Sunday, January 31, 2010

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.

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