Monday, July 10, 2017

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:

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