Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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

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