This blog was written by Richard Warner. Richard Warner serves as president of Preserve Council Bluffs and as an officer of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County. He has edited the Historical Society’s member publication for over thirty years and co-authored four books about local history. He also hosts the podcast “Accidentally Historic” and is a frequent speaker on topics of local history. Dr. Warner is a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Creighton University (BS, DDS) and UNO (MA).
Council Bluffs has a lot of impressive history. I got interested and read more, learning about those early leaders we see as names of streets today. I naturally wanted to share this with my family... who weren't particularly interested. In frustration I asked my kids (in high school at that time) so, what is history to you? They told me it was the Big Chicken.
They were referring to Cerv's on the South Omaha Bridge Road where we played miniature golf when they were younger. The place had since disappeared; a victim of progress.
That got me thinking. Something doesn't have to be a hundred years old to be historic. Something from one's own memory is a great starting place from which to dig deeper.
So just how does the Big Chicken help us do this? Well, Cerv's wouldn't have been there if there hadn't been a road. Why was there a road? The South Omaha Bridge Road (renamed Veteran's Memorial Highway in 2008) is actually fairly new in the scope of CB history and it had one huge advantage over Broadway: no railroad crossings. Council Bluffs' leaders felt Omaha made a big mistake; they built their airport too close to the river. Thinking Eppley Airfield would likely be closed frequently due to fog, it seemed inevitable that metro airline business would migrate to the Council Bluffs airport, at that time located in the area where Walmart and Menards are today. Major problem, though. The viaducts hadn't yet been built, so there was no way to get to the airport from Omaha that didn't involve several busy railroad crossings and unpredictable delays. Building the South Omaha Bridge road provided the solution.
The fog theory didn't prove valid, but the road became the perfect route for Iowa farmers to the stock yards. The fact farmers would be headed back home from selling their cattle with their pockets full of money didn't escape the vigilance of entrepreneurs seeking to claim a share of it. The 1941 rerouting of US 275 from Broadway to the South Omaha Bridge Road added cross-country traffic as well, and several nightclubs opened offering fine entertainment, gambling, and liquor. Nobody seemed particularly concerned that two out of three were illegal at the time.
As the area developed more the entertainment along the route became more mainstream with the opening of a roller rink in 1948, a drive-in theater in 1950, and a bowling alley in 1955. The Derby drive-in relocated from 29th Avenue and 7th Street to the South Omaha Bridge Road and what was once the notorious Stork Club became a modern service station and restaurant.
As for the Big Chicken, it was a signature feature of the miniature golf course at Cerv's driving range, in the area where Fox Run is today. Cerv's was operated by Dick Glasford from 1960 until 1977; Glasford later purchased Club 64 from George Elias. Cerv's continued operation until the late 1990s.
Memories are viewed through rose-colored glasses; with history, we are supposed to be neutral. But if those memories plant the seeds to get us to explore deeper and help us understand why things are the way they are today, that's starting to sound like true history... and it's not so boring after all. Maybe my kids were right. Ok, General Dodge... move over and make some room for the Big Chicken.