The Artists and Natives
of Brown County

by Rachel Perry

Residents of Brown County lived in pockets, scattered over the area’s rugged terrain in the mid-to-late 1800s. Inadequate transportation routes limited development so that most activity centered around small villages which evolved along the more well-traveled roads.

Rural communities like Buffalo, Pike’s Peak, Stonehead, Trevlac and Gnawbone usually grew up near a gristmill or sawmill, and eventually included such amenities as a general store, post office, blacksmith shop and church. Commerce was limited to leather tanning, salt mining, orchards, gold mining and timber.

According to the Historic Landmarks Foundation Interim Report, “It was the timber industry which would have a far-reaching effect on Brown County, dramatically impacting the county’s future into the twentieth century. Over-cutting led to significant soil erosion which negatively impacted the farming economy which was, at best, subsistence level. Consequently, between the years 1890 and 1930, the county’s population dropped from 10,308 to 5,168.

But during this time of native expatriation, another group of people became enamored with the primitive area, and eventually helped to attract large crowds to it. Ironically, the timber clear-cutting created distant vistas, as later discovered by artists looking for new painting grounds.

The charming landscape was discovered by T.C. Steele in 1906 and even earlier by artist Adolph Shulz. The latter is often quoted: “I was never before so thrilled by a region; it seemed like a fairy land with its winding roads leading the traveler down into creek beds, through water pools and up over hills…Picturesque cabins here and there seemed to belong to the landscape as did the people who lived in them….”

Adolph Shulz returned to his compatriots in the Palette and Chisel Club in Chicago and raved about the painting possibilities of Brown County. By 1907, Nashville was only a day’s train ride from the windy city, and affordable lodging at Bill and Mandy Pittman’s Inn made the trip feasible. Shulz’s praises of the hilly country caused an influx of about 25 artists to the county within a year.

Many city artists then formed a habit of summer in Brown County, and some decided to move here permanently. As the cosmopolitan artists intermingled with the native residents, the cultural differences were obvious. T.C. Steele wrote in 1907, “Many natives I suspect have never been out of the county. The people seem kindly, but not progressive, except in a small way. (Brown County) is a little corner that the rest of the great strenuous world has swept around and missed. Whether they are contented with their lot, I do not know.”

Photojournalist Frank Hohenberger documented much of the interaction between the artists and native Brown Countians in his journal. In September 1920 he wrote, “Felix Brummet (native) saw (artist) Shulz on a hillside at work one time and told (artist) Vawter the following: ‘You see I don’t know anything about painting but I saw that big red-whiskered fellow over there and I noticed he has a box with small things at his feet. He would look up at the sky and then reach for those little things, then look up again and do something else with those little things. As I said, I don’t know nothing about what he was doing but it looked like plum ignorance.’”

In August 1924, Hohenberger wrote, “(Artists) Carl Graf and (Marie) Goth called at the old Barnes cabin on West Owl Creek and wanted to paint the place but they were halted by a female voice who gave them to understand that they paid good money for the spot and if Graf wanted to paint it they would want money for it. The artists decided to pull their car up to the lane near a gate and paint therefrom. (But) when the trio in the potato patch saw they were outdone they all went to the porch and sat down. (Native) Jim Yoder said he wasn’t going to allow any artists on his place either as he said he had a valuable cow to die and when it was dissected by a veterinarian he claimed it was poisoned by paint.”

Ada Walter Shulz was one the few artists who painted the people of Brown County, rather than the scenery, and befriended many native residents. William Hershell wrote in a 1909 article for the Indianapolis News: “One of the delightful features of (Ada Shulz’s) work is the willingness of her models. An element of art interest is apparent among the native women, and they seem to enjoy being painted. Mrs. Shulz tells the story of how one mother induced her daughter to sit still before the easel.

“‘Now honey, you just sit and let Mrs. Shulz paint you and when she’s through I’ll take you to see the dead cow,’ the mother said, toning her voice in urgent appeal. The child immediately subsided into the required pose and Mrs. Shulz got in an afternoon of good work. When the painter had closed her paintbox, the child took her mother’s hand and was led across to a neighboring pasture to the object of her curious interest.”

When the Steeles built their “House of the Singing Winds” near Belmont in 1907, word of the strange new neighbors reached far and wide in the county. Mrs. Selma Steele wrote of the visitors. “During that first year many, many a wagon filled with country folk and many a one on horseback came to look us over and take back to their neighborhood an appraisal of what they had seen. . . Upon entering, they would ask to see the built-in cupboard, the rug and the piano player. . . .

As an ending to the visit, they asked to be shown the outbuilding, of which they had heard so much. It proved as great a novelty as the things they had seen indoors. Since we had no running water, arrangements for a toilet had to be taken care of out-of-doors. The little separate building had been constructed of unseasoned lumber. This, during its seasoning, had left the building with wide-open cracks. In my effort to make it fly-proof I had laid a piece of old linoleum over the cracks in the floor, and had the window and ventilator screened. Screens at the time were not generally used in cabin homes. Nor were toilets of any kind. So this curiosity of a building evoked much discussion, and contributed its part towards establishing a reputation among our neighbors of my being ‘queer’ and ‘too particular’.”

Although Brown County continues to attract artists and craftspeople, the panoramic views have become re-forested, and the differences between the artists and the native residents have modified. With the commuting population; easy access to Bloomington, Columbus and Indianapolis; and common media input, much of the county has become homogenized.