From the Top
by Joanne Nesbit
It may be only the second highest point in Brown County, but it is surely the most famous and storied. Second only to Weed Patch Hill in Brown County State Park by a few feet (seven to be exact) Bear Wallow Hill is about four miles north of Nashville on a road bearing the same name.
While known for its panoramic vistas, once said to offer glimpses into eight counties, Bear Wallow Hill got its name from the muddy depression at its peak where bears used to come to loll about. The last bear in the county is reported to have been killed in 1847.
Visitors to Brown County are still attracted to the hill’s vistas, but legend recounts how about 200 years ago, an old Indian chief seeking peace after tribal warfares, traveled from the Kanawha river region below the Ohio River found the hill and decided to make it his new home. Brown County’s natives called him “Kind-Eye.”
With his wandering days behind him, Kind-Eye raised his tepee and accepted visits from Delaware Indians from the Muncie area. He hunted and foraged for his food and was found in the winter of “the deep snow” frozen to death in a nearby ravine.
White settlers started entering the county. Leonidas Alders of Virginia bought a large tract of land from the government that included the hill for $1.25 an acre. He erected a log cabin near the center of the hilltop and there lived a bachelor’s life taking dinner each day with a different area family. Supposedly his circle of friends was so large that it took him six months to complete a round. Alders died in 1897.
While making his home on the hill, Alders opened what he called a “picnic field” for the county’s Fourth of July celebration. The day’s biggest event was a race over a short course laid out between the trees. Sulkies, buggies and wagons tried to out-do each other to reach the finish line first to win a saddle or set of harness.
Marcus Dickey, secretary to Indiana’s poet James Whitcomb Riley, was the second owner of the hill, making the purchase in 1905. At that time it took five hours by buggy from Columbus to Nashville, passing through Wolf Creek, Stoney Lonesome and Gnaw Bone.
With the Dickey purchase came a number of rumors and tall tales. One of those was that Riley was going to make Bear Wallow his summer home. Actually, Riley never set foot on the property. Another rumor started by Kin Hubbard, creator of Abe Martin, was that “James Whitcomb Riley is talkin’ o’ buildin’ a sanatarium for incurable writers in the Bear Waller neighborhood an’ it wuz th’ all absorbin’ topic et th’ pust offis yisterday.”
Through a John T. McCutcheon cartoon run in the Chicago Tribune in 1906, word of the supposed resort traveled across the county. The New York Sun announced that “Riley and Dickey … have purchased Bear Wallow hill in Brown County and are going to improve the site with a magnificent house which will be a kind of intellectual summer resort.”
It didn’t happen.
Today, just as in the early and later 1900s, visitors travel to the hill to wonder at the vistas. And artists still unload the paraphernalia necessary for capturing those vistas on canvas.