Surprise

Surprise! After many months off I’ve written a new post, and I intend to keep writing, although at a slightly slower and more sustainable pace than last winter.

I started researching Surprise, Arizona, only to discover that it may have been named after Surprise, Nebraska. Then while mapping Surprise, Nebraska, I found that there’s also a Surprise, New York! I’ll deal with each surprise separately.

Surprise, Arizona


from a fan's perspective
Photo by Kai (Click to view on Kai's flickr page)

Surprise was founded in 1938 by, depending on who you ask, Flora Mae Statler or her husband Homer C. Ludden. The long held popular opinion that the town was founded by Ludden appears to have changed in 2010 when property records were discovered showing that Statler owned the property that became Surprise before she was even married to Ludden. The Surprise, AZ Wikipedia article and the official city website say that it was Flora Mae Statler that founded the city. So where did the name Surprise come from? According to this story at some point Ms. Statler said “she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much” hence the name Surprise.

However, if you believe that Mr. Ludden founded Surprise, then it seems that Surprise, AZ, was named after Surprise, NE, Mr. Ludden’s hometown. This is what the Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce and Suprise, Nebraska Wikipedia page say.

I think that the real story is probably somewhere in between. Probably, Ms. Statler owned the property, married Mr. Ludden, and they founded the town together naming it after his hometown. But that’s mostly guesswork on my part. Either way the town was founded in 1938, incorporated in 1960, and is now a medium city where the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers hold their spring training camps.

Surprise, Nebraska

It looks like Surprise, Nebraska has quite a history, (there was an opera house there at one time, although there seems to be some disagreement online about which building it acutally is), but unfortunately not much of it is findable online. According to the Surprise, NE Wikipedia page there are only fourty-four people living there at the moment, which would explain why a lot of the history is not yet online, (although I was able to find a reference to people seeing wild lions near Surprise in Google Books).

So why is Surprise, NE is called Surprise? The Wikipedia page says that when a group of settlers came upon the people who were already living in Surprise and asked what the village was called, Dr. Anthony Swanson, a resident of the village, responded with “as the tea kettle keeps whistlin’, I say, I’m surprised me and Mary are still here!” and was misunderstood to mean that the village was called Surprise, ironically leading to the village being called Surprise. Of course the answer can’t be as simple as that. The 1960 book Nebraska Place-Names (New Edition)’s story is that “Surprise was so named by the settlers because they were surprised to find the land so much better than they expected it to be after their first tour through this part of the country.” Every place has so many stories, which do you think is true?

Surprise, New York

Surprise, NY is even smaller than Surprise, NE, which would explain why I’ve been having trouble finding much at all about it. I have been able to determine that Surprise, New York is located in Greene County, NY, and according to the Wikipedia page for Greenville, NY is “a hamlet near the east town line” (of Greenville). It’s mappable on Google Maps, and Street View shows not much more than a few barns. I would be interested to know more about the history of Surprise, New York and how it got its name.

Those are all of the surprises I’ve got for today, (pun very intended). If you know of any other surprises please post in the comments or let me know. Welcome to 2011!

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6 Comments

  1. My dad lived in Surprise, Nebrasks.

    He said the name is because the road steeply drops into the valley and, surprise, there is a town! Thus the name.

    I was there in the 1970s. The area looked somewhat desolate, then all of a sudden the road dropped down into the valley, yes, surprise, there is a town.

  2. My great-great-grandfather George miller founded Surprise, Nebraska in 1881. He built a gristmill on the Big Blue River and was surprised by the waterpower so near to the river’s headwaters.

  3. I’m going to visit some relatives I’ve never meet in Suprise,Nebraska and I’ve been told its called Suprise because of what you find after it snows.It is mostly stuff you never knew you even lost. I’m not sure how true this is but I plan to try to visit in the winter

  4. Here is my research and interpretation of Surprise, NE as well as Surprise, AZ:
    Surprise, NE:

    It was 1881 when George Miller and several members of his family decided to build a dam on the small, spring-fed stream not far from the headwaters of the Big Blue River. They hoped to be able to impound enough water to operate a grist mill. The surprise was the amount of water power that was available.

    It is said that Miller was not only pleased, but also quite surprised to get enough water power for such an enterprise, so he gave his mill the name “Surprise.”

    The town of Surprise, NE grew up around the mill by that name. The post office was established in 1883, and the town plat registered in 1884.

    Also recorded: Settlers named the town Surprise “because they were surprised to find the land so much better than they expected,” according to Lilian L. Fitzpatrick’s book “Nebraska Place-Names.” 1925/1960

    Surprise, AZ
    Homer C. Ludden was born on November 27 1880, in Surprise, Butler County, Nebraska, to Charles W Ludden and Emma Jane Ludden (born Clark).

    Homer lived in Nebraska from 1885-1910, and Arizona from 1910-1958
    Education: Graduate of High School, Nebraska State Normal School and University of Nebraska
    Homer was a milkman, mail carrier, service station owner, realtor, land developer, a member of the Glendale Town Council and an Arizona state legislative representative.
    Homer married Edna Adelle Pritchett (born Robinson) in 1922, at age 41. Edna was born in 1888, in Scribner, Nebraska. They had one daughter: Kathryn E. Lieber (born Ludden). They divorced in 1948, at age 67 in Arizona. Homer then married Flora Mae (Gillett) Statler (29 May 1890-4 Oct 1953) sometime after 1948.
    After World War I, Flora’s father, Charles E. Gillett, opened a service station in Glendale with Homer C. Ludden, with whom he also worked in insurance and real estate. (Texaco products were available in 1923 at the service station of Homer and Charlie.) Gillett’s daughter, Flora Mae (Gillett) Statler, was one of the attendants who pumped gas. Flora was born in Moab (Pulaski), Missouri to Rachel and Charles Edwin Gillett, an old-school multi-hyphenate who brought his family to Glendale, making them among early city residents. Among other things, Charles was a service-station owner, real estate investor, and friend to Arizona’s first governor, George W.P. Hunt. Flora was first married to Luther Ward Statler (1882-1959) in 1911 and then to Homer Charles Ludden, sometime after 1948.
    Drawn to speculation, Flora worked at the station and her father’s office. Eventually, she took the reins in Charles’ real estate business, and by the late 1920s, she was ready to branch out and make her own investments. Homer and Flora became partners in their real estate business comprised mostly of real estate development west of Phoenix. In 1928, she platted an 83-lot neighborhood just north of downtown Glendale and named it Floralcroft. Besides developing the Floralcroft Addition to Gilbert, Statler and Ludden secured the agreements to purchase the Luke Field properties in 1940 to start development of the town of Surprise, AZ. The city was just one square mile of farmland back in 1938 when Flora Mae Statler founded it. So why did she call it Surprise? According to Statler’s daughter Elizabeth Wusich Stoft, her mother once commented “she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much.” However, it is also very likely she named it Surprise for her longtime friend, business partner, and eventual husband Homer C. Ludden, who was born and raised in Surprise, Nebraska. Flora Mae’s comment per her daughter’s recollection, would then still sensibly apply.

    My Thoughts:
    The interesting facts are: Homer C. Ludden (born in Surprise, NE) eventually married Flora Mae (Gillett) Statler sometime after 1948. Prior to that, and shortly after World War I, (late teens/early 20’s), Flora’s father, Charles E. Gillett, and Homer Ludden opened a service station (Texaco products) in Glendale (1923). Flora was one of the attendants who pumped gas. She and Homer also opened a real estate office, and both became real estate developers. Homer and Flora Mae knew/worked with each other since the early 1920’s…eventually marrying after each were divorced around 1948. The town of Surprise, AZ was founded/platted by Flora Mae and Homer in 1938. The City of Surprise was incorporated in 1960, following Flora Mae’s death in 1953, and Homer’s death in 1958.
    My educated guess is, Flora may have owned the property and founded/platted Surprise, AZ, in 1938, but it was likely named for Surprise, NE. Why? Because, Flora Mae knew Homer C. Ludden since the early 1920’s eventually marrying Homer around 1948, and in addition, per Ludden family/Surprise, NE statements/documents. Surprise, NE post office was established in 1883, and the town plat was registered in 1884.
    So, Flora may very well have commented “she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much.” But it makes more sense that the town was already named as such based on her longtime friend/business partner/eventual husband Homer Charles Ludden, from Surprise, NE.
    BTW….There is also the very small town of Surprise, NY with no known connections to NE or AZ

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