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ND's first surviving quads celebrate 75th birthday Nursery was built with glass so visitors could look in

FARGO -- Long before infertility treatments, it was rare -- extraordinary even -- for a couple to have quadruplets. So when North Dakota's first surviving quadruplets were born here on Feb. 6, 1941, their entrance became a national spectacle and ...

Siblings Cleo Brown, Connie Nennig and Clayton Brown reminesce about growing up as quadruplets while visiting at ManorCare in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
Siblings Cleo Brown, Connie Nennig and Clayton Brown reminesce about growing up as quadruplets while visiting at ManorCare in south Fargo. (David Samson / The Forum)

FARGO -- Long before infertility treatments, it was rare -- extraordinary even -- for a couple to have quadruplets.

So when North Dakota's first surviving quadruplets were born here on Feb. 6, 1941, their entrance became a national spectacle and brought about developments that now are hard to imagine.

Three of the "Brown Quads" of Leonard are celebrating their 75th birthday today. Connie Nennig of Breckenridge, Minn., and Clayton Brown and Cleo Brown of Leonard, N.D., plan a small party at ManorCare Health Services in Fargo, where Cleo is recovering from diabetes complications. The fourth quad, a brother named Clair, died in 2001.

As they recently reminisced about growing up as quadruplets, the only female in the bunch said the experience made them closer.

"We were together all the time and had to share everything," Connie said.

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One of her main memories as a child was her parents dressing the three identical boys in the same clothes.

It was a tactic the boys used in their favor if ever they were mischievous in the classroom. If one boy got into trouble with a teacher, he might playfully deflect blame to another brother.

"They couldn't tell us apart," Clayton said.

"I think they enjoyed that, you know, to stir things up," Connie added.

Connie remembers the many games and occasional fights growing up, and said she could hold her own with her brothers. Besides Clayton, Cleo and Clair, they had four older brothers in the home.

"I had football shoulders, to be able to keep up with the boys," Connie said.

Every year on their birthday, their mother would bake a special cake. It was a white cake with lemon filling, frosted pink and white for Connie or blue and white for the boys.

"Every fourth year, I got my pink one," Connie said.

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What was normal then seems odd now

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead chronicled many of the Brown quads' milestones over the years, from their first haircuts to their graduation from high school in Leonard.

Born about one month premature at the old St. John's Hospital in Fargo to Nick and Ella Brown, the babies were good-sized for multiples. Three of them weighed more than 4 pounds each, the other just shy of that.

The couple made a move two days after the birth that might seem odd now. According to Forum archives, they petitioned Cass County Court to appoint Nick Brown and Dr. J.F. Hanna, a Fargo obstetrician who delivered the quads, as the quads' guardians in order to protect their future financial interests. There's no mention about why their mother wasn't named as guardian.

The judge said the agreement wasn't meant to infringe on Nick and Ella's parental rights; however, any financial offer involving the quads had to be approved by the court. One such offer was signed days later with Carnation Milk. The company wanted to feature the quads in its ads in exchange for free milk.

Another unusual move came months later when state legislators considered earmarking state funds to build a new home on the family's Leonard farmstead because their house wasn't big enough for eight children. Several lawmakers feared that financial offers might prompt the Browns to move away.

"I am sure all North Dakotans are anxious to keep the Brown family and the quadruplets in this state," said Sen. Flatt of Ransom at the time.

A $25,000 request for a new home was later reduced to $8,000, but it's unclear if the appropriation was ever approved.

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In fall 1941, construction began on a new home for the Browns, complete with a windowed nursery that eventually made life for the quads almost like animals in a zoo. According to a Forum article, the nursery, with glass on one end, would "make it possible for visitors to look in on the quads without interfering with the Brown family."

Connie said people from the community would come by at all hours to catch a glimpse.

"I still remember people looking in, gawking at us," she said.

When it got to be too much, the family cut back on the visits.

"So from now on, visiting hours are 2:30 to 4:00 in the afternoon. And the rule is to be strictly adhered to," Nick Brown said at the time.

Quads' farmstead still in the family

The Brown quads didn't come home from the hospital until they were 13 months old. It wasn't because they weren't healthy, but mainly because the family was waiting for the new house to be finished. A chickenpox outbreak in Leonard also led doctors to advise the children be kept in Fargo a while longer. Clayton said it was helpful that the hospital had a designated bomb shelter inside.

"They figured with the war going on, St. John's would be safer," he said.

Clayton, a lifelong bachelor, still farms near Leonard and lives in the home that he and his siblings grew up in. Connie, a widow, is retired, and Cleo is hoping to get better so he can return to his home in Leonard with his wife, Penny. Until then, Clayton and Connie visit their brother at ManorCare a couple of times each week.

Family and friends will join the three surviving quads for the milestone birthday celebration today, and Connie has ordered a white cake with lemon filling, just like their mother used to make.

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