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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Brigham, Johnson
(March 11, 1846–October 8, 1936)

–journalist, editor, author, and librarian—was born in Cherry Valley, New York, to Phineas and Eliza (Johnson) Brigham. He attended public schools in Watkins and Elmira, New York. In September 1862 he tried to enlist, along with his father, in the 153rd New York Volunteer Infantry. He was rejected as too young, but in 1864-1865 served in the U.S. Sanitary Commission as a relief agent and high-level clerk.

    Brigham spent one year at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, then entered Cornell University in 1869. He was the first managing editor of the Cornell Era and won the Goldwin Smith Prize in English history. He left after two semesters and did not graduate. Brigham's journalism career began at the weekly Watkins Express. In 1872 he bought a Democratic weekly in Brockport, New York, and turned it into a Republican paper. By 1875 he was back at the Watkins Express. That year he married Antoinette Gano. The couple had one daughter, Anna, but soon divorced. From 1877 to 1881 Brigham was editor and publisher of the Hornellsville Daily Times.

    Brigham came to Iowa in 1881. He had accompanied some newspapermen on a trip to Dakota Territory and spent some months writing editorials for the Fargo Daily Republican. At a chance meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, he learned that the Cedar Rapids Daily Republican was for sale. He was editor and part owner of that paper from 1882 until 1892. In his editorials, Brigham espoused protectionism, railroad regulation, and prohibition. In 1888 he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and in 1892 he was president of the Republican League of Iowa.

    In the summer of 1892 Brigham met Lucy Walker, daughter of a prominent Cedar Rapids banker, on a trip to the West Coast. They became engaged on the train somewhere in Colorado and were married on December 20, 1892. The couple eventually had two daughters, Ida and Mary. Brigham's first book, An Old Man's Idyl, published in 1905 under the pseudonym Wolcott Johnson, was a veiled fictional account of his courtship and home life with Lucy. Brigham sold his interest in the Cedar Rapids Daily Republican in late 1892 to accept an appointment as consul at Aix La Chapelle (Aachen), Germany. The appointment only lasted from January to September 1893 due to the change in presidential administrations.

    Brigham moved to Des Moines in late 1893 and launched the Midland Monthly in January 1894. The Midland was a regional literary magazine featuring fiction from midwestern authors such as Hamlin Garland and Alice French, poetry, history, travel accounts, book reviews, and Brigham's critical and eclectic "Editorial Comment," in which he advocated traveling libraries and support for public libraries, among other things. Brigham, a supporter of woman suffrage, included a section for "Women's Club Notes" that was edited by Harriet Towner. Brigham published the magazine until 1898, when he sold it to a St. Louis syndicate.

    On May 1, 1898, Governor Leslie M. Shaw appointed Brigham the State Librarian of Iowa, a position he would hold until his death. In 1900 he became chair of the newly created Iowa State Library Commission. Early in his tenure Brigham established the Iowa Traveling Library. He also made a priority of building a large collection of 19th-century newspapers and periodicals. New quarters for the State Library were completed in 1910. Brigham was active in the American Library Association, president of the Iowa Library Association in 1903 and 1927, president of the National Association of State Librarians in 1904, and president of the Iowa Society of the Archaeological Institute of America from 1914 to 1926.

    Brigham's career as an author coincided with his library career. In addition to many articles in a wide range of publications, he wrote or edited at least 13 books, including a history of Des Moines and Polk County (1911); a history of Iowa (1915); a biography of James Harlan (1913); Prairie Gold (1917), a regional literary anthology; A Book of Iowa Authors (1930); and The Youth of Old Age (1934).

    The Brighams took a trip around the world in 1926. Lucy died in 1930, and Johnson died of a stroke in Des Moines on October 8, 1936. He had still been on the job as State Librarian at age 90. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids. Johnson Brigham was a partisan journalist, a progressive on some issues, a literary critic, a historian, and a scholar-librarian. In his honor the Iowa Library Association awards the Johnson Brigham plaque every three years; it is inscribed "to the Iowa Author for the Most Outstanding Contribution to Literature."
Sources Brigham's papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, with a smattering of letters in a few collections at the University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. He published a biographical sketch of himself in his history of Des Moines (1911). By far the most detailed source is Luella M. Wright, "Johnson Brigham," Palimpsest 33 (1952), 225–56. An obituary appeared in Library Journal, 11/15/1936, 891. The Des Moines Register noted his passing in a flowery editorial, 10/10/1936.
Contributor: Brian J. Kenny

Cite as: Kenney, Brian J. "Brigham, Johnson" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017