The Bemis family commemorative brick at the Sutton Museum display
Hosea’s wife Ann and family had stayed in Marion, Iowa near Cedar Rapids where the 54-year old Civil War vet had been farming. Their daughter Ada Augusta had married George Bemis in 1868, had lost a year-old son in 1870 and had another infant son.
The historical society has shown a bias towards the Gray family in our retelling of the story of Sutton’s early days. Explainable. John Gray built the two houses that comprise our museum. But now it’s time to talk about Mr. Bemis.
George and Ada Bemis had been living in Belle Plaine, Iowa west of her parents when the extended Gray family headed west. We’ve not found any account that spells out their motivation for the move, but heading to the frontier was the consequence of a variety of reasons.
The Gray and Bemis families were both farm families in Iowa but soon Hosea Gray and George Bemis were both practicing attorneys in the new town of Sutton. Entry into the legal profession was then more of an apprentice thing than a formal education – remember Abraham Lincoln’s story?
Ada Bemis told a story that indicates George may have been more an attorney and less of a farmer. Seems shortly after the family arrived in the start-up town of Sutton, George Bemis bought a milk cow, perhaps the first one in town. Neighbors gathered as he milked his cow that first evening – probably wasn’t much on TV that night…
Then the next morning, George was drinking coffee after breakfast when Ada asked if he was going out to milk the cow. George response was, “Why? Are you out of milk already?”
Unclear on the concept.
The Bemis family was an old New England family. George Whitfield Bemis was born September 1, 1846 in Mayfield, New York, on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains northwest of Schenectady. His mother was Eleanor Day, born in that same town in 1808 but her family origins appear lost in the haze.
George’s father was Phineas Bemis who was born in Vermont but his grandfather Isaac, a Revolutionary War veteran and four earlier generations of John Bemis’ all lived in Middlesex County, Massachusetts just outside of Boston. George’s fifth great-grandfather Joseph was the immigrant, born in Essex County England in 1619 who arrived in Massachusetts in 1640.
The Bemis family certainly had deep colonial roots. The biography of one daughter, Anna Gray, who will return to our story later, reflects the roots of the family: member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the United States Daughters of 1812 and the Nebraska Society of Mayflower Descendants.
George and Ada Bemis had one son when they arrived in Sutton. There may have been as many as seven subsequent children born between 1872 and 1886. The family had moved to York by 1900 where George continued to practice law and served a term as mayor. Ada built a reputation in York as a musician and writer. Four of their children appeared in the 1900 census with their parents: Anna, Gray, Winnie and Eugene.
The Bemis family is one of hundreds of Sutton residents, past and present
remembered at the front door of the Historic House.
Before he left Sutton, George Bemis played a part in Sutton’s “war” with the Burlington Railroad. This story has been hashed and re-hashed in other contexts, but we’ll cover a bit of the background here.
The Burlington railroad resisted placing a depot in Sutton for quite some time. There were several issues separating the positions of the railroad and Sutton’s early settlers and the “negotiations” did not always occur up there on the High Road.
The best that Sutton could get out of the Burlington was a freight car parked on a siding that was to serve as a temporary depot. The thing was identified by an old bleached Buffalo skull with the number “124” painted on it.
Then, in December, 1871, even that vanished and reappeared about four and a half miles east at a location the Burlington named Grafton. This was not where Grafton currently is, but about half way between today’s Sutton and Grafton. It was half way between Fairmont and Harvard and also between Lincoln and Kearney.
The railroad owned much of the land around their Grafton and with a depot at that site, Grafton would grow, Sutton would surely wither. Burlington’s Grafton had four houses and one general merchandise store operated by a Mr. Marthis and his partner, Mr. Robbins.
There were off-and-on negotiations involving Sutton people, the railroad and the postal service, none of which were going anywhere.
Then just before Christmas, the wheels started to turn, so to speak. Someone talked Marthis and Robbins into moving their store to Sutton. The Clark brothers gave them a lot and Sutton citizens, let by George Bemis and his friend W. Cunning took teams to Grafton, loaded up the store and brought it into Sutton.
George Bemis was a better lawyer than farmer and, as it turns out, was probably a better poet than farmer also. He’s not Poet Laureate material. If we were to name a Poet Laureate for Sutton, Anne Sheridan would definitely be in the running. But the Bemis poem was good enough to appear in the Daily State Journal and has been repeated in most meaningful publications about the early history of Sutton. It’s been almost seven years since the historical society has published it.
GRAFTON to SUTTON
What a clanking if hammers and ringing of saws;
How they sound through the valleys and ring in the draws,
Oh! Sutton is growing, in the midst of the fray,
With the city of Grafton only four miles away.
How the B. & M. engines shriek, whistle and squall,
And send forth the order that Sutton must fall,
How they thunder and matter, and grow night and day
With the city of Grafton only three miles away.
Then came Mr. Marthis, and thus he did say,
“I’m tired of Grafton, if only it may;
I’ll come down to Sutton, without delay.”
Soon Grafton will be only two miles away.
Soon Grafton will be only two miles away.
Then started the wagons and horses and men,
The steeds, how they foamed, as a whip now and then,
Came down on their sides, near the close of the day,
With the city of Grafton only one mile away.
Then rushed down the hill the black and the gray,
And close followed the crowd to have support on the way,
And the shout that went up in the end of the fray,
Said, “The city of Grafton is in Sutton today.”
A bit of a diversion here. That buffalo skull from the temporary depot is displayed in the front porch of our museum. But why “124?”
The usual writings about Sutton, the Griess book on the Germans from Russia, the Sheridan sisters’ book and others mention the depot, the skull and that number. But we’ve not seen anyone take a run at explaining why “124.” Let’s fix that.
Railway systems are one-dimensional systems. The track has length; neither width and height are factors. Distance measurements along the track are a big deal. So could “124” be a measurement from somewhere.
I traced the Burlington route with the Google Earth ruler and lo and behold, it’s about 124 miles from the Plattsmouth Bridge where the Burlington crosses the Missouri River into Nebraska to Sutton. You do have to work your way around the curves as the track follows the Platte for a ways, but even with my rough approximation, I’m good with that story and include it in my museum tours.
End of diversion.
We need to mention at least two of the Bemis kids in this story.
Anna Gray Bemis was born in Sutton on December 28, 1876. The family moved to York where she graduated from high school and college. She was active, really active in York. We mentioned her genealogy related organizations earlier. Add to those, school teacher for nine years, manager of a wholesale music firm for five, author for numerous magazines (including Field and Stream and the Nebraska Farmer), president of the state American Legion Auxiliary, state chairman of the WCTU and the Amateur Musicale Club, officer of the York Women’s Club and the Pythian Sisters and a member of the Native Sons and Daughters. Her hobby was genealogy.
Anna shared this life with two men. Her first husband was an Ohioan, Robert Cutler, who was about 30 years her senior. He passed away in 1935 at the age of 89. She married Col. Orlando G. Palmer in 1944. He died in 1950; Anna died on January 13, 1962.
The York museum participated in our commemorative brick project at the
Sutton Museum with their namesake's brick at her brother's house - our
The other Bemis offspring we’ll mention also made his mark in York.
Eugene Henry Bemis was born on July 4, 1880, immediately following Anna in the family kid sequence. He was married to Kittie Houston of York.
Eugene, or Gene Bemis had a career in the newspaper business serving as associate editor of The New Teller newspaper. He did some writing for magazines and wrote lyrics for J. A. Parks compositions in York. (Not sure what that was, but first look at a Google link invites more attention.)
Gene Bemis’ bio has almost as many organizations as his sister’s. He was definitely into music composition and running musical programs.
But the publication we want to focus on here is his book, The Squawker Book published in 1919. It is a soft bound collection of his writings as editor of The New Times introduced with the self-deprecating line, “…purported to be a humorous department of The New Teller.” Its dedication read, “We ain’t mad at nobody.” The column was scheduled to appear, “any darn time we please or oftener.” We thank the Houston family for our copy at the museum. Well, it’s at the museum when I haven’t brought it home to read its 100 pages just one more time.
The Squawker Book is a collection of Gene Bemis'
columns in The New Times, his York newspaper.
Bemis wrote with a folksy dry wit that could remind of Will Rogers. (Did I lose anyone with that reference? Probably.)
The George Bemis family moved on to York after making their contribution to Sutton’s early days. While researching this article I did check the Sutton Cemetery on findagrave.com and found Bertie Bemis (1870-1887) who matches George and Ada’s son Lucian Albert Bemis – I submitted an update to the memorial on findagrave.
The other Bemis graves turned out to be members of the family of Willard Eugene Bemis (1842-1917), and older brother of George Bemis. Willard seems to have followed his brother to Sutton, lived in Omaha at one time and was a Sutton rural mail carrier in 1910. The four Bemis names in the Sutton School alumni directory are from this family, children and grandchildren.
In any event, the Bemis name is no longer around Sutton. But the family ranks among Sutton’s first settlers and did leave tracks in our community – not just graves, and at least one poem that will continue to pop up from time to time in accounts of Sutton’s history.
George Whitfield Bemis (1846-1915) and Ada Augusta Gray (1848-1945) – Sutton Pioneers.