen meals in front of the television at dinner time, food historians say the name came from the tray’s original shape, which resembled a 1950s TV.
Though the distinctive yellow-and-black booklets that helped so many unmotivated students through high school and college weren’t invented in Nebraska, they began their American life there. In 1958, Cliff Hillegass was working at Nebraska Book Co. when he met a Canadian man who published study guides. Hillegass acquired the American rights to the product and produced them under the name CliffsNotes. The company would go on to produce reference guides for subjects other than literature, saving the academic lives of millions of students time and again.
In the 1970s, the National Pork Producers Council asked University of Nebraska Professor Emeritus Roger Mandingo to come up with a product made from pork trimmings that could be sold to McDonald’s. McDonald’s chefs came up with the shape of the patty and the special sauce. The result has been a fast-food favorite for decades.
These chocolates, a Nebraska staple, are sold throughout the world. They’ve been produced in Greenwood for three generations.
The Chair Lift (aka ski lift)
Union Pacific engineer (not the train kind) James Curran came up with the design for the ski chairlift in 1936. He was inspired by hook-equipped banana conveyor systems that loaded cargo ships in the tropics. The first chairlifts were installed at a ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1936 and 1937.
The Eskimo Pie
Inspiration for the chocolate-coated ice cream bar came from a candy store in Onawa, Iowa, in 1920. But it wasn’t until owner and creator Christian Kent Nelson took his invention to a Nebraska chocolatier named Russell Stover that the Eskimo Pie went into mass production. Many variations of the delicious treat are available in grocery and convenience stores worldwide.
In the 1920s, Hastings native Edwin Perkins was inspired by a juice-flavored drink concentrate called Fruit Smack. In his mother’s kitchen, he played around with formulas to remove the liquid from the drink until only a powder remained — a process that would reduce shipping costs. The result was what became known as Kool-Aid. Perkins moved production to Chicago in 1931, and Kool-Aid was sold to General Foods in 1953. Hastings still celebrates an annual summer festival called Kool-Aid Days on the second weekend in August. The beverage is known as Nebraska’s official soft drink.
Dorothy Lynch Salad Dressing
In St. Paul, Nebraska, during the late 1940s, a woman named Dorothy Lynch developed a sweet and tangy dressing. Community members loved it so much that they brought their own bottles and jugs to have them filled with the popular concoction. In 1964, Lynch sold the recipe to Tasty-Toppings so it could be widely manufactured. Every bottle of Dorothy Lynch now comes from a production facility in Duncan. The dressing is sold at grocery stores in 35 states and distributed by 41 service companies. It’s also available for purchase online.
Fremont native Harold Eugene Edgerton became interested in the use of stroboscopes – most recognizable today as strobe lights – to study synchronous motors. The subject was the topic of his thesis at MIT in 1927. His methods went on to be used in high speed photography of subjects such as a balloon popping.
The idea for the Runza sandwich didn’t originate in Nebraska; it was introduced to the area by German immigrants. However, sister and brother Sarah Everett and Alex Brening gave a brand name and easy availability to the meat-stuffed pastry in 1949 when they opened the first Runza Drive-Inn in Lincoln.
Collapsible Voting Booths
The next time you step into a voting booth and pull the curtain behind you, be sure to thank Nebraska native Elizabeth Robb Douglas. The idea for a collapsible voting booth came to her in a dream in 1905. That dream launched the Douglas Manufacturing Company, which operates to this day in Crete and provides collapsible booths nationwide.
The predecessor to Omaha Steaks began with father and son J.J. and B.A. Simon, who boarded a ship heading for the United States from Riga, Latvia, in 1898 to escape religious persecution and start a new life. They founded Table Supply Meat Company in Omaha in 1917. From the beginning, they were dedicated to processing and selling tender, flavorful, grain-fed beef to Omaha-area restaurants and grocers. In 1952, Lester Simon initiated the company’s first mail-order ventures – catalogs, magazine ads, direct-mail flyers and other mailings. The company changed its name to Omaha Steaks International in 1966 and has continued to grow. Omaha Steaks is one of the world’s largest direct-response marketers of gourmet steaks and frozen foods, serving nearly 3 million active buyers.
For many people across the world, it’s not Christmas until they hear a Mannheim Steamroller song. The neoclassical, new-age music group founded in Omaha by Chip Davis is known primarily for its Fresh Aire album series, which blends classical music with elements of new age and rock, and for its modern recordings of Christmas music . The group has sold more than 28 million albums in the United States.
If you ever hear someone say nothing good comes from Nebraska, you now have proof that Nebraska is full of riches.