LOOKING BACK: The legend of Little Chicago in old Brown County

Among the dusty annals of life in old Brown County, there is a persistent story about a place that was closely associated with the city of Chicago.

In the early 1900s, a group of young artists studying at Chicago’s Art Institute made their way to our hills and hollers. I think they were lured here by T.C. Steele. They came for brief visits when local foliage and the ethereal haze offered good painting opportunities.

Brown County was very primitive at that time. There were very few accommodations, even for travelers who could pay. Low-cost lodgings for art students with very limited economic resources were almost impossible to find. Some of the visitors brought tents and really “roughed it.”

Somewhere along the line, a big burly man of obvious German descent, named William “Bill” Exner, showed up and changed things.

It was rumored that he had his belongings shipped by rail to the village of Helmsburg and among them was a wagon meant to be pulled by horses. Unable to secure horses to his liking in the Helmsburg community, he simply loaded his belongings on the wagon and pulled it himself to a location about a mile south of Nashville.

Soon after his bold arrival, Bill set to work building a collection of “rustic” cabins next to what was the old State Road 46 from Nashville to Bloomington. A special feature that he offered in his rental cabins was electric lighting provided by a gasoline-powered Delco generator.

However, there wasn’t a big rush of travelers to rent his cabins. Prices were gradually reduced enough that struggling artists could afford to rent them and camp there during good weather. The artists interacted with local folks and paid some of them small sums to pose for their paintings. They also purchased surplus produce from local farms and gardens. Eventually, this intermittent colony of Chicago artists was named “Little Chicago” by the tolerant and bemused Brown County natives.

As time passed, the poorly maintained cabins drew less and less income. Bill spent less of his time on property maintenance and more of it on a bar stool at the Old Hickory Tavern in Nashville. The much-neglected cabins were increasingly rented to whoever could accept their run-down condition.

Then, the old Delco generator wheezed its last feeble breath. Without the one feature that drew people to rent them in spite of their sad state, the cabins were nearly abandoned.

And then Bill died. He had no known heirs or family so the local folks who had worked on the property eventually took it over. The cabins were dismantled and the hillside on the premises was turned into a mine for the native sandstone that is so highly prized by local fireplace builders.

I had two personal connections with the legendary Little Chicago. As a small boy I often rode on trucks owned and operated by my grandfather, Nicholas Roberts. On multiple occasions I rode with one of his employees, affectionately known as Big George Roberts, when he delivered ice to the residents of Bill Exner’s cabins. A little later, I stayed overnight in one of the cabins with my uncle and his wife, Charles and Mary Roberts, when they were temporary tenants.

On both occasions I observed the strange and often boisterous behavior of the budding artists that caused Bill Exner’s folly to be named Little Chicago.

— George Monroe for the Brown County Historical Society