If anyone ever earned the title first lady of Boulder City, it’s Ida Browder. She was a lady of firsts.
Born in 1889, Browder was an Austrian countess who emigrated to the U.S. at age 20. Widowed by her second husband, she moved to Boulder City in 1931 to support her two children.
Here, Browder quickly obtained permission from the federal government to build a diner, the first permanent commercial establishment in the newly created town. This was quite an accomplishment in a male-dominated city constructed primarily to house dam construction workers. Browder and her children lived in an Army tent nearby as she oversaw construction of her building at 552 Nevada Way, which included a lunch counter, apartment and signature arched porticoes providing a shaded porch area.
Browder’s Lunch officially opened a few days after Browder held a Christmas dinner there on Christmas Day 1931, and today it’s among the oldest remaining commercial buildings in the city. The café, which expanded to the corner of Ash Street in 1932, featured home-cooked meals and female cooks, a happy alternative to the dam worker’s mess hall down the street. Browder, who operated the diner herself for almost a decade, would later be honored as Boulder City’s first female businesswoman.
Browder wasn’t done there, though. Not by a long shot.
A second mother to many young men working on Hoover Dam, they would bring her their money for safekeeping rather than risk blowing it in Las Vegas. Browder would store their deposits under her mattress. One night after realizing she was sleeping on more than a thousand dollars (quite a handsome sum back then), she decided things had gone too far and quickly closed the first “bank” of Boulder City.
But ever a mom, Mother Browder chaired the city’s first Mother’s Day program in May 1932.
Barely a month later, however, her real son, Marbus, tragically died of spinal meningitis. So, she donated his extensive book collection to Boulder City’s schools, founding a memorial library in his name. Later, during one of Dr. Elwood Mead’s visits as Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, Browder persuaded him to have 3,000 books donated from Library of Congress discards, thereby founding our first permanent city library.
Good books, music and educational opportunities were always among Browder’s highest priorities. She was the first and only woman to serve on Boulder City’s local school board. She helped create the high school, worked tirelessly to attract competent teachers and establish the first gym and classroom building, and was a charter member of the PTA.
Browder was also a founder, officer and active participant in multiple other civic and service organizations, many of which were created in her building and frequently assembled there. For instance, she was instrumental in organizing the American Legion auxiliary, Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliary, Boulder City Chamber of Commerce, our first Girl Scout troop, March of Dimes for infantile paralysis, and various senior citizens groups.
A trusted confidante, Browder regularly corresponded with and hosted congressmen, governors, engineers and foreign emissaries. She was also a strong political activist. She and other members of the Clark County Civic Service Federation and the Clark County Legislative Council launched grassroots initiatives during several cycles of the Nevada Legislature, resulting in over 300 successful enactments. Among those were the creation of Nevada’s second college, initially known as Nevada Southern and later as UNLV.
In 1936, Browder ran for the Nevada State Assembly but lost. Undaunted, Browder remained one of the strongest advocates for self-government in Boulder City, helping to spearhead the drive that ultimately lead to incorporation of our city and transfer of control from the federal government in 1959.
So, it was highly fitting that when the first land sales in the newly incorporated city were conducted the following year, Browder received the first deed, purchasing the land on which she had three decades earlier constructed and launched the city’s first permanent commercial operation.
After battling a heart condition for many years, Browder finally succumbed shortly after her 72nd birthday in January 1961 and was interred at the Boulder City Cemetery. Several weeks ago, Councilwoman Peggy Leavitt excitedly told me that she and an acquaintance had fortuitously found Browder’s grave while exploring together. That became an even more serendipitous find when we heard the announcement just days later that Charles Lawson had tentatively agreed to sell the Browder Building to local proprietor Dan Fox.
I hope you saw the recent Ida Browder exhibit at Boulder City Library, successor library to the one she helped create, or learned more about her legacy during last month’s Historic Preservation Day. If not, check out the extensive Browder archives at the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum or even just take a stroll down Browder Place in the new Cottages subdivision.
Of course, much more could be said about Browder, this lady of firsts. I’m certainly not the first to tout her virtues. Longtime Boulderite Elton M. Garrett loved to write about his good friend. And, later, Fran Haraway compiled Browder’s biography in connection with the Nevada Women’s History Project.
But I don’t need to be her first celebrator. And hopefully won’t be the last. We can never write and talk and reminisce enough about pioneers like Browder.
Rod Woodbury is mayor of Boulder City. He has been serving on the City Council since 2011 and is the president and managing shareholder of his law firm, Woodbury Law.