July 11th, 2006
Relatives were reluctant to speak of Brown’s murder
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Sally Brown Kurtz of Homer looks over copies of letters written by Grace Brown to Chester Gillette. Behind her is a portrait of Kurtz’s grandfather Alfred Bennett Brown, a cousin of Grace Brown.
HOMER — Several cousins of Grace Brown who still have connections to Cortland County all tell a very similar story: In the 100 years since Grace died at the hands of Chester Gillette, most relatives of the Brown family never spoke about the case in great detail.
In the character sketch author Craig Brandon received while researching his book on the case, “Murder in the Adirondacks,” Grace Brown came off as a “good” girl. She had always helped out on the family farm in South Otselic before she moved to Cortland, and had attended more school than any of her sisters. Grace worked hard, according to co-workers at the Gillette Skirt Co., and she had a pleasant, happy disposition.
But after her death, the family of Grace Brown became ashamed — not of Grace as a person, but of Grace as an unwed pregnant woman at the turn of the century, and of Grace as the murder victim of a manipulative, social-climbing villain like Chester Gillette.
Joseph Brownell, professor emeritus of geography at SUNY Cortland, said that he had a difficult time finding members of the Brown family who were willing to talk to him when he was researching his book, “Adirondack Tragedy,” published in 1986.
“Grace had eight siblings who matured, and most of them had children in South Otselic and DeRuyter,” Brownell said. “Very few of them would talk or be interviewed. The next generation down wasn’t always so resistant to talking, if you could find them.”
Brownell said the closest he had ever come to the Brown family was a daughter of one of Grace’s younger sisters who lived in Chicago and has since died.
Katrina Church Allen of Homer said that her father, Nelson Church, had always talked about the history of the case, but didn’t know exactly how her family was related to Grace until she did the research herself.
“I have the family tree that someone else did, and I read that Grace’s grandmother was a Church, and I went through a while ago and found out where Grace was,” Allen said. “My great-grandfather Luman (Church) was a cousin to Grace’s mother (Minerva Brown), and her mother was Celinda Church.”
Allen is a second-cousin twice removed from Grace.
“I heard all the rumors. My great aunt Susie supposedly lent Grace a suitcase. But you never know how true it is,” Allen said.
Allen said that the suitcase was loaned to Grace for her ill-fated trip to the Adirondacks with Chester, where Grace met her end on Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County.
Grace traveled with a trunk, and it is unknown whether this was the “suitcase” to which Allen’s aunt had referred.
Sally Brown Kurtz of Homer is also Grace’s second cousin twice removed, but also may be related to the Gillette family of Cortland. The patriarch and Chester’s uncle, N.H. Gillette, owned the skirt factory where the two doomed lovers had met.
Kurtz said her maternal great-grandmother had told her grandmother that they were related to the Gillettes, but would never elaborate.
“As far as the Gillettes on my mom’s side, my grandmother said we were related but I never researched that,” Kurtz said. “I know for a fact that the Browns are related because the Historical Society looked that up for my uncle.”
Kurtz’s uncle, Tom Brown of Wayne, Pa., had commissioned the Cortland County Historical Society to research the family tree and after a couple of weeks, Brown had his answers.
“Grace Brown’s father’s name was Frank Brown. Frank Brown was a first cousin to my grandfather, whose name was Alfred B. Brown. So Grace is the daughter of Frank Brown, which makes my father, Mahlon Brown, a second cousin to Grace,” Brown said during a phone interview Friday. “Of course, Mahlon Brown was my father, so that makes me a second cousin once removed to Grace Brown.”
Brown said that he had never had any contact with or known any of the relations from Grace’s side of the family.
“It came up in casual conversation with our family… but nobody was able to pinpoint it down, and that aroused my curiosity,” Brown said.
“You’d say something about it, and they didn’t talk about it,” said Kurtz’s father, Alfred Brown, who is Tom’s brother. “I’ve had people ask me, and I just tell them I’m a ‘shirttail relation.’”
Kurtz said that she and her children have become interested in the case in recent years, and she is saddened by the loss of some of these first-hand accounts that were suppressed due to embarrassment.
“It wasn’t a topic of conversation in our family on either side. No one really brought it up,” Kurtz said. “But my family now, and my daughter, now they have interest in it, and have read the books… and different articles we’ve found here and there and the letters that were written. That’s just the difference between generations, I guess.”
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Flood damage being tallied
Now that Cortland County has been deemed eligible for federal aid for damage done during flooding two weeks ago, the county and its municipalities will work with state and federal representatives to determine just how much the county should receive.
So far, the county has tabulated a damage estimate in excess of $483,000, said Brenda DeRusso, assistant coordinator of fire emergency management for the county. That number is based on estimates from just seven municipalities, including the county and the hard hit village of McGraw and town of Solon.
“I don’t have any idea what it will look like once we get all the assessments in,” DeRusso said. “I’m sure even the ones who have given estimates will find more damages as they’re out there doing more detailed inspections.”
Chief executives and highway superintendents from the county’s 15 towns and three villages will be invited to a meeting either Friday of this week or next Monday to be briefed on how to navigate the application process for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program, DeRusso said.
A countywide damage estimate would likely be available in time for that meeting, she said.
The FEMA program covers the replacement or repair of public roads and bridges, public utilities, public buildings such as police and fire stations, libraries and office buildings and public schools.
Any damages in excess of $1,000 may be eligible for funding, DeRusso said.
The federal aid covers 75 percent of the damages, while typically the state and localities split the remaining 25 percent.
However, as part of Gov. George Pataki’s $60 million aid package, the state will pay the localities’ share in the case of the most recent flooding, making applying for aid in a timely fashion all the more important, DeRusso said.
“It’s imperative that municipalities put in for it if they have any damages,” DeRusso said. “If it’s something they are going to have to repair at some point, they may as well apply now when the state is picking up the local share.”
The state will pick up the local share both for the public assistance program and for FEMA’s hazard mitigation program, which funds mitigations that prevent future problems, at a cost of about $10 million of the $60 million in total aid, according to Saleem Cheeks, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
“The governor wants to be sure that the localities are getting immediate and direct relief,” Cheeks said. “Hopefully, if localities don’t have to cover those costs, they can use those dollars for other services.”
Businesses may be eligible for SBA loans for flood damage
Following the presidential disaster declaration for many counties in the state as a result of recent severe storms and flooding, affected businesses in Cortland County may qualify for Small Business Administration disaster loan assistance.
The New York Business Development Corp. is working with the SBA to expedite response time and disaster loan processing.
SBA long-term, low interest disaster loans provide applicants the opportunity to rebuild homes or businesses. Large and small businesses, homeowners and renters may apply, as well as nonprofit organizations. Economic Injury Disaster Loans are also available to small businesses unable to pay bills or meet operating expenses. Cortland County is eligible through the EIDL program.
Loan amounts and terms are set by the SBA, and are based upon the financial condition of the applicant.
To be considered for assistance, property owners must first call FEMA at (800) 621-3362. Additional information is also available through the SBA Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955.
To connect directly with the SBA or NYBDC, business owners can also contact the Cortland County BDC-IDA at (607) 756-5005, or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the SBA’s Disaster Loan Programs at www.sba.gov/disaster
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