Pioneer Village History & Heritage
~by Julia Pearson
Autumn is a special time to put down the guidebooks and Google suggestions and simply follow your nose to the northeast corner of Nashville. There behind the Brown County Courthouse and directly across the street from the Brown County History Center is the Pioneer Village, a collection of nineteenth-century log buildings filled with interesting items from Brown County’s attics.
On the weekends during the months of May through October, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the cozy looking buildings spring to life with demonstrations of heritage crafts and docents ready to converse about the lifeways and history of the bygone era. No admission fees! But donations will always be gratefully accepted. Special tours can be arranged by calling the History Center at (812) 988-2899.
The grounds are open year-round for interested visitors to see the construction of the buildings up close, sit down on one of the benches and rest their feet, or pose for special photographs.
The smoke fire of the blacksmith shop and resounding ping of hammer “smiting” against anvil draws you to the blacksmith workshop. A vital fixture of every crossroads community in Brown County in centuries past, the blacksmith provided nails and hinges for building, tool repair, as well as horseshoes. The smithy’s shop is a living illustration of the schoolchildren immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Village Blacksmith.” And children coming home from school/Look in at the open door; they love to see the flaming forge./and hear the bellows roar. The blacksmith shop has been restored by volunteers, with the doors completely remade with suitable findings made by master blacksmith, Jim Jesse.
Beside the blacksmith shop is the small white clapboard medical office of Nashville’s native son, Dr. A.J. Ralphy, who was born in 1854. He is noted for making house calls to patients. Of his obstetrics services, he did not lose a baby or mother. Restored to its original condition, Dr. Ralphy’s office is furnished with his medical books, instruments, furniture, and some of his taxidermy specimens,
including a golden eagle over the examination table. The building was moved to its present site in 1976 from New Bellsville.
On the other side of the blacksmith shop is the pioneer cabin, where you can pull up a threelegged stool and play a game of checkers on the front porch. The interior is a bountiful exhibit of an early household, with an inviting hearth outfitted with cooking utensils: a kettle hung on a fireplace crane to keep hot water ready; footed cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens for slow roasting venison or rabbits and squirrels; an early hand-crank coffee bean roaster as well as a footwarmer. The bedstead has crossed rope to hold the mattress. The rope itself had to be tightened often so that the people sleeping together didn’t sag into the center of the bed. “Good night, sleep tight” comes to mind. And “Don’t let the bedbugs bite” refers to the mattress of straw-stuffed ticking that has become inhabited by insects seeking a home. An old remedy for bedbugs was to mix the straw with dried chestnut leaves.
The Brown County Historical Society was gifted with old smokehouse logs, which volunteers happily and magically reassembled on the Pioneer Village grounds. A wooden lock fashioned by Jim Kelp has fascinated visitors who study it up close.
The immense double-wide “dog-trot” log museum is the anchor of the Pioneer Village. With hand-hewn logs more than 60 feet long, the loft is over two rooms with a center passthrough, or dog-trot. This magnificent log structure was discovered in Jackson County by James Voland while rabbit hunting. It was reassembled in its present location as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1935. Used as a community building in its rebirth, it was handed to the county and then to the Historical Society in 1962. Today one room is the “Loom Room” with an impressive display of early textile production tools. Demonstrations are provided by members of the Pioneer Women. Master spinners and weavers, Barbara Livesey and Sarah Noggle, are often in the Loom Room on Sundays. (Hint to visitors: ask Barbara to tell you about dyeing with indigo). Items made by the Pioneer Women are available for sale in the gift shop of the History Center. The other room houses the “Tool Shop,” with many of the exhibited wood working and farm tools coming directly from Brown County pioneer families.
The old log jail, star of postcards since the time of photography, was restored several years ago. Bird Snider and his crew replaced the logs that were deteriorating and put on a new roof. Visitors will be impressed with the hand-craftsmanship used in these repairs.
The annual Gathering at the Pioneer Village, closed last summer by the COVID pandemic, is scheduled to take place September 18 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Additional activities on the grounds will include rope making, candle dipping, and a kettle of ham and beans cooking over the bonfire, cornbread on the side. The old cider press will be pulled out and put into service. A string band will provide a homegrown soundtrack to this much appreciated special event.