Saturday, April 30, 2016

Along the County Line - A Local History

A recent visitor to the Sutton Museum, or two, were surprised to learn that there existed a book about Sutton history, other than the Jim Griess book about the Germans from Russia. We interpreted that to be an indication of a market for an article about “Along the County Line.”

"Along the County Line" contains hours of enjoyable reading about the early days of Sutton and surrounding Clay and Fillmore County.
There are several sources to draw on to understand the story of Sutton, Nebraska and the surrounding community.

The Clay County News has a basement newspaper morgue where copies of several county newspapers dating back to before 1900 are stacked, and sorted, sort of, and available. Those are the source for our retrospective column, “Clay County in the Rear View Mirror.”

Most county towns, Sutton excepted, published books about the town on the occasion of the centennial of the founding, settlement or other agreeable date. Ad-hoc committees did some good work to collect information and photos for Edgar, Ong, Fairfield, Harvard, Deweese, Eldorado and Spring Ranche. The Sutton Museum does not have a Clay Center book (was there one?).

The residents of Sutton, the first county town to reach 100 years of age had that date slip by without being recognized by a specific volume. Don Russell was publisher of the Clay County News when the 125th anniversary came up and he published a fine pictorial about Sutton. The title of Harvard’s book tells their story: “Harvard - 100 + 2 Years.” They almost had their centennial slip by too.

“Along the County Line” is a 200 page, large format (11 1/4” X 8 1/2”) book, published in 1968 and long out of print. It is described as the Pioneer Story of John and Ellen Sheridan in Fillmore and Clay Counties, Nebraska. Material was compiled by sisters Anne and Nellie Sheridan, daughters of the Sheridan pioneers. Two other sisters, Rita Joyce Haviland and Jeanette Joyce Motichka, nieces of the Sheridan sisters wrote the book.

Clay County Newspaperman H. C. (Howard) King published the book and in his preface when writing about Anne and Nellie said, “Their dream was for an active historical society for the Sutton area and a greater preservation of its historical lore.” The Sutton Historical Society, the Sutton Museum, our weekly newspaper column and articles in this magazine are all inspired by their dream and by other like-minded Suttonites.

“Along the County Line” is a five-part book, each part introduced by one of the nearly 50 poems in the book many from the pen of Anne Sheridan. The book broadly follows the story of the Sheridan family, broadly enough to include a wide swath of history and the early story of those along the Fillmore-Clay county line.

The story begins with John Sheridan’s birth in the town of Castlepollard in the land-locked county of
John Sheridan (1850-1936) drawn
by his daughter Anne.
Westmeath near the middle of Ireland. Oddly, Google Earth seems to offer only a low-resolution view of the area around Castlepollard but Street View operates normally enabling the virtual drive around town spotting inviting pubs, and other sights.

John was 21 years old in 1871 when local politics favored self-rule championed by the Fenian movement. Sheridan family lore has it that John was the youngest member of a local Fenian group when he was stopped and questioned by British authorities. His Fenian friends may have been worried John would be watched and suggested he go to London to work for a time.

Crewmen on the ship to England told John about prospects in American. He used his funds for passage and arrived in New York on May 15, 1871.

He worked in Troy, New York, accepted an invitation from relatives in Decatur, Illinois (met a young girl) then other relatives told him about Nebraska. John checked out Nebraska, returned to Illinois for Ellen Sheehy and soon Mr. and Mrs. John Sheridan were farming near Exeter. And the stage was set.

One paragraph tells of the furnishings of the new household:

“In this first home there was not much furniture, two beds, one a trundle that could be rolled under the larger bed during the day, a cradle for rocking the baby, and a fine walnut wardrobe cabinet made from trees grown on the John Sheehy farm in Illinois. Ellen’s father had given it to her as a wedding gift. He had cut the trees, hauled them to the sawmill to be sawed into boards, then he built the cabinet, using no nails, just had hewed wooden pegs. It was a treasured piece of furniture that went with the young couple into each of their homes. Today it is a priceless heirloom.”

About a year ago, a Sheridan relative living in Oregon brought that walnut wardrobe cabinet back home to Sutton donating it to the Sutton Museum. Today it is a priceless heirloom on display for all to see and enjoy.

The first part of the book is called “Smoke Trails” and is introduced by an Anne poem in memory of her father – seems he smoked a pipe.

Ellen (Sheehy) Sheridan (1858-1923)
on the occasion of her 18th birthday.
The balance of Part 1 describes the deep background of our area and what the Sheridan’s found when they arrived. The trails, Oregon, Chisholm, cattle trails, etc. get a mention. The way stations of early Clay County and the history of the Indian War of 1864 covers the kidnappings we’re familiar with.

It is in Part 1 where we’re introduced to the first newspaper quote appearing in the book – a Sutton Times item from 1874 describing the death of Marion J. Littlefield at the hands of a band of about 50 Sioux.

Part 2 is called “Bless This Nebraska Land” and begins with Anne Sheridan’s poem about her mother, Ellen Sheehy Sheridan. It revisits the earliest part of the Sheridan story, this time from the viewpoint of the Sheehy family then moves west for early Clay and Fillmore County history.

Much of the material about our early history has appeared in multiple publications. This part includes “First Happenings” sections for both counties. The Andreas history of Nebraska in 1882 captured much of the details of the early days and we have the Hamilton and Clay County History by George Burr and O. O. Buck in 1921 were details were repeated and either supplemented or updated. This book draws on and re-organizes much of that material adding stories from interviews and other sources.

The James Blaine account of the Indian Wars appeared in early newspapers and is included here. Fillmore County’s comparable account is by its first judge, Judge Wm. H. Blain.

“A Sod Home in the West” is the theme for Part 3. A series of photos of dugouts, soddies and town scenes illustrate this section. The book is a treasure of old photos, some you may have seen in our column and earlier articles.

The Sheridan’s began farming near Exeter before buying their farm near Sutton. We get a flavor of the early life in both towns. Four Sheridan children, William, Mary, John and Ellen (Nellie) were born on the farm near Exeter. Anne and Edna were born after a move to the Grafton-Sutton neighborhood.

Anne and Nellie Sheridan were joined by younger sister Edna as school teachers in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. The stories of country schools are generously covered in multiple places in the book. Clay County District #13 was their growing-up school and a teaching assignment. District #55 near Fairfield was the country school of one branch of the family. That school building is now part of the Sutton Museum.

A section in this part addresses the religion of the Indians and tells about several early churches in this area.

Part 4, called “Memories” is all about the plight of early farmer in Clay and Fillmore Counties. It is first, the story of the John Sheridan family coming to Nebraska, establishing a farm and raising six kids. But that story is only the centerline of the road lined with stories, quotes and photos of others in that situation.

John Sheridan began to buy the homestead of Aden Sherwood in Section 30 of Bennett Township in 1891. Family lore details the struggle to first clear a loan against the farm then find financing to buy the farm with its small two-room house about 5 miles southeast of Sutton.

This section traces the lives of the six children. William became a prominent Sutton businessman – implements and Fords. Mary homesteaded near Pine Bluffs, Wyoming with her husband Timothy Joyce. Two of Mary’s daughters used the compilations of their aunts to write “Along the County Line.”

John Sheridan Sr. with his Percheron horse “Renford.”
“Percheron” is French for “really big,” maybe.
John became the family farmer expanding his holdings in rural Sutton.

Ellen (Nellie), Anne and Edna were the younger half of the family. Edna married a Wyoming fellow, Charles Lacy and after living in both states, returned to Sutton. Nellie and Anne wrote a fascinating story in their lives, besides researching our book here. Nellie joined a contingent of relatives and friends who headed to Wyoming when homestead land opened up. Nellie had her own homestead with teaching as her day job eventually “proving up” her claim. Anne was short of the minimum homesteader’s age but joined her sister teaching in the Cowboy State.

The balance of Part 4 illustrates the balance of the book’s thrust of using the Sheridan family story to illustrate the broader experiences of early day Nebraskans. There is an overview of farmers’ organizations, economic conditions and accounts from several settlers.

The fifth and final part of the book has been the most useful part for us trying to tell Sutton’s story. The title is “Unrecorded History’ and included many of Sutton’s stories that may well have remained unrecorded but for this book.

Cedar Hill farm in 1899. Mary, John and William standing in back. Edna, Ellen (mother), Anne, John Sheridan (father) and Nellie in front. Anne’s kitten was not identified.
Anne and Nellie recorded stories about Luther French, the Brown family, John Maltby, the Germans from Russia and other early Sutton settlers.

Uriah Oblinger’s letters to his wife in Indiana written as he started his homestead near, but before the Sheridan arrival would have been hard to find if not included here. Several other area stories came to light in these pages.

We recommend “Along the County Line” to anyone with an interest in Sutton history. The Sutton library has two copies. There is a copy at the museum where people have been known to spend a few minutes checking out specific topics. (The museum has a second copy, but that one typically is within arm’s reach of your author, often consulted.)

It may not be clear what the objective Anne and Nellie and their two nieces had in publishing “Along the County Line.” Best guess: they were writing the story of the extended Sheridan family. What happened, either intentionally or because the story naturally expanded, is that they produced an excellent account of the story of settlement and development of Sutton and the rural area to the southeast.

The title of the book best fits the second suggestion above. If I could ask one question of the authors it would be, “Could it be that the title was selected only after the work was done?”

Nellie reading a letter, at the mailbox. The U.S. Postal Service was the only contact with distant relatives and friends pre-phone, pre-email, pre-text. Rural families watched for the mailman and an important letter could not wait for the walk to the house.

 This article first appeared in the January, 2016 issue of Sutton Life Magazine.


1 comment:

Edna Smith said...

Thanks for writing about "Along the County Line." Just wanted to point out that Charles Lacy, my grandfather, had been born in Nebraska. He met Edna Sheridan while working on a threshing crew traveling through Nebraska and South Dakota. After he got a job with the railroad in Laramie, Wyo., he came back to Sutton to marry her. Unfortunately, Edna's heart problems were exacerbated by the altitude in Laramie. Charlie Lacy ended up farming in Nebraska, eventually moving to Sutton where my mother and her siblings were raised.
The last time I was in Sutton was for a Sheridan Family Reunion in 2013. I look in on the Museum web page to keep in touch with my roots.