Maj. Willis L. Brown, of Kingman, is one of the eminent Kansas whose records serve to illustrate and adorn the history of the commonwealth. Mr. Brown had been through nearly everything that is significant of Kansas life for forty years. He was at one time a poverty stricken homesteader and while the general public knows him chiefly through his broader business and civic relations, he is still in close touch with Kansas farming and through his work and initiative had probably done as much as any man in Kingman County to promote intensive and high class farming and stock raising. Mr. Brown is remembered as a former speaker of the House of Representatives and at the present time is head of the organization department of the Federal Land Bank of Wichita. Owing to the extensive opportunities given him it is conceded that he is acquainted with more people than any other man in Kansas and for that reason if for nothing else his career deserves more than casual attention.
He was born in Woodhull, New York, January 28, 1854. His birth occurred in a log house. When he was two years of age his father died and his early boyhood was not without the touch of poverty to spur him on to achievement. When only twelve years of age he was examined and qualified for a teacher’s certificate, though on account of his youth was not allowed to exercise those qualifications. He was educated in the public schools of Woodhull and also graduated from the Woodhull Academy. When about fifteen years of age Major Brown started west, his destination being Chariton County, Missouri. En route he arrived in Chicago in the early days of October, 1871, and found the city in flames. That was the great Chicago fire. He had to remain in Chicago a week before he could pursue his journey. In Missouri he taught school in Linn and Chariton counties three years, then returned to his native town, graduating from the Woodhull Academy and was a teacher in New York State until 1876.
It was March 4, 1876, the Centennial year, that Willis L. Brown landed in Larned, Kansas. He arrived with less than a dollar in his pocket. Near Garfield he entered a claim of 160 acres. During the summer he worked with the forestry station of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company and during the winter taught a term of school. In the meantime he was doing what he could to develop his land and raise crops. He sowed wheat three successive seasons, and never even got the seed back. Abandoning the claim, he later sold it for $250, but owed a debt of $150 when he left Larned.
The next scene of his experience was in McPherson County, where he taught school, worked on farms, and gradually had enough to pay his debts. When in July, 1881, he married, Mr. Brown’s cash assets stood at just $65. That winter he again taught school, and also bought grain for an elevator company.
In October, 1882, he came to Kingman County, entering a claim of 160 acres, and from his earnings as a teacher during the winter he bought the material which put a roof on his sod house and effected some other much needed improvements. The following spring he taught a subscription school in Reno County, taking his pay in provisions and also in sod breaking on his land. That fall Mr. Brown ventured still further into the acquisition of land, purchasing 320 acres of state land in Reno County. Having proved up his pre-emption in Kingman County, he moved to the half section in Reno County. In passing it should be noted that he had refused $75 an acre for this 320 acres, though the purchase price was only $3.30 an acre.
The first winter he spent on his land in Reno County he also taught school, and the following spring came to Kingman, where he engaged in the real estate business under the name Kinsey & Brown. He was in Kingman about two years when the boom collapsed. He was caught heavily by security debts, and paid them by mortgaging his farms. He then returned to his land in Reno County and was steadily engaged in farming it until 1890. In that year he met an accident which disabled him for active farm duties and returning to Kingman he became right of way man for the Hutchinson & Southern Railroad, then in process of construction. In the fall of that year he established the Kingman Journal, this being an entirely new field for him, and one in which his abilities and experience furnished him every needed qualification, and for eleven years he made the Kingman Journal a paper of wide influence and also a substantial and profitable property.
Major Brown had his first political office during the legislative sessions of 1893 and 1895 when he was secretary of the Kansas State Senate. That was the time of the so-called legislative war, elsewhere described in this publication, and Mr. Brown was more or less of a participant and witness in those stirring times at the state capital.
In 1897 Governor Leedy appointed him president of the State Board of Charities. His appointment was confirmed by the Senate, and he began his duties, involving the supervision of all the charitable institutions of the state. With two years yet to serve in the office he resigned in April, 1898, and enlisted in the Spanish-American war. Mr. Brown had the distinction of having been the first man in Kansas to enlist and to be sworn in. He was commissioned adjutant and assigned to recruiting duty. He personally raised nine of the twelve companies that made up the Twenty-first Kansas Regiment, and as a recruiting officer his record stands unsurpassed, probably even at the present time. He raised the nine companies, supervised the election of their officers, issued them traveling rations and transportation to Topeka, and did all this in nine consecutive days. In May he was promoted to the rank of major commanding the Third Battalion and accompanied the regiment to Chickamauga Park. Much of the time there was spent in detached duty, moving troops, relieving higher officers, and at one time he commanded nine regiments in rifle practice. Major Brown was mustered out of service December 10, 1898. While in the army he spent his entire income as an officer for the benefit of the many sick boys of his regiments suffering from the epidemic of typhoid fever. At his own expense he equipped and brought home a hospital train of his men from Lexington, Kentucky, to Fort Leavenworth. That was the only way the Government would allow the sick soldiers to be removed. In 1915 Major Brown was elected commander of the Spanish-American War Veterans for the State, maintaining an office during that time in the Memorial Building at Topeka. He is at present an appointee of the national organization of that order.
In October, 1897, Major Brown was elected grand master of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows of Kansas. He was the only grand master of the state in the uniform of a United States soldier, and while at the head of the state order he turned over the correspondence and the salary attaching to the office to J. M. Miller of Topeka, but made his decisions while in the camp and in the saddle at Chickamauga Park. He was the only grand master of the Odd Fellows whose every decision was sustained by the Grand Lodge. For twelve years he was representative to the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the World and served on most of the important committees.
After his war service Major Brown sold his newspapers and took the position of manager of the Kingman County Colonization Company. This company at that time was transacting the largest business of any real estate firm in the state. Its average daily business aggregated nearly $100,000. At the same time he was giving his active supervision to his farm, which in the meantime had greatly increased by purchase. Major Brown had long been a well known breeder of Shorthorn cattle and Poland China hogs, and at the present time owned 680 acres of highly improved land. On one of his farms is the largest irrigation project in Kingman County. He is a leader in the intensive farming movement, and had spent thousands of dollars in an experimental way, most of which had produced highly successful returns and had served the purpose of a valuable example to others. On the Brown farms are kept about 200 head of cattle, most of them thoroughbred Angus, and he had about the same number of Poland China and Duroc hogs, nearly all of them registered or eligible for registration. The Brown farms are looked upon as models. Everything is conducted in a most efficient manner and the business is thoroughly organized and systematized. Mr. Brown had long been a grower of alfalfa, uses silos to preserve his feed stuffs, and raises all kinds of fruits, vegetables and other products for the market.
In 1909 there arose a constitutional question in which the railroads were opposing the Barnes High School Law. Under this law Kingman County had established a high school. Major Brown was president of the High School Board, and for the purpose of safeguarding the interests of the institution he accepted the nomination for the Legislature. The county was nominally 500 republican, but he was elected on the democratic ticket with 1,280 majority. He carried every ward and township in the county. That session he was one of the busiest members in the House, and succeeded in accomplishing the chief purpose for which he stood for the Legislature. He had passed a curative act which saved the high school. Mr. Brown was president of the High School Board ten years. In 1911 he was re-elected to the Legislature by another handsome majority, and was elected again in 1913. In the 1913 session he was elected speaker of the House. Some of the best laws of the State of Kansas give testimony to Major Brown’s efficiency as a legislator. Among bills introduced by him which became laws were those providing for the registration of nurses, the white slave law, the state publication of text books, and many others. During the three terms he was author or instrumental in the passage of about seventy-five laws now found in the statute books.
During his term in the Legislature in 1913 Governor George H. Hodges appointed Major Brown president of the Prison Board. He served until the first of July, when the board by law became the Board of Corrections and he was reappointed president, serving two years. By virtue of his office as speaker of the House he was also a member of the board which erected the beautiful Memorial Hall at Topeka. He attended every meeting of the board which had the erection of this building in charge, and was a member of the ways and means committee in the Legislature which made the appropriation for the building. He was also one of the party which went to Georgia and bought the marble for the interior walls.
Major Brown was one of the leading speakers and orators of the national campaign of 1916. He traveled 11,000 miles, made 195 speeches in eight different states, and helped insure the re-election of Wilson. In 1914 Major Brown was a candidate in the primaries for nomination for United States senator. He stood second in the race, and this was the only time he was ever defeated as a candidate for political office. Major Brown had made five state campaigns in Kansas, and had spoken in every town of 500 inhabitants or over in the state, having visited many of them more than once. During the early months of 1917, while the nation was preparing for war, Major Brown had delivered over 100 speeches at patriotic meetings and home leavings of soldiers, and had done all this at his own expense. He had three times offered his personal services to the Government, but had been rejected on account of age. During the summer of 1917 he was busied with his duties as head of the organization department of the Federal Lands Bank at Wichita, and personally supervised many of the details connected with the inauguration of this institution of which so much is expected in giving the agricultural interests the active co-operation of the Federal Government. October 15, 1917, he secured a leave of absence from the bank and accepted the appointment of special food agent for the State of Kansas, to serve without pay, for a period of the duration of the war.
Major Brown resided in a modern home at Kingman at 250 Avenue C, East. He and his wife have surrounded themselves with every comfort, and have seen their children all married and established in homes of their own. In July, 1881, Mr. Brown married Miss Sadie J. Blake, daughter of Madison and Martha (Moore) Blake. Her parents are both deceased. Her father fought as a Union soldier in an Indiana regiment of infantry, and after the war became a Kansas farmer. The children of Major Brown and wife are three in number: Maude E., wife of Bert Walter, who conducts the largest automobile business at Kingman; Wayne S., who is in the dairy business on his father’s farm; and Harlow B., who owned and conducts a job printing establishment at Hutchinson, Kansas.
Reference should now be made to Major Brown’s parents. His father, Solomon Brown, was born at Woodhull, New York, in 1822, spent his life there as a farmer and died in 1856. He was a whig in politics and died the year the republican party was organized. He was a very strong and active churchman and a member of the Baptist denomination. While a young man he served as a member of the New York State Militia. He married Ruth E. Carpenter, who was born at Woodhull, New York, in 1827 and died there in 1897 at the age of seventy. The children of Solomon Brown and wife were three in number: Libbie E., living at Elmira, New York, widow of Saron Blaine, who was a farmer; Willis L.; and Eva, who died at the age of fourteen. The mother married for her second husband Levi Dawley. In 1863 he enlisted in the Second New York Cavalry, and died of chronic diarrhea in 1864 at Morganza Bend in Louisiana. There were two children of this second union of the mother: Emma, who died in childhood; and Mary M., wife of Bona J. Brown, a farmer at Woodhull, New York.