Sometimes You Have to Go Home

I grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to my grandfather, Council Bluffs was, “the only town that ever hurt Chicago.” I've given his pronouncement a lot of thought over the years and I've still never quite figured out what it meant.

Maybe it was because Council Bluffs made fun of Chicago on the playground when they were kids. Or maybe it was because someone from CB wrote a letter once to someone in Chicago saying that having broad shoulders and being hog butcher to the world wasn't really that great. Especially when Carl Sandburg  went on to mention that it was also the city of skanky whores and slimy gangsters.

But, I think he was talking about the railroads. Because there was a time there when Council Bluffs actually had bigger rail yards than Chicago. Or at least that's what everyone in Council Bluffs thinks. And, since my grandfather was a yardmaster for the Milwaukee Road, he was sensitive to railroad size issues.

When I visit my mother's home, I can still hear the train horns during the summer nights when the windows are open. I've been hearing that sound since I was born and, although the low bellows from the big engines sometime wake me up, I don't mind them. They always remind me of my grandfather and staying in this same house with him every Friday night when I was nine.

So, Council Bluffs is a train town. It has been since it was decided that it would be the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific railroad. Abraham Lincoln visited Council Bluffs twice–in 1859 when he was in Congress and again in 1864 when he was President and was wondering how he'd reunite the country after the Civil War. Part of his answer was the transcontinental railroad, and he decided it would start here.

The house that Dodge built. He also built railroads.

The man chosen to be head engineer of the Union Pacific was an army Major General by the name of Grenville M. Dodge. He got the job done, and although he could have chosen to live anywhere along his magnificent accomplishment, he chose to live in Council Bluffs and so, in 1869, spent the exorbitant sum of $35,000 to build the most elegant home in town on top of a hill looking down on the present day rail yards.

The home is still there. It's now on the National Register of Historic Places. It has high ceilings, fantastic carved wood everywhere, huge crystal chandeliers throughout, and has been refurnished in the style of the day. Most of the original furniture had been moved off over the years by his family, but the ladies guild that takes care of the place has done a remarkable job of fund raising and purchasing period-appropriate replacements.

When I visit Council Bluffs, my mother usually jokes, “Do you want to go visit the Dodge House?” Always, Kris and I say, “no thanks.” This time, though, we took her up on the offer. It's a nice home, and if you're interested in the history of one of the most important engineers of the history of the United States, you should have a look. While you're at it, they've also turned the old Carnegie Library, only four blocks away from the Dodge House, into a Union Pacific museum, and that's well worth an hour of your time, too.

There isn't much else to do in Council Bluffs except go to the casinos or the dog track.

They're the legacy of another famous former Council Bluffs resident, Meyer Lansky. In case you don't know who he was, the short answer is that he was the “bookkeeper” of the mobs of the early to mid 20th Century. That sells him a bit short. He was the model for the character of Hyman Roth in The Godfather II. if you want a less fictionalized account, read Big Little Man, or any article about Bugsy Siegel, his partner in founding Las Vegas.

At any rate, Lansky and partners owned the dog track in Council Bluffs and my dad actually once worked for him. You might ask how you can run a dog track right in the middle of a city when gambling was illegal. The answer is that, in the Council Bluffs of that day, the “fix was in.” Some say it still is, but I don't have any evidence of that.

There is a restaurant in town named Lansky's that has pretty good deli food, but hardly anyone in town knows why it's named that. That's the only monument I know of that bears his name, and the city fathers are probably happy about that.

The ladies guild didn't preserve Lansky's house, so you'll have to use your imagination.

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10 thoughts on “Sometimes You Have to Go Home”

  1. I’m a free lance writer, also born and raised in Council Bluffs, and I have an interest in Meyer Lansky. I read with interest that your dad worked for him. My grandfather, Homer Whistler, also worked for him counting money at the dog track. Perhaps they knew each other. Do you have any other personal stories on Lansky that you can share?

    Thanks.

    • Kathy, they probably did know each other, because my dad worked at the betting windows. He died three years ago so I can’t ask him for any more stories. He did tell me two. Lansky was a math whiz, and Dad said he could just walk down the line of tellers, ask how much was bet on each dog from each one, and then when he got to the end, could just turn around and set the proper odds. The other was about a teller who was short in his count by $100, and Lansky just told him to make it up tomorrow. Dad said Lansky was completely calm about it and didn’t threaten the guy, but he knew he’d better make it up. After he did, Lansky just fired him, Dad said, instead of what the calm non-threat had implied.

  2. Thanks, Tom. These are great vignettes about Lansky. I am still researching and found an assortment of articles about him in the archives of the Council Bluffs public library. Many of them say what a “nice guy” he was. I find that an interesting description of a member of organized crime.

  3. Hey, Tom.

    I am continuing work on the Meyer Lansky story and wonder whether you would mind my quoting you on those two stories about him that your dad told you. I am using the premise of “who was Meyer Lansky?” for my story and want to use anecdotes that show some of his positive attributes.

    Interestingly, according to the articles I got from the Council Bluffs library, many people in town thought he was a “nice guy.” Either he really was a nice guy or he was a good actor.

    Thanks.

    Kathy

    Kathy

  4. In November of 1968, immediately following the Humphrey-Nixon election, my parents purchased a house in Council Bluffs high in the bluffs not too far from downtown. An older neighborhood marked by substantial houses and good neighborhoods. The area was opened to development in the 1938-1940 era.

    Shortly after we moved in, a long-time occupant of the house across from our “new” house, made my acquaintance. He and his family had purchased his house at the same time the other four houses in the neighborhood were newly built. A building contractor of quite fine repute had constructed four in that block. A street nearby is named for him.

    The elderly neighbor, who at that time lived with his wife, was in his late 60s. Getting to know me in the first few days of our arrival, he recognized my interest in history. One slightly warmer day in November at the end of our drive, he stepped out to get the mail and walked over to me. He asked me, “Do you know who used to live in your house?” I thought briefly and replied, “Scott Mallory.” His face lit up and I thought he’d recognize the co-owner of Rog & Scotty’s Super Value Stores, which dotted the landscape of Council Bluffs with good sized supermarkets competing with Safeway, Hinky-Dinky and similar businesses. His response was not what I expected: “–Before that,” he mentioned. “Not sure about that,” I said.

    “Meyer Lansky,” he proclaimed. Immediately recognizing the name, I walked closer to him as he perched on the curb directly across the street from me. “Yeah. He lived here when he worked the dog track in Council Bluffs.” Tell me more, I replied and couldn’t wait to hear what might come next . . . scarcely believing what he was excitedly conveying on that November gray day. “He lived in your house! He had a public address in Omaha at one of the big hotels . . . can’t remember whether it was the Fontenelle or Blackstone . . . but he rented this house to conduct his private affairs.”

    “I talked to him quite often,” the neighbor continued. “He was a nice guy and always spoke when we’d see each other.” The only unusual thing about him being across the street from us was that, “At all hours of the night and day . . . long black limos . . . with very well dressed men . . . would arrive in your driveway and see Meyer.”

    In 1970, two years after these comments, my dad had arrived home from his early morning job at the Omaha World-Herald by unwinding at 2:00 am, by watching a little television and a snack. Following that, he’d go to bed. At the time, I was in high school. He was married and his wife–my mom–was already in bed. His days off were Sunday and Monday. He ended up working for the W-H for 30 years.

    One Saturday night, long after I’d gone to bed and mom was asleep, he plopped himself down in the living room with popcorn and began to watch television after work. Our toy cocker spaniel named Lady Bird, was there in the living room laying down on the carpet, after a tiring few moments of greeting my dad.

    After the television had been on probably a half hour, the dog picked up her head and looked askance through the hall entry and on to the kitchen. Between was the door opposite to the outside and a stairway ascending upstairs to the second floor. The dog perked its ears and listened. Suddenly, Lady Bird got up, stood, barked and then trotted off towards the kitchen. The only lights on were those in the living room.

    Dad was undisturbed except for the flicker of the television when he heard the dog bound into the dining room and send off a number of rounds of vigorous barking, as if someone was intruding the house or trying to get in. Then the barking stopped just as suddenly as it had occurred. My dad noticed immediately that Lady BIrd was backing up in a position of sheer fright and whimpering and crying as if there was something completely threatening approaching her.

    There was.

    The next thing my dad discerned was a tall lady of middle age in a long white nightgown striding from the hall into the living room. She looked around the room in long glances, taking in everything around her. Unable to find what she was searching, she strode right into the fireplace and mantle, disappearing into the wall and mirror above! My dad had seen a ghost.

    The dog was terrified. He was . . . completely unnerved and couldn’t believe what he had just witnessed. The dog escaped and ran upstairs and didn’t come down the rest of the night. My dad put down the paper, turned off the television and went immediately to bed.
    Suffice it to say . . . he didn’t . . . sleep well that night.

    The next morning, we were all up having breakfast and dad said, “You wouldn’t believe what I saw last night?” We queried and listened to his rehash of the events earlier that morning. Mom couldn’t believe it. I certainly found it amazing, but if you had known my very well-grounded dad, couldn’t have imagined him . . . making this discordant nonsense up.

    He made us both agree to never divulge what he had seen until after he’d died–he said, “Nobody will believe this . . . and they’ll think I’m crazy . . . if you tell anyone now.”

    When my dad passed away in 2000, visions of this event came to mind and I was free to share it . . . with a few people I trusted or was close. My dad was not the kind of character to imagine or contrive such a story. Indeed the dog’s response is clearly evidence enough that it was “seen” or “sensed” by two living beings. Dogs’ sense (and animals in general) of clairvoyance is well known and I believe both of them saw something very unusual. I very strongly felt this was a member of the Lansky family.

    Later, when attending a commercial real estate conference in San Diego, I came in contact with a serious clairvoyant during a meeting. She was well recognized for working with realtors on houses which had . . . questionable pasts. We struck up a conversation and talked through dinner and into desert following. When I mentioned this event, in the most general terms, and that I lived in a house occupied by a famous individual, she immediately said to me: “She was his daughter.”

  5. Well Doug, that’s a new one. And a great story that leaves my Lansky stories behind. Please email me and tell me more about the house. I want to ask my Council Bluffs sources if anyone else knows about this.

    • Tom:

      Good to hear from you! The story is completely . . . true . . . in all respects. Pretty amazing, huh? I was quite amazed myself. The house was never owned by Lansky. He rented it. If you locate the abstracts and title information of the period, you’ll find it owned by someone else he presumably knew.

      What is amazing to me is why he came to Council Bluffs. I’ve asked myself this question many times. However, it neatly coincides with his work with the OSS and the Normandie capsizing, where the OSS was interested in using Lansky’s connections with the longshoreman’s union to locate possible agents of sabotage. From my reading, he was asked through connections from “Wild Bill” Donovan’s office to determine: a) whether the sabotage had been carried out by the longshoremen acting through Axis agents, or whether agents apart from this union had carried it out? This was his first query from the government.

      His friend Bugsy Siegel was in Ossining, New York at Sing Sing Prison for racketeering and prostitution, with some other charges thrown in. Because Siegel had many connections with the unions in New York, the race was on to locate the perpetrators of this converted hospital ship sabotage. The Alfred Hitchcock movie, “Saboteur,” as a fictional view of the disaster, has a scene where the alleged perpetrator (agent) looks askance at the Normandie capsized when he is riding in a Brooklyn, New York taxi.

      What I think is very interesting is the fact that Council Bluffs was the ideal location to conduct his work with the OSS. Who would look in some tumbleweed tundra location like southwest Iowa for an OSS agent? Furthermore, his relationships with politicians, including Mayor Muldoon, council members and other business people there, were absolutely spotless. He donated to causes. Charities received his benefaction. Meyer was pleasant to be around, certainly did not stir up a lot of devilish problems with the police. FBI reports show that while he resided at the Chieftain (sic) Hotel in Council Bluffs (I thought it was Omaha, but my research showed it in Council Bluffs) he rented a house. That house was . . . ours.

      During the time he ran the dog track as cover for his work with the OSS, he conducted from our house, work with the OSS to coordinate Sicilian agents (Mob resistance fighters) for the invasion of Sicily in 1943, worked with anti-Mussolini government resistance in Italy and sundry other covert affairs. The list is quite striking.

      When I look at that little telephone drop wire from our house to the pole across the street, I wonder how many interesting conversations may have been carried to the multi-pair cable across the street and to Washington, New York and some very interesting places around the country.

      This solves the question of why he would live here in southwest Iowa when he had so many eastern connections. Just as during the Kefauver hearings it was divulged that Sioux Falls, SD was a “cooling off town” for mob figures too hot to reside in well known mafia cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and etc.

      Indeed, living in Council Bluffs was the . . . perfect . . . cover for this kind of activity.

      Doug

  6. Doug,
    I believe I lived in the house across the street from your mom and the house where Lansky Meyer stayed. I remember you telling me the story of Meyer Lansky.

  7. Doug,
    I know the house that you speak of and the street. It is a great story but Meyer’s only daughter (Sandra) is still living. Any known information on other persons that may have been?

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