Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sutton and Its Veterans

A part of the history of every town is the story of its veterans and the town’s connection to the nation’s military. Sutton is no exception.

Sutton was settled shortly after the end of the Civil War with a number of the settlers coming from the ranks of Grand Army of the Republic. Among those settlers were G. A. R. veterans with names of Brown, Dinsmore, Gray, Van Patten, Bemis, Schwab, Clark and almost fifty more. Leonard Jarrett is a unique vet at the Sutton cemetery with the “Stars and Bars” of the Confederate Flag flying over his grave. Jarrett enlisted in November, 1863 in Company E, Virginia 14th Cavalry Regiment at the age of 17. Jarrett’s youngest daughter Sibyl was the long-time city librarian.

Markers at the cemetery identify the hundreds of later men and women of Sutton who answered the nation’s call. Two with Sutton connections earned the nation’s highest award. Jacob Volz was born in Sutton in 1889 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for service in the Philippines in 1911.

Sutton’s other medal of honor winner was local dentist Orion P. Howe who was awarded his medal in the 1890’s. He earned the award years earlier in May, 1863 at Vicksburg as a fourteen-year old drummer boy thrown into a mission that killed three others and severely injured him.

Almost ninety Sutton vets served in the World War I and over 150 in the Second World War. Later generations likely do not fully appreciate the extent to which the entire nation was intimately involved in World War II and how that war was brought home to every city and town. The local impact to this area included the relocating all farmers from a large section of western Clay County for the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot. The Harvard and Fairmont Air Bases were two of eleven Nebraska bases supporting flight crew training with waves of B-17, B-24 and B-29 bomber formations flying over area almost daily. These military facilities employed thousands of local people and brought thousands more to the area, many of them finding wives and settling here.

Fewer local soldiers served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars but for each individual, a full 100% of their time and energy was asked, for years. The elimination of the Selective Service draft produced the all-volunteer military that has served in the two Middle East wars.

Others from this area gave far more than just their time and energy to the nation’s defense; they gave their lives. The community remembers.

It has been just one year since the Fallen Heroes Marsh was dedicated southwest of Sutton, a stark reminder of the sacrifices of Nebraskans in the Gulf Wars. The setting is austere and a bit of a surprise on one’s first visit. It is peaceful, perhaps serene. Allow your imagination to absorb the symbolism of the memorial and the surroundings; you will remember that visit.

We do not have battlefields as are found in the east and south from the Revolutionary and Civil wars but our area was the scene of Indian Wars until a few years before Sutton’s founding. And there is one remarkable chapter when in November, 1878 “Sutton’s sons whose proclivities bent in the direction of the chivalrous and heroic…” formed Company B of the First Regiment of the State Guard. Captain W. J. Keller commanded Company B in two activations, once in 1880 and again in early 1882, both times with missions to maintain order in Omaha labor disputes.

Most who have worn the uniform did not serve in combat zones. National security involves a large, wide-ranging and varied collection of organizations, some with unusual missions. Some of us were “warriors” of the Cold War maintaining a nuclear deterrent force designed to prevent war. After more than 45 years of preparedness and acute readiness, our “war” slowly faded away. In our case “Mission Accomplished” was “Nothing Happened”.  That story is better told at the SAC Museum on the west side of the Platte River just off I-80.

The Sutton American Legion houses more than a restaurant and is more than a venue for meetings. Next time you are in the building, take a moment to look around and join the Legion in recognizing those who have worn the uniform.

This article first appeared in the November, 2010 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about this local Sutton publication, please contact Jarod Griess at or at 402-984-4203 or at 510 West Cedar St., Sutton, NE 68979.

The Small Town Newspaper, News, Opinion, Culture & Power

A short list of occupations defined a new town on the frontier. There were developers and speculators who divided the open land into individual properties. Lawyers recorded deeds and resolved disputes. Merchants, saloon-keepers, doctors and dentists met various needs of settlers. And very early, there was the newspaperman.

A newspaper was important to fledgling communities on the frontier. A weekly newspaper confirmed a town’s existence and verified its prospects.

There have been at least eight newspapers in Sutton and over forty in Clay County. Most were short-lived, maybe only a few months while others lasted sixty to ninety years.

Sutton had the Sutton Times, Advertiser-news, Globe, Clay County Herald, the Democrat, Sutton News (twice), Sutton Register and today’s Clay County News. The Harvard Courier served that town for ninety-one years following earlier sheets called The Harvard, Champion, The Leader, Advocate, Sentinel, The Harvard Free Lance and Clay County Journal. There was a Fairfield News, Fairfield Herald, Fairfield Tribune and the Independent before the Fairfield Auxiliary began in 1911 becoming what may have been the county’s best paper for much of its fifty-four years. Edgar had the Edgar Review, Edgar Weekly Times, Edgar Times, Leader, News Journal, Edgar Post, Post-World, World, the Sun and the Edgar Sun. Clay Center had the Clay County Patriot, Clay County Progress, Call, Gazette, Clay County Republican and the Clay County Sun. Even Ong seems to have had the Weekly Visitor, the Ong Times, Sentinel, Deacon and the Weekly News.

Is that a complete list? Probably not. I expect I’ll run across references to more county newspapers. I’d be surprised if there weren’t local news sheets distributed in Glenvil, Inland, Eldorado, or maybe even Saronville, Spring Ranch(e) or Verona.

So what was the big deal with newspapers? Consider that from the early 1870’s into the 1920’s, newspapers were the primary source of news, comment, advertising, entertainment and literary exposure. There was no radio, TV, internet; there were a few distant newspapers and some magazines but at prices many couldn’t justify. A year’s subscription to the local paper was only about a buck.

What did the early paper offer? All covered the local community extensively. Newspapers were avid boosters for their community pointing out business changes, civic improvements, accomplishments of successful residents and any other favorable items that would make locals feel good or attract outsiders who might come across an issue.

Sutton had multiple stores in each category and competition was fierce. The News and especially the Register carried quarter and half page and even full page ads that were repeated week to week.

Each paper had extensive social news coverage like today, only much more so. Each community (Saronville, Verona, Eldorado, etc.), township (Sheridan, Marshall, School Creek) or parts of a township (Excelsoir) had a correspondent who filled eight to twelve column inches each week of “who visited whom” notes. My grandmother’s uncle, A. G. Israelson was the Saronville reporter for newspapers in Clay Center, Harvard and Sutton where the weekly activities of her Aspegren and Israelson families were carefully chronicled.

Papers serialized books with chapters appearing week after week for several months, non-fiction as well as lots of fiction. Editors promoted the local theater, clubs, literary guilds and other cultural endeavors that cast a favorable light on the town. Small town papers had access to the products of major papers and carried lengthy articles on current events world-wide. They offered detailed analysis of political and economic issues, either their own or acquired elsewhere.

Early papers had an overt political slant and aggressively advocated for their favored party in editorials as well as news articles. Two papers in the same town almost always divided along political lines. Nearly all papers had a regular column by the publisher who attempted to persuade his readers to his and his party’s position. No one else held that kind of sway over the public in towns on the plains.

School news was big. The progress of rural students made its way to the paper. The Edgar Sun had high school students as regular contributors to a section called “The Huskie”. The town’s baseball team was always a favorite story. The Sutton Register carried a poultry column for years and seemed to have something to say about raising chickens every week.

The lasting impact of those newspapers from one hundred years or more ago is that they give us a picture of the day-to-day life of the town, its founders and of our grandparents. We find the specific facts from the beginning as we read but after a period of time reading and absorbing the images, a more general picture appears that tells about the overall lifestyle, the mood and the flow of human activity during those times.

Many old newspapers have been microfilmed and are on file with the Nebraska Historical Society. Reels are available for a fee through member libraries including the Sutton Library. However, it takes time to get the one or two reels available at a time, it’s for a limited period and microfilm is not the most user friendly medium. Members of the Sutton Historical Society have begun a small pilot project to copy, to digitize, images of the of papers owned by the Clay County News. If it’s feasible, we’ll have DVD’s available at the Sutton Library and elsewhere with files of past issues of the Sutton News, the Sutton Register and The Clay County News.

This work is simple enough, but very labor intensive. If you would like more information about this project, or would like to help, please contact Jerry Johnson at or 773-0222.

This article first appeared in the October, 2010 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For more information about this magazine please contact Jarod Griess at or at Sutton Life Magazine, 510 West Cedar Street, Sutton, NE 68979 or at 402-984-4203.

Who Was Woodruff?

Activity in one of the store buildings on the west side of the north end of Sutton prompted the question, “Who was Woodruff?” And why is his name on that building?
The Woodruff legacy etched in stone in downtown Sutton

The name Woodruff appears high up on the face of the building along with the date “1891.” Several of the old and historic buildings on the west side of both ends of town are marked with the names: Clark, Carney, and M. T. Burke on the north end and Merrill, Griess, Hoerger, Honey and R. G. Brown on the south end. We’ve mentioned some of these fellows in the past but Woodruff was an unfamiliar name and needing research.

Turns out the fellow was once mayor. E. W. Woodruff is listed in George Burr and O. O. Buck’s History of Hamilton and Clay Counties as the second ward councilman in 1888, 1889 and 1890 and mayor in 1891, the same year as appears on the building. William Griess and J. C. Merrill succeeded him as mayor, both fellows immortalized on west side buildings. Let’s guess that E. W. Woodruff is who the building was named after. But can we be sure.

Edward W. Woodruff is listed on the county land records for downtown lots in Block 23 of Sutton Original Town in 1890, 1905 and 1908. That certainly is good supporting evidence for our hypothesis.

E. W. Woodruff appeared in Sutton records in the 1880 census at age 21 and as boarder at the hotel run by J. T. Mollyneaux, probably the Oakland Hotel although Mr. Mollyneaux also owned and operated the Occidental for a time. Woodruff listed his place of birth as Vermont. That census listed his father as being born in Connecticut and his mother in Rhode Island.

Edward Woodruff next shows up in the 1885 state census where he had mysteriously aged nine years in the prior five listing his age as 30. Perhaps he was hiding his youth from his 31-year old wife Emma. They had a two year old girl, Lena M. He listed his occupation as “Loans Money” and had decided that he had been born in Illinois and both parents were born in Massachusetts.

If we were working with a larger community, we would be suspicious that the E. W. Woodruff of 1880 was not the same man as Edward Woodruff in 1885 due to the age and birthplace discrepancies. But such discrepancies really are common in these records and in small town Sutton our confidence approaches certitude. Sometimes people thought they had a reason to hide some detail in their past.

Emma Catherine Barnhart and Edward William Woodruff were married in 1881 in Sutton. Emma Barnhart was the daughter of Jacob and Mary Barnhart. Jacob Barnhart listed his occupation as “butchering” in the 1880 census. The Barnhart family was from Pennsylvania. Emma was 25 in 1880 and had a three year old brother, Harry, born in Pennsylvania indicating the Barnhart’s came to Sutton between 1877 and 1880.

Five year old Fred Woodruff was buried in the Sutton cemetery in 1890. He could be Edward and Emma’s son and would have been born after the 1885 census taker visited.

The 1910 Census found Edward W. Woodruff, age 55 in Washington, D.C. listing his occupation as “Clerk” in the Public Debt Treasury. He still listed his birthplace as Illinois and parents as Massachusetts. Emma C., age 55 and Lena M., age 27 were still living with him.

An item in a 1911 Sutton Register newspaper tells us that Edward Woodruff had written to F. M. Brown changing his mailing address for the Register to Portland, Oregon.

In 1920 Edward W. Woodruff, age 65 was retired and living in Pasadena, California with his wife Emma and daughter Lena, single, age 37 and a stenographer at a school. Edward was still in Pasadena in 1930, the last census that has been made public. Lena was then a stenographer at City Hall.

There was a second Woodruff in Sutton early on. John Woodruff appears in the 1900 census at age 72, a widower, born January, 1828 in Illinois. John Woodruff listed his occupation as “Capitalist.” He may have been Edward Woodruff’s father or uncle or other relative. There are some John/Edward father/son pairs in earlier Illinois census records but the ages don’t match.

It seems almost certain the Mayor Edward W. Woodruff is the namesake of the “Woodruff Building” on the north end of Sutton.

Our heritage represented in these old, almost stately, buildings is a priceless record of the early days and growth of the town. For the most part, these buildings are solid and in reasonably good condition. We owe it to ourselves, kids and grandkids to see that they continue to cast afternoon shadows across Saunders Avenue.

A few citizens and members of the Sutton Historical Society are discussing innovative ways to preserve and protect these treasures. One big project is probably beyond our capabilities, but a series of small projects could do a lot. A proposed start is to replace the missing “pinnacles” on the tops of several of these buildings. Our pinnacles are a real feature of architecture dating back to medieval times.

Many nearby towns and others throughout the country are well ahead of us in preserving their unique architecture. Any effort would be a cooperative effort between owners, the city, civic organizations and citizens. Do you have any ideas? Call Jerry Johnson at 773-0222 and let’s talk.

 This article first appeared in the June, 2011 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about the magazine contact Jarod Griess at 510 West Cedar Street, Sutton, NE 68979 or at 402-984-4203 or