Shoestring road-building business paved the way to wealth for Herman and George R. Brown. Their company, Brown and Root, went on to construct bridges, dams, military bases, ships, power plants, offshore drilling platforms, and more, in Texas and around the world. They also helped build the career of one Lyndon Baines Johnson, who repaid their generous campaign donations with both political favors and personal friendship. Many Texans despised them for their influence-buying, but they won over others by donating vast sums to the state’s colleges and museums and by helping establish numerous Houston landmarks, including the space center, Rice University’s stadium, and the city’s international airport. They were born in Belton, Herman on November 10, 1892, and George Rufus on May 12, 1898.
In 1914 Herman began doing construction work in Belton. His boss paid him in used equipment and mules, and Herman formed his own business. In 1919 his brother-in-law Dan Root joined the company. George signed on in 1922.
The Browns paved roads and built bridges all across Texas. In 1942 they completed the 1.3-mile-long Marshall Ford (now Mansfield) Dam near Austin, thanks to wheel-greasing from freshman congressman Lyndon Johnson. During World War II they expanded into shipbuilding, producing 359 destroyer escorts and other craft.
Post-war, when both brothers lived in Houston, their biggest deal was acquiring, for $143 million, Uncle Sam’s Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines, originally built to replace tanker ships (which fell prey to German submarines). The purchase spawned the natural gas giant Texas Eastern Transmission Company. Brown and Root also undertook huge military projects.
In 1940 the Internal Revenue Service investigated the company for giving bonuses to employees so that they would in turn give the money to LBJ; it was assessed a measly $372,000 in back taxes and penalties for having deducted the bonuses as corporate expenses.
In 1951 the brothers and their wives set up the Brown Foundation, which to date has given away $685 million, notably to Rice, Southwestern University, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Herman died on November 15, 1962; LBJ delivered his eulogy. George continued to run Brown and Root, which later built, in South Vietnam, port facilities as well as the highly controversial “tiger cages” for North Vietnamese prisoners of war. He died on January 22, 1983.