Gambling, drunkenness, fighting, trespassing, larceny, selling diseased meat and adulterating food or liquor were all prohibited in Brownsville, Houston County. About everything was covered by an ordinance passed in May,1872, “For the Suppression of Vice and Immorality” to prevent and punish crime and benefit trade, commerce and health. A jail was authorized the same year.
There was also a fine up to $10 for “driving horses faster than an ordinary trot, or driving horses, oxen or mules on (wooden) sidewalks.” Anyone keeping manure, slop or other things that produced nauseating odors (including hog pens) had 24 hours to “remedy the situation.” Saloons had to close on Sundays.
On July 3, 1876, one day before the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), an ordinance was passed, which prohibited setting off firecrackers or sky-rockets as well as discharging any firearms within the village. It was punishable by a fine of not less than $3 or more than $25. Copies of the law were posted at the post office, the Public Hall and A. Schwartzhoff’s Brewery on July 4, making the law effective immediately.
In the 1880s, a police justice and marshal (constable) were responsible for keeping peace in Brownsville. Two marshals were needed on the 4th of July. Upon receiving a complaint from a citizen, the police justice would issue a summons and send it with the marshal to bring in the accused. Police justice Alex McLaren would hold court in his home.
If the accused pleaded “not guilty” and requested a jury trial, a jury would be summoned. The police justice would draw up a list of 12 men and send the marshal to bring them in. After the jurors were sworn in, the case would be tried. If a guilty verdict resulted, the police justice would determine the fine or jail sentence.
In November 1885, seven young men were arrested for noisy and disorderly conduct and abusive language on a city street. In the court of John C. Beck, the first defendant was ordered to pay a fine of $5 or be incarcerated in the county jail for not more than 30 days. His father appeared and notified the court that he would appeal to the District Court.
The second defendant asked for a jury trial. After hearing testimony, the jurors could not agree on a verdict. The jurors were discharged and the rest of the cases dismissed to save further costs. The total cost of the action was $9.90 (equivalent to $325 in 2024).
On July 29, 1885, police justice Beck arrested a young man for being “drunk, noisy and disorderly between the hours of 5 and 6 o’clock p.m.” The following day, the now-sober defendant pleaded “not guilty.” The accused also asked for an adjournment until August 9, a request that was granted upon posting a recognizance bond of $150 (worth about $4,900 in 2024). However, the requested adjournment date of August 9 was later found to be on the Sabbath, or Sunday, Therefore, the court lost jurisdiction. Was this a mistake or a clever calculation by the accused?
It was a misdemeanor offense to use abusive or obscene language in public places, especially in the presence of females. Beard-pulling was sometimes added to the language offense. In 1888, a woman was found guilty of using bad language and fined $10 or 20 days behind bars. Times changed, however, as the obscene language law was repealed in 1898.
In 1884, an ordinance was passed to prohibit swine from running loose with a $1 fine imposed for each offense. A pound was set up, and anyone finding a pig running at large could drive it to the pound and receive 25 cents from the pound keeper. The owner of the impounded pig could get it released for 50 cents plus 20 cents a day for keep. If an animal was kept for five days, it could be sold at a public auction.
In 1898, horses, mules and asses were prohibited from running at large with their pound at Julius Hanke’s barn. Five years later, in 1903, sheep and cattle were added to the list with their pound on Fred Buhlman’s property. Cattle running loose in the early 1900s sometimes caused a confrontation between the pound master and the owner of the lawbreaking livestock. There might ensue a $5 fine or 10 days in jail.
A major problem for the Brownsville Village Council was maintenance of the streets. Heavy traffic from teams and wagons hauling grain to be shipped on the Mississippi River made “one-way” routing a viable option. When muddy, the well-worn streets could become impassable. In 1880, an ordinance was passed, stating “Every male over 21 and under 50 except paupers, lunatics, idiots and such others exempt by law, are hereby assessed two days labor, or the sum of $3.00 to be appropriated and expended to improve streets, roads, alleys and bridges under the direction of the Street Commissioner.“ A day of labor meant 10 hours of work. If someone was needed to work more than that, he would be paid whatever the street commissioner deemed appropriate. If one failed to serve, he would be fined.
In an old village treasurer’s book, most of the money paid out during the 1890s was for work on streets. That included labor plus the purchase of equipment, such as two wheelbarrows. and 16-pound crowbar for 75 cents. The village paid $1.30 for two shovels. In 1896, three men were paid $500 for repairing the wooden sidewalks. They were able to complete the job for less and returned 77 cents to the village treasury. By 1908, cement was being purchased for sidewalks. George Appel was paid $346.10 for laying 732 x 6 feet of sidewalk.
In 1914, the village installed the first street lamps; six Arc Boulevard Lamps were purchased as well as the gasoline they burned. Edward Hackett was hired as lamplighter. Electricity did not come until 1940.
Source: The Brownsville Story, compiled by Carol Walhovd and Fern Heiller, 1976