Steve Miller remembers growing up in this building when it was the family’s drugstore, listening to native and artist tales.

Looking Back with
Steve Miller

by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater

Just getting to the old fishing hole was an adventure for Steve Miller as he passed through the yards and gardens of Herman Wells, Jack La Chance, Marie Goth, and V.J. Cariani before heading down the valley past Adolph and Alberta Shulz’s house and the homes of Will Vawter and Edward K Williams.

“I remember going through the Shulz’s garden and Adolph or Alberta showing me his painting looking for the essence of Jesus Christ and telling me about their religious quest. I remember looking at the thickness of the paint. It must have been close to an inch thick.”

As the grandson of artist Dale Bessire, Miller learned much about the artists who made up the Brown County art colony. “I was always fascinated by how much the artists were in love with nature,” he says. “It was like a spiritual quest to capture the essence of this opalescent haze and how it took them spellbound. Their paintings tried to capture very quickly the light as it came filtering through the trees; the little bare-foot kids; the smoke in the chimneys. They worked very quickly to catch it before it all changed.”

Even more than the changing light, they knew that Brown County itself was changing. “They saw it happening,” he says of both the artists and the natives. “They saw the roads and the cars and the state park. They were going to have to start paying taxes and obey the rules and behave themselves. That’s part of that story of the Liars Bench—how the local people were split between the ones who encouraged the changes, who thought, ‘This would be good for us and bring in some income,’ and the ones who thought that it would be the ‘ruination of everything.’”

Steve inherited the storytelling gene from his father Maurice (Pods) Miller. “He was at the heart of Nashville providing a service to the community with the drugstore. If you got him started he could recount all those early days. He saw it from both sides. That’s probably where I got it. He saw the artists and their community and he knew the country people who came in. They all had stories.”

What helped Miller make sense of this world was by reading the personal journals of Frank Hohenberger at Indiana University’s Lilly Library in Bloomington. “You can follow along in the daily entries with his photographs,” Miller says “He was writing reminders to himself for his weekend articles called ‘Down in the Hills of Brown’ for the Indianapolis Star. It’s a glimpse through his eyes of what he saw that day. It makes the characters come alive.

“I can imagine Hohenberger typing with his index fingers by candlelight,” Steve continues enthusiastically, the storyteller taking control as he imitates the sound of a battered old manual typewriter clacking away in the night. “Peck peck peck peck peck peck peck peck.

“It was fascinating to read about what he heard at the Liars Bench, or what Allie Ferguson or Molly Lucas or Jimmy Jones the attorney said. How Alex Mullis got out of being arrested for moonshining because they said the alcohol he made was meant as snakebite medicine! And the juries agreed! Nobody ever had to go to jail—especially if you were a Democrat. That’s what made Allie Ferguson so mad.

“The sheriff, Sam Parks, was elected by a vast majority on the basis that he wouldn’t put people in jail. Chris Brummett was elected by almost the same margin to be Clerk because he couldn’t read or write. And he wouldn’t send out tax statements. That told me that the people by and large did not want change. Did not want the state coming here. Did not want government rules and society’s laws to run their life.

“Once I got a sense of who these people were I became fascinated enough to go find their old homesites. I went around to all the cemeteries and found where they were buried and tried to get a sense of who these people were. That’s when I started remembering the stories I had heard at the barbershop, at the courthouse, or at the drugstore and finally tied it all together.”

Miller came to understand the world he’d glimpsed as a boy when discovering someone’s cabin deep in the backwoods. “You could see that they were feeding the birds and the squirrels and had their gardens and lived such a simple, peaceful life. Most people are so full of themselves that they’re blind to the simple truths of living in nature and appreciating the seasons and getting along. The fascinating thing for me was that these older people knew something that we’ve lost. Maybe I’m romanticizing it like crazy but they were much more in tune with nature and the seasons and each other and the simple truth—we don’t own this place, we’re visitors here.

“I still love to wander along the creek and over a ridge and go get lost,” he smiles wistfully.

Steve’s other great love is architecture. His company, Miller Architects, “Do a little bit of everything. Lot of churches, houses, shops, bed and breakfasts, office buildings, and government buildings all over Indiana and Kentucky. I think I’ve been very fortunate to be able to survive as an architect in a small town,” Steve laughs.

He loves to use the work of local artisans to give his buildings a handcrafted feel. “The collaboration of art and crafts, that’s a tough blend,” he says. “There’s an art and a skill to keeping buildings simple but with a lot of creative ideas. It’s probably what I’m known for more than anything.”