In 1917 Father Edward J. Flanagan founded his children’s home around new concepts of care. The prevailing childcare practices often eliminated the individual needs of children, and prescribed harsh punishment. Father Flanagan’s revolutionary home fostered the individual spirt of the children, and advocated love and understanding.
The first Boys Town home was located in an old former boarding house located in downtown Omaha. Within weeks of opening the home was filled with over seventy boys, and the rooms were bursting at the seams. The boy’s beds filled the majority of the rooms. In the dining room the boys had to eat in shifts since they could not all sit down at the same time due to lack of space.
Father Flanagan was able to locate the larger German American Home in South Omaha. The new building offered huge sleeping rooms, and a dining area where the boys could all eat at the same time. Several rooms were set aside as classrooms. The daily life of the boys revolved around their schooling, and after school they could play outside.
Play was important to Father Flanagan, and all the boys were expected to go outside for the fresh air. The boys played marbles, baseball, and other games the year round. Each resident also was assigned chores, from helping with the cooking to feeding the milk cow. Everyone had to pitch in to make the Home succeed.
By 1921 the Home had moved to Overlook Farm and the boys now enjoyed a rural life style. One boy wrote about their typical day during the summer “…it is morning and we are all glad to be up. We put on our hats, clean the bright pails for milking and going down the path we hear the birds singing…we go and give the horses a good breakfast…we must not forget the chickens. We go to the shed and throw the corn out…Now we must eat our breakfast so we can get to work ploughing…”
Life in the village was not all work the boys had the opportunity to swim in the pool, play games, and use their new handball courts. One of the boys wrote in 1925 “…Father Flanagan wants us to play this game (handball) for he says that it is good all-around exercise and that it will make us strong and healthy…”
As the population of the village grew Father Flanagan had four large dormitories constructed to house one hundred boys each. In the buildings the boys were organized into groups of twenty five with an older boy, a commissioner, to oversee their daily life. Each day the boys would eat their meals in the Dining Hall (today the Hall of History) and attend classes in the Omaha building. Their typical day included school work, prayers, chores, and having fun.
In the late 1930’s Father Flanagan made the decision to develop a major expansion plan which would increase the number of students to over one thousand. When completed in the late 1940’s twenty five cottages had been built to house over five hundred high school boys. The new buildings provided facilities for over one thousand grade school to high school age boys. While they had new buildings to live in their daily route established by Father Flanagan remained in place.
The lives of children of Boys Town have evolved over the years to follow changes in society. The basic structure of their daily lives is very similar to the one created by Father Flanagan in 1917. Father said all children needed love, guidance, and a spiritual life to grow. The expansion of Boys Town programs to accommodate more children was a high priority to him. Father Flanagan wrote in 1930 “…at Overlook Farm, we have, indeed many very sad hours, and many happy ones; we have many discouraging moments, but also many that inspire us to even greater and harder work…Because of lack of room and of proper equipment, we have also been forced to turn a deaf ear to equally as many thousand boys…our Home is accomplishing its greatest dream; namely, to build from homeless lads, fine stalwart men, who are second to none in integrity and leadership.”