Monmouth’s wealthy Brown family was not unsinkable
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Within the annals of Monmouth history are several rags-to-riches stories, sprinkled with an occasional riches-to-rags story.
One such tale might be titled “The Prodigal Son.” Like the Biblical parable, it involved a wealthy man with two sons, the older of whom stayed in town and became one of its leading citizens, while the younger left for California and lost his inheritance.
The father, who bore the unassuming name John Brown, could have inspired a Horatio Alger novel. The son of an Irish immigrant, he was born in Pennsylvania in 1807 but moved to Ohio at an early age, where in his teens he suffered the misfortune of having his entire family wiped out by an epidemic. Left penniless and with little education, he learned the trade of a brickmason, but was discouraged by the low wages.
In 1836, Brown decided to head farther west, following some Ohio families to Monmouth, where he built a number of the early brick structures in the young city. Through frugality, he gradually accumulated savings and invested in farmland. A community leader, he served two terms as sheriff and was a member of the county board. He became a trusted money-lender and was elected the first president of the First National Bank in 1863.
A lifelong bachelor, Brown was finally married in 1872 to Mattie Pittenger, the daughter of a childhood friend. He was 64 and she was 31. They had two sons — John S. Brown, born in 1873, and Harry H. Brown, born in 1877. When Brown died in 1888, his large estate was left in the hands of his widow, along with his banker and his legal adviser, until his sons reached manhood.
In 1890, Mrs. Brown used her new wealth to construct a magnificent three-story residence at the northwest corner of Broadway and Sixth Street, where she regularly entertained Monmouth society. It was not unusual for her to host dinner parties for 150 guests in the third-floor ballroom. Following her death in 1903, the house became the residence of her son John. He would live there until 1927, when it became the Phi Sigma Alpha (later Tau Kappa Epsilon) fraternity house.
John attended Monmouth College and became a bookkeeper for the Second National Bank. He invested heavily in the new Monmouth Plow Company and was named its first president in 1902. The company would grow steadily and eventually evolve into a mail-order firm — the third largest in the United States. Renamed Brown Lynch Scott, it would also operate retail stores in 20 cities and towns throughout Illinois and Iowa.
John Brown became active in all aspects of Monmouth life. An avid sportsman, he led the effort to build a baseball park on South 11th Street and established a professional baseball team — the Monmouth Browns — named in his honor. In 1905, he built an apartment complex, known as the Brown Flats, on the site of the old Brown homestead on West Second Ave. A quartermaster in the National Guard, he organized Red Cross efforts during World War I and served as president of the hospital board. He served three terms as mayor of Monmouth and one term in the state senate.
Younger brother Harry followed what had become a growing colony of former Monmouth socialites to California, where he owned a large orange ranch in Naranjo. In 1903, he married Edna Cutler Booth, the daughter of a former Monmouth grocer. They settled in Calistoga, Calif., where in Brown engaged in the banking business, as president of The First National Bank of Calistoga, with his brother-in-law, Starr Cutler, as cashier.
In the course of business, Brown was introduced to a revolutionary product being manufactured in Calistoga. Invented by Stephen B. Rathbun of Stockton, Calif., the device was a hand-cranked butter churn called the Dairy Queen. By forcing the milk at high speed through an arrangement of wires and metal wings, the churn was capable of producing butter in as little as one minute.
Impressed, Brown arranged to purchase the company and establish a manufacturing plant in his former Midwest hometown, which would facilitate distribution to both the east and west coasts. The Dairy Queen Churn Co. was incorporated in Monmouth in 1906, with Brown as president and Joseph H. McLaughlin as the secretary and plant manager. McLaughlin was another Monmouth boy who had moved to California, opening a bowling alley in Stockton.
Brown manufactured the churns at his brother’s plow company until a factory site could be secured. In 1907, the Monmouth Gas and Electric Light Company erected a new plant and the churn company leased its former quarters on West Fifth Ave. at South B St.
The young enterprise looked promising. Its entire first year’s output had been sent to supply the California demand and Brown planned to expand operations to allow for nationwide distribution. McLaughlin was traveling widely giving demonstrations at county fairs and at the end of 1907 employees received fine wallets as Christmas bonuses.
But Harry Brown’s fortunes would soon take a nosedive. Just before Christmas, the Calistoga bank was forced to temporarily close its doors — due to the large percentage of deposits tied to the Napa Valley wine industry. The temperance wave then hitting the country had resulted in the price of grapes dropping from $30 to $6 per ton. The growers were unable to pay their loans and the bank ran out of cash. In May 1908, its doors were closed again — for the final time.
In June, Brown was arrested when an Oakland man accused him of selling a worthless certificate of deposit in the bank. Then the California attorney general filed an injunction to force the bank into liquidation. In July, a grand jury was called to investigate the business methods of some of the bank’s officers. Adding to the mess was the failure of the city’s electric lighting system, which had been financed through the bank.
October brought more bad news. Brown’s Calistoga mansion was destroyed by fire, entailing a loss of $50,000, of which only $17,500 was insured. Included in the loss was Mrs. Brown’s valuable jewelry collection, valued at $10,000.
In March 1909, the bank’s receiver ordered 130 acres of land belonging to Brown attached to recover customer losses. Brown, who had moved to Washington, D.C., was indicted for alleged embezzlement, and the Napa sheriff was sent to bring him back to California for trial. At the heart of the case was the Dairy Queen Churn Co., which had been forced out of business due to lack of funds. Since Brown was its president, he was accused of diverting bank funds to a failing company. A jury, however, determined the failure was not Brown’s fault and he was acquitted.
In September 1910, Edna Brown filed for divorce from Harry Brown in Warren County Circuit Clerk. The following February, she married a wealthy California manufacturer. Brown spent the next two years traveling between the east coast and Calistoga. On Friday, Dec. 6, 1912, he checked into a room in the Hotel Calistoga. On Sunday night, he suddenly took ill and died before medical aid arrived. He was only 38.
The coroner attributed Brown’s death to heart disease and alcoholism.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.