The Brookville Hotel
In central Kansas, where the wind whips across the plains, there is a village named Brookville. It is so close to being halfway between Salina and Ellsworth that mentioning the difference would be silly. There is no brook in Brookville, but there is a railroad track that passes along the southern edge of town. The Smokey Hill River flows east into Kanopolis Lake just fifteen miles away. There is a raw beauty in this part of Kansas. The fields are fallow most of the year, but those who abandon the interstate highways and brave the country roads are rewarded with views of what the American mid-west looked like decades ago.
Today, Brookville sits by the side of Route 142 and as you drive west, your passenger won’t see much of Brookville except the school athletic fields and a village playground known as the Rose Walter Park. If it is the Post Office you want set your GPS for 112 Anderson Street. The streets in Brookville are mostly deserted (and still unpaved), the businesses are closed, except for Jennie’s Liquor store, even the Sandstone Saloon is closed. It makes you wonder where the 253 residents purchase their groceries and gasoline. When you pass through the intersection of Route 142 and Brookville Road, you are then on your way to Ellsworth – 20 miles away. The next time you see two buildings together in the same zip code will be in Carneiro, nine miles into the sunset.
If your itinerary is taking you east, along Old Highway 40, you need go only seven miles to Bavaria. The picture there is pretty much the same. The school is abandoned and stands alone in a field of prairie grass and dead trees; all the windows are broken. The same railroad goes by the edge of town, but the people of Bavaria are enumerated as part of the Salina micropolitan area that encompasses Saline and Ottawa counties.
But it has not always been this way.
In 1870 the Kansas Pacific Railroad got to Brookville. The railroad workers established the village in February 1870 and where there are railroads there is a need for hotels and restaurants. In 1894, when Gustav Magnuson came to town, the blue skies turn rosy and much of tomorrow looked pretty in pink.
Magnuson was born in Sweden in 1857. When he was 28, he made his way to Liverpool, England and bought a ticket aboard the S.S. City of Chester, bound for New York, New York, United States of America.
Several communities of Swedish immigrants had settled in the mid-west by the end of the 1800s. Magnuson planned to join whatever community in which he could make the most difference. After a short stay in Chicago where he worked as a warehouse elevator operator, he moved west a second time with a destination of somewhere in Kansas.
Brookville had a charm about it. The population was in a constant state of flux; it was sometimes a ghost town and at others a boomtown, yet, overall, the one business that proved persistent was the Brookville Hotel.
The hotel was purchased in 1894 by Gus Magnuson and for more than thirty years they welcomed guests and businessmen and made a good living as a bonus.
Gus and Mae Magnuson’s daughter, Helen Martin, started working when she was 18 years old in 1914, at the family business and it was she who originated the family-style dining menu.
Helen took over as proprietor in 1933 and in the Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940 she claimed to work 60 hours per week as a manager and cook in a hotel. During World War II the reputation of the already famous restaurant grew by word-of-mouth as the soldiers from the nearby base and airfield made their way to Brookville for a good meal and perhaps a night at the moving pictures.
Helen’s name is on the postcard as, “prop.” It was likely she who commissioned a local artist to create a piece of art showing the hotel and the postcard above was the result. The artist was the inimitable Herschel Logan* from nearby Salina. See his artist’s signature – an “L” in a box in the bottom right corner of the image.
* Editor’s note:
Those of you who know me are aware of my admiration for the artist in all genres. I am mesmerized by this piece of art; the proportion is perfect, the line is exact, and the inking is faultless. So much so, that I will continue this piece in a future issue (Wednesday, September 15th) at which time we will examine the last 70 years of the hotel’s history and the art and talent of Herschel Logan, Kansas artisan.