Friday, May 23, 2014

Sutton's Neighbor to the West, Saronville

Early Sutton was surrounded by several neighboring communities, Lushton, Bixby, Stockham, Verona, Grafton, Eldorado, and more just beyond that immediate circle. Our story here is about the closest neighbor, Saronville.

It is understandable why there was a greater density of villages before 1900 than there is now. Homesteads within ten miles of the railroad were only 80 acres and even railroad land was generally sold in quarter sections. As a result sections often had four or five families and families often had five or six or more kids. A section could easily have a population of 15-20 people. There were enough people within five or six miles of a town to support a full suite of businesses.

And think about transportation. A homesteader hitched his team to the wagon, drove to town, conducted his
Beautiful downtown Saronville in1903
business and drove home. If the drive was much over five miles that trip pretty much ate up the whole day. There was a market for, and economic justice to have more towns limiting the distance between towns and villages.

The first settlers in the north half of Clay County were five homesteaders in the spring of 1870. There had been settlers in the southwest corner of the county as early 1857 as James Weston, the Ropers, Metcalf and Bainter who were supporting the Oregon Trail and the Pony Express but they had been driven out by the Indian uprising in 1864. County settlement was on hold while the Civil War ended, the army came west, Indians settled down, and most important, railroads crossed the Missouri River and pushed west.

Sutton’s first fellow was Luther French, one of those five homesteaders. The other four were Swedish immigrants. Louis (or Lewis) Peterson homesteaded in Section 12 of Lewis Township about a mile south of where the Burlington goes through Saronville. Jonas Johnson and Andrew David (A. D.) Peterson took up homesteads two miles west in Section 10.

The fourth Swede evaded me for a time. I learned Peter Norman’s homestead was in School Creek Township and that he had a dugout on the bank of the creek. Then I found his claim in the southeast corner of Section 26 of School Creek Township; his dugout was just over a mile below that of Luther French.

Norman proved up his claim in 1876 but sold it to John Gray before the 1880 census where he, or perhaps another Peter Norman appears in May Township in Kearney County just east of Minden. Today’s village of Norman (pop. 43) is in that township on Highway 74. It could be (likely?) that our local homesteader moved west to farm and gave his name to that settlement.

The four early Swedish homesteaders were among the area Swedes who began meeting in the schoolhouse for District #9 in the fall of 1872 to form a new church. At a December 6, 1872 meeting they chose the name, “The Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Huxley, Clay County, Nebraska.” This was the first church organized in Clay County.
Saronville's District 73 two-room schoolhouse with Marion (Nelson)
Anderson and Arch Leonold teachers. The school operated as a K-10
school for much of its existence. 

Now, about Huxley: Huxley was one of the earliest towns mentioned in Clay County. Burlington Railroad planners had designated an alphabetical list of towns for the route west of Lincoln. The “A” town is lost in the fog of history but the subsequent stops were to be Berks, Crete, Dorchester, Exeter, Fairmont, Grafton, Huxley, Inland and I guess Juniata, Kenesaw and Lowell may trace their origins to this scheme. The Burlington folks weren’t the only railroad planners with this sense of order. We speak less often about Alexandria, Belvidere, Carleton, Davenport, Edgar, Fairfield, Glenvil and Hastings on the Union Pacific’s St. Joe - Grand Island Railroad.

But back to Huxley. Huxley didn’t really happen more than some stakes in a field to outline streets. The new church used District #9, their “East” school and there are references to a “West” school that was southwest of today’s Saronville.

The first minister was Rev. L. P. Alquist who split his time with a Lincoln church in 1874 and 1875. John Torrell was the first resident minister in 1877 who also served a congregation in Fillmore County. Torrell was provided with a new parsonage and a $300 annual salary. His benefit package included two months of vacation per year. The church adopted the name “Saron Lutheran.”

A second group of Swedish immigrants met in the District #16 school house in Section 29 of School Creek on October 30, 1875 to organize a Methodist Church. They purchased land for a cemetery and built a 14X18 foot one-bedroom parsonage on the property. The land cost them $8.00 an acre and the house, a barn and a well was a $166 investment. John Bjurstrum was their first minister. Founders of this church included Jacob Nelson, Fred Bergloff, A. N. Nordohl, Hans Hanson and we again meet P. O. Norman, apparently the local experienced church organizer.

The congregation decided to move a mile west near the Lutheran Church in 1878 when A. P. Israelson donated five acres a bit north of the railroad tracks. They built their church and a parsonage there. In 1948 the congregation purchased the home of Adolph Aspegren to serve as a parsonage. (Pardon the personal note: Andrew Israelson and Adolph Aspegren are both my direct ancestors.)

A post office with the name of “Saronville” was established on October 3, 1882 triggering the idea that a town might develop. Rev. Haterius of the Saron Church led a group that negotiated with the Burlington Railroad for a depot which was critical for business. Soon there were 20 businesses along the road between the churches and more than 200 people living in homes extending beyond both churches.

Saronville’s business community came to included three grocery stores, a bank, doctor, drug store and druggist, restaurant, hardware store, furniture store, livery barn, wagon shop, blacksmith shop, lumber yard, two grain elevators, a flour mill, a two-room school house, a community hall as well as those two original churches.
The Saronville Methodist Church hosted a three-week revival meeting in 1925 with Rev. Harold O. Anderson of Oakland, California. Church members built the 1000-seat building on the left for the occasion. The Methodist Church is in the background. 

Saronville had a “near-miss” in 1882 that could have taken the village to bigger and better places. The Nebraska Swedish Lutheran community met in Saronville with a goal of founding a college. Saronville, Stromsburg and Wahoo were the contending sites. Rev. Haterius made the local pitch including contact with a Swedish newspaper in Chicago but timing was poor. The congregation had just built their first church and had not completed paying off that debt. Wahoo was further along in development with a strong offer that was accepted on the 17th ballot winning Wahoo the right to host Luther Academy. That school lasted almost until 1960 when it was absorbed by Midland Lutheran College in Fremont.

Farmers expanded their holdings buying out their neighbors, larger families became less common, the automobile made longer trips to larger towns routine and the smaller communities in the area lost their hold on most, sometimes all of their population. Saronville is home to a smaller population today than 100 years ago and much smaller than its unrealized potential may have produced. But many of the other similar communities from a century ago suffered an even greater declines.

Our sources for the story of Saronville’s history come from the directory of the Saron Lutheran Cemetery, several Saronville scrapbooks especially associated with the 1976 national bicentennial celebration and manuscripts or local family and individual accounts. The college story appeared in a Lincoln Journal Star article on December 8, 2013.

As the largest surviving community for some distance around, Sutton has absorbed these one-time thriving villages and they have become important parts of the Sutton Community. 

This article first appeared in the April, 2014 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at Mustang, Inc. (402)-984-4203 or for more information.

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