HISTORY OF THE VILLAGE OF BROWNTOWN, VA
© Rebecca Poe, 1988
Photo by Rob Harding
The Flood of 1996:
Most Browntowners remember the flood of 1996 that nearly wiped out the village. Most of the residents were affected by the flood and can tell you many stories about it.
It happened when a storm stalled just above Mt Washington; it kept pouring rain onto the mountain until it became saturated and burst open on the north side, facing the village of Browntown. The sudden large surge of water flowed down into a pond at the base of the mountain, and into the many creeks that feed the Gooney Creek along Browntown Road. The onrush of so much water overflowed the pond and ran quickly into the village, wiping out roads, bridges, fences and parts of many homes. When the bridges were gone many were stranded for several days until temporary repairs could be made. Since the flood, the Gooney Creek has been shored up on its banks with wire-netted stone in order to prevent erosion in case of another flood. A video was made to document scenes of the flood; a copy is kept at the O.J. Rudacille General Store in Browntown. Drop by and check it out from the store owner, Tom Lacombe.
Browntown is the center of a large land area (more than 14,000 acres) that is officially and traditionally known as Gooney Manor. Gooney Manor takes its name from a creek that forms in the mountains and flows northward to the Shenandoah River. The manor, part of Lord Fairfax’s holdings west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, runs from the mountain tops on the east and south to Flint Run on the west, and what is now the Poor House Road on the north. The first settlers to Gooney Manor arrived before 1750. How many of them and who they were is not recorded. The few records that are available identify the Land family, who gave their name to another creek that flows out of the mountain and joins Gooney north of Browntown, and several others who were probably squatters in the Round and Buck Mountain areas. An Augusta County court record (Gooney was in Augusta when the lands west of the Blue Ridge were divided between Augusta and Frederick) identified James and Thomas Land as two of the residents who were to work a road leading from the low water bridge at Bentonville to the mountain top. A survey made by William Green for Lord Fairfax in 1747 reported that there were only six “improvements” in Gooney Manor. William Owins had bought his improvement from Samuel Wilson, a hunter who had moved on; Darby McCarty, lately of Bucks County, Pa, claimed two of the improvements; and George Neal, lately of Shenandoah, claimed the fourth. The other two, described as “little more than small cabins built by hunters,” were already abandoned. Heavy settlement of the manor began about 1770, and continued through the end of the 18th century and into the 19th. Fairfax would not sell his land, so the settler leased 200 and 300 acre lots of “ungranted waste land,” built a cabin with a stone or brick chimney, as the leases specified, and planted 100 fruit trees. The first post office was named Hambaugh, after postmaster John Hambaugh whose name appears in court records as postmaster in 1812. The Hambaugh post office was north of Browntown. It was in 1812 also that the name Abraham Brown first appeared in the land records for Gooney Manor. He established the mills that were eventually to give the village of Browntown its name. It was in 1812 also that Lord Fairfax’s heirs sold Gooney Manor to James and John (the chief justice) Marshall. For the first time, Gooney Land was available for sale, and the Marshall’s conveyed deeds to some of the people already on the land by virtue of a Fairfax lease. One of those purchasers was the widow, Rachel Woodward. Others were descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers Robert Russell, Jeffrey Collins, and Jonas Morgan. In 1837, when the new county of Warren was a year old, the Marshall family sold the remainder of their land, about 8,000 acres, to Rachel Woodward’s son, William. He built Liberty Hall, on Route 622 north of Browntown, and continued the practice of selling land to leaseholders who wanted to buy it. He also obtained land from owners who wanted to sell it. The Woodward’s owned a large hunk of Gooney Land until the late 19th Century. By 1898, when William S. Woodward (the second William) died, the holding was down to the 800 acre “Home tract.” By then, the village of Browntown had been born. The name Hambaugh disappeared from the record shortly after the Civil War. The Hambaugh’s had disappeared from the county long before then, and the name Brown’s Mill was frequently used as an identification point for the community.
In 1870, another large landowner, James W. (Willie) Boyd, began to sell lots of an acre, a half-acre, or a quarter of an acre on either side of Gooney. Those lots, owned by both black and white residents, became the village of Browntown. Mills played a large part in Browntown’s economy. The Browns, the Boyds, the Lewins, the Updikes, the Rudacilles, and later the Goods, all operated mills that were supported by Gooney. Given its location, (almost surrounded by mountains, at least five miles from the river, and almost as far from the railroad) Browntown would not seem to lend itself to industry. But it became an industrial center about 1874, and its factories continued to operate into the 20th Century. Cover Brothers Tannery, using oak bark from the mountains, was established in 1874. Their impact on the economy included support jobs for timbermen who cut the trees, peelers to take the bark from them, and teamsters to haul timber, bark, and the finished product. Other factories were a hardwood factory and a stave factory, a cooper shop for making barrels, and legal distilleries. The last factory to operate in Browntown was a hardwood and handle factory which closed at the death of its owner, C. T. Edmonds. Browntown’s commercial life included taverns and stores. At least three taverns operated near the center of the village, most of them on property now owned by the Baptist Church, and three stores were built. One of them, the store erected by William Baublitz in 1885, is still standing and is operated today as O. J. Rudacille’s Store by Tom and Jean Lacombe, and is featured on the cover of the cookbook! At least four Christian denominations worshipped in Browntown, and in 1882, they joined forces, bought a lot, and built a community church. The original denominations were the Old School Baptists, “new” or Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans. The Lutherans later built their own church, the Methodists eventually joined with the Asbury United Methodist Church a few miles away, and when the Lutheran membership dwindled to three or four members, the Southern Baptist congregations purchased their building. The community church is used today by the Old School Baptists only. Later, the Church of the Brethren, and the Cool Spring Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith, were established. The Cool Spring Church is still in existence. Private schools had operated in the Browntown area before the Public School Act of 1870, but once the state passed a law calling for public schools, tracts were obtained in Gooney Manor for the new schools. One of the schools, near Hezekiah Brown’s mill, was the mountain school. The tract for the first Browntown School was just north of the second, and permanent site. The second Browntown school is today the Browntown Community Center. The Fish school was located on the Browntown Road, where Mrs. C. W. Honsberger now lives. Today, Browntown is more residential than commercial. It has two stores, two active churches, and its community center with a fire substation. Its post office no longer exists, and Browntowners get their mail at Route 1, Front Royal or Route 1, Bentonville, depending on which side of the village they reside. Its people travel to Front Royal to work, or commute to the Washington, D. C. area. Browntowners still garden, cut timber and wood, pasture livestock, and practice some of the crafts of old, however.