A Brown County Home
House of the Singing Winds
by Joanne Nesbit
It was in April of 1907 when the artist T. C. Steele and his soon-to-be second wife Selma rode the train from Indianapolis to Helmsburg and then traveled by horse-drawn hack over deeply rutted roads from the station to Nashville and on to a hilltop site south of the town.
“Up to that day,” Selma wrote in The House of the Singing Winds, “my knowledge of Brown County had been limited to hearing my brother Walter talk enthusiastically about its primitiveness and picturesqueness which he had discovered on hikes through the country.”
Once reaching the top of the hill where the available property was theirs to survey, Selma, Walter, and T.C. found the winds strong and the walking difficult though exhilarating. “There was a sweep of great distances,” Selma later wrote. “There were cloud shadows of deep purple hue passing rapidly over one range of hills to the other. It was all so wonderfully appealing in its bigness, so full of meanings, and so alive, with the stir of a coming spring. As I stood before it and thought of the prospect of a future residence among such loveliness I grew very humble, indeed.”
Back in Indianapolis Selma began working on preliminary plans for her new house. “Of first consideration in the plan,” she wrote, “would be a well-lighted room, large enough to be used for a studio.”
The floor plan showed one large room across the north side of the structure that would serve not only as a gathering place, but a studio for T.C. Steele. There would be large window spaces facing north which would provide good light and an expansive view of the surrounding countryside—nearly all the way to Bloomington. There would be three other small rooms on the south side of the house that would become the kitchen, a dressing room, and a bedroom. Screened porches surrounding the house on three sides would become outdoor bedrooms. There was to be no screened porch to block the natural light to the studio area on the north side of the house.
Selma had two requirements. She wanted a cellar under the house. At the time this was unheard of in the hills of Brown County. A cellar for the storing of preserved foods was usually dug into the side of a hill sometimes a rather good distance from the house. Selma’s other requirement was a fireplace. “I had always thought of a house in the wilds as incomplete without a fireplace,” she wrote. “In the house plan the fireplace was to face the great north view, and the inscription ‘Every morning I take off my hat to the Beauty of the World’ could become a philosopher’s stone and make each new day a golden one.”
And so it was done. The inscription came from a book of Gaelic tales Selma had received in her school days. The inscription was carved by Nashville artist Gustave Baumann, who wrote in 1966, “You know the only stone carving I ever did was over Steele’s fireplace—one of the Thanksgivings I spent there…”
Workmen and their materials had to be hauled up the mud ruts of the road to work on the Steele’s house. And as today, when working with contractors and skilled artisans, sometimes the work moved along well, and sometimes it didn’t. Stumps were grubbed and stones hauled up the hill for the foundation and cellar. There were rains that hampered the work. One day the main carpenter was sick and didn’t come to the building site. “You can be sure the hardest problem seems to be in getting teams for the hauling,” T.C. Steele wrote from the project to Selma in Indianapolis. “And it will take four horses to get an ordinary load up that miserable hill… However, the people here are used to the hills, and are very skillful in getting over difficulties. Things will come out all right, I am sure…”
T.C. bunked in a primitive cabin on the Brown County property while the work was being done on his house and regularly sent letters to Selma describing the progress on their house. Bricks and laths had been delivered, and plasterers, paperhangers, and carpenters were finishing the interior work of baseboards, windows, and door casings. But he wrote to Selma that he had no idea how much this venture was going to cost. He estimated that it would take about $1,000 ($1,200 tops) for the house with the costs of labor and hauling higher than had first been planned. Sand had to be hauled from Bean Blossom or Helmsburg at a cost of $3.50 a yard. “Well,” T.C. wrote, “when it is once done, it will be done and the expense will stop.”
In a little more than seven weeks from its start, Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Steele would be moving into their new home just up the hill from Belmont. Selma wrote of this occasion, “In deep twilight the painter and I started on our final climb to the house, still a quarter of a mile away. It was over the rough road the teamsters had made: I in my wedding clothes and wedding shoes.”
For more information: The House of the Singing Winds: The Life and Work of T.C. Steele by Selma N. Steele, Theodore L. Steele, and Wilbur D. Peat. Published by the Indiana Historical Society.
Visit the House of the Singing Winds at the T. C. Steele Memorial Site, located 1 1/2 miles south of Belmont, off of State Road 46, nine miles west of Nashville, Indiana, and ten miles east of Bloomington. Phone: (812) 988-2785.