Sunday, January 31, 2010

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

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