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Eric Sweet uses a special blending material to repair dings in the Brown family table. The blemishes are now virtually unnoticeable.
Eric Sweet does a final buff and polish on the surface of the Brown family table before beginning to work on the legs. “It’s a beautiful table,” he said. “I can just imagine years of cowboys and hay men, dining and sitting.”
With leaves that were also restored by Sweet, Diane Brown extends the table in preparation for a family dinner March 15 at the Brown Ranch.
Sweet brushes on finish and fills in the crevices of the woodwork on the table legs. Sweet “did a beautiful job,” Diana Brown said as she prepared to serve dinner on the restored piece.
The table is sturdy oak with bulbous, machine-turned legs and decorative fluting.Practical in design, the table has nine leaves that extend it to fit a dozen or so people.Children, cowhands, senators and governors have dined at it on the ranch first known as the Boyle place and now the Browns’.Maybe the table was built in the late 1890s or early 1900s in Virginia or Michigan.It could have been peddled around the turn of the 20th century in the Sears and Roebuck catalog, the only shopping outlet many residents in rural Wyoming had.Perhaps it came West on a train to Victor, Idaho, and was dragged over Teton Pass by a horse team.All that’s a mystery. But the history of the Brown family table, as the Browns know it, begins with Grace Miller, who served as mayor in 1920 in Jackson’s all-woman Town Council.Miller arrived in Jackson in 1896 as the new bride of Robert Miller, the third man to file a homestead claim in Jackson Hole, according to the National Elk Refuge archives. They built a two-story log home on the Miller homestead, which is now part of the elk refuge. Miller would have needed a large table for entertaining.
“Their home was considered luxurious for its day,” refuge history says, “and became the center of social activity for the homesteaders and ranchers who began pouring into the valley around the turn of the century.”Robert Miller founded Jackson State Bank in 1914, and Grace was elected mayor of Jackson in 1920 as part of the country’s first all-woman government.All Jimmy Brown knows is that Grace Miller gave the table to his grandmother, Epha Boyle, probably in the mid-1940s.“They were probably the upper crust,” Brown said, “and anybody who was struggling they would help.”Back then the Boyles were one of the ranch families in the valley striving to make ends meet. Epha Boyle was a hard worker who would churn butter and take it and fresh cream to be sold at Grant’s grocery store. She fed her small family and assorted ranch hands with groceries from Grant’s on an account. Still, “at the end of the year, they owed her money,” Brown said.Through the decades of running cows, selling off and developing pieces of the land for the family to survive, the table has stood witness. It’s part of the story of Jimmy Brown’s family.He remembers gathering every New Year’s Day at the table in the late ’40s to late ’60s. Grammy Boyle would serve a special prime rib dinner to a crowd of almost 20: her husband,James, her daughter (Jimmy’s mom) Phyllis, Jimmy’s dad, Arthur, friends, extended family members and neighbors.
Brown Family dining room table work in progress.
Brown Ranch Road
The old table is still a centerpiece at gatherings of the Brown clan. Pictured here are family members saying a prayer before sitting down to an Irish-themed dinner celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. With its glowing new look, the table is prepared for another 100 years of pancakes, poker games and family dinners, Sweet said.
They ran 800 head of cattle on 900 acres. Summers they would also use a 300-acre ranch they owned up the Gros Ventre.Jimmy married Diana Karns in 1958, and the couple built their current home next to the Boyles in 1968. His grandparents died soon after, and Jimmy and Diana moved Epha’s table to the dining room of their new home.It was a working ranch. Diana Brown cooked for Jimmy and their three children, Rusty, Teri and Reno, but often she would have to add more leaves to the table.“Most all the time I had at least one extra person to cook for, a hired man,” Diana Brown said. “When we were haying I would have 14 people and three meals a day.“It has a lot of character,” she said of the table. “We’ve used it and used it and used it. It’s such a neat old table.”A hundred-plus years of use took a toll on the table in the form of water rings, white marks from hot pans and dings in the surface and legs.This past winter the Browns decided to have the table restored to its former glory, entrusting Eric Sweet with the job. “It’s a beautiful table,” Sweet said. “I can just imagine years of cowboys and hay men, dining and sitting.”Sweet, 52, began learning the art of furniture restoration at age 13 in a New Jersey flea market, He recently returned to town after some time away and hung out his shingle as Jackson Hole Furniture Restoration LLC. He hauled the table, its leaves and its chairs to his shop, the bedroom of an apartment in west Jackson, where he spent more than 40 hours sanding, filling cracks, using tiny brushes to apply new color to bleached spots and restoring the finish. He’s happy with how the table turned out — “my philosophy is, you’re only as good as your last job” — and so are the Browns.“He did a beautiful job,” Diana Brown said.
These days, the Brown family numbers 11. As often as they can, they sit down for a meal at the old table.In addition to Diana and Jimmy and their three kids, the group includes Teri’s husband, Richie Billingham, and their daughters, Conner and Chandler, plus Reno’s wife, Michelle, and their 7-year-old twins, Alex and Anna.With Conner away at the University of Wyoming, the full family gets together for a big dinner only once a month or so. Each time, Teri takes a photo of the whole family sitting down at the table. She has hundreds of them.On March 15, Conner was home for the weekend and the family enjoyed a St. Patrick’s Day feast of corned beef and cabbage. They all held hands as Anna said grace.“Come on Jesus, be our guest, let these gifts to us be blessed,” she said.As Canada geese honked outside, coming in for a landing in the hay field, the Browns started with a salad featuring beets grown by Diana’s brother, Pete Karns, and pickled by his wife, Jeannie. As their forks scraped the bottom of their plates, Alex hopped up and headed for the kitchen to help his grandpa Jimmy carve the roast beef.Everyone else chatted about their memories of the table.Reno Brown remembers a typical summer day growing up on the ranch: “We’d get up very early to go saddle our horses, then come back in here for sourdoughs. The ranch hands would all drink coffee until the sun came up, then we’d saddle up and go to the range.”Some evenings during haying time a poker game would break out at the table.“I remember losing my money,” he said.With its glowing new look, the table is prepared for another 100 years of pancakes, poker games and family dinners, Sweet said.“When I’m gone, the table will still be here.”