Boys Town (now more a Catholic organization for troubled youth than an orphanage) while a part of Hollywood movie history is also a very real place, and it is also a National historic Landmark (so designated in 1985)
(got to love the above pedestal in their gift shop) and is located in Douglas County, Nebraska … think Omaha
And, for those who have only know of this place because of the beloved movie classic of the same name starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, it is worth a one hour visit …
Technically, it is still its own town (suburb — according to Wikipedia there are two families that live there, in addition to the six ‘households’ where the boys live… making up a total population of around 745 people, according to the 2010 census), but rather than being located near Omaha Nebraska, as it was when founded, it is now pretty much utterly engulfed by it. (Just below Green Meadows, and west of the Sheraton)
Like most Americans my age my knowledge of Boys Town Nebraska has till now been based ENTIRELY on the 1938 Hollywood biographical film. Apparently, the town had been called the “City of Little Men” before the movie came out — I vaguely remember it being described as such by the Flanagan character in the movie, but Hollywood had effectively ingrained the name Boys Town in the world’s consciousness, along with the sort of image branding money just can’t buy — so smartly, Flanagan changed its name.
That said, what I knew about Father Flanagan, was entirely based upon the movie. He was a catholic priest who had founded a different sort of orphanage; in effect he had pioneered and developed a completely different paradigm that emphasized teaching children to take care of themselves and each other, rather than the traditional model of adults taking care of children… and my image of the man was indelibly formed by the Spencer Tracy’s performance. That said, I have to admit that because of recent events regarding the catholic church, and some of what I’ve learned on my previous travels (please click the link), that is no longer the case…
My connection to the place, via my having seen the movie repeatedly while growing up [note: back before cable TV, when the TV world consisted of maybe 10 channels total, if you were lucky… it was one of popular movies that was in the public domain that local TV stations could run repeatedly, at very little cost to themselves], and as such, I was actually excited to see the place. In my mind’s eye it was going to be that same town from the movie, with a fire station and barber shop — all run by boys of varying ages… with very few adults to be seen… but no such luck.
A “campus” as described in the sign above, is for the most part what I found, indistinguishable from any other ‘campus’ educational or business. Now granted, on the day I arrived the weather was both blistering hot AND humid, of the sort the drains your energy and sours your mood, and that might have been part of it. But my expectations were SO dashed upon my arrival… I didn’t even find anything resembling a ‘downtown’ with any businesses run by the boys,
or even of them growing their own food (other than in the above historic photos, and these I found on line)… and the reality of what it had become kind of killed my excitement (well that and the heat).
When you arrive there’s a “visitor” center that you’re directed to. From its gift shop you can get the map of the property, if you want to try touring it yourself. I had timed it wrong to do the tour, arriving at around noon, and the next one wasn’t until 2 o’clock. The woman at the gift counter, where you sign up for it said “if you don’t do the tour they might not let you into all of the buildings. We don’t necessarily have a docent standing there ready” Not even for Flanagan’s home, which is listed as a tourist location of note, on every website I looked at before arriving. (I didn’t have enough time to hang around for an extra hour to wait for it— I was cross country driving and had to be San Francisco by a set date)
However, she told me that if I went right now into the cafeteria (also in the visitor’s center) — it’s open to staff and visitors and apparently is very popular with locals —
I had been lucky enough to arrive to witness the swearing-in for five new boys to become citizens of the town (this link is to a page with a video where you see a little video about what that means). During the event I learned that all of the boys being sworn in had already been here between a few weeks in a few months before taking the oath.
The priest began the event by sharing the history of the town with any visitors in the room (which included family members of the boys, as well locals who come here regularly… The boys then all got up, took an oath, and then each talked about three things about themselves they want to work on while they are here, the thing that had been hardest for them since they arrived, and one other thing I’m forgetting what it was.
That said, I have to admit that as this was happening some part of me was shocked to realize how many priests were involved in the this program (some part of my brain hadn’t really made the connection that this was in fact a Catholic charity), and I found myself wondering to what extent if any the recent sexual molestation of children (with boys from troubled homes being at the top of the victim list) had touched Boys Town… Only to find this, and then THIS …. which sort of soured my whole experience of what was happening…
I didn’t realize that the song, “he ain’t heavy he’s my brother” was actually inspired by a quote from here… that was also used in the movie,
Apparently, the one of the towns older boys was carrying around Howard, who was handicapped by polio, and abandoned by his mother (read the description in the picture above) … even though he wasn’t so small anymore and father Flanagan had asked him “isn’t he getting a bit heavy for you?” and the boy had answered, “He ain’t heavy, Father… he’s m’brother” and this image of what the town taught boys about their responsiblity to each other became the symbol for the town.
So, I wasn’t all that miffed about missing the tour or seeing Flanagan’s home, as the town wasn’t what I was expecting, and if it wasn’t going to be that, then the only other thing I wanted to see while there was THIS, which is located in the Visitor’s center right behind the gift store:
I got the docent/woman working the gift shop to repeat her spiel into my phone, and let speech to text do it’s thing for me: “OK Father Flanagan started boys town in 1917 and was a stamp collector… he died in 1948 so this was even after his death in ’51 … anyway to honor him the boys started wrapping used stamps around a golf ball… so if you cut this huge ball in half you’d see it’s all stamps to the golf ball center. It weighs 600 pounds and it’s made up of 4.6 million stamps and it’s 32 inches in diameter …. they did it in less than two years” The wall immediately behind the ball is also impressive, it’s a floor to ceiling mural also made up entirely of used stamps.
And then there’s a whole little museum area dedicated to the hobby of stamp collecting:
And possibly because of his fame, and the fact that he was stamp collector himself, this happened:
And apparently someone at boys town was collecting baseball cards, because there’s a room dedicated to that too
On the way out of the building to my car I noticed this, they have peppers as decorative plants, which I thought was kind of brilliant.