Friday, February 28, 2014

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.

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