Artists Colony Inn

by Rachel Perry

When artists explored Brown County in the early Twentieth Century, they found comfortable rooms and good food at the Pittman Inn in Nashville. The proprietors, Bill and Mandy Pittman, were known for their hospitality and interest in facilitating the artists’ special needs.

A century later the Artists Colony Inn at the corner of Franklin and Van Buren Streets, caters to the contemporary artist community while providing viable accommodations for weekend tourists and conference business. On Saturday mornings, the long table under the south dining room windows is implicitly reserved for any and all artists and/or art enthusiasts to exchange views while filling up on sweet potato pancakes or more conventional fare.

Quality original oil paintings displayed on every available wall surface reflect the owners’ passion for collecting art, and rooms at the Inn are named for members of the early Brown County Art Colony. Reproduction Nineteenth century furniture throughout the building lends an historical ambiance, although the Inn was built in the spring of 1992.

For the past decade the innkeepers, Jay and Ellen Carter, have dedicated much of their time and energy to operating the establishment. “We loved going to New England and visiting old inns and historic places,” Mr. Carter said. “The past is a big part of our lives, whether it’s Indiana art or eighteenth or nineteenth century furniture or pewter. So we had a dream of having an inn. What Ellen believed that I didn’t believe was that we could not simply hire a person (to take over the management) and not have to work at the inn. She said, ‘I know I’m going to end up doing this job.’”

Ellen Carter’s predictions proved to be accurate. Her daily presence at the Artists Colony Inn assists with operations and encourages open communication with the staff. “I like to run the business like a family, with a lot of personal contact,” Ellen said. “And we have twelve people working here that are all related (from the original Black family).”

Mrs. Carter’s passion for Indiana art began early in her life. Her artist father, Fred Rigley, brought his family to Brown County in 1952. “As a child I fell in love with Ada Shulz’s painting in the Brown County Library. You couldn’t forget something like that,” she declared. “That’s the thing about Ada. Even a child can relate to her paintings.”

In the early 1900s, Ellen’s grandparents had owned and operated an inn located in central Michigan. “Jay says I was destined to be in this business,” she laughed. After attending college in Missouri and at Indiana State, she worked as a probation officer in Johnson County, then Brown County. “I met Jay when I was getting a vacuum cleaner out of my car one day,” Ellen recalled. “I’d seen him at an antique show and he knew my sister.” Only four months after their first date at the Old Hickory to see the String Bean Band, they were married.

Jay Carter took a more circuitous path to Brown County. A native of Anderson, he received a business degree at Indiana University in 1964. While pursuing a graduate degree in public administration, he leased an old house on Ninth Street in Bloomington and rented rooms to other students. A neighbor who happened to be an antique buff advised him to invest in quality antique furniture since he was buying old pieces to furnish the rooms. Following introductions to some antique dealers, Jay’s interest and expertise expanded.

“Brown County was a fit and I always wanted to own a log cabin,” Mr. Carter explained. “In 1969 I stopped at Martin’s Antiques to see what they had and I said, ‘I’d love to have a cabin like yours.’ And they said, ‘There’s a nice one that the lady next door just listed across the street.’ After looking in the windows of the unimproved log house (no plumbing, no heat), he bought it for $12,500.

Jay Carter moved into his primitive cabin but traveled throughout Indiana with his job as a Federal bank examiner, reserving his evenings to explore back roads for antiques. “I’d sleep by the fireplace when I was at home. In the morning when I got up to go to work, I’d open the oven door to warm up the room. There was a rule (Federal employee) that if you were out over 50 miles, you could stay out. If I knew it was going to be real cold, I made sure to travel at least that distance. I had rooms all over southern Indiana.”

“I was a bank examiner for three years,” Mr. Carter continued. “I learned how people borrowed money. What I learned most was not to be afraid to ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t get it—it’s a basic principle of life.”

Jay Carter quit the banking job when his employers wanted him to give a speech at a national meeting about analyzing bank bond portfolios. “And I still have a fear of speaking in public,” he laughed. “I can speak up at a meeting, but I don’t like conducting them. I don’t like being the front person. I like to be involved in the ideas behind things.”

After owning and managing several businesses during the next twenty years, including the Orchard Hill Motel on State Road 135, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and the Sunshine Inn, Jay went on the road buying and selling antiques. The Carter family abruptly grew with the adoption of two teenagers, and later the addition of an infant, Jessie. When Jessie was twelve, Hanna was born and Jay began to seek more local employment. He purchased half interest in the First Insurance Group, which he just recently sold.

Jay and Ellen Carter’s dedication to serving behind the scenes in the Nashville community has led to active participation in several organizations. Ellen serves on the Board of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, and Jay is currently the President of Indiana Heritage Arts. He is also a Board member for the Brown County Community Foundation and is on the commission of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have always filled up our lives with many things,” Ellen confessed.

Despite the frantic pace of the Carters’ lives, the Artists Colony Inn has successfully achieved an atmosphere of simple comforts and relaxation. Jay and Ellen’s vision for the future includes continued promotion of fine arts venues and activities in Nashville. “We would like to do more art related things like Elder Hostel or workshops,” Jay said. “We’d like to see people come to Brown County for the art.”

The Artists Colony Inn is open all year with the dining room hours from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm weekdays and until 9:00 pm on weekends. Their website at <> provides views of sample rooms and details about accommodations. Their phone number is 812-988-9023 or 800-737-0255.