Painters Paths
in Brown County

by Joanne Nesbit

Visitors to Brown County often come to enjoy a hike in Brown County State Park, the Hoosier National Forest, or Yellowwood Forest. But the first visitors who came to the hills and valleys found the only way to get to Brown County and to enjoy its views was to hike.

A column in the Chicago Tribune published before World War I told of one writer’s opinion of what hiking in Brown County meant to him. “Afoot (there is no better way) you may know Brown and undoubtedly love it. The gods fashioned its surface for the vagabond stroller and in their wisdom barred its best byways and hidden vales from the coming motor. You may wander all day under its festoons of wild grape, bittersweet and green briar and never set foot on a traveled road. Yet it is the best of walking—footways beaten into hardpan by barefoot natives—primitive paths that deviate surprisingly for slight obstructions while meandering pleasantly regardless of time or distance—uphill, down again along a valley stream, then up again into the hills—a path ever changing but never fading away as ordinary paths often do.”

Painters, too, began to take to the early trails through the county. As Frank Hohenberger once wrote, “And now, from no less authority than Chicago herself comes the compliment that Brown County is the Barbizon of the Middle West—there is no painting ground that can approach it between New York and Santa Fe.” More were encouraged to come.

By 1908 an article in the Indianapolis News was telling those who wanted to get to Brown County and its Peaceful Valley (Nashville) to take the train from the state capital for the 39-mile trip on the Indianapolis Southern Railroad to Helmsburg and then to “walk along the dusty road until you get to the galvanized rural mail box of Alex Wilson.” It was another three miles to reach Nashville, some of that up hill. The writer advised that walking was the best way to get from Helmsburg to Nashville and that to travel any other way was a sin. For those willing to risk their souls, there was a horse and buggy standing alongside the station platform that would transport the visitors to the county seat.

Once the artists found their way to Brown County, they banded together for painting excursions into the countryside. They would meet for breakfast on Sundays at the Pittman Inn and then would rally to the calls of painter Adolph Shulz and with walking sticks in hand set out on paths that took them over the hills and through the valleys on a trek that often covered 15 miles. These Sunday outings were not for painting but for pleasure and to become acquainted with various aspects of the county’s beauty that perhaps would appear at some time on a canvas.

There were many times the artists walked just for the sake of walking. Fred Hetherington in 1910 wrote to Adolph Shulz that he and Gus Baumann (a printmaker) started out on a walk at about 10 p.m. traveling up a road toward a local cabin and then continuing until they reached the Georgetown Road (which is the road to Bean Blossom) and then walked back to Nashville. “It was a night of brilliant moonlight,” Hetherington wrote.

Harry Engle wrote in the Chicago Tribune that he and Baumann went sketching along Greasy Creek “and for no known reason, all the town dogs came along.” It was a motley group of mutts that entertained themselves chasing rabbits and squirrels while the artists tried to work on their sketches. The eight or ten canines were not dissuaded in their frolicking even when Baumann began throwing rocks at them, but instead surmised that the printmaker wanted in on the fun so “slobbered all over him in canine enthusiasm.”

There are some trails within the parks in Brown County where you can take your trusty hound with you. But whether you walk alone, with a companion, or with a group, as you move along the dusty paths and roads, give some thought to those early artists who made the treks as part of the business or painting and sometimes just to enjoy a hike.