Big Fun A Comin’
by Bill Weaver
June 9 is the date for the second annual Helmsburg Festival. The all day event features arts and crafts, refreshments, games, live music (including gospel music at the Helmsburg Wesleyan Church), activities for the kids, tours, antique tractors, history displays, yard sales, flea markets and much more.
Until 1905 Helmsburg was only a crossing over Beanblossom Creek called Connard’s Ford. It was used mostly by farmers, hucksters, and the occasional hiker—even an artist or two. That’s the year the Indianapolis Southern Railroad (later the Illinois Central Railroad) laid track across northern Brown County, placing a train station on the site of the John Helms farm. “It was quite interesting an event at Helmsburg when the train came in,” wrote Ray Mathis in his Brown County History. Besides passengers, trains delivered coal, lumber, gravel, and road machinery. Next to the station a stockyard enclosed cattle, hogs, and sheep. Logs, wood products such as railroad ties and hoop poles, canned fruits, vegetables, and other farm products passed through Helmsburg Station.
Helmsburg quickly became a growing hub of commerce, with its own sawmill, flour mill, cannery, feed store, restaurants, hardware and grocery stores, storage facilities, post office, doctor’s office, Methodist Church, Masonic Lodge, and even an undertaker supply store! Liveries competed to take passengers and freight to Nashville. The Rains Hotel served those whose business kept them in the county overnight. Soon Helmsburg was challenging Nashville for hegemony over Brown County and its businessmen were considering petitioning the state to bring them the county seat.
Two events changed everything. First the town burned down. And not by accident, neither. People tell of a feud that developed between two prominent Helmsburg citizens. One decided to resolve the fight by burning out his neighbor but because the arsonist he hired was from out of town, and unfamiliar with its layout, he burned the wrong building. It is often said that people were more conscientious in those days. At least this arsonist was because a month later he returned to finish the job. Unfortunately this fire spread throughout the central part of town known as the “Triangle.”
“By the time Jimmy Davis arrived with the fire engine from Nashville the fire raged out of control. He tried his best but without a steady supply of water there wasn’t much he could do. Bill Hughes only managed to get a few things out of his house before it, and the grocery on the first floor, were destroyed. The fire spread to J. Stout’s store and Brandson’s barber shop as well as Redmen’s Hall. Ray Baughman lost both his feed store and a grocery. Schlosser’s creamery followed.”
The second event that doomed Helmsburg’s bid to become the most prominent town in Brown County was the coming of the automobile, which made train travel less important. Nashville’s hash was saved and Helmsburg quickly slid into the backwater of history.
Which, it can be argued, was a good thing because Helmsburg was able to retain its small town charm to this very day. This is what the Helmsburg Festival is all about.
Commerce, albeit on a quieter level, continued to thrive in Helmsburg. There was Chitwood’s Hardware, Cullen Auction, Arthur West Sawmill, Fred Bay’s feed store, and the superior product of the Cullum Broom and Mop Company. Resident Lawrence McCoy (owner of the McCoy Precast Concrete Company) helped establish the Brown County Water Utility in Helmsburg and the town even had its own airport.
Thirty years after the great fire Helmsburg nearly burned again when a gasoline truck filling a service station tank on state road 45 sprang a leak causing fuel to cascade into the ditch by the road. When the driver tried to stop the electric pump by pulling its plug a spark ignited truck, driver, and station. The ensuing explosion blew huge balls of fire into the sky. The lumberyard next to the station burned as well. The town was saved but several buildings were severely scorched and much of Helmsburg was blackened with soot and ash. A couple of local residents drove the severely burned driver to the nearest hospital where he, thankfully, recovered.
Today Helmsburg boasts the Helmsburg General Store, For Bare Feet Sock Factory, Helmsburg Sawmill, the Fig Tree Gallery and Coffee Shop, Helmburg House Boutique and Tea Room, Rosebrock Electrical Contractors, EMF metal fabrication company, Treasure Trove antique shop, Eagle Storage, Linda Thomas_ Massage Therapist, and Our Brown County Magazine. The Water Utility is moving but the Post Office remains.
The event takes place rain or shine. Helmsburg can be reached by taking State Road 45 east from Bloomington, west from State Road 135 in Bean Blossom, or northwest from Nashville via scenic Helmsburg Road. Contact Gary Link at 812-988-2189 for booth rental information. For other festival details contact Jenny Austin at 812-988-1740 or 812-988-7447.