5 minute read

Brown County Roads

Road to Nashville by Frank Hohenberger, January, 1920.

~by Julia Pearson

Driving through Brown County today often has “Take me home, country roads” as a soundtrack in our minds. Not in the beginning, though. An estimated 150 settlers, with needed supplies for homesteading loaded into oxen-pulled wagons, made their way on narrow paths through hardwood forests, populating the hills by 1830.

On February 4, 1836, the Indiana State Legislature passed a bill to form Brown County from sections of Bartholomew, Monroe, and Jackson Counties. The county is 320 square miles of rugged wilderness. Jacksonburg was chosen as the county seat in 1836 and the town was renamed Nashville, after Nashville, Tennessee, in 1837. Records show that by 1840 the population had risen to 1,364.

Villages evolved in pockets of the countryside and were self-contained, with busker wagons bringing hardware and household supplies to homesteads. These communities had their own blacksmith, church, post office, medical doctor, and one-room schoolhouse. Dirt trails were often rutted so deep that wagons pulled by oxen or horses were not possible, and horseback was the only alternative. Brown County family-lore mentions that some folks never made the trip to Nashville in their entire lives.

Cars showed up in Nashville in 1913, before the county roads were ready for them. In the special-issued hardbound pictorial by the Brown County Democrat entitled 175 Years of Brown County, the black and white photos show the story of Brown County roads better than any wordsmith listing dates and descriptions. The late Rob Lawless was quoted: “Nashville was very isolated. The road into town was a riverbed. A lot of artists walked into town—that was a means of getting here in the early 1920s.”

State Road 135 from Nashville north to Morgantown was built and hard-surfaced in 1933. On the four mile stretch of highway between Nashville and Bean Blossom is the Bean Blossom Overlook, a panoramic view of the entire Bean Blossom Valley. This was a popular pullover for day trippers making a Sunday afternoon one- hour drive from Indianapolis. October would find 4,000-5,000 cars, with drivers and passengers alike, rubber-necking at the beautiful landscapes as they drove into Nashville for family suppers or to the Brown County State Park.

Wanda Bunge, who grew up on the Parsley family farm on Gatesville Road, said, “Everything changed in the 50s.” She noted that the Parsley home got its first telephone and indoor bathroom. Gatesville Road and other gravel roads throughout the county were hard-surfaced and automobile-friendly.

Passable roads brought tourists with their pocketbooks to Brown County. They were attracted to the beautiful natural scenery that inspired the artists of the famous artist colony that started around 1908. Music lovers came to Bean Blossom to the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground, known and beloved by bluegrass and country music lovers internationally. Studios of potters, weavers, carvers, and crafters of musical instruments continue to this day.

Between Bloomington and Nashville, State Road 46 was improved until it was considered one of the best roads statewide. Drama students making up the company players for the Brown County Playhouse traveled the 16 miles from Indiana University to Nashville in the open bed of a truck for the Playhouse’s earliest production in the summer of 1949. Charles “Buzz” King wrote in an essay for 175 Years of Brown County how members of the DeMolay served as tour guides for the fall tourists. He said, “That was around 1960. That was a fun time, and that was when the transition started. In ’61 or ’62, they started building 46. That alleviated the traffic coming in and that changed downtown forever.”

Barbara Livesey, a textile artist and collector of Brown County history and tidbits, noted when she moved to Brown County in 1998 that everyone driving a pickup truck carried a chainsaw, “just in case a limb is down it can be cleared from the road.”

Jim Kelp, who served as Brown County’s highway superintendent from January, 1994 until retiring in 2003, recounts helping out in the 1960s: “Back then if we had a snowstorm, it took two men shoveling sand out of the back of the truck onto the road.” In 1994, there were four trucks with snowplows. If people couldn’t get through due to snow, they would park the car and walk, returning the next day for their car.”

Founded about 1905 on the Illinois Central Railroad, Helmsburg was just two miles west of Bean Blossom. A nearby livery stable provided a buckboard for hire to take passengers to Nashville. A garage and filling station replaced the livery stable when the roadway provided a safe traveling surface for automobiles.

Employment was had in Monroe County, Bartholomew County, and even north in Indianapolis.

The roads led to the loss of the small communities. Post offices closed as mail was delivered to rural homes. The one-room schoolhouses were consolidated. Smithies and mills no longer peppered the hills.

Trails that became roadways retain their early names, and the settlements with names like Pikes Peak, Story, and Gnaw Bone have their own stories waiting to be discovered.

Charley Wilson repairing a Brown County road, by Frank Hohenberger.

Charley Wilson repairing a Brown County road, by Frank Hohenberger.