‘Mascotte” means lucky charm in French. It was popularized by the debut of the comic opera “La Mascotte” in 1881. “Mascot” entered the English lexicon soon after, and every sports team had to have one.
What could have used a lucky charm was the failed factory town of Mascotte. Born in 1886-87, its life as an Omaha suburb was short.
A World-Herald headline in 1915 proclaimed:
“Comic Opera Town/Nebraska’s Dismal Deserted Village – Mascotte, at Omaha’s Back Door, Once Looked Promising as a Manufacturing Center – Now It’s a Village of Ruins.”
The World-Herald sent one of its best feature writers, Miles Greenleaf, to see what was left of Mascotte:
“A few wooden pilings, three or four broken-down and unoccupied cottages, a battered flag post along the Missouri Pacific and a handful of former citizens are all that remain of the city that was to be the manufacturing suburb of Omaha.”
On either side of the Little Papillion Creek – south of what is now Grover Street west of 60th Street – the main street was Rocco Avenue, and the east-west streets were named Lorenzo, Bettina, Pippo and Frederic.
The street names were from “La Mascotte.” The story of the three-act opera concerns a farm girl who is a mascotte, someone with the mystic power to bring good luck to everyone around her only while she remains a virgin. It opened in Paris in December 1880.
Less than a year later, an American version opened at the grand Boyd Opera House at 15th and Farnam streets. The star was Fay Templeton, then the diva of the American stage. In the audience for opening night was Omaha attorney and real estate broker Dexter L. Thomas. He was smitten by the opera and Templeton’s performance.
Over in western Iowa, John Dierks was an inventor with plenty of ideas on how he could get rich quick. From his patent for a cornshucking machine he built a factory in Council Bluffs in 1886. Then he thought big, as did many, while the economy was booming.
“He had a few thousand dollars and an engaging smile, but he did more with the smile than the dollars,’’ Greenleaf wrote. “The railroads were having the heyday of their youth and propositions, like mushrooms, grew in clusters during the night to die during the day.”
Dierks eyed the crossing of the Missouri Pacific and the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley railroad lines, with the old Union Pacific main line only a few miles away. Could this be the land for a great manufacturing center?
He hit up many of the farmers and Omaha businessmen who owned land along the tracks for thousands of dollars to fund the John Dierks Implement Co. But Thomas owned the parcel Dierks needed for his “city.” So the man with the dreams (and the financing schemes) linked up with the man with the land. And Thomas applied his love of “La Mascotte” to the name and the plat for the new town in 1886.
Soon came a long, wide two-story brick and frame factory along the Missouri Pacific tracks for making the cornshucker, end gates for wagons and — remember this for later — steel bobsleds.
The general store was operated by a sutler — a person who followed an army and sold provisions to the soldiers – from the Civil War. The Mascotte House hotel was on the northwest corner of Pippo and Rocco. Houses were on either side of the creek, and there was no bridge at the townsite, which proved a great divide when a fight arose over the site of the Mascotte school. The eastsiders won out. The school building stood until it was in the path of the Easter tornado of 1913.
“Mascotte was a big joke, but it looked good while it lasted,’’ Neuhouse said. “The town all went away but the land is still here. That’s all I want. The factory and the hotel burned down and so did some of the houses, but that was a long time ago. We are satisfied right here without Mascotte.”
How did the boom town die? Mascotte resident Rudolph Ruser told Greenleaf it began with the region’s economic downturn in 1888. Stockholders in the factory hauled off loose machinery to recoup some of their investment. Employees weren’t getting paid and quit. The railroad ended its “dummy trains” — steam locomotives enclosed in wooden boxes made to resemble a railroad passenger coach — to Omaha.
The vacant factory in the 1890s became a rendering plant for South Omaha meatpackers before it, like the town, crumbled.
Dierks was taken to court several times in the aftermath, but there’s not much of a paper trail of his subsequent whereabouts. As for Thomas, the real estate man who turned down $30,000 for his 40 acres when Mascotte was considered a hot property, eventually sold it at cost — and a couple of those Dierks bobsleds thrown in.
“My kids took the bobsleds out one winter evening years ago and loaned them to somebody else,” Thomas recalled to Greenleaf. “They never came back, so I lost my chance for any profit whatever on the Mascotte deal.”
And so much for this Mascotte being a lucky charm.
Stu Pospisil, a veteran sports writer for The World-Herald, has two books on Benson history to his credit.