Before the fall in Brown County

It doesn't have to be fall, even though that's when the Brown County hills come alive with dazzling colors and the calendar fills with festivals. In the season of frost on the pumpkin, hot apple cider, tricking and treating, the county can't be surpassed.

But you could pick a month, any month, and find plenty to do and a lot to see. This summer, for example, people crowded the galleries, studios, shops and restaurants of Nashville. They swam, hiked and picnicked in the big state park and state forest, fished the streams, rode the horses, cruised on motorcycles, or just gazed at a horizon filled with bright green oaks and maples.Meanwhile, the painters painted, the potters potted and the weavers wove.

Brown County is an artists'-colony-turned-major-attraction, the fate a lot of artists' colonies face. Artists have an eye for beauty, and travelers, though maybe less talented, want that beauty, too, maybe even take some of it home.

They can have it for a price. Almost every painting on every wall of every store, gallery, hotel and restaurant bears an artist's business card and a dollar figure. Original paintings might start at $60 or less and soar close to $1,000. The level of quality varies too. Brown County has its share of bad art, but it also offers plenty of creations that would give a museum curator pause.

Art and recreation aren't the only things the county has going for it. An apparent majority of the Nashville area's 350 retailers appeal to connoisseurs of scented candles, stuffed animals, ribald T-shirts, dollhouse furniture, dream catchers, flea market junk and garden gnomes. Nashville is the kind of town that wouldn't dream of having fewer than three Christmas shops operating year-round.

Therefore, Brown County has become an all-over-the-calendar kind of destination. "It's busy now," the restaurant hostess at Seasons Hotel told my wife, Juju, and me. "In September, it's even busier. And in October, it's insane."

That would be due to the vivid hillside foliage, naturally, and also a full schedule of festivals and art shows. Plus, southern Indiana isn't quite as prone to the sudden autumn chills that annoy people living farther north.

In summer, it's fun to wander the back roads, because the farms seem old and old-fashioned--not sprawling factories of agribusiness. Barns might be red, or feature a billboard for Mail Pouch tobacco without the surgeon general's warning. Quite a few are horse farms, with sleek, graceful mares and stallions grazing in the pastures, a hint that Kentucky is just 90 miles down the road.

The town names hint at Brown County's rural nature. One of Bean Blossom's back roads sports a charming, red, wooden covered bridge. Gnaw Bone, along Indiana Highway 46, features a string of flea markets that sell just about anything.

At one booth, Juju was tempted to buy a small pet goat , but finally thought better of it and settled for some items that I still don't recognize. It was in Gnaw Bone where I found a store that sells Vidalia onion mustard, rhubarb fudge and the county's signature apple butter.

Story, a speck of a village, was a different story. The little hamlet is dominated by the rusted-steel facade of the ramshackle Story Inn, its veranda decorated with two old gas pumps and a lot of other old things. One Dr. George Story, scion of a timber-harvesting family, founded the town in 1851, and from 1880 to 1929 it thrived as a farming community. The Great Depression did it in. People no longer could make a profit from their hilly, rocky farmland, and they drifted away.

Even when the good times returned, no one came along to modernize Story, so the inn looks pretty much the way it did in its previous incarnation as a general store and post office. The inn has renovated only the guest rooms upstairs, and it offers accommodations in some of the old houses scattered through town.

We looked around Story for a while, but the Blue Lady never appeared. She's described in the inn brochure as "a mirthful, albeit innocuous, apparition with flowing white robes whose cheeky behavior has been observed by Story Inn employees since the 1970s."

We did see a building next door with a sign that said "Tack Shop." Juju had to look in and see what sort of cutesy goods might be in stock, refrigerator magnets being the first guess. Well, much to our surprise, the place was filled with tack--fine western saddles, bridles, bits, grooming instruments, spurs, etc. A pleasing, oiled-leather aroma filled the air, and all the neat stuff made me wish I had a horse to outfit, or at least a small goat.

Juju asked the woman behind the counter what those bags were, the ones hanging on the wall. "Those are feedbags," the woman replied. "You hang one over the animal's mouth so the horse can eat without feed flying all over." Juju bought a small one, figuring it would make a dandy purse.

Driving around the county, we were amazed at the proliferation of trees. They shaded the roads and trails of Brown County State Park. Thick growth flanked the gravel road through Yellowwood State Forest. A tendril of Hoosier National Forest that crosses the county line was dense with hardwood.

While Nashville, the county seat, bustled with touristy commerce, the surrounding countryside promised peace and unhurried relaxation. A brochure encourages tours of studios and the historic homes of artists past and present, but those places are scattered, some open by appointment only, others not open to the public at all--just famous artists' former homes, now owned by others. Acres of green separate one studio or house from the next. We could drive for miles without seeing another vehicle.

The Depression and other factors made once-booming Brown County regress. The U.S. government acquired much of the land through treaties with natives in 1809 and 1818. Homesteaders began to arrive, and by 1830, the county had 150 residents. In 10 years, the population jumped to 2,364 and by 1890 to 10,308.

By then, Brown County had become an official government entity, named for Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown, a prominent figure in the War of 1812. In Nashville, the old log courthouse and jail remain standing behind more modern government buildings, just across the street from A Glass Menagerie and next to the Brown County Art Barn Gallery.

Prominent artists, drawn by the landscapes, began to arrive in the early 1900s, forming an art colony of high stature, mentioned in the same breath as Carmel-Monterey, Calif.; Taos and Santa Fe, N.M.; Gloucester-Rockport, Mass., and Old Lyme, Conn. A new railroad station in Helmsburg--6 miles west of Nashville--made the pretty countryside more accessible to artists and tourists.

Between 1930 and 1940, however, half the population fled. Loggers and farmers had cut down so many trees that erosion became a major problem. That was a plus mostly for the tourists, who could come and observe the remaining residents living the hard-scrabble existence of the early pioneers. How picturesque! Lacking developer interest, the government moved in to claim the land. At more than 15,000 acres, Brown County State Park is the largest state park in Indiana. About 80 percent of the county is covered with hardwood trees on property owned by one government entity or another.

"That's great for us," resident Jack Head told me one evening during an oldies concert at the Salt Creek Golf Retreat. He nodded toward his wife, Nancy, whose head bobbed along with the tunes. "We have a log cabin, and our neighbor has 26 acres between our house and his. Our backyard is backed by more acres of public land. So we're completely isolated."

The Heads both are faculty members--Jack at Ivy Tech State College in nearby Columbus and Nancy at Purdue's School of Technology, also in Columbus. "Most of the people who live here commute to Columbus or Bloomington," Jack said. "We moved around for too many years. Then we found this place and figured out a way that we could stay here permanently." Now some 14,000 people consider the county their home.

Those early artists had a similar idea. At first they would visit, dropping in during the summer and early fall. Then they decided to stay.

The most prominent of the Hoosier Group art colony was Theodore Clement Steele, who first visited Brown County in 1906, hiked the woods and found the scenery captivating. His paintings of the landscape reflected his European training, a sort of refined impressionism reminiscent of Monet.

He bought an overgrown hilltop farm and settled in with his second wife, Selma. She donated the home, studios and 211 acres of pasture and garden to the state of Indiana after Steele's death in 1926.

I dropped by the historic site one morning, and interpreter Lillian Dunnigan showed me around. His studio was full of light and hung with a few of the 350 T.C. Steele paintings his wife entrusted to the state.

Before their marriage, they lived in Indianapolis. Steele designed the rambling Brown County house, "The House of the Singing Winds," and studios. When the complex was ready, they married in Indianapolis and immediately went south to their country home.

"It took them two days to get here, part of it by train and then by horse and buggy," Dunnigan said. Inside the studio, she pointed at one of Steele's landscapes that depicted a sort of trench running through the woods.

"This looks like a creek bed, but actually that was a road back then, and that's what they had to come through."

When they finally made it to their new home, Selma went to the nearest store to buy supplies. "She asked the proprietor for a pound of butter, and he said, `We don't sell butter. Everybody makes their own.' She asked for bread, but he told her everybody makes their own bread too."

So the newlyweds hitched up the wagon and headed for the stores in slightly more cosmopolitan Bloomington, "an all-day trip back then."

Gradually, they adjusted to rural living. Selma planted flowers, Steele painted their surroundings and occasional still lifes featuring Selma's colorful blooms.

"The ground here is all clay and rocks," Dunnigan said, "so it was pretty hard to grow anything here, and it still is. Of course, the people around here couldn't understand why she wanted to grow flowers, instead of something useful--something they could eat. But she persisted and grew the flowers and Mr. Steele painted them and sold the paintings."

His studio, carefully preserved by the state, reminded me of Cezanne's atelier in the French city of Aix-en-Provence. Steele's workplace was neater with his original palette and easel placed just so. Cezanne's, also carefully preserved, was cluttered with the bowls, jars and vases featured in some of his canvases.

The state continues to struggle with Selma's flower beds, and when I visited last month, there were large gaps separating some of the blossoms. "About a month ago, the peonies were in full bloom and so were the iris," said Andrea deTernowsky, the historic-site property manager. "But it comes and goes, depending on what's in season. We're kind of in between big color masses right now. I'm afraid the deer have had a field day with some of the flowers. They think of this as their personal salad bar."

Mrs. Steele struggled with soil conditions, but she didn't have a deer problem because Indiana's pioneers had hunted them to extinction by 1903. White-tailed deer weren't reintroduced into the state until the 1940s.

Steele had several trees cut down to give him a panorama stretching all the way to hills 20 miles distant. New growth blocks a lot of that view, but the scenery still looks magnificent from the deck of the House of the Singing Winds.

A wedding party posed for pictures in Redbud Field, then regrouped in the formal gardens and worked its way up the Road of Memories. I congratulated the bride and groom. They smiled and thanked me.

I should have wished them good luck with the garden--and the flea markets. But why put a damper on a nice, Brown County kind of day.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

People in a real hurry can fly to Indianapolis and drive the rest of the way on Interstate Highway 65 south and then west on Indiana Highway 46 into Nashville. Those in somewhat of a hurry might prefer to drive all the way from Chicago, Interstate Highway 80 to I-65, taking the Interstate Highway 465 bypass around Indianapolis. That's 235 miles and about 4 1/2 hours. Or meander and travel lesser highways and roads, following the map and your whims.

STAYING THERE

Summer brings enough people to make the rates jump, but the big rush (and the big rate jump) comes in the fall, a season loaded with festivals, arts and crafts tours, flea markets and leaf-peepers. Expect to pay $60-$150 and up, in season, for solid comfort and a prime location. Make reservations as early as possible, especially in September and October.

A worthwhile strategy on a short visit would be to park in one place and make that your headquarters. Nashville is the big city in Brown County and offers almost any sort of accommodation--from bed-and-breakfasts to lodges with all the modern conveniences. The Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau can help with the search: 10 N. Van Buren St., P.O. Box 840, Nashville, IN 47448; 800-753-3255; www.browncounty.com.

ATTRACTIONS

A brochure in the visitor center (address above) leads the way to artists in residence, galleries, workshops and studios. Most are open every day; a few require an appointment. Remember, the art scene is the reason travelers started coming to the county in the first place. Oh, yes, scores of shops will sell you stuff, not all of it artistic but certainly cute.

The downtown Nashville Follies presents "On Route 66" through Nov. 6 and mounts other shows until just before Christmas. Adults $15, seniors a buck less. 800-449-7469(SHOW).

Brown County Playhouse, on Van Buren Street in the thick of Nashville's shopping district, offers drama and comedy performed by a repertory company from Indiana University's theater department. Call 812-988-2123 for ticket information.

The Family Fun Center on the south end of town is the place to play miniature golf, video games, billiards and air hockey. Stoke up at the Gourmet Grill inside.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, during high season, the Melchior Marionette Theatre adds to the general Nashville merriment. It's just down the street from the Brown County Playhouse, and the popcorn is free. 800-849-4853.

Or simply roam the countryside and discover a fine patch of rural mid-America.

DINING

Amusing: The dining room at the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County State Park. Food is only so-so, but you get to read the famous old cartoon character's words of wisdom on the back of the menu. Cartoonist Kin Hubbard drew the character and made up the quips for a daily newspaper feature from 1905 to 1930. Abe, you see, hailed from Brown County and was a font of wit and wisdom, such as, "The husband that uncomplainingly eats what's set before him may live more peacefully but not as long." 877-265-6343.

Amazing: Truly fine cuisine can be found at the Overlook Restaurant in the Salt Creek Golf Retreat on Indiana 46. Chef Wayne Hawrys delivers creative entrees and filling proportions. Management provides a 200-label wine list. 812-988-7888.

Best burger: At The Pine Room Tavern in the Salt Creek Mall (Indiana 46), the ground beef is thick and juicy, the cheese just right. You get NASCAR on the TV, twang on the jukebox and grizzled bikers at the bar. 812-988-0236.

Oldie and goodie: Hob Nob Corner whips up super breakfasts and a small but delicious menu for lunch and dinner. You can still get pot roast here. The white building at Main and Van Buren in Nashville is said to be the oldest in town. 812-988-4114.

The rest: Too many to mention, but we heard raves about Nashville House and The Ordinary, close neighbors on Van Buren Street , and the European/Southern Indiana fusion at the Story Inn, which is, of course, in Story.

INFORMATION

For a broader look at all of Indiana's attractions contact Indiana Tourism, 1 N. Capitol, Suite 700, Indianapolis, IN 46204; 800-677-9800; www.in.gov/visitindiana.

-- Robert Cross

Around the state: 10 more tourist favorites in Indiana

1. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: The beginning of Chicago's Riviera (Gary's, too) is the beautiful part where the steel mills end and the raw sand beaches begin.

2. Notre Dame (South Bend): Besides the football field, there's a lot to see: murals inside the Golden Dome, the Grotto, the art museum, the library and its 10-story mural, "The Word of Life."

3. Nappanee: A farm, a farmhouse, theatricals, a restaurant, buggy rides. Amish is the community, and Amish is the theme.

4. Marion: James Dean, the late, great movie idol, hasn't been forgotten in his home town. A historical museum and a Memorial Gallery display some of his stuff, including high school yearbooks.

5. Rockville: Rockville not only boasts three covered bridges, the Billie Creek Village realistically plunges visitors into the middle of a turn-of-the-last-century settlement with 30 authentic buildings and various craft demonstrators who re-create the old days.

6. Indianapolis: The wealth of attractions includes 19th Century Lockerbie Square, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hall of Fame Museum, and a first-rate museum of art. That's just for starters.

7. Columbus: Eliel Saarinen got the ball rolling with a church commission in 1942. Now the town is a showplace for modern architecture by several big-name architects.

8. New Harmony: Houses and other historic buildings trace the stories of two 19th Century experiments in communal living.

9. Evansville: At Angel Mounds State Historic Site, you'll find Indiana's best-preserved and largest collection of native mounds, dating back as far as 1250 A.D. and covering 100 acres.

10. Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial and Lincoln State Park: The sprawling site re-creates the woodsy neighborhood where Abraham Lincoln spent the years from 1816-1830, complete with reproduction log cabin and farm buildings. The grave of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, is real.

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