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Now a private residence, the house at 19000 Rainbow Drive overlooking Big Lake and the Omaha skyline was, over the years, a tea room, a camp for girls, the Rainbow Gardens Restaurant and a key club that offered high-stakes gambling before it closed in the late 1950s. It was converted to a private residence in 1966.

19000 Rainbow Drive

Rainbow Gardens

(now a private residence)

“On a clear day you can see forever,” said the popular song of the 1960s. From the high bluff near Big Lake the view is incredible — in all directions. Looking west, past the western part of the city to the Omaha skyline, four major means of transportation are visible: the interstate, the railroad, the airport and the river.

Anna and William Cooper would not have dreamed what the future held for the land they purchased on this bluff in 1901.

William S. Cooper was born in 1856 in Virginia, according to Ancestry.com but, according to his obituary, Council Bluffs was his birthplace.

Anna McGee was born in 1860 in West Virginia. Her parents, Manesseh and Mary McGee, came to Council Bluffs after their marriage in their native Pennsylvania and invested in a large amount of land, but they soon returned to the east and settled in West Virginia. McGee died in 1864, leaving a widow and three children: H.G., J.E.F. and Anna. After his death, Mary and the children moved to Pennsylvania where the children attended school. The family returned to Council Bluffs in 1874.

Anna McGee and William Cooper were married in 1881 and established their real estate, loan and investment business in an office at 107 Pearl St. The couple had four children: Mary, Harry, Ruth and John.

The land on the bluff that they purchased in 1901 was subdivided into five lots in 1908. Anna’s brothers, prominent real estate developers and active supporters of the community — especially the parks system — worked with the Coopers to construct a road on the bluff by buying from the Coopers, at intervals, several 40-foot strips of land at $1.00 each. The road was Rainbow Drive.

Big Lake, fed by water from “the big spring,” became a popular recreation area, due in part to the efforts of Maria Mynster, land-owner and civic leader who built a home there. Over the years, it boasted a fish hatchery, a beach, and a dance hall that was destroyed in 1926 when sparks from a passing train were thought to have caused the fire that burned it to the ground. Firefighters were unable to use the water from Big Lake because of the mud. (Daily Nonpareil, April 30, 1926).

In 1927, Mary Cooper, who lived in Omaha and taught dance classes there, announced the opening of the Wilana Tea Room advertising breakfasts, lunches and supper parties, and the Wilana Camp for Girls which offered dance classes, riding lessons, and swimming lessons at Big Lake. By 1929, the tea room had closed and the cottage had become the Coopers’ summer home.

A Nonpareil article on Aug. 8, 1929, announced the sudden death of William Cooper. Anna found him on the floor of the garage where he was preparing to cut the weeds at the back of the cottage. They had recently moved there from their house at 218 Canning St. and planned to make it their permanent home. William had been an active member of the community and had served several terms on the school board. They were members of the Presbyterian Church.

In 1931, Anna sold the property to Effie and Elmer Long who opened the Rainbow Gardens Restaurant in the former tea room. Anna moved to Laguna Beach, California, near her daughter, Ruth, and her son, John. She died there in 1941, but is buried with her husband in Fairview Cemetery.

During the 1920s, the bluffs that were home to the Coopers’ entrepreneurial endeavors began to catch the attention of civic leaders. Park board member, Harry McGee, proposed a scenic drive along the bluffs. The idea gained traction and, in 1925, the first portion of Rainbow Drive opened, named in honor of the 42nd Infantry. The “Rainbow Division” served in France during World War I and took its name from a comment of Douglas MacArthur regarding the widely varied geographical background of the units making up the division. A decade later, a monument to Lewis and Clark built at Rainbow Point brought even greater attention to the area.

Following Elmer Long’s death in 1936, Effie took over operations of Rainbow Gardens. It became the trendy spot for various club luncheon meetings and evening formal events. The after-hours menu offered something more: In 1954, Effie sold Rainbow Gardens for $15,000 to Pete Bonacci of Omaha In “Cigars and Wires — The Omaha Underworld’s Early Years”, Jon L. Blecha wrote: “In the past, the nightclub … provided illegal gambling complete with slot machines.”

Effie moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where two of her four children resided. She remained there until her death in 1967. Her funeral was held at St. Francis Xavier Church followed by burial in Fairview Cemetery.

Bonacci had been involved with the Lakeside Steak House in East Omaha and Carter Lake’s Capri Club. Under Bonacci’s ownership Rainbow Gardens was changed to a membership club, with applicants requiring approval before acceptance. Renamed Rainbow Gardens Riding Academy, it was announced, in addition to meals, now stables would be offered for horse owners and skiing facilities would be added.

The following year, the business was leased to Angelo DiBlasi and Dean Van Horn and reopened as Angelo’s Italian Gardens. Park Board member Fred Schlott bought the business from Bonacci in 1955 and returned the Rainbow Gardens name. Liquor and gambling raids became commonplace as the business developed a reputation as an after-hours hangout where high rollers from Omaha and out-of-state could find liquor and high stakes gambling.

In Iowa at this time, licensed taverns could only serve beer. “Intoxicating liquor” was available in one place only — one of the state-owned liquor stores. The law was relaxed in 1955 to permit “key clubs” at which a member could place a bottle of alcohol, purchased from a state liquor store, in a locker for their personal use when visiting that premises; the establishment itself could not supply liquor by the bottle or the glass. Sale of liquor by the drink was not permitted until 1963.

Rainbow Gardens closed in the late 1950s. A plan to reopen in 1961 never came to fruition when the county refused to grant a beer license, citing “the poor reputation this place had gained for itself in the past.” Sheriff Emmett Hannan referred to its past as a “syndicate operation.”

After selling Rainbow Gardens, Pete Bonacci continued to do business in Council Bluffs, acquiring the Pee Dee Steak House on the South Omaha Bridge Road in 1959 and starting the Joker Lounge in the mid-1970s.

Part of the allure of the early days of Rainbow Gardens as a tea room and venue for luncheon meetings was its location on the scenic Rainbow Drive. That road once thought so spectacular it would become a nationwide tourist draw was closed in the 1960s as a nuisance. The remote ravines became perpetual dumping grounds for trash and stolen automobiles.

The original cottage at Rainbow Gardens and its subsequent additions became a private residence in 1966.

The home is one of six included in the Spring Soiree for Preservation — fine dining in historic homes — on Saturday, April 27. Additional information will be forthcoming in the Daily Nonpareil.

Our thanks to Brenda and Doug Hutcheson and to the Reference Department of the Council Bluffs Public Library for assistance with this story.

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