Sunday, December 30, 2012

Interpreting Our History from Stuff & Memories

Our historical society strives to tell the story of the history of our community through several channels.

We have artifacts on display at the museum which one generation remembers, another generation has heard of but are completely new to yet another generation.

The rural school house on North Way Avenue tells its story to anyone with even a hint of an imagination. Visitors standing in the school house can picture what it must have been like to attend such a school sitting alone on a country road in the middle of winter, a small group of kids with one adult often not much older than the oldest students.

We have a growing inventory of old photos from the early days of the town that together tell a story of wooden frame store fronts beside muddy streets with telephone and power poles and lines. We have photos of families and individuals, some identified, many not.

Each of these resources, artifacts, old buildings and photos provide a piece of the story of our town’s past. It is up to us to assemble those pieces to solve the puzzle of what our town was like seventy-five years ago or one hundred years ago or at its very beginning over 140 years back.

Central Block in downtown Sutton, South end, West side, in 1908. This photo appeared in Don Russell's "Sutton Nebraska - 125 Years - A Pictorial History" among other places. Russell attributed the photo to Roger Bauer and Artis Lemkau.
Those puzzle pieces can be used to build a variety of images and impressions of what life must have been like for the early residents of Sutton. Join me in imagining my great-grandmother Anna Klintberg visiting downtown Sutton stores with two or three of her six children in tow as she crossed the dusty or muddy streets shopping for clothes for the kids or more likely material to sew, basic grocery items – coffee, sugar, produce and other things not grown at home or maybe something for herself. Now add a piece of information from the 1900 and 1910 censuses where we learn that Anna never learned English well enough to tell the census taker she spoke the language. Did she shop in Sutton just two miles from her farm home or did she prefer to go to Saronville further away but where her friends and relatives spoke Swedish and definitely where she attended church services conducted in her native tongue as long as she lived?

See how a very few pieces of the puzzle of Anna’s life come together to give us insights into her life.

Old newspapers have become my favorite resource for deciphering the puzzle of life in Sutton’s early days. These old newspapers were written to report the happenings of the day to an audience of contemporary readers who shared the context of living at the time. Articles were written with the valid assumption that readers already knew the background and context of the story and those things did not have to be repeated in the story. So as we read those stories today we can be sure that we are missing things. You can probably see the same characteristic in articles in this week’s newspaper if you imagine yourself 100 years from now reading an old yellowed paper (or in another medium) and recognize that you wouldn’t catch important assumptions.

Our old Sutton newspapers, the Sutton Register and the Sutton News, are great resources for looking into Sutton’s past. The history of the comings and goings of businesses is documented well but generally identify the locations with the name of a building, a name that no longer is used – context again. As we continue studying these old newspapers, the more we begin to build our own version of the necessary context to make better sense of each article.

A persuasive impression from these early newspapers is that early Sutton residents led an intensive social life. Local clubs, lodges and organizations had reporters who filled many column-inches of newsprint each week telling about their respective organizations, and there were a lot of them.

Each church seems to have had organizations for men and women and a few for children. Ladies Aid and church circles played a big social role. The Masons, Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, Knights of Columbus, AOUW (Ancient Order of United Workmen) and other lodges operated in early Sutton, some lasting into recent times. The Masonic Temple building that hosts City Hall was built just fifty years ago.

The Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) had an active post in Sutton with at least 40 members into the twentieth century. The American Legion and the Auxiliary has a long history in town and continues today.

There were clubs for specific activities such as the Bicycle Club, Walking Club, numerous card clubs, Sutton Junior Stamp Club and the Sutton Girls Stamp Club. (Wally and Fritz Bender were stampers.)

My father remembered his days in DeMolay and regretted that that organization had folded before I came along.

Clubs were known by their initials. The O. E. S. had a chapter in Sutton, No. 54 as well as the P. E. O. Sisterhood, the J. U. T. and S. O. S. The W. C. T. U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) fought their battle against Demon Rum in Sutton, throughout the county, state and nation.

The DAR (Butler-Johnson Chapter) was active in Sutton. There was a Fortnightly Club, Women’s Home Missionary Society, Red Cross, Farmers Union and something called W. H. M. S.
I once ran across an article about the forming of the Clay County Dentists Association. Belonging to a club was a popular thing to do, be it a professional club, social, special interest or whatever. And as you’d expect, people joined multiple clubs.
The Sutton Bicycle Club in 1894. This photo was attributed to C. V. Hines in the book, "Sutton Nebraska - 125 Years - A Pictorial History" published by Don Russell and the Clay County News in 1977.

My nominee for the champion Sutton Clubber is Mayme (Weiden) Clark whose name appears in articles about many clubs. She was not only a member but was often an officer, the reporter or just had her name pop up a lot.

O. K., so there were lots of clubs in Sutton over the years. What can we infer from that piece of information?

It’s clear that Sutton folks from the early days of the 1880’s into the ‘30’s were social creatures. These clubs and organizations were a form of entertainment in the pre-TV days. But there was probably more to it than that. We can’t help but imagine that members of these clubs developed a large network of very close friends. They were very willing and eager to spend a significant amount of time engaged in a particular activity with the same circle of friends month in and month out.

Does knowing such information help you to understand more about the people in our past? Of course it does.

Does the process of analyzing these tidbits of information to arrive at such a conclusion sound interesting? I think it does.

This article first appeared in the September, 2012 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about this small-town publication contact contact or write to Mustang, Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979 - 402984-4203.

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