Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Future of Downtown Sutton

By Jerry Johnson and the Sutton Historical Society

This historic photo from August, 2007 captured the conditions of the west side of the north end of Downtown Sutton. Did you ever notice that only some of the "pinnacles" on the roofs are still there? Does this look the same today, even disregarding a tornado and a fire?
The objective of the Sutton Historical Society is to collect and preserve the artifacts and information about the Sutton, Nebraska community. That’s a carefully worded statement that directs us to find and save things that are part of Sutton’s history and to find and record the story of Sutton’s past.

The Museum has accumulated a respectable collection of Sutton related items, most donated by generous people who decided a valued item would be enjoyed by more if it were displayed in a publicly accessible place rather than remain where only a few even know about it. It’s an on-going program. We’re currently expecting two more very nice items.

A Sheridan family relative in Oregon plans to donate a large wardrobe that was built by Ellen Sheehy’s father on the occasion of her 1879 wedding to John Sheridan. John and Ellen were the grandparents of Roger and Bill Sheridan and Regina Leininger among others.

The second of these two new items is the 6 foot clock that sat in the window of Lewis’ Jewelry for many years. Grandson Bill Johnson is “downsizing” and this clock too will be “coming home.”

Many bits of information that tell Sutton’s story have become foggy in the collective memory or lost entirely. Traces of the story remain in old newspapers, scrapbooks, boxes in basement corners and a variety of other hiding places. It’s been a hoot digging out those stories, or more often, stumbling on to them.

We’ve reconstructed profiles of the population of Sutton at specific points in the past; uncovered the identities of immigrant families, settlers, business owners and others who’ve lived in Sutton’s past. We’ve found some forgotten Sutton residents who moved on to make their mark beyond our community.

Newspaperman Walter Wellman got his start in the 1880’s at age 14 publishing an early (perhaps first) Sutton newspaper. He later talked his Chicago newspaper into funding his attempt to be the first to the North Pole, via hot air balloon.

Herbert Johnson left Sutton and became a political cartoonist in the 1930’s drawing covers for the Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman magazines.

Madeleine Leininger rose to the pinnacle of the nursing profession creating a new discipline she called Transcultural Nursing which revolutionized how the medical profession related to patients in diverse cultures.

So, the Sutton Historical Society is quite successful in meeting that objective of collecting and preserving the artifacts and information in Sutton’s history.
The west side of the south end of Downtown Sutton looked like this in August, 2007. Looking good, but we know that the structural health of several buildings is, or will someday soon be a problem. Don't we? 

But there is one major part of Sutton’s history we’ve been unable to address in anything like the manner of those things I’ve mentioned. And that is the most important part of Sutton’s history: Sutton itself.

What is Sutton? Well, it’s a lot of things. I won’t inflict you with my version of a complete answer. But when people think of Sutton be they residents, ex-pats or visitors the thing that defines Sutton is the downtown business district. It’s a compact area, split by the railroad and where much of the commercial and social activity occurs.

Sure, the school, community home, bowling alley are at the north end. Businesses line Highway 6 as it skirts the town. Industrial activity is dispersed to the east, west and south extremities of town. But there in the center, straddling 500 yards of Saunders Avenue from the Catholic Church to School Creek is the heart of our community.

And what is the definitive attribute of downtown Sutton, the personality of Our Town? What is it that a visitor takes away from Sutton and likely recalls if reminded of the visit months later?

We’re prejudiced, but members of the Historical Society lobby for the idea that the historic buildings, generally on the west side of Saunders Avenue are what makes Sutton, Sutton. These distinctive buildings are treasures that make Sutton what it is, what visitors remember, what we should be very proud of.

We understand that during the settlement of plains from the 1870’s into the early 1900’s many towns in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and elsewhere saw the construction of buildings similar to ours. Over time these historic buildings have thinned out and often disappeared entirely. People who have looked into the state of buildings of this style of architecture tell us that our downtown may well be the last place with this much of a display.

If we had a State of the Town message similar to the State of the Union or the State of the State, what would be the State of Sutton?

The State of Sutton is good. The agricultural economy is solid; our schools and youth activities are sound; the lives of our older generation are well-supported by the community; downtown parking slots are well-used. We have recreational facilities. Weaknesses are few.

How about the future?

Our strengths in early 2015 appear to be sustainable. We know how to keep things going and on track.

How about any weaknesses? Do we have any?

Well, we do have a “canary in the coal mine.” Remember that story? Miners carry caged canaries with them into the mine knowing that the little birds are more susceptible to noxious gases than the miners. A dead canary warns the miners of possible danger.

We have such canaries, warnings and hints of future distress and problems. Our canaries are those downtown buildings which have lost their luster. Ornamental bric-a-brac on roofs is missing. Windows are damaged. Bay windows are fragile. Once occupied second story spaces are boarded up.

Visible deterioration and damage hides weakening structures. A tornado and fire within the past year only accelerated a long trend. Patches and repairs after those 2014 events arrested the downward trend, in some buildings, for a time.
The post office, bank, library and grocery store at the north end of downtown
Harvard are holding on but along the main street these lonesome sets of
buildings tell a sad story.

Our canaries are telling us that the treasures in the heart of our town are in danger.

So what are the potential consequences of aging to downtown Sutton? Where could we find some clues? Consider taking a short drive, or two.

Harvard and Clay Center have some clues. Residents of both towns have seen venerable old buildings deteriorate past the point of being viable for saving and are now gone. The result is empty spaces in the once solid wall of occupied businesses. It’s kind of like a few missing teeth from a once healthy mouth.

Harvard’s downtown still has functioning businesses but they tend to occupy scattered islands of structures along the main street. Clay Center’s north side recently saw a gap open in its once solid wall of buildings. Once a store front becomes vacant or a building disappears, there seldom is a future for that space. It is a dying process.
The buildings across from the court house in Clay Center
were intact just two years ago.

Is there an alternative? You’ve been west to Harvard and Clay Center. Now go east to Friend. Something different happened in Friend. Just driving or walking around that main block that sits on the south side of Highway 6 is a different experience from that in our neighboring Clay County towns. Step into a business; I recommend the coffee shop on the south side, and strike up a conversation. Find out what happened in Friend, and is still happening.

Next time you’re in Hastings drive down 2nd Street. Things have begun to happen there that are reversing a long downhill trend. Sure, Hastings is a much larger town than Sutton and other towns along 6, but city planners are taking on a bigger project than we’d face. And they have the challenge of reversing the multi-year symptoms of Wal-Martitis.

The north side of the square in Clay Center has lost buildings that once served
an active community leaving and open space that is unlikely to contribute
services, goods or  appropriate tax revenue to the community, again, ever. 
One more illustration much further away: Grinnell, Iowa. Next time you’re driving east of Des Moines on I-80, take a four-mile detour and visit downtown Grinnell. It’s a college town of about 9,000 residents who, at some time in the past took steps to preserve, restore and protect the buildings in their downtown. The thought, “I could live here” may well slip into your mind. Again, visit the coffee shop; it’s on the west side.

Let me anticipate your response likely formed much earlier: “So what could we do?” or even earlier than that, “Cost, cost, cost, money, money, money?”

Too true. You will not find the answer to either in a 1600 word article by someone associated with your local museum that struggles just to keep afloat, let alone meet aspirations.

No, if the future of the historic buildings of downtown Sutton will be other than continuing decay and the slow, steady loss of individual buildings, one by one, then some very specific things have to start happening, pretty soon.

About 30 miles east on U.S. 6 is a good model for what can , and should be done
with historic buildings . The good folks of Friend, Nebraska have engaged in
projects to preserve the character of their town. This section illustrates exterior
work. Down the street and around the corner to the right is the old Opera House
building where interior restoration was the focus. 
I’ve not yet mentioned the set of people most important if we are to address preserving our downtown, the individuals who own these buildings. It’s awkward. Those of us who consider the historic nature of downtown Sutton to be our greatest asset cannot expect that the building owners can maintain or preserve the buildings as we’d like them to see all by themselves. The economic cost/benefit analysis of addressing an individual building is unlikely to justify action. Perhaps the cost/benefit of addressing multiple buildings, adjacent buildings, or the whole shebang just might make sense. But let’s not speculate further.

Any attempt to preserve, maintain or restore our downtown buildings will have to be a community effort for a community asset. If the whole community isn’t interested, we might as well just go watch “Dancing with the Stars” of something.

We need a few people with a few smart ideas. And we need a whole bunch of people who care. We need individuals and groups: the City of Sutton, Chamber of Commerce, Historical Society, American Legion, bridge clubs, business people, teachers, librarians, the retired, coffee klatches, the newspaper, this magazine, school kids (who’d I leave out?).

These Friend buildings are a lot like those in Sutton. Look what
some TLC (and money, of course, but first the "C") can do. You
may critique the few missing decorative "bars" on the angled
section, but when that kind work is what's left, you've won.
My point: if we’d like to keep our downtown looking something like it does today, it could happen.

How did Friend, Grinnell, Hastings get started? I’ll bet they’d be glad to tell us?

What is the list of grants, foundations, government or corporate sponsored programs or sugar daddies that might think our distinctive architecture is worthy of preservation?

What clever things can we do ourselves?

We’ve taken a run at this question in the past, broke some ground but met resistance we couldn’t quite push through. Could it be time to try again?

We had a good discussion of the topic at the Chamber of Commerce meeting in January. There’s a sizeable group that indicates they’re interested. We’ve new city officials. Is this a good time?

Our town got its start in 1871. Its 150th birthday will be in 2021, six years from now. Wouldn’t it be a great birthday present for our town, and for ourselves if, at Sutton’s sesquicentennial we could have plans in place to preserve, protect and maintain our historic downtown buildings and maybe have work in progress? Or maybe, just maybe have some piece, some significant project completed and on display?

There would be a significant cost to preserve our historic downtown buildings. It will be a huge cost if we don’t.

I don’t know how to start sooner than today. Is the ball in play?
Downtown Grinnell, Iowa has several blocks of restored buildings with operating businesses and occupied second floors. Intersections are spacious and almost a work of art with decorative designs in the pavement and sidewalks; lamp posts match the original time of the buildings. It's worth a stop.

This article appeared in the January, 2015 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For more information about the publication contact Jarod Griess at or at 402-984-4203.

What do you think? Post a comment of contact us at


Anonymous said...

Just a curiosity question: Why was it that the west side of main had all the "nicer", taller buildings? Seems the east side is lacking in such grand structures.

Anonymous said...

Look at the wonderful job Chris Lieb did at the old Smith's implement building Both the inside & outside are fabulous!

Sutton Historical Society said...

Good question about the difference between the buildings on the east and west sides of Saunders Avenue.

There still is an historic building at the north end, Paint and Paper Palace which was the Bender Implement building built in 1906, not as distinctive as the west side stuff. About 50 years ago two or three two-story brick buildings were torn down at the south end of the north side, just north of the railroad tracks. Again, not spectacular but they'd been there a long time. Hanke the Taylor and a couple of tavern/pool halls were the occupants. One of the reasons given in the paper at the time was that years of vibrations from passing trains had crumbled the mortar and the bricks were pretty much on their own. On the south side where the Legion is now, the Occidental Hotel was probably the dominate building in that quadrant. It was also taken down about 50 years ago.

We might say that east side businesses were of a different nature from west side ones - cream stations, implement dealers, butcher shops, even a REO car dealership. The west side tended more toward clothing stores, theater, banks, cafes, department stores, etc. 'tis a generalization of course, but may have been a factor. It may also have been that the west side businesses were of a nature that warranted better care for the buildings (??)

Anonymous said...

I like your thinking. Preservation can be accomplished if there is a will and serious effort is made. Have as many fundraisers as necessary, don't be too proud to solicit help from both contractors and citizens that can help. Are there grants available at either the state or federal level? Preserve the buildings at all cost!!! They are your and also America's heritage! God Bless. I will pray for you.