Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Dr. Martin V. B. Clark - Clay County's Pioneer Doctor


Dr. Martin Van Buren Clark was Clay County's first physician and pharmacist.
Dr. Martin V. Clark died at his home in Sutton on March 22, 1922. He had been a big part of the story of Sutton from the very beginning. He was the county’s first doctor.

Martin Van Buren Clark and his brother Isaac Newton Clark arrived in late 1871, more than a year and a half after the first homesteaders arrived in Northern Clay County. What did they find when they arrived?

Luther French is credited with the founding of Sutton. Mr. French staked out his homestead claim in early 1870, settled into his dugout and proceeded to grow a little wheat on land that is now the north section of our town.

He was alone out here on the prairie until the next spring when a trickle, and then a small flood of people came from the east and stopped here along the banks of School Creek. These 1871 arrivals were the ones who were much more interested in citing a town than Mr. French had been.

The earliest shops, dominated by saloons, lined Main Avenue. Those first settlers were postured in the path of the railroad and in August Burlington tracks cut through on the south end of that business strip.

Within days of the arrival of the railroad, John Maltby persuaded Luther French to survey his 80-acre farm into town lots as Maltby and friend William Way had taken possession of the 160 acres to the south – another good story we’ll pass on this time.

So when Martin V. B. Clark and brother I. N. Clark arrived on November 1, 1871 with their families, the community of School Creek had been renamed Sutton and 240 acres designated for the town.

French’s sale of his town lots were the first real estate transactions recorded in Clay County. It’s beyond the scope of this article but there seems to be an open question about those transactions. Our understanding of the Homestead Act leads us to believe Luther French would not have had clear title to his homestead until he’d completed the five-year process of proving-up the claim. Yet, there he is a year later selling off lots. Perhaps I’m missing something. However…

By the end of 1871, it was clear that town of Sutton would exist. What is not always clear, are the details of how our town came to be.

We have several contemporary accounts of those early days completed while the main cast was still around to authenticate the details. Unfortunately, that may not have always happened.

Most accounts stem from two sources. The nation made a fuss of its Centennial in 1876 including Clay County which commissioned a formal history. The committee consisted of Dr. Martin Clark, Judge John Maltby and Erastus White of Sutton along with Ezra Brown, Ira Pearsall and J. T. Fleming of Harvard. Dr. Clark read the entire text of “A History of Clay County, Neb.” at the celebration of American Independence in Sutton on July 5, 1876. This was a mere five years after most of the founding events occurred. We seldom get an account that contemporary from the main characters.



We're fortunate that within five years of the arrival of early Sutton and county settlers, the nation's centennial prompted the writing of a thorough history of the county. Additionally, the task fell to some educated early settlers.
A second oft-quoted source is the “History of Hamilton and Clay Counties” edited by George Burr and O. O. Buck and published in 1921. It contains more than 600 pages of biographical sketches of early Clay County Movers and Shakers including the Clark Brothers. Those gentlemen died in 1922 and 1927 so they were available to consult with on their own stories. Yet, details, especially specific dates, differ between those two primary sources.

Later stories of early Sutton history, including our own on behalf of the 21st Century Sutton Historical Society draw heavily on those two sources while wrestling with the variations in detail.

Another challenge in telling the story of the Clark brothers is that the normal robust genealogical information available online is really skimpy for these fellows. And, believe it or not, our Martin Clark is not the only Martin V. B. Clark with a wife named Mary from that era – the other was in New Hampshire.

Our Martin was born April 28, 1840 in Parma, Ohio, a south suburb of Cleveland. His parents were David Clark and Ximena (or Zimena) Roberts of Hartford, Connecticut. The couple had four children but only Martin and Isaac appear to have lived to adulthood.

Both Clark brothers were of an age that destined them for military duty in the Civil War. Martin served in the 7th Ohio Infantry, Company C and later rose to the rank of sergeant in the 8th Ohio Artillery Battery. He continued in federal and state military units for five years. Brother Isaac served in the 25th Illinois Infantry – both were active in Sutton’s George Meade Post of the G. A. R.

Mary Derby Henry - Mrs. Martin V. B. Clark
Martin Clark married Mary Derby Henry of Parma on the 4th of July, 1865. They had three daughters when they arrived, a fourth was born in Sutton.

Alice Clark was born in 1886. She is listed as Allie in the Sutton Alumni directory where she and her cousin Myra constitute one half of Sutton’s first high school graduating class. Alice would marry John W. Thompson who was a practicing physician in Sutton for many years. Their son John Clark Thompson was a doctor in Lincoln.

The second daughter was Mamie born in 1867, not to be confused with Sutton’s long-time social leader Mayme (Wieden) Clark, Mrs. Albert Clark and daughter-in-law of Isaac. Martin’s Mamie died in 1879 at the age of 11 and is buried with her parents in the Sutton cemetery.

Daughter number 3 was Edith Lorena Clark born in 1871 in Parma Heights, Ohio and therefore an infant when the family arrived in Sutton. Edith married Oscar Challburg and they had two children, Martin W. and Adelina. Martin Challburg is still well-remembered as a downtown Sutton insurance agent – office on the east side of the north end if I remember right – correct me if I’m wrong. I’m certain Martin Challburg had a lifetime of fine accomplishments but he is best remembered (test this if you’d like) for his two Great Danes – and grrrrreeat Danes they were. It was a memorable spectacle to time your visit to Carlsgaard’s Dairy Drive-in on the south end of town to be there when the Challburg’s treated those dogs to their ice cream cones. One-gulp treats.

The fourth daughter of Martin and Mary Clark was Ruth. One source lists her husband as Elmer G. Briard, a farmer of Madison, Nebraska. There’s other, less compelling evidence connecting her to a Fredrick Klein in Minnesota. There may have been two Ruth F. Clarks born in Nebraska in 1881. It’s on the list for further investigation, maybe.

Martin Clark attended Baldwin University in Ohio after the Civil War and then completed medical school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland – now known as Case Western. He was a professor of pharmacy and practiced medicine before he came to Nebraska.

Although Martin Clark wrote that he arrived in Sutton on November 1, 1871, other accounts claim he and his brother purchased all of Luther French’s unsold lots in October. And that too is part of the fun of this.

That part of French’s original homestead that extends into the west part of town was incorporated by the Clark brothers as “Clark’s Addition.” Almost six years ago, we wrote articles speculating on the origin of the names of Sutton’s streets and avenues. Out west there is a Clark Avenue and two names that match the names of Isaac’s children, Roy and Myra. There was a Glen Lake in the neighborhood, today’s Clark’s Pond. It all fits.

But there is no Alice, Mamie, Edith or Ruth avenues that could have been named after Martin’s kids. There is however a Euclid Avenue at the very west edge of town. Our fun speculation about that name six years ago was that that street was part of Martin’s legacy. Case Western Reserve University is on the east edge of Cleveland where the campus is bisected by a major street heading off to the distant suburb of Euclid. That Cleveland street is Euclid Avenue. Our speculation was that someone special lived on that street, special enough to warrant Martin naming a street in the brothers’ addition to Sutton after the Cleveland street. We can hope that someone special was his bride Mary Derby Henry, but we don’t have to.

The first commercial building on Saunders Avenue was an imposing structure
originally housing a hardware store, pharmacy, doctors office and home for
two families. Later occupants included a hotel, apartment building and other
commercial endeavors.
The first businesses in Sutton sprung up on Main Avenue, north of railroad tracks and the reputation on those first saloons, and perhaps other businesses contributed to the animosity that developed between the Burlington and Sutton. The Clark brothers chose to locate their first business on the west side of Saunders Avenue and south of the creek.

The first Clark House was a two-story building with Isaac’s hardware store and Martin’s pharmacy. Martin also set up his medical practice in the building – the first in the county. He was also an early county coroner. The brothers and their families lived upstairs for a while. The building later served as a hotel and as a boarding house and served the town until 1941.


Dr. Clark’s scientific background included not only his professions as a medical doctor and a pharmacist but he also taught applied chemistry and toxicology at Baldwin University and was known as a legal chemist. Courts in Clay and surrounding counties employed him for toxicology analysis in criminal cases – kind of a C.S.I. Sutton story.

His biographies list several cases: State vs. Anderson in Clay County, an arsenic case; State vs. Lee in Saline County, strychnia; State vs. Rath, Clay County, strychnia; State vs. Stevenson, Nuckolls County, Corrosive sublimate which was the first prosecution under “the pharmacy act” and State vs. Morse in Gage County, another strychnia case.

Whatever else Dr. Clark contributed to the development of Sutton, his lasting legacy is found in a gift he and his brother left to the City of Sutton in those early years. They carved out a four-block square straddling School Creek from the property they had purchased from Luther French donating that land for the Sutton City Park. The extreme southeast corner of the original park, the section on the south of School Creek today is home to a portion of the Sutton Museum – the Wolfe School, our country school museum.


This section of the map of early Sutton shows the original French homestead shaded with the Clark brother's addition extending past the border of this map to the west (left) of Glen Lake, more commonly known as Clark's Pond. The Clark brothers intended from the start, that the four blocks marked as Clark Square would be the Sutton City Park.

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

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