Who’s this guy
I was interviewed recently by a young man from Missouri who, after long days working on his farm work, records brief radio vignettes about interesting Midwestern stories for his syndicated American Countryside radio program.
He asked me to talk about my hometown’s namesake.
I live in Brookings, you see. It’s named after Judge Wilmot Brookings.
Andrew McCrea of Maysville, Mo., picked the wrong choice of someone who could praise the likes of Wilmot Brookings.
I’ll tell you why.
Old Judge Brookings was never a household name in my town, having visited here just once in his life—some say twice.
Even giving him that second visit, it sure doesn’t qualify him as one of my town’s favorite sons. In fact, the editor of The Brookings Post in the late 1880s called Judge Brookings “an old sorehead.”
Judge Brookings maybe had good cause to be a sorehead. He had wooden legs, the result of an accident in January of 1858 while riding from Sioux Falls to Yankton for Dakota Territory’s legislative session.
His horse slipped crossing Slip Rock Creek in a blizzard. Brookings was thoroughly dunked. By the time he and his horse got back to Sioux Fall, his legs were frozen stiff as tent poles. They had to be amputated.
He was fitted with wooden prostheses complete with hinges. It is said he squeaked when he walked.
Brookings was a railroad man and land developer. Wealthy men on some distant Board of Directors gave Brookings City its name, honoring one of their own, which was often the case when railroads were money-grubbing trusts soon to be busted by Teddy Roosevelt.
The “judge” preceding his name wasn’t in recognition of his judicial expertise, although he was a lawyer. It was a title he received after serving on the Dakota Territorial Supreme Court, having been appointed by President U. S. Grant in 1869.
His one known visit to Brookings was in 1882. He came to expound upon his qualifications as he sought votes as the Dakota Territorial Delegate to Congress.
The Brookings Sentinel reported that while his speech here was billed to be on the “interests of Dakota,” it became a litany on the “interests of the judge himself.”
Reported The Sentinel: “He delivered his speech with as much vigor as if he was addressing thousands instead of dozens. The speech was eloquent, the audience attentive and the meeting adjourned with no harm done.”
The Brookings Press wasn’t as kind. Wrote Editor George Hopp: “…his was a very poor harangue…and an egotistical, bombastical [sic] eulogy pronounced upon himself. It was the worst tooting of one’s own horn ever heard in our town.”
Brookings voters apparently weren’t much impressed either. Judge Brookings got 178 votes from Brookings residents. His opponent garnered 1,125.
Brookings left railroading and became a banker. He dabbled in Sioux Falls real estate, published the Sioux Falls Argus Leader from 1883 to 1885, and owned a canning factory and a linen mill there.
Born in Maine on Oct. 23, 1830, he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1857. With other railroad big-wigs, he established the Western Town Lot Company.
In 1907 on a visit back east, he died while riding in a streetcar in Boston.
His last will and testament said he was to be cremated and his remains buried in South Dakota. So is he buried in his namesake city?
Instead, Brookings, at his request, is buried in Yankton, where his political clout, and an occasional squeaky knee, often reverberated.
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