The winds of change were blowing across McDonald County in the early years of the 1960’s. The outside world that had for so very long been kept at bay was bringing new ways and ideas to the rural southwest Missouri area. Some of those who could, for generations, trace their families place in the rolling tree covered Ozark hills, grassy valleys, slow moving rivers and creeks and small towns were not so sure the winds brought the promise of a better way of life. But, that passing was inevitable and only the passage of time would reveal the value, or lack thereof, regarding the changes coming from the world that lay just outside McDonald County.
Gary, a boy of sixteen years, lived in the small town of Noel. The favorite vacationing spot for summer campers and those floating on the calm waters of Elk River hadn’t changed very much in Gary’s lifetime. Youngsters spent the summer months working at odd jobs, watching movies at the Main Street Ozark Theatre and swimming in the river’s warm waters.
The winter months for Gary meant that the winds would come from the north and bring cold, cloudy and snowy days. Those grey dreary days, weeks and months also meant that Gary’s days would be spent in schoolrooms. The trees would give up their leaves, the once green grass would turn brown and it seemed as though summer was only a memory and might never come again.
It was in the early part of 1960 that Gary vividly recalls an early morning spent talking to Earle Henry Brown, known by everyone as Brownie. Gary was on his way to school when he stopped on Noel’s Main Street to talk to the old gentleman of color. Conversations with Brownie were always interesting and he seemed to make all the solutions to the day’s problems of a seventeen year old boy appear to be so obvious and simple.
Gary believed that Brownie was the first person of color to establish a permanent residence in McDonald County. He came to Noel with an elderly Kansas City couple named Wharton who had purchased a house on Noel’s Kings Highway Street. The street was old as was the collection of antiquated small houses that rested on either side of the narrow blacktop. Brownie lived in a room above the elderly couple’s garage and for about a year he seemed to handle all the chores on the property.
After a year or so Brownie moved from the older couple’s home and moved in and out of several small houses and apartments until eventually finding a cozy place to call home located just off Main Street. Earle Henry worked at several jobs earning enough money to support his modest lifestyle.
Brownie shined shoes, swept the floors and cleaned up after patrons at the local barber shop got haircuts. He was well recognized for his cooking skills and was often employed as the cook for outdoor barbeques. It was rumored that he had once worked as a cook for the Kansas City Southern Railroad and his culinary skills were so well appreciated that locals often took Brownie on hunting trips, some as far away as Colorado, to cook for the group’s members.
It was often remarked that Brownie was the only person in Noel with a key to almost every business. He cleaned the bank, The Tri-State Gas and Appliance Store, the Ozark Movie Theatre, the market and other businesses after closing time and in the evening hours. He let himself in using his keys to unlock the doors when he entered and always locked-up when he left late at night. Gary recalled one evening when Brownie demonstrated his prowess with a large reciprocating floor polisher. Earle Henry was able to guide the massive cumbersome machine in any direction he desired holding onto nothing more that the devices electrical cord.
Following no more than a moment or so of casual conversation on that cold winter Main Street meeting Brownie told the young high school boy that he recently painted his apartment and asked if Gary would like to inspect his work. Gary said he would like to see what Brownie had done to his home so the two walked to the front door and entered. Gary was speechless and his eyes were opened to their fullest extent as Brownie asked, “Well, how do you like it.”
Everything in the apartment was painted a bright silver color. The walls and ceilings were silver. The floor, every inch of it in every room, was silver. The cabinets, countertops and every stick of wood furniture had been doused with the same bright silver color. Even the light fixtures that were attached to walls or hung from the silver ceilings wore that same silvery hue.
Finally, and after what seemed to be an uncomfortably long pause, Gary replied, “I like it; it must have taken you a long time to paint everything.” Brownie, with very little thought said, “I finished the job in a single weekend.” Not wanting to be impolite, Gary walked around the small apartment and looked from corner to corner as if he was inspecting Brownie’s work while all the time searching for a splash of another color, but none could be found, only that brilliant silver. “Well, I’d say you did a great job, Brownie.” A smile came over Brownie’s face and as he turned to look admiringly around the apartment he said, “Thanks.” Gary told Brownie he had to get to school and as he brushed past the silver painted door, left Brownie’s apartment shouting “Goodbye, I’ll see you later.” “See ya,” replied Brownie.
As the warm summers of play, cold winters of school and Gary’s youthful childhood slipped away Gary aged into adulthood. Throughout the middle and older years of his life Gary always understood that Earle Henry Brown’s affinity for the color silver was neither good nor bad, it was merely different. Gary also believed that the color of the keeper of keys skin, albeit not the same as his, was neither good nor bad, but merely different from his own.
Earle Henry Brown, Brownie, was the singular person of color living in a small but colorful Ozark town. For thirty-five years Brownie lived and worked in the small river town with the overhanging bluffs. For over three decades he was surrounded by good neighbors and friends until his death in 1971. The old timers in the area still tell stories about Brownie and his dog who he called, and no one knows exactly why, Klausmeier.
A special thank-you to Gary.