The Brown County
Historical Museum

by Tony Coppi

The Brown County Historical Museum is a trip back in time to when the first settlers and pioneers came here in the 1850s.

The museum is a complex of five separate buildings located in a half-block area behind the courthouse. It is owned and operated by the Brown County Historical Society and is staffed entirely by volunteers.

One of the buildings was an actual log cabin that was dismantled and rebuilt on the museum site. Other buildings include a doctor’s office, a log jail, a blacksmith shop, and a pioneer cabin.

On a rabbit hunting trip, James Voland, a native Brown County resident, came across an empty hand-hewn log building in a farm field in Jackson Township that resembled a large barn. There were two rooms at either end of the building, separated by a drive-thru. An upstairs single long room was over the two lower rooms and the drive-thru.

Voland bought the old structure through bankruptcy proceedings, had the logs marked and taken down, and rebuilt it at the present site with the help of the Works Progressive Administration (WPA) labor in 1935. He sold it to the Community Club of Nashville. Later it was deeded to the county. When the Community Club phased out it was placed in care of the Brown County commissioners who then transferred ownership to the Brown County Historical Society.

Volunteer docents Nel Hamilton and Nancye Barnhart use the east room for looming and weaving projects. The Historical Society’s Pioneer Women’s gift shop is in the west room.

Dr. Alfred J. Ralphy, born in Nashville in 1854, practiced medicine in Brown County for fifty years until his death in 1928.

He began his practice in New Bellsville in Van Buren Township. The doctor never owned an automobile and made all house calls on horseback and with a horse and buggy or sleigh. He carried medicine and his instruments in a saddlebag.

He was known for his hobbies. He was a self-taught taxidermist. Hundreds of Brown County birds were displayed in his office—all of his own mounting. He collected insects native of Indiana and had a large collection of precious stones such as opals, garnets, rubies, and one diamond, all of which he found in the creek beds of the county.

Dr. Ralphy’s office was moved to the museum complex in 1976. It was transported in its original condition on a lowboy truck along with his medical books, instruments and furniture.

A pioneer log cabin was dismantled and rebuilt on the museum site. It was formerly the home of William Dunn in Jackson County. A barn was across the road from the cabin—a road that divided Jackson County from Bartholomew County. The cabin passed down through different ownerships and was eventually dismantled. The Historical Society bought the logs in 1976.

The log cabin was reconstructed in pioneer fashion. The logs were lifted into place by chain hoists. A broadax and adz were used to hew and shape the ends of the logs when necessary. The shingles were hand-split. A froe and mallet knocked the bark from wedges cut from the heart of chestnut oak logs. A fireplace and chimney were made from native Brown County stone. The household skills demonstrated in the cabin are similar to those used in Brown County in the middle of the 19th century.

The log jail built in 1879 is the second jail in Nashville. It is the only structure that was not moved into the complex.

The first jail was built in 1837 and was used for 42 years. Prisoners were taken up the outside stairs to the “criminal room.” At night a trap door was opened and the lawbreakers were made to climb down a ladder to the ground level room where there were no windows or doors. The ladder was then hauled up to the second floor, and the trap door shut and bolted.

The second jail was somewhat similar—two-storied, 20 by 12 feet. The room on the lower level has one entrance and three iron doors. The inner door was locked with a ten-inch key and the outer door was fastened with an enormous padlock. Only a chair, a bed and a stove were in the room. The upper level of the jail was reserved for female prisoners.

The blacksmith shop is a replica of one built in 1826 with authentic tools of the trade.

Ray Laffin, president of the Brown County Historical Society, is a self-taught blacksmith who can sometimes be seen working at the forge during tours. “We have various kinds of tongs that we hold the materials for welding or heating in order to bend them. We use Kentucky coal in the forge—in fact we go to Kentucky to get the coal. We have a hand operated bellow to make the fire hot, a huge anvil for shaping, and a foot operated grinding wheel to make the assorted items that are sold in the gift shop,” he explained.

The Brown County Historical Museum is open May through October on Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $1.50 for adults. Children under ten are admitted free. For more information call 812-988-4153.

Nancye Barnhart will appear at the Brown County’s Visitor Center on Saturday, August 18 from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. to provide information about the museum complex. The Visitor Center is located at the corner of Main and Van Buren Streets in Nashville.

Thanks go out to Historical Society members Nel Hamilton, Nancye Barnhart, Ralph Laffin, and Nancy Nixion for their help with this article.