NASHVILLE, Ind.—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.