- Historic Sites
Ghost Town On The River
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Willa Gather was a college student when she visited Brownville, in southeastern Nebraska, in the summer of 1894. Since her year of birthis uncertain, ranging between 1873 and 1876, she was somwhere between seventeen and twenty. She came to gather material for a newspaper article commemorating Brownville's fortieh anniversary, but what she found was a ghost town.
Willa Gather was a college student when she visited Brownville, in southeastern Nebraska, in the summer of 1894. Since her year of birth is uncertain, ranging between 1873 and 1876, she was somewhere between seventeen and twenty. She came to gather material for a newspaper article commemorating Brownville’s fortieth anniversary, but what she found was a ghost town. Her essay, reprinted below for the first time since she originally wrote it that same year, is still one of the most charming pieces ever written about that peculiarly Western phenomenon, the town that quickly burgeoned and just as quickly died.
It is almost unheard of to find a town in Nebraska that has a past; it is sometimes rather difficult to find one that has a present, though all of them have, or think they have, a future. A country cares very little about its early history and traditions until it has had a great many trials and disappointments, until the first feverish impetus of its growth has been checked and it settles down into that quiet, steady course of honest labor and honest gain, which is the only honest way of living. Then it has time to look back on whatever was beautiful or brave in its history, and begins to appreciate the talent and worth that it overlooked or pushed aside in its frenzied hurry to be great. Nebraska has not reached the retrospective age as yet, and in the western part of the state, at least, there are few people who know anything about the sleepy little town on the Missouri where the beginnings of Nebraska history were made.
Brownville is built in a little horseshoe-shaped guldi. Behind and on either side of it rise the high, wooded bluffs and in front of it flows the yellow river. Across the river run the bluffs, with intervals of green meadow land, and back of the town, over the ridge of the hills, lie the rich orchards and fruit farms for which Nemaha County is noted. The site looks out over four states, across the river Missouri and Iowa, on this side Nebraska and Kansas. The town is built back into the little ravines, and the dusty roads, which the inhabitants still respectfully call “streets,” run up the wooded ravines and across the hills. It does not take one long to see that the town has been what it is not. Here and there all over those stately hills are handsome residences gone to rack and ruin, terraces plowed up in cornfields and sloping lawns grown up in wheat and sunflowers. The main street is lined with empty brick buildings and gaping cellar holes where the buildings have fallen down or been torn away. The white stone pavements and gutters are growing with pale, lifeless-looking grass. The rotting board sidewalks which run over the hills clatter and creak when one steps on them, like rickety ladders. The emptiness of the place is something awful. Most of the houses down in the gulch have inhabitants of some sort, but those on the hills are in all stages of dilapidation. The further up one goes the more desolate it becomes.
It is as though there had once been a high tide of prosperity there, and when it went out it had left for its watermarks rows of ruined houses and stranded homes. Even the Lone Tree saloon is falling to pieces, and that, in a western town, is the sure sign that everything is gone. Further up the street is a big hole and massive stone foundation, which promised a handsome building, but before it got above the foundation the tide went out, and most things in Brownville went out with the tide. But today Brownville people always speak gravely of that hole as the “Masonic Temple.” The dilapidation is nowhere unsightly or offensive, nothing could be offensive in that magnificent background of giant oaks and elms. It is a gentle, sunny, picturesque sort of decay as if the old town had lain down to sleep in the hills like Rip Van Winkle and was busy putting in thirty years.
Everything in Brownville is tired. I saw more hammocks there than I ever saw in my life before. They seem to be characteristic of the place. Even the tired, spiritless little freight that creeps along the stub road into Brownville stops often to rest in the shade. It utterly lacks the railroad sense of responsibility and hurry. If the engineer’s hat blows off, he stops his engine and goes to hunt it and he generally waits to catch a few catfish before he climbs up into his cab again. If his hat doesn’t blow off, the wheezy little engine stops anyway, from sheer habit, and in the shade of the big tree snores faintly as though it were fast asleep.
But much as Brownville has lost, it has retained something which most towns in the state do not have, a history. It has great traditions of which any town might be proud. It is different from other towns because it was the birthplace of a new and great commonwealth. When viewed in the light of their own history those crumbling wind-racked buildings have a deeper meaning than mere ruin and decay and become almost sacred.