OMAHA, Neb. — Kathy Sramek was rummaging through a box of dusty old stuff, looking for nothing in particular, when she noticed something that gave her pause.
It was an old family Bible, about the size of a shoe box. The spine was broken the pages were yellowed and worn. Enclosed were cryptic clues to who had once owned it: two tufts of (apparently human) hair, an 1861 newspaper from Peru, Illinois, a loose page of handwritten German, a five-page family history written on 1888 Nebraska State Senate letterhead and a tiny photograph of a baby girl.
On ancestry pages bound within the book, in flawless calligraphy, Sramek found a family name: Lininger.
Though her family had long lived in Nebraska, this Bible had not belonged to them — that much Sramek knew. But it wasn’t entirely surprising that she had stumbled on it in a box packed away in her sister’s attic in Waterloo. The box had belonged to her mother, an avid antique collector. It wasn’t impossible, Sramek thought, to think that her mom had eyed the book at an auction somewhere and bought it.
Still, this felt like something special. And the thought of packing the Bible away again, only for another relative to one day find and discard, nagged at her.
So in August, after she returned to her home in Arizona, Sramek set upon tracking down someone who would treasure it. She would eventually learn that, back in Omaha, two Freemasons had spent more than a decade learning everything they could about the man who had once owned the Bible — a mostly forgotten Omaha luminary named George Lininger.
For Chris Carter and Doug Lewis, members of the Omaha Masonic lodge named in Lininger’s honor, the Bible’s discovery feels like a gift from their old friend.
“Everything else we discovered we were looking for,” Carter said. “This was almost like: ‘Job well done, gentlemen. Here you go.'”
The George W. Lininger Lodge was recently presented with the restored Bible to the Nebraska Masonic Museum & Research Library in Lincoln, the Omaha World-Herald reported. There, it joins thousands of other documents and artifacts pertaining to the state’s 160-year Masonic history.
But Lininger’s story isn’t just a Masonic one, Carter and Lewis say. It’s an Omaha story.
Carter, a vice president of MUFG Union Bank, and Lewis, a government research analyst, like to say that Lininger was the Warren Buffett of his day. In addition to being a prominent Mason, he was a wealthy statesman who brought culture to early Omaha and was instrumental in the city’s development. He was a world traveler who met twice with the pope and once with a prince of England. He amassed a collection of art and artifacts from around the globe and shared his finds with people back home.
But before all that, Lininger was a successful tinware salesman in Peru, Illinois. The fragile newspaper Sramek found with the Bible contains advertisements for his business.
In the late 1860s, Lininger moved to Council Bluffs and later settled in Omaha, then considered a muddy backwater. He would later say that he and his small family had their pick of places to live, but they moved to Omaha because “no city we had yet found could ever seem so much like home to us as Omaha did.”
Lininger’s fellow Omahans would come to hold him in high esteem. His résumé includes stints in the Nebraska Legislature and on the Omaha City Council and the Omaha Parks Commission. As a Freemason, he founded the Nebraska Masonic Home in Plattsmouth, which is still in use today.
And when he wasn’t politicking, he was snapping up paintings and sculptures. Lininger and his wife, Caroline, were dedicated art lovers who built an impressive collection at their home near 18th and Davenport Streets. On certain days every week, the couple opened their gallery to any Omahan who wanted to take a look.
Lininger’s passion for art, in fact, earned him a background role in the history of American landmarks. In the 1890s, he paid for a young artist named Gutzon Borglum to study his craft in Europe. Borglum would later use those skills to carve the likenesses of four U.S. presidents out of the granite face of Mount Rushmore.
Stories like these drew Carter and Lewis to dig into Lininger’s past after Lewis joined the lodge in 2006. They dug through old newspaper clippings and traveled around the country, searching for new information about a man few in the lodge seemed to know much about.
Two of Lininger’s great passions, they found, were traveling and collecting. Before his death in 1907, he toured countries like England, Russia, Italy, Greece and Egypt, gathering treasures along the way. Once, Lininger paid the Egyptian government for the chance to be present at the opening of an ancient tomb. He would later ship 10 tons of artifacts — including statuettes, mummified hawks and two full human mummies — back to Omaha for display at the public library.
A 1934 World-Herald story documenting the sale of items from the Lininger estate lists more: “Bones of many a saint, boots that a Medici wore . frontiersmen’s guns” and “stuffed deepsea fishes.”
Carter and Lewis rediscovered many of the items — including the mummies — in the archives of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s State Museum at Morrill Hall.
But somehow, from the mound of curiosities and souvenirs, the Lininger family Bible had escaped.
In those days, the Bible was an heirloom, a means of keeping track of one family’s history and heritage. Families pressed mementos between the pages and chronicled the deeds of ancestors in blank spaces.
So, in her quest to find a home for the book, Sramek first reached out to relatives. She found a few Liningers on ancestry.com and contacted them about the Bible. None responded.
She tried the Joslyn Art Museum, now home too many pieces from Lininger’s extensive art collection. But it wasn’t interested in the Bible.
But after Sramek read a World-Herald story about Carter and Lewis’ discovery of Lininger’s souvenir collection in the UNL archives, she contacted the Masons.
Of course, they were interested.
“It’s overwhelming,” Lewis said. “This was something that was held in his hands. There’s no guessing. We know that he held this. We know that he read out of it. . Finding something like that is amazing. It’s awesome.”
Last fall, while Sramek and her husband were in town, they met with Lewis and other members of the lodge to hand over the Bible. Lewis told the Srameks what he knew about Lininger. And he was excited, to say the least.
“He was like a little kid, jumping up and down, rubbing his hands together. He was thrilled. Absolutely thrilled,” Sramek said.
Lewis had the Bible’s spine repaired at Perfect Touch Binding in Plattsmouth. And, slowly, he started unraveling the book’s secrets.
Lewis suspects that Lininger’s father purchased the Bible when his son was still young. At some point, a relative wrote a family history in German. Later Lininger or his wife worked to translate the text on State Legislature stationery.
The baby in the photo, Lewis believes, is George and Caroline’s only surviving child: a daughter named Florence.
The hair remains a mystery (though Lewis did consider having a DNA test done on it).
The Bible is a welcome addition to the museum and research library in Lincoln, said Carter, who also serves as curator there. It’s one artifact that helps link the Masons’ history to that of the state as a whole.
“(Lininger) means something to the Masons, but in his lifetime he meant something to everybody else,” Carter said.
For her part, Sramek said she’s glad to have found a proper place for a priceless piece of the city’s past. And, of course, to have learned something new about her hometown.
“This man was a real mover and shaker. You just feel an affinity for that” she said. “You feel a responsibility to preserve some of that stuff.”
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Omaha World-Herald.