Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Those First Years were a Hoot in Sutton

Sutton’s beginning in 1871 was a rocky one but a good story.

If you wanted to start a town on the Great Plains in the 1870’s there were two things you needed, water and railway access.

School Creek provided the water, but, looking at it today…(?). Railroads provided the means to ship goods in and products out. Passenger service made trips to Lincoln, Omaha, Chicago, St. Joe, etc. feasible and then routine. The railroad was a good thing.

We are lucky to have a contemporary account of the very early days of Sutton in the Centennial Sketch of Clay County that was compiled for the Fourth of July 1876 centennial celebration in Sutton.

The sketch was written by the Historical Committee consisting of Dr. Martin Clark, Judge John Maltby and Erastus White of Sutton and Esra Brown, Ira Pearsall and J. T. Fleming from Harvard. Erastus White of the Clay County Globe newspaper in Sutton published the sketch. Dr. Martin read an excerpt at Sutton’s centennial celebration in the park on July 4, 1876.

The first townspeople arrived in April, 1871 and were greeted by Luther French in his dugout on the east side of School Creek. An early official act was the appointment of Luther French as Sutton Postmaster on August 8th of ‘71. The first Sutton Post Office was in Mr. French’s coat pocket. Later he used an 8 X 10 glass box.
This document identifies the early post masters in Clay County.
Arthur Burlingame succeeded French effective January 1st, 1872 with a salary of $12 per year which was increased to $400 six months later.
The Burlington “End of Track” arrived in Sutton from the east on August 12, 1871. The contract between the railroad and the U. S. Post Office called for the railroad to deliver mail to the post office if it was less than 80 rods (1/4 mile) from “the station.” There was no station in Sutton but stopping the train to handle mail would allow passengers to get on and off the train effectively making Sutton a station.

In practice, Burlington trains did not stop but trainmen tossed the mail off and grabbed out-going mail from Mr. Burlingame. On August 19th 1872, postmaster Burlingame decided not to endanger himself anymore and left the outgoing mail in his office, as was his right. Near that same time an incoming sack was tossed into a muddy ditch and the cat fight was on.

Mr. Burlingame complained to the government which ordered the railroad to use the Grafton site about four miles east of Sutton as the mail drop off point and to make the Sutton connection at their own expense. The railroad hired T. R. Linton, a local freighter to carry mail from Sutton to the Grafton station for $100 per quarter.

The site of the crane, post and activities in the dispute between
Sutton and the Burlington railroad - the old Way Avenue
Next the company built a crane opposite Gray’s lumber yard at Way Avenue and Maple Street intending for the postmaster to hang mail there to be grabbed as the train whizzed through town. Locals sawed the crane down, apparently the only unlawful act by local citizens in this whole affair.

The company replaced the crane and one winter morning the route agent thought he saw a mail sack on the crane for the first time. He grabbed it and the weight of the dead dog in the sack almost jerked him out of the car.

Steam locomotives needed water and there was a tank outside of Sutton. The railroad next agreed to deliver mail at the tank which was more than 80 rods from the post office opposite the Gray lumber yard. That distance forced the post office to provide the courier. The arrangement worked out until a real depot was built two years later.

And there was a real estate segment to our story.

The Burlington Railroad had established their Grafton site about four and a half miles east of Sutton. Why? The railroad owned the Grafton site and Sutton was owned by homesteaders, a critical distinction from the railway’s perspective. This was about half way between Fairmont and Harvard and also between Lincoln and Kearney and had access to water.

Shortly after the railroad came to Sutton, Mr. Joseph Wilsey, a railway attorney in Crete visited Luther French in his dugout and signed a contract deeding a railroad right of way through town in exchange for a depot.

Another story developed starting in May, 1871 when John Maltby began his quest for a “pot of gold” as Jim Griess characterized it. John Vroman, a vet had filed for a homestead on the 160 acres just south of French’s claim. Maltby intended to buy the claim but Vroman was out of town. Maltby and his friend William Way then contested the Vroman claim and won in a Lincoln court as Vroman was not living on his claim. Way took the north ½ of the claim south to Hickory Street; Maltby claimed the 80 from Hickory to near Helen Street at the south end of town.

John Maltby talked Luther French into subdividing his 80 into town lots and French began to sell off the lots. The Clark brothers, Isaac and Martin arrived in November, 1871 and purchased French’s unsold lots. But, remember Mr. Wilsey from Crete? Mr. French had never recorded that transfer of the right-of-way before again selling that property. Railway officials backed away.

The railroad now had substantive issues with Sutton property as well as issues of style. Sutton had several saloons which were cited as at least distasteful. Our folklore also points to Sutton’s disruption of the railroad’s plan for alphabetical stations along the route. Our town was a nuisance.

Among the prized memorabilia in the Sutton Museum is the
authenticated, original buffalo skull that played a role int the
battle with the railroad to  establish a Sutton Depot. 
The first Sutton station house was a freight car parked on a siding marked by a buffalo skull with the number “124” painted on it. Why “124?” Was that the mileage from the Plattsmouth Bridge over the Missouri? Any better idea?

In mid-December 1871 the railroad company moved the freight car to their town of Grafton. Sutton residents were getting desperate. Long-term prospects for the town were fading. There was no railroad station, trains weren’t stopping, mail service was a mess and they’d ticked off the railroad officials.

Townsmen sent Thurlow Weed to Crete offering one half of the unsold lots in the Clark, Maltby and Way eighties plus Maltby and Way added twenty acres for depot grounds. Colonel Doane of the railroad wanted two thirds of those lots and the depot ground as the price for Sutton’s depot. No deal. Isaac Clark failed in subsequent negotiations, things were bleak.

John Maltby went to Boston at his own expense to meet with more senior railway officials who denied knowledge of the disputes but nothing came of that visit, except he did make progress with his estranged wife on the trip, but that’s another story.

About this time Marthis & Robbins decided to move their Grafton grocery to Sutton. The Clark brothers donated a lot in town. George Bemis and W. Cunning took their teams and moved the Grafton buildings to Sutton inspiring the Bemis poem “Grafton to Sutton.”

Writers for “The Fillmore County Story” are adamant that the current town of Grafton traces its origins to the Fillmore City community north on the Blue and that only the name came from the Grafton in Sutton’s story. Okay, we’ll give them that.

Isaac Clark made a strategic move in July, 1872 when he shipped the first carload of heavy hardware to Edgar on the St. Joe and Denver railroad then brought the loads to Sutton by team and wagon. Other merchants began using this 20-mile cross country route for their goods depriving the Burlington of the business.

In April, 1873 the Clark brothers and Hosea Gray went to Lincoln and Plattsmouth to negotiate with the new superintendent of the company, C. F. Morse. They showed him their receipts from the St. Joe and Denver railroad indicating that the Burlington was losing about $20,000 in annual Sutton-generated freight revenue.
It took some doing, not all of it of a grown-up nature, but eventually Sutton had its depot. The depot was on the south
side of the main line a few dozen yards west of Saunders Avenue. This image dates from about 1940. The water tank
down the track to the west is a reminder of what was vitally important to the railroad, passengers and freight made
railroad operations profitable, but periodic water tanks along the track kept the trains running. That, and a bit of coal.
Railroad officials came to Sutton on May 1, 1873 where final negotiations established the price for a depot in Sutton: one third of the Clark eighty, forty acres from John Gray, forty acres from W. Cunning, another forty acres each from Henry Beale and John Maltby and one half of the Way and Maltby eighties. Sutton citizens had to grade the railway switch plus vote for Harvard as the county seat. The company later paid $5 per acre for this land and accepted 100 feet to the south of the right-of-way in lieu of 20 acres for the depot grounds.

The depot was built in the fall of 1873 and everyone lived happily ever after. (Sutton citizens did not vote for Harvard as county seat.)

However, there’s an open question in the story. Luther French filed for his homestead on March 14, 1870. By November, 1871 he had sold all parts of the eighty, some of it twice. How did he do that? Didn’t the Homestead Act require five years of “proving up” before the homesteader actually owned the property? Or am I missing something? Inquiring minds are curious.

This postcard photo is identified as being a Sutton scene. We don't typically fall out to have our pictures taken with railroad
rolling stock today, but then, we don't have Beauties like this one passing through either. Look at those drive wheels. I wish
we knew who the two ladies were.

 This article first appeared in the September, 2014 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4203 or at neighborhoodlife@yahoo.com for more information, or LIKE Neighborhood Life Magazine on Facebook.

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