Skip to main content

Brown County Beauty: T.C. Steele’s Art and Story’s Town History
Tuesday, September 13, 2011

By Nelson Price

During another trip with a motor coach filled to capacity, the Society of Indiana Pioneers traveled to scenic Brown County for the Fall Pilgrimage on September 13, a Tuesday. Sunny, glorious weather prevailed for the day, including walking tours of historic sites across the county and a motor coach tour of the Hoosier National Forest in Brown County State Park.

The Pioneers’ first destinations were the restored home and studio of nationally acclaimed “Hoosier Group” artist T.C. Steele, who moved to Brown County in 1907. His landscape paintings of Brown County’s beauty kicked off the artist colonies that still flourish. Before he settled in the isolated hills of Brown County – a mid-life move that astonished and perplexed his friends – Steele was well-known as an Indianapolis-based portrait painter of famous Hoosiers such as Benjamin Harrison and James Whitcomb Riley.

T. C. Steele’s “House of the Singing Winds”

Steele’s home, which his wife Selma named “The House of the Singing Winds”, is filled with his artwork and family furnishings. Pioneers toured the home and noted Steele’s motto near the fireplace: “Every Morning I Take Off My Hat to the Beauty of the World.” He became the most famous of the five “Hoosier Group” artists; in recent years, Steele’s paintings have sold for as much as $250,000 at auctions.

Although his wife (a “city girl” who had lived in Indianapolis) was initially startled by the plan to live in remote Brown County – then the poorest county in the state – she grew to love it. After Steele died in 1926, Selma remained in “The House of the Singing Winds” until her death in the 1940s.

After touring the historic home, the Pioneers visited Steele’s barn-shaped studio, filled with his artwork. His palette and paintbrushes are displayed in the studio, which, along with the home and scenic property, is an Indiana State Historic Site.

Nelson Price, Rachel Perry, and Carolyn Rose inside the T.C. Steele Gallery 

As a special treat, the Pioneers enjoyed a guest speaker at the studio: Rachel Perry, the fine art curator at the Indiana State Museum and author of books about T.C. Steele. Accompanied by slides, Ms. Perry spoke about his life (1847-1926) and artwork.

Afterward, the Pioneers boarded the motor coach and headed to Brown County State Park. The group disembarked at the Nature Center and enjoyed spectacular vistas of the largest state park in Indiana. Inside the Nature Center are exhibits about the park’s birds, wildlife, plants, and trees. Back on the motor coach, the Pioneers were joined by a member of the Friends of Brown County State Park; she answered questions and shared anecdotes.

Vista inside Brown County State Park 

The next stop was the town of Nashville, a popular tourist destination. The Pioneers enjoyed free time in the county seat to browse in shops, tour the Brown County Courthouse, relax, or enjoy ice cream, which was being sold in flavors such as persimmon and apple butter.

Pioneer travelers resting in Nashville

Then, the Pioneers traveled west to a historic village with a colorful past that once rivaled Nashville as the hub of Brown County before falling on hard times. The quaint town of Story, Indiana, has been revived into a bed-and-breakfast community that touts its near-inaccessibility (“One inconvenient location since 1850” is its promotional jingle) and absence of much modern technology. Guest rooms in the historic cottages don’t have TV sets or phones.

After disembarking at the Story Inn, which once was a general store and now includes a gourmet restaurant, the Pioneers were greeted by attorney Rick Hofstetter. He has owned the bed-and-breakfast community since 1998. Mr. Hofstetter led the Pioneers on a personal tour of the village, founded in 1850 by Dr. George Story, a physician; he was accompanied to the heavily wooded area by members of his extended family, who were in the lumber business.

For several decades in the late 19th Century, the village of Story thrived and rivaled Nashville. Mr. Hofsetter led the Pioneers through historic cottages, including the recently restored residence of Dr. Story; it was built in 1860 and had a bathroom addition in the 1920s. The Pioneers also toured rooms on the second floor of the Story Inn that are rented by bed-and-breakfast guests today. They include the “Blue Lady Room”, named after Dr. Story’s first wife. After her untimely death, “the Blue Lady” became enraged when Dr. Story remarried; some guests are convinced her spirit haunts the room.

Story Inn in Story, Indiana

In addition to visiting the historic cottages, the Pioneers walked by a wooden shack that served as Dr. Story’s examining room. The group also toured an herb garden, wine cellar, tavern, and other sites in the historic community. Produce such as squash, lettuce, and spices – all served in Story’s gourmet restaurant – are grown in the gardens.

Herb garden at Story Inn

In the early 1900s, a variety of factors caused the village of Story to slide downhill. They included the creation beginning in the 1920s of the Hoosier National Forest, which cut off easy access to Story. During Prohibition, bootleg liquor was made on the premises; historic photos and postcards on display include a picture of a sheriff’s raid. According to Mr. Hofsetter, the village had devolved by the 1950s into merely a remote stop serving “gasoline and Eskimo pies” for wayward motorists.

Story’s revival kicked off in the 1980s with the creation of the gourmet restaurant. The Pioneers savored a multi-course dinner in the restaurant before re-boarding the motor coach to return to Indianapolis.

Pioneer travelers dining at Story Inn