Joseph Brown juggled two jobs in the early-1900s: undertaker and furniture salesman. A licensed embalmer, Brown studied mortuary science at the University of Minnesota — launching a half-century career at the Knaeble family’s funeral home in north Minneapolis from 1905 to 1957.
“The Knaebles operated a furniture store adjacent to their funeral home on North Plymouth Avenue. Dad worked in both,” said his son, 84-year-old Paul Brown. “On a given day, he drove the furniture truck and the hearse — he sold furniture to some folks — and embalmed others.”
When the United States entered the first World War in 1917, Brown became a mortar man on the Western Front. Everyone called him “Doc,” thanks to his working knowledge of the human body.
“Joseph Brown punched far more than his share of World War I tickets,” said author Harry Thetford, whose research found Brown battling in the Argonne Forest and other hot spots — injuring an eardrum in mortar exchange.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember Brown — but not just as a doughboy, embalmer and furniture man. He was a writer, too, keeping two wartime diaries.
The youngest of Joe’s three Minneapolis-born sons, Paul Brown is now retired in Greensboro, N.C. Hoping to preserve his father’s memories, Paul reached out to Thetford — who writes a history column in a Greensboro newspaper and collected World War II stories for a book called “Keep Their Stories Alive,” published last year.
“Challenges were obvious,” Thetford said. “Faded pages, soft lead, unsharpened pencils, and over- or underfilled fountain pens. ... Numerous unreadable pages could have easily made this a deal breaker.”
But the decipherable pages, he said, “jump-started an incredible journey.”
Blending poetry and prose, philosophy and journalism — with little attention to chronology — Joseph Brown’s words ring fresh more than a century after he jotted them down.
In one poem titled, “Tribute to Dead at Chateau-Thierry,” Brown brings us back to a bloody and pivotal battle when U.S. forces helped halt a German offensive in 1918.
“There is an acre of crude little crosses,” Brown wrote, to which “ ... some day the road will be teeming” with those looking for brothers, husbands and sweethearts.
“God grant they come with the sunshine while the spring flowers bloom on the graves. And may they be proud of our comrades and glad for the gift that they gave.”
Born in 1887 in Stacyville, Iowa, Brown was 12 when the 1900 census listed him as the oldest of five siblings living on their parents’ farm in Medina, west of Minneapolis. His son said “an unlucky lottery number” at age 29 landed him with a mortar unit near the front lines in France. He was one of more than 118,000 Minnesotans to serve in World War I.
He spent 218 days at European battlefields, describing the sound in his diary: “So many guns were firing that it was all blended into one deep undertone. No separate reports — only when the long-range rifle spoke.”
The journals include life lessons and metaphors. “Adventure comes to the adventurous and mysterious things fall in the way of those — who with the wonder and imagination — are on the watch for them,” he wrote. “But the majority of people go past the doors that are ‘half ajar,’ thinking them closed.”
“War,” Brown wrote in another entry, “is a form of medicine that we take from time to time to restore us to health when we have become enfeebled and corrupt.”
Longing for the Armistice that would come Nov. 11, 1918, Brown wrote that: “Someday this war will end — this is as certain as the rising of the sun tomorrow.”
Brown’s grandparents were born in Germany but that didn’t soften his view of the enemy. He wrote: “Take everything evil under the sun that man since time began has done, and all that we shudder at and shun. In with the snake, the rat and the scorpion. Mix them together. This is hellbroth. And when it’s done, then you will have something approaching a Hun.”
Brown addressed “shell shock” and postwar anxieties: “… When we return to take up the responsibility of civil life — there will be competition fields untitled and gigantic burden of depth. And somewhat helpless to reap the fruit of our sacrifice.”
He came home to the funeral home after the war and married Wilhelmina, in the 1920s. They raised three boys and were married 58 years.
Joseph William Brown died in 1983 — three days shy of his 96th birthday. “A one-a-day cigar man,” his son said. “Lean and healthy. Reliable, always there when needed. Easygoing. Never got mad.”
As a funeral director for 52 years, he eased families’ grief with a “smooth touch,” his son said. “He had a ministerial presence.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.