BROWNSTOWN

When Shirley Snapp was a teacher at Brownstown Elementary School, she enjoyed sharing Brownstown’s history with her students.

She would point out a building and show them a picture of what was there at one time to illustrate how much the town had changed.

For instance, where The Peoples Bank stands today at the northwest corner of Main and Walnut streets, a building used to house a bank and a tailor shop on the bottom floor and an opera house on the top floor. It later was a library before being torn down to make way for a new building.

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Or the site of the present-day middle school, which is where Brownstown High School once was located, with large half-circle windows above the entrances. The high school is now a few blocks over along Elm Street.

Today, Brownstown turns 200 years old. Snapp remembers attending the sesquicentennial celebration in 1966 that was conducted at the fairgrounds.

Now she and other residents get a chance to be a part of bicentennial celebrations planned for today and Saturday. Other events are scheduled later this year to celebrate the 200th birthdays of Jackson County and Indiana, which are this year, too.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Snapp said. “I’m so glad they are doing things again, and I’m anxious to see what all they do come up with.”

The Indiana territorial legislature, in session in Corydon in 1815, passed an act that provided for the organization of Jackson County on Jan. 1, 1816, out of the territory of Washington and Jefferson counties.

The legislature appointed commissioners to locate the county seat and appoint a county agent for the sale of lots. The county seat either was going to be Vallonia or a place somewhere between the present site of Brownstown and Seymour, which for the time was called Natchez.

Commissioners preferred to locate it close to the geographical center of the county.

They were interested in a tract of 150 acres owned by John Ketcham, a colonel who was born in Washington County, Maryland, in 1782 and moved to Indiana in 1811. Commissioners met in Ketcham’s cabin on the Driftwood River to finalize the land purchase at $8 per acre.

Brownstown was one of many places named for Jacob Jennings Brown, a War of 1812 hero.

The town plat was made and acknowledged April 8, 1816. It consisted of 168 lots and the public square. The streets running north and south were Main, Poplar, Sugar and Water, and running east and west were Cross, Tanner, Commerce, Walnut, Spring and Bridge streets.

Ketcham donated the public square to the county as long as it was used for the county seat. For a few months, until some land could be cleared and a building erected, court was conducted in a log house in Vallonia.

The first courthouse, which was made of logs, was on a lot on Sugar Street. It also was used as the first schoolhouse in Brownstown until 1826, when it was converted into a church.

A temporary log jail also was built in 1816 at a cost of $60, and a post office was established.

The first addition made to the original plat of the town was made by county agent John Milroy on July 7, 1817, and consisted of 60 lots.

It’s unclear who the first was to sell goods or engage in any kind of trade in the town. Some history records show it was William Burr, who sold goods in a log building that stood on the west side of the public square. Others say a man named McTagart, who later was named county sheriff, was the first to embark in the mercantile business.

Tavern, or hotel, keeping was profitable at the time because people came to the county seat to conduct business. The first one, owned by William Congleton, was on the northwest corner of Main and Walnut streets.

Alexander Craig built the Aetna House in 1819 on the northeast corner of that same intersection. It was the first brick building between Louisville and Cincinnati. History shows people came by wagon loads from miles away just to look at it. It stood until 1925, when the south half was torn down and replaced with another brick building.

The Brownstown Manufacturing Co. was organized Feb. 2, 1832, by an act of the legislature for agricultural, manufacturing, exporting and importing business within the state.

A tannery was among the first industries in town. The first flouring mill was on a lot on the southeast corner of Main and Spring streets.

The Brownstown area also was known as an agricultural center and became known as the watermelon capital of the state because of the sandy soil.

The county’s first brick courthouse, located in Brownstown, was a two-story structure that had a wooden cupola and was built in 1834.

In 1837, the town was divided into five districts or wards, and elections were conducted to determine a representative of each.

The railroad came through a mile west of town in 1854 on land owned by William H. Ewing. He helped secure a railroad depot there, and the town of Ewing was named for him. Stores, a sawmill, a tannery, other industries and a school were there by 1862.

Ewing and Brownstown later were incorporated into one, and Brownstown became a town with two business districts and two post offices — the only town in the United States to have two post offices.

In June 1855, the County Agricultural Society laid the groundwork for the first county fair to be conducted on ground leased by the commissioners from the county farm. There were several years of inactivity in the early 1900s. Then in 1939, the fair association was reorganized at the present site east of Brownstown.

In 1884, when the corporate line of the town was extended, a building that once housed the county seminary and an academy became Brownstown High School. Since that time, four school buildings have been constructed, with the most recent one opening in 1964.

A horse- and mule-drawn street car was put into operation in 1892 between Brownstown and Ewing by a group of businessmen. The car, pulled by horses or mules, operated on tracks running from the depot to the courthouse. It operated until 1916 and was the last known horse-drawn street car in the country.

A public library was opened in 1910, a feed exchange started in 1921 and a swimming pool was dedicated in 1962.

In the fall of 1965, the town purchased the former REMC building at 200 W. Walnut St. to have the town hall and police, fire and street departments all in one place.

A new county jail and juvenile detention center opened on the southeast side of town in 2000. A few years later, renovations were made at the Jackson County Courthouse, and an annex opened in the building that used to house the jail.

In 2014, the town purchased property at 121 E. Walnut St. and demolished two feed mill buildings and a silo to establish Heritage Park. It soon will include an open-air permanent concrete stage and green space for community events.

Looking at the progress that has been made, from more businesses popping up on Main Street to technology being made available to schoolchildren, Snapp said she’s glad to have had the chance to live in Brownstown all of her life.

“I am just proud of all of the things that have happened in our small community,” she said. “The people have worked together and are trying to make it a better place, a good place to raise children, and it has a good religious background with all of the churches. I’m just proud of the people that work so hard to try to keep our community going.”

If you go

Brownstown bicentennial celebrations

Formal ceremony

What: Guest speakers and a re-dedication of the town on its 200th birthday

When: 6 p.m. today

Where: The pioneer village at the Jackson County History Center, 105 N. Sugar St., Brownstown

Reception

When: After the formal ceremony

Where: Bicentennial Headquarters at 202 S. Main St., Brownstown

Cost: Free

Informal celebration

What: Brownstown Bicentennial Bash featuring music, food, drinks and a cornhole tournament

When: 6:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday

Where: Pewter Hall, W. 850 Sweet St., Brownstown

Cost: $10

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.