Monday, July 31, 2017

We Don't Want No Stinkin', Rottin' Food

About a year ago, our monthly article was about Sutton’s pioneer Bemis family. We retold a story that Mrs. Bemis, the former Ada Gray had told on her husband, attorney George Bemis, a story that shows up in early Sutton accounts.

It was early in that first spring when only a few dozen people had found and settled in Sutton. George had bought a cow and that evening much of the community gathered to observe the milking of what may have been the town’s first milk cow.

The next morning George was sitting at the table after breakfast when Ada asked him if he was going to milk the cow. His response was, “Why? Are you out of milk already?”

Ada may have told Sutton’s first joke, at least its first lawyer joke. But the story triggers a more serious thought about those early days. How did Ada take care of that fresh milk to keep it from spoiling at a time before refrigeration? How did people store and protect their perishable foods generally?

The food preservation problem goes back a long way, to ancient times when people discovered that salt helped to keep food edible preventing bad tummy aches. Mark Kurlansky published a book in 2002 he called simply, “Salt – A World History” describing how much of the world’s history was driven by the search for sources of that edible and useful rock.

The Romans had numerous sources but when they settled in Britain, they found salt mines all over that island. Town names ending in “-wich” are, in almost every case, a town with a salt mine in its history.
This icebox from the 1920's illustrates one style with the block of
ice in the left compartment. Our icebox from the '40's had a bottom
compartment for the ice. 
Way before that, the city of Jericho in the West Bank of Palestinian Territories was founded almost 10,000 years ago as a salt trading center. And a more recent fun fact is that the early village of Lancaster where its 30 residents were engaged in gathering salt from the marshes along Salt Creek was designated as the state capitol and renamed “Lincoln” partially on the expectation that salt mining would be the basis of a local booming economy.

The lure of spices from the east contributed to the Columbus adventure in 1492 having a certain and large impact on history.

Salt helped preserve food by absorbing water from the food making an environment too dry for mold or bacteria to develop. Spices such as vinegar, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, etc. keep food fresh by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, though cynics may say that it makes food taste so bad you don’t notice it’s rotten.

Before the Bemis family came to Sutton, people wise to the ways of preserving food roamed the area. Native Americans had pemmican. You may have had the misfortune of stumbling upon online videos advertising a book called “The Lost Ways”. The book supposedly describes 150 lost ways to live in the woods. The impetus behind the book is the survivalist movement and you’ll need to wade through the politics on this one.
Native Americans made, and lived on pemmican; mountain men and settlers copied the recipe and today,
today it belongs to campers and survivalists. 
The pemmican video describes how to make the product by drying lean meat and berries in a low-heat oven, grinding the meat and berries into a powder, and then mixing that concoction with melted beef tallow or fat. The result is a supposed to be a high-energy, tasty, and long-lasting food. Ten pounds of the stuff will sustain you for a month in the woods, etc.

The mountain men and early settlers learned about pemmican from the Indians and adapted that and many similar Native American food and food preservations secrets.

The problem of keeping food safe was widespread, far beyond that of the Bemis family and their neighbors in those early Sutton years.

Those people moving west in wagon trains had to know how to keep food fresh. Sailors needed to bring along food and water for their entire trip, plus a safety margin. Have you ever had hardtack and grog?

Generals understood well that an army moves on its stomach, that is, no amount of the latest in armaments will do any good if the general can’t keep the men fed and healthy.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte gets credit for one of the major breakthroughs in food
Napoleon had a hand in the invention of the
canning process when he held a contest to find
a way to keep food safe for the troops. 
preservation that the settlers used and we depend on today. Military officers knew that tainted food was a huge risk to their army. A soldier in his tent doubled up with a bad stomach ache is as useless to the general that day as the comrade who was shot in the head yesterday.

Napoleon offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs in the late 18th century to anyone who could develop a reliable method of food preservation. Nicholas Appert came up with the idea of preserving food in bottles, like wine. After 15 years of experimenting, he figured out that if food was heated enough and sealed in an airtight container, it would not spoil, and the process of canning was invented. We don’t know what he did with the prize money.

Canning food was a simple process that anyone could do at home providing safe food for long periods of time.

But back to Ada Bemis. What did she do in 1871 to keep the milk safe? The tried and true approach at that time was to keep the milk in a cool place, usually in cool water. School Creek was handy. Maybe that’s where she kept the milk.

Entrepreneurs on the frontier stepped up to offer ice through much of the year. Sutton’s ice man was I. N. Clark followed by his son, Bertie. Their source was the winter ice in Glen Lake, now called Clark’s Pond. They would cut blocks of ice out of the lake in the winter storing the ice in their ice house. The elder Clark put up 5,000 tons of ice each winter in the early 1890’s. Ice houses were usually dug a few feet deep into the ground and a solid roof built overhead. Ice was layered with straw, a good insulator, and would keep through most of the summer.

Several farmers in the northeast corner of the county built their own ice house, or ice cave stocking it with ice from the Blue River during the winter and sharing the ice in the summer.

Even the nobility had food storage issues. This
partially sunk ice house is in the Boboli Gardens
behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy, home of
the ruling Medici family from about 1550.
Ice storage was a world-wide problem. The “coolest” instance I found was the ice house in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy, behind the Pitti Palace. That palazzo was the Medici home from the mid-16th century and, of course, was used by Napoleon for a time.

Several years ago, we found a newspaper clipping about a fellow near Glenvil who had a large ice business on the banks of the Little Blue River. His storage facility was a way up the bank of the river with an elaborate pulley system to transport the blocks of ice up the hill.

Later, now within my memory, the Sutton Mill just west of downtown on the north side of the Burlington tracks had an ice business. This was during the years before electricity came to the farm and the “icebox” was the answer to cold storage. The icebox was an insulated cupboard, looking much like a refrigerator, but with a section to hold a large block of ice. There was a pan to collect the melted water that you wanted to empty often. My memory is that the blocks of ice we purchased from the mill were about 1 foot cubes, the last purchase in town before heading home.

Another handy cool place was a well. Foodstuffs could be lowered on a rope into the bottom of the well where the temperatures would be considerable cooler than above ground and food would keep for several days.

One farm wife’s story at the State Historical Society’s website describes using tanks in the farm’s milk house to keep milk cool. The water in the tanks needed to be changed daily, or more often, but it worked.

Root cellars were, and still are, another structure dug into the ground, roofed over and stocked with potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc. all layered with straw. Straw layers hold trapped air which makes a good heat insulator protecting cool food from the heat.

When electricity service came to the house, the refrigerator was high up on the wish list of new appliances. It’s hard to overestimate the impact the refrigerator had on the quality of life after literally thousands of years of making do with barely adequate ways to keep food fresh and safe.
Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), modern C-Rations, may be the current high-water mark for technology to preserve and store
food. Military needs come in large sizes and DoD has the resources to make things happen.
The technology and the methods to keep food safe continue to develop. And as often happens, the military has the biggest need and the largest incentive to address it. My last active duty assignment was at the Defense Logistic Agency’s depot in northern California. That facility was tasked with producing Meals Ready to Eat for use by the army and marines and for long-term storage. A relatively small workforce produced millions of these food packs incorporating the food processing and preservation techniques developed over time.

And finally, there is a question that bothered me a lot recently. We typically store about 10 dozen eggs for the historical society’s pancake breakfast on the first Saturday of the month and the Allegro Wolf’s third Saturday waffle breakfast.

We were keeping the eggs in the refrigerator when I remembered that back on the farm in the 50’s we collected about 30 dozen eggs at a time before taking them to town and we certainly did not refrigerate them – we never had that kind of capacity.

After inconclusive discussions, I consulted the ultimate authority, the internet. In part of the world, the U. S., Japan, Australia and Scandinavia, we prefer clean, even pristine eggs so we wash our eggs. Washing removes a natural protective film the chicken puts on the egg. That coating resists bacteria, salmonella and the like. So, without that coating, we need to refrigerate our eggs.

In the rest of the world, most of Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. the egg production and delivery system does not wash the eggs so with the protective film intact, there is no need to refrigerate the eggs. Apparently, those people are less squeamish about buying eggs with chicken poop stains.
After some time with a nagging question about the proper way to store eggs, a bit of research came up with not one
preferred way, but two completely different answers, both equally valid. Case closed.
Both systems work equally well in keeping eggs safe for consumption. The rule is that the system must be consistent and a supporting array of regulations ensures that.

Since you have lasted through this entire article, I commend you. This is another example of our attempt to learn some details about how people have lived in Sutton’s past. If there is some aspect of the past that interests you, let us know as eight years of this series eaten up almost 100 topics. Coming up with another topic each month gets increasingly difficult.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Monday, July 10, 2017

1967 Dedication of the French Historic Marker in City Park

The Luther French Historical Marker was dedicated in 1967 and until a few months ago, was the only marker in Sutton's City Park. A new marker is now at the other end of the pavilion recognizing that Sutton was the first Germans from Russia settlement in Nebraska. 

This photo was donated to the Historical Society by the Sheridan family from the material saved by Betty Sheridan.

With the help of the accompanying article, we can take a better run at identifying these seven folks. Our original photo
failed to identify the woman on the left, listed the next fellow as "Rev", Earl Vauck is third and Annetta Trautman completes the left group. The first fellow on the right was identified as a French relative plus Robert French and Paul Bender.

Our reading of the article suggests the woman on the left is the French granddaughter, Mrs. Charles Burns of Sutton. The "Rev" is very likely Rev. Norman L. Jones of Hope Reformed Church who gave the invocation. Bert French of Sheridan, Wyoming is the grandson not identified in our original.

So the seven shown here are Mrs. Charles Burns, Rev. Norman L. Jones, Earl Vauck, Annetta Trautman and Bert French, Robert French and Paul Bender.

This clipping describes the dedication in Sutton's City Park in 1967.

And the text of this marker is:

Our Library of Local and Area History

We are fortunate to have a robust library of books and other publications that tell the story of Sutton, Clay County, South Central Nebraska and state and the Great Plains.

The two important publications that pertain to Sutton history are the Sheridan sisters’ book “Along the County line" and Jim Griess’s book about the Germans from Russia. Each does a great job of telling parts of Sutton’s story.

The Sheridan’s told us about Sutton and the farm lands to the southeast into Fillmore County. Jim Griess focused on the story of our major demographic group, working in the early history of our town and tracing the family histories of the Germans from Russia back to Russia and to struggles of the unification of Germany.

And there are many other publications that help to tell the story of our past. We’re going to dash through many of those now.

When we reached the end of the first century of settlement in this area our county communities marked the occasion with the publication of centennial books. Nearly every town in Clay County publish their own Centennial book: Edgar and Fairfield in 1972; Harvard in 1973; Clay Center, 1979; Deweese and Ong in 1986; even Eldorado, 1988 and Spring Ranch in 1990. Missing from that list is Sutton.

Sutton was the first county town to reach 100 years of settlement and perhaps it didn’t enter anyone’s mind at the time to tell that 100-year story. Harvard almost missed out too. Their centennial book is called “Harvard, Nebraska 100 Years + 2” perhaps my favorite title for a book, any book. We might assume that Edgar and Fairfield’s 1972 publications may have triggered the Harvard’s folks.

Don Russell made a good attempt to correct that situation when he was publisher of The Clay County News with his book, “Sutton Nebraska – 125 Years – A Pictorial History”. While his format did not follow that of the earlier county centennial books, he did provide us with almost 100 pages of valuable photos of those first 125 years of Sutton.

A very early short publication about the county was The Centennial Sketch of Clay County, Nebraska published in 1876. That centennial was that of the nation and a county historical committee compiled four, two-column pages packed with the story of the first five years of Clay County. We’ve posted the sketch on our blog at

County Agent George Woosley and the Extension Service produced “The Story of Clay County” in 1969, a 70-page soft-cover for a buck and a quarter. It has sections for each community and a several of the county’s stories.

We start to move beyond the boundaries of Clay County with the large two-volume (almost 1500 pages) “History of Hamilton and Clay Counties” from 1921. Volume 1 has a section for each town in each county plus sections on a variety of subjects. Volume II has more than 400 biographies of citizens.

“The Fillmore County Story” is substantial. It’s a hardback of almost 400 large-format pages with 15-20 pages for each township. Schools, homesteads, early businesses and settlers get thorough coverage in this book, edited by Wilbur G. Gaffney and published by the Geneva Community Grange in 1968.

Clay and Fillmore Counties share “Mother Wanted a Son” by Alida Curtiss which we’ve written about before: Though it is a novel it is based closely on the life if Nellie Stevens who with the author operated a millinery shop in Sutton for several years.

The York County chronicler was Marie Kramer with at least three books, “Grandchildren of the Pioneers”, Volumes 1 and 2 and “Homestead Fever”. These contain one to three page stories from a widespread, multi-state footprint. One of local interest is an account of a Geneva area farm family by Homer Brauning. His father enticed a brother to stay on the farm by buying him a tractor. He borrowed money from the banker in Grafton to buy a John Deere for $825, a huge investment at the time. Then they drove it home from Sutton on steel wheels, installing lugs when they got it to the yards. So, Bender’s sold them a Johnny Popper.

”Old Settlers’ History of York County, Nebraska” has similar early stories (some duplicates of Ms. Kramer) including a bit more information about the Wellman family who started Sutton’s first newspaper – they were in the York newspaper business too.

A local-interest book sometimes turns out to be “something else”. Dr. John Janovy, a University of Nebraska professor and parasitologist wrote “Keith County Journal” about the birds, snails, people and other critters in one

Many of these books are in local libraries. I think the Clay Center Library has all the town centennial books. The Sutton Museum has some of them (when they aren’t on my desk serving nobly.)

The “Images of America” series has a pictorial book about Hastings – there may be hundreds in this series. Another Hastings book is “The 1931 Hastings Bank Job” by Monte McCord and published by The History Press.

Another History Press book (again, there are many) is Melissa Marsh’s “Nebraska POW Camps”.  I picked up those, and many others at Prairie Books & Gifts on 2nd Street in Hastings.

We should be permitted to claim an expanded list of “local and area” topics to include the discovery, exploration and settlement of the West. The Oregon Trail cut through the southwest corner of the county and provides us with numerous titles.

“The First Girl in the West” is an autobiography of Eliza Spalding Warren, whose family was with the first covered wagon trek in 1836. Catherine Sager’s story is “Across the Plains in 1844”. “Diary and Journals” by Narcissa Whitman is another 1836 story of the long trip to Oregon. These and many other accounts, usually from journals and diaries of women and girls, describe the details of that trip through our area 180 years ago.

Men seldom left us such contemporary accounts. They were busy keeping oxen, mules, horses and cattle alive and moving west along trails through open country. The women tell us the story.

The series of at least 11 books, “Covered Wagon Women” contain the diaries and letters from women who recorded the day-to-day events along the trails for the several months it took to get from the Missouri River to Oregon or California.

Nearly all the books mentioned here and many more are available on,, often for as little as 99 cents. Often hard to pass up.

Consider that essentially every traveler along the Oregon Trail was making the trip for their first, and only time. Almost none had any experience to draw on. The trip often turned into a series of mistakes and blunders threatening to end in failure, sometimes spectacularly. Historians estimate that there was a grave an average of every 200 feet along the Oregon Trail. That is the material for storytelling filling many books.

Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather are Nebraska treasures who illustrate that the story of the west can be told equally well with fiction as well as non-fiction. Mari Sandoz’ wrote “Old Jules” about her father and every bit as much about the Sand Hills. Willa Cather’s classic novels were realistically placed around the town of Red Cloud – many of the buildings and features in the books are readily identifiable today. The dedication of the National Willa Cather Center will occur between the time I write this and when it is published.

Must mention one more Nebraska woman, Louise Pound, longtime English professor at the University of Nebraska but who mingled widely putting a Nebraska face on several intellectual organizations and endeavors. Her book, “Nebraska Folklore” is typical. She was president of the American Folklore Society at one time.

So, it should be clear that there are dozens or hundreds of books that tell the story of Sutton, Clay County, southcentral Nebraska and the surrounding area. I’ve not touched upon the several topics including Native Americans and other 19th Century topics.

These books are valuable for their content. But many years ago, I acquired a set of books covering these topics from one of those Time-Life “deals”, books of interest for more than content. The Classics of the Old West series has decorated my bookshelves in three homes.

These books are leather-bound and were printed with the plates from the original editions. They are almost works of art.

There are recognizable titles, “Roughing It” by Mark Twain, “A Tour of the Prairies” by Washington Irving and William Cody’s “The Life of Buffalo Bill”. But the real treasures are the much more obscure books by early westerners.

Those include “My Sixty Years on the Plains” by William Hamilton, an early trapper. The book was published in 1905 with eight full-page illustrations by Charles Russell whose Great Falls studio was along our drive downtown circa 1970. Captain Hobbs wrote “Wild Life in the Far West” describing his times in Colorado and elsewhere about the west. He seems to have known a lot of folks: Kit Carson, Zachary Taylor, Maximillian and many more.

“Captivity of the Oatman Girls” by Royal Stratton tells of the capture of two girls by the Apaches. Another book is “Live Among the Apaches” by Major John Cremony who had no love for that tribe, but admired their skill at warfare against the U.S. Army.

“The Adventures of Big-Foot Wallace” by John Duval is about a traveling man and frontier yarn-spinner who spent most of his time in Texas.

There are 24 of these books. The appeal is in the production of the books with the leather covers and their preservation of the design of early books. The black and white illustrations are effective but there is merit in the way the table of contents is detailed titles for chapters and sections that enable one to find a vaguely remembered reference months and years later.

This series was a companion to another Time-Life offering called “The Old West”, a large-format series of 26 books, lavishly illustrated and available in some of our libraries. My set has moved on to grandsons. Much of that series is available at amazon searching for “old west time life books”. The whole series is $135.79; individual books from a couple of bucks to 5-ish.

We’ve been writing articles generally about Sutton history and related topics for eight years and have often drawn on books in the library, at the museum or on the shelves at home. We can’t overstate the extent of the material available to satisfy curiosity about what has come before, here in Sutton, and in the surrounding area. If you have an interest in our history, there are plenty of opportunities to oblige that interest.

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Mustang Media for information about the publication: