One of the first things many newly rich capitalists in the Tri-State District did was build a home fitting their new economic status. Coffeyville, Kansas, boasts the home of gas, oil and lumber magnate William P. Brown, which is now a public museum.
William Pitzer Brown was born in June 1861 to Rufus and Violetta Brown in Pomeroy, Ohio. Rufus joined the West Virginia Volunteer Infantry in July 1861 as captain and commander of Company E. He served two tours during the Civil War, the second under future President Rutherford B. Hayes.
When William was 13, the family moved to Independence, Kansas. While details are obscure, the family’s atmosphere was tense and described as “difficult.” William left home the next year at age 14 to work odd jobs in Independence.
He first took a job piling lumber for a lumberyard. He was a diligent worker who studied his market and became a salesman while still a teenager and eventually manager of the lumberyard. He was extremely successful for five years. In 1880, he moved to Cherryvale, Kansas, working as a grain merchant for two years. He met petite Nancy Alice Kilgore in Independence, and they wed in 1884.
Moves to Coffeyville
In 1885, the couple moved to Coffeyville, where he set up a lumber company in an old carpenter shop. Its success provided the income for a wide variety of enterprises such as the manufacture of farm implements, the local telephone exchange, a medicinal spa and public park named the Natatorium, commercial buildings in the town, and oil and gas wells.
In 1890, his fortunes took a unusual turn. One day at his lumberyard in Coffeyville, he thought he could smell natural gas outside the building. It led to further investigation.
In the next six months, he and three others established the Coffeyville Mining and Gas Co. Their first well struck natural gas at a depth of 650 feet in June 1892. By May 1893, the company had seven wells in production, two of which were within Coffeyville’s business district. According to one report, any single well could supply the town’s business and residential customers.
Brown would at times demonstrate the strong pressure of the wells to visiting investors by taking them to a wellhead. Then, at a safe distance, he would fully open a lighted gas well, shooting a pillar of fire 40 feet into the air, which screeched loud enough to be heard miles away. The absolute open flow pressures of the wells were equal to the strongest natural gas wells in Ohio.
He was quick to see the potential for natural gas. He bought out his partners, and by 1894 had secured leases for mineral rights on most of the property surrounding Coffeyville. Struggles with out-of-state investors attempting to control the company were common, though Brown held on. By 1896, he had 12 miles of line in the city and 25,000 acres leased in reserve for future exploration.
Brown and his wife, Nancy, were very private people. Though very wealthy, they did not seek out publicity. The first mention of the desire to build a new home for the couple and their two children was in 1897.
The Kansas City, Missouri, architectural firm of Wilder and Wight was contracted to draw up plans for a three-story Georgian Revival home. Construction was begun in 1905 and completed in 1906. Because Brown supplied the building materials from his own business, the wholesale cost of the house was an estimated $125,000 ($4 million in 2022).
Builds his wife a mansion
The mansion is reminiscent of a Southern plantation house with a two-story veranda on the west and south facades. It is 134 feet long, 58 feet wide and 34 feet tall. The brick and concrete walls are 20 inches thick to insulate the gas-heated home. Lighting fixtures were operated by gas or electricity. It boasts a Tiffany chandelier hung by the designer himself in the dining room and Tiffany leaded-glass accents that surround the main doorway.
It has 16 rooms including the living room, parlor, music room, library, conservatory, dining room, billiard room, entry hall, kitchen and maid’s quarters. There are five bedrooms and three full baths on the second story. The third floor is a ballroom with a vaulted ceiling, which doubled as a schoolroom and gymnasium for their son.
The basement had the butler’s quarters, laundry, heating system, a walk-in icebox and storage. The four floors were served by a hand-pulled elevator. There were nine different fireplaces, only one of which was wood burning; the others were plumbed for natural gas.
The house was designed with Nancy Brown, who was just under 5 feet tall, in mind. The furniture and stairs are scaled for her small stature. Furnishings were purchased from Marshal Fields of Chicago and during trips to Europe.
William Brown handpicked the wood for the house so there were no knots. The first floor is pine, the second pecan and the third maple.
A formal terraced garden took up the sloping south side of the mansion. Four brick retaining walls separated the terraces with a reflecting pool at the base.
Outbuildings included a caretaker’s house, stables, a greenhouse and a garage for carriages and, later, automobiles. Brown’s first auto was a Locomobile steamer in 1904. His Brown Supply Co. later sold Oldsmobiles, the first cars sold in Coffeyville.
Unfortunately, the couple had three children die in infancy, while their daughter, Violet, had married the year before the house was completed. Their son, Donald, born in 1899, was their only child to live in the house until his death in 1911.
The couple had the mansion to themselves until their infirmity in the 1930s led Violet to return home to care for them. The couple died within a month of each other in 1934. Violet lived in the mansion for the rest of her life.
The family fortune had declined, and upkeep grew increasingly burdensome by the 1970s. Not willing to have her home go to an out-of-town company, Violet arranged for it to be sold to the Coffeyville Historical Society in April 1973 for $50,000, with $5,000 down and $500-a-month payments with the balance to be canceled upon her death. Her only proviso was that it be open to public viewing.
She died seven months later in November at age 88.
The society raised another $20,000 for repairs and landscape work. Much of the original furnishings remain — even Nancy Brown’s petite wedding dress. Since 1973, it has been open for tours and special events such as weddings.
The Brown mansion continues to offer a look at the Gilded Age home of William Brown once named the “Wizard of Coffeyville” by the Weekly Independent. His business acumen helped lay the foundation for Coffeyville’s economic success.