The Creative Spirit of Brownville
May 19, 2015 10:40AM
By Tom McCauley
What’s there to do in Brownville?” wonders Tom Rudloff, owner of The Antiquarium Book Store and Bill Farmer Gallery in Brownville. “Not much. Seven museums, five art galleries, a theatre, a concert hall, an arboretum, a winery, and three bookstores. So, not much.”
Maybe you haven’t heard of it. Maybe you’ve been meaning to get there. Maybe you’ve already fallen in love with the place.
Regardless, Brownville might be America’s only town of 130 residents that a 1,200 word article can hardly begin to synopsize.
Seventy-eight miles south of Omaha, Brownville is anchored like its own historic steamboat, the Spirit of Brownville, in the windblown hills above the Missouri River Valley. It’s one of the few places where you can wake up on the water (River Inn Floating B&B), shop for curios (Gypsy Jack’s Antiques & Oddities), buy rare books from a self-confessed “crazed grammarian” (The Antiquarium), sip locally crafted wine while touring pre-Prohibition era underground brewing caves (Whiskey Run Creek Winery & Vineyard), ponder the horrors of frontier dentistry (Dr. Spurgin’s Dental Office Museum), and purchase a fine broom (Country Brooms Everlasting)…all in the span of a few hours.
Founded in 1854 by Richard Brown, Brownville fell prey to the boom-and-bust cycle that crippled countless frontier towns. Within 20 years, the town had acquired a flatboat ferry, flour and lumber mills, two newspapers, a telegraph line, a high school, a medical college, three brickyards, and the promise of a railroad connection. Then, things fell apart. The railroad went bust. The county seat moved to nearby Auburn. In 1880, the population hit its high-water mark of 1,309. A 1903 fire and multiple floods destroyed several buildings along Main Street, almost destroying any hope of revival.
“Billy the Kid stayed here once,” says George Neubert, former director of Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum of Art and current curator/owner of the newly opened Flatwater Folk Art Museum. “He was going to rob the town, but when he realized we had no money, he went to Missouri.”
That’s not the end of the story. Brownville lay dormant. Slowly, driven by arts, crafts, niche entertainment, historical preservation, books, local restaurants, museums, and the sublime geography of the river valley, the town began to flourish again, albeit in a more contemplative, meaningful way.
I’ve been meaning to visit for several years. When I finally do come down to explore the village, which is supposed to have the most vibrancy per square inch than anywhere else in the state, I’ve chosen the wrong day. Almost everything is closed Mondays.
So, instead of entering galleries and historic buildings, I walk around admiring the well-preserved architecture, peering into darkened windows, and scribbling. As I press my cheeks against a glass bulletin board to read the schedules, a grey minivan captained by a senior couple rolls up behind me.
“Are you an architecture student?” says the amiable man behind the wheel.
“No, I’m writing an article about Brownville.”
“Oh, we thought you might be an architect,” the woman says. “A bunch of UNL students have been coming down here for a class project. Is this your first time? Do you want us to show you around? We’ll drive you.”
Being the kind of person who accepts rides from strangers, I enter the van.
Moments later, I’m now friends with George and Eva Neubert, owners of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum. Flatwater specializes in art “that doesn’t have a label next to it,” George explains. As a former director of Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum of Art, he knows art, art history, and curation. And he believes that the most exiting work is what goes on outside the mainstream.
“There’s an authenticity that I found in a lot of folk art that the thousands of MFA students producing wonderful, well-sculpted, products didn’t have the kind of angst that true folk art had. Plus it’s one of the most ethnically diverse collections in America.”
But why Brownville?
“When you consider a town of 130,” George says, “you’ve got more things happening culturally—per capita—than anywhere else in Nebraska.”
Across the village on the hill at 309 Water Street in the historic Nebraska State Teachers’ Association building, Tom Rudloff’s Antiquarium contributes heavily to the cultural fabric here.
After nearly 40 years as Omaha’s de facto den of intellection, the Antiquarium relocated to Brownville in 2008. The new place contains over 150,000 rare and used books and is modeled after the famed Long Room of Dublin’s Trinity College Library. Despite moving to a little-known town bordering the state of Missouri, the Antiquarium still attracts visitors from around the world seeking what they won’t find anyplace else. Together with the Brownville Concert Series, the Antiquarium is making this village a global destination spot.
“The scenery is lovely and so is the air,” Rudloff says. “At least before the nuclear plant blows apart. Do I sound cynical? I’m a loudmouth, that’s what I am! At 76, how’s it going to get me in trouble?”
I ask what the store hours are.
“We don’t have hours,” he declares triumphantly. Then, popping up from his chair, he glides over to the old-time, hand-cranked cash registers and returns with a more definitive answer, which he reads aloud:
“Open 9 or 10 most days, some days as early as 7:30, sometimes as late as 11 or 12. We might close at 4:30 or later, sometimes midnight.”
It’d be a good idea to call first.
On my most recent trip to Brownville, I end the day with a burger at the Lyceum Café, a diner/bookstore/gallery that serves as the village focal point. On this Saturday evening, waitress Ashley Robertson zigzags between dining room, cash register, art gallery, and kitchen, balancing six huge plates while still moving and greeting people by name.
“I’ve loved the tiny town ever since I began working here eight years ago,” Robertson says. “If you are a person who loves nature, history, and homes with character, Brownville is the perfect town. My two kiddos and I enjoy walking down to the river, walking the Steamboat Trace Trail and the Whiskey Run Creek Trail, which is an absolutely gorgeous little trail, especially in fall.”
During the summer, Robertson and her family attend the Brownville Village Theatre, listen to weekly live music sponsored by Whiskey Run Creek, eat treats at the local ice cream parlor, enjoy Fourth of July activities, and search for treasures at the Brownville Flea Market.
Everyone I’ve met has mentioned the flea markets. They’re a huge deal, shutting down Main St. for three days while tourists and vendors flood the town. This year, the 59th Annual Spring Flea Market runs May 23 – 25. Over 260 antiques & collectibles dealers, food vendors, artists, and craftspeople will attend this year’s events. If you want to stay the whole weekend, you have 11 accommodation options, including places called The Actor’s Residence and Gypsies Nook. Look out for the 60th Annual Fall Flea Market, which runs September 26 – 27.
If Billy the Kid came back to Brownville now, he’d find plenty to steal.