History of Brownville, MN
From: The History of Houston County, Minnesota
Edited by: Franklyn Curtis-Wedge.
H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co.
Winona, Minn. 1919


Town Histories

Brownsville is the central township of the five that border on the Mississippi River, which forms its eastern boundary. On the north lies Hokah Township, on the west Union and Mayville, and on the south Crooked Creek. Though Brownsville embraces a part of two government townships, it is several sections smaller than a full town. Between the river and the village there are no intervening sloughs, there being, consequently, a good natural landing, a condition quickly noted by Job Brown, the pioneer, when in quest of a town site.

At this point, from the riverís bank rises Wild Cat Bluff, nearly 500 feet in height, and which, being the highest point on the river for mfles, was a prominent landmark for the early pilots and steamboat captains. The landing here was also the point of debarkation for a large number of the pioneer settlers, especially those going to Caledonia and the vicinity.

The material of the bluffs is sandstone as a base, with limestone near the top, and some good quarries have been opened, where lime is made. Both varieties of stone have been used for building purposes.

The principal river, aside from the Mississippi, is Wild Cat Creek, coming from the west, and a branch from the south, which unites with the main creek a mile from the village, the stream thus formed entering the Mississippi by way of a slough that starts opposite the lower end of the town. The precipitous bluffs on the river lead to elevated plateaus, with prairie-like expansions, covered with fine farms. Both lowlands and highlands, though differing somewhat in the character of their soil, are in most places are well adapted to agricultural purposes, and have been so utilized since the early settlers located here. Some of the land, however, can only be used for pasturage.

Brownsville was settled in 1848 by Job Brown and two wanderers whom he encountered living on an island in the river. In the winter he brought his brother, Charles Brown, and his brother-in-law, James Hiner, as well as some helpers. In 1850 came. David Brown, not a relative of the other Browns. A little later came William Morrison and William Blair. These men all settled in the village, and there the history of the township has since centered.

Among the earliest settlers in the township, outside of the village, were George Shrof, John Whitlow, Mr. Stone and Mr. Watson, who located on the ridge to the north, which was known as Connaught Ridge, owing to the number of Irish who took claims there. Among them was Dennis Sheehan, who put up a shanty in 1853; William Power and his father, in 1854. James Hickey, who came in April, 1854, located on section 10, and Jbnathan Hall on section 4 the same year. John Shelly, who at first stopped a few miles above the village, also took a claim in section 4, but two years later moved into the village. Within the next three years John Flannery, Joseph Keefe, Thomas Gavin and others arrived.

The first building put up in town was one of logs, moved down from an island opposite the mouth of the Root River. It measured 14 by 12 feet, and had a "shaker" roof. It was about 300 yards above the stone warehouse. The second house was just above the spring and was afterward sold to William Morrison, better known as "Wild Cat Jack."

The first frame building was erected by Charles Brown in 1850, and it was afterwards used as a schoolhouse. Mr. Brown also built the first public building, which was called the town hail, and was used both as a church and a schoolhouse. The Methodist Episcopal society held services in it for a number of years, and it was used first as a schoolhouse in May, 1857, with Mary J. Wells as teacher, and A. McLaren, Charles Brown and J. H. Smith as trustees, its use in the latter capacity being abandoned when the large brick schoolhouse was erected.

In a very few years after the founding of the village, it presented a lively scene. In 1855 the levee was crowded with goods, and during the quarter ending June 30 the land sales amounted to $74,292. The census then gave the county a population of 2,616. There was a theatre in successful operation in the village, and lots were selling at from $100 to $800 each. At the beginning of this year the population of the village was 50 inhabitants, and there were 20 offices and stores, but by the end of the year there were 228 inhabitants and 45 new buildings had been erected. In the fall a Sunday school was started in the store of Gates & Wykoff.

On July 1, 1856, several stage lines were started, carrying mails; one from Brownsville to Chatfield, via Hokah, Houston and Rushford; another from Brownsville to Caledonia, via Elliota, and a third from Brownsville to Traverse de Sioux. D. A. J. Baker was the contractor.

While the land office was here Dexter & Ripley conducted a bank, but it was not one of issue. Much of the business of this institution was to supply the land buyers with specie to complete their government purchases. When the land office moved on t& Chatfield the bank was discontinued. Mr. Ripley was afterwards appointed to the supreme bench of the state.

In 1870 there were nearly fifty stores in active operation, but in 1882 there were not more than half as many places of business all told, including saloons and shops. The following is a fairly comprehensive list: A. L. Darling, general merchandise and hardware; John H. Rippe, general merchandise; John Ciuss, hardware; Frank P. Moore, drugs; Miss T. M. Dorival, millinery and fancy goods; Aug. Knautz, boots, shoes and harness; Thomas Curry, grocer and shoemaker; Leaonard Schwartz, meat market; Edmund Kelly, groceries and liquors; William Tohman, groceries and liquors; William Powers, general merchandise; John C. Beck, wagon and carriage maker; William Ideker, blacksmith; James Colleran; Gustavus Graf, blacksmith; Adolph Rier, carpenter and cabinetmaker; F. Brehme, barber, confectionery and toys; Matt Roster, Fred Gluck, Peter Thimmersch, Florian Hauber and George Hoffman, saloon keepers; Michael Feeney, groceries and meat market; John Rippe, agent for the Diamond Jo, salt, cement and lime. There were three principal hotels: the Gluck House, conducted by Fred Gluck; the Roster House, by Matt Roster, and the Minnesota House, besides several smaller public houses. In the winter of the same year a St. Louis firm made arrangements for cutting 10,000 tons of ice above the village. At this time the town had two physicians, Dr. J. M. Riley and Dr. W. W. Bell.

Several manufacturing industries were established at an early day in the village and its vicinity. One of the first of these was the Brownsville Knoblack Brewery, established in the early fifties. In 1856 the demand for the product was far in excess of the supply.

The Wild Cat Flouring Mill came into existence in 1866, the builder and proprietor being George Schaller. It was two and a half stories high with a basement, the ground dimensions being 40 by 50 feet. The power was derived from Wild Cat Creek, which has a fall of 24 feet, and was transmitted by an overshot wheel, 19 feet in diameter. It was originally a two run mill, with first class machinery.

In 1878 the Schaller Brothers, J. C. and P. J., who had bought it in 1870 and remodeled it in 1875, sunk an artesian well near their mill to a depth of 590 feet, which yielded 590 gallons of clear, sparkling water per minute, having a regular temperature of 54 1/2 degrees winter and summer. The water was turned into the flume to help supply the power to run the mill.

The City Flouring Mill was put up in 1873 by Julius Hanke. The Brownsville Bluff Brewery was constructed in 1871 by V. and J. Fetzner. Clark's saw mill was constructed in 1878, the main building being 36 by 85 feet, with an addition 25 by 36 feet.

The first saw mill was erected by Job and Charles Brown and Alexander McLaren in 1855. The first grist mill was built on Spring Branch Creek by Job Brown in 1856, the run of stones used having been in operation at the saw mill the previous year.

The village was platted and recorded by Job and Charles Brown, immediately after the county was organized. Several additions have been added to the original plat, extending the village both to the north and south, and well up the bill to the west of the lower end, so that the second stories of the buildings on the west side are usually on a level with the ground, and the cellars are excavated as tunnels into the bluff. The business part of the village is 25 feet above the river, while that part situated in the ravine is 30 or 40 feet above the river. The railroad runs along the river's edge, on a grade somewhat lower than Front street. Near a western addition to the village there arises Spring Branch, a small stream which pours into Wild Cat Creek.

The municipal history of Brownsville dates from March 20, 1858, when the legislature incorporated the "Town of Brownsville" in sections 23, 24, 25 and 26, township 103, range 4. The town council was to consist of a president, a recorder and three trustees, all of whom must be householders. TJpon the town council were conferred the usual powers of village authorities. The early records of the village have not been preserved.

A crisis in village affairs came in 1873, when acting under a bill passed by the legislature that year authorizing the village board of education to levy taxes at its discretion for school purposes, the board erected a commodious brick shoolhouse at a cost of about $10,000 to accommodate the rapidly increasing youthful population. Many of the citizens opposed the erection of this building on account of the cost, several moved away, the taxes were heavy, and the village received a decided set back.

At various times in the past Brownsville has been the scene of attempted mining operations. Tradition relates that the origin of these attempts dates back to 1832, when a party of United States soldiers, and several engineers, who had had pracical experience in the discovery of lead near Galena, Illinois, encamped near the foot of Wild Cat Bluff, and engaged in prospecting experiments, examining caves and making excavations, though without success. They eventually sunk a shaft 105 feet deep, a mile and a half directly west of the bluff, and, it is said, believed that they had discovered evidences of lead. The time allowed them in the neighborhood having, expired, they were unable to do more, but before moving on they filled the shaft with loose earth, brush and stones, macadamizing the opening and finishing with a large key stone. It was the intention of two of the engineers to keep their discovery a secret, and after the expiration of their term of service to return and resume operations and secure the mine for their own benefit. Owing to unforeseen circumstances, however, these miners never returned. Both went to the Mexican war, in which one was killed and the other lost his legs. The latter, supposing he was going to die, imparted the secret of the mine to a friend, instructing him how to find it. In the latter seventies this tradition came to the knowledge of George Graf, then proprietor of the land on which the shaft was sunk, and on investigating decided that such operations had actually been carried on.

In 1875 William McCormick sunk a shaft, 60 feet deep, on section 22, and found evidences of lead ore. In March, 1877 he also began another shaft, and the first year put it down 100 feet, at which depth he found water.

Later he carried the shaft to a depth of 200 feet, and by him, or others, a lateral drift was also run for 75 feet or more. This work cost over $2,000, without the finding of any profitable ore. Mr. McCormick began his investigations at that particular spot, as it had been noticed that lightning frequently struck there.

In 1877 Bernard Graf began a shaft on section 15, and carried it to a depth of 65 feet, when water prevented further progress with the means at command. In the winter of 1878 he opened another shaft, being assisted by an old miner, and reached a depth of 92 feet, when the shaft caved in. For some time he continued his operations, starting a shaft in another place. But in spite of these and other attempts, which occasionally met encouraging indications, no ore in paying quantities has yet been discovered.

The town of Brownsville was organized May 11, 1858. The officers elected were: Supervisors, Frederick Gluck, chairman; James Ruddy, and Mr. Lynn; clerk, L. Holstein; assessor, Stephen Reynolds; collector, Jacob Reider; constables, Stephen Reynolds and Michael Brady; overseers of the poor, Edward Bogan and L. P. Selfridge.

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