Biography of Henry C. Brookner

Henry C. Brookner’s remarkable journey from a determined immigrant with just $4 in his pocket to a master mechanic and builder in America embodies the spirit of perseverance and ingenuity. Born in Osnabruck, Hanover, Germany, on June 15, 1827, Brookner brought his European craftsmanship to the burgeoning railroads and communities of Illinois, leaving a lasting legacy. His life, marked by ambition and skilled labor, led him from New Orleans to Dixon, Illinois, where he not only advanced his career with the Illinois Central and Big Four railways but also cultivated a life enriched with family and community service. This introduction explores the life of Henry C. Brookner, a man whose contributions were foundational to the infrastructure and spirit of his adopted homeland, and whose personal narrative is a testament to the impact one individual can have on the fabric of American society.

Henry C. Brookner was a master mechanic and builder of more than usual ability, and in that capacity occupied important positions in the employ of the Illinois Central and the Big Four railways at different times. During the latter part of his life, he settled on his farm in the vicinity of the city of Dixon, which he had owned for many years, and superintended its improvement.

Mr. Brookner was born in Osnabruck, Hanover, Germany, on June 15, 1827, a son of George and Maria (Engle) Brookner. His father was a renowned contractor and builder, and was architect to the king. He and his wife spent their entire lives in the German Fatherland. They reared a family of six sons, of whom these three came to America: Henry C., Edward H., who settled in Dixon, but he and his wife are now in Hamburg, Germany, educating their two children, and Charles J., a resident of Rochester, Minnesota, who is married and has two children.

Our subject attended school constantly in his native town during his boyhood. At the age of nineteen, ambitious to see something of the world and to try his fortunes in America, he left the parental home, and crossing the Atlantic on a sailing vessel, six weeks later he landed at New Orleans. His outlook was not very encouraging as he was in ill health, and the expenses of the voyage had left him with only $4. With true manliness, he at once sought employment whereby he could turn an honest penny and found a situation in a hotel in the Crescent City. He remained there a few months and then made his way to St. Louis, where he became a clerk in a hardware store in that city, continuing in that occupation until 1847. In August of that year, he came to Dixon and commenced work with his uncle Christopher Brookner, who was a carpenter. He evinced great aptitude for the trade, quickly mastering it in every detail, and in no very long time became a builder on his own account. The Illinois Central Railway Company engaged him to superintend the construction of bridges, and he remained with them nine years, resigning at the end of that time to accept the position of roadmaster and master builder with the Indiana & St. Louis Railroad Company, now known as the “Big Four.” He retained that situation for ten years, making his headquarters at Litchfield. In 1879, he retired to Lee County and located on his farm, which he had bought in 1856, a mile and a half south of Dixon. He busied himself with its improvement during the remainder of his life, which was brought to a close on January 10, 1889. In dying, he left behind him a high reputation as a man whose conduct at all times and in all places showed that his life was guided by Christian principles, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, with which he connected himself early in life, found in him an exemplary member, esteemed for his unswerving honesty and veracity.

During his residence in Litchfield, Mr. Brookner was married to Miss Emma R. Keithley, their union being solemnized on April 4, 1875. She was tenderly watchful of his interests and comfort, made his last years the best, and reverently cherished his memory. She is a woman of sterling worth and is a devoted member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, with which she united when she was young. Her marriage with our subject brought them three children — Mae Adella, Paul, and George Keithley.

Mrs. Brookner, who was born in Greenville, Indiana, is a daughter of Seth M. Keithley, who was born at Elizabethtown, Kentucky, in 1812. His father was John Keithley, a native of Maryland coming of German ancestry. He removed from that State to Kentucky in the early days of its settlement, and then to the Territory of Indiana, where he became one of the early settlers of Floyd County, locating in the primeval forests near Greenville. He bought a tract of heavily timbered land, erected a log house on it, and before his death had cleared a good farm. The maiden name of his wife was Phebe McCollum. She was a native of Maryland and of Scotch ancestry. Both she and her husband are quietly sleeping their last sleep in a churchyard near Greenville.

Mrs. Brookner’s father was very young when his parents removed to Indiana, and there he grew to manhood under pioneer influences. He learned the trade of a carriage maker and followed it in Greenville for some years. In 1857, he came to Illinois with his family and settled in Litchfield, where he was engaged in manufacturing carriages until 1878, when he retired from active business, making his home with his children in that place until his death on March 28, 1887. The maiden name of his wife was Theresa Miller. She was born near Elizabethtown, Ky., was reared in Floyd County, Ind., and died in Litchfield in 1872.


Biographical Publishing Company, Portrait and biographical record of Lee County, Illinois, containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens, together with biographies of all the governors of the state, and of the presidents of the United States, Chicago: Biographical Publishing Co., 1892.

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