Friday, February 28, 2014

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.


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