“Brownie” Preston, Audubon Musical Treasure

When the Goff family moved to Melville Township, Audubon County, Iowa, they met a young woman who would be a long-time influence–at least on their oldest daughter, Leora.

Schooling came to an end for Leora Goff, age 16, when she passed the 8th grade exam. The graduation ceremony for the country schools was held at Audubon High School. As the oldest daughter Leora was needed at home.

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The Goff children attended Melville No. 2 country school. Nora Brown from Audubon, Iowa, was the music teacher there. Leora wanted to take piano lessons so when she rode a horse east from the center of Melville Township and along dusty country roads, across the Nishnabotna River and into Audubon to take piano lessons from Miss Brown on Saturdays.

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I only had a few clues about this, after doing some sleuthing in old newspapers, discovered some of Miss Brown’s history, but the newspaper led me to a tragedy.

Nora Brown’s Marriage

The first one was joyful: Aug. 20, 1908: Preston-Brown Wedding: Mr. Don Preston took a train for the eastern part of the state, Sunday, for a little vacation from the arduous duties of business life. But subsequent events show that he had matters of greater moment on his mind. . . . Letter from Doctor Conybeare of Cedar Rapids. . . . brought the interesting but no unexpected news that on Monday August 17, 1908, Mr. Preston and Miss Nora I. Brown were united in marriage at her home near Iowa City. (Grocery business with his father). Nora–2 years–has had charge of music in Audubon public schools and was a chorister at the Presbyterian church.

Nora, fondly known as “Brownie,” even after her marriage had to resign her position with the school system because she was now a married woman. She still shared her music in her church and community, and also offered music lessons–voice, piano, and organ. Lessons–50 cents for half an hour–at the Preston home three doors east of the public school. 

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Could this have been the house the “Third Door East of Public Schools” where Leora Goff took piano lessons? Wonder where the teenager tied up her horse. Audubon, Iowa, July 18, 1996

Leora would have attended the funerals for her youngest brother who died at age one in 1909, and for her Grandpap Goff who died in Montana a few weeks later and was brought back to Monteith for burial. She would have attended the ceremony for rural school graduates when her sister Georgia was among among them that spring, and enjoyed girls dressed as Japanese singing at the graduation–under direction of Mrs. Nora Brown-Preston. 

Leora Goff took piano lessons from Mrs. Preston for three years. How I wish I had a picture of her!

Tragedy

In early 1910, Mrs. Preston’s first baby was born–a son who died the same day. Three days later, at age 27, Nora “Brownie” Preston died. I doubt that any of the Goffs attended the funeral, as the weather was brutal. Her death was a tragedy for the whole area.

From Audubon County Journal, Exira, Jan. 13, 1910 (with added paragraph breaks):

Died at Her Home In Audubon, Iowa Thursday, January 6, 1910 After A Short Illness.

Nora Isabel Brown was born at Oxford, Iowa November 23, 1881 and passed away from earthly scenes at Audubon, Iowa at the turning of the day, Thursday morning January 6th, 1910.

That Dark River

“Brownie” as she was familiarly called, was graduated from Coe College in 1904, and was married to Don J. Preston of Audubon Iowa on August 17, 1908. After a few brief months of happy wedded life came the final summons and she crossed that dark river we call death to join her [four-year-old] sainted sister, [Mattie] Blanche Brown and her baby son, who had been received into the arms of The Master but three short days before her demise.

Left to mourn her untimely death are her husband, Don J. Preston of Audubon Iowa, her parents Rev. and Mrs. David Brown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; her brother, Rev. Charles C. Brown [a Civil War veteran–1st Lieut. Co K, PA Vol) and wife of Shellsburg, Iowa and many other relatives and friends.

The funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church in Audubon on Sunday afternoon conducted by her former pastor, Rev. D.C. Mackintosh of Lake City Iowa and that large edifice was full of sympathizing friends who had come to pay the last mark of respect to one whom all loved and respected. The floral offerings were very elaborate and many pretty and costly pieces were seen bauked about the coffin as it lay near the pulpit in the church, some pretty boxes of flowers coming from Exira and neighboring towns.

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Presbyterian Church, Audubon, Iowa, 1911

All That Was Mortal

Owing to the intense cold and the deep snow only the immediate relatives, her pastor and those in charge of the carriages went out to Arlington Heights Cemetery, where all that was mortal of Mrs. Don J. Preston was laid to rest in a tomb, close beside her dead baby.

Nora was a talented musician and gifted singer. Conductor of music at public schools. Funeral at the church where she served as chorister.

From Audubon Republican, Jan. 13, 1910 (with added paragraph breaks):

MRS. NORA BROWN-PRESTON

Was Laid To Rest On Last Sunday Afternoon January 9, 1910

The funeral service of Mrs. Don J. Preston was largely attended at the Presbyterian church on Sunday afternoon. Rey A. B. Miller, pastor of the church, conducted the opening exercises and Doctor D. C. Mackintosh of Storm Lake, Iowa, a former pastor, delivered a pleasing and helpful sermon appropriate to the occasion and read a touching personal tribute concerning the life and work of Mrs. Preston.

In addition to the songs most loved by the deceased, which were sun by the choir, Rev. Charles C. Brown, of Shellsburg, Iowa, her only brother, sang a solo entitled “Face To Face” in a most impressive manner. It was expected that Mrs. E. M. Quint, of Atlantic, would be present to sing this selection but she was prevented because of the lateness of the train The casket and pulpit were decorated by a profusion of flowers furnished by the relatives and intimate friends.

At the conclusion of the services at the church the remains were laid to rest by the side of their baby boy in the beautiful Arlington Heights Cemetery, at Audubon, Iowa. As Mrs. Preston had been conductor of music in the public schools for several years prior to her marriage in August, 1908, most of the teachers attended the funeral in a body. Mrs. Preston was a talented musician and a fine singer, and for a long time acted as chorister in the Presbyterian church, here in Audubon, where she was an active and useful member. We are pleased to give place to the following tribute furnished us for publication.

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This death leaves a great void at the heart of this community. The sense of loss is universal. Here is cut short a life which from its earliest years was devoted with consuming zeal to the kingdom of God. From the tender age of ten when she united with the church until the very last when the darkness of death came down upon her she loved the Master’s work and with trusting heart she followed Him. Hers was a life of intense activity, of untiring effort, in every high and noble cause.

She brought sunshine

Wheresoever she went she brought sunshine. We know what a blessing her consecrated efforts brought to this place. We can see the results on every side. How largely is the highest flower of boyhood and girlhood in this church today the product of her unselfish love! Her love for the children of the church and her skill in gathering together her band of seventy-five Junior Endeavorers and leading them to highest standards of love and service for their Master has rarely been surpassed. Only eternity can disclose the full result of her labors. We shall see it and understand it only fully then in the great awarding day of God.

But tho her work was great, at the center of it all lay the rich grace of humility–

“Humility, that low sweet root

From which all other virtues shoot.”

For herself she was conscious of no superior goodness. She would have been the first to disclaim all extraordinary consecration. She mourned her faults. She would have classed herself, as did the Apostle of old, as the least of all of Christ’s followers. It is this, especially, this unconsciousness of superior excellence, that put her in the place of power.

No austere Puritanism

Hers was no austere Puritanism. For a time she knew how to enjoy the pleasures of the world, and this side of her character stood out in such a way that to thoughtless minds it might seem an outstanding feature of her life. But months ago there came a day when these were laid aside, outgrown as “Childish things,” no longer prized, and those who knew her best saw rise the serene and lofty Alps of the holy life,–out of the mists that had once half concealed them emerged the clear calm mountain peaks of communion with God.

We must not forget among other things to set down another quality that shines out of this life just terminated on its earthly side–the beauty of forgiveness. No mean retaliations, no rancor, no petty revenge, found harbor in her heart. whatever wrong she was subjected to, whatever misunderstandings, she forgave as God for Christ’s sake had forgiven her, and her life went out in overflowing love for all who ever knew her.

Dead! She is not dead. On her pale brow rests the glory of calm victory. For her life is just beginning. She has entered upon the great peace, the mysteriously glorious morning of eternity.

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Arlington Heights Cemetery on the NE corner of Audubon. Stones north and a little east of a white shed and two pin oaks.

Baby Preston, son of Donald J & Nora I Preston, born & died Jan. 2nd 1910

Nora I Preston, Wife of Donald Preston,  Nov. 23 1881- Jan. 6th 1910

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Pictures taken in Arlington Heights Cemetery, Audubon, Iowa, July 18, 1996.

Donald J. Preston 1884-1925

Jack E. Preston 1921-1927

Don Preston remarried in 1918, to Corinne Amber Bovenmyer. They had a son Jack, who died about age 6. Don Preston had died 2 years earlier. 

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Leora on her 75th birthday beside the piano she played for decades, Guthrie Center, Iowa

Nora “Brownie” Preston’s influence in Audubon County, Iowa, must have reached into far places and through the decades. With just three years of piano lessons from her, Leora Goff Wilson was able to play the piano, or even a pump organ, for others and for her own enjoyment, well into her nineties.

7 comments

    • I have a feeling that everyone who knew her loved her. I wondered whether it might have been someone she taught with. Women had to give that up when they got married. It could also have been someone from her church. Audubon is a county seat, and had a population of nearly 2000. But she also got out to the country schools to teach.

  1. Such an amazing tribute to such a tragic passing of ‘Brownie’ – this was a wonderful post and I enjoyed so much about it from having to resign her position after her marriage to her final summons to cross the river…

    • School teachers in Iowa resigned when they got married at least into the 1950s in Iowa. One of my aunt’s kept her 1942 marriage a secret so she could teach one more semester.

  2. A wonderfully interesting read. How sad that women were expected to give up working simply because they had married – a practice that lasted a long time. The narrative also brings home the harshness of life in those times when people lacked the basic medical facilities we can enjoy today. This is a worthy tribute.

  3. Women had to give that up when they got married.

    I always found that curious – but back then teachers often lived with a family and were (somewhat) free from household chores. Once they got married, tending to children and cooking and cleaning without the convenience of modern appliances and processed foods, took up most of their day. Still, you would think that it would be left to them to work things out.

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