From Central House to Brownell Hall (Our History)
From Central House to Brownell Hall: “A Most Favorable Opportunity” for Bishop Joseph Cruickshank Talbot and the Episcopal Church in Nebraska
Kansas and Nebraska territories had filled rapidly after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in mid-1854. Land hungry emigrants and immigrants quickly platted and settled towns along the Missouri River, peopling them with all sorts and conditions of humanity who favored a variety of commercial and cultural interests. Although Methodist and Congregationalist clergy were among the first emigrant wave, the Episcopal Church had no presence in the region. However, in mid-1856, an Omaha woman wrote to Dr. Benjamin I. Haight, editor of the Episcopal Church’s missionary journal, The Spirit of Missions, puzzled as to why no clergyman had come into the territory, noting that “Other Churches have sent Missionaries here.” The Church responded quickly, and in April 1856, the first services for Trinity Church were conducted in Omaha City by Rev. Edward W. Peet from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Des Moines, Iowa. A trio of Episcopal clergy including Bishop Jackson Kemper, Missionary Bishop of Missouri and Indiana, visited the territory shortly thereafter, and in letters to the missionary journal, Bishop Kemper acknowledged the rapidly expanding population. There was, he said, an immediate need for additional clergymen. “Tents are seen in every direction . . . . Already, in some respects, we are too late in the field. Missionaries should be in the Territory, . . .” However, since both Kansas and Nebraska territories remained outside the jurisdiction of any diocese or missionary district, no administrators to orchestrate such an effort existed. Three more years would pass before the Episcopal Church could establish any formal organization on the frontier west of the Missouri River.
At the October 1859 General Convention, held in Richmond, Virginia, delegates created the Diocese of Kansas, as well as two new missionary districts for the rapidly settling frontier. The one of which Nebraska Territory was a part was called the Missionary District of the Northwest. Its bishop was to serve all residents in most of the federally organized frontier north and west of Kansas Territory. Elected to serve as the new district’s Missionary Bishop at the same convention was Rev. Joseph Cruickshank Talbot, rector of Christ Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bishop Talbot was consecrated on February 15, 1860. Little more than two months later, on April 24, 1860, the new bishop arrived in the region for the first time, with only two communities, Nebraska City and Omaha City, as suitable places of residence and missionary district administration.
The territory was sparsely settled, with a population of 28,841 people. Only five of the sizable settlements were incorporated, the largest of which was Omaha City. As territorial capital, the town’s economy bustled with government and frontier related businesses, from federal land agents to court justices, from grocers to clothiers, and from hod carriers to wheelwrights, bringing the population in 1860 to 1,883 people. Omaha City lay to the north of the Platte River, a definitive geographic border between north and south regions of the territory due to the difficulty in crossing that watercourse. The South Platte region was dominated by Nebraska City, which lay along a branch of the Oregon and California trails. Nebraska City was a freighting center and home to commercial freighting firms such as Wells Fargo, Ben Holladay, and Russell, Majors, and Waddell. Its economy in 1860 hummed with even more momentum than did that of Omaha, producing a population of 1,922 residents. Both communities offered amenities not found elsewhere on the frontier and were well-connected by transportation networks to the populations served by the missionary bishop. These included Native Americans in Dakota Territory to the north, and frontier settlers in western border areas. Finally, only Omaha City and Nebraska City housed sizable parishes of the Episcopal Church – Trinity in Omaha City, established in 1856, and St. Mary’s in Nebraska City, organized in 1857. Ultimately, the choice of community for residence was not difficult. One month after he arrived, the bishop announced that he would live in Nebraska City, noting that “I could not get a house at Omaha, the capital, but this is quite as easy of access, from all points – indeed, rather more so – and will, I think, continue to be, as it now is, a place of at least equal importance as a business centre.”
The cultural environment of the territory was “wide-open.” Miners from all over the world had flooded into the Far West from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Simultaneously, word of available land in North America brought vast numbers of immigrant European families hoping to farm their way to a better life. The influx of humanity quickly peopled the Far West and Great Plains with mining camps and ethnic enclaves of prospectors and European farmers who spoke a wide variety of languages and maintained unique cultural traditions. The mining camps and their residents were generally regarded as degenerate, while the religious practices of many of the immigrant farmers frightened Easterners and politicians who believed their lack of Protestant Christian values would hinder the advance of American democracy. Roman Catholicism was seen as equally threatening to all Protestants who noted that the “Romists” obeyed first – a Pope; only secondarily did they express any allegiance to the American Constitution.
Revivalist Presbyterian – and anti-Roman Catholic – preacher Lyman Beecher had warned of the need to Christianize the frontier populations as early as the1840s, and it quickly became evident to theologians of all persuasions that schools operated by their denominations’ clergy were an excellent vehicle by which to teach American values and to expand denominational membership. The idea was articulated in a post-Civil War sermon by Congregationalist minister Rev. Joseph P. Thompson. Written in the wake of mass immigration and Constitutional suffrage for Blacks, Rev. Thompson called the act of voting an “educator” that provided “an unlettered immigrant or the slave of yesterday [with] . . . a sense of obligation and personal responsibility, being opposed to rash experiments and revolutionary measures. . . .” But added the cleric, “With free suffrage, ignorance is our first danger, and intelligence our first remedy.” The public demand for schooling was as great as the resolve of missionaries to provide it, and the few Episcopal missionaries in the territory were soon teaching literacy along with spreading the Gospel. By 1860, Episcopal Missionary Rev. Stephen Massoch, a Czech surgeon ordained in England in the 1840s, was operating a school for the children of German immigrants who were then rapidly settling an area along the Missouri River south and east of present-day Nebraska City. By the time of Bishop Talbot’s first visit there in mid-summer 1860, Rev. Massoch had partially constructed “a house of logs for public worship, and for a school room in which to gather and teach the children . . . the principles of the gospel and the Church.” In his report from that time, the Czech priest noted that, “The school, numbering from twenty-five to forty scholars (both boys and girls, young and old) is under my constant personal superintendence. I spent, daily, six hours in that school. . . . Besides different branches of useful knowledge, we train the youth in reading the Bible, and catechising them in our holy religion.” Each family subscribed five dollars toward tuition, but the funds generated were inadequate, and the building was quickly outgrown. At the same time in Dakota Territory to the north, missionary Rev. Melancthon Hoyt dreamt of having a library of about 200 volumes “of a practical character” that he could keep in circulation. He envisioned lending a book to a Plains family, and when he visited again to retrieve the first tome and leave a second, he would have the opportunity to preach the Gospel. Realizing the difficulty in obtaining a library of the 100 volumes he believed were needed to begin such an undertaking, Rev. Hoyt initiated the concept by using books from his own library.
Creating public schools and obtaining the necessary curriculum materials was no less difficult that organizing the parochial ones. Omaha had opened its first school in mid-1855 in the old territorial statehouse at 9th and Farnham streets. But the school had to close when the legislature reconvened. The next effort at a public school came in mid 1860, also conducted in the old statehouse. It too folded within a few months. By early 1861, the demand for education had intensified, but the city had neither a building, nor funds for acquiring curriculum materials. In fact, the public school’s first annual budget in 1860 was $1,903; much of that amount was collected from the fines paid by prostitutes and licensing fees paid by saloons. To increase school revenue, tuition of $3 per quarter per student was assessed. A school census in 1861 showed 571 students and twelve teachers in the district.
The public school idea was far more preferable to many residents than that of denominational schools. Competition with, and disdain for, Roman Catholics had increased locally in 1858 after the Catholic Church announced that it would send a bishop to Omaha. Elated local Catholics quickly lobbied a committee of the Omaha City Council, hoping the council would give to the church twenty-four prime lots for its activities. The Catholic lobbyists assured the Council committee that the city’s generosity would be economically returned “ten-fold,” asserting that the Romanists’ presence in the city would attract more newcomers, thereby improving the city’s commercial viability, and that Catholic schools would enhance Omaha’s academic reputation. The lots were not donated, and skepticism about Catholic motives was evidenced in the views of both bishops Talbot and Clarkson. For this and many secular reasons, Bishop Talbot “kept his eyes peeled” for a site suitable for the operation of an Episcopal school.
Bishop Talbot’s flock was far too scattered to spend much time in his Nebraska City home during his five years in Nebraska Territory. His travels began immediately after his family arrived, and by the end of 1860, the bishop had logged over 3,000 miles of travel! His 1863 missionary journey all the way to San Francisco, lasted nearly seven months. It was the longest trip undertaken by a missionary bishop. In June 1860, Bishop Talbot made his first trip north into the Dakota Territory portion of his district. The road from Nebraska City on which he traveled stayed along the top of the bluffs that banked the west side of the Missouri River, circumventing the swales and swampy lowlands along the river, and crossing the that flowed into the river creeks – such as the Weeping Water – at good crossing points. The road terminated where the Platte River flowed into the Missouri. On the other side of the Platte, the road continued northward, still atop the river banks, passing to the south of the Bellevue Mission and continuing north where it entered Omaha City at about present-day Fourteenth and Pierce streets.
Heading north again from Omaha, Bishop Talbot undoubtedly traveled the “Road from Omaha City to Florence,” which exited Omaha near present day 23rd and Emmet streets. By 1860, that road was passing through another village, now vanished, that had been established in about 1856. That site had been named Saratoga; the land company that organized it was the Sulpher Springs Land Company. In the vicinity of present day 18th and Pratt streets, early residents had discovered several mineral springs. Describing the site in April 1856, The (Omaha) Nebraskian wrote, “The reserve itself seems to have been planned by the hand of art as well as of nature for a healthful and attractive resort.” About the springs, the writer added, “This is now well known to possess the highest virtues, and the water is said by capable judges to be as strongly medicinal, and as agreeable to the taste as that of the famous White Sulphur Spring of Virginia.” In the true form of frontier entrepreneurs, within a few months, a town was laid out just north of Omaha’s northern city limits. A year later, the Nebraskian reported that a new hotel was going up in the town, and plans for the building were “truly on a grand scale; . . . the hotel will be . . . the largest and the most costly one in the Missouri Valley. . . The building will comfortably accommodate from two to three hundred persons. The first floor is to be principally occupied with stores.” Cost of the building was estimated at $100,000!
The resort’s grand opening in August 1857, “was by far the most brilliant party ever given in the Territory. . . .The Cotillon [sic] Band of Council Bluffs discoursed the finest music. . . .The table groaned under all the luxuries of a splendid dinner; equal to the first class Hotels in the East.” The menu included oyster soup, veal pie, fresh vegetables and fruit not readily available on the Great Plains, as well as roast pig, beef, and veal. Claret and port wines were served. What followed was equally as typical of America’s boom and bust frontier economy; within a week of the resort’s opening, the Panic of 1857 swept across the United States. With the blessing of territorial legislatures, local banks had issued their own currencies without adequate financial resources. Saratoga was among the local casualties, along with five territorial banks and frontier related businesses. An estimated one million lots along the Missouri River went on the market as speculators attempted to minimize their losses. Thus when Bishop Talbot traveled the wagon road north in the summer of 1860 (at approximately 22nd and Grand today), standing alone on the prairie along the west side of the road was the Central House, then being operated as a boarding house. (The site today approximated the interchange of the North Freeway.) Giddy at the prospect of establishing “an educational institution, in which we may ultimately train our own missionaries for our own work,“ in October 1860, Bishop Talbot wrote: “A most favorable opportunity now presents itself. For $4,000 I can purchase a house and grounds, with all the necessary outbuildings and conveniences, and situated within thre miles of the State-House at Omaha. . . . I cannot by hope that god will open the way for me to secure it before the opportunity is lost. The Romanists, I learn, are looking toward it with eager eyes.” No doubt they were.
Acquisition could not be easy. No missionary district had its own budget. All operational funds for the districts came from the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church – a group that relied heavily on donations. Hence, their financial support of the missionary districts was woefully inadequate. Missionary bishops became, of necessity, financial wizards; each had an extensive personal network of potential donors. And upon arrival in a new region, each bishop – also of necessity – had to learn who among his flock and its extended family had the deepest pockets and most support for the needs of the Church. It appears that in the summer of1861, Bishop Talbot turned to territorial lawyer John Irwin Redick to assist him in making the purchase. In July 1861, Redick apparently purchased the site from a man named Frances Delone who had acquired the original patent on the land. Within a few weeks, Redick sold the land to Bishop Talbot for $3,800. But the need for curriculum materials, furnishings, linens, etc. to actually open as a school necessitated two more years of work, and Brownell Hall (named for the then-Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States) did not open until September 17, 1863, under the leadership of Rev. Orasmus C. Dake, then also rector of Trinity Church in Omaha. The first year was financially difficult. The cost of living rose as the America’s Civil War continued, and the products needed to maintain a boarding school were far more costly than had been calculated in the price of tuition. In his 1863 report about the school, Bishop Talbot wrote, “To enable it to enlarge its work . . . , I need the sum of $2000. . . “
In the fall of 1864, to improve the institution’s finances, Bishop Talbot leased the school’s operations to Rev. Samuel Hermann of Connecticut for a period of five years. Rev. Hermann was permitted to utilize the land for farming. Students from that early period remember “plenty of fresh meat. . . butter and eggs.” Over the next four years, Rev. Hermann expanded the curriculum, purchased a library of about 1,000 books, and introduced his young female students to the latest technological innovations – such as electricity. Brownell Hall became the scene of frequent social events. The first class graduated in the spring of 1868.
By 1869, Nebraska had a new bishop, Rt. Rev. Robert Harper Clarkson, and the territory had become a state. With the original lease due to expire, Bishop Clarkson, sought permission to sell the old Saratoga building and its contents, and use the funds to move the school into Omaha. The building’s contents were purchased by Abbot Augustus Lowe of Brooklyn, New York, for $1,000. The building was sold to the City of Omaha, and two lots were secured at 16th and Jones streets, in Omaha. The new facility opened in the fall of 1869.
The years flew by. As the school’s reputation for quality education grew, so did the need for larger facilities. From 16th and Jones, the school moved to 10th and Worthington, and finally to its present location near 60th and Happy Hollow Boulevard. Male students were added in 1952, and Bishop Talbot’s name was added to that of Brownell’s in 1963. However, Brownell Hall was hardly the Church in Nebraska’s only academic effort during the remainder of the nineteenth century. To the list were added St. James in Fremont, Worthington Military Academy in Kearney, Nebraska College and Talbot Hall in Nebraska City, and multiple small schools associated with other Nebraska mission churches. Remarkably, Brownell Hall remains on the Nebraska, and even national, landscape as evidence of an era in which the Protestants’ desire to inculcate democratic values to the nation defied the notion of males-only education, as well as the concept that secular democracy and church could not co-exist in the classroom.
– Prof. Jo L. Beherns