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  • Writer's pictureRachel

A History of Brown County. Part 2.

It's time for part 2 of our history of Brown County. We had such good feedback on some of the fun tidbits we uncovered that we thought we’d do a second installment.

Most of this information comes from the written records of Maj. E.N. Morrill. You should all recognize that name from a few notable places in Brown Co. Maj. E.N. Morrill donated money to start the first library in town and is the namesake of our current library in Hiawatha. We also see his name as part of Morrill and Janes Bank (In 1858 it was Barnett, Morrill and Janes Bank.) And of course, one of the most notable places bearing his name, Morrill. (The town of Morrill was founded in 1878, about 20 years after the first white settlers of Brown County in 1854-1857)

There are so many interesting tidbits I read in his account, but I’ll try to just narrow it down to a few. The first is the story of selecting the county seat.

Selecting a Permanent County Seat

The first county seat in Brown County was in Claytonville. If you don’t know where Claytonville was, it appears it might have been a mile or so off of HWY 73 on 190th. While we are talking about towns in Brown County, do you recognize any of these names? Springs, Carson, Fidelity, Comet, Germantown, Pierce, Mannville. All of these were towns listed on an early map of Brown County. Back to the story of selecting a county seat. It was decided a new county seat would be selected by three county commissioners. The first vote by them was one for Hiawatha, one for Carson, and one for Padonia. So the commissioners visited all sites and threw Hamlin into the ring as well. Each city offered incentives. Hiawatha offered every other lot and a 20x30 courthouse. Carson offered half of the lots and 1,500 dollars. Padnoia offered a square of ground and $3000 for a courthouse. Another vote happened with 2 votes for Caron and one for Padonia. After more discussion a third vote was cast with all three commissioners agreeing on Carson. And that is how the county seat came to be in Carson today. Oh wait… Shortly after this vote by the county commissioners, legislation was passed that the people should vote on a county seat (1857). So, the following year, Hiawatha was voted the county seat with 128 votes, Carson with 37, Hamlin with 25, Claytonville with 20, Washington with 13, Prairie Springs with 4, and Padonia with 2. And that’s the story of the short stint the county had with Carson as the county seat. (And for those curious, Carson shows on the map as straight south from Hamlin and northwest of Hiawatha.)

The Civil War and Brown County

In 1864, the men of Brown County were called to service of the Union. (Early in the settlement of the area about of a third of the residents were pro slavery but they had largely been outvoted on policies and/or moved by 1858. From that point, Brown County was firmly a free supporting county.) Sixty-five men from Hiawatha Company, 41 from Walnut Creek Company, and 100 men from Robinson Company reported to Atchison. (E.N. Morrill’s estimates were much higher than these reported from another source. He noted that according to his records 250 men enlisted of the 425 men listed as voting in the county. Well over half the men in the county left for the war.) Shortly after these men left, 79 boys and older men not enlisted formed the home guard for protection of Brown County. The war was felt by all and it was noted that many women were seen gathering the corn that year as well as loading wood, and acting as teamsters and millers, taking up their husbands’ responsibilities while they were away.

Drought and Crop Disasters

The winter of 1856 and 57 were very cold. This was early on in the settlement of the county and many did not have large supplies of crops or livestock to get them through the winter. Due to the cold, many of the deer gathered in the timbers making them very easy to hunt. It was noted that one man killed 17 deer that winter. Many survived on this as a primary food source.

The growing season of 1858 was very wet. However, the county produced a good crop of wheat, but unfortunately there was no demand and farmers had no where to sell it. In addition to the poor crop market, legislation from President Buchanan put many in the county at risk of losing their land to speculators if they couldn’t pay their land mortgages. Many took out mortgages against their home or other land to try keep their land. The grain market was similar in 1859, with one exception. Many people were passing through to Colorado due to a gold rush. Those who lived along those routes through the county were able to sell corn, butter, milk, and eggs to those headed west and make a profit. The gold rush continued through 1860, and the demand for corn increased as shipments of corn headed west on several wagon trains to supply miners. Corn brought as much as 25 cents a bushel (which would equal about $7.72 today). The summer of 1860 brought the worst drought seen by many individuals. In most cases, farmers didn’t even bother to harvest. There simply wasn’t anything there. Remember, farmers grew crops for their winter food supply, as well as to use for seed the next year. Without a harvest, many faced a very long and difficult winter. Morrill noted that neighboring states sent some shipments of supplies, otherwise many would have had to abandon their farms and sell out and hundreds would have starved. Supplies were also sent so farmers could plant the following spring.

Some other interesting Ag facts during this time include details of several elevators and saw mills. E.N. Morrill owned a sawmill just south of Hamlin where the Walnut and Mulberry meet. This was run for many years as a primary saw mill in the area. The Speer Elevator was located in Hiawatha and had a capacity of 15,000 bushels. Power came from a 15 horsepower engine. The total shipments in 1881-82 were estimated around 250,000 bushels. Another interesting stat was the enumeration of fruit trees in the county. It was listed as 115,645 apple trees, 1,371 pear trees, 155,260 peach trees, and 19,080 cheery trees. Based on the population in the county when this count was taken, this averages to 32 fruit trees per person. What a change in the last 150 years! My guess is we wouldn’t even come close to averaging 1 fruit tree per person currently. Any guesses?

The Hiawatha Club

One more story, and then I’ll quit. If you thought living during the early years of the county was boring, you would have been wrong. There were so many stories of drama and intrigue. In 1875, a law was passed that denied all licenses for saloons or bars. This upset a certain subset of the population and the Hiawatha Club was formed ‘for the purpose of social enjoyment” to get around these laws. A building was rented, some bylaws made, officers elected, and the club was formed. All you had to do to join The Hiawatha Club was buy some alcohol from them. This made them quite popular and many citizens “joined” the Hiawatha Club. They were open from 9 AM to midnight every day and it was noted that there was usually a decent crowd. The owners were arrested and fined several times for selling alcohol and the club fined for nuisance and indecent behavior. The city Marshall and a posse even went and kicked them out of the building at one point. The club broke back in and took up a lawsuit against the city for inciting a riot. (Which the club lost.) After more fines and arrests, the city marshall gathered a posse and broke down the door on Christmas day 1875. They kicked everyone out, destroyed all the alcohol and barricaded themselves in. They stationed guard all around the building and held it for 12 days. The Club gathered outside and protested for several days and threatened to break back in. The individuals gave up after a few days and it went to court again. This time before a Judge in Troy. After a heated debate and much testimony from both sides, the city returned the books and papers to the club and the club was kicked out of the building. And that was the end of the Hiawatha Club. The owners sued many of the city officials in the years to follow, however they were arrested for failing to pay outstanding debts and fines. Eventually they agreed to drop the lawsuits against the individuals and their charges were also dropped against them.

There are many other stories I could go into. Stories about massive fires, the first buildings in Hiawatha, the founding of the other towns in the county, the stealing of a grist mill, a story about a large cedar tree, the first schools. Maybe a part 3 will be in order. I’ll wrap this up with the closing sentiment from E.N. Morrills account.

“The future promises to be a bright one for our county, with a soil and climate unsurpassed in the United States; with an enterprising honest industrious and temperate class of settlers, the future prosperity of the county is assured. In only one respect is Brown county unlike the other counties of the state. It has NO WHISKY SALOON and NO JAIL! It will never need the former; may it never have any use for the latter.”


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