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.