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Matthew Browning: Fireman, Burglar chaser!

Matthew S. Browning died a wealthy and respected banker in Ogden, but he started out having to scrabble his livelihood just like anyone else, hoping someone would buy stuff in his shop, dealing with shoplifters and chasing away burglars.  But from the beginning he was civic-minded, involved in his community.

Matthew and his brother John M. Browning, along with several of their half-brothers, started the Browning Brothers sporting goods business in Ogden in 1879. John was the inventor and his name is widely known, but Matthew, who was right there by his side, is less known in history.

Which is too bad. As I have said here several times, Matthew was the one with a head for business. Matthew used the family money to make huge contributions to building Ogden: banks, the opera house, urban railroads, car dealerships and on and on.

Which brings us to the photo you see here. I love this shot but, until today, did not know when it was taken.

I found this picture among photos in the Union Station archive. The picture shows a bunch of guys arrayed in front of some fire equipment, with a few of them perched on the extended ladder. The initials “M.S.B” by the middle guy on the ladder were, I always presumed, those of Matthew S. Browning.

And now I know I was right.

I searched for Browning’s name in early editions of the Ogden “Herald,” as made public on the Utah Digital Newspapers web site (https://digitalnewspapers.org) and found a headline referring to a “hook and ladder” company being formed.

Hook and ladder, of course, is what they used to call a fire department.

Reading down through the story, I learned that in 1880 Ogden had passed an ordinance forming the city’s first fire company, “which shall be composed of 20 able-bodied men whose duty it shall be to keep their implements in good order and ready for use, and on the alarm of fire are hereby required to remove their implements to the place of fire and do duty under the direction of the Chief Engineer, or his assistant.”

How’s that for a clearly written law: If you’re a fireman, your job is to put out fires. Couldn’t be clearer.

The news article, written in August of 1883, notes that if the city hadn’t taken so long to buy fire equipment “we have no doubt that much valuable property could and would have been saved out of the clutches of the insatiable fire fiend which has more than once brought destruction and devastation in our city limits.”

Don’t you love how they wrote news stories back then?

However, it notes, better late than never, and on July 4 of that year the members of that first company took part, in full regalia, with their new equipment, in the city’s Fourth of July celebration, a formal announcement that they were ready to serve the public.

Matthew Browning in his later years.

The article lists the initial members of the company, and we see Matthew Browning’s name listed, along with Samuel Browning, his half-brother. It makes perfect sense that the Brownings should be on that fire company, since their business was one of those threatened by the “insatiable fire fiend” that could put the entire city out of business.

An interesting note is that, for serving in the company, members who were injured in service would receive $5 a week compensation, and in the event of someone dying, he gets $50. Since they paid in only a $2 initiation fee, and $1 in monthly dues, it is obvious that if someone is hurt, or killed, an immediate financial problem will arise.

“Is it just, equitable, reasonable to demand of the members of the Hook and Ladder Company to risk their limbs and lives, to spend their time, neglect their business, and then not only bear their own current expenses, but also sacrifice from their private means to support their fellow who sustained injuries while discharging VOLUNTEER duty?”

This, the article notes, is unworthy of so fine a city as Ogden!

That business owners made sacrifices in the defense of their town from fire is evident from two other stories carried in the Herald about that same time.Ogden was a rough town, typical for a railroad boom town. These two particular stories involve burglaries of the Browning Brother’s store which, then, was located just south of what is now 25th Street and Washington Boulevard, on the east side of the street. It was located right about where  you now drive off the street to go into the Ben Lomond Hotel parking garage.

John and Matthew Browning, in the doorway of their first, and much-burglarized, shop in Ogden.

On March 6 of 1882 we learn that, on the evening of the previous Saturday, a burglar broke the glass in a door in the back of the shop and made entry. Unfortunately for this burglar, the brothers had had this problem before and so had rigged a trap.

“In a vice in the shop was a pistol loaded with goose shot,” the article reads. “A wire was attached to the trigger and extended to the back door.”

The gun went off, injuring the burglar slightly. Not being overly bright, this guy went into the shop anyway and broke into the front, sales area, of the shop.

At this moment Matthew, who usually slept in the shop for this very eventuality, came in the front door and saw the problem. He took out his own pistol, searched the shop, found the crook in the workshop, and made a citizens arrest.

The burglar pretended to be merely drunk and even invited Browning to a local bar to have a drink and make amends. Matthew went along with him and, while in the bar, sent for a cop.

On Dec. 5, 1883, another burglar in the shop had better luck. Taking advantage of Matthew’s dinner break, the crook broke in and stole 20 revolvers, worth more than $200.

The article notes that the brothers usually had a spring gun, and a big dog, to deal with burglars. However, on this night, the gun was not set and the dog was somewhere else, making Matthew’s dinner break a very expensive repast.

 

Ogden’s fire equipment has much spiffier ladder trucks these days. Picture taken on Veterans Day, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Permanent link to this article: http://theunionstation.org/matthew-browning-fireman-burglar-chaser/

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