Luther French, a widower with eight children, set out alone from Iowa to establish a new home for his family in Nebraska. He arrived March 14, 1870, and is said to be the first to homestead in what now was Clay County. After digging a shelter into the banks along School Creek, he broke about six acres of sod, planted some vegetables, and four acres to wheat.
The French children, ranging in age from 4 to 20, arrived in June and found plenty to do before winter set in. Reports tell of a neighborhood "bee" organized to help with harvest, at which time they "got a little too much in their heads," resulting in "a frolic and general good-time of fun and rejoicing."
By early 1871, many people had arrived and the future town of Sutton started taking shape. With news that the railroad was coming, the settlement grew from "a wild prairie tract into a pretentious county seat" almost overnight. Mr. McTygue opened a store in May, selling groceries and supplies from a rough-board shanty. Three saloons were established, one using a tent for a store house. In June a blacksmith, Andrew Sherwood, fired up his forge in his newly-built soddy.
Reverend Jones, a Congregational minister, preached the first religious services in July 1871 in a grove of trees that later became the city park. With the rapid approach of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, J.R. Maltby encouraged French to lay out a town site, which he did on August 12. Maltby also suggested the name "Sutton." A few days later, an attorney representing the B&MR contacted French and "induced" him to sign a contract deeding a right-of-way to the railroad. In turn, he was promised that the company would build a depot at Sutton.
The lawyer, late with his original contact, was also slow in recording the deed. Impatient over the lack of progress, French sold the property to Isaac and Martin Clark on November 1, 1871, making his deal with the railroad null and void. The railroad, disgruntled that the town's name was not in "alphabetical order," plus further set-backs in land acquisition, built its depot several miles east, naming it "Grafton."
In the meantime, Thurlow Weed bought a carload of lumber and established a lumberyard in Sutton on August 23, and John Gray arrived with another load and started a second lumberyard on August 24. The sound of hammering was heard from dawn to dark. A dozen other businesses, including a hotel, had opened early in 1872, clearly preferring Sutton to the railroad's location.
A station was finally established at Sutton in 1873, at which time facilities at the other depot were abandoned. Shortly thereafter, the railroad's first group of German-Russian immigrants arrived. By the early 1900s, nearly 500 refugee families from the Volga region of Russia arrived via the railroad, making them the largest ethnic group in Clay County. The value of these dedicated, hard-working, and conscientious people provided a labor force second to none.
The controversy over the location of the county seat, starting in 1871, raged through six elections. While Sutton was the largest town, its location in the northeast corner of the county made it "too far" for many to travel on official business. In 1879 the town's leaders urged that they "voluntarily withdraw," and support the proposed town of Clay Center. It is said that no less than 20 newspapers published news, at least briefly, in Sutton from 1871-85.
Sutton remained the largest community in the county, taking a leadership role in many areas of development: churches, schools, and business. Located in the heart of Nebraska's corn belt, just 15 miles south of I-80, this town of 1,416 is still growing. A major downtown improvement project was recently completed. A three-year plan to renovate the century-old business district included the replacement of storm sewers, water mains, new service lines, and underground wiring before the new paving was poured. Completed without either state or federal funds, Sutton residents invite people to come and see what community pride and togetherness can do for a town on the move.
Farming and farm-related industry is still Sutton's primary economic base. Underground deep-well irrigation provides a good supply of water, making the Sutton area a garden spot, even in dry years. This is also a prime pheasant producing county. Hunters travel from far and wide to the Sutton area for the excellent hunting found here.
Material submitted by Betty Sheridan, Rte 2 Box 31, Sutton, NE
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Along the County Line, 1968, by Nellie Sheridan, Clay County Historical Society "Historical News Quarterly" Spring 1991.