The House of the Singing Winds

I’m not sure that I would do well with random people walking through my house whenever they wanted. Of course, societal norms are a bit different now.

Back in the early 1900s, rural Hoosiers were perplexed by this odd couple—a painter and a gardener—who built a huge (relatively speaking) house on a hill in Brown County. In contrast, these Hoosiers were farmers who, by the sounds of it, were probably living hand-to-mouth and inhabited one-room log cabins. (The Dewar Cabin that was moved to the property from a nearby farm housed 17 people. 17. Looking at the cabin, I couldn’t visualize how 17 people could lie down to sleep.)

I was visiting the T.C. Steele Historic Site in Belmont, Indiana, a small town halfway between Nashville (IN) and Bloomington, in the hills of Brown County. By the time that T.C. Steele bought the property and built his house in Brown County (1907), he was a well-known painter, one of the Hoosier Group. He became known as the dean of Indiana painters and the center loci of the Brown County art colony.

All modern-day visitors are welcome to roam the grounds and hike the trails on the property. The grounds include gardens, the Dewar log cabin, and a cemetery. “Formal” gardens exist just up the drive from the official entrance. (The official entrance with stone arches is closed due to needed repairs.) Paths past Steele’s studio lead to two ponds filled with water lilies, lily pads, and frogs. (Despite the numerous plops of frogs jumping into the water upon my approach, I caught a few of them in photos that I took.)

If you follow the path a bit further, you encounter the Dewar log cabin, which I learned is not technically a log cabin because it was not a temporary dwelling. (Huh? Log cabins were temporary dwellings?) This particular one was built by a Scots immigrant for his son and housed the son, the son’s first wife, his seven children, and then his second wife and an additional eleven (!) children. The cabin has hewn logs, a board floor, stone fireplace, furnished staircase, shake shingles, and evidence of board siding—all aspects of a more permanent dwelling than a log cabin.

A cemetery, which includes T.C., Selma, and many of her family members, is situated a bit removed from the house. On the whole, the tombstones seem recent and well maintained. The exception is T.C.’s. It is weather worn and the inscription on it hard to make out: “Beauty Outlives Everything.”

The trails on the property take you through the woods. Only one trail leads to a structure: a reconstructed painting studio, like the kind that T.C. used when he wanted to be painting outdoors but the weather didn’t quite permit it. The rest of the trails are pleasant meanders through the wooded property.

For a small fee, you can take a tour of Steele’s studio and his house. (I definitely recommend it.) The tour, which lasted about an hour, started in the studio, where we were allowed to peruse the collection of paintings on the walls before our docent started her talk.

The Indiana State Museum runs the historic site and owns the paintings on display (which rotate every two years). The paintings are arranged in chronological order, which allows you to clearly see the changes in his painting subjects and style: portraits, the dark style learned in Munich, the Brookville period, Indiana University paintings, paintings done in the Pacific Northwest, and Brown County landscapes.

After we had our fill of the paintings, the docent started with a fascinating history of Steele, his life on the property, and his wife Selma. He was first introduced to painting when an itinerant sign painter came to town. After following him around, before leaving, the sign painter gave Steele come of his painting supplies.

Then when he was thirteen, T.C. had the opportunity to take an art class. It quickly became apparent that he was by far the most talent (more than the instructor it seems) and took over teaching the class. At fifteen, he was commissioned to paint his first portrait. But then his father died and painting was abandoned. As the eldest son, he took over running the farm for five years—from 1862 to 1867—to support the family, which probably is what kept him out of the Civil War.

He married Libbie, his childhood sweetheart, moved to Ohio, Michigan, and then back to Indiana. In 1880, Indianapolis was an up and coming city. Businessmen, wanting to cultivate the arts, approached Steele about painting in Indianapolis. Lacking a formal education in painting, he convinced the businessmen to sponsor his education at the Royal Bavarian Academy in Munich. Five years later he returned to Indianapolis and painted portraits for the businessmen as payment for their sponsorship.

His heart was in landscape painting, but no one wanted or valued landscape painting at the time—until an exhibition in Indianapolis that included his work and that of other Hoosier painters. A Chicago art critic dubbed the group of painters from Indiana the Hoosier Group, a title that stuck. And then his landscape paintings started selling.

In 1899, his beloved wife Libbie died. His paintings took on a darker tone, until he left to travel to (and paint) different parts of the US. Back in Indiana, he encountered Selma Neubacher, the sister of his daughter’s husband. Despite the age difference (35 vs. 60), the two married and lived out their lives at The House of the Singing Winds in Brown County.

The tour next moved to the house, where the docent related stories and described changes done to the structure. The museum is still renovating the house, reverting it back to its layout and design at the time of Steele’s death in 1926. (His wife Selma lived on the property until 1945.) Because Selma bequeathed the property to IU, rather than the property passing through private hands, 95% of the artifacts at the historic site are original to the site and belonged to the Steeles.

An arbor covered with one hundred year old wisteria (!) leads to the entrance of the house. The arbor was a site of contention between Selma and the grocery deliverymen who routinely hit it with their cars. As was the norm for the times, the men would not listen to women speaking directly to them (!), and because by this time no men were around to speak for her—T.C. had died in 1926—Selma had to get creative with her solution: she replaced the wooden arbor with a stone one. That way if the deliverymen hit it with their cars, it would damage their cars, not the arbor or her wisteria. Gotta love her spunk!

The house itself felt small. The House of the Singing Winds was aptly named for the wind that whipped through the screened porch that wrapped three-quarters of the way around the house. However, over the time that the Steeles lived in the house, parts of the porch were removed to make way for additions.

As we moved through the house, the docent explained which parts were added or changed over the years. Currently, the front room is the living room. Originally it was the painting room, but with locals constantly dropping in and traipsing through, little painting could get done there.

The dining room was the original kitchen plus part of the screened porch. Small and dark, the kitchen was moved to a new room behind it.

The current kitchen is much more light and airy. The sink has a water pump rather than a faucet. (There is actually no running water on the property, even today.) For the first five years of their life at The House of the Singing Winds, the Steeles paid local boys to haul buckets of water up the hill to their house—water needed for cooking and cleaning as well as painting and gardening. Given the soil and bedrock, a well was not possible. Instead, they eventually turned to using a cistern to hold water that drained from their gutters.

And I thought, wow, Selma agreed to leave the city, marry T.C., and move here after seeing this rustic property?! She did put up with a lot. But it seems that T.C. might have sacrificed a bit too. Selma was not a cook. They assumed that they could hire a local girl to cook for them. That did not pan out. So they were stuck with Selma attempting to cook in rather rustic conditions; apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for them to scrap food that exploded during baking off of the oven door.

Past the current kitchen is the sleeping porch, with the narrowest bed that I have ever seen. (If you rolled over, you would roll onto the floor.) To my delight, this room contained a Gustave Baumann print (!), one of the many Brown County artists who were friends with T.C. On the shelves were large shells, including an abalone. I wondered if these were from his time in the Pacific Northwest—abalone shells were plentiful on the Monterey Peninsula when I was there.

The master bedroom is quite small, in the interior of the house with no windows. The last room in the house is a tiny study, which seemed much too dark to do any writing or reading in. I didn’t ask but no bathroom existed in the house—no running water, so the “bathroom” would have been an outhouse.

The House of the Singing Winds was a peaceful respite. Time slowed the minute I stepped out of my car onto the grounds. Although no singing winds greeted me, the twittering of birds, the croaking of frogs in the ponds, and the breeze in the trees made modern-life seem a million miles away. The visit to nature and art fed my soul—I imagine that is what drew and kept T.C. and Selma here. I learned quite a bit more about one of the influential Hoosier artists. The tour and collection of art was well worth the drive.

And I got to meet Selma in the Garden.

Art favorites: Selma in the Garden

Selma in the Garden is one of T. C. Steele’s most famous paintings—our docent said THE most famous painting. I had not seen it before and was smitten.

The warm colors and the bright hues of the flowers drew me in. The painting is of Steele’s second wife, busy in her flower garden behind of their home, The House of the Singing Winds, in Brown County.

Prior to my visit to the T.C. Steele Historic Site, I would have described this painting as an unusual one by Steele—when I think of Steele, I think of his dark landscape paintings of Munich or his subdued Brown County foliage. But his studio houses a collection of his paintings, and I could see where light and color graced his canvases at different times throughout his career. Selma in the Garden seemed to reflect a feeling of light, beauty, and serenity at that point in his life.

The historic site is managed by the Indiana State Museum, so the painting will likely rotate through its collection in Indianapolis. But I am not sure when I will cross paths with it again. As I was leaving the studio, I turned to see Selma in the Garden one last time and bid it farewell.

Selma in the Garden
T.C. Steele
American, 1847-1926
T.C. Steele Historic Site/Indiana State Museum

Dubois County Historical Museum

I find county museums a little bit quirky but fascinating glimpses into local history and identity. What the museum contains says a lot about what the county values and considers important, and how the county residents see themselves.

As I entered the Dubois County Historical Museum, two people greeted me. One took me around to see the entire museum. This would have thrown me—Why am I being walked through the museum? Aren’t I able to see it on my own?—except that I had encountered this not so long before. Maybe it is a rural museum tradition?

The pride he had in the museum and county was evident. The museum looks deceptively small from the outside. In actuality, the museum is housed in the old Kimball International warehouse. He seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t instantly recognize Kimball International (oh yeah, they made pianos, right?), and I tried not to be embarrassed—and then annoyed as the minutes dragged on as we walked through the museum together with him pointing out everything.

The museum layout is a bit odd. The front part of it is divided into sections or rooms with different exhibits that focus on the founding of the county, the ethnic identity of the early inhabitants, wars, sports, and furniture companies (remember Kimball?) associated with the county’s history.

And then a doorway opens up into a huge warehouse full of farm equipment (county identity—rural and agricultural), a pioneer log cabin, and miscellaneous large objects. Sections are devoted to silver smelting, bees, butchering, woodworking, and blacksmithing.

He pointed to a small, climate-controlled room to the side of the warehouse. The man giving me a tour of the museum beamed with pride. The room, he explained, contained stuffed exotic animals hunted by someone whose name I was supposed to know. (To those familiar with my blog and love of animals, you won’t be surprised to know that I was horrified.) Clearly, hunting and stuffing are some of those things that make up the county’s identity. I swallowed hard as we thankfully walked by the room without entering.

Eventually I was left to peruse the museum on my own. The exhibits at the front of the museum contain a slew of information that I painstakingly reviewed. The fossil collection contains artifacts older than 200 million years. I learned that the Illinoisan glacier (is that what the glacier was called?) reached as far south as northwestern Dubois County.

The county is named for Toussaint DuBois, a Frenchman born in Montreal. DuBois joined another Frenchman, Lafayette, in fighting for American independence. He was, like many other Frenchmen in the New World, a fur trader. And like other fur traders during skirmishes (Michel Brouillet for example), he managed spies and scouts during the Tippecanoe Campaign (1812). He was a captain (and later major) during the War of 1812. He was the first landowner in what became Dubois County, but alas he never lived on the land. He died crossing the Wabash River in May 1816 and is buried in Vincennes (which is not in the county that bears his name).

The land that makes up Dubois County came from a 1803/1804 treaty that Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison made with the native Americans. In 1817—a year after Indiana became a state—Governor Jennings approved an act creating Dubois County. (Incidentally, Dubois is pronounced Dew-Boys, a decidedly non-French pronunciation.)

People moved in quickly. By 1820, Dubois County contained 202 non-native American families (1,168 people). The Lincolns, as in Abraham Lincoln’s birth family, lived just seven miles south of the county line. Ethnically, the county included Scots-Irish and Germans—lots of Germans. A good portion of space in the museum is devoted to explaining the providence of these German immigrants, their dialects, and their voyage to Indiana from native Prussia.

Another section highlights the religion in the area, but the focus of the museum in large part is on the military experience of inhabitants. Each war has its own exhibit stock full of artifacts. Indiana is a land of war memorials, and in Dubois County, they seem to take their military history very seriously.

The museum contains an impressive array of military artifacts, including such things as a flag from Company K of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry (the flag was carried in the Battle of Antietam, Maryland September 17, 1862), “souvenirs” pilfered from the enemy dead of WWII, and four (not one, four!) Belgian rifles from the Civil War.

At 14 pounds (!), I couldn’t help but think that the soldiers that carried these Belgian rifles were of a hardy stock—and brave. Not the safest rifle, according to E. R. Brown of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Company C, “They were all deadly at the muzzle end, and some of them were next to deadly at both ends. Their kick was like the recoil of a cannon.”

Dubois County was heavily wooded and historically had a large lumber industry with sawmills and furniture factories. Many different desks, pianos, and even a complete kitchen with real AristOKraft cabinets are on display. (The museum considered getting a hold of the AristOKraft cabinets a minor coup. AristOKraft later became MasterBrand.) The furniture makers are a litany of past local companies: Jasper Desk, Indiana Cabinet Co., Jasper Office Furniture, Indiana Furniture Industries, and Jasper Corporation (which later became, you guessed it, Kimball International).

As if proving my point about the quirkiness that is a county museum, immediately next to the furniture is a glass exhibit case about Bill Schroeder, an inhabitant of the county who received the first mechanical heart on December 25, 1984. Unfortunately, after the procedure, Schroeder only lived 620 days; he suffered a series of strokes and died on August 6, 1986.

I moved through the doorway to the warehouse portion of the museum. I looked over the various mini-exhibits for different trades, such as silver smelting, blacksmithing, and woodworking. The warehouse section contains many farming implements and machines: buggies, wagons, threshers, water pumps, a 1923 Kitten steam engine, and even a restored 1924 Maxwell.

I found myself face-to-face with that small room, the recently opened Wildlife Adventure Exhibit.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself before entering. The room was full of stuffed animals (not the type of stuffed animals I like!): bears, moose, elk, panthers, cougars, etc. You name it, it had been hunted, stuffed, and put on display here. A section contains trophies from the numerous trips local businessman Frank Fromme Jr. made to Africa starting in 1968. I found myself staring at two elephant feet—the native tribes got the meat, Frank was allowed to take two feet. I breathed easier as I stepped back into the warehouse proper.

Out of the myriad of items, the mechanical item that caught my fancy though was the dog-powered butter churn (yes, really!). A dog would walk (run?) on a slanted treadmill that powered an arm attached to a butter churn. I suppose all members of the family in the early 1900s had to earn their keep. (It reminded me another out-of-the-ordinary butter churn with a side crank that I saw in the childhood home of Ernie Pyle in Dana, IN.)

The centerpiece of the large warehouse room, not dwarfed by the large mechanical equipment around it, is a huge German log cabin. The cabin was built in the 1880s near Patoka Lake at Celestine. In 2004, the cabin was taken apart, moved to the museum, and rebuilt inside the building. In fact, the cabin is too large for the warehouse; they ran out of room to rebuild the second story of the cabin. The logs are incredibly well preserved thanks to weatherboards that covered them from almost immediately after the cabin was built.

The cabin came from the Welp Homestead, which is still farmed by the family today. It housed Gerhard Welp (1823-1897), his parents, and four siblings who came to the US to avoid fighting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The warehouse ends with murals depicting important buildings in each city in the county, such as Ferdinand and Celestine. As I exited, I passed through a reconstructed downtown from the early 1900s. On display are a variety of shops and services: shoe repair, jail, photographer, barber, millinery, saloon, bank, doctor, store, school, hotel, undertaker, kitchen, news office, surveyor, and church.

As I left, I felt as though I had a better feel for Dew-Boys County, learned a few things, and discovered a few things I wanted to follow up on. County museums—they are a great way to get a feel for a place and learn about local history.

A famous Hoosier artist under my nose

I had passed those black and white photos a million times—as a college student, as a graduate student, as a returnee to Bloomington. I always glanced at them. They were familiar faces, a bit of constancy over the years as things changed all around.

I slowed down to look at them the other day. A few new photos graced the hallway in the Union by the Whittenberger Auditorium, but for the most part, they were the old standbys that I had see time and time again for decades.

I did a double take. And then looked closer. Was that who I thought it was? Ohmygosh, the name of the photographer meant something to me now. I had seen that name several times in the last year at exhibits celebrating the state’s bicentennial (19 Stars of Indiana Art: A Bicentennial Celebration at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and 200 Years of Indiana Art: A Cultural Legacy at the Indiana State Museum).

He was a famous Hoosier artist, a member of the original Brown County artist colony, a friend of T. C. Steele’s: Frank Hohenberger. And among the photos were even copies of the photos I saw in the special exhibits (such as the Liars’ Bench).

How did Hohenberger’s photos end up gracing the walls of a hall in the Indiana Memorial Union, left undisturbed decade after decade? He willed his collection to the Indiana University Foundation, which transferred ownership to the Lilly Library on campus. Why he did so and how some of his photos ended up gracing an obscure hall in the Indiana Memorial Union is still a mystery to me.

The Lilly Library has digitized many (if not all) of his thousands of photographs. You can peruse his photographs of “the life, customs, and scenes of the hills of Brown County, Indiana, with side trips and hired assignments in other areas of Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Mexico” taken from 1904 to 1948. Click on any photograph for a larger image and information about the photograph. You search for photographs by date, genre, location, or other information.

Or stop by the Union at Indiana University and see the photos in the hallway by the Whittenberger Auditorium.

200 Years of Indiana Art: A Cultural Legacy

In celebration of the state’s bicentennial, the Indiana State Museum is showcasing 200 years of Indiana art. The exhibit actually spans more than the 200 years that Indiana has been a state, starting with the earliest known drawing done in Indiana (a drawing by Colonel Henry Hamilton in 1778) and ending with a sculpture made specifically for the exhibit (a limestone sculpture by Dale Enochs). The exhibit does a good job of covering the different artistic groups, styles, and mediums from Indiana.

I recognized a number of artists from other exhibits and collections and was introduced to many more. 200 Years of Indiana Art includes ten of the nineteen artists in the bicentennial exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art: Robert Indiana, David Smith, Garo Antreasian, Felrath Hines, Jacob Cox, George Winter, William Merritt Chase, the Overbeck sisters, Janet Payne-Bowles, and Frank Hohenberger.

The exhibit also includes a few of Guastave Baumann’s works; last year the Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted an exhibit devoted to Baumann. And the exhibit displays a quilt designed and made by Marie Webster. A collection of her quilts is currently on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, running until January 8, 2017.

200 Years of Indiana Art covers different artist colonies and groups around the state. The Richmond Group started in the 1870s and actually predated the better known Hoosier Group. Richmond and the environs contained many Quakers who migrated from North Carolina (for example, Levi Coffin). John Elwood Bundy, known as “the Dean”, founded the Richmond Art Association of 1898. The exhibit introduced me to the wonderfully ethereal paintings of Maude Kaufman Eggemeyer.

In 1894, art critic Harmlin Garland christened several Indiana artists as The Hoosier Group. Members T.C. Steele and William Forsyth were involved in the Indiana School of Art, which continues today as the Herron School of Art at IUPUI. In 1922, T.C. Steele was given an honorary degree from Indiana University and even had an open studio in the school’s library building (Franklin Hall).

T.C. Steele was also known as the central figure in the Brown County Art Colony in the early 1900s. Many Indiana and regional artists passed through Brown County, staying for shorter or longer times or returning sporadically over the years to paint the rolling hills and ruralness of the area.

Another art club sprang up in the southeast of the state, the Wonderland Way Art Club. Founded by James Russell in 1906, the club convened in his store as a place for camaraderie and to discuss art. The club disbanded in 1937, the year when he died.

In 1925, daughters of Indiana living in Chicago organized the Hoosier Salon, an exhibit of Indiana arts held in Marshall Field’s. The Hoosier Salon became an annual exhibit. In 1942, the exhibit was relocated to Indianapolis, first at the Block department store, then at the L.S. Ayres department store, the Indiana State Museum, and now at the Indiana Historical Society.

200 Years of Indiana Art also touches on more modern artistic movements like American Regionalism and Avant Garde. A few of the modern pieces stood out to me. Forest Frost, a 1953 color lithograph by Garo Antreasian, who left for Los Angeles in 1960, drew me in with its dark, nighttime colors. Nocturne Contours XXIV, a blue pot with lid, by Les Miley, a Professor Emeritus from the University of Evansville was striking. Porcelain and Lemons (1986) by Frederik Ebbesen Grue, who unfortunately died young in 1995, is a stunning piece. The realism of Still Life with White Lilies and Pears by Jacqueline Gnott, a watercolor that looks deceptively like a photo, is a masterpiece.

200 Years of Indiana Art is a wonderful exhibit of Indiana art, both on its own or as a complement to other bicentennial celebrations and special exhibits. You may have encountered some of these artists before or will run across them in future exhibits throughout the state and over the years. This exhibit runs from March 19 through October 2, 2016.