by Grace Bradford
As a child, I didn’t know much about my Kayton family ancestry except for the old toy tractors, faded photos of storefronts and a framed one dollar bill that sat upon a withered shelf in my maternal great-aunt Jo’s home. The story of where these objects came from was confusing to me. My great-aunt would explain the the in’s and out’s of Nebraska farming and the hijinks she and her brother would get into at Kayton International, the family shop.
Kayton International is the Kayton family’s farming equipment business. Passed down from generation to generation, Kayton International’s roots began in small-town Nebraska. However, the story of the Kayton’s started far from the one-stoplight Nebraska towns.
The first believed family member to stand on American soil is Barnard Kayton, my maternal 4th great-grandfather. Barnard immigrated from Ireland to Virginia and eventually married Jean Steele. Together, they had five children, including Henry Kayton.
From an early age, Henry had his sights on starting a business. He married Bell Nesbitt, a soft-spoken woman who immigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Fullerton, Nebraska, around the 19th century. There isn’t much documented on her voyage, but her curiosity and wit made her a favorite among her grandchildren.
According to my great-aunt, Bell and Henry were a “strange” couple. Henry was considered to be stern and bossy while Bell was fair and well-liked by the folks around town. She catered to her husband by baking him a pie every day for lunch and dinner. While raising their three children — Edna, Eve and Harold — Henry took the leap into the business world. During this time, the Kaytons were living in Belgrade, Nebraska. By 1920, Henry had opened up the first Kayton International shop.
Ten years later, Harold Kayton, Henry and Bell’s oldest child, opened up another Kayton International location in Cedar Rapids, Nebraska. In 1932, Henry died leaving a void at the Belgrade store. Rather than closing the business, Henry’s oldest daughter, Eva, managed the shop. Having a woman run a store was practically unheard of back then. However, she could outsmart any farmer that’d walk through the front door. Eva continued running the store until the location’s closing in 1934.
Eventually Eva and Edna grew tired of the small-town lifestyle. The two sisters saved their minuscule teacher salaries and traveled and lived all over the world . The fearless and determined sisters wrote about their travels, sent letters home but never stepped foot onto Nebraska soil again. Brother Harold, however, took over the family business with his wife.
He and his wife, Elvira, known by everyone as “Mom and Pop Kayton,” ran the business as partners. The Cedar Rapids shop served as hangouts for their two children, Robert and JoAnne. My grandfather and great-aunt would help sweep the shop floor after hours, play among the store shelves and work over the summers. My great-aunt said she can still hear the bell softly ring over the front door whenever a customer would walk in.
When Harold’s health began deterring, he called on son Robert to become part-owner of the shop. Robert, just out of high-school, had big shoes to fill. However, he was able to carry on the family business before entering the Navy in 1950.
Robert finished up in the Navy, married my grandma Joan and moved back to Cedar Rapids to fully take over the business and start a family. Unlike Robert, JoAnne had other plans. Like her aunts before her, JoAnne moved to start a new life in a bigger city. She worked a few government jobs in Washington, D.C., while independently exploring the big city. While she was working in D.C., the family business was booming but the Cedar Rapids location was becoming too small. They moved the store to Albion, Nebraska. Harold stayed active in the business until his death in 1966.
Robert and Joan raised their six children while keeping the Albion shop alive. My grandfather continued oversee the shop until his death in 1996. My uncles, Tim and Steve Kayton, took it over and decided to open up three more storefronts in Neligh, Norfolk and Crofton, Nebraska. The store has now been in the Kayton family for five generations.
The shop was a place where women could have control, where men could follow their passions and where children grew up and learned. The Kaytons are persistent risk takers, fearless leaders and have paved the way to where my family and I are today.