lost history

Lost History of
Brown County

by Mark Blackwell

History comes in many varieties and flavors. It is used to bolster territorial claims; "my people discovered this land and have occupied it for thousands of years." It is used to backup ideologies; "history shows us that ____ cannot work because it never has in the past." History is used to feed egos and downplay the exploits of others. Generally, it seems, history has to be altered in some way or another to make it useful.

History is edited and amended and massaged in various ways to bring out particularly pungent effects. For example there is the technique of omission, whereby we are taught as children that Christopher Columbus discovered North America but not told that the continent had been discovered more than 10,000 years before by some nomadic Asians, or a little later by Polynesians and the Chinese and the Vikings, etc. In the transmission of history from one generation to the next there are things that go missing. In Brown County's case, I am happy to report that with stupefying and dogged persistence, I have uncovered some of its lost history.

First, let me acknowledge that there will be some skeptics who will question my discoveries, but no one can deny that Brown County has a hidden history—in fact the whole county was invisible for twenty years. Yes, it is true, Indiana became a State in 1816 but Brown County wasn't discovered and put on the map until 20 years later, in 1836. That fact alone leads a feller to wonder what was going on here while it was invisible.

One little-known legend has it that Brown County was discovered by a spectacularly inept land speculator. It seems that there was this itinerant school teacher who had practiced his craft long enough to know that he lacked the stamina to put up with one more school house full of young ruffians—so he set off for the west to find a place that lacked the incivilities of civilization. Onward, across Pennsylvania and Ohio he trudged until he found himself halfway across what would someday be Indiana. It was there, in a territory of steep ridges, deep ravines and heavily forested hills that he met up with a band of nomadic natives.

While most of our pioneers were not overly burdened by much book learning, our schoolmaster had the yoke of higher education resting firmly upon his shoulders. He had read a history of New York and he was especially taken with the story of how Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island for twenty four dollars in trinkets and beads. With this story in mind the teacher-turned-real estate speculator sat down with the band of hunters and began to negotiate.

The natives asked how much land the stranger wanted and he replied, "All the land that a man may cast his eyes upon from the loftiest hill." The natives talked among themselves, wondering why this white man talked like James Fennimore Cooper and why he thought that they had any right to sell the land that they had only recently found themselves. The natives, with the stranger in tow, hiked over to the place called "Kell-ee hill" in the local language and there they completed the transaction.

The ex-schoolmaster got what he wanted—a place that nobody else did and the natives got what they wanted—twenty four dollars and directions out of the territory they had gotten lost in. The stranger built a cabin in the valley below the great hill and called the place "School-no-more Valley." Of course the name has been misheard, corrupted and shortened over the last 200 years to the point that it is now just called Schooner Valley.

Another curious item of Brown County's lost history is the ill-fated experiment in breeding a herd of two-headed cattle. Sometime, around the turn of the 20th century, a Brown County farmer having heard the adage "two heads are better than one" and knowing that cattle are sold by the head thus getting twice the price per cow, set out to experiment. He apparently met with some success producing the curious critters but ultimately gave up on the enterprise. As it turned out two-headed cows ate twice as much as a single-headed bovine, became obese, and tended to lose their footing rolling over the ridge and into the steep ravines of the farmer's homestead. The proof of this story is that the last two-headed calf was stuffed and mounted then put on display over at the Old Log Jail Museum (presumably as a cautionary example).

I could tell you about the lost town of Elkinsville down at the south end of the county—but it ain't really lost, it's just under Lake Monroe. I guess it actually was lost before 1816 or so because they say that's when Elkinsville was founded. But like Brown County itself, the town showed up and hung around until the Army Corps of Engineers took it upon itself to simply drown the peaceful little village.

There seems to be no end to the rich veins of "lost" history. If I had the room in this article I would tell you about the lost Moonshine Springs where 90 proof corn liquor reportedly seeps out of a crack by an old root cellar. Or I could tell you about the time back in 1972 I got lost coming back from a skinny-dippin' party out at Lost Lake. But I will leave those stories for another time. Meanwhile, Brown County is about the best place I can think of to get lost in.