126 – Brownsville, circa 1820-1825, south Washington County, MD
Pleasant Valley lies between South Mountain and Elk Ridge in the far southern reaches of Washington County. Israel Creek threads its way down the valley to the Potomac River, fed by the many springs along its way. The land is still rural, sweeping down the mountains in woods and fields, still showing the patterns of early roads and settlements. Brownsville is such a settlement, grown from a small group of pioneers who intermarried and made lives for themselves and their families here, where Brownsville Pass made crossing the mountain just a little easier. This is a rural village suspended in time, awaiting its future.
Early land records show that, in 1755, Henry Boteler III purchased 100 acres of land called Thomas’s Forest from William Thomas, thus becoming the first white settler in this part of Pleasant Valley. On this property, a one-room stone cabin and a somewhat larger log house were built not far from a great spring. The stone cabin had a large service fireplace to heat its single room, with a loft above and a cellar below.
Charles Varle’s 1808 map shows a road running north, up the length of the valley from along the Potomac River, then turning toward Williamsport. This map 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. Route 67 now bypasses Brownsville, and the old road through town has been renamed Boteler Road in honor of the first family to come to the area.
In 1781, Rudolph Brown purchased a 250 acre parcel of land, the first record of the Brown family in this area. Thirty years later, the Botelers sold many of their holdings in the area and moved a little west. Brown’s son Tobias then purchased fifteen acres 25 perches from Alexander Boteler, Henry’s son. This same year, Tobias’s son John bought two small parcels from Alexander and from Henry Boteler. Abraham Yourtee purchased the Boteler farmstead with about 44 acres of land from Alexander Boteler in 1811. Deeds spelled the family name Yordy and Yorty instead of Yourtee, but all were corruptions of the French name Jourdeau.
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, and at the foot of the hill near the road is a small stone springhouse. The door of the springhouse opens toward the east, into the slope, and the roof overhangs this entrance. Inside, four great, flat stones give footholds among the water, and at the side is a trough lined with wide boards that held crocks to be chilled.
Tobias Brown helped his son John establish a tannery on the west side of the road, across from John’s house, 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.
The post office at Brownsville 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 that hugged the foot of the mountain. Cornelius Brown, John’s son, followed his father as postmaster in 1863. John E. M. Castle became postmaster in 1886 during Grover Cleveland’s first administration, but Cornelius Brown was reappointed in 1889 under Benjamin Harrison’s administration. When Cleveland regained the presidency, Castle was again postmaster in 1894. George T. Brown followed in the post in 1898 after McKinley won the presidency and remained until he retired in 1940. Cornelion W. Castle then took over the post. In all, the Browns served a total of 97 years as postmasters in Brownsville, only being removed from the post during the Cleveland administrations.
A 1941 Baltimore Sun article records George T. Brown’s reminiscences of Brownsville. He recalled that, early in the 20th century, the village joined together to provide water for the residents. They harnessed springs, including Brown’s, then dug trenches, laid pipe and, with the help of a farmer/plumber, fitted all the houses with indoor water from springs that never fail. The labor was free. The water system cost about $500—the price of the pipe. The water pressure isn’t high, but the system serves.
Cornelius Brown took over management of the tannery from his father John, and, in 1886, opened a mercantile store beside his father’s house. This business passed on to Cornelius’s son George T. Brown. Other stores came to the village, as did a garage and a filling station. Three churches also served the village: 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. St. Luke’s still serves the village, tidy and well kept. The tannery was torn down in 1890.
The old Castle store stands derelict beside the road. Brown’s store was torn down, and the other commercial establishments were closed. But the village goes on, accommodating to change, and changing to meet new needs. One resident, Mrs. John Grim, says her husband’s grandfather had “lean-to-itis:” wherever he saw a wall, he built a lean-to. Many of Brownsville’s residents continue that tradition, changing the old buildings to meet new needs.
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. The Boteler’s stone cabin remains the heart of the house, surrounded by additions. Dr. John Tilghman Yourtee added a stone wing in 1867 to be his office, then, in 1892, built the imposing center entrance addition that became the front of the house. Dr. Yourtee’s grandson Leon Ryno Yourtee continues the tradition. He has added a pool, removed old outbuildings, excavated the foundations of the stone cabin to restore them and added a kitchen wing. He expects the tradition to continue when his children inherit the farm.
John Brown’s house has also grown. By the time George T. lived there, the log building had been incorporated into the house. A second floor was added above it, giving the house four bedrooms. A porch was wrapped around the house, shielding the cellar beneath it with trellises. The present owners Stephen and Sheri Specht have done a lot of repair work over the years. They have remodeled the kitchen twice, have added a great room and have also removed a failing chimney. The porch still wraps around the house much as it did a half century ago, and much of the original woodwork of the house is intact; but walls are gone and doors have been cut in. The house is comfortable and continues to grow.
The marshland that once surrounded the tannery has been excavated and a pond built. A park was added in about 1970 when Route 67 bypassed the village. Tobias Brown’s brick house next door still stands, now the home of Donna Brightman and Courtney Hirsh. Gardens surround the house and the springhouse is now a garden shed. Two additions that had been added to the back of the house have been removed and a greenhouse added. The hall wall with the hand-painted designs was removed when the double parlor became a single large room. This home, too, continues to evolve.
George Brown had no children; his unmarried sister Sarah Ellen died in 1974, the last of the Brown family to live in Brownsville. Many of the old families have moved on, but Reverend John Grim and Leon Yourtee are still there, representatives of early families and keepers of the memories. Many new people have joined them as well, breathing new life into the village. The mix of history and change continues, and Pleasant Valley remains a most pleasant place to live.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, April 2, 2000 as the 126th in the series.