A village in amber.
That’s how our guide at the T.C. Steele Historic Site described early 1900s Brown County, Indiana. It was stuck, imprisoned in the past, like the wheels anchored in the ruts of its rough, rock-strewn roads.
Despite its proximity to Bloomington and the scholars of Indiana University to the west, at the beginning of the 20th century Brown County was a backwater which, ironically, had little water. It was an example of man’s frontier folly and a place where people became hermits not out of a need for solitude, but because that was their only option.
Today this no-longer-remote region in the hills south of Indianapolis still feels like a place removed. Now, however, that feeling is intentional, and for those who visit, welcome.
To enter those wooded hills is to escape into a world that’s both designed and accidental; original yet re-created. It’s a place where art and necessity coexist, and where history, creativity, and Mother Nature join forces to offer a complex and inviting destination.
Getting to that point though, took some doing – and a few plot twists.
A Brief History of Brown County
Much of Indiana is flat because glaciers scraped away the bumps like a giant Zamboni, but they stopped their crawl north of what is now Nashville. As we neared, the fields disappeared and Jim and I drove into a world that hadn’t been smoothed. It was like driving into the Driftless Area near the Mississippi River. Flat flat flat flat and then you’re rounding a bend on a curving road overlooking a valley.
It was the time of year when winter’s over and spring hasn’t quite arrived. Log cabins with thick white mortar popped up here and there. We could see through the trees and imagined what it would be like in a month or so when the leaf canopy returned, and several months after that when the trees put on their fancy duds.
What was harder to imagine was no trees at all.
In 1808, the area that’s now known as Brown County was a hardwood forest teeming with wildlife. Bears, wolves, and even mountain lions roamed the rugged terrain.
But then, the white man arrived.
In 1809, William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory and future president of the United States, negotiated the treaty of Fort Wayne with the “Delawares, Putawatimies, Miamies and Eel River Miamies.” This treaty secured 3,000,000 acres, including the southwest corner of what was to become Brown County, for the young country.
The rest of the area, and most of central Indiana, was ceded in the 1818 treaty of St. Mary’s. Two years later the settlers began to stake their claims in these woods.
The first to move in was Johann Schoonover, a German who lived along what is now Schooner’s Creek and traded with the tribes. The next arrival was a harbinger of things to come: William Elkins cleared land and built a cabin.
By 1830 Elkins had about 149 neighbors. In 1836, the Indiana State Legislature passed the bill that formed Brown County and by 1840, 2,364 people cleared, built, and lived on what had been wilderness.
That’s what settlers did, of course, but in that part of the country, clearing the trees devastated the landscape.
Nashville, incorporated in 1872, was the hub of a growing population. A sprinkling of villages and communities with names like Gnaw Bone, Bean Blossom, and Elkinsville (named for that first pioneer), had their own doctors, churches, and schoolhouses. Unfortunately, the land could not sustain their way of life. By 1900 most of the trees were gone. Erosion removed the top soil and created such ruts in the road that some residents never saw anyone but traveling hucksters.
Brown County, an area known for its colorful fall foliage, was once bare.
It didn’t stay that way for long, though. In less than the time it took to destroy the forest, Brown County transformed from barren crags to wooded peaks, from backwater to artists’ haven, from isolated hamlets to a tourist destination.
Becoming a Tourist Destination
T.C. Steele was a renowned artist and one of the five members of the acclaimed Hoosier Group. In the late 1800s, that group put Indiana’s art scene on the map. T.C. in particular was about to do the same thing for Brown County.
In 1907, T.C. and his wife, Selma, moved to an isolated spot south of Belmont and built a home on a hill with unencumbered views. That blank canvas of broad vistas became a destination for artists, patrons, and neighbors, despite being two miles from the nearest water source up a road that would eat wagon wheels like a chainsaw.
Artists had drifted to the region for years, but it was T.C.’s arrival that heralded the beginning of the Brown County Art Colony. The growing community of creatives established an arts association in 1925 and The Brown County Art Gallery opened the following year.
While T.C. was painting, a humorist named Kin Hubbard was also drawing attention to Brown County. Three years before the Steeles moved to their house on the hill, Kin created a cartoon named Abe Martin. This aw-shucks plain-talking caricature issued one-liners seven days a week to a cast of characters like Mrs. Tilford Moots, Fawn Lippincut, Newt Plum, and Uncle Niles Turner. Abe & Friends were set in, you guessed it, Brown County, and their quips were quoted all over the country. By 1910 more than 200 newspapers published the strip.
There was a mixed message: on the one hand, Brown County was home to some of the most talented impressionists of the 19th and 20th centuries. On the other hand, Hubbard’s cartoon was filled with people like Abe, a wisecracking anti-hero.
To the outside world, the area must have seemed a dichotomy of cosmopolitan sophistication and down-home hayseeds. At the time, the cartoon didn’t seem to paint a favorable picture of the residents of Brown County. Yet, like Chicago’s acceptance and celebration of the Second City nickname, which was meant to be an insult, Brown County embraced Abe et al.
And then, there was Lee Bright. Lee was a local who wanted to protect and restore the natural resources of his home. He reached out, over, and over, and over, to Indiana’s Director of Conservation, Richard Lieber. Bright’s intent was to create a state park.
Finally, in 1923, he was able to gain an audience with Lieber, who then created a game preserve which would eventually become Brown County State Park. In 1928 and 1929 the reforestation efforts began with the plantings of a combined 58,000 evergreen trees. As those spruce and pine matured, they allowed the area’s native deciduous trees to take root and prosper.
Now here’s where it gets really fascinating. Richard Lieber had moved to Indianapolis from Germany in 1891 after visiting his uncles. One of those two uncles was Herman Lieber.
Herman was T.C. Steele’s patron, the one who organized a group of businessmen to send the artist to Munich to receive formal training.
T. C. Steele became the artist he was because he went to school in Munich because Herman Lieber raised the money to send him there, and then he moved to Brown County because the hills were bare, and then Herman’s nephew Richard helped create a park that would eventually obliterate those views, yet they’d be the very thing that would help preserve Steele’s legacy.
As I learned this, however, it was all overshadowed by a plot twist that hit a little closer to home.
My husband’s name is Jim – James – Goodrich. The governor of Indiana, Richard Lieber’s boss and good friend, the one who created the conservation department and enabled Lieber to become the father of Indiana State Parks? Can you guess what his name was?
(Especially since I grew up in Indiana, married a man named James Goodrich, and had no idea there’d been a governor of my home state with the same name.)
Visiting Brown County Today
The Brown County of today is very different from the area a century ago, but in many ways it’s still a village in amber. This is its appeal, and part of what draws millions of visitors every year. While the pristine beauty of Brown County State Park is the biggest enticement, the galleries are another, and so is the warmth of the people who live there.
As we toured, there were moments that could have seemed manufactured, like encountering a chainsaw artist in the alley. Except, there was no sign leading us down a Disney-esque path or an arrow pointing “local color here.” We found the sculptor because Jim heard a buzz, so we followed the sound.
You can walk the streets of Nashville or go for a hike in the park and call it a good visit. If you really want to get the most of your time here, I’ve got some suggestions for things to do in Brown County.
Our stay at Abe Martin Lodge, lunch and tour at Hard Truth Hills, and tour of T.C. Steele were hosted.
Chateau Thomas Winery
Located right off the main drag of Van Buren, Chateau Thomas Winery offers wine, of course, but it’s more than just a tasting room. Upstairs there’s a gallery of local artists, a shop filled with wine-themed items, and a balcony that overlooks a stage.
The Chateau hosts weekly free concerts and the weekend we visited a friend of mine from high school happened to be performing. Chuck Wills, who my mom still remembers fondly because he taught me to drive manual transmission, played Beatles covers with Frank Jones and Rick Clayton. The place was packed with locals. When Mark and Mary Ellen left, everyone said “Bye Mark! Bye Mary Ellen!” We had no idea who Mark and Mary Ellen were, but everybody else did, and we said goodbye and waved along with the rest of them.
Check Chateau Thomas’ events calendar before you go. If there’s live music, call and make a reservation. There’s no charge and they’ll have a table waiting for you.
TLTip: get to Chateau Thomas Winery a little early and do a tasting. Then get a bottle of your favorite wine and a cheese tray and settle in for a night of good music.
T.C. Steele State Historic Site
A visit to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site is more than just a look into the famous artist’s story. It’s a glimpse of what shaped Brown County. For me, the site was an introduction to the difficulties this area’s geography presented as well as the influence T.C. and Selma had on their neighbors.
You’ll definitely want to take the tour of the home and the large studio, since that’s the only way you can see inside either. A new visitor center will open in June, which will give you even more insight into the artist.
While you’re there, allow time to walk the grounds. Selma was an accomplished landscape artist who created gardens designed to inspire her husband. Those gardens have been re-created, so you’ll see what he saw. If you’re inclined to paint, you can bring your own easel and set up for a day en plein air.
There’s also an 1875 log cabin that Selma had moved to the estate in the early 1930s to preserve its history.
Hard Truth Hills
When is a distillery a destination? When it’s Hard Truth Hills. Situated on 325 acres in the woods just east of downtown Nashville on Old State Road 46, the complex is a tourist destination in its own right.
Start your visit at the Welcome Center, where you can take a tour of Hard Truth Hills Distillery. Because their story began with Big Woods Brewing, which is now Quaff On, you’ll get to try beers in addition to their spirits. The tour goes beyond the tastings and includes history of the region and of brewing and distilling.
After your tour, grab a table in Big Woods Restaurant. It’s a cavernous space with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the wooded hill, but you might not see it since you’ll be focused on their pulled pork nachos and brewer’s wings.
Then, walk off your meal with a hike in the woods. If it’s a summer weekend, grab a cocktail or a beer and sit at one of the outdoor picnic tables while a band takes the stage.
Visit the Brown County Art Guild and Brown County Art Gallery
The Brown County Art Association opened a gallery in 1926, and that gallery has been showcasing local artists ever since. It’s in a different location now, and after a split in 1954 there are actually two galleries.
Brown County Art Gallery moved to a large space the year of the split and is at the corner of Main Street and Artist Drive. Brown County Art Guild is located in the Minor House, an 1847 mansion on Van Buren Street.
Visit both, and then stroll the streets of Nashville to find other local artists and craftspeople.
Brown County State Park
No visit to Brown County would be complete without a visit to this park. Brown County State Park is not only the largest state park in Indiana, it’s also the most popular.
That’s primarily due to its vibrant fall foliage, but you don’t have to wait until October to explore its nearly 16,000 acres of hills and ravines. Naturalist Patrick Haulter told us his favorite time in the park is when the trees are bare, because then you can see just how rugged the terrain actually is.
Brown County State Park was dedicated in 1932 to Kin Hubbard, and the Abe Martin Lodge is named for the famous cartoon character. The lodge has 88 rooms, an on-site restaurant, and an aquatic theme park with water slides and a lazy river.
Another accommodation option in the park is the two-story family cabins, which have full kitchens and sleep up to eight people.
TLTip: If you enter Brown County State Park through the north entrance, you’ll drive through Indiana’s only double-tunnel covered bridge. The county’s other covered bridge is located a few miles north of town in Bean Blossom.
More things to do in Brown County, Indiana
- Go hiking and fishing in Yellowwood State Forest. You might not see the eponymous trees as they’re nearly extinct, but there is a grove of the rare flora.
- Tour the Pioneer Village behind the Brown County Courthouse and see what life was like from the 1850s to 1920. The jail, which closed in 1919, is the original building in its original spot.
- Go next door to the Brown County Historical Society.
- Taste your way through the area’s other wineries with visits to Salt Creek, Cedar Creek, and Brown County Wineries.
- Grab some duck wings and potato skins at Out of the Ordinary.
- Catch a show at Brown County Playhouse.
- Kick up your heels at Mike’s Music & Dance Barn or Indiana Red Barn Jamboree.
- Head to Bill Monroe’s Music Park & Campground for some blues and bluegrass, and stop at the Bean Blossom Covered Bridge along the way.
Where to stay in Brown County
In addition to Abe Martin Lodge, there are a few different place to stay in Brown County.
TLT is an affiliate with Booking.com, which means that we’ll get a slight commission if you book a room through the links below. It’s at no cost to you and helps keep the lights on, so thanks for that!
Visit Brown County, Indiana, and you’ll fall in love with this unique destination. For more ideas, visit the Brown County CVB’s website.