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Charles Nelson Dietz, was born July 18, 1853 at Oneonta, on the Susquehanna River in south-central New York. His ancestors had immigrated to New York from the Dutch village of Diez. In 1857 the Dietz family moved to Jones County, Iowa, to farm. Shortly afterward, they moved into Anamosa where his father opened up a drug store and Charles assisted. At age 16 he taught at a country school in Jones County.
He was the first of sixty-eight students to register to attend the newly established Iowa State College at Ames, opening in October 1868. He arrived before the buildings were finished. After graduating in 1872 he moved to Chicago and attended medical clinics and lectures at Rush Medical College and took a job as a bookkeeper at the Walkup & Neebes Lumber yard. He soon became so absorbed in the lumber business that he dropped the idea of pursuing medicine. He not only kept books, but also personally supervised many of the operations of the business, particularly the handling of railroad cars into and out of the yards, making friends with railroad clerks and switchmen who later became traffic chiefs, superintendents and railroad presidents. At the urging of Jay Gould, who had just acquired control of the Wabash and the Union Pacific Railroads, he moved to Omaha to open the C. N. Dietz Lumber Company. On July 21, 1880 he married Nettie Fowler-Woodford, formerly of Nashville, Tennessee, who, during those first two years, worked with him side-by-side from six in the morning until dark establishing the business, she keeping the books, and he managing the business. Their business grew fast with the middle-west opening up and towns needing building supplies.
In 1889, he was on the first train that ran into Sheridan, Wyoming to look at coal reserves at the urging of Burlington Railroad officials who were seeking freight tonnage. He purchased six miles of coal land and established the Sheridan Coal Company which he directed until he sold it in 1903. The mining town of Dietz, Wyoming, was named after him, and at one time 4,000 men were living there and the Burlington was hauling 100 cars of coal a day out of the area.
In 1890 Charles and Nettie built a new home at 428 S. 38th Street, one of the first in the Gold Coast neighborhood. The home, which is known as the Potter’s House, still stands and was purchased by the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 1989 to house families of organ transplant patients. Counted among friends who visited the Dietz home were Jay Gould, Generals Leonard Wood and John Pershing, Ambassador Herrick, Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, Charles Lindbergh, Enos Mills, James J. Hill, Woodrow Wilson, Mark Twain, Enos Mills, King Mahmud Fuad of Egypt, and Helen Keller, who posed for an oil painting with one of the Dietz Boston terriers.
During the last thirty years of his life, Charles and Nettie Dietz traveled extensively. They began in about 1903 by spending two months during the summer in the mountains of Wyoming, and two months in the winter in the Bahamas, where they went for eight consecutive years before turning their attention to Africa where, by 1931, they had visited thirteen times. Mrs. Dietz wrote a book entitled “A White Woman in a Black Man’s Land” based on their travels in 1913 which was republished in 1926. In January 1927, they left New York on a four month cruise visiting South American ports in route to Cape Town, Africa. On their travels they collected art treasurers and other curios. His home is said to have had 15,000 books as well as a museum. Treasures including cuneiform tablets, world stereoview and postcard collections, correspondence with Helen Keller, and a photo album with early Omaha photos (one of five known to exist) eventually were given to Omaha Public Library. Some of his art collection was acquired by Joslyn Art Museum.
From 1912 to 1930 Mr. Dietz served as president of the Omaha Public Library Board until his health forced him to retire, at which time the Omaha City Council created the position “President Emeritus of the Library Board” and conferred the title upon Mr. Dietz for life. He said it was one of his proudest possessions and the achievement in which he took the greatest pride. He died June 19, 1933 at his home and his wife Nettie died January 14, 1939. Their final resting place is the Dietz Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha.
Text written by Joanne Ferguson Cavanaugh, March 2007
Source: Charles N. Dietz biography file, Omaha Public Library
Pollack, Oliver B. “Capitalism, Culture and Philanthropy – Charles N. and Nettie Fowler Dietz of Omaha, 1881-1939.” Nebraska History, 79 (Spring 1998), 34-43.