Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What do we know and How do we know it?

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

While working on the Clay County News retrospective column a few weeks ago we encountered the 100th anniversary of the indictment of Melchoir Luebben and the failure of his First National Bank. Prosecutors documented an $80,000 discrepancy on the books at that Sutton bank.

The headline of a major 1914 Sutton story as multiple hiccups and more
threatened the local banks for several weeks while busy men sorted it out. 
I was confronted by a “discrepancy” in those stories, kind of like Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that didn’t bark” story. The Melchior Luebben’s indictment and subsequent jail time is a sidebar to online accounts of the invention of the round baler in Sutton by Ummo Luebben. Those accounts state, or at least imply that Melchoir’s downfall came as a result of his use of bank funds to finance his son Ummo’s initial baler manufacturing operations.

The 1914 newspaper accounts make no mention of any connection to the round baler, its manufacturing operations or Ummo. The violations in the indictments were all banking issues, creative accounting and the like.

I’ve been including the jailing of Mr. Luebben and the bank failure as a “rest of the story” aspect to the local invention of the round baler. It looks like I have been wrong all along on that.

Original source documents are great confidence builders in any story. Here is an image of Ummo Luebben's drawing
describing his "Baling Press" invention. Especially interesting as the patent was awarded on my father's birth day,
not his birthday, but his Birth Day, October 18, 1910 - had to mention that.  jj
First, with further review, we learn that Ummo was not Melchoir’s son. He was a younger brother according to census records. So I’ve been wrong about that too.

Those accounts that conflated the bank failure with the round baler factory likely stem from something written once and copied often. Things said often enough, and loud enough become “truth.”

The problem of knowing things for sure that just ain’t so is widespread impacting us in many ways. Genealogy research is all about reconstructing the time and place of events of people in our past generations. Most families have stories that have been passed from generation to generation and often have things written down as well as the oral stories. It was common for families to write down the dates of births or christenings in the family bible. Those dates can be trusted to be correct as they were recorded “contemporaneously” that is, at the time they happened. That is an ideal situation, unless the bible was purchased years later and the dates filled in by grandkids who really didn’t know what was right.

Similarly, the dates inscribed on tombstones have credibility. After all, they are literally, “etched in stone.” And at least the dates of death were recorded contemporaneously. But the dates of births are not recorded at the time of the stone etching but a whole lifetime later.

Our family has such an instance of a gravestone with erroneous birthdates and I’ll use that to illustrate my point.

Etched in stone doesn't always make it right.
Jonas and Ingri Klintberg came from the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. They immigrated in 1876 joining their daughter and her family in Saronville where they are buried in the Lutheran Cemetery.

Ingri died in 1895 and Jonas in 1905 and contemporaneous documents, newspapers, census, family records, etc. all confirm that. The gravestone tells us that Jonas was born on January 16, 1811 and his wife Ingri on May 7, 1807. So she was three, almost four years older. Okay, fine.

However, upon further review, maybe not.

A cousin, Ken Nelson who grew up near Clay Center and now lives in Manassas, Virginia picked up the genealogy bug several years ago. His family background is entirely Swedish leading to his enviable expertise in researching Swedish records. He was initially unable to locate the birth records for Jonas and Ingri. We knew the parish they were born in and had the birth dates from the tombstone but their names did not appear where and when we expected.

But Ken persisted. He finally located the birth record for Jonas Petter in Sanda parish, as expected but in
Two hundred year old Swedish language hand writing by rural preachers
can be a challenge to read, decipher, translate and maybe understand. 
January of 1816, not at all as expected. The image of Jonas’ portion of a page of the Fodd (birth) record is included with this article so you may check it for yourself. But you may see that the parents of little Jonas Petter are recorded as Daniel Nöbelin and Anna. Do not fret if you cannot read the record. These records were hand-written, in Swedish, about 200 years ago by clergymen with varying penmanship skills.

Ingri’s birth was not recorded in Sweden on the date appearing on her tombstone either. Her birth seems to have been on July 19, 1807. We should expect that the fellow in the parish in 1807 had a better idea about that date than the fellow who chiseled the date on the tombstone in Saronville. Contemporaneous recording should win out.

So why did my great, great, grandparents “lie” about his date of birth? We can’t be certain, but we can enjoy guessing. It looks like he was almost nine years younger than her and she appears to have had a son just 13 years younger than him. I guess it looked better for the step-father to be older than he actually was.

Let’s look at one more example, Mr. John Maltby, the fellow who named Sutton.

Pieces of the John Maltby story appear in many of the texts about the history of Sutton. We learn about his youth in Sutton, Massachusetts, how he went to the Australian gold fields, to India and to England. He and Matilda Mary Cooke entered into a stormy marriage in London and that story survives in several versions too. The Maltbys made it to Sutton after more adventures where, among other things, John Maltby named our town after his own home town in New England.

Our well-circulated and multi-sourced
photo of John R. Maltby
So how sure are we that this story is accurate or even credible? We can first guess that since all of the published accounts are similar the later ones probably drew upon the early ones. So how did the details become parts of the early accounts?

Short answer: we have the goods on this guy. An internet query based on Mr. Maltby and Sutton leads you to the Nebraska Historical Society’s website where we find the inventory of the contents of 13 boxes of material about John Maltby.

I visited the state historical society a couple of years ago to check out the Maltby collection. The material comes from as early as 1837 through his death in 1895 in Fairfield. The man kept diaries through much of his life and we can read about the 5 month voyage from Boston to Australia, travels in India, his many business dealings (mostly unsuccessful) and his days in Clay County. There are receipts and financial papers from the very early days of Sutton and much more.

I believe we can be sure that some, maybe all of those who wrote about John Maltby’s story spent some quality time with those boxes of John Maltby’s stuff to learn the details of his life.

To learn more about the Sutton related “stuff” at the historical society, go to their site at and search on “Sutton.” You’ll have to work past some references to guys named “Sutton” but you’ll find local church records and much more. There is material from the Buck-Hoerger families and early hotel registers from the Occidental Hotel.

If we are serious about accurately relating the stories of the past, then we must understand how to distinguish information that may be factual from that which is just “close to right” or just ain’t so. We do this by questioning everything and evaluating our sources. There really are good sources and the best are those from the time of the event that generated the information.

Even then, we cannot be certain that we’re right. We’re taught that it is bad to tell a lie so when writing about things in the way-back past there is always a cloud hanging over our heads reminding us that it is only a matter of time before we write something that “just ain’t so.” To the extent that we speak in certainty we are heading for trouble.

Or as Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

One exception. On February 12th Sid Caesar died at the age of 91. I am certain that he was the greatest comic of the 20th century. End of exceptions.  

This article first appeared in the February, 2014 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about this publication contact Jarod Griess at (402) 983-4203 or LIKE Mustang Media, Inc. on Facebook.

1930 Sutton High School Annual excerpts

The Sutton Historical Society continues to accumulate annuals from Sutton High School Classes. This post is excerpts from the 1930 annual called The Suttonian.

The cover of the 1930 Sutton High Annual. It is a soft cover 8" X 10 1/2".

The Faculty - 1930.

First page of 1930 seniors. Winning nicknames: Guzzle & Fungi.

#2 page of seniors. A batch of fine nicknames here but I like Ludwig and a 17-year old
gal who has to answer to "Runt" (wonder if she did) deserves some recognition.

"Lovely" and "Mumps" may need some explaining, well, "Mumps" anyhow.

Juniors - too bad we lost some faces here. 

Add caption

Defense! Defense! Defense!

Are Alumni games still legal?

Nuss Bakery: butter, bread and Russian seeds - I believe they were actually called
Russian Peanuts and were one reason surrounding townsfolk called Sutton folk,

Check elsewhere for our list of on-hand annuals to see if you might have a spare annual gathering dust
that you might want to contribute - much appreciated - the staff.

1914 Sutton News Business Advertisements

These ads appeared in the May 1, 1914 issue of the Sutton News newspaper, a Thursday publication priced at $1.00 per year. Advertising rates were 10 cents per inch per issue.

John M. Gray and his father Hosea Gray founded the Gray Lumber Yard on August 24, 1871, the
second lumber yard in Sutton in the town's oft-told story, very oft-told of how Thurlow Weed's
carload of lumber arrived in town on the 23rd narrowly but decisively edging out the Gray's for the
distinction of Sutton's First Lumber Yard. The Gray Lumber Yard was on the west side of Way
Avenue just north of the railroad track. It extended south of the Gray house at 311 N. Way Ave. to
the intersection with Maple Street encompassing the lots where the Hunzeker and Aunt Emma
houses are today.

This ad gave no additional information of who/where this company was.

J. J. Goll is not a household name in Sutton but it appears he was a Ford dealer in 1914. No Goll family
appears in the census for Sutton or nearby in 1910 or 1920 but we can find Jacob Goll Sr. and Jacob J.
Goll Jr. in Potsdam Township (Blue Hill), Webster County in 1920. Jacob Sr. would have been 56 years
old in 1914 and Jake J. Goll Jr. 28. A 1923 plat map of Potsdam Township finds Goll land to the extent
of seven eighties for J. Goll and an additional two belonging to W. Goll just south of Blue Hill.

So our educated guess is that Jacob J. Goll Jr. was this 1914 Ford distributor in Sutton and that sometime
between 1914 and 1920 farming in Webster County looked better to Jake than selling cars.

And speaking of Ford dealers, this Yost business in 1914 was advertising the
IH Farm Wagon for their Sutton & Grafton businesses. I may need some help
understanding that fifth wheel feature however. 

This posting of just a few 1914 newspaper ads in Sutton is a small snapshot of transition, farm wagons,
Fords and tire technology. A common transition at about this period of time was the morphing of
livery stables to car dealerships and mechanics' shops. 

The weekly column for The Clay County News is a task that should take two or three hours but often extends into a second half-day or more as I find myself reading the damn papers. 

History as the Observation of Change

History is only the observation of change.

I was reminded of that in a recent article in the “Prairie Fire” newspaper. Dr. Paul A. Johnsgard wrote a lengthy piece on the way the migration of water fowl has changed over the decades he has been carefully tracking various birds.

The advantage that he had is that he had been writing things down over the years. Most of us are more likely to track changes in our own fallible memories.

One of the many things I found that had changed during my 44 year lapse of Clay County residency was how deer had become common in this area. Suttonites who wanted to hunt deer during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s had to go off on an expedition to somewhere near the Wyoming border. Fifty years later deer are not only commonplace in Clay County but may be even a nuisance.

Another surprise came when I saw large numbers of distinctive little birds at our backyard feeders. They were dark above and white below. I learned they were a type of sparrow called the junco – cute little fellows. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention but I did not remember them on the farm when I was growing up.

European Ringneck Doves, a recent (last 25 years?) immigrant to the U. S. 
A larger bird was a bigger surprise. These guys looked something like the morning doves I remembered well except they were mostly white and a larger bird. Normally when we encounter things from our childhood they seem to be smaller than we remember – not so these birds.

Then I saw an article in the World-Herald describing the European ringneck dove that first appeared in Florida in the ‘90’s and spread quickly across the country. Other sources tell almost the same story about something called the Eurasian Collared Dove. Whatever they are, we’ve enjoyed several years of watching from six to eight pairs in our back yard.

These little wildlife stories illustrate a few tiny examples of local change in which the nature of our wildlife is different now than just a few decades ago. The common pheasant may be a better example. They were introduced into Nebraska about 100 years ago and flourished. For large numbers of Lincoln and Omaha sportsmen in the 1950’s and ‘60’s the word “Sutton” meant “pheasant hunting.” The population seems to have dwindled from earlier levels.

The pheasant example illustrates an important point about history as the observation of change. Do I really know how the population of pheasants has changed over the years? Nope.

One really needs some well-grounded statistics and evidence to make sweeping statements about how things change over time. Otherwise, we’ll make statements of qualitative opinion without stopping to consider the level of certainty we actually have.

So let’s go back to that “Prairie Fire” article by Dr. Johnsgard. He has been called “the Birdman of Nebraska” with something like 50 publications mostly about the birds of this area. This article is titled, “Changing Great Plains Climate and Bird Migrations.”

The author grew up in North Dakota in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s where the peak of fall foliage colors occurred in early September and major waterfowl migration was in October. He moved to Nebraska in the ‘60’s where he reset his fall and spring calendars to expect the fall foliage colors to peak at the end of September and snow geese first appeared in early October with peak sightings at the end of that month.

His fall Nebraska calendar was so reliable that he could confidently reserve an expensive camera many months in advance for his NETV documentary at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge for the third week of October.

Then bird migration patterns began to change. Snow geese arrived at Squaw Creek in the second and third weeks of September, peaked at the first of November and were gone by the end of December. In 2008 through 2012 the peak population of snow geese was at the first of December. In 2013 those birds did not arrive until the end of November and wintered there.

Dr. Johnsgard was observing Canadian geese during this same period seeing their migration being delayed year by year until the early 2000’s when up to one hundred thousand Canadian geese wintered in the Platte Valley.

Bird people make an annual Christmas bird count that provides excellent quantitative evidence adding credibility and a higher level of certainty to the conversation. From 1968-1977 the most common bird in Nebraska was the mallard; the house sparrow was third and the Canada goose fifth. During the ten-year period from 1998-2007 the mallard was still in first place followed by the Canada goose and the house sparrow had dropped out of the top five.

The Canada goose climbed from nowhere to the top position in North Dakota during this time. It now trails only the mallard in South Dakota. It is now in fourth place in Kansas and fifth in Oklahoma. Dr. Johnsgard offers his statistics as a measure of wildfowl reacting to temperatures. Things must have warmed a lot, don’t you think? Actually, it doesn’t seem to take much.

Over the 11 decades between 1895 and 2008 average January temperatures in Nebraska increased by 0.11 degrees Fahrenheit per decade or a total of 1.21 degrees. The corresponding number for North Dakota was 0.44; South Dakota, 0.19; Kansas, 0.10 and Oklahoma, 0.04. That is, warming has been more rapid at northern latitudes – tracks with the breakup of the Arctic ice.

So what is the importance of all the numbers? Answer: evidence.

How many of us have said things like, “Well, I remember when we had snow on the ground all winter, from November into March.” Sometimes we confidently add, “Half the time” or “90% of the time.” Of course, we generally don’t have stat sheets to back that up but too often that doesn’t lessen our certainty. It is a big deal to go to contemporary records, records taken at the time of the happening, to strengthen your story.

Moving to a topic more related to Sutton History: When did Les Bauer close his hardware store? That question could generate a discussion at morning coffee with various and conflicting answers offered with equal certainty, some even right. But some document associated with the closeout sale or a newspaper account during that week should trump our well-meaning but fallible memories. (Young people, references to memory become more meaningful at an ever increasing pace over time.)

History is the observation of change. It is also the observation of things that do not change.

Businesses come and go and there is a sequences of business in specific store fronts in town. But perhaps the personality of Sutton, at least the physical appearance of our town is centered downtown on the west side of the street. We can thank the egos of the builders as they engraved their names and dates of construction on the buildings themselves. We have a Bender building from 1906, the Carney and Woodruff buildings from 1891 and we can date, at a glance, the Central Block to 1887. Not much to discuss there, we have evidence about the history of downtown.

We should take pride in the visible evidence of more than 125 years of our town dating to not much more than a dozen years from the first settlers. We are not alone. There are plenty of opportunities to see how other people take pride in the pieces of their history that do not change – let’s stick with buildings.

The east coast is home to great historic buildings from the colonial period but the western hemisphere can’t
MDCI inscription indicates this
Florence, Italy building dates from 1601.
hold a candle to the east. It kind of takes your breath away to see a date engraved on a building that reads “MDCI.” At first, you want to pronounce it. Then it strikes you that it is the Roman numerals for 1601. Is that telling us that the building was built in 1601? Not quite. That’s when the façade was added. The building was completed in 1481. Perspective: where was Christopher Columbus then?

Rome's Pantheon, in use since ...
way back. 
Then in Rome there is the Pantheon that has been in use for about 1,900 years; it is old enough that a writer in the year 200 was uncertain as to who built or rebuilt it, and when. (Hadrian, 125 A.D.) The Pantheon is an extreme example of a structure with historical significance because it has not disappeared and changed little.

Is Sutton’s Central Block in the same league as Philadelphia’s Independence hall, Renaissance or Roman buildings? Of course not. But the path to 200 or 500 or 2,000 years starts with the first 125.

The Central Block building on the west side of the south end of downtown Sutton, an 1897 vintage structure, old by some standards, not so much by others. 
This article first appeared in the January, 2014 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about this publication contact Jarod Griess at (402) 983-4203 or LIKE Mustang Media, Inc. on Facebook.