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.