Setting the record straight about Joe E. Brown

Mr. Joe E. Brown visits Holgate, Ohio — 1965

Not long ago on Facebook some very misleading facts concerning the Hollywood star and comedian Joe E. Brown, born in my hometown of Holgate, Ohio, appeared, much to my consternation. Thus was born this blog, to straighten out the record, and to inspire persons who love Hollywood stars and autobiographies to learn the truth about one of life’s most likable straight arrows of all time — Mr. Joe E. Brown.

In 1965, I was a young reporter for the Northwest-Signal newspaper in Napoleon, Ohio, and lived at home with my parents near Holgate, Ohio, a year after graduating Holgate High School. Soon after I took this picture of Joe E. visiting his home town that November and wrote the above article for the paper, I moved to Columbus, Ohio.

For those who may recognize him, that is, indeed, Claude Archambeault on Joe E.’s left in the above picture. Claude was Holgate’s postmaster for many years. His family, and the Browns and Evanses of Holgate and New Bavaria are Joe E.’s relatives.

A few of the errant “facts” on Joe E. that came to my attention included a misrepresentation of his middle name, his birth date, and his cause of death.

Let’s take a trip through the real facts of Joe E.’s wonderful life!



Who What Why Where When How



Some 50 years apart, Joe E. Brown and I pursued our ambitions related to the business of entertainment.

While he delved into fictional situations of entertainment, acrobatics, movies, and the like, I got involved in newspaper reporting and its credo of telling a story by using the six-factual approach: who was the story about, what happened, where did it take place, when did it happen, why did it happen, and how did it happen?

Normally, most newspaper editors demand that those who, what, why, where, when, and how answers appear in the first paragraph, or two, of the total news story, setting the entire tone for the informative, factual article.

Here’s an example of a paragraph from the Sports Section of a local newspaper told in one sentence that gives the whys and wherefores of the coming story:

“LeBron James recorded a triple-double, Kyrie Irving scored 40 points and the Cavs, bothered by chatter from Golden State’s players, broke scoring records while outperforming the NBA’s most electrifying offense in a testy Game 4 filled with technical fouls Friday night, beating the Warriors 137-116 and snapping their 15-game playoff winning streak.”
WHO = LeBron James and the (Cleveland) Cavs
WHAT = game 4 win
WHY = response to other team’s chatter and attempting to break Warriors’ win streak
WHERE = game 4 (location — Cleveland — already shown in dateline), but Quicken Loans Arena could have been included
WHEN = Friday night
HOW = broke scoring records while outperforming the Warriors’ offense

Basically, all the six-factual approach is accounted for in this one-sentence paragraph. Now the details can be added to the story.

In Joe E. Brown’s autobiography, “Laughter is a Wonderful Thing”, as told to Ralph Hancock, a typical long sentence of information is the following one:

“Thus the birth of the town’s most famous citizen got only a bare mention in (The Holgate) Times (which later became the Henry County Review, ‘Independent in all things — Neutral in nothing’), and he rated that only because Dr. Archer was the town’s leading M.D.”

The differences in newspaper reporting and factual book-length manuscripts is clear. The newspaper paragraph crams in as much information in as little space as possible, while the book discussions unfold at leisurely speed.

And, although I soon discovered my first love was Fiction writing, my newspaper writing experience and education was what enabled me to meet and interview Joe E. Brown in 1965. For that, I’m ever thankful, even all these many years later.

To know that our different pursuits ultimately brought us together at one place in time to create a who-what-why-where-when-how scenario is pretty magical.

Photo copy from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg

All About Holgate Ohio


What Holgate was to Joe E. Brown and to me was a quiet farm town of modest means that was surrounded by flatlands and farm families. I grew up in and around Holgate.

Joe E.’s family moved to North Baltimore (East from Holgate along State Route 18), then to Toledo, Ohio, before he knew what lay in his future.

So, what about Holgate, Ohio?

Well, that first picture (ABOVE) tells the story of Holgate’s early high school history. The old school building (now long gone) stands at the right in the photo. At the left is the baseball field’s “stadium”, wooden bleachers framed by concrete walls with a high fence in front separating cheerleaders and towns-people and students from their ballplayers, for safety.

(BELOW) is the plaque that was dedicated for Joe E. during 1949 ceremonies on Joe E. Brown Day, which included a state-wide amateur baseball tournament. The plaque was cemented into the side of the stadium’s North concrete wall. Later when the old stadium was demolished and a brand new high school and elementary school were built along Joe E. Brown Avenue (State Route 18 at the Northeast side of Holgate), the cornerstone plaque went along and is currently proudly displayed there with other Holgate school memorabilia.

The plaque reads: “Joe E. Brown Stadium Holgate, Ohio Dedicated To A Great Sportsman, May 30, 1949”. Joe E. was a great baseball fan and was often photographed with area baseball teams when he visited his home town.


Here’s a brief database on our home town:
— William Kaufman first established a home in what soon became Kaufmansville, in honor of his family name. Kaufman, however, built only in the western half of an area that expanded eastward with the acquisition of more plats by the W.C. Holgate clan. Holgate’s superior monetary reaches won the battle of names in 1873 and, with western and eastern halves combined, the area was renamed Holgate.

— Northwest Ohio, where Holgate is located, was part of the state’s Black Swamp wilderness. Holgate’s and Henry County’s oldest citizen at the time, Anna Kaufman Bauer, died in 1951. She was 103-years-old and still had been able to recall the days of the Black Swamp landscape.

— Lumber was the original income generator for the Holgate area. When timber became less available as land-clearing reached further and further into the territory and the swamps were drained, farming sprung up in the flat lands. Oats and corn were planted where trees had flourished.

— Pet Milk Company (formerly of the Walgreen Company) operated in Holgate from 1926 to 1965.

— Some family business names besides Brown in Holgate included the likes of Archambeault (blacksmithing), Hornung (millinery), Burgel (lumber), Greenler (chick hatcheries), Zachrich (meat marketing), Voigt (banking), Ritz (cigar manufacturing), Overhulse (rooming house), Groll (hatcheries), Meyer (saloon), and Knapp (grocers and meats). My Grandparents Knapp were grocers in the village and my Grandpa “Ben” was a ballplayer. My parents were farmers who lived just East of the village for most of their 68 years of happily-married life.

— In 1895, the Holgate Electric Light Company took on the responsibility of providing the village with electrical services.

— Oil and gas drilling became part of the landscape by 1888, but the adventure was mostly a bust.

— J.W. Barringer became the village’s first postmaster when the post office opened its doors in 1874. Claude Archambeault later did a long stint as postmaster and was a very dear friend of Joe E. One of my father’s close friends was a Barringer.

— The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was built through Holgate in 1872, providing new income to local men.

— Joe E.’s family was involved with railroad employment, and one grandfather operated the first theatre in Holgate. It featured picture programs and stage plays long before Joe E. became the town’s most famous actor of all.


Holgate always will belong to Joe E., and it always will occupy a large part of my heart, as it did his. It’s home, still.

Photos are from the “Holgate History Book”, published by Holgate History Committee, Holgate, Ohio 43527, 1984, with generous compilations of articles, facts, and pictures contributed by Mrs. Ray Mann, Rayburn Mann, and Clarence Schudel.

— Don’t miss the humorously long attempt on the left hand side of the (ABOVE)  “playbill” to locate the small village of Holgate!

— And, yes, that is a misspelling — daimond — in the caption for the plaque dedication, which appears in the history book; fortunately, the error appears only in the caption, not on the plaque itself!)

Pay Him Money…


Joe E. Brown admits to astonishment, he says in his autobio, when he first discovered he might be able to get “paid for flying through the air”. For acrobatics, he was certain, was the life for him.

His best school buddy, Alec Reuben, had declared for the trapeze, and together, the boys learned that 12-year-old George Jones, a boy also of their Toledo neighborhood (referred to as “The Hill”) had been hired by professional acrobat William J. (Billy) Ashe.

Joe E. relates that he endlessly practiced cartwheels, handsprings, and walking on their hands in George’s presence, hoping to win him over to put in a good word with Ashe on their behalf.

At nine-years-old, Joe E. convinced his father to let him speak with Ashe about employment, and he was successful in getting an audition, to practice with George at Ashe’s headquarters at the old Valentine Athletic Club gym. “That was a conversation I’ll never forget,” he says.

On a humorous note, Joe E. says George didn’t know what a “kinker” was at the time, and it was another six weeks before Joe E. himself discovered the term was a description for an acrobat.

While most of the acrobats in the United States were foreign born and trained in Joe E.’s time, Ashe was born in Toledo to a performing circus clown.

By the time Joe E. was 10, his father signed a contract with Ashe, who had agreed to take Joe E. on and pay him “the princely sum of $1.50 a week”. Joe E.’s statement was sincere. Payment of $1.50 a week was very good in 1902.

My parents’ home farm, 2013


At the age of 10, in 1956, living on a farm just East of Joe E.’s birthplace in Holgate, I was writing little short stories for school assignments, as well as for my own pleasure on weekends when school wasn’t even close to a thought in my head.

I wasn’t close to earning any money from my writing endeavors, either. My time was far removed from Joe E.’s, during which helping with the family income was dear to the hearts of many young boys and girls.

I didn’t see my first writing job until I was 18. But I did know writing was my passion.

Ironically, my second passion, which sometimes overrode my first, was athletics, particularly baseball, for that also was Joe E.’s second ambition.

It made perfect sense, then, that Joe E., an entertainer, would later make several baseball-related movies, while I would write stories of baseball heroes.

Top Photo (dollar bills) courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com
Second Photo (farmhouse) from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg

Locating Joe E. Brown’s Birthplace




Comedian and Hollywood star Joe E. Brown was born in 1892 in the small town of Holgate, (Henry County), Ohio. And where is Holgate, Ohio? Small towns aren’t well known across the United States, so I thought it would be fun and informative to use some location maps to find Joe E.’s exact birthplace.

At the top left, Defiance County, Ohio, which borders at its left with the state of Indiana, and Henry County, Ohio, where Joe E. Brown was born, are marked in red and blue, respectively. The big city of Toledo, Ohio, is located in Lucas County (red “L”) at Lake Erie in the left corner of the northern, dipping border line with the lake.


Here, you can see Defiance (the city), capital of Defiance County; Napoleon, capital of Henry County; the little burg of New Bavaria, where Joe E.’s Grandpa Brown’s family were farmers; Pleasant Bend, which is essentially a grain elevator and carry out grocer’s village; and Holgate, where, eventually, kids from New Bavaria and Pleasant Bend attended school. Places like Hamler, Malinta, Jewel, and Florida all established their own school districts until consolidation took place in the 1960s.

Independence Dam State Park was part of the old Maumee and Erie Canal system of the 1800s, running from Cincinnati to Toledo along the Maumee River. At the park’s entry way, a portion of an old canal lock still sits as part of Ohio’s historic past.


A larger view of Northwest Ohio, above, shows Toledo (right, top, yellow), the state of Michigan border line (top, green), and Toledo’s corner of Lake Erie (right, top, blue). You can see the Maumee River trailing from Lake Erie through Toledo and angling down to Defiance.

Joe E.’s immediate family moved to Toledo “in the spring before I was seven,” he says. If you locate State Route 18 leaving Holgate and going through Hamler, Deshler, and Hoytville, you’ll see the highway comes to North Baltimore, where Joe E.’s family lived a short time between his birth in Holgate and their move to Toledo. It is Toledo, Joe E. says in his autobiography, which he most remembers as being his boyhood residence.


Holgate, Ohio,  has changed a lot from the main mud thoroughfare it was when Joe E. lived there. It’s grown and modernized, and its loyal citizenry has maintained the town’s school system, razing the old buildings at the corner of Wilhelm Street and Frazier Avenue to construct new facilities at the opposite end of town.

The tracks of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, for whom Joe E.’s Grandpa Evans worked as car inspector and water tank supervisor, pass West-East through town. His Grandpa Evans also worked for the old Clover Leaf (Nickel Plate) railroads, which tracked North-South through Holgate’s Eastern edge, but were pulled out decades ago.

The new school buildings, housing grades K-12, were built, appropriately enough, along the south side of Joe E. Brown Avenue. That avenue is also State Route 18, Holgate’s northern most street that travels out to North Baltimore.

Most of Holgate’s main businesses today are found at the north side of the old B & O tracks, along Wilhelm Street and Railway Avenue. A grain elevator and a lumber business that serve the entire county are located on Lee Avenue, the first street past the tracks.


This Holgate map blowup shows Joe E. Brown Avenue and Randolph Street. Joe E. was born in the Brown family home on Randolph Street. The house stood on the west side of Randolph Street between Pittsburgh Avenue and Chicago Avenue.



Entertainment Desires


(Image retrieved from Pixabay.com/Barni1)

Born to Mathias and Anna Evans Brown, comedian Joe E. Brown first began to entertain people as an acrobat. Acrobatics, he thought, was what he wanted to work at to help with the family income, but by the time he was seven he’d already become gainfully employed as a newspaper carrier.

Five cents, Joe E. related in his 1956 autobiography, “Laughter is a Wonderful Thing”, bought a carrier ten papers, and he’d make five cents if he sold all ten copies. However, he was disappointed not to earn a profit initially and it was a little while into his first business endeavor that Joe E. realized his first earnings “high”. One day, he sold all ten papers, went back to purchase some more, and smilingly presented his mother with eight cents worth of income.

It was during his paper route one day when a less than discreet individual made fun of his face and large mouth. The insults were hard to ignore, he says, but facts were facts, and he later turned career profits on those disappointing experiences, as well.

Joe E.’s newspaper delivery started with the Toledo Bee, then extended to the Blade. He remembers the week of President William McKinley’s assassination to be a very profitable one, as everyone wanted the latest news while the President clung to life for a week.

While continuing his newspaper routes, he also gathered together a shoeshine kit and began to offer shines. Later, a John Robinson Circus poster attracted his attention and that of his best buddy, Alec Reuben. Alec declared he wanted to be a trapeze artist., and Joe E. went flying through the air in his mind. After absorbing the circus poster and taking imaginary flight, Joe E. was certain that he would find satisfaction in becoming an acrobat.

A first true exposure to the art of acrobatics for Joe E. were the talents of a man named William Ashe, who earned actual pay for his performances. Another friend of Joe E.’s, George Jones, began working with Ashe, which inspired Alec and Joe E. to try to impress George with their nimble cartwheels, handsprings, and to practice back somersaults off a couch on Joe E.’s porch.

“I begged and cried and altogether made such a fuss that they (his parents) finally relented” to letting him talk with Ashe about employment, as long as it didn’t interfere with his school work, Joe E. says in his autobio.

Thus began Joe E. Brown’s first venture into the entertainment business. He would quickly learn that it wouldn’t be an easy field from which a newcomer could hone a livelihood.

I had a much easier route to begin to find satisfaction from the craft I chose by the age of ten. Reading was easy for me, and writing stories was immediately my passion as soon as I learned to put words in a comprehensible order. Storytelling continues to fascinate me to this day.

Laughter is a Wonderful Thing

The pictures I attached to the above sticky post of this blog are from my scrapbook of 1964 and 1965, when I worked for the Northwest-Signal newspaper in Napoleon, Ohio — the first time. I also worked at that paper, and several other local ones, during the 1980s and 1990s.

As a nineteen-year-old, I did my first stint with the Signal and had my personal meeting with Joe E. Brown. Yes, that’s his genuine autograph up there, along with a snapshot of the article I wrote from my interview with him in 1965 as he visited his hometown for what became the last time. He died in 1973.

Joe E. had his autobiography (as told to Ralph Hancock), “Laughter is a Wonderful Thing”, published in 1956 when he was 64. He gives his birthdate as July 28, 1892. You may find different facts and dates at Wikipedia, but we’ll stick with the facts and dates from Joe E.’s own words.

As a library worm in elementary school, I read the autobio of Holgate’s most famous son with great interest. I was 10 in 1956 and already knew that I would be interested in writing the rest of my life. By the time Joe E. was 10, he had decided he wanted to be an acrobat, and he was already employed as such with The Five Marvelous Ashtons, a troupe housed at the Valentine Athletic Club of Toledo, Ohio.

I also remember very well as a school kid watching “Elmer the Great”, one of Joe E.’s black and white baseball flicks, on our old console television that sat at the far north end of our spacious living room. The picture was shown on a matinee movie feature program that came on at 4 p.m., an after school treat. Did Joe E. really have a wider than wide, elastically-lipped mouth? Oh, my, yes; and it embarrassed him when he was a youngster, but he grew “accustomed to living with it” he said in his autobio, even to the point of it “bringing me over $300,ooo a year, and the greater reward of millions of laughs”.

That’s quite a payroll for learning to turn lemons into lemonade!