The Key to Commerce

by Jeff Tryon

Long before For Bare Feet made it Brown County’s industrial hub, Helmsburg was always the home of various small manufacturing concerns. And back in the days when the railroad was king, Helmsburg was the key to commerce and industry here.

It was the railroad which created Helmsburg.

When the Illinois Central came through the farm of John Helms about 1906 bringing freight, mail, and passengers, he built a large livery stable to transport people to the county seat at Nashville. Several families began moving in nearby, and soon other business enterprises sprung up, including stores, a sawmill, and Joshua Bond’s undertaking establishment.

The little settlement grew and was called Helmsburg.

If someone from Indianapolis wanted to visit Nashville, they could catch the Indianapolis Southern and ride to Helmsburg, where a throng of men hollering like carnival barkers, solicited the business of hauling people and baggage to the county seat. At least three different “hack” lines competed.

Early Brown County Historian Ray Mathis noted, “It was quite interesting event at Helmsburg when the train came in.”

Folks often turned out to see the train come in and “meet the mail.” Chickens in crates, wire fence, and farm implements joined piles of crossties on the freight dock. There were pens for cattle, hogs, and sheep.

Although the heyday of Helmsburg was “before my time” longtime resident Bob Richards does remember when trains played a key role in the daily life of Helmsburg.

“I can remember when passenger trains and freight trains both stopped there,” Mr. Richards said. “They used to haul coal in there. After I started driving a truck, we unloaded a lot of carloads of coal. We used to unload coal there almost every fall and haul it to Nashville to the courthouse.”

When Gregg and Tucker started a hardware business in Nashville, Mr. Richards was among truckers who would haul cement, lumber, and other materials to Nashville.

“That was before World War II,” he said. “I can remember when there were cattle pens there and Ira Yoder used to buy cattle around the country. He’d make up enough for a car load and they’d put a cattle car in there to haul to Indianapolis.

“During World War II, people that worked in Indianapolis, some of them would ride the train,” he said. “The passenger trains, except for the Christmas Train they have every year, haven’t been there since shortly after World War II. The freight trains stopped, I’d say up until the late 60’s, I don’t really know for sure.”

Although he may not have known it in it’s prime, Mr. Richards does recall a larger and more robust Helmsburg.

“I can remember when there were five places in Helmsburg that you could buy gasoline,” he said. “There were four grocery stores.”

His brother owned one of three sawmills in Helmsburg for 30 years after buying out Art West. He eventually sold it to current owner Bill Pool. “Clifford Marsh had a big band mill and at one time it was by far the biggest sawmill in Brown County,” Mr. Richards said. “Vernice Walker had a sawmill over where the so-called Helmsburg Airport is, behind where Standard Oil used to be. Then there was one in front of the Yoder place where Bill Pool has his lumber storage shed.

“I think there were only two that were operational at any one time,” he said.

The mills sawed some barn lumber, but mostly railroad ties, which were usually hauled by truck to Columbus or Bloomington.

Mr. Richards recalls the beginnings of one of Helmsburg’s best remembered industries, the Cullum Mop and Broom factory.

He and James Cullum Jr. graduated in the same Helmsburg High School class of 1941.

“When I came home from the service, I started doing hauling and trucking,” Mr. Richards recalled. “He asked if I wanted to go up to Tipton and pick up broom making equipment. I said, ‘Well, I’ll haul anything I can get in my truck.’

“So we went up and got it. I’m sure it was 1946.”

Mr. Cullum bought machinery from the MacIntosh Broom Works to start the Hiawatha Broom Works, later Cullum Broom and Mop Co. It eventually employed eight or nine people before dwindling back down to a one-man operation. It is now closed.

Is Helmsburg making a comeback?

“They do have the sock factory there, which I think is a great thing, and they’ve got the metal fabrication place on the south side of the railroad tracks,” Mr. Richards said.

Helmsburg is experiencing some growth in its residential and business community. Today’s commerce includes: general store, sock factory, sawmill, boutique and tea room, coffee shop and gallery, metal fabricator, storage facilities, two antique shops, excavator, electrical contractor, massage therapist, and publisher.

The Helmsburg Association, a collection of local business owners and residents, will hold the third annual HELMSBURG FESTIVAL Saturday, May 18, rain or shine. This event is building community spirit for Helmsburg’s future. The party continues to grow each year and is increasing the public’s awareness of this little historical village. Come celebrate Helmsburg’s heritage in a day full of fun.


musical entertainment, yard sales, flea markets,
children’s activities, craft booths, food, Helmsburg
history display, antique tractors, radio-controlled
airplanes, and sawmill tours


FRANK JONES (9:00 – 10:00)
SARAH FLINT & TIM TRYON (11:00 – 12:00)
WALTER & LIZ BOHALL (12:00 – 1:00)
PAT & CHRIS WEBB (1:00 – 2:00)
LOU STANT (2:00 – 3:00)

And Special Guests KLUG & BOWDEN (3:00 – 4:00)

For more festival information call Jenny Austin, shop: 812-988-1740 home: 812-988-7447. For booth space rental call Gary Link: 812-988-2189