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Nebraska...Our Towns

Brownville -- Nemaha County

An early "port city" Brownville had a good docking area, and a sizable hill on which homes could be built above the flood plain, 1866. [Simon]
The Burlington Depot at Brownville, ca. 1880s.
The north side of main street, looking west, ca 1890.
Main Street in 1870. The Masonic Hall (second building on the left) is still standing. The large building on the right was destroyed by arson in 1903. [Simon]
Flea Market looking east on Main Street, September 30, 1989. Over 10,000 visitors browsed the 1209 displayers. [Simon]

Richard Brown began building a log cabin, 18 feet square, on August 29, 1854. Not only did the Brown family, which included three or four children (and several slaves), live in the small house that first winter, but Brown also taught school, and held church services there on Sundays.

By fall there were perhaps ten other cabins at this location. "Brownville" was considered, briefly, as a possible location for the territorial capital. A post office was established on January 16, 1855.

In the spring, Brown built a flatboat ferry. A flour mill and a lumber mill sprang up. Religion, education, commerce, and culture came into the new territory with the burgeoning steamboat trade, and the rush of overland settlers. When the county organized in 1856, Brownville was named its county seat.

In 1856, when Robert W. Furnas (the state's second governor) arrived, he began publishing "The Nebraska Advertiser." In 1859 he founded the "Nebraska Farmer." Soon the town was booming -- with three brickyards, a telegraph line, a large high school building, and a medical college.

When the Civil war broke out, this became an enrollment center. The rosters of the Nebraska volunteers show that over 300 men signed up at Brownville, and by 1863, Nemaha County had furnished more than 30 commissioned officers.

After the war, "railroad fever" gripped the town when the Brownville, Fort Kearny & Pacific Railroad Company was organized. A lobbyist was sent to Washington in hopes of securing land to fund the project. Nemaha County, Brownville Precinct, and the city of Brownville all passed bonds to be paid "when the railroad was in operation."

Everyone was excited as the first ten miles of track were laid. A group of dignitaries traveled (probably in a modified wagon, pulled by horses) to the end of the tracks and then back to the city to await further construction. However, when Congress (embroiled in postwar reconstruction) did nothing more to help, the company was forced into bankruptcy. The rails and ties were torn up and sold to another company to pay some of its debts, while the matter of payment of the bonds was argued in the courts.

In 1875 the Midland Pacific Railroad completed its rails to Brownville from Nebraska City, which helped to restore some of the commerce to the "port city." At its peak in 1880, Brownville had a population of 1,309. There were three banks, four drug stores, 12 churches, and 17 saloons.

In 1883 the supreme court finally ruled on the lawsuits -- in favor of the defunct railroad's claim. Since "something with wheels had passed over the rails, it had been in operation." The terms of the bond had been met!

To pay the debt, Brownville's taxes shot up to $.17 on the dollar. The action to remove the county seat to a more central location took on new momentum. The 1886 election gave the seat of government to the newly-created town of Auburn, and the once-thriving city of Brownville became a virtual ghost town.

One primary industry remained. When Furnas arrived in Brownville, he had established a large nursery. It was soon apparent that fruit-growing could be profitable here. Hundreds of acres of peach and apple trees were planted, and there were vast vineyards and fields of strawberries. Orchards augmented the more traditional crops, which broadened the community's economy for many years. Fruit by the carload was shipped from Brownville before the "Armistice Day freeze" of 1940, which killed a large portion of the trees.

Still the village survived. In 1956 Nebraska artist, Terence Duren, urged its citizens to "do something with Brownville." The Brownville Historical Society was organized, with its first festival in 1957 attracting over 10,000 people.

Soon there was a Brownville Fine Arts Association, and the Brownville Village Theatre. With the addition of the Meriwether Lewis Foundation, Brownville has four enthusiastic organizations, all operating in cooperation and without tax subsidy. As the "Belle of Brownville" disembarks from the dock, the sound of a riverboat whistle is heard once again.

An amazing calendar of events is carried out each summer. Many of Brownville's historic buildings have been restored and the beauty of the town -- one of Nebraska's oldest -- is being enjoyed again. Brownville's current population is 148.




By Ruth Simon, 1403 J Street, Auburn, NE 68305

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: "The Phoenix," a history of Brownville, Nebraska, published in The Nebraska Farmer in 1967, and available in booklet form; Brownville, Nebraska Territory, a Photographic Essay , 1973 by Dorothy Broady; "The Meaning of Brownville", 1979, Dr. Robert N. Manley; and Andreas' History of Nebraska , 1882.