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 findagrave.com). 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 amazon.com 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 neighborhoodlife@yahoo.com

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