Sunday, October 31, 2010

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.

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