Brown County
Lost and Found

by Bill Weaver
photo courtesy Vicki Payne

What first attracted me to the history of Brown County were the stories about the lives of the earliest pioneers. I would stroll around Nashville and try to imagine what it was like in the days when Banner Brummett surveyed the layout of Jacksonburg (soon to be Nashville) amongst the thick trunks of old growth trees.

It was a place where wolves and bears roamed the countryside and poisonous snakes lay underfoot. Where Native Americans could still be seen hurrying through the forest and outlaws holed up near the Little Blue Creek and Stony Lonesome.

What good fortune it was for me to find the History of Brown County written by Ray Mathis at the Bookloft.

In 1936 Ray Mathis was finishing work on his Master’s degree in Education. He decided to use the history of his native Brown County as the subject for his final paper. For his sources he used the history published by Weston Goodspeed in 1886, interviews Frank Hohenberger had conducted for his newspaper column, and archives of the Brown County Democrat and its predecessors. But the heart of the book belonged to the stories he pried from the memories of the county’s old timers.

And we may have never known about any of that because he made only a few copies of his history to give to friends. Then, thirty years later, Portia Sperry found the manuscript amongst her papers and gave it to the Brown County Library. The manuscript was unsigned, the author unknown. It was such a mystery that the Brown County Democrat printed a story in an attempt to find the author. Fortunately, a Bloomington woman recognized the manuscript as one she had helped type. She told the paper that it had been written by former Nashville High School principal Ray Mathis. Then more copies were typed, one was given to the Brown County Library, and the matter was soon forgotten.

Thirty years after that a local naturalist and weather prognosticator, Jack Weddle, found a discarded copy of the history in a friend’s wastepaper basket and asked if he could keep it. What he read so amazed him that he decided it should never be lost again and published the book himself.

Mathis makes a very detailed study of Brown County, from the end of the last Ice Age to the early 20th Century. Brown County was never an easy place to live. One of the last counties created in Indiana, Brown was carved from the wild, unmanageable parts of its surrounding neighbors, a place nobody else wanted. This suited the locals quite well until the arrival of the automobile, and good roads changed everything.

Mathis is full of interesting items. Did you know that there is a mysterious “jog” in the 10 o’clock line—a line that is supposed to be as straight and true as the sun’s rays? Legend has it that the jog led to a battle with Native Americans. It is said that 40 warriors were buried standing up in a grave near the mouth of Jackson Creek. An alternate legend claims the jog was the doing of timber harvesters who had moved the surveyors’ stones to disguise their clearing of government timber. The jog was only discovered when the government acquired the property it needed for Yellowwood State Forest.

My favorite stories are those of the first settlers, such as the German Johann Schoonover and his Indian wife. She apparently stayed in the county long after the German disappeared, dispensing herbal remedies and raising a family. There is the story of William Elkins, Brown County’s first permanent settler, who had grown up on the Indiana frontier and built his cabin in the wildest area he could find. Mathis quotes Seralvo McGuire, named for a village his father had visited during the Mexican War, about the Brown County he grew up in, of “the vast number of wild animals, and birds that used to roam, and fly over this hilly country of ours.”

These are a few of the many wonderful and sometimes mysterious stories sprinkled throughout Brown County History. And Mathis doesn’t shrink from the darker side of history, either, such as the tragedy of the “Brown County War,” the reign of the Whitecappers after the Civil War, the near destruction of the town of Helmsberg as the result of a feud between two of its citizens, and the Brown County diaspora, when half of the population left for parts unknown, due to erosion, depleted resources, and poverty.

Along the way Mathis discusses the founding of Nashville, the politics behind the creation of the county, the many failed efforts to bring train service and the rivalry that developed between Nashville and Helmsburg when it finally arrived. He explores the natural resources of the county, the creation of Brown County Park and Yellowwood, the discovery of gold and even a period of oil speculation. You’ll find out where the gristmills and tanneries were, the old spectacle factory, the orchards, the schools, churches, and fishing holes, and even the origins of Abe Martin!

But I think the best story is the one about the book itself, written and lost, found and forgotten, found again, like gold in a creek bed.