Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Squawker

The Squawker was one of Sutton’s gifts to the town of York. It was the product of Eugene Henry Bemis who was born in Sutton on either the 4th or the 5th of July in 1880 – there’s reasonably good evidence for either date. His family moved to York where he was the editor of the weekly York New Teller newspaper for many years. There he entertained himself and his readers with a column that he called “The Squawker” which appeared, as he described it, “any darn time we please or oftener.”

Bemis was from one of Sutton’s founding families. His parents were George W. Bemis and his wife Ada of the Gray family. George Bemis was with his father-in-law Hosea Gray and brother-in-law John Gray on May 4th, 1871when they approached School Creek from the east and looked down the hill to where Luther French was all alone “holed-up” in his dugout looking forward to a second year of wheat on his homestead.

The Grey-Bemis party filed for homesteads but saw the prospects for a town. Four months later George’s wife Ada (Hosea’s daughter) and John Gray’s wife Emma joined them. George Bemis studied law under his father-in-law and the two of them were among the first attorneys in town. Bemis may have been the town’s best known early poet for a single effort, “Grafton to Sutton” about the shenanigans that went on with the town depot.

Members of the Sutton Historical Society have a special interest in this family as it was Gene’s Uncle John and Aunt Emma (yes, there really was an “Aunt Emma”) who built the two houses on Way Avenue north of the railroad tracks where our museum lives and where Emma was honored in Aunt Emma’s Tea House for nine years.

The children of the Bemis family made a name for themselves after they left Sutton. Sgt. George W. Bemis, Jr. was one of the first ten soldiers into Manila when the Americans took the city. He was editor of J. Sterling Morton’s publication “Conservative” and later was the first editor of the Lincoln Star.

Gene’s sister Anna Gray Bemis graduated from York College and had a long list of articles and poems published. She was active in the social whirl of York and after a couple of marriages accumulated the name of Anna Gray Bemis Palmer and was the benefactor of the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum in downtown York. An exhibit to the right of the museum entrance recognizes her Sutton connection.

Then there is Gene. His column in the York New Teller attracted a following throughout the state and beyond. His style was folksy, to say the least, and was layered with satire and obscure references that challenged his readers. His friend John Benley of the Lincoln Journal quoted a letter from Bemis in his own column on August 20, 1939 that illustrates the Bemis writing style well:

“With footbawl next on the sports programmy, we’re on the lookout for dope. We can roll our own on the local situation but we’ve been wondering about the Cornhusker prospects and are looking for enlightenment from friend John Bentley of the Journal. Firstly, dear John, we want to know what kind of a band the uni will have this season and what kindda music it will play. As we had it from the experts last year the band played us out of the win column by playing swing – if it goes in for the jitterbug stuff this season, all is lost. How big is it gonna be, and what kind of uniforms? Will it be able to put on a class A performance at half time or will it fumble its drills? How is it fixed for drum majors – got any reserve strength there?”

Gene Bemis published a book of his columns and his poems in 1919 under the title of “The Squawker Book” with a subtitle of “Made with scissors and paste from the files of The World’s Poorest Newspaper.” The dedication line reads, “We ain’t mad at nobody.”

The Squawker columns touched on a wide variety of subjects. Several columns described Bemis’ attempt to raise chickens and economic and personal challenges of that effort. He must have had friends in the fire department as they came in for occasional mention, not always in a good light. There are complaints about the weather, prices and the behavior of people in general. A number of his poems appear in the book. Some reflected his humorous side:

Nellie had a little bell –
She rang it ‘til, goodness sake!
Pa got excited and said, “Nell,
You’ll make that Belly ache.

Others carried little pearls of wisdom:

You may travel all around the earth –
Seek pleasure and renoun –
But the way to get your money’s worth
Is to boost your own home town.

Gene Bemis died in October 17, 1955 and is buried in York’s Greenwood Cemetery (Shout-out to Perhaps he contributed to the journalism culture of York that today supports the York News-Times, Nebraska’s smallest daily newspaper.

Members of the historical society are grateful to the Houston family for our own prized copy of the Bemis book, hand-tied “binding” and all. There is an entry for The Squawker with the note, “Out of Print – Limited Availability.” The entry refers to “Unknown binding” and doesn’t have an image of the book but maybe we can fix that.

The historical society’s major fundraiser is the sale of bricks commemorating Suttonites, especially the early folks. The Gray family was among the more important founding families and like many early families, there aren’t descendants around to ensure they are remembered in our brick walk. Volunteers have come forward to commemorate John and Emma but other Gray and Bemis families remain orphaned. Anyone interested in helping to sponsor a commemorative brick for these folks can contact us for information.

This article first appeared in the February, 2011 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. You can contact the magazine at 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979 or

Historical Research Made Easy: Just Stumble onto Something

There was a time in the distant past, say, about ten years ago, when serious historical research involved a finely developed skill set, some travel, plus lots of time and effort. Today, maybe not so much. We can stumble onto more pertinent material accidently online any random evening than we used to be able to dig up in months.

The results of one recent study illustrate how information of local interests can pop up for us.
Two researchers, Dr. William G. Thomas III of the University of Nebraska and Dr, Kurt Kinbacher of Spokane Falls Community College produced a publication called “Shaping Nebraska: An Analysis of Railroad and Land Sales, 1870-1880.”(1) These fellows were interested in the role that railroads played in the settlement of the Great Plains, particularly Nebraska. It is impractical to study a huge region in any detail and even if one could there would likely be too much stuff to look at in any timely manner. So the answer is to pick a smaller sample and study it well.

Thomas and Kinbacher chose to concentrate on three specific townships in two Nebraska counties and to extrapolate their conclusions to the region in general. The townships were Olive Branch Township in southwest Lancaster County and Lynn and School Creek townships in Clay County.

It is our good fortune that they chose Clay County as we gain the benefit of their efforts.

The study looked at railroad land sales. The Burlington Railroad came into the state at Plattsmouth in 1869 and connected with the Union Pacific near Kearney. Sutton and Harvard were the early developing communities between Lincoln and Kearney making Clay a candidate for the study. The Burlington received alternate sections of land from the government for ten miles either side of the tracks for each mile of track they laid. That is, 6,400 acres for each 5,280 feet of track for a total of 2,450,000 acres – 5% of the state. Development of the Great Plains was government policy and the 1864 Pacific Railroad act was one of two large 19th Century “stimulus packages” to further that policy. The other stimulus program was the Homestead Act two years earlier. Both were successful. Nebraska’s population grew from 120,000 in 1870 to 453,000 in 1880 and over one million by 1890.

The railroad needed revenue from freight and passenger service to sustain its operations. Railroads actively recruited settlers. The Burlington spent $500,000 recruiting potential settlers in Europe between April, 1870 and December, 1872. That would have been the gross proceeds from sales of 143 square miles at the average price of $5.47 per acre. They focused on Germans, Czechs and Scandinavians plus two agents worked Great Britain exclusively. But their greater successes came from folks “back east” as large populations, often second generation immigrants came to Nebraska from Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

There was a high level of sophistication in the recruitment literature. Material aimed at English speaking prospects used maps and timetables to illustrate the maturity of the rail system. The focus was on business prospects with graphs charting growth in commodity production and income levels. Materials aimed at non-English speaking immigrants were much more textural. Europeans were worried about water and wood so brochures told of rivers and streams with abundant flowing water. Wood represented more of a problem for the advertisers who had to acknowledge the near complete absence of trees, but instead told of ready access to cheap coal and the advantage of easily clearing land with no trees.

Settlements often developed into ethic islands or clusters of like-immigrants. German language literature pointed out the numerous German communities on the plains. Meanwhile, English language material told of honest, hard-working English, Scots and Scandinavians. The Burlington claimed that one half of southern Lancaster County was made up of German communities. The actual figures were between one-fourth and a third. Close. Few immigrants self-identified as Germans as Germany had only became a nation in 1871. They were more likely to call themselves Prussians or Bavarians or Hanoverians, etc. Olive Branch Township “Germans” self-identified with at least nineteen different principalities.

Lynn Township in Clay County illustrated another aspect of settlement. Seventy-eight percent of Nebraskans in the 1880 census were native born. Forty percent of Lynn Township sales of railroad land went to Ohioans with early arrivals from the town of Newburgh near Cleveland.

School Creek Township hosted the closest to an actual “colony” of any area in the study. Black Sea Germans from Russia with the Grosshans, Griess & Company purchased 5 ¾ sections of railroad land in School Creek Township on September 4th, 1873.

There were several considerations when settlers had to choose between homesteading and purchase of railroad land. Homesteaders filed a claim, spent five years developing the land then took title. Railroad land was purchased but ownership was immediate. Homesteaders stuck it out for the five years forty percent of the time. A total of 270 million acres passed into private hands under the Homestead Act. Railroad land lent itself to speculators to a greater degree. But other factors seemed to play into longevity.

Olive Branch and Lynn township purchasers of railroad land tended to move on within a few years. The School Creek Township settlement of Germans from Russia was far more stable. Forty of the fifty-nine sales contracts to Germans from Russia in the county were in School Creek with the other nineteen, primarily from the Volga region, in the three adjacent townships. As land came available, members of the Germans from Russia community purchased that land sustaining the community.

This study of railroad land sales was good for our selfish needs here in Sutton in that it tells us something about local settlement. If there is a flaw in the study it may be that it did concentrate on railroad land sales. Railroad land was only one half of the story. Interspersed between sections of railroad land were sections of homesteads often settled by different groups with significantly different motivations. 
But overall, this study is a good illustration of the type of scholarly work that was largely inaccessible to us just a few years ago. We are fortunate that the researchers choose Clay County for their study giving us further insight to what happened here, back then.

This article first appeared in Sutton Life Magazine, December 2010 issue. Contact Sutton Life Magazine at 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979 or at

Researching the West with Light Reading

Historical research produces two types of information. First, we learn a bunch of specific facts about our topic, in our case, what happened in Sutton, who did what and when. Quite different from that we find either general information or specific things about other places which give us some idea of what kind of the world our predecessors lived in and a clue as to the kinds of things that might have happened here.

Years ago Time-Life Corporation produced a series of 26 books in its “The Old West” series. There are such titles as “The Cowboys”, “The Indians”, “The Miners”, “The Women”, and of interest here, “The Townsmen” written by Keith Wheeler. I don’t believe Sutton is ever mentioned in any of the 26 volumes, but these books provide a feel for life in “The Old West” that early folks of Sutton shared with other westerners.

Well before Sutton’s birth Congress passed the Townsite Act in 1844 enabling westerners to stake out 320 acres, define lots of 125 by 25 feet and peddle those lots for whatever the market would bear. Speculators were quick to call their site a city. A New York Tribune correspondent visiting Colorado in 1866 complained, “I only wish that the vulgar, snobbish custom of attaching ‘City’ to every place with more than three houses could be stopped.”

One such group of fast-talking speculators in 1857 persuaded 30 settlers in Davenport, Iowa, mostly Germans, to come to their newly formed town of Grand Island on the banks of the Platte River. One enticement was a suggestion that someday the nation’s capital would be moved from Washington to Grand Island’s more central location. The financial panic of 1857 cost the Grand Island promoters dearly and two years later a fellow heading to the gold fields set fire to Grand Island burning down all but one house. His reason was that he hated Germans. The town was quickly rebuilt but in 1866 the Union Pacific railroad came through Hall County, two miles from Grand Island. The townspeople moved the buildings to trackside and the town was off and running.

Towns were quick to start schools, seen as a necessary step to credibility. Finding a school teacher was often difficult as wages of $35 a month were common. The practice of having the school teacher, nearly always a single, young woman, “board around” was common. She lived for a period of time with each of the families with school children. It seemed fair that the families with the most children in school should bear the brunt of this school support. Of course, that meant the teacher was always living in the most crowded houses in town. Many teachers saw this job as a stepping stone to someplace else or to a different line of work.

Early townspeople were quick to demonstrate their cultural sophistication. Lecture circuits, traveling acting troupes, circuses and the like prospered. Shakespearian Theater was very popular with Junius Brutus Booth Jr. and his brother Edwin among the actors who made their names in the west. Edwin Booth earned as much as $25,000 a month with his portrayal of Hamlet. The third Booth brother, John also made his name in the theater though in a much different context.

Clay County towns sported their own Opera Houses which were busy with some form of entertainment most evenings. Swedish dialect comedies were especially popular with different ones making the rounds every month or so. Sutton had numerous lodges and other social and cultural groups and found excuses for festivals and other celebrations throughout the year. Boxing and wrestling were popular throughout the west including in Sutton and Clay County.

In “The Townsmen” Mr. Wheeler included dozens of stories of western towns. Guthrie, Oklahoma had a claim as the fastest town, going from a railroad watering stop to 10,000 residents in 24 hours. Hastings, Nebraska must have won some kind of award for attracting five major and minor railroads while running up municipal debt of over $250,000. Ottawa, Kansas and Ottawa College received those names as partial payment to the Ottawa Indians from the notorious confidence man Isaac Kallock for 20,000 acres.

Time-Life’s book business ended with the AOL purchase of Time but not before 177 series of books had been published with such titles as Collector’s Library of the Civil War, Cookery Around the World, Home Repair and Improvement, The Great Cities, etc. Sales were by subscription, a book a month for from about five to nine dollars each. Series had as few as three or as many as 109 books. Yours truly has all or parts of five of those series (only 77 of those 109 in the “Reading Program”) but my favorites are “The Old West” and “Classics of the Old West” (26 of the 31 printed on the shelf). The web site has the inventory.  There is an active secondary market for individual books and complete sets.

Are the Time-Life books definitive and authoritative historical texts? Definitely not. They are interesting and entertaining but not even decent secondary sources with no footnotes or references at all. But did I mention they are interesting and entertaining? The Sutton Library has the complete set of “The Old West”, north wall, bottom shelf. Take a look.