Winter at Valley Branch
by Barney Quick
Winter means fun at Valley Branch Retreat—five hundred acres of it. “You can do many of the things we offer any time of year during the winter months,” says proprietor Gary Bartels. “In fact, some are more suited to winter.”
In addition, certain Valley Branch amenities lend themselves to the cold season, in particular Harvest Hall, the banquet and conference facility. It seats 200 people and has bar and stage areas. Bartels notes, “We get people who say, ‘My family has become way too big for me to host Thanksgiving or Christmas at my house anymore,’ and our prep kitchen is ideal for their pitch-ins.”
Bartels says paintball, one of the retreat’s biggest attractions, is perhaps most popular during the winter, because players bundle up to hit the field anyway. Valley Branch offers ten scenario fields including capture the flag, gauntlet and terrorist, three speedball fields, and extreme tactical training grounds. Customers for the paintball business have included church groups, corporations, and various U.S. military units. For several years, the Rose-Hulman University football team has spent the second weekend of December there, playing paintball and staging a cookout.
In addition to playing fields, Valley Branch provides a repair shop and a retail outlet for guns and supplies. The facilities for these services as well as the briefing area are suitably decorated in military fashion.
ATV tours, a great combination of exhilarating riding, nature-watching, and a lore and history lesson, are uniquely enchanting during the winter. “I can do six inches of snow,” says Bartels. He serves as tour guide, and shares his extensive knowledge of the history that has transpired right there on his property. He takes them by the chimney and well of the Love Nest Cabin, the only remaining parts of a house with a spicy past. “Several people in the area past a certain age have stories about taking their significant others up there for a romantic night,” Bartels says. The Pittman Cemetery is another stop. Several headstones there date to the nineteenth century. Bartels’s wife Patty’s extensive file on Brown County history has provided him with an immense amount of information on the people whose lives are represented on those stones.
Business also stays quite steady for lodging in the theme cabins (sporting names, and appropriate décor, such as “All Sport,” “Rock-n-Roll,” “Artist,” “Island,” and “Mash“) as well as for stays on the campground with electrical hookup.
The newest activity at the retreat is jump booting. Bartels describes it as being “kind of like slow-motion skiing.” The brand of boots that Valley Branch rents is Kangoo Jumps. A heavily reinforced boot sits atop an oval-shaped strip of heavy-duty plastic with specially designed traction on the bottom. The effect is akin to defying gravity. Benefits include cardio-vascular enhancement, posture correction, and a great deal of fun. “It’s a workout,” says Bartels. “When you’re going downhill, it propels you. It will really improve your sense of balance.”
Cross-country skiing is popular with visitors. Over thirty miles of trails make for some adventurous sightseeing.
Valley Branch Retreat is another one of those undertakings that embodies the Brown County ethos, including family commitment, love of the outdoors, love of history, and rugged self-reliance. Bartels was a prototype tool designer for Arvin Industries when he held a family meeting and asked his wife and sons whether they wanted to embark on this project or sell off their newly inherited land in parcels. The family opted to create the retreat, which involved four years of clearing and cutting timber, amassing other building materials, and marketing what they’d built.
It’s a quintessentially Brown County story right down to Patty Bartels’s career as a fine-art oil painter. Visitors to the banquet hall can enjoy her works hung in the upper loft area.
Fostering family bonds is especially rewarding for Gary Bartels. He recalls that “a father put it all in perspective for me. He said, ‘I go to my son’s sporting events and afterward I tell him what he did wrong. When we play paintball, we talk about the adventure we’re having together.’”
Valley Branch Retreat can be contacted at (812) 988-7750 or visited on the web at