MABEL ELVINA NICHOLS HYDE
As a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, my great-grandmother, Mabel Elvina NICHOLS HYDE transformed herself from a forlorn child into a confident young woman. Known for her elegant style, the tall slender beauty became a matron of society. In later years her niece, Helen KIESSELBACH GREENE, wrote on one of Mabel’s photographs, “…the only truly beautiful woman in our entire extended family.”
My previous blog featured one photograph and story about Mabel. Thanks to my mother and grandmother, I know Mabel through numerous anecdotes. They always referred to her as “Nana.” As a child I thought it was her given name. Her friends called her “Mabe,” but no one used the middle name she despised, Elvina.
Most of the stories I heard about Mabel mentioned her adult life, one of privilege. She attended social functions; vacationed each summer in Colorado on a scenic ranch; and eventually lived in a beautiful home designed by her son, my grandfather, the architect John F. HYDE Jr.
THE EARLY YEARS
There were references to her difficult childhood, but research revealed the obstacles she faced. The fourth child of a Swedish immigrant and a Pennsylvania transplant to Nebraska, Mabel Elvina NICHOLS was born March 31, 1888 in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Located on the eastern bank of the Missouri River, Sioux City was in the center of the western corn belt and was a booming railroad town.
NICHOLS FAMILY MEMBERS:
- John Mathews NICHOLS (1857-1929) born in Pennsylvania
- Mary NELSON NICHOLS (1856-1931) born in Sweden
- Carrie Bertha NICHOLS (1881-1915) born in Omaha
- Charles Clinton NICHOLS “Charlie” (1883-1930) born in Omaha
- Fredrick Mathew NICHOLS “Fred” (1885-1957) born in Norfolk
- Mabel Elvina NICHOLS “Mabe” “Nana”(1888-1954) born in Sioux City
- John Lee NICHOLS “Johnnie” (1890-1967) born in Omaha
It was the railroad that brought the NICHOLS family to Sioux City. By the end of the 1880’s a web of railroad tracks covered 5000 miles in Nebraska. John NICHOLS, a railroad worker, followed job prospects. He moved his family from Omaha, to Norfolk, to Sioux City and back again to Omaha. The NICHOLS eventually settled in North Omaha, an area densely populated by Scandinavians, many of whom were railroad employees.
John and Mary NICHOLS initially rented then owned their home at 1402 Jaynes Street. Typical for the late 19th century, the one story home was less than 1000 square feet and probably had two or three bedrooms. Indoor plumbing and electricity were not available yet for that area of town.
Are sibling bonds strengthened when you share small spaces and hardship? I think they are. Mabel had a close relationship with two of her brothers, Fred and John. One of the stories she related is so typical of brothers and sisters at the dinner table. Mabel had to guard her favorite food on her plate. She liked to save it until last to eat but her brothers would reach over and swipe it for themselves if she wasn’t careful.
The NICHOLS children most likely attended Saratoga school located at North 24th and Ames street, about 1.5 miles from their home. Originally established in 1866 by local citizens, the original one room school house was one of the first public schools in Nebraska. 
The NICHOLS shared a neighborhood not only with Swedes, but also Danes, Norwegians, Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Irish, Dutch, Canadians, and English. “In 1900 when the recorded population for Omaha was 102,555, there were 23, 552 immigrants, accounting for twenty-three percent of all Omahans. Most were Scandinavians (6710)…” Their immediate neighbors were a mix of Americans and immigrants, many with children old enough to be playmates with the NICHOLS children. Perhaps one of Mabel’s best friends was a next door neighbor, 12-year old Annie Rick. She had four brothers close in age to the NICHOLS boys; her widowed mother was an immigrant from England. Eventually the two families joined when Charles NICHOLS married Annie in 1906.
Mabel, her sister and three brothers probably didn’t learn very much about their Swedish heritage. This wasn’t unusual for Swedish immigrants. The majority of Swedes and Danes who originally settled in Omaha were former peasants. They escaped a life controlled by the landed gentry. “In the United States, they rejected their past life to the extent that few made an effort to teach their children the rudiments of Swedish or Danish.” 
Mabel learned a few words in Swedish. She fondly referred to her granddaughter, my mother, as “Vacker flicka” = pretty/beautiful girl. I imagine that Mary used the term to describe her two daughters, Mabel and Carrie. Mary passed along her Swedish language cookbook to Mabel as well as her enjoyment of cooking and baking. Unfortunately, the cookbook and memories of favorite Swedish recipes have been lost.
While researching The Gate City A History of Omaha, one event triggered my imagination. It described the grand Trans-Mississippi International Exposition held from 1 June – 31 October 1898 in Omaha.
Inspired by the success of the Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893-4, Omaha’s community leaders decided to host a similar affair. After suffering through a financial depression in the 1890’s, the Exposition offered a rebirth for the growing Midwestern town. The exposition grounds spread over 184 acres at the northern edge of Omaha, just a few blocks from where the NICHOLS family lived on 1402 Jaynes street.
Ten year old Mabel may have attended the wondrous spectacle with her family. They may have visited during the two Swedish-American Days, June 24 or September 28. If not, perhaps they visited on Railroad Day September 17 or during Railroad week October 27-29.
Were they among the over 2.6 million visitors who came from far and wide to experience the magical city constructed from temporary structures? Twenty-one classical buildings featured products and sites from 40 states and 10 countries.
“…throngs walked the tree-lined avenues, lounged on the green lawns, marveled at the multitude of flower gardens and fountains, took in the exhibits, sweltered to Little Egypt’s hoochie-coochie dance, then cooled off with a lemon phosphate.”
- Venetian Lagoon with small craft and gondoliers.
- Moorish palace
- Japanese Tea Garden
- Old English Country Fair
- Streets of Cairo
- Chinese Village
- Hawaiian Theater
- Mammoth Whale
- Ostrich Farm
- Wild Animal Show
- Great Omaha Wild West Show
Although I’m not sure that Mabel attended the grand event, I’m inclined to think she did. I picture the impressionable 10-year old wholly enthralled by the fantastic sights, just as I would have been.
The NICHOLS family lived in a working class neighborhood where opportunities for men, but especially for women, were limited. When Mary NELSON arrived in Omaha in 1875, she worked as a servant until she married John NICHOLS in 1881. During the following two decades job options for women didn’t improve. After leaving school at about age 16, girls had two choices; they worked low paying jobs and lived at home or they married. After marriage they usually only worked part-time to supplement their husbands income.
Occupations listed for women: 1900 census, Omaha, NE, Enumeration district 46 (NICHOLS’S neighborhood)
Occupations listed for men – 1900 census Omaha, NE, Enumeration district 46 (NICHOLS’S neighborhood)
- bar keeper
- bike repairer
- delivery clerk
- coach cleaner (railroad)
- dairy farm
- hide packer
- horse trainer
- rendering packing house
- sheep butch
- U.S. Army
In 1900, twelve-year old Mabel, her two brothers Fred, age 14, and John, age 9, attended school. Carrie, 18-years old, worked long hours as a servant and 16-year old Charlie as a day laborer doing odd jobs.  As unskilled workers they likely earned about ten cents an hour on average, or $5.50 a week.  In contrast, their father, a railway switch man with 20 years experience, made about $1.42/hour. 
In the following decade technology and economic growth opened job opportunities for young women like Mabel. The 1910 census for the NICHOLS’S neighborhood listed the same unskilled jobs for women such as laundress and servant, but it also included occupations that commanded more respect. Women could work as a nurse, teacher, stenographer, telephone and telegraph operator, or as a clerk at a retail store/office. Granted, the choices were limited but “as one early twentieth century editor put it, “Maggie” in the mill became “Miss” in the store.”
Mabel completed four years of high school and searched for work. I don’t know what her first jobs were, nor what kind of training she received. Did she scan the want ads in the local newspaper, the Omaha Bee, for possibilities?
I couldn’t find Mabel listed in the, 1906, 1907 nor 1908 Omaha directory. She would have been 18-20 years old and working age. There is a Mabel E. Nichols listed in the 1906, 1907, and 1908 Lincoln, Nebraska directories, but is she my Mabel? The Mabel in Lincoln worked as a clerk for three years at the Nebraska Telephone company and lived near the university. I searched to see if a “Mabel E Nichols” appeared in other records for Lincoln from 1900-1920 but the name only appears in the directory for the three years that my Mabel is missing from Omaha. My Mabel turns up again in the 1909 Omaha directory. She lived at home with her parents and successfully found employment as a clerk/office assistant for J. F. Hyde. The new job changed her life.
Her employer, a handsome young physician, graduated from the University of Lincoln, Nebraska in 1907. He moved to Omaha and opened a practice in the Brandeis Building. Recovering from the rejection of his former fiancee, was Dr. HYDE susceptible to the charms of his attractive blue-eyed assistant?
Stay tuned for PART II.
The story of MABEL NICHOLS HYDE is dedicated to my mother in appreciation for her passing on family history and sharing so many inspiring memories with me.
© 2018 copyright Kendra Hopp Schmidt. All rights reserved.
 History of the Counties of Woodbury and Plymouth, Iowa Including an Extended Sketch of Sioux City. Chicago, IL: A Warner & Co., 1890. Accessed September 12, 2017. http://history.rays-place.com/ia/wood-sc1.htm.
Larsen, Lawrence H, and Barbara J Cottrell. The Gate City A History of Omaha. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
 Fletcher, Adam F.C. “A History of Scandanavians in North Omaha”. North Omaha History, 26 Jan. 2017, http://www.northomahahistory.com/2017/01/26/scandinavians/
Fletcher, Adam F.C. “A History of schools in North Omaha.” North Omaha History, 22 Sept 2013, http://www.northomahahistory.com.
 Larsen, Lawrence H., and Barbara J Cottrell. The Gate City A history of Omaha. University of Nebraska Press. 1997.
 Ibid, p. 160.
 “List of Special Says at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.” Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition. 1899. http://www.trans-mississippi.unl.edu.
Rowley, Walter H. “Omaha’s First Century.” 1954. http://www.historicomaha.com.
 1900 U.S. census, Douglas County, Nebraska, Omaha, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 46, sheet 2 (handwritten), dwelling 25, family 25 , line 9, John Nichols, digital image, Archives.gov (http://census.archives.gov: accessed 29 Mar 2018); citing NARA microfilm publicationT623 , roll 1854.
 Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America Transformations in Everyday Life. Harper Collins, 1991.
 United States, Bureau of Labor. “Rates of Wages in Various Occupations.” Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor, No. 29, Volume V, 1900, p. 766, Fraser Discover Economic History Federal Reserve. http://www.fraser.stlouisfed.org
 Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America Transformations in Everyday Life. Harper Collins, 1991.
Omaha Directory Co., Omaha, Nebraska, City Directory for the Year 1909, p.841, Nichols surname; digitized in “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995,: database, Ancestry (http:www.ancestry.com : accessed 27 March 2018).