So, why is there a Sutton Museum, anyhow?
Did you know that there is a museum in Sutton? It is hidden in plain sight along a street near downtown with a rather large sign in front. You can’t miss it.
The Sutton Historic House, one of three building of the
Sutton Museum, built in 1908 by John and Emma Gray.
The museum is open Sunday afternoons and there is a sign in the window welcoming visitors at other times to call for entry or an appointment. Still, we often meet local residents who didn’t know it’s there.
The Sutton Historical Society began almost ten years ago and quickly took possession of three buildings, conveniently lined up in a row just north of the tracks on Way Avenue. Still, we commonly hear local residents say, “You know, I’ve never been there. I should stop by sometime.”
So, what is at this museum?
Those three buildings have separate roles in preserving and displaying glimpses of the story of the Sutton community.
The south building, a brick structure, was built in 1908 by John and Emma Gray as their retirement home on the site of their early lumber yard. This is the Sutton Historic House. Its role is to illustrate a home of about 100 years ago. Most of the furnishings come from that era including an especially appropriate dining room set – the original Gray family dining room table and six chairs donated by one of their great, granddaughters in Texas shortly after the founding of the museum.
The middle building was the first home of John and Emma built in the 1870’s and described in a contemporary commentary as one of Sutton’s stately homes. The years have been unkind to this building as an historic artifact. “Modernization” and remodeling have blurred the character of the home but it provides a roof and floor space for most of the museum items.
The north building of the Sutton Museum is the rural school building that was built in 1899 for the children of District #55 between Fairfield and Clay Center. It is a reminder of that important part of the history of the plains.
These buildings house many items commemorating our past, most of them with a Sutton story behind them. There are three major collections in the museum: paintings by the Ebert sisters and their students, Beulah Ochsner’s hats and the doll collection of Carolyn Ackerman. There are items from the pioneer Maltby family, from the Honey Furniture Store, numerous reminders of Sutton businesses and lots more.
This is just part, less than half, of the Carolyn Ackerman doll collection
on display and preserved in the Sutton Museum.
A veterans’ room has uniforms of local servicemen from the Civil War era on, wartime memorabilia and biographies of many local men and women who wore the uniform.
The buildings house the “stuff” of history, but we also need the stories of town founders, our ancestors and others who helped make Sutton what it is today to understand Sutton’s history.
Our research over the past ten years has recovered several stories that had been lost in the fog of time. Who knew that an early, young (14 years old) Sutton newspaper man, and a bit of an eccentric, would attempt to be the first man to the North Pole, via hot air balloon? We found Walter Wellman’s story.
Or, how about a Sutton boy who became nationally-known political cartoonist Herbert Johnson and produced cartoons for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman magazines. And Johnny Bender, star of undefeated Nebraska football teams just after 1900 but whose real fame came from coaching and inventing nicknames for sports teams at St. Louis University (Billikens), Kansas State (Wildcats), Washington State (Cougars) and University of Houston (Cougars, again.)
Who would know the story of early Sutton
Grad Minnie Rowe (Crabb) if there wasn’t a
museum staff to dig up such stuff?
But, someone asked, “So what?” I heard you.
Some fellow once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Fellow’s name was George Santayana) Or somewhere we heard that “History repeats itself.” I prefer Mark Twain’s, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Introducing that quote to just one person would make the effort of this article worthwhile.
Bringing this conversation back to northeast Clay County, what does the Sutton Museum offer the community of Sutton?
First, we’ve helped a lot of people clean out closets, basements and attics. Familiar story. Most of us save a lot of stuff, and we got that from our parents. At some point, we snap and want to move on.
Very often we know that we have items that contribute to the story of our town but almost no one has ever seen or enjoyed those items. So call someone with the museum – happens a lot.
Do we want everything in your basement? Probably not. But if you don’t want it and your kids don’t care, it just might fit someplace in the museum. We can thank those on a long list for almost all of the items on display. We may finish your first impulse and throw some of it away ourselves. Our space is limited and you may have been right the first time – some stuff really is junk.
But if we have room and there is a Sutton story to the item, it may become one of our prized possessions. Best of all are those once-common items which cause a ten-year old to wrinkle up, point and ask, “What is THAT?”
Sutton Museum school house provides fourth grade
teachers with a precise visual aid to show students
what a country school was like. The historical society
is honored to host classes on the beginning and
graduation of the Apple Valley study block.
Preserving historical items is a big part of the role of our museum. But there is another role of telling the stories of Sutton’s past. We mentioned a few of those above but we needed some way to get those stories out in the public. We’ve found a few ways.
Jarod Griess and his Sutton Life Magazine provide a monthly forum to tell some aspect of Sutton’s story. Our weekly column in the Clay County News, while not focused just on Sutton, gives us the opportunity to relate some slice of county life 25, 50, 75 and 100 years before the current week. Each article and column has slices of the past but collectively over almost six years we’ve resurrected and accumulated a lot of information that otherwise would be lost.
We've not ignored technology. This blog is approaching 300 postings related to Sutton’s history as I write this. The metric for blog use is the pageview. We’ve recorded more than 55,000 of those and are currently averaging about 60 per day. Most visitors are from the U.S. but we don’t fully understand more than a thousand visits each from Germany, France, China, Ukraine and Russia. We’ll soon have a thousand each from Canada and the U.K. too. It is a World Wide Web.
And we have a twitter account and a facebook page neither real active, but track those down and join us.
We try to show our smiling faces in public forums: Sutton Showcase, Dugout Days’ Kuchen Contest and parade and at the Filling Station Restoration for the Parade of Lights.
Our publications and online presence lead to queries from afar. Calls to city hall, the library,
newspaper or schools concerning Sutton’s past generally get
forwarded our way. The most common topic is family history. Descendants of
early Sutton residents look for someone local to help with their family
research. This can be one of the more satisfying roles we play. Callers are
very appreciative of this help – it’s exactly why they called and we have some
long-term continuing contacts as a result.
|Retrieving old newspaper ads gives|
a glimpse into life in years past.
Genealogy research led to our contributions to the online data base at findagrave.com where we posted photos of local gravestones and continue to add to family connections on that site.
We’ve hosted a few programs with entertainment or historical interest or both. Our most recent event was at the Allegro Wolf Arts Center on April 18th with Laureen Reidesel, Beatrice librarian speaking about southeast Nebraska history including the story of the hanging of William Jackson Marion in Beatrice and the awkward reappearance of his victim four years later among other stories.
Members of the historical society are proud of what we’ve accomplished and feedback tells us that it has been worthwhile. But we are not always successful.
Earlier we mentioned that we often meet those who don’t know that there is a museum or have not found a reason to visit. That says we are not successful. We are not engaging our potential audience well and are not noisy enough when tooting our own horn.
So here we are, again, in Sutton Life Magazine and in this blog posting trying to fix that: “Toot, Toot, Toot!”
For those who didn’t know there is a Sutton Museum, now you do.
For those who have not visited, this is your personal and sincere invitation.
One more thing. There are things necessary for a successful museum. Two of those are money and people. Our annual kuchen contest and pancake breakfasts at the Legion the first Saturday of each month provide revenue streams which help sustain our existence, for the most part. Our commemorative brick program is another important source of funds. Yes, we have expenses.
But the goal that eludes us the most is our failure to attract our friends and neighbors to join us. We find that working with the museum provides an enjoyable and satisfying way to support the local community but our enthusiasm does not seem to be contagious.
We’ll close with this invitation. In addition to visiting the museum, won’t you consider lending a hand in its operation? We have every kind of need from legitimate museum cataloging and display skills to buildings and grounds maintenance. Just drive by and you will see things that need to be done. An hour or two every now and then would make all the difference in the world. Thank you.
Commemorative bricks are a way to remember Sutton’s founders, ancestors and residents, and to support the continuing operation of the historical society.