Tooling along the interstate, you will pass exit after exit for small towns all across America. How often do you wonder what these places have in store for visitors? Like many others, for years we would cruise by without so much as acknowledging their presence. In recent years we have learned that each of these destinations has their own stories to tell. It just takes getting off of the interstate and doing some investigating. A recent day trip landed us midway between Kansas City and Omaha for a tour of Brownville, Nebraska. What we found is a friendly village that is embracing the past.
For a town of around 140 people, Brownville is just dripping with historic sites. During a visit to Council Grove, Kansas, we were sure no place could have a higher per capita concentration of historic stops. Little did we realize there was a spot, just two hours north of our hometown, where the residents were embracing the past was just as much vigor. We met up with Steve Woerth, from the Brownville Historical Society, for a whirlwind tour of the town. To gain a good background, we have to travel back to the mid-1800s. Nebraska was only a territory and was considered the edge of the frontier. Right along Main Street, we spotted the Didier Cabin which has been reconstructed by the historical society. This was the first home in Brownville, but soon the wagons would begin arriving from the east. Being situated along the Missouri River made this town perfect for riverboat travel.
Nebraska’s Land Office
Brownville had the distinction of being the site of Nebraska Territory’s only land office during the implementation of the Homesteader Act of 1862. After President Lincoln signed this into law, it opened the floodgates for western migration. Those wanting to make land claims in Nebraska had to travel to the land office in Brownville to file their paperwork. For a nominal fee, homesteaders would receive 160 acres to settle. Of course, they had to live on the land for five straight years to gain complete ownership. As Steve told us the story of the first stake claimers, we could only imagine the hardships they faced out here on the wide-open prairie.
A Historic Assembly
We love finding exhibits that share a region’s rich history. During a stop at the Sage Museum, Steve introduced us to a display about the 1898 Indian Congress that took place in nearby Omaha. We had never heard of this assembly that included over 500 members from 35 different tribes. By 1898, there were many believing that this would be the last assembly of this many different Indian nations. A large encampment was assembled to display life in the various Indian villages. The original idea was to help showcase the art, culture, and industries of the native peoples. During the expo, photographer Frank Rinehart took hundreds of portraits of the various Native Indian participants.
Life on the Border
Since Brownville laid on the eastern edge of Nebraska territory, it found itself on the border of the Civil War. To the south, Kansas-Missouri hostilities flared up in the Border War. As Kansas politicians debated the slavery issue, those in Nebraska waited with cautious apprehension. A cannon was procured to protect the western shoreline of the Missouri River from potential invaders. Although it was not needed, they still use it each year for local events. Talk about embracing the past for the good of a community.
Embracing the Past
When we first entered the downtown strip, we couldn’t help but notice a retro-designed Ford repair shop. Now that we were on our guided tour, we found out that this is actually the Chitwood Wheel Museum. The museum is housed in this old shop and they have meticulously restored the outside to replicate the original paint job. Inside we found an old Tin Lizzy just waiting for restoration. This is also the home of the Civil War-era cannon, carriages, and a collection of unusual farm implements.
The Missouri River has always played a key role in Brownville’s history. In the early days, it brought the riverboats that supplied the territory with merchandise for the homesteaders. It was used to ferry immigrants westward for the expansion of our country. The river even served as a pathway to relocate Native Indians from Minnesota to the south. In more recent years, commercial fishing was a lucrative market in this region. The abundance of catfish drew throngs of sports fishers to Brownville. Many locals would cast their nets for a daily catch. Unfortunately, lawmakers chose to alter the regulations and basically caused the extinction of this industry.
Soak in Brownville’s History
Our excursion to Brownville, Nebraska opened our eyes to a village that is embracing the past as they build its future. All of these historic sites are open to the public and FREE to visitors. A day trip to this quaint village is like a trip back in time to simpler days. The vast majority of the stops are within easy walking distance of each other. Of course, you will also want to drive around the area to check out a large number of historic homes in the community. This village is a great reminder of why we need to get off of the interstates and immerse ourselves in the stories of the towns that dot the landscape of America.
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