Syd and Mike Nickels
balance Nature and the Past
by Barney Quick
photo by Sequoia Buck
Some people’s vision is so keen, it makes itself plain in everything they do and everyone with whom they surround themselves. Such is the case with the various enterprises of Mike and Syd Nickels. From Camp Palawopec to Mike Nickels Log Homes to Michael’s Flowers to the Herb & Flower Barn, and now the Farmhouse Café & Tearoom, there’s an atmosphere of happy people offering their best.
It’s immediately apparent upon entering the Farmhouse. Hostess Leslie is quick to welcome you and invite you to take a look around. In the kitchen, Kelli and Jane proudly inform you that everything but the ice cream, sherbet, and vegetable chips is made from scratch.
The Nickels family’s array of operations began with the camp. Mike, an Indianapolis native, was a twenty-year-old majoring in political science and journalism at Indiana University when he started it with a friend. The two had attended Brown County’s Gnaw Bone Camp together as boys and had the camping experience ingrained in them, sharing memories of tin-can breakfasts and creek-brewed sassafras tea.
“Fred Lorenz, the man behind Gnaw Bone Camp, was my mentor,” Mike says. “I’ve always felt like I was carrying on his legacy.”
Gnaw Bone was so popular and sessions filled so quickly that there was a market beyond that camp’s capacity, which prompted Nickels to found Palawopec. For three years, he rented land. “The gentleman who had the forty acres we wound up buying on Clay Lick Road decided to sell to us because of what we wanted to put there,” he recalls.
Today, Camp Palawopec runs sessions for boys and girls and offers such activities as archery, hiking, swimming, and canoeing.
Mike and Syd met in 1970 when he brought her a load of firewood. Syd was a single mother of three children as well as an Indiana University student at the time. They married and had three more offspring. (Five of the six live “within spittin’ distance,” according to Mike.) Syd’s parents had started Waycross, an Episcopalian camp, on Bear Creek Road in Brown County, so she had grown up in the camp environment.
The log-home-building business started with a request from a neighbor for such a structure. Syd’s father got involved. “Dad and Mike complimented each other,” she says. “Mike did everything with a chain saw, and my dad always had a level handy.”
The flower shop started with their passion for “old things,” as Syd characterizes it. In the shop’s first incarnation, the emphasis was on dried flowers. Gifts, antiques, and fresh flowers followed soon afterward. At its present location at 31 N. Jefferson Street in Nashville, their daughter Sara Balzerak has found her passion for floral design. “It’s just inside of her,” says Syd.
When they started their nursery, it was the only one like it in Brown County. “We wanted a place where people could shop in a leisurely way, without having to spend so much of the day driving to some other area,” explains Mike. “We focused on providing unusual shrubs and hard-to-find herbs, things not available at the big box garden centers.”
The farmhouse on the nursery grounds apparently dates to 1837, according to a board Mike found that was signed by two carpenters in that year. It was lacking windows and filled with trash when Mike and Syd acquired it. Today, hardwood floors, stained glass, antiques, and the aromas of fresh-baked food invite visitors to linger and savor the charm.
The theme that unites all the Nickels’ various businesses is nature’s power to humanize people. “We’re now at a point where one generation of Americans has so little camp experience that it doesn’t even occur to those parents to send their kids,” says Mike, noting that tromping around in the woods is a great way to test one’s potential and expand one’s interests. Syd feels the same way about encouraging young people, noting that in the years when she taught preschool and kindergarten, “I wanted to let kids know they could try something and fail.”
When building a log home, Mike’s priorities are to cut as few trees as possible on the property and to give clients a hand-crafted living space. It’s a quintessentially Brown County vision. As Mike puts it, “There’s something about old stuff and nature that gets right to people’s hearts.”
The Farmhouse Cafe & Tea Room and the Flower & Herb Barn are located at 5171 North Upper Bean Blossom Road and can be contacted at (812) 988-2689.