by Lewis Long Brown Jr.
Sometimes, when my computer monitor and I are sitting alone staring at each other, I try to visualize what life was like for my great-grandfather back in nineteenth century West Tennessee. I imagine the roads weren’t much more than dirt trails meandering here and there through the woods, and a visit to one’s neighbor was a purposeful event involving some amount of prior planning. Most people farmed, which meant a day of work was hard physical labor from dawn to dusk. A trip to town was a slow, all-day affair bumping along in a hard, wooden wagon behind a team of mules; yet for most people of the time, it was a special treat coming on rare occasions.
Back then, a thriving town might have a population of five hundred people. Governmental buildings might be made of the most plentiful material readily at hand, logs; and it was not uncommon for floors to be of compacted dirt until elevated, off-grade wooden ones could be constructed. Town jobs included blacksmith, wagon maker, tailor, merchant, saddle maker, lawyer, shoe maker, and physician. Like today, small Tennessee towns had their elected officials: sheriff, magistrate, councilman, and tax assessor.
It was a time when a rural farm family’s survival depended on its ability to project its thinking into the future and make decisions in the present with conservatively anticipated results later. Few people in my great-grandfather’s time had the luxury of misjudging the future. A miscalculation today about seasonal conditions later-on could mean starvation. The people of that time always had their eye on the horizon. Their survival depended on it.
Occasionally, the unexpected happened; and someone might be stricken ill or felled by
serious injury. Out of necessity, people were self-sufficient; but sometimes a situation occurred which required more attention and medical knowledge than a family possessed.
Country doctors in the nineteenth century practiced a kind of medicine which required a great deal of generalized knowledge. They had to know how to deliver a baby, set a broken bone, clean and sew-up a festering wound, remove a bullet, pull a rotted tooth, amputate a gangrenous limb, or treat a raging fever, all with equal amounts of human care and skillful diligence. There were no corner drugstores in rural Tennessee back then, so what medicines existed were either age-old remedies with well-known ingredients or experimental concoctions. Most were meticulously hand.made by the physicians themselves.
A rural doctor rode his circuit on horseback. When his patients beckoned, it made little difference whether it was hot weather or cold, rain or shine, early in the morning or late at night, he had to go. The level of dedication of most country doctors to their patients was extraordinary.
My great-grandfather Dr. Robert M. Brown practiced medicine in Decatur County, Tennessee (a long, narrow county, along the western bank of the Tennessee River, about one hundred twenty miles east of Memphis) from the early1870’s until he died in 1916. He married the former Mary Carroline Hendrix of nearby Henderson County about 1873. By 1876, in addition to his medical practice, Dr. Brown was the postmaster of Bible Hill, a small community a few miles west of where he lived. According to the 1880 U. S. Census, the Brown family lived in the 5th District of Decatur County. This is the district north of Cub Creek and east of Highway 69 to the Tennessee River. It contains the communities of Jeannette and Cozette. Since Dr. Brown’s practice was prospering in Bible Hill (in the contiguous 12th District), he and Mary probably decided to relocate sometime after 1880. It is likely they built a new house there before they moved.
The site of the Dr. Brown House is on the north side of the Bible Hill Road (Decatur County
Highway 882) and about one hundred fifty yards west of the crossroad of the community, where Highway 882 turns north. The house sat about thirty feet back from the edge of the road. Today, a modern home is built on the site.
continued in A Story About a House and its Family
Adobe Reader required.