Saturday, January 31, 2015

John Maltby, Sutton Pioneer with an Extraordinary Life

The man who named our small, quiet, rural Nebraska town was a flamboyant fellow with a life story unmatched by any resident since. I welcome your nomination for a candidate with a better life story.
John Rogers Maltby, world traveler, adventurer, entrepreneur, promoter, maybe a bit of a
scoundrel, but the many who gave Sutton, Nebraska its name. 

John Rogers Maltby was born in Sutton, Massachusetts and was living in Maine when he left home in 1853 on a path that would lead to the community of School Creek in south central Nebraska in 1871. The intervening 18-year trek from Maine to Nebraska covered four continents involving a string of adventures that would tax credibility in a work of fiction.

Both of our Sutton histories by Jim Griess (“The German Russians, Those who came to Sutton) and the research of Anne and Nellie Sheridan (Along the County Line) included sections on the life of John Maltby and we’ll draw on them for this discussion.

We also have sources in thirteen boxes of material stored at the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln plus there is the internet. It’s both good and bad news to have multiple sources, ambiguity being on the bad side of that ledger. One account has his date of birth in 1830, another implies 1831 and his Fairfield tombstone lists May 11, 1828. Sutton, Massachusetts Town Records give August 17, 1828 as his baptism date, so there is that.

Whenever, our John Maltby (III) was born to Rev. John Maltby Jr. and his wife, Margaret Graves Jackson. The elder Maltby was an 1822 Yale graduate and was ordained by the Andover Newton Theological School in 1826. He was the minister at the First Congregational Church in Sutton, Massachusetts from 1826 until 1834 when he was recruited by the newly-organized Hammond Street Church in Bangor, Maine serving there until his death in 1860. One of our local histories reverses that move and has him dying in Sutton, MA in 1860.    

This painting of Rev. John Maltby and his wife Margaret Graves Jackson is
owned by the First Congregational Church in Sutton, Massachusetts. These
are the parents of Sutton's John Maltby.
Both churches mention Rev. John Maltby on their current web sites. The Sutton church has a valued portrait on Rev. and Mrs. Maltby. The original is in safe storage and a replica is displayed in the church. We include that image here.

The 1840 Bangor census shows the John Maltby family to consist of ten persons: a male age 40-49, one female 40-49, a 15-19 female, one 10-14 female, three 5-9 females and one under 5. There as one male 10-14 and another under 5. That does not necessarily mean John and Margaret had eight children. There might have been servants in the household. But our John was most likely the male age 10-14 in 1840. One of our local histories lists him as the oldest of five children in the family. Family trees on list seven children with two dying young. History could be a science but it tends toward art.

Margaret Maltby died in 1852 and the next spring young John left Maine for the gold fields of Australia. According to his passport application on March 4, 1853, John Maltby was 23(?), 5 foot 9 ¼ inches tall, high forehead, hazel eyes, Grecian nose, small mouth, round chin, brown hair, dark complexion and an oval face. (It’s been a few years, but I do not recall that level of detail on the modern passport application.)

The First Congregational Church in Sutton,
Massachusetts and early benefactor of the
Federated Church in Sutton, Nebraska.
Maltby and a couple of friends sailed on the “Charter Oak” on April 18th arriving in Melbourne in June. Gold. Australia. In 1853. Why? The California Gold Rush is usually dated through 1858 or ’59 and was a lot closer.

Maltby’s diary describes the distress of his friends during the rough voyage. It seems they soon headed back but he stayed seven years engaging in numerous businesses but the gold thing didn’t happen.

In 1860 John Maltby left the continent of Australia for Asia, India to be exact. He was a merchant and auctioneer for two years then headed for Europe sailing on the “Calcutta” for London.

Our local histories lead us to believe that John arrived in London in May, 1862, worked on the first Trans-Atlantic cable, met Matilda Mary Cooke from Surrey and was married in December. And since history records that the trans-Atlantic cable was completed in the summer of 1858 we have another reason for a trip to Lincoln to auger in those 13 boxes.

Matilda Mary Cooke, Mary or “Trot” as John called her, was 21 when she married the 34 year old John Maltby. She was a convert to Catholicism and he promised to convert but never did leading to a subplot in this story.

Maltby engaged in several brief business ventures for a couple of years in London before leaving for
The Church of Our Immaculate Lady of Victories
on the quiet Clapham Park Road in South London
where John Maltby and Matilda Mary Cooke
were married on December 18, 1862 - brought to
by the magic of Google Earth Street View. 
the U.S. in 1864, without his wife. (See above.) She was to stay in London until he had enough money to send for her. He’d sought his fortune in Australia, Asia and Europe; it was time to try North America.

His path now took him to San Francisco and New Orleans. In late 1865 John Maltby was the main man for the Challenge Washing Machine Company working the sales territory of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. He was trying to sell major appliances to households in the post bellum South. Not a sparkling business plan.

He did find enough money to send for Trot and they were to meet in Massachusetts. She was delayed in getting there; he tired of waiting and headed back to the south on a ship named “Republic.” The Republic ran into rough seas and sank out from under him off the South Carolina coast. It is not clear how he managed to survive the shipwreck, but somehow he did, went back to work and in 1866, after two years of separation John and Matilda Maltby were united in Louisiana. They went back to Massachusetts to a short-lived hardware store but by the end of 1867, she’d left him and he was in Omaha.

John Maltby's 1853 passport application as he
left New England for Australia, Asia, Europe
and around the U.S. to get to Sutton, Nebraska.
The next jobs were with the Union Pacific, operating a store in Bushnell, Nebraska, sign painter, wallpaper hanger, glass worker and a job in the California Restaurant in Omaha. (Cook or waiter, one wonders.) And he built a track for horse racing.

Now it was 1871 and Maltby learned about a start-up community in the path of the approaching Burlington Railroad, just his kind of situation but there was some urgency to make it work.

Maltby and a friend William Way discovered land straddling the railroad’s route but it had been claimed by John Vroman. They may have intended to buy the property but time was short and they couldn’t find him. They contested the claim and after some legal maneuvering Vroman’s claim was cancelled as he had been absent. Way claimed the north ½ of the Vroman land bounded by today’s James Avenue on the west and a bit east of Highway 6/French Avenue on the east, a line through the north business district on the north side and Hickory Street on the south. John Maltby had the 80 acres to the south to just short of today’s Helen Street.

Old Western movies tell us that claim jumping was an unpopular and maybe risky venture.  We’ve evidence that it was true in Sutton, too. Jim Griess describes a petition by the good citizens of Sutton dated March 25, 1872 that read, “Whereas certain notices have been posted in divers places in the county concerning J. R. Maltby to leave this place before the 26th …. on fear of death. And we citizens of this town … do hereby offer a reward of twenty-five (25.00) dollars for the exposure and conviction of the perpetrators of the said violation.” Among the petitioners were I. N. Clark, Thurlow Weed, A. A. Corey and George Bemis, Sutton’s early establishment.

As in the case of the shipwreck, we don’t know how John Maltby survived this situation but by mid-summer he had talked Luther French into breaking his homestead into town lots and his suggestion to name the community “Sutton” was accepted. When Clay County was formed in October Maltby was elected Probate Judge. He later served as Police Judge for Sutton. William Way was on the first two Boards of Trustees for the town. Nice recovery. Maybe they were just charming men.

John Maltby served the new town well in its “war” with the railroad including making an 1872 trip back east to confer with Burlington officials about placing a depot with mail service in Sutton, but that’s another story. He worked in a side trip to Boston at this time and reconciled with Matilda. She joined him in Sutton in January, 1873.

The Maltby’s remained in Sutton into 1877 when they moved to Fairfield. Matilda helped organize the new Catholic Church there and John was Chairman of first Board of Town Trustees. He had a real estate business and engaged in other enterprises including the invention of particular valve. His luck failed again as his valve had been patented one year earlier.

John Maltby had a full life but financial success eluded him to the end. He died a poor man on March 24, 1895. Matilda returned to Sutton, taught French and music and became the librarian at Sutton’s new library. She died in 1912 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery. True to form, John is buried in Fairfield. The Sutton Museum has Matilda memorabilia including her 1862 wedding dress and the shoes, gloves and fan from her wedding ensemble.
Sutton Pioneer Matilda Mary Cooke of London, England, Mrs. John Maltby. A lady with her own good story.
Several of  her possessions are on  display at the Sutton Museum.
I repeat my challenge from the beginning of this article. Do you have a nominee for a Sutton resident with a more interesting and improbable story? If so, I definitely want to hear about it.

Maltby Avenue was named after him. He donated block 22 of his First Addition for the Sutton Schools which served the community for many years before becoming the site of the Nolde Center. He designated blocks 39 and 49 in the southeast part of town for a park.

Members of his father’s church from the early 1830’s learned that John had named his Nebraska town after their Massachusetts community and that a new congregational church was under construction in Sutton, Nebraska. They sent a donation to help build the new church and made a gift of a silver communion service to their sister church in the west. Those cups are prominently displayed in the entry of the Federated Church today.

John Maltby lived in Sutton, Massachusetts from birth in 1830 until the family removed to Bangor, Maine in 1834 when he was only six years old. He grew up in Bangor leaving for Australia in 1853 at the age of 23. Why did he name our town Sutton? How close did we come to be living in Bangor, Nebraska, attending Bangor High School and reading this in The Bangor Life Magazine?

Completely unrelated but I must include that the athletic teams at the Sutton High School in Massachusetts are the Sammies and the Suzies. 

This communion service was a gift from the First Congregational Church in Sutton, Massachusetts to the new church in
Sutton, Nebraska. The set is on display in the entry of the Federated Church.

This article first appeared in the December, 2014 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For further information about this publication, contact publisher Jarod Griess at or 402-984-4203.

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