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Early History of Brownlee, Nebraska

In the summer of 1886, John R. Lee built a frame store building in what is now Brownlee.  It was the first frame building in the area. J. R. Lee and James McClean’s grandmothers were sisters; their maiden name was Brownlee. John and James decided that Brownlee would be a suitable name for a town [said to be named after Jane Brownlee]; accordingly, John sent the application to the U.S. Postal Department. The proposal was accepted, and James McClean became the first postmaster on January 21, 1888. The post office was installed in one side of the store building.

The store was a two-story frame building with living quarters on the second floor.  Lumber was hauled from Wood Lake to build it. Everything that a pioneer needed to buy was sold in this store: groceries, household supplies, clothing, machinery, repairs, etc. One year, the store sold more mowing machines of a well-known make than any other dealer in the state of Nebraska. People came to this store for miles from every direction. If they couldn’t get credit close to home, they knew that J. R. Lee would not let people go hungry, so they came in wagons, bringing their whole family; they stayed for meals and sometimes stayed all night and went home with a wagon load of groceries, whether they had any money or not.

Soon after the store and post office were opened, a blacksmith shop was added.  Later, a livery stable, drug store, hotel, bank, and community hall were established, drawing trade from miles around during the horse and buggy days. At one time, a paper was published in Brownlee, known as the Brownlee Booster. A doctor set up a practice for a while. He was there in 1909. At one time, there were three general merchandise stores, all doing good business.

Brownlee is not just a dot on the map in southern Cherry County; it is a community, extending for many miles in every direction. All kinds of people came to settle in this community. There were families, bachelors, old maids, young people, elderly people, people with no formal education, college graduates and people with assorted skills.

The first school in the community was organized in 1887 with Miss Mamie Lee as the first teacher. Mamie Lee was the daughter of William Lee and the sister of Ed Lee. The first school was known as the Mud Institute, probably because it was a sod building. J. R. Lee also started the first Sunday School in 1887.

By the time the first store and post office were established, there were already many people in the community most of whom had come to acquire free land. By an act of Congress, effective January 1, 1863, a man could acquire 160 acres if he lived on the land for five years. Prior to this time and after 1854, a man could secure a quarter section by living on the land for six months and paying the United States Government $1.25 an acre. In 1873, the Timber Claim Act was passed, which provided that an individual could acquire a quarter section by planting ten acres of it to trees and taking care of the trees for eight years. All three of these laws were in effect when the Brownlee community was settled. A settler could use all three of these laws at the same time, and so in a few years, was able to acquire $80 acres. If a person was enterprising, he could persuade friends and relatives to sign up for a tree claim with no obligation on their part, if he wanted to plant their trees and take care of them. Then at the end of eight years, he could pay the signer for the tree claim a small sum of money and so get possession of another 160 acres. J. R. Lee was on of the people who acquired considerable acreage in this manner. John Lee, with the help of his sons, planted thousands of trees while this act was in effect. In Olsen’s "History of Nebraska", he stated that few trees planted under the provisions of this act survived. Mr. Lee continued to plant trees even after this act was repealed.

Almost all of the early settlers lived in sod houses or duggouts in the side of a hill.  People were very friendly, and when new people arrived, the people already there would help the newcomers build their sod houses. Most of the people planted a garden and a patch of corn; if they could afford it, they had a milk cow and a team of horses. The few who were more affluent had cattle and ran them on the free range, and after the settlers started coming in, they rented the land from the settlers. Many of them had to hers the cattle in the summer, as there were few fences.

The herding job was usually assigned to the children. Robert Lee, son of John Lee, said that he herded cattle all summer when he was fourteen years old. He rode an old buckskin horse without a saddle, wering (sp) the hair off the horse’s back and the skin off his seat. By 1880, a few fences were being built, and [Torn page] could be fenced in at night.

[Torn page]ete Rousche was one of the first settlers of the Brownlee community. He probably came about 1882; he ran quite a herd of cattle north of the river west of town. Many of the homesteaders sold their land to others soon after their five years of residence was concluded and they had acquired title to their land, and so ranches of considerable size were built up. A few of the well-known names memorable in the early history of the Brownlee community are: Chaloud, Christopher, Eatinger, Foulhaber, Ferdon, Ganser, Hanna, Higgins, Kissell, Lee, McClean, McGuire, Miller, O’Brien, Pearson, Pederson, Pound, Reiser, Salzman, Shanley, Slayton, Smith, Spencer, Steadman, Tate, Vandergrift, Walsh, and Wendler.

In 1904, the Kincaid Act was passed which provided that an entire section could be taken up as a homestead with the provision that the settler live on it for five years and put one thousand dollars worth of improvements on it. The improvements usually consisted of a small house, a windmill, and some kind of shed. People rushed to the Brownlee area in order to take advantage of this offer.  When this act went into effect, there was a portion of the community northwest of Brownlee that was still unclaimed. Many Negro families came to take up this land, which became known as the Colored Settlement. The settlement began about ten miles northwest of Brownlee, and extended along the river for about fifteen miles. By 1912, there were some 79 claims taken by these people. Many worked on nearby ranches. They had their own church and cemetery, and there were two school districts in which there were no white settlers. Ava Speese Day wrote an interesting article about this settlement for the Nebraska Sod House Society, which was published in their book in 1972.

The Brownlee community had no real trouble with Indians in the early days. Small groups of Indians came through the country from time to time, but they caused little trouble.  Usually, they wanted food and stopped at the store occasionally. A few people reported that the Indians took things that did not belong to them. Once in the 1890’s there was an Indian scare. All of the women were sent to Thedford except Mrs. J. R. Lee. John Lee built a fort close to their house; it was down in the ground about six feet, with walls of sod extending above the ground. The Indians didn't come as far east as Brownlee, but there was some trouble in the extreme western part of the state.

Brownlee held their first Fourth of July celebration in 1887. Lumber was hauled from the Wood Lake for the dance floor. The railroad did not come to Thedford until 1888. Hence the mail and all of the early freighting came out of Wood Lake. The celebration included a ball game, horse racing, foot racing, dancing and singing.  It was estimated by people who attended that there were five hundred people at this celebration. People came from many miles around. After that, Brownlee’s Fourth of July celebration became a tradition. One year, there was a horse-powered merry-go-round.

Most of the entertainment was provided by local talent, musical programs, dances, parties, box supper, spelling bees, school and church programs all drew large crowds. Church services on Sunday mornings were well attended. People often visited their neighbors and gave generously of their time and effort in times of need.

The first store burned down, but it was replaced immediately by a find new store.  While it was being built, J. R. Lee stored supplies in his home and in a small building nearby.  In 1898, he sold the store to James Skirving, who bought up damaged stock in eastern Nebraska and Iowa, and was thus able to sell his merchandise at reduced prices. He operated the store until 1901 and then sold it.

Prairie fires and drought were two important hazards in the early days. Blizzards also took their toll in lives of cattle and people. A diphtheria epidemic took the lives of several children.

In about 1909, Orin Hoeft, who had a claim about ten miles north of Brownlee, put telephones in most of the homes of the community.  At first the telephone lines were strung on fence posts, and people could call homes only in their immediate community. However, the telephone system was gradually improved, and eventually it was connected to the Bell Telephone lines, so that one could make long distance calls.

The people of the Brownlee community showed their patriotism during World War I.  Men joined the service, women knitted sweaters, socks, scarves and wristlets. A chapter of the Red Cross was organized; Robert Lee was elected president.  Benefit programs were held, and people bought War Savings Bonds and stamps. People sang the songs popular at that time, "Over There", "Keep the Home Fires Burning", etc.

By 1912 people were starting to buy cars, and a new way of life was begun in the community. The years of the 1920’s and 1930’s were somewhat easier. Houses became larger and more comfortable. Warmer winter clothing was available. The hay sled came into usage, replacing the hayrack, which had been loaded with a pitchfork. Cars and trucks replaced the horse-drawn freight wagons, and improved roads facilitated travel.

Irrigation and conservation practices have improved the country and certainly the conditions. Blacktop highways are here as everywhere. The Catholic Church, the Union Protestant Church, the grade [The rest of the article is missing]

This article has been supplied by Betty Rudolph. Betty copied it from the Genealogical Library at Salt Lake City.

Website records History of Brownlee, Nebraska (broken external link). http://athena.esu16.org/krausc/index.htm
Another website recording the History of Brownlee, Cherry County, Nebraska http://www.memoriallibrary.com/NE/Cherry/1945/communities.htm An early history of Cherry County, Nebraska.


It is believed that this William Lee is the same man that wrote Memoirs of William B Lee.