The Town Time Did Not Forgetby Bill Weaver
Helmsburg, where the great ice sheets slowed and stopped, betrayed by changing weather patterns and the varying tilt of the earth.
Unable to push past the hard stone comprising Beanblossom Ridge, the ice gradually receded, leaving large mounds of crushed rock behind, peppered with quartz and gold, "greenstone," and magnetite. "The remains of the Laurentian Hills of British America," pushed thousands of miles by the great ice sheets. Glacial runoff gouged valleys where ice had been unable to go. One creek formed at the base of Beanblossom Ridge, meandering westward.
Wilson Helms and his wife Mary Ann Smith came from Ohio in 1854, purchasing 100 acres of farmland along the Beanblossom Creek near a place called Connard's Ford. They raised nine children and were prosperous enough to give each $600 on their wedding day. The family experienced great tragedy when their home burned late one night. "His children were obliged to leave the house without clothing." Two daughters died in the conflagration.
Wilson Helms enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War but spent most of the war in a hospital. Weston Goodspeed reported in 1884 that "Mr. Holmes [sic] is an active Republican and worthy citizen."
A legend grew along the road leading to Connard's Ford. As related by Chattie Wade Miller in Brown County Remembers, it tells of a ghost peddler who was often heard driving his covered wagon down the road from Nashville. In life he had been an itinerant huckster, visiting every few months with his wares, his wagon pulled by "a big, strong team of horses." When he didn't return home after one visit to Brown County his family came looking, tracing his final ride along the road to within one mile south of Beanblossom Creek. There he disappeared. Foul play was suspected but nothing was ever proven.
From that time forth people who walk or ride along Helmsburg Road sometimes hear the sound of a peddler's wagon following but when they turn to look there is only empty road. Miller herself heard the eerie spirit once in 1915 while walking with friends late at night on the old bridge over Beanblossom Creek. "While standing there we heard horses' hooves, squeeking harness, and wagon wheels in the gravel coming up the ramp onto the bridge. We all stood back as close to the bridge railing as we could to give it ample room to passbut no wagon came. We all heard it so distinctly."
In 1905 the Indianapolis Southern Railroad (later the Illinois Central) laid track across Brown County. Since no one would underwrite the expense of running a spur south to Nashville they chose the old Helms farm to build the station. John Setzer (the first postmaster for the area) suggested they name it for the Helms family. That's how the town that rapidly grew around the train station became known as Helmsburg. Folk historian Ray Mathis wrote that "It is a thriving village and has been built up by a good class of citizens.
"It was quite interesting an event at Helmsburg when the train came in," he added. Besides passengers, trains delivered coal, lumber, gravel, and road machinery. Next to the station a stockyard enclosed cattle, hogs, and sheep. Logs, wood products like railroad ties and hoop poles, canned fruits, vegetables, and other farm products, passed through Helmsburg Station.
Joshua Bond built a flour mill on the main street. Other businesses quickly followed including a cannery. C. H. Marsh's sawmill employed 50 men. There were groceries, a hardware store, hotels, and restaurants. A high school was built, as well as a Methodist Church, and Masonic Lodge No. 527. Liveries competed to take passengers and freight to Nashville and the Rains Hotel served those whose business kept them in the county overnight.
From 1912 to 1914 an effort was made to wrest the county seat from Nashville. An article from a November 1913 Indianapolis Star reported that Helmsburg businessmen were behind the attempt and speculated that a referendum would be called on the matter.
Then came the great fire. Or fires. Not quite on the scale of the Chicago Fire but still more than enough to burn the heart out of the burgeoning county metropolis. The first incident occurred late one night at Joshua Bond's grist mill on the bank of Beanblossom Creek. At first Bond thought it was an accident but then a second fire occurred at the Baughman brothers' feed store. The second fire had apparently been set by a burglar intent on covering his crime.
A month passed and the town had almost returned to normal when Bond's restaurant and his undertaker supply store burned. This fire spread to the central part of town, known as the "Triangle."
"By the time Jimmy Davis arrived with the fire engine from Nashville the fire raged out of control. He tried his best but without a steady supply of water there wasn't much he could do. Bill Hughes only managed to get a few things out of his house before it, and the grocery on the first floor, were destroyed. The fire spread to J. Stout's store and Brandson's barber shop as well as Redmen's Hall. Ray Baughman lost both his feed store and a grocery. Schlosser's creamery followed." By dawn there was little more than smoking embers where the heart of town once beat.
Bond came to suspect an arsonist hired by a personal enemy. Others considered the recent rivalry between Helmsburg and Nashville as being a possible cause. Whatever the truth, no one was ever charged with the crime. Afterwards Joshua Bond moved his family to Nashville. Ironically, so did the man he most suspected of hiring the arsonist.
Helmsburg never fully recovered from the conflagration. Better roads, trucks, and automobiles soon made the railroad depot obsolete. Helmsburg's brief golden age was over.
But Helmsburg was not over. A quieter place, it became known for Chitwood's Hardware, Cullen Auction, Arthur West Sawmill, Fred Bay's feed store, and the superior product of the Cullum Broom and Mop Company. Resident Lawrence McCoy (owner of the McCoy Precast Concrete Company) helped establish the Brown County Water Utility in Helmsburg. Helmsburg even had its own airport.
Thirty years after the great fire the town nearly burned again when a gasoline truck filling a service station tank sprang a leak causing fuel to cascade into the ditch by the road. When the driver tried to stop the electric pump by pulling its plug a spark ignited truck, driver and station. The ensuing explosion blew huge balls of fire into the sky. The lumberyard next to the station burned as well. The town was saved but several buildings were severely scorched and much of Helmsburg was blackened with soot and ash. A couple of local residents drove the severely burned driver to the nearest hospital where he eventually recovered.
Today Helmsburg boasts the Helmsburg General Store, For Bare Feet Sock Factory, Helmsburg Sawmill, the Fig Tree Gallery and Coffee Shop, Helmsburg House Boutique and Tea Room, Eagle Storage, Rosebrock Electrical Contractors, EMF metal fabrication company, Treasure Trove antique shop, Austin and Associates engineering firm and Our Brown County Magazine. The Water Utility is moving but the Post Office remains.
On June 17th Helmsburg is holding a festival to celebrate its place in Brown County's history and to build community spirit for its future. There will be Helmsburg railroad history and memorabilia displays; live musical entertainment featuring the Polka Band, John Whitcomb, Robbie Bowden and Lou Stant; children's games and treats; crafts and food; flea markets and an antique tractor display. Festival organizers plan to repaint the old train station building for the event.
Once again the train pulls into the old Helmsburg station. This time it is only a day run from Bloomington organized by the Indiana Railroad Company and the Monroe County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The same train will return on June 17th but the tickets are already sold out. The passenger cars date from the 1920's and are packed with curious passengers. The ride is at times spectacular and there are moments when it's like returning to an age when automobiles were novelties and the countryside was mostly wild. People wave as we ride by, even those at the bottom of the Lake Lemon trestle far below. You can just tell they would like to be along for the ride.
In Helmsburg the old station is worn and aged, the cattle pens are gone and no freight waits to be loaded. It's fun to speculate what things would be like today if they had managed to bring the county seat here. Where would they have placed the courthouse, the consolidated high school? Where the new jail and Y?
After half an hour we climb back aboard and, for now, leave Helmsburg, the town Time didn't forget.
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