Cabin in the Woods

A visit to Brown County has a way of making people want to stick around.

I came to Brown County the way many of us who live here did—first for a day, then for a weekend, now for good. My husband and I stayed in one of the tiny “rustic” cabins around Abe Martin Lodge, in Brown County State Park, the first year we were married. Later, when our children were young, we booked the larger “housekeeping” cabins with charming names like Fawn Lippincott and Leghorn Tharp. [Editor’s note: In the early 1900s, Kin Hubbard of The Indianapolis News developed a popular cartoon starring rustic sage Abe Martin. Fawn Lippincott and Leghorn Tharp were characters in the series.]

We began to dream of having our own little cabin in the woods. We found it early in the spring of 1994, during that magical week when the redbuds and dogwoods are both in bloom. It was a one-room cabin with a sleeping loft on seven acres of woods. Whenever we opened the door, the smell of the rough-sawn cedar swept away the worries of the world back home, at least for the weekend. We learned to look for morels with the mayapples and identify a pileated woodpecker by its squawk. We found creekbeds littered with geodes. We watched luna moths unfold their luminous wings and heard choruses of spring peepers wake up the winter woods.

Even though we visited mostly on weekends, we put down roots in the rocky Brown County soil. Six years ago, we built a year-round home, and now we live here full-time.

Brown County native Phil Shively, a real-estate agent with Hills O’ Brown Realty, has been helping people like us find their own place in the woods for more than 10 years. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the Midwest,” he says. “You have Bloomington in one direction and Columbus in the other, and it’s not far to Indianapolis, Louisville, or Cincinnati. And here’s this little oasis right in the middle.” Shively says the most sought-after type of dwelling is the iconic log cabin. If a property shares a boundary with the state park or the state or national forest, the assessed value is typically 25 percent higher, he says. A lake, pond, or creek adds value, too. So does a ridge-top view. After a slump in 2008, when prices dropped by about 5 percent, and 2009, when they dropped another 10 percent, the market is picking up again.

People are drawn to Brown County for different reasons, but the “came heres” tend to get along pretty well with the “been heres.” It is not unusual to have a millionaire living next to a trailer that’s perched on a hillside. In some instances, farmers, artists, doctors, aging hippies, professors, business owners, and retirees all share the same stretch of road. “The county equalizes us,” says naturalist Jim Eagleman, who has lived here with his wife, Kay, for three decades. “I don’t care what you do for a living or how much money you have. We have to negotiate the same gravel road.”

Southport orthodontist Mike Kelley bought 40 acres in southern Brown County in 1992 and camped there on weekends for seven years—“every month except January,” he says. He built his log home in 1999 and now owns 184 surrounding acres, complete with nature trails and log outhouses. Everybody knows about the natural beauty in Brown County, says Kelley. “But what I’ve discovered is that people here feel good about their environment and life in general,” he continues. “There’s a certain spirit here. Anytime you get a group of people together, they’ll talk about a fox they saw or a mushroom they found.”

Jack and Julie Winn lived in seven other countries during their foreign-service careers. When they started looking for a place to settle down, Jack entered their criteria—near a university, a change of seasons, not too far from a city, affordable land—into an Internet search. Brown County popped up. One visit to an old farm near Story in November 2006, and they were hooked. They closed the deal from Guinea in West Africa and moved here the following September. Now in their late 50s, they happily raise chickens, ducks, turkeys, and quail, and grow fruit and vegetables. “For 25 years we had never put down any roots,” says Julie Winn. “We wanted a place where we could put down roots. And we have. This is a chance to get to know people better in a settled way.”

Of course, not everyone who buys land or a cabin stays forever. Shively says he’s sold one property three times in 10 years. “People have this romantic vision, and after a few years the romance fades, and it becomes more of a project,” he says. Living in Brown County, even if it’s just on weekends, does require some adjustment. Creeks rise. Tree branches knock down power lines and block roads. Shops and restaurants close early and often. Contractors who say they will be there on Monday may not make it until Thursday. “TIBC,” we say. “This is Brown County.” Our friends Rick and Leslie Dyar, an Indianapolis attorney and teacher, are building a simple weekend cabin in southern Brown County that was supposed to be finished two years ago. They had to bring in electricity and bury a cistern. The work crews didn’t stay, and the bats didn’t leave. The Dyars learned to chink the logs themselves.

But none of that matters when the Dyars pull onto the gravel drive that winds through the woods to their log cabin. “It forces you to relax and slow down,” says Leslie Dyar. “When you have to unplug and disconnect from the TV, there’s a distance from things in your normal routine. There’s an overwhelming sense of peace.”

As for us, we know that technically we’ll always be “came heres” in Brown County. But after many years of watching seasons change in the quiet splendor of these hills and valleys, we know we’ll be “stayed heres” as well.

Tips for Cabin-Hunters

1) Think twice about that steep driveway that looks so inviting in October. It will be a toboggan run in January.

2) Find out who owns the property around you. You probably don’t want a sub-division or a paintball range next door.

3) What does “secluded” mean to you? For some it’s a few trees between them and their neighbors. For others, it’s 100 acres of solitude.

4) Consider convenience. Do you need a grocery and a drugstore within 10 minutes’ drive? Quick access to I-65?

5) If you’re buying land only, make sure it is approved for a septic system.

6) Check for flood plains and easements for power lines or roads.

7) Consider buying a cabin zoned as a “tourist home.” You can turn it over to an agency that will rent it out when you aren’t using it.

8) Buy a four-wheel drive.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.