Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fairfield's Carnegie Library

The Fairfield Auxiliary newspaper carried this story about the town's Carnegie Library in the December 19th, 1935 issue. The library was dedicated in January 1914.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

History of Fairfield Schools

This history of the Fairfield schools appeared in the Fairfield Auxiliary newspaper on November 21, 1935.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sutton Park Story

The Sutton Park has always been an important part of the community, even before there was a community. Today’s park ground was part of the Luther French homestead in March, 1870, the town’s first real estate. The site of French’s first home, his dugout on the banks of School Creek is within the park. Though we credit French as Sutton’s founder, it is unlikely the prospect of a town was involved in Mr. French’s land decisions, much less the prospect of a park. He appears to have been a farmer just looking for a place to plant wheat.

John Maltby arrived early the next year to claim a homestead to the south of French’s and soon convinced Luther to subdivide his homestead into 600 lots for the town of Sutton which French immediately began to sell off to newly arriving townspeople. In the fall of 1871, French sold the last 400 un-sold lots to the Clark brothers, moved further down School Creek into Fillmore County acquiring another plot of ground for his wheat and resumed farming.

French’s sale of his homestead became central to the dispute that Sutton had with the Burlington Railroad when French fumbled the proper legal sequence involving recording land sales negating a deal railroad officials believed they’d completed.

Sutton's Population & Business Story

Sutton is an agricultural community. No surprise there. The dependence of our community on the surrounding farming activity dictated how the town grew and then declined and the nature of the town over its 140 years.

Sutton blossomed quickly after 1871 to about 1000 people in just ten years and to a peak population of near 2000 around 1900. Then a decline in population began that has stabilized at just less than 1500.

The population trends of the area are better illustrated by the population of Clay County as shown in census figures:

1860 - 165
1870 - 54
1880 – 11294
1890 – 16310
1900 – 15735
1910 – 15729
1920 – 14486
1930 – 13571
1940 – 10445
1950 – 8700
1960 – 8717
1970 – 8266
1980 – 8106
1990 – 7123
2000 – 7039

The current county population is about 43% of the peak population while Sutton has declined to about 75% of its peak. Other county communities have also generally declined at a rate closer to the Sutton rate than the county as a whole confirming our suspicion that the loss of farm population has been the driving factor in the decline. Farms got bigger; people got fewer.

My common comment when describing this area while I was living elsewhere was that it took twice as much farmland to raise a family each generation. That’s probably understated. It may be closer to two and a half to three times as much land to raise a family each succeeding generation. It was not unusual for five or six farm families to live in a section at one time. What’s that number today? One?

The peak farm population required robust communities to provide goods and services locally and county towns grew accordingly. Travel to Hastings or Grand Island to buy shoes and groceries wasn’t practical by horse and buggy or by Model A.

Fortunately we have two comprehensive lists of businesses in Sutton to help understand the business activity of our community. The Nebraska State Gazetteer of 1890 - 91 (found at gives us a list of the town’s businesses in 1891. Dale Stough’s History of Hamilton and Clay Counties has a similar list for 1921.

From the 1891 list we learn that Sutton had five general merchandise stores, six dry goods and clothing stores, four grocery stores, four confectionaries, three meat markets, three druggists, two shoemakers, a jeweler and a tailor. There were four livery stables, three ag implement stores, four blacksmiths, two grain elevators and a lumber yard. There were two hotels, three banks, four attorneys, four physicians and a dentist.

These statistics are a little suspicious. From newspaper ads it seems that generally there were more than the single dentist or barber and more than just two saloons. But generally, we have an idea that Sutton was a thriving commercial center. Overall, there were almost 75 businesses in town.

By 1921 the business profile had shifted some. There were still eight stores of various kinds, still three meat markets, four grain elevators, six physicians, two dentists, two mills and two lumber yards. The livery stables had been transformed in to six garages. Sutton was down to a single confectionary shop and one hotel at that time. There was still a harness maker and three creameries were on the list.

Many of us remember well the creamery business. Most farmers milked cows and kept a sizable flock of laying hens. Saturday nights found farmers lined up at the creameries delivering their five-gallon cans of cream and those 15 and 30 dozen egg crates. After an appropriate wait in the car for the cream to be tested and the eggs counted, they returned to the creamery to collect their payment, maybe six to eight dollars but enough to buy the week’s groceries.

Filling stations are another indicator of past activity. We believe there were 17 locations of stations in Sutton with as many as a dozen operating at one time.

These businesses provided employment for a sizable work force of town’s people including many single men besides local families. Boarders were listed in several homes with various occupations. The 1880 census includes one of the hotels in which more than 40 people were listed as residents, only a few of which were members of families. Most were listed as laborers but specific occupations included saloon keeper, painter, tailor, and furniture dealer. The hotel itself provided employment for the manager, his wife, four resident servants and a clerk.

The town of Sutton was a robust community in its day, as were most of the neighboring towns. Sutton is holding its own today - much of those neighboring towns, not so much.

This article appeared in the June, 2010 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about the magazine contact or Mustang Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.

Sutton's Pioneer Gray Family

Emma Gray

Visitors to the Sutton Museum are familiar with the Gray family. Displays include Emma’s dress from 1871 and a calendar picture from the J. M. Gray Lumber and Building Material business. Both houses at the museum were built by John and Emma Gray and their dining room set has returned. Emma inspired the name of Aunt Emma’s Tea House.

So who were the Gray’s?

Hosea Gray, his son John M., son-in-law George W. Bemis, Wilson Cunning and his wife came by covered wagon to School Creek on May 4, 1871 where only Luther French lived in his dugout.

P. McTighe built a shanty for a store next to the Gray’s first dwelling within a few days and Curran, Higgins and Kearney & Kelley opened their saloons. The School Creek settlement was underway.

Hosea Gray was born in Pennsylvania in 1816, lived in Indiana and Illinois and made it to Iowa in 1839. He served as Linn County sheriff for four terms, practiced law, and was Clerk of the District Court retiring in 1850. He then bought a 640 acre stock farm and in 1856 was a member of the state’s Constitutional Convention. In April, 1861 he formed a company in the Sixth Iowa Infantry serving two years before a serious illness forced him from the front lines. He finished the war as a Lieutenant Colonel recruiting and training troops.

Col. Gray returned from the war to his farm and family. His wife died in 1869 and two years later he headed west to the banks of School Creek.

Hosea and John started a lumber yard on August 24th of 1871 the day after Thurlow Weed’s carload of lumber arrived from Lincoln. The Gray lumber yard was on the west side of Way Avenue, north of the tracks.

John’s wife Emma and Ada Augusta Bemis joined their husbands early that summer. Emma Wolcott was born in 1850 in Elizabeth, Illinois. Her father died of injuries in the Civil War.

Ada Bemis was the daughter of Hosea Gray and wife of George W. Bemis. Her accounts of pioneer days in Sutton can be found online. A search using “Ada Bemis Sutton Nebraska” returns “Nebraska Trailblazer #5” and “The Easter Blizzard” at Hers was the first piano in the area and her performances were in great demand.

George and Ada Bemis moved their family to York where she helped organize the first branch of the WCTU west of Lincoln. Daughter Anna Gray Bemis married first a Mr. Cutler and later a Mr. Palmer. She contributed her name and funding for the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum in York. A display honoring Anna is to the right of the door as you enter.

Two sons of George and Ada Bemis entered the publishing business. George Jr. edited J. Sterling Morton’s “Conservative” and was the first editor of the Lincoln Star. As a member of the First Nebraska Infantry in the Spanish-American War, George Bemis, Jr. was one of the first ten men into Manila after it was taken. His brother Eugene was editor and columnist with “The New Teller” in York from 1911 until 1949. The family of his wife, Kate Houston generously contributed a copy of Eugene’s book, “The Squawker Book” to the Sutton Museum. The book is a collection of the humorist’s poems and columns and gets off to a great start with the dedication: “We ain’t mad at nobody”.

Back in Sutton, Eugenia Maria Gray, another daughter of Homer Gray married Samuel Carney in 1878. Carney came to Sutton from Pennsylvania and worked in I. N. Clark’s hardware store. He purchased the business from I. N. and later passed it on to his son Samuel Gray Carney. The younger Sam Carney hired a young fellow named Les Bauer to work in the hardware store. Les carried that lineage of Sutton hardware businesses into the memory of many of us.

Many of the Sutton pioneers played their part and moved on with little trace of the families remaining. The Gray family name may have faded but the extended Gray family left some distinguished tracks.

This article appeared in the May, 2010 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about the magazine contact or Mustang Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sutton Street Names or "Why Saunders Avenue?"

The first settlers on the Great Plains faced open territory and a blank map. One of their chores as they filled the territory was to also fill the map with names for physical features they found and created. Sutton has about 40 named streets and avenues. Where did those names come from; that is, who or what is a Saunders?

Our east-west thoroughfares are streets and avenues run north and south. We can account for most of the streets very quickly with the “Tree Theme”. From the township line north of the park we have an almost alphabetical list of tree-related names to the south: Ash, Beech, Cedar, Maple (Wrong! Why not Dogwood?), Elm, Forest and Grove (not kinds of trees, but OK), Hickory, Ivy (once was “Joy Street”), Laurel and Myrtle. (No “K”. Can you think of one?).

But why trees? If there was one thing early explorers, Oregon Trail Diarists and settlers all agreed upon, it was that THERE WERE NO TREES. The township southwest of Clay Center is even named “Lone Tree”.

South of the tree section are three streets between Myrtle and Highway 6. A banker by the name of Fowler developed that addition and named Helen, Anna and George streets. Betty and Roger Sheridan gave the historical society several photos collected over the years and one is labeled “Fowler girls, Helen, Anna, Madge, Geo. Fowler” - Madge didn’t get her street.

Crossing back to the north of the park the first little street north of Ash Street is Lake Street. Let’s call names like this a “descriptive name.” Such descriptive names are the second major category and reflect some feature that struck the founder’s fancy. Was there a lake or a pond north of Ash where the little creek comes from the west? Don’t know. Just north of Lake is Ridge Street. Sounds like another descriptive name and barring discovering a Mr. Lake or a Mr. Ridge somewhere in Sutton’s past, let’s picture a ridge over a lake here, or someone’s imagination of them.

Next is Lincoln Street. Perhaps more time and effort would uncover whether this street is officially named for President Lincoln or the state capitol city. A research projects like this is a “work in progress.” Suggestions welcome. The west end of Lincoln Street becomes Crestridge Circle Drive – another descriptive name.

Next is North Street and it is “in the north part of town”, yet another descriptive name. Then we have Ada Street. This section of town was once owned by Hosea Gray and George Bemis. Col. Gray’s daughter Ada was married to George Bemis. Ada was a gracious host and a fine musician with Sutton’s first piano. And with her own street.

North of the school and in line with the entrance to the cemetery is N. Silver Street Richard S. Silver arrived in Sutton in April, 1878 and owned 400 acres on the north edge of town. Silver was an important name in early Sutton but that name disappeared with the death of Cessna Silver in 1966.

That’s the streets; now for the avenues.

To the east of the middle of town are Maltby, Way, Main and French Avenues. Main Avenue was supposed to be the “main” street of Sutton and the first businesses were built on Main Avenue north of the Burlington tracks. Within just a few months, businesses began to migrate three blocks west to build on Saunders Avenue leading to the ambiguity and confusion that we are still dealing with today. Luther French, John Maltby and William Way were the three homesteaders of the three eighties that make up Sutton Original Town and the First Addition (about Ash to Helen and James to French).

Our project here takes an “incomplete” east of Route 6. Calvert, Phillips, Dorr, Owen and Dennis Avenues all appear to be named after people. Thomas Calvert was a Burlington railroad engineer in 1871 who worked on the Crete-Kearney section of track just as it was built. The state historical society has a story about him in its web site. That might be where this name came from – might be.

Dr. Charles Phillips was a dentist in Sutton but only from about 1905 until 1908. He is unlikely to be the source of this name, but possible – raise your hand if you know better.

There were Dorr’s in early Nebraska but none appear to have a any Sutton Connection, likewise Owen’s, though Mr. Owen Miles built the first school house and it was to the east of the main part of town, but that isn’t likely either. We can do better with Dennis Street. The Dennis family owned property to the east of town in the vicinity of Dennis Street (should have been an avenue). There is a Burlington Avenue out on the east edge  of town – did you know that?

Two descriptive names complete the east end of town, Terrace and Crestview Drives and Commercial Avenue is appropriate for its role along the highway to the southeast.

Near the north end of town is the one-block Gray Avenue – clearly named for the Gray family which owned this property. Horseshoe Avenue is recent and someone surely remembers the rationale for it. Was it descriptive of the intended shape or to recognize a horse pasture or something else?

Now, back downtown where we come to the governors. Alvin Saunders was Nebraska’s last territorial Governor serving from 1861-1867 and was later a senator from the state. Our founders saw fit to recognize the gentleman though they did not intend for the honor to be associated with the “main street” of the town. To the west are Butler and James Avenues named for David Christy Butler and William Hartford James, the first two governors of the State of Nebraska.

The west end of Sutton was developed by a very early businessman, I. N. Clark and his brother Dr. Martin V. B. Clark, the first doctor in town. Immediately west of James Avenue is …. Clark Avenue – no mystery there. Next is Glen Avenue. Clark’s Pond was first named Glen Lake, hence the name Glen Avenue. O.K., that begs the question of where did “Glen” come from? There doesn’t seem to have been anyone in the Clark family by that name. Perhaps the area of the lake/pond reminded someone of a little glen, suppose?

The rest of the avenues to the west are Park, Myra, Grand, Roy and Euclid. Park Avenue is on the west side of the Clark’s Pond and looks like a park even today. And the Clark’s must have thought that the town should have a Grand Avenue. Myra and Roy were two of I. N. Clark’s children so we only have Euclid left.

Why is an avenue in Sutton named after a Greek mathematician from 300 BCE? This is my favorite guess in the project. Euclid Avenue is in the Clark Additions so one of the brothers probably named it avenue. Isaac named two avenues after his kids so Euclid may be brother Martin’s contribution.

The Clark’s grew up in Parma, Ohio, now a south suburb of Cleveland. Off to the east is another suburb, Euclid. But what would be the connection? Dr. Martin Clark went to medical school at Western Reserve University, now Case Western. The main street of the Case Western University campus is also the major street that connects downtown Cleveland to the distant suburb of Euclid and is called ... Euclid Avenue. This guess is that Dr. Clark must have had some fond memories of that street that bisected his medical college. Maybe he lived on that street, or someone special did.

Dr. Clark also had a reputation as a serious student of science. He organized a local science club and once engaged in early “C.S.I.-type” work in a criminal investigation. It fits that he might recognize a man of science from over 2,000 years ago given the chance.

That concludes our mental trip across town north and south, east and west. There may be some literature buried about town where someone indentified all of the sources of street and avenue names and they may have found better answers that these. But until that literature surfaces we’ll declare this a first draft of a continuing effort. We’ll continue to look for Dorr and Phillips and the rest. Suggestions welcome.

This article appeared in the March and April issues of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about the magazine contact or Mustang Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.

Sutton in the Census

From the U. S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” That is the only specific tasking the founders gave us and it is time for the Twenty-Third Census of the United States.

The purpose of the census is to provide population statistics to adjust the boundaries of Congressional districts but data collection has grown as has the usefulness of the information.

Sutton’s first appeared in the 1880 census having just missed the prior edition. Enumerator James E. Marsh found 1631 people in Sutton Township. Mr. Jacob Steinmetz counted noses in School Creek Township.

Each census has asked a different set of questions beginning with early years when little more than the name of the head of the household and the number of persons was asked. By the beginning of the twentieth century the census bureau was collecting a wealth of information including age, place of birth, immigration date, number of years married, parents’ birthplace, literacy, occupation, etc. Recent forms have shrunk. The 2010 form has only 10 questions asking for name, sex, age, date of birth, racial and home ownership information.

Analysts use census data to learn how the country has grown and developed but no group has benefited from this resource more than genealogists. Great-grandparents seem to come to life as you see their family listed in the census and imagine the interview with the local enumerator. There are surprises lurking in these records: children who died young and were not remembered, in-laws who lived in the house, servants, boarders and gaps – people who should be there but aren’t.

We can’t fully trust everything found in the census. My great-grandparent’s family appears on the first page of the 1880 School Creek census where we’re led to believe that Anna Johnson gave birth to twins in Sweden at the age of 14. Possible, but her achievement probably would have been part of our family folklore. Family records indicate Anna was born in 1841 and would have been 38 years old when she met with the census taker, not 28 as he recorded. Curiously, he also listed his own wife as being 28 years old that year with 18 and 13 year old daughters. He might have had trouble with arithmetic, or maybe he was married twice – the census provides clues, not always complete answers.

Mr. Steinmetz illustrated another point in his own entry. He tried to record his wife’s birthplace and that of her parents but he re-wrote it a couple of times making a mess of the page. It appears he wrote “Prussia” and he clearly wrote “Hesser Castle”, probably meaning the Prussian province of Hesse-Kassel. Again, clues, not always complete answers.

I learned two things about my great-grandmother in the 1900 census. It reports that she had seven children but only six were living. My grandfather must have had a brother or sister who likely died in Sweden before the family emigrated. Also, the enumerator recorded that Anna could read and write, but did not speak English. Quite a number of older people, especially women were getting along just fine in their native language according to the 1900 and 1910 census.

Did you notice that I skipped over the 1890 census? If you research census records, you will too. That census was lost in a fire. So our Sutton research begins in 1880, then skips twenty whole years to the 1900 records followed by 1910, 1920 and you are finished at 1930, for now. Census records are “closed” for 72 years as a privacy consideration. The 1940 census will become public in just a couple more years. I am anticipating that one as my father was the School Creek enumerator starting the task on April 2nd and finishing on April 17th. It will be in his handwriting – and a good hand it was. That was not always the case.

Just a few years ago census records were available on microfilm at Mormon libraries at temples and in the largest stakes. Many of us spent hours and hours in darkened rooms at the library just west of Temple Square in Salt Lake City poring over film after film. Now, it is almost too easy. Census records are online and indexed. What used to take multiple sessions can be done in minutes. The genealogy web site is a robust and easily accessible repository. There is a modest subscription fee, but when compared to traveling to spend hours or days in a library, it’s a fair price.

This article appeared in the February, 2010 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about Sutton Life contact or Mustang, Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979. 

Betsy Swanson - A Little Story Behind a Small Gravestone

Her name was Betsy and a gravestone in the Saronville Lutheran Cemetery tells us she died in 1944 at the age of 90. Odds are that few people today know anything of this woman. Oh, there may be a relative or two who lists her in their family tree, or maybe her name would trigger a long lost memory for someone. But for the most part, Betsy, like so many others left few tracks as clues to lives lived, either well or ill.

For many of us History is the story of people and a small item stumbled upon, a little perseverance and some luck just might uncover a story worth telling.

A photo of Betsy and her spinning wheel appeared in the Hastings Tribune and Sutton Register in 1935 with an article about her demonstration of spinning skills at a Hastings College craft exhibit. Fortunately for us, the author saw fit to tell some of Betsy’s story.

Many of the immigrants to Sutton came as groups who shared a common story. Others arrived as the main character in their own little story. Betsy was in the second category. She remembered her childhood home in Sweden and leaving with her parents and others to seek the land of Zion described by an agent of Brigham Young.

They crossed the Atlantic and a third of the continent to St. Louis. A riverboat took them up the Missouri River to the village of Florence just north of Omaha. They left Florence by ox cart in June, 1863 concluding this long trek in the desert village of Salt Lake City in October. But life in Zion did not match the promises made in Sweden.

Betsy began as a “nurse girl” and at age 13 was earning $1.50 a week carding wool and spinning from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Four years of autocratic life wore thin on the Hakanson family. They joined a wagon train bound east to Julesburg, Colorado at the west end of the Union Pacific railroad. This wagon train was attacked by Indians with one man in their party killed and another injured. A much safer train ride brought Betsy and her parents to Council Bluffs, Iowa where her father became a railroad section foreman and Betsy a domestic servant in a private home.

Betsy married Oscar Swanson in 1870 and the newly-weds moved to their eighty acre homestead on School Creek. The 17-year-old bride found herself the Lady of the House in the first lumber dwelling built in the Sutton precinct. There were few settlers in the area and the town at the time featured three saloons but no stores.

This young lady had packed a lot of living into her first 17 years. The very next year she became a small footnote to our local history when she boarded the Burlington train in Lincoln at 6 a.m. one October morning in 1871 and became the first woman to ride the train from Lincoln to Sutton – a ten-hour trip.

Oscar and Betsy lived on the homestead until 1900 when they moved to Sutton for four years before building a new home in Saronville. They raised two sons, Charles and John who farmed in the Sutton area. A short biography of Oscar appeared in the History of Hamilton and Clay Counties published in 1921.

Betsy’s spinning wheel traveled with her on this adventure that was her life. She resurrected it out of her attic after Oscar died as she became active in reviving interest in handcraft work. That interest led to the small item in the paper preserving her story for us.

Betsy Hakanson Swanson is only one of the thousands of pioneers and settlers whose stories are steadily dimming as time goes by. Is it critically important that we save each and every one of these stories? Probably not critically important, but our lives seem much richer if we include them in our collective memory. And Betsy, like so many others, deserves no less.

This article appeared in the January, 2010 Sutton Life Magazine. Information about the magazine is available at or Mustang, Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sutton's War with the Burlington Railroad

The railroad was important on the prairie, probably critical to the success of every settlement that tried to become a town. Sutton’s fight to secure its railroad and a station is almost a classic tale.

The Burlington & Missouri Railroad laid its first rail in Sutton on August 12th, 1871. Mr. Wilsey, an attorney from Crete representing the railroad met with Luther French in his dugout and negotiated a contract deeding a right-of-way through town to the railroad in exchange for the promise of a Sutton depot.

The railroad parked a boxcar in Sutton and called it a depot. It was known as “124” and that number was painted on a bleached buffalo skull nailed to one end of the car.

Shortly after that, Mr. French sold his interests in Sutton to the Clark brothers. This deed was filed before the French-railroad deed voiding the agreement for the depot and apparently upsetting railroad officials.

These officials denied the existence of the town of Sutton and certainly of any station. The fact that Sutton had a number of saloons seemed troublesome too. And the claim dispute between homesteader Vroman and alleged claim jumpers, Maltby and Way was a complication as well.

In December, the railroad moved the boxcar depot with the buffalo skull to a new town 4 miles east called Grafton, site of four houses and a general store of Marthis & Robbins.
The town citizens deputized Mr. T. Weed in January, 1872 to go to Crete offering the railroad one-half of the unsold Clark, Maltby and Way eighties plus Maltby and Way threw in twenty acres of their best land for the depot: Col. Doane representing the railroad wanted two-thirds of the unsold lots and the depot land. The deal fell through.

I. N. Clark was negotiating with other railroad representatives at the same time with no better success. Winter was setting in and the settlers were dependent on the railroad for fuel and food. The town’s love-hate relationship with the railroad was well underway.

Accounts of this story often include another “issue”. Railroad officials had a “call system” in mind for naming stations alphabetically as they moved west – Ashland, Berkes, Crete, Dorchester, Exeter, Fairmont, Grafton, etc. No Sutton.

An important revenue source for the railroad was the U.S. Mails. But train crews would not stop to pick up and leave mail at Sutton as stopping would enable passengers to get off and on the train making the stop a “station”. Mail car workers and postmaster A. C. Burlingame worked out a system in which mail was thrown from the moving train and mail bags were grabbed from Burlingame’s hands. Soon Burlingame tired of this dangerous procedure and just left the mail in his post office, as was his right.

Burlingame reported all this to the Postal Department and the government ordered that the railroad was responsible for getting mail from Burlingame’s post office to their station in Grafton at a cost of $400 a year.

The railroad response was to put up a crane opposite Gray’s lumber yard expecting the postmaster to hang his mail bag so they could grab it as the train went by. A few days later the mail car worker spotted the first bag on the crane and grabbed it only to be nearly pulled from the car by the weight – of a dead dog in the bag.

Next, the railroad’s watering tank near Harvard was dry and the company offered to stop at a tank near Sutton and have the mail exchanged there. This required the Post Office to provide the mail carrier to the water tank under the rules.

Sutton settlers’ patience finally ran out. One night they took teams to Grafton where they had previously purchased every building including the general store. The next morning the train crews found just one company-owned building at the Grafton site, not even old “124”.

George Bemis memorialized that night’s work with a poem, “Grafton to Sutton”. Visit to read the poem.

Sutton got its depot in 1873. The buffalo skull from “124” was preserved by the Sheridan family. Max and Regina Leininger promised “Aunt Nellie Sheridan” that some day it would become a Sutton Artifact in a museum. You can visit the skull in the front porch at the Historic House at 309 N. Way Ave. just a few dozen yards north of where that first mail bag surprised the fellow in the mail car.

This posting first appeared as an article by Jerry Johnson in the December 2009 issue of Sutton Life Magazine, 510 West Cedar, Sutton NE 68979

I. N. Clark, Mr. Sutton

In downtown Sutton, north of the tracks and on the west side of Saunders Avenue, in the midst of row of red brick buildings sits a single gray, almost white building. High on the face of the building is the inscription “I N CLARK” referring to Isaac Newton Clark.

Few individuals get to face the challenges and opportunities of building a town. A long list of skills, knowledge, experience and talent were needed to develop a new town. Legal expertise was needed to formalize land ownership and to create and organize the town and its government. Brokers were needed to handle property exchanges. Merchants had to build stores, find sources of goods and create a business. Some products had to be manufactured locally. New towns needed all kinds of people. Sutton got I. N. Clark.

Isaac Newton Clark was born near Cleveland, Ohio on June 18, 1836. He left the farm to attend a Teachers’ Institute at Hiram College where he received his certificate from James Garfield, President of the college, and later President of the United States. Clark taught school and farmed in Ohio and Illinois until June, 1861 when he enlisted and was mustered into the Twenty-fifth Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Within a few months, an inflammation seriously limited the vision in his left eye and he was honorably discharged.

He returned to Ohio and in September, 1863 married Miss Mary Miner, a twenty-five year old teacher with eleven years experience. The young couple moved to Champaign, Illinois where he farmed and helped form Hensley Township where he was Town Clerk, Assessor and Collector. Clark farmed until 1871 when he and a younger brother Martin, a physician, headed west to find a new location for a business. At the end of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad in Nebraska they found Sutton.

I. N. & Dr. Martin Clark also found Luther French in Sutton who’d recently formed the town on his homestead. French had 400 unsold lots which Clark brothers purchased for $4000. On November 1, 1871 they opened the first store on the railroad west of Crete. They then built a building 20X60 feet in which Dr. Clark opened a drug store and ten days later, Isaac opened a hardware store. This building was called the Clark House and later became a hotel and rooming house. By the fall of 1872 the hardware business had grown to warrant yet another building. 

The drug and hardware businesses were vital to the early development of the town with customers from throughout the surrounding areas. Among those customers were the Omaha Indians. A band of about 400 Indians camped on School Creek on their annual hunt and traded with the Clark hardware store for ammunition, hunter’s and trapper’s outfits and supplies. This roving band returned annually for several years afterwards camping near town for days and trading. The Indians campsite was in a popular picnic area for Sutton. It sat on about twelve acres of the French/Clark property where School Creek made a horseshoe bend. Negotiations began as early as 1872 to donate this area to the city for a park. The legal transfer of the park did not occur until 1883 but that’s another story, but a good one involving the railroad and a stubborn lady who loved trees. A monument in the center of the City Park commemorates the Clark brothers’ generosity to their adopted town.

As Sutton developed, Isaac Clark took on additional roles. He was elected a member of the Board of Village Trustees in 1876. Later that year when Sutton became a town, he was the first mayor and was reelected in 1878.

The Methodist Episcopal Church decided to build a new church in 1876 and chose Mr. Clark as Chairman of their Board of Trustees. He organized the Sutton Brick Company manufacturing bricks for that structure and others in the area. The kiln factory remains a Sutton attraction today, though fairly well hidden out on the north edge of town.

Dr. Martin Clark and I. N. Clark’s property was quickly sold off to new arrivals in town. I. N. Clark pursued the real estate business vigorously developing the Clark Addition to the west and later a Second Clark Addition. His modestly named Glen Lake development on a branch of School Creek was used for boating and fishing and yielded hundreds of tons of ice annually, the primary source for the town. Glen Lake was later more properly named Clark’s Pond.

I. N. and Mary Clark had five children. Twins Harry and Davie were born in Illinois though Davie died in their first year. Myra and Albert (Bertie) were also born in Illinois and Roy was born in Sutton. Myra graduated in Sutton High’s first class in 1884 and Bertie graduated two years later. The Chancellor of the State University attended Myra’s graduation and a special test that was given to her to determine if local graduates qualified for higher education. She was the first to enter the State University with no further examination. Bertie continued in business in Sutton including operating the ice business for twenty years. He identified his occupation in the 1910 census as “ice dealer”. He married Mayme Wieden, perhaps the most interesting woman of early Sutton. She became deputy postmaster immediately upon high school graduation in 1894. There was almost no religious, social, civic or educational activity that she wasn’t deeply involved in.

The Clark residences became Sutton landmarks. Isaac and Bertie’s houses still grace West Cedar Street. Isaac’s, the more modest, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an example of Gothic Revival architecture. Bertie’s house is a somewhat more substantial structure across the pond which looks down on that pond where Bertie collected and marketed his ice each winter.

All frontier towns need a variety of skilled and talented people. They needed merchants, developers, entrepreneurs, realtors, builders, politicians and visionaries. Sutton had a number of people who fit into some of those roles. But in Isaac Newton Clark, Sutton had all of those in one guy.

Mary Minor Clark died in 1916 at the age of 78. Dr. Martin Clark and Bertie Clark both died in 1922. Isaac Newton Clark died in 1927 at the age of 90. Mayme Wieden Clark lived to be 88 and died in 1963.

The Sutton Historical Society is honoring the founders and early settlers of Sutton with a sidewalk of inscribed commemorative bricks at the Historic House on Way Avenue. Everyone is invited to honor their own family members, especially those of the pioneer era by joining the society in this program. You are also invited to “adopt” or help to honor our important founders, like the Clarks, who have no descendants still living. The program is the major museum fundraiser and will provide much-needed repair of the sidewalk. Bricks are one hundred dollars each or three for $225. 

This posting first appeared as an article by Jerry Johnson in the October, 2009 issue of Sutton Life Magazine, 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979

Sutton, the Sudden Settlement

The early settlement of the Sutton community burst onto the prairie much like a coiled spring. When Luther French located his homestead as the north half of the northwest quarter of Section 2, Township 7, Range 5 on March 14th, 1870, a lengthy prologue had already been written.

The Platte and the Blue Rivers had been thoroughfares for westward travelers for decades. As early as 1843, as many as 1000 emigrants passed through present-day Clay County on the way to Oregon, a stream of migration that continued until 1869. A surge of gold prospectors dashing across the plains beginning in 1849 turned into a steady migration of California settlers. Over 40,000 Mormons used a trail north of the Platte River between 1847 and 1860 on their trek to Salt Lake City. And the Central Pacific railroad was completed in 1869. Military posts and way stations were positioned along the trails and rails providing protection and support. Transportation and communication links through south-central Nebraska were robust and active.

The uprising of plains Indians in 1864 along the Big Blue and Republican Rivers marked their last desperate effort to stem the tide of settlers. The U.S. Army was able concentrate on securing the West after the end of the Civil War in 1865. The end of the war also released thousands of soldiers who had just learned that there was life beyond Dad’s farm back East. Statehood came to Nebraska in 1867 and the stage was set for a major population explosion on the plains.

Luther French lit the fuse for the town of Sutton. His claim became the site of the town and we recognize him as our first settler. The area of the claim is bounded on the north by Ash Street and on the west by James. The south side slices the north downtown business district a bit north of Cornerstone bank and the east end of this “80” is just past highway 6.

Did you think homesteads were 160 acres? You’re right, generally. An exception was for claims within “railroad land”. Railroads received an incentive from the government for building on the frontier. Alternating sections for 10 miles on either side of the track were deeded to the railroad which could sell that land to fund the enterprise. So the government gave the railroads ten square miles of land for each mile of track laid. Or 1.21 acres per foot of track, a tenth of an acre for each inch…, you get the idea. Within each strip of railroad land, homesteads were 80 acres.

The second homesteader in Sutton was James C. Vroman who filed for the 160 acres just south of French’s claim. Vroman’s claim stretches from the north business district to a bit south of Myrtle Street. “What?” you ask. “How did Vroman get 160 acres?” Well, the first exception had a second exception. Veterans could claim 160 acre homesteads even within the railroad strip. Got it? Well, Vroman didn’t, but more on that later.

We’re now into the spring of 1871. Luther French sowed some wheat on his claim. Hosea W. Gray, his son John, son-in-law George Bemis and W. Cunning and his wife arrived and settled in. A few days later Mr. P. McTighe put up a board shanty and sold groceries and whiskey, the community’s first business. Kearney & Kelly, P. H. Curran and Martin Higgins quickly opened their businesses too, three saloons. These first businesses were on Main Avenue where downtown Sutton was originally intended to be located. The particular nature of this neighborhood led to its unofficial name of “Whiskey Row” and to a subsequent effort by the more upstanding town’s folk to relocate downtown to Saunders Avenue. The Burlington railroad had a hand in the move, but that’s another story.

Other business commenced but we need to return to our soldier-homesteader. Vroman was short of money so after filing his claim he went to work on the railroad further west. Homestead rules allowed a six month lag between filing a claim and when the claim must be occupied. However, John R. Maltby and William A. Way came from Crete and each filed their own 80 acre claim on Vroman’s quarter, or they “jumped the claim” as it was then called. Maltby and Way contested Vroman’s claim in Lincoln and in Washington. Vroman didn’t know of this action, didn’t show up and his claim was canceled. Hence, today Sutton has a Maltby Avenue and a Way Avenue but no Vroman Avenue.

The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad arrived in School Creek, as the community was first named, on August 1, 1871. On August 10th John Maltby suggested that Luther French survey his claim into a town site of 600 lots and name the new town “Sutton” after Sutton, Massachusetts, Matlby’s back-east home.

On August 23, 1871, Thurlow Weed brought a carload of lumber from Lincoln to start the first lumber yard. John Gray’s load of lumber arrived a day later to become the second yard. R.G. Brown built a small building on Saunders Avenue on November 1, 1871 beginning the move of the business district from Main Avenue. This building was used as the first court house for the newly organized Clay County.

Luther French arrived on the banks of School Creek in March, 1870 to raise some wheat. Settlers began arriving early in 1871 and by that November French’s homestead had become a rapidly growing town and the county seat. It had a railroad and a booming business district and the coiled spring had been unleashed.

This posting first appeared as an article by Jerry Johnson in the September, 2009 issue of Sutton Life Magazine, 510 West Cedar, Sutton NE 68979

Sutton: Small Town, Large Story

The story of Sutton, Nebraska began less than 140 years ago, just three years after Nebraska entered the union.  The story of Sutton is a pioneer story, an agricultural story, a business story and a success story.  But mainly it is a people story.  There have been visionaries, entrepreneurs, immigrants, opportunists, and even a scoundrel or two.  But mainly the story is about hundreds of hard-working merchants and farmers, their employees and their families. 

The early days of Sutton’s history was surprisingly well documented.  The governor asked that a Centennial History be compiled for the Fourth of July in 1876.  Dr. Martin Clark contributed Sutton’s six-year story to that history and read it at the town’s own July 4th celebration.  Just six years later, A. T. Andreas published a History of the State of Nebraska telling the stories of each county and town in the state.  The Sutton section is full of details and contains biographies of several of the pioneers in town.

A huge two-volume History of Hamilton and Clay Counties appeared in 1921.  One volume is a fine history of the two-county area. The second volume contains almost 250 biographies of early settlers and the “movers and shakers”. 

The next several decades did not enjoy quite the attention at those first years.  In 1968 Anne and Nellie Sheridan compiled the pioneer story of John and Ellen Sheridan.  “Along the County Line” was written by Rita Joyce Haviland and Jeanette Joyce Motichka from that work.  That story of a pioneer family that settled along the Clay-Fillmore county line includes a wealth of material about Sutton filling in some of the information void of those decades.

Many Sutton area pioneers came from the Eastern part of the state, neighboring states and points further east.  European immigrants played a big part in the local settlements.  Germans, Swedes, Danes, Bohemians, Czechs and Irish concentrated in certain towns and villages throughout the plains.  The largest single immigrant group to Sutton was the Germans from Russia.  Their story in Sutton has been well documented by Theodore C. Wenzlaff and James R. Griess.  Jim Griess published “The German-Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton” in 1968.  Ted Wenzlaff followed in 1974 with “Pioneers on Two Continents, The Ochsner-Griess History and Genealogy”.  Just last year, Jim Griess updated his book producing an ambitious volume of well over 300 large-format pages. These works distinguish Sutton as an important location in the story of this particular immigrant group which settled from the Dakotas into Kansas and Colorado

Don Russell and the Clay County News published a Pictorial History of Sutton in 1977.  This volume of almost 100 pages of early photos gives us a visual history of early Sutton.

As many as five or six newspapers have been published in Sutton which provides a week-by-week chronicle of details about Sutton happenings. Then there are the many unpublished diaries, letters, family histories, etc. that add much to our understanding.

Early citizens of the town of Sutton were intensely social creatures.  Numerous lodges thrived in the small town.  The people were far more mobile that you might suspect.  Four or five trains stopped in Sutton, each way, daily, and people hopped aboard for Lincoln, Omaha, Chicago, St. Joe, Denver, the coasts, even Europe on a near regular basis. 

The townsfolk receive good coverage in the old newspapers, the farmers – not as much.  We need to dig a bit deeper to learn the story of that crucial element of Sutton’s history. But it is worth it.

This posting first appeared as part of an article by Jerry Johnson in the August, 2009 issue of Sutton Life Magazine, 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.