Brownsville grew from mills, tannery

March 31, 2000|By PAT SCHOOLEY

Editor's note: This is the 126th article in a series about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

BROWNSVILLE - Pleasant Valley lies between South Mountain and Elk Ridge in the far southern reaches of Washington County.

cont. from lifestyle

The land is rural, sweeping down the mountains in woods and fields, still showing the patterns of early roads and settlements.

Brownsville evolved from one of those settlements, grown from a small group of pioneers who made lives for themselves where the Brownsville Pass made crossing the mountain just a little easier.

Early land records show the first white settler in the area wasn't a Brown. It was Henry Boteler III, who purchased 100 acres called "Thomas Forest" from William Thomas in 1755.


On this property, a one-room stone cabin and a somewhat larger log house were built not far from a great spring. The cabin had a loft and cellar, with a large service fireplace to heat its single room.

An 1808 map shows a road running north, up the length of the valley, from the Potomac River turning toward Williamsport. The map also shows three mills in the area that was to become Brownsville.

To this day, in the south part of the village, there is a man-made land formation that collective memory calls the remnants of a millrace, perhaps the vestige of one of these early mills.

Md. 67 now bypasses Brownsville, and the old road through town has been renamed Boteler Road in honor of the first family.

The first Brown arrived in 1781 when Rudolph Brown purchased 250 acres.

Thirty years later, the Botelers sold their properties and moved a little west.

Some of the Boteler land was sold to Tobias Brown and his son, John. Tobias bought 15 acres and John bought two small parcels from the Botelers.

Abraham Yourtee purchased the Boteler farmstead with about 44 acres. Deeds spelled the family name Yordy and Yorty instead of Yourtee, but all were corruptions of the French name Jourdeau.

The Browns begin a tannery

In 1824, John Brown built a timber-framed house with brick nogging, two rooms over two rooms set on a stone cellar built into the slope of the mountain.

Beside the house was a log building, possibly a kitchen. At the foot of the hill, near the road, is a small stone springhouse.

Inside, four great, flat stones give footholds in the water, and at the side is a trough lined with wide boards that held crocks to be chilled.

The Browns established a tannery on the west side of the road, making use of the water from the many springs that rose in the area.

From scattered homesteads, the community formed around this industry. Some came to work in the tannery, others to make harnesses and shoes from the leather it produced.

In 1840, Tobias Brown moved into the village and built a three-bay brick home beside the tannery. The house had swags and birds painted on the walls, double parlors and a wing at the back with galleried porches. Just to the south, he built a brick springhouse.

A post office was established in 1833 and, three years later, President Andrew Jackson appointed John Brown the third postmaster for the community that had stretched itself along both sides of the old road hugging the foot of the mountain.

Browns would serve as postmasters off and on for 97 years, being removed from the post only during the Cleveland administrations.

The community grows

Cornelius Brown took over management of the tannery from his father, John, and, in 1886, opened a mercantile store beside his father's house.

Other stores came to the village, as did a garage, a filling station and three churches: a substantial stone church for the Brethren, a small frame church and St. Luke's Episcopal Church, a three-bay brick church built in 1837 and remodeled in 1939.

The Brethren church was demolished when the congregation moved from Brownsville, leaving only the cemetery beside the road. The frame church became a residence, but St. Luke's still serves the village, tidy and well-kept.

The tannery was torn down in 1890.

Today, the village goes on, changing to meet new needs.


Harnessing the springs

A 1941 Baltimore Sun article records George T. Brown's reminiscences of Brownsville.

George, great-great grandson of the first Brown, recalled that early in the 20th century, the village joined together to provide water for the residents.

They harnessed springs, dug trenches, laid pipe and, with the help of a farmer/plumber, fitted all the houses with indoor water from springs that never fail.

Labor was free. The water system cost about $500 - the price of the pipe. The water pressure isn't high, but the system serves.


Old houses change with the times

Greystone stands atop the hill overlooking Brownsville, still owned by the Yourtee family, who purchased it from Henry Boteler in 1811.

The water rights to the great spring were sold many decades ago to Brunswick to provide water for that town.

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