Identifying with a town

June 20, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS

Editor's note: Many unincorporated communities with long histories are in Washington County. This summer series spotlights those communities. Next week: Beaver Creek.

It's as regular as the sunrise in this tiny Pleasant Valley town: Every morning at 9 a.m., down the hilly, winding road to the little white building with the blue U.S. Postal Service mailbox, comes Leon Yourtee to get his mail.

If he wanted, the 90-year-old retired Army colonel could get his mail delivered to his door from Knoxville, four miles south on Md. 67 and just across the line into Frederick County, Md., but to him, and many of the town's other old-timers, the notion is unthinkable.

This is Brownsville, Washington County, ZIP Code 21715, and though the town of about 200 residents is too small for a mayor or town hall, it does have a post office - and a history.


"The political folks out in Hagerstown very seldom recognize we even exist," said Gerald Haines, who has lived in Brownsville since 1942 and whom some residents have dubbed the unofficial mayor.

"Some people all around the area have Knoxville addresses and are being told they live in Knoxville, which is so far from the truth that it's pitiful," Haines said. "It steals your identity, really, and we don't want our identity stolen."

To this identity, Yourtee and his daily trek to the post office are critical.

Yourtee lives atop a hill, in a stone house that evolved from a cabin built there in the mid-1700s by his great-great-grandfather, Henry Boteler, the area's first white settler, and has been passed down within the Boteler and Yourtee families.

The town was named after its founder, John Brown, who in 1824 built a house on land his family purchased from the Botelers, according to a Brown family history titled "The Curtain Falls" by William C. Ridenour. Brown later established beside the road a tannery and post office, where he was appointed postmaster.

Control of the post office was passed down within the Brown family for more than a century, with only a short break during the Cleveland administration, Yourtee said. When John Brown's grandson, the childless George T. Brown, retired from his job in 1940, a Morning Herald article called it the end of the nation's oldest family postmastership.

When George Brown's unmarried sister, Sarah Ellen, died in 1974, the town said goodbye to its last resident to bear the founder's name.

But as the current postmaster, Mary Ellen Younkins, 53, will tell you, the Brownsville legacy is far from dead. The post office is still for the most part a one-person, family-oriented operation - she took over the position formerly held by her mother and aunt in 1979, runs the post office out of the front of her aunt Helen's house and enlists the help of her cousin's wife, Barbara Anders, who lives next door. It's also still the heart of the town.

"It's about the only point in town now really to meet people, other than the churches, and one of the rites of passage, I guess, is when you're finally old enough that your folks send you down to get the mail," Younkins said.

It's also the place where the town's stories - both of its residents' daily lives and of its history - change hands. When Younkins gets letters from children doing school projects on town histories, she said, she directs them to Yourtee. He can tell them about his grandfather, a doctor who practiced medicine horse-and-buggy style, charging a dollar a visit, or his grandmother's sister, who cared for a wounded Union army captain during the Civil War and later married him, despite his grandmother's advice to "let the damn Yankee die."

Even those who live on the other side of Md. 67 and have Knoxville addresses say they make a point to visit the post office to feel like a part of the town.

"We love going into the little post office on Saturdays, getting stamps and hearing the news," said Sharon Daly, 60, who moved to town about 12 years ago and said she only gets her mail delivered because she works in Baltimore and can't make it to the post office during the week. "The post office is a way everybody keeps in touch. ... If you want to know how somebody is, you can ask Mary. I think it really is the heart and soul of this town."

Daly, like many new residents, was attracted to the town because of the way it remained unchanged for so long. In Brownsville, she said, many of the same families have lived in the same houses for more than a century.

"The people who move to Brownsville want to live in a separate little town, cut off from (Md.) 67, that has historic significance, and be proud of their home," Yourtee said.

The Yourtees and their stories will remain in the town, he added, when he passes the stone house on to his son and grandson, and as long as they and the post office stick around, the Brownsville legacy will continue.

"I don't think it will change much," Younkins said. "Not as long as (new residents) can meet up with the old. That's the connecting thing."

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