By Scott Jenkins
I am a fourth-generation Lincolnite of almost purely Irish descent.
My father’s family was living just south of the State Capitol when the borders didn’t stretch too far past downtown, while my mother’s family came a few generations later from western Ohio to establish a home past the cornfields at 70th and A Streets.
Each side of my family has watched this city grow from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus to Union College, then to Havelock and Cheney.
But the paths that brought two different families together were two very different ones.
My father’s great-grandfather, Nicholas Lawlor, came to Lincoln from a small village a few miles outside of Dublin, Ireland, in 1875. A “merchant,” according to the 1890 United States census, he came to escape the social struggles brought by political turmoil and the results of the Panic of ‘73, a financial crisis that lasted almost a decade.
After escaping a much bleaker future in Ireland, Lawlor opened a bike shop on O Street in downtown Lincoln, which would become the first Harley-Davidson dealer west of the Mississippi River. It was a rare feat for any entrepreneur, let alone a new Irish immigrant.
The Lawlor Cycle Company would later move to 1134 N St. in downtown Lincoln and become Lawlor’s Sporting Goods, one of the largest sporting supply stores in the Midwest.
A proud Irish-Catholic, Nicholas raised seven children. His oldest son, John, operated the store until the late 1970s and sold the first “Blackshirt” jerseys to another ancestor of Irish immigrants, Bob Devaney, the legendary head coach of the Cornhuskers.
John became quite a name about town as his ads frequently covered the pages of the Lincoln Star in the mornings and the Lincoln Journal in the evenings. He had two children; the eldest, Nancy, married a young architect from Norfolk named Gordon Jenkins. Nancy and Gordon had my father, Michael, in 1954 at a hospital just a few blocks from my great-great-grandfather’s house.
As for my mother’s side, who also came to America from Ireland to escape the economic and social struggle brought on by the Potato Famine in the 1840s, life was not so easy. Living conditions for large families in rural towns became impossible, and the industrial boom in America provided a new start for immigrants. My ancestors saw opportunity when American steel and railroad companies advertised well-paying jobs in Irish newspapers.
Following his arrival in America, my maternal great-grandfather worked in a refinery, struggling to make ends meet for his six children. Three months after his eldest son’s 21st birthday, my great-grandfather died at his home outside of Pittsburgh. My grandfather, Charles, while also finishing his training at the Naval Academy, was left to take care of his five siblings.
He finished his schooling and met his future wife, Anne, in the working-class town of Youngstown, Ohio. Like him, she was from an Irish-Catholic house, where she had eight brothers and sisters. The two were married as Charles began his service in the Navy during the Korean and Cold Wars.
Upon his retirement from Naval service in the early 1960s, the two moved with their four children to Lincoln, where Charles planned to sell insurance. They built a home in a cornfield on 70th Street and sent their kids to the new Catholic high school, Pius X, which also sat in a cornfield, but a little closer to town. Their youngest daughter, Carol, who would later become my mother, met Michael Jenkins in 1988, while working at the Miller and Paine department store in downtown Lincoln. Miller and Paine occupied a building across from where Nicholas Lawlor began selling sporting goods almost a century before.
Today, I can still visit the location of my great-great-grandfather’s motorcycle shop and I still eat Christmas dinner in my grandfather’s house in East Lincoln. Unfortunately, the Harley-Davidson shop in the heart of downtown has been replaced by bars and restaurants frequented by the college students and the cornfields across the street from my mother’s old house have been filled with thousands of other homes.
But as Lincoln has changed dramatically over the years, I still see the framework left from a city that has made my family history into something special, where even a walk down one of our busy downtown streets can feel like I’m stepping into a family photo album.