“Pretty Hard to Beat”
Jenny Austin Interview
by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater
“Old Indiana is pretty hard to beat,” J.I. Yoder would tell his grandchilden, and Jenny Austin’s memories of growing up in Helmsburg back that up—riding bicycles in town after school, hanging out at Mary Long’s grocery, exploring up and down the railroad tracks.
“My dad had a farm, he raised vegetables,” she says. “A lot of the kids picked vegetables, green beans, tomatoes, and corn to get spending money. That was their summer job. One of the highlights of working on the farm was when he would teach you how to drive the jeep. It was probably the jeep driving more than the pocket money picking vegetables that drew all those kids,” she laughs.
The Yoder family was active in their community, helping organize hayrides and other activities for kids, such as bible school at the Helmsburg church. It was, “A real important part of childhood,” she says.
Austin continues that tradition by helping to organize events like the recent Helmsburg Festival. “The Helmsburg Festival was conceived as a way to draw the community together,” Jenny says. “It’s a celebration of friends. A way to let other people know a little more about Helmsburg. We had more booths at the festival weekend than we’ve ever had. We had a car show and good music all day. It turned out all right. I feel more positive about it than I have in the past.”
Jenny remembers a Helmsburg that was always busy. “When I was a kid we would sit out on the porch on weekends in the afternoon and it was pretty amazing how many cars you’d see go by. My memories growing up as a kid in the 60’s is that you could buy pretty much anything you needed. Chitwood’s Hardware and Long’s Grocery carried shoes, blue jeans, paint, hardware, bicycles, washers. Between the two of them you didn’t have to go out of town.”
The Yoder family has been in Brown County since 1845. In 1912 Jenny’s grandfather, Jacob Ira, bought the family farm two years after losing both hands in a sawmill accident. “My mom used to say that my grandpa had seven dollars when he started the farm,” Jenny remembers.
They raised cattle, traded, and for a time J.I. worked as a real estate agent. “I’m sure he and my grandma had a hard time of it because he had no hands and she was in a wheelchair the last nine years of her life. They moved to Indianapolis for two or three years when dad was a teenager. He went with them but came back and lived by himself here in Helmsburg. He got chickens and tried to make it that way.” J.I. and Rachel moved back to Brown County soon after, finishing their days on the farm.
The farm has stayed with the Yoder family ever since. The house the grandparent’s built in 1938 became the place where the grandchildren started their married lives. “Four out of five of us lived here at some point,” Jenny says. Today the home is used for a tourist rental called “The Little House.”
“When we have people come and stay at our tourist home and talk about how relaxing it is, how much they enjoy it and how they’d like to come back, we say, ‘Yes, that’s why our family has never left!’ I’m proud to be able to say that our family has been here so long.”
Austin’s experience with the tourist home, her former business Helmsburg House, and most recently with her newest venture, The Decorating Diva, shows how the old families cope with the new economy by continuing to use and develop properties handed down. “Between here on the farm where we live and where my brother and his wife live up the hill there is an old barn that my grandpa built in 1928. Two years ago we revamped the barn, painted it, put a new floor in it, and when our daughter was married we had the wedding there, with a reception for 140.”
They rent the barn out for similar events while creating some events of their own. “We have a yearly barn sale, what we call ‘Betty Begonia Upscale Tax Sale—a barn boutique tongue in cheek chic.’ It’s become a yearly event in September.
“I think Brown County is a wonderful place to live,” Jenny concludes. “When I’ve been away from here on a trip I always have a nice feeling when I come back. The hills and trees that envelop you, the blue haze, the winding roads, and knowing who your neighbors are. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”