The hills, the hollers; the artists, the scoundrels; the bright colors of fall and spring; the lush, hushed green sanctuary of the woods in summer: Brown County has laid claim to the hearts and imaginations of generations with all that it has and is.
People make pilgrimages from Japan and the Netherlands for bluegrass at Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park. They drive from Virginia and Ontario to race their Studebakers against buddies at the Brown County Dragway.
They come for art, for history or to ride bikes on-road and off. They hike. They swim. They shop. They want to visit Indiana’s largest state park or maybe just quietly slip a boat into Yellowwood Lake, far from the madding crowd. They show up on their motorcycles, look around and come back in their SUVs to buy the custom furniture that caught their eye.
And they have been coming for years. In 1940, famous Hoosier journalist Ernie Pyle noted traffic jams out of Nashville backed up to the entrance of Brown County State Park.
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“It’s amazing,” Carol Spark said, smiling from her spot on a Hob Nob Corner restaurant bench last week, as she took in the town around her.
She and her uncle, Greg Olson, were visiting Brown County for the first time. “It’s obvious that this has been here for a long time, but it’s beautiful, it’s really beautiful,” she said.
“It’s obvious they’re working at making it a success,” Olson added.
Told about the history of the building behind her and of how many other historical buildings are in the town, Spark was amazed.
But as much as the history impressed the pair, both were struck most by the people of Brown County and the caretaker spirit they have.
Spark said she has been to other communities that cater to tourists but has never encountered one that felt so genuine.
People seem to be nice because they are being themselves, Olson said. The pair felt invited in not as a means to a sale but as a matter of course.
More than an image
“When you come to Brown County, you come for an experience,” said Jeff McCabe, a founding partner of Big Woods and Quaff ON! Brewing Company.
From the natural beauty, to shops that carry one-of-a-kind items, to the arts and culture of the people themselves, Brown County has a well-defined image for visitors, he said.
“And it’s what’s real in Brown County; it’s not just an image,” McCabe said. “Brown County is really this great artist colony in this beautiful forest setting.”
Success in Brown County is not easy and might be more difficult than it would be outside the county. But for those who choose to make their home here, it’s not about what is easy, McCabe said.
“You don’t just fall into a business here. You make a conscious decision that this is where you want to be.”
That takes deliberate consideration of not just the business but the community as well.
“You have to think about whether it’s a fit for the community, and it’s not just, ‘Does it fit Brown County?’ It’s ‘Does it fit on that hill or on that road — in that neighborhood? Is it consistent with our vision of what we want to do?’”
Marilyn Rudd’s grandparents came with “that pioneering spirit” that defines the people who find success in Brown County. She talks about “progressive preservation”: meeting modern needs while holding on to the history that makes Brown County special.
“We want to keep our heritage,” she said. “We want to really think about why people come to Brown County.”
After Rudd and her husband took over the Hob Nob building — the former Miller drugstore — in 1973, they added a kitchen; but a seamless addition avoided damaging the integrity of the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We’ve repurposed that into a restaurant but definitely maintained the old feel of the drugstore and kept the historic integrity,” she said.
“We’ve had to make some sacrifices — there’s limits to it — but I think it’s a good thing. Just think about why people come to Brown County: It’s to get away from the modern world, to get away from the rat race. We don’t want to re-create that here,” she said.
Blending old, new
Ruth Reichmann has raised her voice frequently against actions she felt threatened to replace Nashville’s quirks and character with cookie-cutter fixtures.
Nashville shouldn’t be a “mall,” she said.
“That isn’t what this beautiful village could be,” Reichmann said. “And this is why we have to start taking a look at it.”
Nashville Town Manager/Economic Director Scott Rudd chose his home because it was L.O. Griffith’s art studio and house.
When he talked about historic preservation, he mentioned the loss to fire of his grandparents’ log home on Jackson Branch Road. That was where the Brown County Art Gallery’s founders met to officially create the gallery.
“Personally, I’m a strong believer in protecting that heritage,” he said.
“I would love to incorporate the old in with the new in ways that we haven’t considered in the past,” he said.
As an example, he talked about the hitching posts that were scattered around Nashville when horses were the primary means of transportation. The stones that once held them are likely still there in many locations.
He’s talking about resurrecting the stones and hitching posts in order to provide places for people to lock up bicycles — a need recently identified by the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
He also would like to see more effort to market the historic aspects of buildings. That could attract parties who will buy them because of their history and who will want to honor and preserve it.
Pressure from all sides
Sometimes, there is money to be made in tearing down and selling off our history.
Brown County is known and revered for its log homes, some dating to the first white settlers in the early 19th century.
Bird Snider makes his living repairing, restoring and moving some of those buildings. At one time, he shipped logs from original Brown County homes west to Montana but stopped when he realized he was selling off his heritage.
Years later, Snider still speaks with regret of the logs he shipped west.
But there is another way those logs are being used that he can’t even comprehend: “They’ll cut the faces off of them, the hewed part, cut this 2 inches thick and use it for siding,” Snider said. “Then they’ll saw up all the inside and sell it off.”
The old-growth lumber commands a high price as flooring in high-end restaurants and homes.
“That’s where a lot of these buildings are going, these ancient buildings,” he said.
“There’s a big craze on this antique wood now; it’s a big, hot commodity for these people in Chicago or wherever, in these big cities to have, ‘Oh, well my floors are made out of an old barn or an old cabin,’” he said.
Snider said he has reclaimed lumber himself, from logs that were damaged and couldn’t be used in a wall again. Yet, there will never be enough damaged logs to meet the demand for that kind of wood.
So, there are those who buy the buildings that the pioneers built and pull them down only to cut them up and sell them off, he said. Looking at the log jail in Nashville that he is restoring — the original jail was built by his great-great-great-great grandfather — Snider shook his head and grew quiet.
“It’s really sad,” he said.
‘Each house tells a story’
On some scales, the 1800s aren’t that long ago. The U.S. is relatively young, and so are Brown County’s oldest buildings, compared to what you’d see in other parts of the world.
Reichmann grew up in Germany, and she loves how Brown County reminds her of the mountain villages of her childhood.
She said does not see historical value as a question of age alone.
When she came to Cincinnati as an exchange student in 1952, she would walk the streets in the mornings, intrigued by the architecture from house to house and the stories they told about the people who built them. She was taken aback when people in America played down how much history they had.
“I said, ‘How about all of those immigrants who bring their own history?’ They bring it in their suitcases, they bring it in their heads,” she said.
“They build their houses a little bit like the dream back home. It doesn’t grow out of the ground,” she said. “This is history that comes from all parts of the world, and each house tells you a story, and these stories are fascinating, and why do you have to tear it down and put something down that doesn’t tell you anything?”
In Brown County, Reichmann sees those stories all around her, from the log homes to the Christian Church in Nashville. In her own home, she can tell you the story of each section, from the original log home, to the addition from the 1930s, to the portions she and her husband, the late Eberhard Reichmann, added with care to match the historical portions.
“They tell you something about the people who built it, and I think we should have a little reverence for that,” she said. “We should appreciate it.”
Gardening with deer
In addition to his success as a local businessman, Andy Rogers once served as property manager at Brown County State Park. Like so many who grew up here, he has fond memories of walking the hills as a young man.
“We want to bring people here, and we need to bring people here,” Rogers said. “We are situated in natural surroundings, and we have to take advantage of those, without taking advantage of the nature that we have here.”
Sometimes that balancing act can feel more like triage, as difficult decisions are made between serving tourists and maintaining what draws them.
Doug Baird has been the property manager at Brown County State Park for more than 20 years and has worked at the park for about 37. He has seen increases in invasive plant species growing there, and he wishes the park had more resources to deal with them.
“We seem to spend more of our time trying to take care of the customers’ needs and maintaining our buildings and such and not as much on the natural resources as maybe we’d like to,” he said.
“Resources are limited, and you have to focus on things that are the most urgent or most visible.”
But part of supplying those resources is the money that the tourists spend on gate fees, camping and other permits.
“We want to get as many people in here as we can to generate the revenue that we need to operate and maintain the facilities and the property, but then sometimes you can get too many, and it begins to cause wear and tear on the resources as well,” he said.
Still, fighting to maintain that balance is second nature to people in Brown County, Rogers said.
He talked about another community where people wanted to get rid of the deer that were eating their gardens. The situation created a controversy, as people debated how to remove the deer so they could have their gardens.
In Brown County, though, people are willing to sacrifice some of what they might want in order to keep what they already have.
“I think that we’ve got our gardens and still have the deer,” Rogers said.
“I don’t think we’ve agonized over what we’re going to do here, because … it’s part of nature here.”