THOMAS H. BROWN. It was a most unusual career of self achievement and broad and successful service in business and personal service that came to a close with the death of Thomas H. Brown at Sterling on February 4, 1916. Though his death came suddenly and was a heavy loss to his wide community of friends and business associates, he had reached the full maturity of three score and ten. But the forces of his personality and character were not those which vanish quickly with the mortal presence. He would probably have been the last among men to anticipate a permanent place in the world's memory, but in his sphere - and that a large one - enacted with care and success those roles of human endeavor which longest deserve the admiration and homage of succeeding generations.
Thomas Hayes Brown was born in West Walton, Northropshire, England, July 13, 1845. His father died there in 1853 and was buried in the churchyard of an historic old church said to have been built by the Romans. A number of years ago one of the chapel doors of this ancient building fell into a state of disrepair. Mr. Brown, who in the meantime had achieved success in America, with some of his brothers and sisters replaced it with a large memorial door dedicated to the memory of their father.
In 1855, when Thomas H. was ten years of age, his widowed mother brought her little family to America and she died shortly after landing. Thomas H. Brown was survived by one brother and three sisters, two of the sisters living in Michigan and the brother and the other sister in Iowa.
Thus left an orphan, without any of the advantages of wealth, Mr. Brown's career was the fascinating story of a poor boy who by his own efforts and sheer force of will raised himself to a position of wealth and power. The first year in America was spent at Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he worked for his board on a farm and also paid his tuition in a local school during the winter months by cutting wood. By these exertions he managed to save a capital of thirty dollars and at the age of twelve he found his way to Chicago. He worked for a time as a train boy with the Michigan Central and later with the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, and he continued that work until he reached his majority. In this respect his early career and experience was like that of the great American inventor, Thomas Edison, who at one time was a "news butch" on railroad trains. He possessed the instinct and the thrift of the real business man and all the time he was working as a train boy he was saving his money for future needs and was carefully investing it. As a result, at the age of twenty-one, when he left the train service, he was operating a string of lumber yards in Iowa, and at Norway in that state he also established a bank and became its president.
From Iowa Mr. Brown moved the center of his operations to Kansas in 1887. Having in the meantime acquired both capital and influence he established on coming to this state a bank at Florence and remained there one year as its president. While there he organized the Citizens State Bank of Sterling, and was at the head of this old and substantial institution until his death. He was also one of the organizers and after 1913 president of the Raymond State Bank at Raymond, Kansas. Farm lands always attracted a large share of the fruits of his enterprise, and he acquired between 2,500 and 3,000 acres of land in Kansas and much other valuable property in South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri and Florida, besides some of the most valuable city real estate in Sterling. All of this now forms a part of his estate. Without doubt he was one of the greatest financial geniuses of Kansas, and while he attained a position as one of the wealthy men of the state, it was not in line with his character to concentrate himself upon the amassing of wealth for wealth's sake.
At the time of his death Mr. Brown enjoyed the distinction of being the oldest original salt manufacturer in the state of Kansas. He had organized and became president of the Sterling Salt Company in 1888, and the manufacture of salt was begun in the following January. In 1904 he became sole owner of this business, which is one of the largest concerns of its kind in the nation. Some account of the manufacture of salt at Sterling is given on other pages, but it should be noted that the Sterling Salt Company's exhibit at the World's Fair at St. Louis was awarded a silver medal. This salt was just a fraction under a hundred per cent purity. The purity is one of the great virtues of Sterling salt, it containing over ninety-nine per cent of soluble sodium chloride. It is no exaggeration to say that the salt product of this company is the best in the world.
Mr. Brown was also president of the Kansas Southern Oil Company, and his business interests were extended to many different states of the Union. A number of years ago he built what is today perhaps the most imposing and homelike residence in Sterling, at the corner of Seventh Street and Washington Avenue. It is now owned and occupied by Mrs. Brown. In politics the late Mr. Brown was a republican, but absolutely without any aspirations for official distinctions. He was an active Mason, being affiliated with Sterling Lodge No. 171, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons; Sterling Chapter No. 50, Royal Arch Masons, and was a charter member of Sterling Commandery No. 47, Knights Templar.
Thomas H. Brown was one of the most loyal supporters of Cooper College at Sterling, and for twenty years at least was a member of its executive board.
Of his personal character and the many influences for good that emanated therefrom it is difficult to give an adequate record. A self-made man himself, he was always generous and genial, affable, kindly to the poor and distressed and was especially distinguished by his love of children and the love they gave him in return. He was a soul of truth, love and justice and many men today rated as prosperous and successful in Kansas owe their start in life to Thomas H. Brown. Probably not even a close examination of all his books would expose the true amount of the many benefactions which he made, and it was only a partial examination of his accounts which disclosed the greater part of them at all. He was constantly giving, and it was this generosity and fine sense of responsibility of the man of wealth to others less fortunate that kept him from attaining the pinnacle of great wealth, which, as already stated, was never an end or ambition with him. From one source and another it is now known that the sum of his benefactions frequently reached as much as $10,000 in a single year. All that he gave he gave without ostentation, and the records are kept largely by the recipients themselves.
His was the first death to make a break in the home circle, where for so many years he had been the admired and venerated husband and father. Early in his business career at Norway, Iowa, he met and married on December 2, 1869, Emma J. Sholes. Mrs. Brown, who still lives at Sterling, was born April 7, 1853, at Phelps, Ontario County, New York. She was reared in Wisconsin by her father's sister, Mrs. A. H. Sperbeck. The Sperbecks were pioneers in Wisconsin, where Mr. Sperbeck was a grain and cattle man. Mrs. Brown was educated in the grammar and high schools at Delavan, Wisconsin. Since coming to Kansas she has been prominent in the literary and social life of Sterling, is a member of the Order of Eastern Star and the P. E. O., and has taken an active part in literary clubs.
Mrs. Brown is the mother of five children: Marion E., William T., George J., Orville F. and Laura B. Marion E., who lives at Wichita, is the widow of George Morris, who stood high in the financial circles of Wichita. The son William T. is in the jewelry business at Sterling. Orville F. is a business man at Sterling. Laura B., who lives with her mother, is the wife of W. E. Brown, a traveling salesman.
A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, written & compiled by William E. Connelley, 1918, transcribed by Shelly Marie Bowman, student from USD 508, Baxter Springs Middle School, Baxter Springs, Kansas, January 26, 2000.
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