A treasure trove of old maps

Wadena man is in awe of his father's mapmaking skills.

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Steve Brown of Wadena examines a historic city of Wadena plat map that was in his father's collection. The streets were not lined up alphabetically in the early days of Wadena.
Nathan Bowe / Wadena Pioneer Journal

WADENA — Back in the day, before the internet came along with its global positioning systems, its mapping software, its computer-aided drafting and computer-aided mapping, there were skilled draftsmen like Vince Brown of Wadena.

Starting back in the 1940s, when he was in the Army Air Corps, Brown was involved in the Army Map Service, which made topographic maps for U.S. military forces.

In addition to his draftsman’s table, the tools of his trade were things like compasses, mylar sheeting, special pens of varying printing width, planimeters, and dividers — all of which were used to make analog maps. The trade bible back then was the Army Map Service Drafting Manual, which spelled out all the specifics.

It was a skill he used his whole life.

“It was a hobby and a craft for him,” said his son, Steve Brown of Wadena. “When we were growing up, he had a draftsman’s table in the basement of our house — I remember him sitting on that stool making maps in the basement.”


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Steve Brown shows how his father's maps were painstakingly created with sheets of clear material that were layered and photographed to create the finished product.
Nathan Bowe / Wadena Pioneer Journal

Vince died in 1985, but not before leaving his mark on Wadena, where he served as city planner and parks superintendent starting in 1969, and where there is a monument to him in Sunnyside Park.

Steve said that his mother, Mary, 96, moved out of the family home that she and Vince bought in 1958, and sold the house this fall. Prior to that, in the process of going through things and preparing the house for sale, Steve found a number of old maps done by his father that had been stored in hard cylindrical map cases in the attic. There were also projects his father had done in school at the Columbia Technical Institute School of Drafting.

Steve framed some of the memorabilia and gave some of the old maps away, but he kept most of the ones that had his dad’s name on them — including some of Washington, D.C.

“My dad grew up in D.C., and knows D.C., so I was real glad to find those maps,” he said.

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An early map of the city of Washington, D.C. made by Vince Brown of Wadena.
Nathan Bowe / Wadena Pioneer Journal

So how did that East Coast guy end up living in Wadena? “My mom is from Browerville, and my dad had an Army buddy who got married in Browerville, and he and my mom met at the wedding,” Steve said. After getting married, they lived in D.C. for a while, where Steve was born, before settling in Wadena.

But they still maintained a connection to Washington. “We did a lot of traveling as a family,” Steve said. “There were five kids in my family — we’d load up the station wagon and take off.” On a family trip to Washington in 1967, they toured the Senate, thanks to a pass signed by Sen. Walter Mondale. And they toured the House on a pass signed by Rep. Odin Langen. Steve has both those passes, along with lots of other memorabilia.

In 2001, Steve took his own family on an East Coast trip to New York and Boston and Washington.

“We were in the World Trade Center in early August, before school started,” he said. His three kids, Eric, Jeff and Amy, were there, along with his wife, Ann. The kids were ages 10, 12 and 14 at the time.


Just a month later, some 3,000 people died when those towers were hit by hijacked passenger jets and collapsed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

“By the time you get home and develop the pictures, the whole world has changed,” he said.

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The Vince and Mary Brown family visiting Washington. D.C., Steve Brown is the child on the right.
Contributed photo

Steve was a high school business teacher in Sebeka for many years, then worked in a bank and a wholesale produce office in Wadena. Ann taught fourth grade in Sebeka for 34 years, and subbed for a number of years after retiring. “She really enjoyed the kids,” he said.

Vince made a lot of maps over the years. In the 1960s he worked for Thomas O. Nelson Co. of Fergus Falls, which made maps, atlases and plat books. Steve has a photo of his father at work there, sitting at a drafting table in a room with a half-dozen other mapmakers.

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Steve Brown at his home in Wadena.
Nathan Bowe / Wadena Pioneer Journal

Vince’s maps included the city of Wadena, Sebeka, Staples, and many other towns. “I had a city of Aldrich map,” Steve added. “I gave it away to Lane and Donna Waldahl. He’s the former police chief of Wadena, he grew up in Aldrich, and he talked about Aldrich, so I knew exactly who I was going to give that map to.”

As a boy, Steve was interested in his father’s work. Pointing to a Menahga city map from November of 1961, Steve said, “he’d been working on this on a lighted desk.”

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Steve Brown with a pamphlet on the Crow Wing River Canoe Trail, with the original Vince Brown map on the table.
Nathan Bowe / Wadena Pioneer Journal

The lighted desk was helpful because making maps back then required creating layers of see-through mylar sheeting — containing various elements in the map, such as lakes, rivers, roads, plats, political boundaries, and many other elements — then overlaying them precisely and photographing them to help create the finished product.

The large mylar sheet and other parts of the mapmaking process were stored together with the finished map inside the map case for a Jan. 3, 1965 map of the Crow Wing River Canoe Trail. The lakes, towns, Crow Wing River, and other elements “were cut out of a piece of paper and put on exactly where they went,” Steve said. “They’re raised, you can feel them with your finger on there.”


That map was long used in pamphlets put out by canoe outfitters on the Crow Wing River.

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Steve Brown holds up a translucent sheet to a ceiling light to demonstrate why a light table was important in his father's mapmaking process.
Nathan Bowe / Wadena Pioneer Journal

Not surprisingly for a professional cartographer with military training, Vince also had a declassified Central Intelligence Agency map among his possessions.

In fact, a number of such maps from the 1940s and 1950s are now available online.

They show Nazi Germany, the Japanese Empire, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and the Middle East, among other places of interest at the time to military intelligence and the CIA — which was not created until 1947, after World War II.

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This declassified CIA map was part of Vince Brown's collection.
Nathan Bowe / Wadena Pioneer Journal

The declassified CIA maps are available online on Flickr at:

To Steve, his father’s maps are a great family heirloom. “I think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “There’s probably maps that he did all over.”

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