Friday, February 28, 2014

Sutton's Surviving World War I Vets in 1988

by Jerry Johnson and the Sutton Historical Society

The Clay County News recognized the county’s surviving veterans of World War I in the issue of November 10, 1988. Sixteen of the fellows remained, five from Sutton, Jack Helzer, Harry Hunnell, Albert Krause, Carl “Jack” Nolde and William Peter.

World War I began on July 28, 1914 and lasted until November 11, 1918. It was not called by that name at the time – it was the “war to end all wars” as President Wilson called it though H. G. Wells invented the term. “The World War” was the common term, after all, it was supposed to be the only one, a numeric designation wouldn’t have made sense.

This monument in the Sutton Cemetery is in honor of World War I veterans and was donated by Carl H. (Jack) Nolde
The first use of “world war” was in German as early as 1904 in an anti-British novel, “Der WeltKrieg,” meaning “world war.”  The point was that a large enough conflict involving multiple nations over a large territory, possibly multiple continents deserved special recognition.

So our Clay County veterans of 1917-1918 were a part of something new, big and different and they should be remembered for that.

The war was triggered in July, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A network of treaties and agreements were invoked and soon every European nation was either mad at, or aligned with everyone else. It’s a good, if complicated story and instructive in human nature.

Americans were not at all interested in playing a role and worked hard to stay neutral. But German submarine attacks on shipping and the discovery of the Zimmerman telegram which exposed a German plot to bring Mexico into the war with promises of the return of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona (another cool story) led Congress to declare war on April 6, 1917.

The U.S. had a small military capability and needed to fix that quickly. The Selective Service Act passed in May and on June 5, 1917 the first WWI draft registration was held, all on one day to find all men between the ages of 21 and 31.

A second registration was held on June 5 and August 24, 1918 to pick up new 21 year olds. The third registration on September 18, 1918 caught everyone from 18 to 45.

Twenty-four million men, about 25% of the total population were recorded in those records which are now on the “must-have” checklist for genealogists. Height, build, color of eyes and hair, residence and other information appear on those cards. It is often the only place a guy owned-up to his middle name.

Jack Helzer
John “Jack” Helzer (Aug 7, 1900-Feb. 24, 1992) was a young soldier having lied about his age being just 16 when he enlisted in Omaha. His father retrieved him three weeks later and he enlisted again when he became of age. He “got stuck in the Hawaiian Islands” and served two years and 11 months. He later became one of the youngest WWI vets to go to the Veterans Hospital for surgery. He was also the youngest of these vets in the article at age 90 in 1988.

Harry Hunnell
Harry Hunnell was homesteading near Sheridan, Wyoming when he was called up and spent 13 months in Europe attaining the rank of sergeant. Part of his duty was in the Army of Occupation. Hunnell lived in Sutton several years and was living in Henderson at the time of the article.

Albert Krause
Albert Krause enlisted in 1917 and was one of nearly 50,000 recruits to train at Camp Funston on Fort Riley near Manhattan, Kansas. He was in France from May to July in 1918 and in Germany on Armistice Day in November. He served in the Army of Occupation and was discharged in July, 1919. Albert Krause was the oldest of these 16 Clay County vets in 1988 at the age of 98 ½.

Jack Nolde
Carl H. “Jack” Nolde typed his way through the war. He was in the first group of 10 to be drafted in Sutton, took the train Lincoln, to Junction City, Kansas and then to Camp Funston. On the second day at Funston he was assigned to duty as a typist and never participated in drills. He also did typewriter repair and served for 29 months, much of it at Plattsburg Barracks in New York.

William Peter
William Peter was a Corporal in the 163rd Depot Brigade at Camp Dodge, Iowa. He was discharged December 8, 1918 and was living at the Sutton Home in 1988.

An early donation to the Sutton Historical Society was booklet titled the “Complete List of Clay County Men Registered for Military Draft listing the 1,237 from that first registration of June 5, 1917. Names are sequenced by “Order No.” identified as the order the names came in a drawing suggesting this was the order called for duty.

Number One in Clay County was Frank M. Korgan of Inland. He was followed by Lawrence E. Nelson of Verona, Geo. H. Harms of Glenville (sic), Cecil Jackson of Edgar, etc. Arthur Hornbacker, No. 11, John Wolf, No. 13, Phillip Roemmich, No. 16 and Arthur Schwarz, No. 17 led the Sutton registrants.

The booklet states that the First Draft had 306 men “examined” with 113 drafted meeting the criteria for service. If I’m interpreting the information properly, Reinhold Heinz of Sutton was Order No. 306 just making the list for the first draft.

By the time U.S. forces were significantly engaged in WWI there was just over one year left of hostilities. A relatively small percentage saw combat as is true in most conflicts but especially true in this one. One of our family folklore stories is of an uncle called to active duty who was with a bunch of recruits on the train platform in Edgar on November 18, 1918 as word came of the armistice. After a period of confusion, someone, the story goes, probably without actual authority to do so told the recruits to go back home and wait for further instructions. It was a good call as their orders were later cancelled.

The other Clay County WWI veterans and their home towns in the  1988 article were: Jack Stratton, Fairfield; Ward Haylett, Clay Center; Earl Buchtel, Clay Center; Emil Skalka, Spring Ranch; Merle Shafer, Edgar; Rolland Kreutz, Harvard; Robert Smith, rural Lone Tree; George Harms, Fairfield; Charlie Hazelton, Clay Center; Louis Goldenstein, Glenvil and Ervin Spencer, Clay Center.

Our WWI veterans enjoyed continued camaraderie as members of the Clay County World War I Barracks engaging in civic activities, holding business meetings and gathering for dinner monthly. Jack Stratton was the last Quartermaster of the Barracks who in April, 1984 distributed a letter to all members stating the obvious that they were all slowing down, eye sights were failing and enjoyment was becoming a chore. A few responded agreeing to disband and the final treasury of $21.73 was donated to the Care Campaign for Africa.

There are two special memorials in the Sutton Cemetery commemorating World War vets. Pearl J. (Cassell) Bender, wife of Major John R. Bender dedicated the cemetery flag pole to The Unknown Soldier in 1933 in memory of Major Bender. He is likely better known for athletic endeavors (star halfback at the University of Nebraska) and coaching success at St. Louis University, Kansas State, Tennessee, Houston and Washington State.

Jack Nolde purchased a special monument for the cemetery in 1940 to remember the comrades. That monument stands next to the Benders’ flagpole.

These gentlemen had lost a long list of comrades in the years preceding 1988. The Sutton Historical Society has a continuing, intermittent project to remember and document the stories of local veterans of each of the nation’s wars. Any help in researching, writing or organizing such information is always appreciated. Contact Jerry Johnson at 773-0222 to join us if you think this is worthwhile.

This article first appeared in the December, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess for more information about the publication at 402-984-4203 or

Fifty Years ago - November 22, 1963

Few historical events have the impact that generates the comment, “I remember where I was when I heard that.”

Those of us growing up in the ‘50’s remember people recalling where they were and what they were doing when the heard about the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on the Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941. The assassination of President Kennedy on Friday, November 22, 1963, fifty years ago had such an impact, that and maybe 9/11, little else.


White House portrait of the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy
I was in an English literature class at the University that day in 1963 as hallway buzz began to ramp up over the tinny sound of transistor radios. The young prof declared that he’d always wanted to be known as the one who kept lecturing as the bombs dropped.

The Clay County News was a Thursday paper in 1963 so mention of the assassination had to wait nearly a full week, well after other news sources had examined thousands of details. The local slant in the November 28th issue was the first person account of H. C. King, the elder partner in the paper’s publishing family.

The “Old Man” and his wife had been visiting their daughter and her husband at their home in the north Dallas suburb of Richardson and had chosen not to join the crowds along the motorcade route. They learned the news just like the rest of us. Television news coverage was a tiny fraction of what we have today and it took the three networks some time to go from “News Bulletin” to the continuous coverage of that weekend. Images of Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley are burned into millions of memories.

King’s son-in-law worked at Texas Instruments where employees were released for the afternoon, as were people across the country. H. C. described the near hysterical reaction of his daughter’s neighbor who kept repeating, “Dallas people will never be able to lift their heads again. We are to blame.”

Mr. King proceeded with his plans to return to Sutton on a midnight bus leaving his wife in Dallas for an extended visit. That Sunday morning back in Sutton, H. C. and his son Roy, publisher of the local paper joined the rest of the country to watch a Dallas nightclub owner murder JFK’s assassin live on TV. Dallas authorities were transferring Lee Harvey Oswald from the basement of the city jail to the county court house through a crowd of reporters and, as it turns out, anyone else who happened to wander down the auto ramp to the basement. I may remember that, “What the #%!@ is going on” feeling even more than the impact of the assassination.

Jack Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States elected in 1960 at the age of 43. He struck a note with, and for younger citizens represented by the line, “…the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…” Kennedy’s predecessor President Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915 two years before Jack Kennedy was born.

Kennedy’s 1960 campaign tapped into the energy of high school and college students most of whom were not old enough to vote – the 26th amendment lowering the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 was not effective until 1971.

Shortly after taking office Kennedy found an old executive order by Theodore Roosevelt challenging Marine officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours. He repeated that challenge to the White House staff. They took it up including his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy who completed the walk in his dress shoes.

Somehow, the public thought the challenge extended to them and 50-mile hikes broke out all over the country including the popular Lincoln to Nebraska City route on Highway 2.

Presidential assassins had struck three times before 1963. Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. on Good Friday in 1865 by the Confederate sympathizer and actor John Wilkes Booth. James Garfield was shot just four months after taking office in 1881 by Charles Guiteau who was probably deranged and was upset about being passed over for appointment as ambassador to France. Garfield survived for 11 weeks.

William McKinley was shot at close range by Leon Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist and one-time Scrabble champion (sorry, I made that part up) while attending Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

There is a long list of failed presidential assassination attempts from the house painter who tried to shoot Andrew Jackson when both of his pistols misfired and Jackson beat him severely with his cane to at least six threats on President Obama including two ricin poisoning threats.

JFK’s assassination takes the prize for generating conspiracy theories. People find it hard, if not impossible to believe that one person operating alone could have such a massive impact on the nation and the world, especially a squirrely little reprobate like Lee Harvey Oswald, or as someone in the Warren Commission said, a “pip squeak.”

It seemed like a bad movie from the 1930's. Nightclub owner
Jack Ruby shoots assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement
of the Dallas Police Station on live TV, Sunday, November
24, 1963.
A major cottage industry is still alive 50 years later contesting every official explanation of the assassination. My invitation to doubters that Oswald pulled this off as the record describes is to offer them my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s 1500 page, small-font tome, “Reclaiming History.” That’s 1500 pages of text; the Endnotes and Source Notes come on an enclosed CD. Bugliosi and his staff worked until 2007 tracking down every far-fetched idea they could find on this topic before going to press.

News of the assassination disrupted activities throughout the nation. Businesses closed, public events were cancelled as the country essentially shut down. Pete Rozelle was the young commissioner of the National Football League. He consulted with several team owners, most of whom thought it would be appropriate to cancel the weekend games. Rozelle called Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary who felt JFK would have wanted the games played. They were. Rozelle often lamented that decision. The infant competing American Football League called off the weekend.

Nebraska was scheduled to play Oklahoma on Saturday the 23rd. There was strong sentiment to postpone that game but Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson lobbied for the game to be played. Wilkinson was the Director of Kennedy’s Physical Fitness Program and carried the day. Nebraska won that game 29-20 earning the right to represent the Big 8 in the Orange Bowl where they defeated Auburn.

University officials recognized that they had lost control and on Saturday declared that the Thanksgiving break had started; classes were cancelled for the whole week.

We can find two Sutton stories related to Kennedy’s death. The first concerns Neil Cronin, a Sutton native who died in Minnesota on October 15th. John Kennedy signed a proclamation recognizing Cronin’s military service and his legal career in Minneapolis. His widow received the proclamation the week of the assassination.

Sutton native Theodore Wenzlaff was one of the last cavalry officers in the army and during his service at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, Col. Wenzlaff filled a request from Arlington Cemetery for horses to be used in military funerals. Four of those horses were part of the cortege which carried President Kennedy’s body to Arlington. Both stories can be found at

Kennedy's funeral caisson, November 25, 1963. Three of the six horses pulling the caisson plus the escort rider's horse were acquired for Arlington Cemetery by Sutton native Col. Ted Wenzlaff. 
Two full generations of Americans have come along since President Kennedy’s death. For those who have never taken an interest in history, the Kennedy story might be a good place to discover just how interesting history can be. Jack Kennedy’s father had a controversial career in business and in public service. He had great ambitions for his children including grooming one to someday become president, but that was not supposed to be Jack. Oldest son Joseph Kennedy Jr. was the chosen one but Navy Lieutenant Joe Jr. was killed in July, 1944 during Operation Aphrodite, a Hollywood-worthy operation well worth checking out on Wikipedia.

After Joe Jr. was killed, second son Jack became Joe Sr.’s presidential son and after him it was Bobby’s turn. More Kennedy’s followed in public service. Joe Kennedy III, Robert’s grandson represents Massachusetts 4th District in Congress; Jack’s daughter Caroline was just named ambassador to Japan. The Kennedy family story continues.

This article deviated from our usual practice of telling Sutton related stories but no excuses, it is the 50th anniversary of that tragic day and it is on the minds of many of us. The search for the “truth” about Kennedy’s assassination has generated almost 1400 books and this kind of story does not go away quickly. After all, we still aren’t sure Richard III killed his nephews in the Tower of London in 1483.

This article first appeared in the November, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess for more information about the publication - 402-984-4203 or


The Royal Highlanders

by Jerry Johnson of the Sutton Historical Society 

A few weeks ago the folks at the Allegro Wolf Arts Center stumbled onto a small box containing several badges with a Scottish tartan design and labeled DUNDEE Castle No. 11, Royal Highlanders, Sutton, Nebr.

No one in that group or others we spoke with knew of the Highlanders. It was another Sutton story lost in the fog of time. Therefore, research happened driven mainly by the mystery of how a Scottish themed organization appeared in this German town.

There were a lot of common features to the towns that developed out here on the plains. One of the common characteristic of those early settlers was a propensity to form and belong to a variety of organizations, lodges, clubs, social groups, church groups and other forms of comradeship. Sutton was no exception.

The Royal Highlanders continued their Scottish theme with tartan badges
and cities of Scotland for chapter names.
There were the Masons and the Eastern Star; the International Order of Odd Fellows and the Rebekah; there was a bicycle club and a walking club. Women had sewing clubs, book clubs, P.E.O., W.C.T.U, and many more. The Ancient Order of United Workmen  was a labor union with chapters in most towns.

The Sutton Farmer’s Grain and Stock Co. was a mutually owned early elevator of a type that late spawned Co-op’s. The Grange and the Farm Bureau Federation organized farmers early on. There was a movement in the mid-20th century to organize hog producers by the National Farmers Organization (NFO) which still exists as well as well as the National Farmers Union (founded 1913 – you can check out their Facebook Page today.)
The Royal Highlanders was a group that was sometimes referred to as a “Society” or an “Association” a “Lodge” or perhaps most telling, a “Fraternal Insurance Order.”

The Royal Highlanders originated in Aurora as a fraternal insurance organization in August, 1896. The first lodge or “castle” was established by F. J. Sharp with the help of his brother, W. E. Sharp while the brothers were operating hardware stores in Aurora and Stockham under the name of F. J. Sharp and Bro. I think we can infer the relationship between those brothers from that description in the organization’s documentation. F. J’s official title was “Chief Secretary” and his brother was “Most Illustrious Protector.” I’m thinking F. J. was the alpha brother in the family.

The goal of the organization, stated in the language of the time was “to unite for mutual benefit and fraternal protection all white persons who are in good health, of exemplary character, and between the ages of 16 and 65.” I guess I wouldn’t have made that cut. I’m too old, have some health issues and though my character is not often in question “exemplary” could be a tall order if the In Crowd wished. I am “white” but let’s not dwell on that at this time. One piece of documentation included the phrase, “Sickness and Death in the Old South.” ‘Nuff said.

The Royal Highlanders built their three-story headquarters building in downtown Aurora modeled after Balmoral Castle in Scotland, an interesting choice. Balmoral Castle is still important in the United Kingdom as the summer residence of Queen Elizabeth II – good to know if you ever want a tour of Buckingham Palace in London available only in August and September during those Balmoral stays.

Unfortunately, according the folks at the Plainsman Museum, the old Highlanders headquarters building burned down a few years ago after being vacant for some time but never fear, there are postcards depicting the building available on ebay for about five dollars each.

The Royal Highlanders used Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland as
their model for the organization headquarters building in Aurora. The building
is no longer standing having burned down a few years ago.
Local chapters or “Castles” of the Royal Highlanders were named after Scottish cities and personalities and were assigned a number. Sutton’s Dundee Castle was No. 11 preceded only by castles 1 thru 10 at Aurora, Hampton, Marquette, Arborville, Phillips, Giltner, Harvard, Fairfield, Clay Center and Trumbull. It was mainly a Nebraska phenomenon but around Castle No. 145 began to penetrate neighboring states and by the time No. 281 was organized chapters extended as far away as Vancouver, Washington.

So who were these Sutton Highlanders? Fortunately, we have some clues. Dundee Castle receives prominent mention in a book titled, “Historical Sketches of the Royal Highlanders” available at Google Books. In fact, “Dundee’s Grand Banquet” in April, 1898 is the very first story told in a section of the book about notable meetings reported in the Highlander’s newsletter. The venue for the gathering was Castle Hall which had a banquet room as well as other rooms. Where do you suppose that was?

Officials from headquarters attended the grand banquet including F. J. Sharp and the Chief Treasurer, A. E. Siekman. Dundee’s Worthy Evangel was Rev. H. W. Stenson; Rev. Fowler addressed the group and Mrs. Fowler offered a toast to “Women in Fraternal Societies.” Other toasts came from Clansmen Hanke, Tower, Lewis and King. Mrs. F. L. Keller favored the group with a song. We’ve encountered several of these names elsewhere while digging in Sutton’s past.

Another entry in the historical sketches recounts the evening thirty-five Sutton Highlanders traveled to Fairmont to assist organizing the Loch Doon Castle No. 13 in that town. The Dundee drill team led a parade of Sutton and Fairmont highlanders into the street under the direction of Captain P. F. Nuss. Sutton Clansmen Loving was the main speaker making “an eloquent appeal for fraternal insurance in general and the Highlander plan in particular.” J. B. Scott of the Sutton chapter closed the program.

The third Sutton related story in the book describes the first Highlander picnic in Sutton on August 19th, 1897. There apparently were a number of castles represented in a full costume parade described as the “finest parade of any single Secret Society ever seen upon the streets of that city.”

There was an item in a local 1913 newspaper that mentioned that Fred Hanke of Sutton attended the district convention of the Royal Highlanders in Denver and was re-elected to the board of directors. The History of Hamilton and Clay Counties tells us that Mr. Hanke (better known in Sutton as “Hanke the Tailor”) was a member of the Executive Committee of the Royal Highlanders for some time.

So w
The Royal Highlanders had their own grave
markers that are found in Wyuka in Lincoln.
Are there any locally?
hat became of the Royal Highlanders?

The lodge and secret society aspects of the organization faded as actuaries took over and an insurance company emerged. The Executive Castle moved from Aurora to Lincoln in 1937 and became the Mutual Legal Reserve Life Insurance Company with a string of other names to follow over time.

Almost concurrent with the Royal Highlanders’ story Security Mutual Life was organized in Fremont and Woodmen Accident Association started in York. Mergers of those three organizations, name changes and re-organizations led to the Assurity Life Insurance Company at 2000 Q St. in Lincoln today. The details of the company history is summarized at

The Plainsman Museum in Aurora celebrates their hometown Highlanders in an exhibit about to be moved and updated. We donated a Dundee Castle No. 11 badge to include Sutton in the new exhibit.

The tartan on our Royal Highlanders badges remains a mystery. As a one-quarter Scotsman myself with ties to the Cassell sept of the Kennedy Clan and to the Maxwell Clan (a particularly ugly plaid) I made a serious attempt to figure out what clan tartan was used in the badge but to no avail.

Also I was disappointed to find no Kennoway Castle among the names of the almost 300 individual chapters, Kennoway being the home of my great grandparents and not that far actually from Dundee. Most disappointing. But discovering a Scottish themed organization in Sutton was pretty cool.

No, there's none more Scots
Than the Scots abroad
There's a place in our hearts
For the old sod.

(Chorus from a raucous Scottish song called, “The Old Sod” found on youtube if you’re brave enough. Another offering by your Sutton Historical Society to expand the cultural vocabulary of our community.)

Our research is almost finished for this project with only one remaining question, “Has anyone ever found bagpipes and a kilt in the attic?”

The Royal Highlanders distinctive costumes mimicked kilts. This woman's dress is on display at the Plainsman Museum
in Aurora sporting the Douglas Castle No. 1 badge of the founding Aurora chapter.
This article first appeared in the October, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4203 for further information about this magazine.

Sutton - Always a Farming Town, But Things have Changed.

by Jerry Johnson of The Sutton Historical Society

Farming has been the primary raison d’etre for the town of Sutton since its beginning. Luther French did not file for his homestead in 1870 with an eye toward founding a town; he was a farmer just looking for a place to grow wheat, six acres of it that first year in his dugout.

French and those Swedish farmers a few miles west along School Creek were attracted by miles and miles of available land suitable for farming. They were ready to recreate the farming models of their fathers back east and in the Old Country.

The first town’s people who came in 1871 saw School Creek and the prospect of the railroad as an opportunity to build a town to support farmers who were to come. The railroad station would become hub for shipping out grain and livestock and shipping in supplies and material, machinery and wholesale goods, all with good profit potential.

Agriculture has been the economic basis of this area for over 140 years and continues to be so today. But the nature of that agriculture has changed in several ways during that period.

We look back on the farming model for much of that period, from about the 1880’s through the 1950’s with some nostalgia, don’t we? The land around Sutton was filled with small farms with a neat arrangement of outbuildings around two-story, white frame houses full of kids. A quarter of a section was a common size for the typical farm. Many farm couples were skilled enough to raise a family on an eighty.

Historic farmsteads had a variety of functional outbuildings beyond the house: barn, hog houses, chicken houses, garage,
shops, cribs plus pens for livestock - homes to a menagerie.
Our mental picture of those typical farms of 60 or more years ago is much different from what we see around Sutton today. But exactly what has changed and why?

There are lots of easy answers to that question. Mechanization replaced horses with tractors, two-row equipment with four, six and “x-row” equipment enabling one fellow to do more and more leading to fewer and fewer farmers with more and more land. The population declined, farmsteads disappeared and fewer Sutton High grads kept the 68979 zip code, or even the 402 area code.

Nothing new about that observation but let’s look at it a bit more closely.


Luther French grew wheat along School Creek in 1870. Wheat was a popular crop among those first waves of settlers. Corn made its claim as an important crop but it probably wasn’t so obvious then that corn would dominate as the long term crop choice.

Crops on a typical farm during those first 70 years of Sutton’s growth might have included oats, barley, alfalfa and prairie hay. Many farmers of 50 or 60 years ago considered milo to be a better cash crop than corn. Milo, or grain sorghum had replaced wheat as the second crop by that time. There was even some forage sorghum around.

Here and there a duck, duck.
There were a few farmers 50 years ago who even took a run at raising castor beans – an unusual choice considering its dual purposes as animal feed and poison. Castor beans (not really beans) seem to have been around quite a while – Willa Cather mentioned them in one of her novels and Agatha Christie chose them as the poison in one of her mysteries. But I digress.

Our early settlers came from forested areas back east or in Europe. The treeless plains did not look like home and planting trees was a priority from the start. Sutton street names testify to nostalgia for trees. Planting an orchard on the farmstead was a practical means to break up the flat horizon.

Soybeans are the newest star on the list of Sutton area crops sharing domination with the long-time star, corn. Do they have staying power; will corn and soybeans still dominate in 2060 as they do today? How much milo, wheat, oats, barley do we see around here today? Not much.


Farmsteads through much of our history resembled menageries. Early farms were powered by horses and mules making a good-sized pasture a necessity plus consuming a good percentage of the farm output of corn and oats for fuel, almost one-third.

Pastures also accommodated herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, and even goats. Back by the barns there were often hog houses and almost always chicken houses, sometimes even ducks and geese around the yard – a menagerie.
Few farms were without a flock of chickens - roosters and
eggs for the table and more eggs to fill 15 or 30 dozen crates
to take to town on Saturday night. Egg and cream income
could support the weekly grocery bill.

Among the cattle on most farms were a few milk cows. A bit of the whole milk went on the table, the rest went through the cream separator. Skim milk mixed well with ground feed for the hogs; the cream went with eggs to town on Saturday night and generated enough revenue for the weekly groceries. It was a great business model for the times.


Yes, it was a great business model. With several different crops in the field, a failure of any one was a problem, not a catastrophe. Even with a general crop failure, there were pigs eating stuff, even weeds which could generate income. Milk cows and laying hens were nearly weather resistant too. It was a business model that would make a decent MBA case study.


The characteristic of farms of 50 to 100 years ago that we remember and admire is self-sufficiency. Those farm families on small farms were a little world of their own producing and consuming in a tight economic circle. A small amount of surplus was traded in the local town for that short list of things not producible on the farm and it was a short list.

A farmer’s shop was a carpenter’s shop, a blacksmith shop, mechanic’s shop and much more. A corner of the barn resembled a veterinarian’s office and out behind the barn was a near-infinite supply of fertilizer. Those farms had a wide assortment of self-contained resources just needing a clever and skilled fellow to make it all work, and every farm had one of those plus teen and younger apprentices.

Cattle and hogs were the most popular livestock for the family
farm but sheep had their place in the farm economy of 60+
years ago.
So what has happened since?

There remains a rich legacy of those days on today’s farms to one degree or another. But it is not the same. Diversity and self-sufficiency have given way to specialization and efficiency.

A high percentage of farms grow corn and/or soybeans and no other crops. Barns are useful on fewer and fewer farms; how far and which way from Sutton would we need to drive tonight to find someone milking cows? I know where to go to see a “hog house” but it is not the same. How many kids in Clay County went out to the hen house to gather eggs today? Not many. (I almost forgot the verb we used, “gather.”) There is a milo field over near Fairmont and I’ve seen a couple of wheat fields this summer.


The changes from 1950’s and earlier farming practices to those of today were all conscious decisions made by smart people. On a macro level, our area agricultural industry is unprecedented in terms of production levels, quality of product, efficiency and many other metrics. But there has been a price. We’ve lost something that is now only a memory for decreasing numbers of us. Sad.

The displays and the livestock barns at the state fair are anachronisms. It is almost as though the 4-H and FFA systems are performing some of the functions of a museum, but a museum aimed at the correct demographic, youth. They are preserving at least some of the images of the widespread diversity of early area farming more than they are reflecting today’s world.

The tradition and heritage of Sutton area agriculture is a good story and one we should be proud of. The Sutton Historical Society has previously touched on some of the aspects of the story such as the invention of the round baler, the shared labor of threshers, corn shellers and hay stackers and other aspects of that first half of our recorded history. It was a relatively short period of time existing almost entirely between the 1870’s and the 1960’s and then it faded.

I use a joke to give my personal memory of how that era faded. Our team, Judy and Rudy were sold when I was five or six years old and are among my very earliest memories. Our hog operation ended when the barn we used for a hog house deteriorated past the point it could have been repaired or restored. We stopped the spring chick buy at the York Hatchery only after my complaining about caring for dumb chickens reached some critical point – though I probably give myself more credit for that than I deserve – I think. But I do know we stopped milking cows exactly as I went off to college.

Whatever the more widespread reasons for the fading of that era might be, it did happen around the 1960’s as the scale of machinery ramped up boosting the scale of farm operations. Specialization and concentrating on fewer, but larger operations took over.

We can’t go back.


This article first appeared in the September, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4302 or at for further information about this publication dedicated to the Sutton community.


The Homestead Acts

by Jerry Johnson of the Sutton Historical Society and Ken Nelson of Sutton, Clay Center & Manassas, VA

Is there a more iconic image of the American Frontier than that of the Homesteader?

We revere that rugged individualist of the 1870’s or ‘80’s, a farmer - a young man usually - on his small farm, his team with the recently invented modern farm implements, a few cows and calves, some pigs, chickens and maybe geese or ducks. His pretty, hard-working young wife and her growing brood add to that iconic image.

We attribute much of the growth of our portion of the Frontier to the Homestead Act and how it provided free land for anyone willing to live and work on that land for five years. What a story!

But was it that simple? You know the answer, “It never is.”

Nils Nilsson or Nels Nelson, Verona area pioneer and on of
four homesteaders studied in Ken Nelson's research.
The first Homestead Act passed the House but was defeated in the Senate by one vote. The next attempt passed Congress in 1960 but was vetoed by President Buchanan. What was going on?
The idea of the homestead, a small farm owned and supporting a small family was not the universal concept for western development in the 1850’s. The alternative was the model of the large plantation owned by a gentleman in the mode of the Southern Gentry with slave labor.

Early advocates of the homestead were the “free soilers” who even had a short-lived, single-issue political party called the Free Soil Party centered in New York State. They saw the homestead in the west as a mechanism to halt the spread of slavery into the new states in the west. And although the 1960 act made it through congress there was still strong opposition by Southern Congressmen. Buchanan feared that such a divisive act would further drive the south toward secession.

But secede they did and opposition to the Homestead Act “went south.” The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed by the remaining congressmen from the North and President Lincoln signed it on May 20, 1862.

Then just six weeks later, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 after six years of heated discussion.

These two acts, arguably the two largest “stimulation packages” of the 19th Century were enacted in the midst of the nation’s largest internal crisis, The Civil War.

These two acts implement a huge policy decision that the country would incentivize and subsidize not just western development, but rapid western development.

And so, just eight years later, Luther French filed for his homestead in Section 2, Township 7, Range 5 from the 6th Principle Meridian and little more than one year later the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad laid tracks through that homestead sparking growth in a small community that became Sutton.

How long would it have taken for a town to start in northeast Clay County without both of these acts signed into law by President Lincoln in the spring of 1862? It is hard to imagine how it would have happened.

Part of the subsidies of the Railroad Act was the granting by the U. S. government of ten square miles of land for each mile of track laid. In each township along the railroad including that around Sutton the railroad received the odd numbered sections and the even numbered sections were designated for homesteads, except for sections 16 and 36 in each township were designated as School Land. This wasn’t land where schools were to be built but was land to be sold with the proceeds going to support public schools.
Carl Johan Johannesson or Charley
Johnson, homesteader northwest of

Talk about infrastructure planning. The national policy was that the federal government would encourage development of the frontier. Some pretty smart folks on congressional staffs in the midst of the civil war crafted a coordinate set of laws that provided for land management, transportation, communication, population and education over a huge chunk of the country. President Kennedy’s policy decision to go to the moon in a decade pales by comparison.

The State of Nebraska has always been closely linked to the Homestead Act. The Homestead National Monument honoring the very first homestead is in Gage County about four miles west of Beatrice on state highway 4. How did that happen?

There are a few versions to this story. The Homestead Act went into effect on the first of January, 1863. Daniel Freeman was (supposedly) a scout in the Union Army who had to return to St. Louis (supposedly) on January 1st. He convinced someone to open the land office just after midnight so he could file his claim and hit the road. Everyone else waited for normal business hours and later, when the claims were sorted, Mr. Freeman’s Gage County claim appeared on top.

The plan to create a National Homestead Monument at the site of Daniel Freeman’s homestead was not a popular idea in Gage County. Mr. Freeman had stirred up a controversy in 1899 when he took exception to the local rural school teacher’s classes in religious instruction including Bible studies, prayers and hymns. She maintained that she had the permission of the school board so Mr. Freeman sued the school board of Freeman School, likely named for another Mr. Freeman.

The Gage County District Court ruled in the school board’s favor; Daniel Freeman appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court which overturned the district court in 1902 citing the separation of church and state provisions in the Nebraska State Constitution.

The renovated Freeman School is near the Homestead National Monument, both major Gage County attractions today.
This 1962 postage stamp commemorated the centennial of
the Homestead Act

So what did it take for Mr. Freeman and the other homestead applicants to get possession of that farm? Was it really just a matter of living on the place for five years and it was all yours?

As I said earlier, it was not so simple.

Thanks to Ken Nelson of Manassas, Virginia, one-time of Clay Center and a cousin for a more thorough answer.

Ken has a keen interest, to say the least, in land management policy and practices. He looked into the details of the full story of what it took to apply for a homestead claim, meet all the requirements to “prove up” the claim and to complete the necessary documentation to obtain full ownership. He researched and compiled the documentation used by four of his ancestors (three I share with him) to file and prove their claims near Sutton, Saronville and Verona.

Luckily, I didn’t get him started on Swedish Land Reform or we’d have been here all night.

Nels Nelson filed an Application for Entry of 80 acres in Section 26 of Lewis Township about a mile from where Verona would later appear.
Nels Nelson's final official certificate in the series
of required documents needed to secure his
homestead. The detailed story of the process is
located in the "PAGES" section of this blog.
Charley Johnson (or Charles, Charlie, Carl Johan Johanesson – Swedes were flexible) filed for an eighty at the top of the hill in Section 28 of School Creek Township a mile west and two and a half miles north of Sutton.

Adolph Aspegren’s homestead application was just west of Saronville in Section 2 of Lewis Township.

Andrew Israelson initially purchased a total of 320 acres railroad land but in 1878 he filed for an 80 acre homestead in Section 6 of Lewis Township about five miles west of Saronville.

Those policy makers in Washington seemed to have anticipated potential criticism about fraud and abuse by incorporating a series of limitations and documentation requirements.

An applicant had to 21 years of age, have never taken up arms against the United States (Confederate veterans need not apply), own no more than 320 acres (Andrew Israelson almost disqualified himself), etc. The applicant had to live on the claim for five years making improvements then file for a deed to title with accompanying documentation that he had met those requirements, with witnesses and all.

Ken’s description of the homestead process is a 24 page document. Much as I’d like to share it with you today, Jarod does not do single-subject issues of Sutton Life Magazine. Ken and I will post a version of his research product on the Sutton Historical Society blog at

How successful was the Homestead program? It was successful enough to expand upon. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 was authored by Senator Phineas Hitchcock of Nebraska and allowed a second quarter to be added to a homestead for the planting of 40 acres of trees. The timber claim was filed on the edge of Edgar by David Jones.
This stone monument commemorating the first
registered claim under the Timber Culture Act
of 1873 is located near Edgar, Nebraska. Photo
is from the Clay County Atlas of 1963 compiled
by Midwest Atlas Co., Fremont, Nebraska

The Kinkaid Act in 1904 allowed for 640 acre homesteads west of the 100th Meridian and other measures increased the size of all homesteads.

The Homestead Act was repealed in 1976 with an extension for Alaska. The last homestead was an 80 acre claim in southeastern Alaska in 1988.

Were there problems? Of course. The drafters of the legislation stipulated that a dwelling of at least 12 X 14 would be built. They neglected to define the units of measurement opening the doors from some to claim that their 12 inch by 14 inch structure met that requirement. Phony claimants could be hired and people bought abandoned property. Land Offices were underfunded and understaffed, wages were low making enforcement tough and investigators were targets for bribery. Conditions were harsh where most homesteads were filed and only about 40% were eventually proved up.

But still, 1.6 million applications were processed for more than 270 million acres or about one tenth of the country.

The Homestead Act had a great impact on the frontier but nowhere greater than in the area around Sutton.

Check out the (under PAGES) for a more detailed discussion on just what it took to secure a homestead in Clay County.

This article first appeared in the July, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4302 or at for more information about his publication.




Do you want to find a grave?

by Jerry Johnson of the Sutton Historical Society

One of the early needs of any new settlement in the West was a place to bury the dead. That first death in a new community was only a matter of time and someone needed to pick a burial site.

The first farmsteads often had a family burial plot not far from the farm buildings. The towns of Sutton, Harvard and Clay Center and others selected sites near town for their cemeteries. Churches created their own cemeteries near Sutton, Verona and Saronville and in many rural settings.

The gravestone of Luther French first
homesteader in the Sutton area in 1870.
I understand that graves were found when the first swimming pool was dug in the Sutton City Park; the park site had been an early burial site. Those graves were relocated to the city cemetery. That story is on my Research TODO List.

Gravestones or “monuments” honor those who have died and become a link to our past. Families used to live in the same place for many generations so people could easily visit the graves of parents, grandparents and earlier relatives. There was a strong sense of continuity from graves that served as reminders of deceased family members. That continuity was broken when people moved away from their homes. Immigrants to America severed that tie to a specific family location as did settlers moving west from the Atlantic seaboard who lost their ties to family burial sites back East as well.

Genealogists include burial location among the data to collect on ancestors and a photo of great grandparents graves can be prized find. How many of us have routed a vacation trip to include visits to cemeteries where some ancestor is buried? I’ve included visits to cemeteries in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana Kansas, Maine and Scotland among my own diversions. There is a good chance that visitors you see in our local cemeteries are from out-of-town, even out-of-state.

Several months ago a new database was linked into New “hints” began to pop up from a web site called The links led to “memorials” identifying the cemetery where someone was buried often with a photo of the gravestone. Suddenly one of the challenging pieces of information was just a keystroke away.

The website was started in 1995 by Jim Tipton who had a hobby of finding graves of famous persons. The internet enabled him to share his list of famous graves and soon a community of people with interests in cemeteries expanded the list into a website that has grown to include well over 100 million memorials of individuals throughout the country and a more from international locations.

The website is the work of thousands of volunteers the majority of them genealogists. The initial work involved identifying cemeteries and then indexing graves from cemetery records, from old and current newspaper obituaries and from walking cemeteries with a clipboard.

Memorials on the site list the dates and locations of the individual’s birth and death. There may be links to the graves of parents and children. There is a place to include a biography of the person where you will often find a copy of the obituary. And memorials may have photos of the gravestones, of the individual or family photos.

I used information on for several months for my own genealogy research. Then a few months ago I “joined” the community and began contributing to the site. Members who would like to have a photo of a specific grave can make a “photo request” which is posted on the page for that cemetery. I began fulfilling photo requests in the area and taking additional photographs of gravestones.

Some cemeteries have had a lot of attention and have been nearly fully photographed. Others have not. Calvary Cemetery is listed as 99% photographed. The Sutton and Harvard Cemeteries had fewer that a fourth of the graves photographed. I’ve been concentrating on the Sutton Cemetery and over 60% have pictures uploaded as I write this.

View of the North Section of the Sutton Cemetery. The grave of Leonard Hanson, World War II casualty is in the foreground, one of many veterans honored in our cemeteries.
This is still a young project. There are some cemeteries yet to be added, mostly small ones. The directory for the Saron Lutheran Cemetery described two early homestead family plots, neither appeared in the database. The Percival Family Plot is familiar to some. It is marked by a gravestone just a few feet off the south shoulder of Highway 6 west of Sutton. Five members of the Percival family are listed on the stone.

The Plumbly Family Plot is a few miles southwest of Verona on the Charles Plumbly farm. Two adults and two children were buried in unmarked graves at the northwest corner of the farmstead. No trace of the farmstead remains but based on the “little dot” on the 1886 plat maps I took a photo of the site of this “cemetery” for the database.

The web site has a small staff which does such things as review new cemeteries to approve them before allowing them to be posted – both of mine passed their review. The website seems to be well run. There have been a few capacity issues in the few months I’ve been working with the site but no interruption has lasted more than several minutes.

The founder, Jim Tipton, began this project with an interest in famous graves. That interest has become a major feature of the site with many cemeteries listing their famous and near-famous burials. There is a section listing the most popular searches in the prior hour. Elvis Aaron Presley makes that list most of the time. As I write this, Timothy McVeigh was high on the list as was Gilda Radnerr, Claude Debussy’s daughter(?), and director Ted Post who had just died.

My “fun” photo request occurred within the first weeks of my activity when several requests were posted for the Aurora Cemetery including three for Hutsell family members, relatives of my wife. I was going to Grand Island so took the list along. Someone had requested a photo of the grave of Clarence Mitchell. I’d never heard of him but I can now tell several stories about him.

Clarence Mitchell was raised near Franklin, Nebraska in 1891. He dropped out of high school to try his hand, his left arm actually, in pitching starting with the Class D Red Cloud team. He managed to play in the major leagues for 19 years before returning to Nebraska where he continued to play minor league ball until he was 49 years old.

The Clarence Mitchell grave in the Aurora Cemetery, a popular grave for
fans of early 20th Century baseball.
Mitchell had two claims to fame. He was a spit-ball pitcher and when that pitch was outlawed, seventeen pitchers were grandfathered – they could continue to throw the banned pitch until retirement. Clarence Mitchell was the only “grandfathered, left-handed spit-ball pitcher.”

His second claim to fame occurred in the 1920 World Series when Mitchell entered the game as a reliever for Brooklyn against Cleveland. His batting won him this claim. Nebraskan Clarence Mitchell hit into the only unassisted triple play in World Series history. Not only that, but he hit into a double play his next at-bat.

After his career was over, Mitchell ran a tavern in Aurora. One of his advertising items was a key chain in the shape of a small baseball bat with an ad for the tavern on one side and an inscription on the other that read, “Beat this Record. Two times at Bat, Result Five Outs in Brooklyn-Cleveland World Series, 1920.”

The fellow who made the Clarence Mitchell Photo Request has a “Virtual Cemetery” of Major League Baseball Players of the spit-ball era. Members of have a variety of grave collections in their virtual cemeteries.

Action photo of Franklin, Nebraska native and early spit-ball pitcher in the major leagues.
Cemeteries can provide a unique insight into our history as we examine the stories represented by these graves. A burial ground is a personal memorial, a family memorial and a community memorial.

The website goes a long way towards re-establishing the continuity with the family and the community past that is lost when we separate ourselves from the location where our ancestors lived and died. And there is a good feeling when you can fulfill a request for a grave photograph and a few minutes receive an email from an appreciative relative who just saw grandma’s grave for the first time.

This article appeared in the August, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Please contact Jarod Griess for more information about this publication about the Sutton, Nebraska community - 402-984-4302 or at