The Brown family: Pioneers’ descendants still call Silverton home

August 2009 Posted in Arts, Culture & History

By Linda WhitmoreOregon 150

Since James and Lucinda Brown trekked across the Plains, seven generations have called Silverton home.

Through the years, the Browns have been influential in the development of the community and its resources.

James and Lucinda Brown and their four children left Independence, Mo., in April 1846 on a half-year journey to Oregon. They carried their belongings in two wagons and brought along several oxen and other livestock.

One of the children, James Madison Brown, known as Matt, who made the crossing at age 2, was the subject of a newspaper article in his later years. He recounted that the wagon train split up, with about half the group going to Oregon and the others following the route to California. That party, he said, included the Donner family, who is known in history for the tragedy that befell them trapped in snow in the Sierra Nevada.

The Oregon group safely made its way and arrived in the fall. James Brown scouted around for a fitting home and came to rest along Silver Creek about where Silverton Florist stands. The Browns are credited with being the first or second pioneer family to settle in the region that became Silverton. James Madison Brown

James Brown soon built a log cabin near a spring where Mill and Church streets join and established a tannery. He also farmed.

He gave up the tannery and went to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. This was a “successful venture,” according to Matt Brown’s account, and when James returned to Silverton he built a house at the corner of North Water and Brown streets. He also established a restaurant that was “the leading eating house between Portland and San Francisco.”

When Donation Land Claims became available in 1852, the Browns registered 640 acres in the northern part of Silverton, from Webb Lake to Oak Street, and from Schlador Street up the hill to Steelhammer Road.

An early biographical record says that James was “a man of high principles, generous and extremely hospitable.”

His son, Matt, “obtained a good business education and when 16 years of age he engaged in dealing in cattle and horses … In his business transactions he was ever successful,” said a early-day biography.

At the age of 23, Matt partnered with John Davenport and D. Wolfard to establish a store and mill. While this business didn’t work out, he achieved great success in sheep raising and land speculation. “His investments have been made with marked foresight,” the article said.

During the Civil War, he was known as “an ardent abolitionist,” and he was a temperance advocate his entire life. “In the community where he has so long resided he is held in uniform regard,” reads the biography.

Matt Brown was the father of four children, among whom were Percy and Carl. After being educated at Willamette University and Oregon Institute, Percy purchased Silverton’s electric light plant in 1896 and two years later his younger brother joined the venture. That year they also purchased the town’s water works. Percy sold the electric light plant upon the Carl’s death in 1903. He sold the waterworks to the city in 1911.

“Percy was an entrepreneur,” said his grandson, Lawrence “Larry” Brown, a current Silverton resident. He told how in 1904 Percy went to the St. Louis World’s Fair where he saw modern marvels.In 1909, the family was photographed in front of Percy Brown’s home – from left, Percy’s wife, Ethel, son, Delmar, Percy, his mother, Mrs. James Brown (Edna), baby Florence, and child in wagon, Percy’s son, Lowell.

“He came back with switchboards and got more equipment in San Francisco,” to establish Interurban Telephone Co., serving Silverton and Mt. Angel. This venture became the family business for several generations.

Percy served as mayor from 1911-12, was a director of the Chamber of Commerce, served as justice of the peace for 20 years and held office with the volunteer fire department.

The first telephone office was on Water and Main streets. In 1926 he built a brick building across Silver Creek for the company.

Percy’s daughter, Virginia, who had worked as an operator in her teens, later recounted how the telephone service was instrumental in directing firemen to fires and police officers to crimes. Some of these criminals had their punishments dealt out by Percy Brown, as justice of the peace.

Virginia, “Ginny,” recalled how in the early days, two women worked as telephone operators, rotating three days on duty – sleeping beside the switchboard – and four days off.

“Like all small towns they always knew where the doctors could be found. They also knew everything else that went on in town.” During her days as an operator “We knew a lot but gossiped little. The telephone company was our whole life.”In 2001, a replica of Percy Brown’s home was constructed in Town Square Park. Brown family members pictured at the dedication are, from left, Jeff, sixth generation, Cindy, Norman, fifth generation, and Justin and Tyler, seventh generation

Interurban Telephone Co. changed its name to Valley Telephone Co. in 1955 when it modernized to a dial system. It expanded to include Aumsville, Turner, Mill City, Gates, Detroit and Idanha. Eleven years later the service joined Sunnyside Telephone Co. and in 1969 it was sold to Continental Telephone.

Through the years, the family continued its involvement with the company. Percy died in 1934 and his son, Lowell, took over management two years later. In the interim Percy’s wife, Ethel, managed the company.

Today, Larry Brown remembers washing company trucks and delivering telegrams when he was a youngster. He left Silverton to go to college and became a teacher, teaching in a Hood River valley high school for five years. After marriage he wanted to raise his family in Silverton, so his father offered him a job as commercial manager for the telephone company. His brother, Norman, has lived in Silverton his entire life. The contemporary Brown family children, and now grandchildren, make up the sixth and seventh generations to have made their home in Silverton.

Through marriage, the family has intertwined with many of the names of the town’s history. Each generation has left a mark in service to the community.

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