One of the most intriguing day or weekend trips in Nebraska is the village of Brownville, and although its present population of about 140 is only about 10 percent of its all time high, much remains of the glory days when it was the county seat of Nemaha County and had even set aside land for a state Capitol.
A year before Nebraska even became a territory, the St. Deroin Trading Post occupied the west bank of the Missouri River where Richard Brown arrived in 1854 and within months had established a ferry from Iowa. Unfortunately, a steamboat landing established a trailhead in Nebraska City upriver, which soon eclipsed Brownville; the ferry sank in 1850; a major rail connection failed to materialize; river traffic tapered off; and, with the merger of Sheridan and Calvert, the county seat decamped to the new combined town of Auburn a few miles inland. Added to these events, floods in 1870 and 1881, high taxes to support the never-arriving railroad, a major downtown fire in 1903 and a devastating early freeze that destroyed the local fruit crop, all combined to cause the population to plummet.
Still, much of the village area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and, with 32 specific sites and 90 attractions, there still is plenty to see on a Nebraska staycation.
Robert V. Muir was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1827 and immigrated to New York in 1835. His exact arrival in Nebraska is unclear, but in 1856 he had settled in Pawnee County and two years later, as treasurer of the Nebraska Settlement Co., surveyed the town of Table Rock. Muir’s interests and investments were widespread in Southeast Nebraska and Missouri. In June of 1864, he purchased a part interest in a steam ferry at Brownville and three years later became one of the owners of the Brownville Union. Other area interests included a sawmill, general mercantile store, a flouring mill and the buying and selling of real estate.
About 1868 Muir began construction of the locally made brick, two-story Italianate “mansion” on the southeast corner of Second and Atlantic streets across Atlantic from the Presbyterian Church, which he attended, in Brownville. The butternut bird's-eye maple and walnut interior was made of wood milled by Muir’s company.
The house sat primarily empty through a number of years until purchased by Richard Rowan of Lincoln, who began restoration about 1950. A decade later the house was purchased by Mrs. Harold Lamar of Omaha, who furnished the house in antiques. James Keene, also of Omaha, bought the house from Mrs. Lamar in the 1960s and added the third floor “observatory.” Though still in private ownership, the house occasionally is opened for tours.
In 1858, U.S. Sen. T. W. Tipton hired Ab Gates to construct a 35-by-60-foot brick Congregational Church on College Street between Fourth and Sixth streets. The 300-seat building served not only as the church but was the high school and briefly was Brownville College. When Brownville’s Congregationalists merged with the Presbyterians, the building was purchased by the Methodists for $800. Today the church still is used every Sunday, quite probably the oldest church in the state to hold services continuously.
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Richard Brown, founder of the village, built his home on the southeast corner of Third and Main streets in 1860. Four years later, the house was purchased by John L. Carson, who had a bank in Brownville and later in Auburn. Under the Carson family ownership two additions were made, and when Carson’s granddaughter Rose died in 1966, the house and its carriage house to the south were left to the Brownville Historical Society. The two buildings are now open weekends as museums and contain many original family furnishings.
With the inception of the village and Nebraska Territory in 1854, Walnut Grove Cemetery was created above Brownville on Seventh Street. The well-kept grounds include graves of many early Nebraskans, including Gov. Furnas and Alice Minick, the first female graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law. The overly optimistic village also set aside an area, roughly one square block, east of the cemetery on Fourth Street as a site for a territorial or state Capitol, which now serves as a public park.
The Captain Bailey House first was built near Main Street, east of First Street, but a flood caused by the meandering Missouri River forced it to be disassembled, virtually brick by brick, and rebuilt in its present Main Street location. The house of seven gables was purchased by the Brownville Historical Society in 1959 and now, filled with period antiques, serves as the Brownville Museum. Mrs. Bailey was found dead, slumped inside the front door, supposedly poisoned by a neighbor woman who was “after” the Captain. When the ploy didn’t work, she supposedly then poisoned the Captain’s oyster stew. A bonus for the museum is ghosts of the two and doors that open mysteriously.
In 1860, the two-story brick and stone building on the northwest corner of First and Main streets was known as the Lone Tree Saloon, but it also served as Opelt’s Hotel before Joe Opelt left for Lincoln. It also was an opera house and grain mill/health food store, although today it is forlorn and empty.
Scores of other interesting sites and buildings are ready to explore, though many are open only during special events. Drive by, or better yet, walk and visit the 1862 Senator Tipton House, Cogswell House, Captain Meriwether Lewis Dredge/Museum of Missouri River History, Didier Log Cabin, Wheel Museum, Governor Furnas House, Brownville Village Theatre/Christian Church, Pollock House, 1894 Nemaha Valley Masonic Lodge, Minick House and at least a dozen other National Register treasurers.
To get maps, find out about walking tours, ride on the Spirit of Brownville riverboat or to ask questions, stop at any of the museums or the Lyceum (which also serves lunch) on Main Street and take a true trip back into Nebraska’s past.