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.