Before last month, Chuck German had never been to Brownsville, PA, a town located about an hour’s drive south of Pittsburgh. That’s despite the fact that he has deep roots in Fayette County: His great-great-grandfather Bazil Brown was one of the area’s original settlers. Now German plans to move his woodworking business to historic Brownsville from its current home in Michigan.
Bazil Brown and his brother Thomas, whose history the family traces back as far as 1775, came to the region from Maryland. They were among the founders of a trading post that would develop into a powerful transportation and industrial center — its population and economic power, prior to the steel boom of the mid-19th century, surpassed Pittsburgh at the time. Named for German’s ancestors, Brownsville was incorporated in 1814. The town boasts America’s first metal arch bridge (built in the 1830s and still in use today), among many other national historic landmarks.
Occupying one square mile on the south bank of the Monongahela River, Brownsville became famous for building steamboats. That industry declined due to the ascendence of the Transcontinental Railroad, but the town then became an important railroad center. Its population grew to 10,000 in a post-WWII boom that also seeded the surrounding suburbs.
Today, after decades of industrial decline, Brownsville has less than 3,000 residents.
“It’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s to be expected,” says German of his first visit to the town earlier this fall.
We feel that we could offer a really nice product [and] help the community at the same time.Chuck German, Holland Cutting Board Company
According to German, his grandmother (daughter of Bazil Brown’s son John M. Brown), who died in 2000, talked so much about the town that it became a mainstay of their family life, even though they weren’t living in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t know if she was telling me to go to Brownsville,” says German. “She talked so much about Brownsville that it was driven in.”
In the mid-1800s, German’s great-grandfather John M. Brown, a master builder and furniture-maker, built a Brown family homestead in Dellroy, Ohio, where his original barn still stands. German, whose own family now lives in Holland, Michigan, is a fourth-generation woodworker. With the encouragement of his son, he founded Holland Cutting Board Company in 2019, making custom hardwood cutting boards and decorative wood items for homes and businesses.
“I’ve been following the news and the stories about Brownsville,” explains German. “Brownsville is struggling economically. It’s hard to put in words unless you walk [in] downtown Brownsville.”
He wants to headquarter his business there — leaving a small shop in Michigan, to continue serving those customers — and open a manufacturing center that will hire local workers.
His recent visit, hosted in part by former Brownsville mayor and community advocate Norma Ryan, left him feeling good about the possibilities and considering a few potential locations for the business. The fact that Brownsville Area High School has a strong woodworking program is another plus.
“We feel that we could offer a really nice product [and] help the community at the same time,” says German, who’s passionate about both creating jobs and the buy-local movement, which keeps the money in town, rather than at the nearby Walmart. He looks forward to working with the local chamber of commerce, and is already brainstorming promotions tied to existing Brownsville amenities such as nearby wineries and Nemacolin Castle, a popular wedding and event venue (cutting boards are a natural tie-in for wedding gifts).
German hopes the business will be able to transition from Holland to Brownsville by early 2021. He and his wife will make a new home there with their son, who plans to join him full-time in the business.
He loves the town’s historic architecture, full of buildings boasting 19th-century wood exteriors, just like his great-grandfather’s barn in Ohio.
“When you buy our board, it will last two generations if it’s taken care of,” he says. “Every board we make will be here long after I’m gone.”
ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary.