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Cleyson L. Brown

Born: February 3, 1872, Pennsylvania. Married: Maud E. Irwin, October 18, 1893, Des Moines, Iowa. Died: November 12, 1935, in Abilene, Kansas.

Cleyson Leroy Brown was born in Adams County, Pennsylvania, on February 3, 1872, to Jacob and Mary Brown, the oldest of five children. His family ran the mill in the Brown community, named for them. In 1880 they moved to Dickinson County, Kansas, and established a grist mill, which Cleyson helped operate. When he was 10, Cleyson was injured in a milling accident, which led to amputation of his arm. He was fitted with an artificial arm and hand that he covered with long sleeves and gloves.

After graduating from Abilene High School, he worked as a teacher, attended business college in Burlington Iowa, and managed a creamery in Wichita. He married Maud Irwin in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 18, 1893. They had two children. His father’s mill was re-appropriated as a plant to generate electricity to power street lights, businesses, and residences of Abilene. Brown proposed a telephone system to the Abilene city council, which approved his idea, and in 1902 he founded the Brown Telephone Company, later renamed United Telephone Company. Brown sold a large portion of stock interest to Missouri and Kansas Telephone Company in 1914 (later known as Southwestern Bell) to help fund further expansion, but he remained the chief manager of the company. He had merged the light works with the local gas company to form Riverside Power and Gas Company in 1906; the number of power plants increased over the next two decades. In 1924 these plants all incorporated under the name of United Power and Light Company.

After the incorporation of his electric and telecommunication assets, Brown continued to acquire small independent phone companies throughout Kansas, which would be the basis of his new holding company: United Telephone and Electric, incorporated in 1925. Brown acquired out-of-state phone companies and ventured into diverse business interests, including grocery store chains, hotels, a news service, an oil company, and more power and utility companies

As his financial assets and profits increased, Brown became determined to establish a new paradigm to benefit his extensive worker base, all centered around thrift. Brown believed that money conservation was the key to success, and after observing the poor monetary habits of his employees, he established a policy that required all workers to save 10 percent of their income. He established a savings committee and David J. Eisenhower, father of President Dwight Eisenhower, served as the committee secretary. Brown intended to encourage employees to invest in the company they worked for, and several workers did so before the policy was lifted in 1933 because of the Great Depression.

Brown also established a welfare department for employees and their families that offered loans, scholarships, clothing, free electric services, and other commodities. He provided a mansion to be used as a home for indigent citizens of Abilene, another home for orphaned children, and the Lebold mansion as home for young female telephone operators.

He named the Brown Memorial Foundation after his late parents, organized with the help of his sisters, Jennie and Della Brown. Incorporated in 1926, the foundation endowed more than a million dollars by 1930 to aid those in need, provide recreational resources in the Abilene area, a hospital, and a home for the aged.

Brown died in Abilene, Kansas, on November 12, 1935, at the age of 63. His companies had been in debt since the depression, were bankrupt. United Telephone and Electric dissolved into United Utilities, which was incorporated in 1937. This company was the predecessor to United Telecommunications, which became the Sprint Corporation in 1982.

Further Reading

Sondra Van Meter McCoy, "The Patriarch of Abilene: Cleyson L. Brown and the United Empire, 1898-1935,".

Entry: Brown, Cleyson L.

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2017

Date Modified: December 2021

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.