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BROWNE, JOHN THOMAS

BROWNE, JOHN THOMAS (1845–1941). John Thomas Browne, successful businessman, city official, state legislator, and dealer in real estate, son of Michael Browne and Winifred (Hennessy) Browne, was born in Ballylanders, County Limerick, Ireland, on March 23, 1845. Michael and Winifred Browne, also both born in Ballylanders, were among the desperate Irish who, with their children, faced starvation and death from famines and chose to leave Ireland. Tragedy struck first in Ireland where their baby Michael died. Their baby Winifred died on the ship and was buried at sea. In 1851 John T. Browne’s father Michael, who had become ill at sea, died shortly after arriving in New Orleans.

After placing her children in an orphanage to gain employment and after bouts in the New Orleans Charity Hospital, Winifred Browne and her family moved to Texas and by 1853 had settled in Houston at the home of her brother Tom Hennessy. John Thomas Browne grew up working a variety of jobs to help support his family.

Browne’s education consisted of years of learning on the job, and he also benefitted from the opportunity offered by Catholic priest Father John Gunnard (or Gonnard). Browne was among a group of boys chosen by Gunnard to receive an education on the Spann family plantation at Spann’s Settlement in Washington County, in exchange for manual labor. Browne later worked for several railroads, including the Houston and Texas Central. During the Civil War he served in Company B, Second Texas Infantry, but was not involved in any engagement. 

By his early twenties Browne had settled into his future profession as a grocer and merchant by apprenticing, the method for entering many occupations. In 1872 John T. Browne and Charles Bollfrass in partnership established the firm of Browne & Bollfrass located on the southwest corner of Milam at Preston. Browne & Bollfrass sold groceries and provisions and were bakers and candy manufacturers. Feed, hay, grain, and country produce were later added. Yearly tax rolls recorded steady growth from 1874 to 1895. This substantial growth was reflected in 1895 with a $70,000 investment and about $340,000 cash trade annually.

In addition to his business, Browne also invested in real estate. He made a sizeable profit with the sale of his Black Duck Bay acreage, now Baytown, Texas, to Humble Oil and Refining Company (see EXXON COMPANY, U.S.A.) about twenty-five years after his purchase.

While a Browne & Bollfrass firm partner, Browne became Fifth Ward city council alderman in 1888. During his term he served as chairman of the finance committee. He declined to run another term.

Urged to run for mayor, he was twice elected by overwhelming majorities in 1892 and in 1894. In the first year of Mayor Browne’s administration he recommended a plan for the city to build its own water and light supply plants when the existing contracts expired. The city could improve unsatisfactory water services and plan for future city growth without additional tax and with a probable source of city revenue. He also prioritized the paving of city streets. Street paving in 1893 added about three miles of vitrified brick; paving continued into 1894 and 1895 and covered 100 intersections. Property owners paid for paving that abutted their property. By 1895 the volunteer fire department became a paid fire department under Browne’s administration. City growth was reflected in the extension of water mains with a corresponding increase in water cost and a material increase in light supply and all other departments.

Additionally, the city secured land for the city recorder’s office and for a city prison. Four brick schools were built in 1893. In 1894 the city obtained another vault for preservation against fire of the unprotected engineer, city assessor, and tax collector’s records.

Browne, a Democrat, won election as Harris County Representative for District 37 in the Twenty-fifth Texas Legislature. During his term from January 12, 1897, to January 10, 1899, he served on several committees, including the Finance, Internal Improvements, and State Affairs committees. He was reelected to serve in the House of the Twenty-sixth Texas Legislature and chaired the Commerce and Manufactures Committee. John T. Browne was among several legislators that introduced House Bill No. 37 to purchase about fourteen acres adjoining the San Jacinto battleground and fronting Buffalo Bayou. Browne served a third term in the Texas House in the Thirtieth legislature from 1907 to 1909. 

In 1908 Browne was pictured as part of the staff in a committee meeting of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. He organized the Young Folks Club, which met in the afternoon in his backyard on La Branch Street. In 1939 Browne, at age ninety-four, was appointed commander for life of the Dick Dowling Camp, UCV.

John T. Browne, a Catholic, married Mary Jane Bergin on September 13, 1871; they were the first couple to exchange vows in the new Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Houston. They raised a family of six boys and six girls. Son Thomas W. (T. W.) Browne followed his father’s example of municipal service and was city tax assessor and collector of Houston for twenty-six years under seven mayors.

Browne’s wife died on May 30, 1935, at their home on 4019 La Branch in Houston. Six years later John Thomas Browne, age ninety-six, died of pneumonia on August 19, 1941, at the home of his daughter Jane Marie (Browne) Glass in Houston and was buried there in Glenwood Cemetery.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, comps., The New Encyclopedia of Texas (4 vols., 1929?). Galveston Daily News, December 31, 1892; January 30, 1894; January 29, 1895; January 28, 1896. Margaret Swett Henson, History of Baytown (Baytown, Texas: Bay Area Heritage Society, 1986). History of Texas, Together with a Biographical History of the Cities of Houston and Galveston (Chicago: Lewis, 1895). The New Encyclopedia of Texas (2 vols., Dallas: Texas Development Bureau, 1926). Houston Chronicle, October 9, 1939; August 19, 1941. The Houston Gargoyle, September 11, 1928. Houston Post, April 28, 1892. Houston Press Club, Men of Affairs of Houston and Environs (Houston: Coyle, 1913). Legislative Reference Library of Texas: John Browne (http://www.lrl.state.tx.us/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=3101&searchparams=chamber=~city=~countyID=0~RcountyID=~district=~first=~gender=~last=browne~leaderNote=~leg=~party=~roleDesc=~Committee= ), accessed November 9, 2016. E. H. Loughery, Texas State Government: A Volume of Biographical Sketches and Passing Comment (Austin: McLeod & Jackson Printers, 1897).

M. E. Libby Lutz

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Handbook of Texas Online, M. E. Libby Lutz, "Browne, John Thomas," accessed November 24, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbroa.

Uploaded on November 22, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.