A.R. Brown was a legislator, and his work was instrumental in getting Erwin off the ground in early days. Brown's home located at 241 S. Main Street in Erwin, TN. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN — Since 1894, the residence at 241 S. Main Ave. has been the homeplace for the Brown family and A.R. Brown, an influential figure in Erwin’s early days, once called it home.
“He was just really a forward-looking fellow, and he came from real humble beginnings,” Brown’s granddaughter, Martha Stromberg, said.
Albert Rosecrans Brown was born in the Knoxville area in 1863. His middle name came from Union Gen. William Rosecrans, who helped liberate Knoxville from the Confederacy. Brown’s father was killed during the Civil War in the 1865 SS Sultana Explosion in Mississippi when Brown was around 2 years old. His mother struggled to raise Brown and his four siblings, so she took them to Washington, D.C., to an orphanage for children of Union soldiers known as the Soldiers and Sailors’ Children’s Home.
After seven years away, Brown returned to the Knoxville area around age 9, and attended school for several years. However, he left school at age 13 to help his mother and went to work for the W.W. Woodruff Hardware Co. Brown worked there until he was around 30 as a traveling salesman.
Stromberg said in the course of his travels, Brown happened upon Plumtree, N.C., where he met his wife, Tuppy, whom he married in 1893, and the town of Erwin.
A.R. and Tuppy Brown moved into the Brown home on South Main Avenue on Jan. 1, 1864. When the couple moved into the residence, it had four rooms — a bedroom, living room area, dining room and kitchen — but Brown added onto the home over the years to accommodate his growing family.
Between his move to Erwin and 1937, Brown ran the A.R. Brown & Co. store in downtown Erwin, as well as a water-powered manufacturing plant on the northern end of town where his patented Brown Precision Bolt Cases, rotating cabinets that allowed users to store screws and bolts by size and shape, were made. Brown was active in the Erwin Kiwanis and local Masonic Lodges, and he worked with the Erwin Development Co., which was involved in real estate dealings, and served on the board of directors for Southern Pottery.
Brown was active in the church, and when First Baptist Church needed to build a larger facility, Brown traded land across from his residence to allow for construction of the new church, which stands today. This deal also paved the way for the construction of the old Erwin Municipal Building.
It was around the year 1907 that Brown got tired of carrying water to his home from a local well, Stromberg said. This led him to go to the O’Brien farm, located at the head of Gay Street, and make arrangements to tap into the spring at the farm. Brown ran waterlines from the spring down Gay Street and up Main Avenue to his home. This, Stromberg said, led to the formation of the Erwin Water Co.
“As he brought the pipe down, other people wanted to hook on, so that was the beginning of the Erwin Water Co.,” she said, adding that the Brown family ran the company until the mid-1940s.
And, although possibly disputed by some, Stromberg said her family has documents that show Brown was the first mayor of Erwin.
“We’re pretty sure he was,” she said. “He was so busy by the time my aunt and my dad were growing up, they were the last two children, that my aunt said to him one day, she said ‘Well, daddy, you’ve worked for the railroad and you’ve built furniture and you’ve ran a store, you did the water company. You’ve done everything around here but be the mayor.’ And he said ‘Honey, I was the mayor, too, just before you were born.’ ”
Stromberg said Brown’s term as mayor ran from 1907-10. She said he also had a long stint as a town alderman.
Brown would later take his political aspirations to a larger stage, as the Republican served this district in the state House of Representatives from 1927-31. Stromberg said this was around the time when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was being formed.
“He was one of a group of legislators who went to Gatlinburg and climbed Mount LeConte to look over what was going to become the park and, as it happened, he and another guy who were the two oldest on the trip who made it to the top, and the younger ones didn’t,” she said.
Stromberg said her grandfather had two primary projects while serving in the House. One she said, was redistricting. She said Brown authored a book called “Making Tennessee Safe for Democracy,” and fought to give Republican counties in the eastern part of the state more representation.
Brown also proposed a bill to provide free textbooks to public schoolchildren across the state. Although Brown’s bill did not pass, one to grant free textbooks would.
“I guess he laid the groundwork for that,” Stromberg said.
Although Brown ended his own education early, Stromberg said he felt education was important. She said Brown served on the Board of Trustees for Carson- Newman College.
“He was determined that other people were going to get educated, and he ended up educating all five of his children and, I’m pretty sure, he paid the way for his brother’s four children to go to Carson-Newman,” she said.
Brown’s activeness in the church also led to the opening of one of Unicoi County’s first public schools. He helped start Holston Baptist Academy on the hill where the county’s veterans’ park is now located and served on the school’s board of directors. Eventually, Holston Baptist Academy would become the first incarnation of Unicoi County High School.
Brown was killed in a car accident on the way home from Mars Hill, N.C., in May 1937. In his will, Brown left money to go toward scholarships for Carson-Newman students and needy residents in the community. The Brown home on South Main Avenue has been on the National Register of Historic Places since November 2007.