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Champaign County, Illinois

Biography - John Brownfield

SOURCE: "Early History and Pioneers of Champaign County, Illinois," by Milton W. Mathews and Lewis A. McLean, editors of the Champaign County Herald, published by the Champaign County Herald, 1886


JOHN BROWNFIELD. Mr. Brownfield was probably of Scotch-Irish descent. His father, Robert BROWNFIELD, at the time of the birth of John, October 7th, 1785, lived in Washington county, Penn. The maiden name of the mother was RAMSEY. Subsequently, and in the boyhood of John, the family removed to Harrison county, Ky., from which place they removed to this county in October, 1832, the year before the establishment of the county, by law. The father, Robert, is still remembered by the few remaining old settlers of fifty years ago. He was born June 4th, 1760, and lived to become a resident of this county, with his son. He was a soldier in the revolutionary war. He died in 1841. The mother died before the family left Kentucky. John Brownfield was married about 1804, to Anna CLEMENTS, a sister of James Clements, another early settler. She was born in 1790 and died August 25th, 1845, in the fellowship of the Freewill Baptist Church, of which she was long a consistent member. Mrs. Brownfield is still remembered as a kind-hearted, charitable lady, devotedly attached to her children, of whom she had thirteen, most of whom long since joined her on the other shore. John Brownfield volunteered under Col. Coleman in the war of 1812 and spent several months in the Harrison campaigns in the Maumee county, for which he received a government land warrant. Two years before their removal to this county, Mr. Brownfield came here on a prospecting tour, and being pleased with the outlook, he bought out the improvements of one John Light, a squatter then living on Sec. 35, in Somer township, where his son, Thomas BROWNFIELD, now lives, and formally entered the land at the land office at Palestine, on September 2, 1830. This Light is still remembered, by citizens, as one of the first pioneers of this county. He was possessed of some learning, for he was among the first, if not the first, school teacher who taught in this county.

In 1831, about October 25th, the Brownfield family, destined to become so conspicuous in family names and in the affairs of the county, reached their new home and became domiciled. Near their cabin ran the Ft. Clark road, the only road that was more than a trail, leading through the county. Their neighbors were Phillip Stanford, the Rhinehearts [sic Rinehart], John Light, Williams and Robert Trickle, James T. Roe, Isaac Busey, Matthew Busey, and a few others. No store was then in the county and the nearest market was Chicago, then, only a military post, or some of the Wabash towns. Mr. Brownfield was a blacksmith by trade and at once became a useful man in the community. At that time the facilities for grinding grain in the settlement were limited to a hand mill owned by Robert Trickle, made of a short section of a hollow log enclosing the "upper and the nether mill stones," capable of grinding one bushel an hour. This was brought from Butler’s Point, Vermilion county. This deficiency Mr. Brownfield set about remedying. In 1835, by the aid of one Holmes, probably the first Methodist preacher who ever preached the gospel in the county, completed a horse grist mill near his home. This mill was capable of grinding from fifteen to twenty-five bushels of corn or wheat per hour. It was supplied with a bolting chest by bolting the flour, which was operated by hand. The machinery of this mill was so well constructed that a high velocity was given the stone. The larger wheel was twenty-four feet in diameter. The mill at once became very useful, to the people, far and near, who came long distances to get their grain ground. In 1842, Mr. Brownfield commenced the erection of a saw and grist mill on the creek about three miles below Urbana, to be run by water power. The saw mill was completed in 1843 and in 1844 the burr stones were removed to it from the horse mill and there did duty until 1849 when they were probably superceded by park’s steam mill, in Urbana. The frame of the old horse mill still remains and is used by Thomas as a stable, while the burr-stones are still kept for the good they have done. Mr. Brownfield ran one of the first threshing machines brought to the county. He also for a time kept a small stock of groceries.

Under the constitution of 1818 the probate business was entrusted to an officer known as the Probate Justice of the peace, who, as such, had jurisdiction in the settlement of estates, probate of wills, &c. To this office John Brownfield was elected in 1841, and in it he served the people acceptably for one term of two years. If he ever made any errors in this office they were errors of the pen and neither of the head nor heart. He also, for many years, served as a justice of the peace. Mr. Brownfield, as above stated, raised thirteen children, only five of whom, William, Joseph, Thomas, Jamces C., and Susan MCCLATCHY, are living. The three first named live in this county. One of his daughters, Mary Ann, married Andrew STEVENSON, the first sheriff of this county. He was married a second time to Mrs. MCELROY, who survived him a few years. John Brownfield died July 6th, 1863, and will long be remembered by citizens as a very original and anomalous character. Born and reared at a time and in a section of country when and where educational facilities were out of the question, he was conspicuous for his lack of book learning and as conspicuous for his strong common sense, which never deserved him in any emergency. Although without a knowledge of the world of mankind, beyond his limited line of observation, he was too shrewd and alert to be over-reached by the most casuistic of sharpers. He would have proved himself equal to the ingenuousness of any of the modern confidence men, had they visited him in that day. His shrewdness in settling by the most peaceable of measures a threatened law suit, well illustrates his aptness in dealing with men. In his water mill above spoken of he made use of a wheel fashioned after one which somebody had patented, without thinking of infringing anyone’s rights, others of the same pattern being in use in the neighborhood. An agent of the patentee came through the country looking after infringers upon his patent. He came to Urbana, one day, put up his team and enquired for Mr. Brownfield’s mill and residence, and was told he was in town. The two soon met and the stranger made known his business. He said he was informed that Mr. B had in use one of his patent wheels—that he had already settled like infringements on his letters patent with so and so and was disposed to settle with him without suit. Mr. Brownfield said if he had infringed upon the rights of any one he was willing to pay, but from the stranger’s description of the wheel, he doubted if his own wheel was any infringement. He invited the claimant to go with him to his mill and examine for himself. It was then near noon and it was agreed that the two should meet soon after dinner and together go to the mill three miles away. After his dinner the stranger drove out with a spirited team for Mr. Brownfield to pilot him to the mill, but he could not be found. After some further search he concluded to go alone and inspect the wheel. He soon reached the mill but found no wheel in it. The smoking embers of a bonfire near by plainly showed that the wheel and all evidence of its character, had been reduced to ashes. The evidence from which to base a suit was gone and the suit thus settled by peaceable means.

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