Brownville, population 150, is ‘a true arts town’

Brownville, population 150, is ‘a true arts town’
Flatwater Folk Art Museum (The Associated Press)

BROWNVILLE, Neb. (AP) — The square, white building would be easy to miss but for the sign dangling from a post.

“FURNAS HOUSE,” it reads, marking the unassuming former residence of Robert Furnas, the second elected governor of Nebraska, who died in 1905.

Converted into a museum, the house features mid-19th-century artifacts, from apple-picking ladders to Furnas’ personal rocking chair.

A framed picture in the home’s foyer proudly declares the former governor as “Nebraska’s Renaissance Man.”

It’s a fitting moniker for Furnas, who not only dabbled in politics but in planting trees, growing fruit and harvesting honey.

Founded in 1854, Brownville is sort of a renaissance town in its own right, with its plethora of landmarks, shops and botanical must-sees, a surprisingly worthwhile stop halfway between Lincoln and Kansas City, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Come during the week and the sleepy town will seem to move as slowly as the Missouri River it overlooks. But drive down Main Street, past the quaint brick storefronts housing everything from bookstores to ice cream parlors, and you’ll most likely encounter John Lauber, who’s always ready to show off Brownville landmarks in his sky-blue Honda Fit.

Lauber, who has owned property in town since 1977, runs the Brownville Market and volunteers as a de facto tour guide.

He has lived in Brownville permanently since 2001 with his wife, Mary, who owns an emporium across the street from the market.

John, who also is a member of Brownville’s Fine Arts Association, is proud of the cultural and historical aura of the town that he describes as a sort of “Little Paris.”

“It’s probably the only village of its kind in Nebraska — a true arts town,” he said.

There’s the old church that’s been converted into the Brownville Village Theatre — in its 51st season — where high school and college students stage plays.

Another church, a white frame structure on the east end of town, was transformed into a concert hall, where artists from around the country come to take part in Brownville’s annual concert series, now in its 27th year.

Jim Aden, a native of Syracuse, Nebraska, has called the town home for less than a year since opening an art glass studio on Main Street.

On a humid, overcast afternoon, Aden is busy scorching glass rods over a fountain of fire, shaping them into delicate faux icicles.

The door is left open — a welcoming sign to strangers. “Growing up in Syracuse, you could tell who lived in every house,” Aden said. “Our door was always unlocked. … Brownville is like that.”

It’s a far cry from Portland, Oregon, where Aden lived until his wife died last summer.

As Aden places another glass icicle in a bed of cotton to cool, Luka, a graying black spaniel, wanders in from the street and nestles into the bed under a bench.

Aden shuts off the loud machine pumping flames through his spigot of fire.

“I found it to be a good place to re-establish myself,” he said. “It’s close to everything: Lincoln, Omaha, Kansas City.”

The river town on U.S. 136 — easily accessed from Interstate 29 or U.S. 75 — is a little more than an hour from Omaha and about 90 minutes from Lincoln; Topeka, Kansas; and the Kansas City area.

Many of Brownville’s attractions, including its nine historical museums, are open only from Thursday through Sunday, when part-time residents — many from Lincoln and Omaha — return to open their doors, Lauber said.

Those include the Didier Log Cabin, which dates to 1854 and sits on the edge of Main Street, and a railroad museum south of U.S. 136.

In more recent years the Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery has drawn tourists with its wines processed and bottled on site.

A sixth-generation farm family — the Hasketts — has operated the winery for 15 years. Step one was converting 8 acres of farmland for growing grapes.

“I like seeing everything from start to finish,” said Matt Haskett, 26, who runs the winery and vineyard with his father. “You live in the country, grow the grapes, bring them in to process and turn them into a product. It doesn’t feel repetitive to me.”

Down the street, former Sheldon Museum of Art director George Neubert runs the Flatwater Folk Art Museum out of a renovated church.

Neubert, who has lived in Brownville for 12 years, said the town of about 150 people with boutiques, bookstores and bed-and-breakfasts has become a hub for fine arts.

“We’re a frontier river town in which, fortunately, progress hasn’t reached,” Neubert said. “We can only hope that we can keep that kind of charm and uniqueness.”