Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series. The second will focus on specific redevelopment opportunities and how they could affect the whole community.
Julia Russell bought her house in Helmsburg in 2009. A single mother and first-time homeowner, she wanted a place she could raise her children safely.
The house, built in 1929, did not even have a functioning bathroom, but it does now. She built one.
While most of the exterior still needs work — there is a bare board across the front where a porch once attached, and two rooms off the back have tarps for a roof — she has installed new floors and created closets.
She has to do all the work herself. Between time and money, there are limitations on how much she can accomplish, she said.
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Helmsburg itself is being discussed in terms of a fixer-upper.
On Oct. 27, the Brown County Redevelopment Commission met with residents to discuss the community’s future, and another meeting is planned this week.
Helmsburg’s history has been closely tied to the railroad that runs through it. The first train station there opened in 1905, 69 years after Brown County was founded.Helmsburg was the gateway to Brown County for tourists, entrepreneurs and famous artists such as T.C. Steele.
The community had its first post office the year before the railroad. Though the post office has moved across town, the old building is still there.
Around 1914, Helmsburg residents made a bid to replace Nashville as the county seat.
A series of fires and the declining importance of railroads reduced Helmsburg’s prominence in the county even before WWII, but residents held on.
Despite the loss of gas stations, a grocery, a hotel and a hardware store, by 2000, monthly trains still carried sightseers to Helmsburg from Bloomington, according to an article in the Daily Journal (Johnson County).
That was the year of the first Helmsburg Festival, celebrating the town’s history and community.
That festival repeated until 2005, according to Cindy Steele, a Helmsburg resident for 23 years. She produces a magazine, Our Brown County, out of her home on the west end of town.
Stories in that magazine in the early 2000s mention the Helmsburg General Store, the Fig Tree Gallery and Coffee Shop, Helmsburg House Boutique and Tea Room, and the Treasure Trove antique shop.
Of those, only the General Store remains. It’s closed now, but Leonard and Sharon Richey have bought the store and are preparing to re-open it.
The stories also talk about thriving industries. Some, such as Helmsburg Sawmill and Electric Metal Fab, are still there.
In 2011, a fire gutted part of the For Bare Feet sock factory, robbing the county of one of its largest employers. CEO Sharon Rivenbark relocated the factory to Martinsville and donated the property in Helmsburg to the county.
In 2014, David Watters bought the former sock factory from the county. In addition to his businesses — The Beamery and Helmsburg Barrel — the property now also hosts Quarter Sawn Flooring and Stainless Manufacturing and Automation.
From that sale, the Brown County Redevelopment Commission has a nest egg of just over $400,000.
When Steele heard the RDC discussing ways to encourage housing and economic growth in Brown County, she recommended they consider putting some of the sock factory money back into Helmsburg.
Time is short to act, Steele said. At least one home is in danger of going to sheriff’s sale and several buildings may be physically beyond saving.
There is great potential in Helmsburg, Steele said. Unlike other areas of the county, it has sewer service and a fiber-optic internet line that runs into the heart of town.
But someone with means will have to recognize that potential if the community is to make a comeback.
‘Try and survive’
At Dorothy and Loretta Scott’s home on Second Street, children from across Helmsburg are out front shooting hoops when the Scotts arrive home from work.Roosters crow down the street in Russell’s yard. In the other direction, a neighbor’s dog barks when Caroline Allen steps out to say hello to her daughter and grandchildren.
Across the street, Virginia and Kenny White — residents for more than 40 years — sit out on their front porch for a chat. They recall the restaurant that once operated out of the former middle school, which now serves as offices for the Beamery.
Virginia White is a volunteer member of the Helmsburg Sewer District board. She grew up in a house near the church, which occupies several lots in the center of the community.
The couple remember when Helmsburg had multiple gas stations. Now the nearest pumps are either in Nashville or Unionville.
“It has gone down,” Virginia White said of Helmsburg. “When I came as a kid, everybody owned their own houses then, and everybody knew everybody.”
From the Whites’ front porch, they can see two vacant houses. There are also rentals that Virginia White does not feel are taken care of as well as they could be.
“I would love to see the houses gettin’ back into shape. Our community is so ran down,” she said.
The abandoned houses are also a safety concern, Kenny White said. They have seen children going into some of them.
But there have been some efforts to fix that problem, Virginia White said. After Russell bought the trailer and garage neighboring their property, she padlocked them.
Russell bought that property in May. It has a trailer home on it, as well as a garage dating to the 1950s with a caved-in roof. She had past problems with renters there, and she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore.
At the moment, she is trying to fix that property up, along with her own house. But along with the trailer come additional utility fees, including a second sewer bill. She would like to rehab the trailer and rent it out, but the task seems insurmountable at times.
On her own home, Russell still plans to tear down the back rooms that have tarps for a roof; she doesn’t have the money to fix them, she said. She would also like to move the furniture and other items in her yard into the garage, but has to get the roof fixed first.
“I just try and survive, and it’s hard to do,” she said.
Caroline Allen moved into a house across Second Street from the Whites last December.It cost her about $64,000. She has replaced flooring and doors, added a garbage disposal and put a fence around her front porch so her small dogs can join her out there.
“These little houses can be fixed. This isn’t bad,” she said. “It isn’t the greatest neighborhood, but it can be turned around.”
Allen moved into Helmsburg after living on Plum Creek Road for two years; before then, she lived in Indianapolis.
“I take up to 14, 15 kids to church every Sunday. It’s God’s calling for me,” she said.
Next door to Allen, Brian Webb owns a duplex. He rents half to the Scotts.
Webb and his wife have bought foreclosed and distressed properties around the county as investments. Since he is self-employed, the rental properties are their answer to a 401k, he said.
What a property can rent for — and even how much he can afford to put into it — depends on the market, he said. He has to be certain that if he puts money into a house, it’s money he won’t lose if he sells it in the future.
“I won’t be renting them forever,” he said.
The Scotts have no complaints about Webb as a landlord. Anything that ever needs fixed or attention, it gets taken care of that day or the next, they said.
They like the neighborhood, and the quiet, Dorothy Scott said. In their front yard, the basketball hoop is a kind of community gathering place for children from around Helmsburg, and the low traffic on Second Street means they don’t have to worry too much about the children playing.
It’s also convenient, Dorothy Scott said. Both of them are close to their jobs and their parents. Loretta Scott is from Helmsburg, and her father lives just around the corner from them. It gives her peace of mind to be able to check on him on a daily basis.
Their front yard also houses a jungle gym and a line of bikes. Dorothy Scott said their children are using some of the bikes for parts to repair other ones.
The Scotts think some of their neighbors don’t like how their yard looks, or the bonfires they sometimes have in the fire ring in their backyard.
When people talk about improving the community, the Scotts said they feel the underlying message is that they are not welcome.
“That was a witch hunt,” Loretta Scott said of the Oct. 27 meeting. She did not go to the meeting, but her father did.
Russell didn’t go to the last meeting, either.
Regardless whether they’re rented or owned, White said she would just like to see more work go into houses around the neighborhood.
“I don’t care who they are,” she said. “As long as they do halfway decent and are nice people, who cares?”
Steele said people in the community who are struggling shouldn’t feel that efforts to clean up the town are aimed personally at them.
“A lot of people just don’t have money to fix up their house,” she said. “Some people, it’s out of their control, and people need to live somewhere.
“I’m just hoping that we can attract some new life.”
The Brown County Redevelopment Commission plans to have monthly meetings with Helmsburg residents as long as residents show interest. The meetings are intended to help develop a plan of action for attracting residents and businesses.
Where: Brown County Community Church in Helmsburg
When: Wednesday, Nov. 30 from 7 to 8 p.m.