Grandma Barnes

by Julia Pearson
photo from Brown County Historical Society Archive

Mary and Washington Barnes sleep together in eternity in Lanam Ridge Cemetery. The cabin that housed their humble yet colorful marriage was the most painted by the colony of artists that resided in Brown County, and their personalities were chronicled by photographer, Frank Hohenberger. Their portraits by the Brown County painters show them nostalgically as living pioneers. Mary was known to all as “Grandma” and “Wash” was her long-suffering spouse.

Both were legendary for individual personas. Grandma had a beautiful and prolific flower garden, and supplied the artists, especially Ada Shulz, with eggs and butter, as well as collecting her mending and laundry. Hohenberger’s readers of his Indianapolis Star column, “Down in the Hills o’ Brown County” were treated to tales of strolling through the Barnes’s old-fashioned garden—patches of tobacco, potatoes, and grapes—and receiving gifts of seeds when they left. On one such visit, their son, Fred, and Wash were putting down a new wood floor in the kitchen. Grandma presented Mrs. Hohenberger with a gift of a potted cactus when they left. Other visitors had reported that Wash and Fred were always in bed, even when they arrived at noon. Some hinted at the “sleeping sickness” that afflicted the Barnes men, and it’s not certain if this wasn’t a serious joke of sorts.
Grandma was as kind to animals as she was mean to Wash. Wash himself was delightfully lazy and personable, and sold his handcrafted brooms on the street in downtown Nashville. His talent for turning tales a bit too tall was well known. But family and casual acquaintances alike knew that Mary found Wash increasingly intolerable and that the last years of their marriage were spent in mutual silence and the house itself was divided in “his” and “hers” quarters. In 1929 when Wash was discovered dead in his bed, the Coroner and Sheriff had to remove his bedroom window and send his corpse through to the outside for burial, rather than darken the front parlor of the home.

The artists promoted the first Brown County Blossom Festival in 1929, with an eye to encouraging tourists to visit in the springtime season. Dale Bessire surprised the local festival planning committee by insisting that the expected festival queen be Grandma Barnes instead of a teenaged lovely. So on April 13, 1929, Grandma Barnes was the first Queen of the Blossom Festival. Her home on the east branch of Owl Creek became a well-known landmark to Brown County tourist visitors. Her garden was kept in good shape for she knew that it was painted by the artists and their work was sent all around the country.

Grandma Barnes died at the age of 87 in 1940 and the road of the home she had shared with Wash was renamed Grandma Barnes Road. One of the last photographs of Grandma Barnes was taken on December 23, 1933 and shows a woman in simple sunbonnet with head looking down. She’s standing near a stack of unsplit logs, a number of black and white pigs nosing the dirt around her booted feet. Current Brown Countians still speak of Grandma in the present tense—a straight-backed figure feeding her turkeys and ducks as the golden leaves fall.