The Brainerd I first encountered in 1994 has not changed much in the past five years. Several of the original, weathered clapboard homes I photographed on that brief visit have burned down or been demolished, their foundations still visible despite the encroaching prairie grasses and trumpet vines. But, aside from the loss of the grain elevator, most of the town's physical structures seem to have retained their form and appearance.
The two-by-three-block townsite presents a jarringly diverse mix of housing types to the first-time observer, with its gray, sagging remains of 115-year-old structures butting up against newer, well-kept ranch houses, mobile homes and aluminum storage shedss. Some of the vacant lots have been converted to gardens, and thick shade trees line the sand/gravel streets, which have shed their original East-West names of Neiman, Horner and Jacob for signs bearing numerical distinctions, like 87th Street.
The Brainerd Feed Store is the town's lone existing retail business, and is the only visible indication to passers-by on K-196 that there was ever a community known by that name. Behind it, where many of the original town's West Side houses and businesses once stood, is a field now farmed by Edgar Harder. And across Broadway, the adapted remnants of the Brainerd Store are faintly visible in the larger Grace Missionary Home's freshly painted white clapboard outlines.
Drive north along Broadway, and you get the eerie sense that this wide paved road is weirdly off-kilter, as if the vast open spaces to your left are clamoring for a few street-hugging buildings to define this corridor where townscape most abruptly meets farmscape. Up the road a mile, past the high school, as the gleaming steeple of the Emmaus Mennonite Church comes into view in a lush valley to the Northeast, hang a right on an old section road.
The Brainerd Cemetery lies just to the North of this road in a peaceful glen, on a low ridge looking down to the Dry Creek valley to the East. Here, the old and the new peacefully co-exist, just as they do back "in town," with headstones bearing the names of area pioneers looking over the graves of those interred in the past few years. This clean, well-kept place was a clear sign that Brainerdites didn't just stop living, working or caring in 1889, as the Whitewater papers from that year would have had me believe.
To learn the whole story about Brainerd, this cemetery told me, I would have to look beyond the brief histories and primary sources I had already devoured. I would have to do an academically unthinkable thing: I would have to talk to some real people.