IAGenWeb Project

Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project


Join the IAGenWeb Team



Grandmother Brown's Hundred Years

1827 - 1927



On April 9, 1926, the Evening Democrat of Fort Madison, Iowa, contained the following announcement: -




An unusual family party took place to-day when Mrs. Maria D. Brown celebrated her 99th birthday. Gathered about her at the dinner table were her widowed daughter and her five sons with their wives. The oldest son is 80 years old, the youngest 56. The combined age of the family group, mother and six children, is 521 years. All are in sound health, physically and mentally. The party took place at the Brown homestead, where Mrs. Brown has lived for more than a half century. She presided at the dinner table, asking the blessing in a strong voice and blowing out the candles on her birthday cake in one vigorous breath. Not the least among the achievements is the fact that she has kept to her extreme age a high degree of personal beauty and is still lovely to look at.


This family has on both sides a remarkable record of longevity. Mrs. Brown is the last survivor of a family of six sisters and one brother, all of whom lived to be over 70. She was born in Athens, Ohio, the daughter of Eben Foster, scion of Revolutionary ancestors who had migrated from Massachusetts. Her husband, Daniel Truesdell Brown, who was also born in Ohio, and was well known in Iowa as a paper manufacturer, died in 1906 at the age of 84. Considering him and his wife and their children as a family there have been only three deaths in a family of 10 in 104 years, his own and those of two infant daughters. Aside from his death there has been no death in the family for 60 years.


The oldest son, William E. Brown, 80 years old, is still actively engaged in business in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he is associated with his son, Knapp Brown, in the automobile business. The second son, Charles P. Brown, 78 years old, is a retired farmer living at Revere, Missouri. The third son, Augustus P. Brown, 72 years old, who lives in the old homestead at Fort Madison, was formerly mayor and president of the Brown Paper Company. He is now president of the Artesian Ice Company. The fourth son, Frank R. Brown, 62 years old, is manager of the Artesian Ice Company. The youngest son, Herbert D. Brown, 56 years old, lives in Washington, D. C., and is chief of the United States Bureau of Efficiency. The only daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Davis, 74 years old, is the mother of Dan C. Davis, lubrication supervisor of the Santa Fe Railway system, and William Lynn Davis, efficiency engineer of the Staley Manufacturing Company of Decatur, Illinois.


Following the dinner with her children, Mrs. Brown received grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and numerous citizens of Fort Madison, who showered her with gifts and loving attention. It was an exciting day, which she experienced with great joy and with out undue fatigue.


As the wife of the youngest son, I was present at the memorable birthday party. Many tender memories filled my mind as I looked over the company of people assembled to do honor to "Grandmother Brown." For nearly thirty years I myself had sat at her feet. Into my ear she had poured, from time to time, not only stories of her own childhood and the infancy of her children and grandchildren, but also stories handed down from her forebears of their remote childhood. I mused on the significance of many things she had told me.


Back almost a century her own clear memory stretched and, back beyond that, by hearsay, her traditions carried her another century or two into the very beginnings of English colonization upon this continent. It came upon me that she sat enthroned among us not merely as head of her family, a precious figure of maternity, but that, in some sense, she had become a historical personage, symbol of the pioneer age in the development of our great country. Of her like, few were now left on earth-not more than one in every twenty-five thousand of our population-who were alive when John Quincy Adams was president. Sprung from colonists who had settled the Atlantic seaboard, established its independence of Europe, and then pushed on into the Northwest Territory, claiming it too for freedom, she herself had joined in the great migration down the Ohio, helping to carry forward the customs and ideals of the English-speaking world into the wilderness that lay beyond the Mississippi.


I felt that, dearly as they loved her, greatly as they honored her, it had hardly occurred to her two score descendants that she represented, in her person, something bigger than her own family, a complete tradition of many families, which had significance for the whole nation. I was filled with a desire to take from her own lips her impressions of the stirring age of which she had been a part. And so, when the reunion was over, and others had returned to their homes, I lingered a little longer, sitting beside her every day for two weeks and taking down in her own vigorous language her memories of life in the past century. This book is, essentially, the record of that interview, prefaced by sufficient historical data to make clear the background of her life, and completed by selections from her letters. The result is not only a chronicle of typical experience in the life of Woman, but also a panoramic view of an age seen through the eyes of an individual.


Had Grandmother Brown been a woman of literary attainments, of wider reading and more varied acquaintance with the great world, her observation on life might be more interesting to the sophisticated. But the mass of men and women who have made America have not been literary and sophisticated. They have, however, been people of ideals, people of courage. What benefits we now enjoy in America have come to us as the result of the labors of people inspired by ideals such as Grandmother Brown has cherished, upheld by courage such as she has had. As we go forward into another period of our country's development, it is well for us to try to understand the forces that have created us and the world in which we find ourselves, even though we ourselves are driven by very different forces and are building up another kind of society based perhaps on a different philosophy of life. Many of the influences that have affected Grandmother Brown-religious, political, social-leave me unmoved, but I can understand how they wrought on her in her day, can understand and sympathize.


Recording her story in her own pungent speech, I have hoped to catch and preserve for Grandmother Brown's descendants some of the flavor of her personality; her aspirations, her achievements, even her limitations; her innocent vanities; her lovable animosities; her patient endeavors. Especially her summing up as she reviews it all. It is not merely that she has lived a hundred years-significant as is that fact alone in the history of poor, feeble mankind-which moves me. It is the fact that she is, after a century of wear and tear, still a vivid Person. I can see that, sitting on the edge of the world an peering over, she gets a thrill from that experience as from all others. A pity to let so much of intelligence and sweetness and gallantry at age ninety-nine go unsung! The reactions of Nineteen to life we have all heard about many times; those of Nine-and-ninety we have, as yet, merely divined. To the psychologist-if not to the poet and preacher-those reactions are, as yet, little known. Perhaps we may learn from Grandmother Brown the secret of growing old gracefully.


Chiefly, I think of her as a mother. In that experience she has found understanding of many things. A careful craftsman in all she does, and by nature proud,-though timid too,-she demands that her pride be satisfied in her children. It is impossible to tell her story and not refer constantly to her children, to her hopes and plans and work for them, and their reaction to her efforts. Otherwise, she has no "story." And, indeed, her story is the typical story of women. What is noteworthy about it is her attitude towards it. "Why, what has she ever done that is great?" is a question that nettled me when I told a friend that I was trying to write the history of my hundred-year-old mother-in-law. The general attitude of mind reflected by my friend's question is the thing that makes me want to see published the story of how one good mother has spent a hundred years. I want to honor a woman not esteemed "great," one who has the common fate and will be consigned to oblivion, despite work well done throughout a full century of living, unless someone like myself can rescue her from it. To read of her may comfort other women who, passionately and devotedly, but more or less rebelliously, are doing the duty that Nature points them to, the kind of work which the man-world, despite all its fine talk about the glory of womanhood, holds so lightly.


As there is no escape from the fact that the first characteristic of motherhood is suffering, I find, beneath all Grandmother Brown's brave commentary on life, an undercurrent of sadness. To have lived a hundred years means that one must have stood often beside the portals of sorrow, must have heard many times the birth cry, many times the death rattle, must have been disillusioned and disappointed again and again. But, like proud old Hecuba, believing in the final triumph of Eternal Justice, Grandmother Brown clasps to her bosom all that makes up life, all the joy and anguish, the hope and despair, that have come her way; lives through it all, rises above it all, makes it all her own. And I thrill as I hear her echo, in her own words, that cry of Hecuba:-


Thou deep Base of the World, and thou high Throne

  Above the World, whoe'er thou art, unknown

And hard of surmise, Chain of Things that be,

  Or Reason of our Reason; God, to thee

I lift my praise, seeing the silent road

That bringeth justice ere the end be trod

To all that breathes and dies.




April 15, 1928


back to History Index