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.


Jerry said...

The picture of downtown Sutton with the millinery shop comes from the display on the south wall of Astra Bank discovered just today (the 10th). Had not noticed it before - never had reason to either.

Jerry said...

There was a penciled date of 1920 on the picture of the millinery shop which would have been when they were back on the farm near Grafton. The Phelps Sisters had another millinery shop that we suspected occupied the same location. It's certain the Phelps shop was there in the late '20's but I do not know when it started. Conceivably, they bought the C&N business.