The Story of Francis Marion Brown, a Sutton Pioneer
Francis Marion Brown (F. M., Frank) was born in Illinois in 1840, arrived in Clay County in 1871 and died in Sutton in 1919. He was a major contributor to the early development of Sutton and for that we owe him a large debt of gratitude. We can also thank him for leaving us his story.
Homesteader F. M. Brown published the Sutton Register newspaper from 1886 until his death in 1919. About two years before he died, he serialized his family’s story in the newspaper over 40 weeks. Major portions of those articles appear in the “History of Hamilton and Clay Counties” and a short summary is in Haviland & Motichka’s “Along the County Line”.
|Francis Marion (F. M.) Brown (1840-1919) Sutton pioneer and publisher|
of The Sutton Register from1886-1919.
F. M. Brown and his brothers Charles and John served in the Union Army. Francis Brown’s Civil War rifle was sold at auction in Sutton about 1960 and remains in a private collection.
Two of the brothers, George and John went to the Colorado mines in 1868 but returned to Illinois after two years telling of good farm land in Nebraska. The Brown family sold their farm in the spring of 1871 and George and Francis headed west. Their train and ferry trip took three days from Marshall, Illinois to the Clifton Hotel in Lincoln.
The brothers scouted Seward County and then with the Robert Garr and George Smith families headed to the land between the Blue River and School Creek. The Browns found their farm in section 10 of School Creek Township followed by others nearby in sections 2 and 14.
The Brown brothers did not have horses and decided that Francis would return to Illinois to get a team, wagon and supplies - another two day/three night trip. He found a team of four-year old horses for $250 plus a wagon, harness, etc. The first time he hitched them up they ran away overturning the wagon, dislocating his shoulder and injuring a knee, injuries that plagued him the rest of his life.
Robert Brown (R. G., Bob) cared for the team and decided to accompany Francis back to the new farm in Nebraska. They visited John before they left, the last time they saw him before he died in Illinois at age twenty-eight.
This trip was another adventure with muddy roads to St. Louis and an unreliable riverboat captain. They paid fifty-five dollars for passage for themselves, their team, mules and wagon with the promise of being in Nebraska City in eight days. Francis and Robert bought 1,000 pounds of hay and twenty bushels of corn and oats plus their own provisions but after three days they were still tied up in St. Louis. The boat carried a full load of lumber, made stops at every town and was stuck on sand bars numerous times for twenty-one days. The horses and mules were on short feed the last days of the trip and were in bad shape at Nebraska City.
On June 2nd, Francis, George and Robert were together on their farm north of Sutton. George had hired a neighbor, Bob Waddell to break ten acres for thirty dollars and had planted corn and potatoes. George had built a sixteen-foot square shed into a side hill which they extended into a 16 X 24 dugout.
Access to water was important to the settlers. The Browns were four miles from a water source; the Garr’s about two. Mr. Garr drove to Lincoln to get well-drilling equipment, tubing and supplies and shortly had a 100-foot well in place. The Browns then drilled their 85-foot well.
It was impossible to find eggs until they bought a dozen hens in Lincoln. A neighbor had two cows where they bought butter and milk until they bought their own cow for fifty dollars.
Mrs. Brown and her daughters planned to join the brothers in the spring of 1872 prompting a new sixteen-foot square sod addition to the dugout.
Prairie sod had to be “broken”, or plowed for the first time. They had ninety acres broken by fall when Charles came out from Illinois to join them and took his own farm on the northwest quarter of section 10.
The winter or 1871 was a hard one. The principle supply of fresh meat was buffalo for five or six cents a pound from hunters. Elk and antelope were a bit more and pork from Lincoln cost ten to twelve cents. Stores carried ham and bacon but few had ready cash. Rabbits and grouse were common staple.
Francis’ brother Bob (R. G.) made the first move to town in 1871 when he became the first attorney in Clay County. That was just the beginnings of the Brown family contributions to the town of Sutton.
Early Clay County was part of Saline County for administrative functions. R. G. Brown, John Maltby and John Gray formed a committee which petitioned Governor James to call an election to organize a county. The election was held on October 14, 1871 at the home of Alexander Campbell, two miles east of Harvard. Sutton was selected as the county seat with 56 of the 99 votes cast. F. M. Brown became the first county clerk, R. G. Brown was the first county treasurer (with no money) and their brother Charles was appointed as deputy county clerk. Meetings were held in R. G. Brown’s office and county records were kept in the office.
F. M. Brown was living on his homestead where he built a house for his mother and sisters when they arrived. He hired a man to dig a basement for the house. When the excavation was complete a vast horde of black and white striped bugs came out of the west crawling slowly eastward. The creatures looked like potato bugs but were about four times that size. They didn’t eat much but tens of thousands of them tumbled into the unfinished basement and were trapped just before heavy rains hit killing the bugs and leaving them in the hot sun. Within twenty-four hours a stench made it necessary to remove them. The Browns shoveled bushels of dead bugs out and hauled them away in a wagon. The live bugs simply disappeared. Brown claimed he had never seen bugs of this nature before, and never saw such again.
The first Fourth of July celebration in Sutton was in 1872 with people coming from miles around. R. G. Brown delivered the oration. F. M. Brown had organized the Clay County Agricultural Society with Hosea Gray as president and himself as secretary. They held the first town fair just north of the railroad depot with prizes funded by local businesses including $10 for the best ten pounds of butter. The feature of the fair was a ladies’ horseback riding contest won by Miss Nellie Henderson and Miss Mattie Brown (side saddle) in second place. The judges awarded both ladies first prize of a ten dollar gold ring.
In 1873 the county board decided to build a small courthouse 16 X 40 feet with three rooms on the first floor for the clerk, judge and treasurer and a court room above. F. M. Brown submitted the low bid of $1,600 for the building. The court house was on the northeast corner of block 24 one block east of Saunders on Maple.
F. M. Brown was married in August, 1873 in Chicago to Mary C. Cluver. The couple returned to the homestead four miles north of Sutton staying only until late fall when they moved to town. He served as clerk for the first term of the district court of Clay County in 1873.
Sutton was incorporated as a village on October 15, 1874 and our hero, F. M. Brown was named chairman of the village board of trustees with members J. C. Merrill, J. J. Melvin, W. A. Way, and Dr. M. V. B. Clark.
Francis built the first brick business building in Sutton where his brother Charles operated a meat market supplied from the family slaughter house on the farm. In 1878 he built the Occidental Hotel which stood where the American Legion is now located.
R. G. Brown was elected mayor in 1879, Charles Brown was on the city council in 1880 and F. M. Brown served as mayor in 1882, 1883 and 1884. In 1883 F. M. Brown helped form the Sutton Building & Improvement Co. which then built the Sutton Opera House first managed by Guess Who.
After years of dabbling in various activities, finally on June 1, 1886, Francis Marion Brown found his calling when he purchased the Sutton Register newspaper.
His journalism career didn’t slow down his civic service. He became police judge in 1888 serving for several years. He organized the Evening Star Lodge, was its first secretary and later filled every station of the lodge. He was a member of Lebanon Chapter and the G.A.R. – a busy man.
Francis Marion Brown died in 1919 and his son Charles took over the Sutton Register publishing the paper until his own death in 1941. The Brown’s Sutton Register was absorbed by the Sutton News the next year after serving the community for 56 years.
The Brown family served the community for almost seventy years. R. G. was the first town attorney and has his name on a downtown building. F. M. Brown did not receive that lasting name recognition but he was an important force in the creation of the Sutton community as a leader in business and civic leadership. He was a truly a hero of old Sutton.