Ode to Joe Billy Brown

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When wealthy Boston carpet dealer Joseph Ballard bought the Lafayette Road estate of his Leavitt in-laws in 1831, he had no idea that a future namesake would one day become one of the most popular and controversial selectmen ever voted to office in Hampton, New Hampshire.

Ballard and his wife Clarissa, the daughter of tavern keeper Thomas Leavitt, spent their summers in Hampton. From mid-century on, Irish-born Mary Johnston accompanied them as a servant. In 1858, she married John Gilman Brown of Hampton, and in 1862 their first child Joseph Ballard was born. Mary held a special place in the Ballard household, and when her employer died in 1877, he bequeathed to her the house and property at 393 Lafayette Road.

A one-man government

Mary’s son Joe Billy, as he was called, was a market gardener who sold his produce from a cart at the beach. A lifelong bachelor, he was first elected to the board of selectmen in 1887, at the age of twenty-four, and held the office for the better part of the next three and a half decades, eventually becoming board chairman. A 1921 Hampton Union article reported that he was “on the job from six o’clock in the morning until nearly midnight,” and that “no job is too big for him to tackle and no request of too little consequence to escape his attention.” In fact, Brown seemed to have had his nose in everything, and he performed so many jobs around town—from cleaning the Town Hall and caring for transients, to collecting rents on leased town land and personally overseeing public works projects—that calling his time in office a “one-man government” was not far from the mark.

Brown vs. the police force

 James Tucker of the Hampton Beach News-Guide described Joe Billy as “spare and wiry with a drooping gray moustache,” dressed in a “familiar” gray suit, and looking like a “character out of Winston Churchill’s novel Coniston (Churchill was a novelist and New Hampshire politician; his 1906 book about the state’s politics was a best seller). According to Tucker, Brown was “accustomed to leading,” and wasn’t the kind of man “that lags behind in a community like Hampton.” His personality was pleasant, his disposition stubborn, and although his “argumentative facilities might prove futile in a close debate,” at town meetings he was a “master of repartee.”

Tucker penned his biographical sketch in 1922, at the end of a contentious summer at the beach. With the assistance of Hampton police chief Sherburne “Sherbie” Blake and his officers, overzealous Federal prohibition agents had set up liquor roadblocks at the bridge end of the beach and on Lafayette Road. This angered business owners and cottagers, who worried that the liquor arrests were giving the town a false reputation as a bootlegging center. Even trolley operator Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway complained of the inconvenience of the searches.

The complaints did not go unnoticed by the selectmen, and in September (well after the tourist season had wound down), Joe Billy Brown fired twelve of the fifteen officers on the force, including the chief. Spared from the axe were Officers Marvin Young, Uri Lamprey, and Robert Tolman.

 One of the unexpunged officers was Brown’s friend and “anxious to wear the chief’s badge,” leading Tucker to believe that “petty jealousy and local politics” were at the root of Brown’s decision. Despite Blake’s refusal to vacate his office, the ruling stood and Tolman took over as chief.

Twenty years younger than Joe Billy, Sherbie Blake was the son of Hampton fisherman Eri P. Blake. At sixteen he joined the Navy, later working as a clerk in Boston, Massachusetts and Concord, New Hampshire. He ran a liquor store in Manchester, New Hampshire, and had a marriage, two children, and a divorce, all before returning home to Hampton to try his hand at police work. After his dismissal, he found work at the Coast Guard station on North Beach.

The following year the town elected Lemuel C. Ring as chairman of the selectmen. With Brown declining to participate, Ring and selectman Harry Munsey voted to reinstate Blake. Some locals didn’t like the change, but they must have been happy with the board’s decision not to allow their police officers to work the Federal “dry squad” roadblocks. This meant a loss to the police department of a share of the municipal court revenues earned from the prosecution and conviction of rumrunners, which in 1922 had amounted to over thirteen hundred dollars. For the town’s promoters, this seemed like a fair exchange.

Other problems arose, however, and Blake abruptly resigned after an altercation with the “occupants of an automobile” that had occurred over the Independence Day holiday. He never returned, and selectman Harry Munsey took over as chief.

Old political ring broken

Munsey was the third selectman on the three-man board, but at the time of Blake’s resignation, he and Ring were operating as a two-man board. On April 29, Brown died after surgery at Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport. With his passing, the “old political ring” was broken. It didn’t take long before the public learned of irregularities in the town’s business, including a report that Brown had kept the town’s money in his own personal bank accounts. The selectmen promised a thorough audit of the books, along with fairer and more businesslike governance in the future. 

JBB Park

In his history of the town, Peter Randall called Joe Billy “an unusual town official.” That he certainly was. He was also an admired public servant, who, as James Tucker wrote, had “at heart the welfare of the town he serves so faithfully.” In recognition of his many years of service, North Shore Park at Plaice Cove was informally called Joe Billy Brown Park. In 1964, voters made the memorial official.

Ode to Joe Billy Brown

Have you seen my Billy Brown?

He’s the man who runs our town,

I will never rest ‘til he am found.

I have looked all over town,

Down to the beach and all around.

On my knees I ask please,

Have you seen my Billy Brown

—as remembered by Horace Hobbs (1899-1999),

courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, August 25, 2017.

Photo of Joe Billy Brown courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society. Colorized by the author.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl’s latest book is “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, available at amazon.com and at Marelli’s Market in Hampton. Her website is lassitergang.com.

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