Friday, October 28, 2011

Park flooding - once a common thing.

Sutton Park entrance. Notice how close the water came to the eaves of the pavilion. This was before the city did some work on the School Creek channel.
Do you remember when this used to happen a lot? Not sure when this was taken. Any guesses?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Herbert Johnson - Sutton's Political Cartoonist


One of the magazine covers from Sutton's own, Herbert Johnson

Didja know that Sutton produced a national known political cartoonist?

Herbert Johnson was born in Sutton in 1878 and attended the University of Nebraska. Not sure where he went to high school - doesn't appear to have been here.

Don't believe me? Check out these two references. A little Googling will turn up some of his work.

Herbert Johnson - Sutton kid to the Big Time in Philadelphia 
He worked as a clerk, a stenographer and a bookkeeper before getting his big gig as a cartoonist for the Saturday Evening Post and its sister publication, The Country Gentleman.

Johnson fit in well politically with the adamantly right-wing Post offering works in support of presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. He was an unyielding critic of FDR and the New Deal.

Herbert Johnson died in Philadelphia in 1946 at the age of 68, barely outliving the object of his ire.

Another of Sutton's lost, but not (now, anyhow) forgotten native sons.

by Jerry Johnson

Wolfe School Museum - Clay County District #55

by Jerry Johnson

The Sutton Historical Society's rural school museum came from Lone Tree Township in Clay County, Nebraska about four miles southwest of Clay Center and two miles north of Fairfield. The school house was the Wolfe School in District #55 and operated until the 1962-1963 school year; Dorothy Shaw was the last teacher in the Wolfe school when there were six students.
The Wolfe School from the door looking toward the front of the room.

The school came to us complete with piano, stove, books and teacher and student desks. The blackboard extends across the front wall and there is the classic elevated stage at the front of the room.

The ceiling was dropped sometime in the history of the building leaving a four or five foot tall space between the new and old levels.

We have added one school desk to the arrangement of the school. This desk of a distinctive design has been in the basement of a house in Sutton for many years. It came from a rural school about five miles north of Sutton, District #8, one of the two schools in School Creek Township that were designated as "Nuss Schools," the other being District #16, my own school through the fifth grade.

The desk from the original District #8 in northeast Clay County.
District #8 was in the middle of a large tract of land that was settled by the Germans from Russia who found a home in the Sutton area after 1873. They built their first school furnishing it with desks of this design, a design that they were familiar with in Russia, and probably earlier in Germany.

When they built their second school they furnished that school with desks of the much more common design for American schools, the design of the rest of the desks in the room and for most of us.

We had a visit by a graduate student from the University of Freiberg in Germany in the spring of 2011. Emily Jordaning is originally from Fall City, Nebraska and a graduate of Doane College in Crete. Her graduate thesis was on German immigrants to Nebraska and Sutton became a center for her research. She told us that this desk design was a common school desk arrangement in Europe, a piece of information that makes this treasure even more interesting and appropriate.

The Wolfe School has two rooms in the corners beside the front door. Those were the old "utility" rooms used as coat closets, storage and for drinking water, etc. Rural schools did not have indoor plumbing. Two outhouses "out back" served for toilet facilities. We had an outhouse behind our school museum but the building suffered considerable damage when we used it in a parade - it was not in good shape anyhow. We are in the market for one, or two, outhouses to complete our museum and add a bit of authenticity. Early rural school houses also often had a barn where the kids and teachers could keep their horses during the day, especially harsh winter days on the Nebraska prairies. Yes, youngsters often rode horseback to school or maybe more commonly, had a small buggy that could carry several kids from a family or neighboring families.

We have desks of a variety of sizes and designs including these "double-wides."
There were at at least 67 rural schools in Clay County, more earlier before the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot took a big bite out of the western part of the county. A typical school district was from seven to nine square miles putting about four or five schools in each of the six mile by six mile townships. The arrangement meant that few children were more than two miles from a school.

The districts were chartered as state corporations. The farmers in each district organized themselves electing three board members who were charged with the affairs of the school. The school board recruited and hired teachers and were responsible for the official and proper conduct of a state corporation. The board was furnished with templates and instructions for filing the necessary reports and documentation for their corporation. Historians have found that the reports were typically submitted in compliance, no strict compliance with the templates and guidelines furnished. Those families placed a high value on the education of their children though late spring and early fall field work sometimes took priority for the older boys.

The school board also had responsibility for fuel, generally coal and other maintenance functions. The teacher had responsibilities beyond the book-learning. She (generally "she") had to get to school early and get the fire going in the winter to warm up the building before the kids arrived. Teachers often maintained flower gardens and took pride in the appearance of their charge.

Teacher training was called "Normal Training" either in the local high school or in a separate school specifically for teacher training. Normal training often occurred in lieu of the upper classes of high school such that teachers were often working not much past their 16th birthday.

Imagine a sixteen year old girl running her own school in all kinds of weather a half a mile, or more from the nearest farm house. Imagine her level of responsibility as storm clouds built up in January threatening a snow storm, maybe a major blizzard. Imagine that situation before weather forecasts, radios, telephones or motorized transportation. Imagine the level of trust and confidence farm families put into the judgment and performance of their teachers, often teenagers or very young adults.

The academic guidance for a county's wide spread educational system came under the County Superintendent. The County Super directed and looked after the course work and the teaching performance of all of the county's teachers. Clay County had 67 or more schools over the period of rural education. The superintendent made periodic visits to the schools. It seems unlikely that they could visit more than four or five schools in a full day plus there certainly would have been work in the office. It'seems unlikely that a school received more than three or four visits in a school year, if that.

A visit from the county superintendent was a big deal at the school. This was a performance evaluation for the teacher. As a young fellow in a country school, I recall that we picked up onthe teacher's apprehension and sense of urgency about the visit. The superintendent, in our case, Mrs. Rippeteau watched as the teacher conducted classes. She inspected the building and the grounds. Our county superintendent had a weekly column in each of the county papers. Her assessment of the school appearance and the teacher's performance made the papers for all to see. Those reports make fascinating reading. Good marks weren't gimmies.

The rural school system was an important part of the settling of the Great Plains. One of the histories of the rural system points out that it was largely a feature of the British colonies. The idea that kids in even the most remotest settled areas were entitled to a free education led to rural schools in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to a greater extent than elsewhere.

The Sutton Museums are open on Sunday's from 2 - 5 pm or by appointment by calling 402-773-0222 or at We like to show off our Wolfe School. Stop and see us. There is a diminishing number of us who remember, first hand, what country schools, the rural schools were really like. We enjoy hearing your stories too.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nellie Stevens: Pioneer & Fictional Heroine

Hawaii has James Michener; Red Cloud, Nebraska has Willa Cather and Grafton, Nebraska has Alida Curtiss.

Alida Curtiss wrote “Mother Wanted a Son – A Prairie Tale” in 1964. In her historical novel, Captain Xerxes Stevens brought his wife Elisabeth and young daughter Nellie to a homestead near Grafton not long after the Civil War. Nellie’s little brother was born there, the son Mother wanted, but the story is Nellie’s.

The author tells us that all the characters in her book are fictional except Xerxes, Elisabeth and Nellie plus Ora Keepers who we meet later in the book. The actual Stevens homestead was about two or three miles southwest of town and Nellie really did grow up to become the school teacher.

Ora Keepers (1881–1905) and Nellie Stevens (1866-1926)
Xerxes died before establishing the farm and Elisabeth moved her family to town where she became the postmistress – we’re in the novel now, pay attention.

Nellie’s finds a male role model when her father’s war buddy when Rev. Hiram Curtiss comes to Grafton with his wife Hannah and brood of little Curtiss’s including Horace, a boy about Nellie’s age. That’s the fiction of the novel; however, there was a real Rev. Hiram Curtiss, a Methodist preacher in Grafton and in Sutton about that time with a son named Horrice though the real Hiram’s wife was Fanny. The real Curtiss family also included a daughter seventeen years younger than Nellie named Alida – the author of the novel. Are you paying attention?

Alida Curtiss chose Nellie Stevens as her protagonist and through her, we learn about the Stevens homestead, living in Grafton and growing up on the frontier. The characters appear real - they were real and the relationships are believable. This was the first and only novel by Alida Curtiss so don’t expect fine literature. But for an enjoyable picture of the early days of our area, this book fits the bill quite well.

Fictional Nellie’s mother sent her to Vermont to school and she returned to become the Grafton school teacher, just as the real Nellie did. Ora Keepers, the fourth “official” real person in the book is one of Nellie’s students. Ora becomes an orphan and Nellie raised her. The fictional Ora is only a few years younger than Nellie. The real Ora was much younger, closer to the same age as Alida.

Spoiler Alert: The novel moves on with Nellie and Ora enjoying a life together, moving to Colorado to a “happily-ever-aftering” kind of conclusion.  The real life story of Nellie, Ora and Alida went in a different direction.
This photo, likely from about 1920 shows a millinery shop on the
extreme right at the location we'd determined to be where the
Curtiss & Stevens shop was locate. The next door "Lyric" was
the town theater still operating through the '60's.

Ora Keepers, the real one, died in 1905 at 23 of tuberculosis as her fictional mother had and maybe as her real mother did. The real Nellie Stevens and Alida Curtiss were the long-term companions. Alida gave Ora the gift of a long life in her book inserting Ora into her own place in Nellie Stevens’ story.

Rev. Stevens’s family moved to St. Joseph but by 1910 Alida was back in Sutton living with Nellie Stevens on Maple Street and partners with Nellie in a millinery shop about where Bill Bottorf’s office is now located. Then Nellie and Alida moved to Colorado where Nellie returned to teaching just as Nellie and Ora do in the novel.

The 1920 census lists a Grafton household of Nellie Stevens, age 56; Lida Curtis, 37 and Fannie B. Curtis, 70. Nellie’s business was “poultry and dairy farm.” Do not know how that happened. Was it on the Stevens homestead?

Ad in 1912 Sutton High School Annual for
Curtiss & Stevens Millinery Shop.
Nellie Stevens died in 1926. Alida Curtiss moved back to Rocky Ford, Colorado and probably lived much of her remaining life there. She left a few tracks in the public record, attending weddings of nieces and other relatives, returning from a European trip in October, 1947 and other Google hits.

Alida answered a surprise letter from Sutton, Nebraska on the day after Christmas in 1969. She remembered Eva Weikum who had worked for their next door neighbors, the Luebbens. Eva’s son Lawrence Trautman had tracked Alida down in Oxnard, California. Alida’s sister Victoria Schell was helping with the letter – Alida had suffered a stroke – and she was remembering Sutton, sixty years earlier.    

Alida Curtiss died in Ventura, California on May 11, 1972. Nellie Stevens is buried next to her parents in the Grafton Cemetery. Ora Keepers’ parents are not far away and records show that young Ora Keepers should also be in the Grafton Cemetery. I did not see a marker.

Alida Curtiss (1883-1972) with Nellie (1866-1926), her friend and main character in her novel.
I thank Lawrence Trautman for bringing this story to my attention and lending Alida’s book to me. The novel tells a good story about Nellie and Ora but the real story of Nellie and Alida could have been a better book with more drama, tragedy and pathos.

The Sutton museum has a copy of “Mother Wanted a Son – A Prairie Tale” and I ordered a copy from that is now in the Sutton Library. I may need another copy for my own library.

Thanks to Diana Thompson and Cherie Baudrand, genealogists of the Stevens and Curtiss families on for the photos of Nellie, Alida and Ora.
by Jerry Johnson and the Sutton Historical Society
 This article appeared first in September, 2011 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about this local Sutton publication, please contact Jarod Griess at or at 402-984-4203 or at 501 West Cedar St., Sutton, NE 68979.
Grave of Nellie Stevens in the Grafton Cemetery

Stevens Family plot: Xerxes and Elizabeth (Harvey) Stevens on the left;
Nellie Stevens on the right - Grafton Cemetery.

Sutton in the Census

From the U. S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” That is the only specific tasking the founders gave us and it is time for the Twenty-Third Census of the United States.

The purpose of the census is to provide population statistics to adjust the boundaries of Congressional districts but data collection has grown as has the usefulness of the information.

Sutton’s first appeared in the 1880 census having just missed the prior edition. Enumerator James E. Marsh found 1631 people in Sutton Township. Mr. Jacob Steinmetz counted noses in School Creek Township.

Each census has asked a different set of questions beginning with early years when little more than the name of the head of the household and the number of persons was asked. By the beginning of the twentieth century the census bureau was collecting a wealth of information including age, place of birth, immigration date, number of years married, parents’ birthplace, literacy, occupation, etc. Recent forms have shrunk. The 2010 form has only 10 questions asking for name, sex, age, date of birth, racial and home ownership information.

Analysts use census data to learn how the country has grown and developed but no group has benefited from this resource more than genealogists. Great-grandparents seem to come to life as you see their family listed in the census and imagine the interview with the local enumerator. There are surprises lurking in these records: children who died young and were not remembered, in-laws who lived in the house, servants, boarders and gaps – people who should be there but aren’t.

We can’t fully trust everything found in the census. My great-grandparent’s family appears on the first page of the 1880 School Creek census where we’re led to believe that Anna Johnson gave birth to twins in Sweden at the age of 14. Possible, but her achievement probably would have been part of our family folklore. Family records indicate Anna was born in 1841 and would have been 38 years old when she met with the census taker, not 28 as he recorded. Curiously, he also listed his own wife as being 28 years old that year with 18 and 13 year old daughters. He might have had trouble with arithmetic, or maybe he was married twice – the census provides clues, not always complete answers.

Mr. Steinmetz illustrated another point in his own entry. He tried to record his wife’s birthplace and that of her parents but he re-wrote it a couple of times making a mess of the page. It appears he wrote “Prussia” and he clearly wrote “Hesser Castle”, probably meaning the Prussian province of Hesse-Kassel. Again, clues, not always complete answers.

I learned two things about my great-grandmother in the 1900 census. It reports that she had seven children but only six were living. My grandfather must have had a brother or sister who likely died in Sweden before the family emigrated. Also, the enumerator recorded that Anna could read and write, but did not speak English. Quite a number of older people, especially women were getting along just fine in their native language according to the 1900 and 1910 census.

Did you notice that I skipped over the 1890 census? If you research census records, you will too. That census was lost in a fire. So our Sutton research begins in 1880, then skips twenty whole years to the 1900 records followed by 1910, 1920 and you are finished at 1930, for now. Census records are “closed” for 72 years as a privacy consideration. The 1940 census will become public in just a couple more years. I am anticipating that one as my father was the School Creek enumerator starting the task on April 2nd and finishing on April 17th. It will be in his handwriting – and a good hand it was. That was not always the case.

Just a few years ago census records were only available on microfilm at Mormon libraries at temples and in the largest stakes. Many of us spent hours and hours in darkened rooms at the library just west of Temple Square in Salt Lake City poring over film after film. Now, it is almost too easy. Census records are online and indexed. What used to take multiple sessions can be done in minutes. The genealogy web site is a robust and easily accessible repository. There is a modest subscription fee, but when compared to traveling to spend hours or days in a library, it’s a fair price.

This article appeared in the January, 2010 Sutton Life Magazine. Information about the magazine is available at or Mustang, Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.

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?”
The Woodruff nameplate - edward Woodruff's lasting legacy in 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.

Brown's Automatic Base Ball Score Keeper - Clay Center invention

This photo is from the May 12, 1911 edition of the Clay County Patriot newspaper. The device was invented and patented by L. A. Brown of Clay Center that had just gone on the market. He called it Brown’s Automatic Base Ball Score Keeper. Arrows on the front side tracked balls and strikes with provisions to track innings, outs and scores. The line-ups were written on the back and the current batter tracked in movable windows. A player's runs, hits, outs, assists and errors were also tallied on the backside.

Monday, October 17, 2011

100 Year Flashback

This item appeared in the October 20, 1911 issue of the Sutton News:
Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Gray of this city celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary on Thursday last, Oct. 19th, the entire family being present. About ten people were seated for a six o'clock dinner after which they all repaired to the parlor where instrumental music was interspersed with songs, etc. The rooms were all elaborately decorated with a profusion of vines and flowers. It has been some time since the family were all together.
I read the piece in an image of that paper while writing my weekly column for the Clay County News while sitting at the Gray's table on one of the Gray's chairs in that very dining room of their house mentioned in the article. Kind of a cool moment. Dorothy Rabbe can confirm the story.

I often work on the column while baby-sitting the museum during our Sunday open hours. The dining room set was returned to the Gray house by a great, granddaughter in Texas representing the family in their wish to see the set back in its original home.
Very little effort needed to look up from the 100 year old news article and imagine the scene at this table in this room that Thursday evening exactly a century ago. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sidewalk Repair & Commemorative Brick Project is Underway

The broken sidewalk from the Historic House to the street is gone. Thanks to the City of Sutton for making quick work of that sidewalk and the concrete immediately in front of the house. Next, the new sidewalk will be poured and space made for display of the commemorative bricks on both sides of the new walkway.

Repair of the sidewalk across the property to the next door museum will have to wait until next year pending working it into our budget.

You are welcome to stop by, inspect and kibitz at your leisure.

New Sidewalk and Handicap Access Ramp at the School House

Our new access ramp to the Wolfe Rural School Museum is complete. We replaced our four-year old temporary steps with a four-foot wide ramp with robust railings providing handicap access and a new look. The sidewalk and ramp allows easy access from Way Street right into the front door of the school.

Thanks to our low-bid contractors, Todd Rath and Kenny Chandler for a job well-done.