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Visit Historic Hoosier Homes Owned by Legendary Characters

By Kathryn Lemmon

The Hoosier state has its fair share of larger-than-life characters. Film legend James Dean came from Indiana, as well as astronaut Virgil (Gus) Grissom and the infamous John Dillinger. Still others have left a significant legacy and their homes for us to visit. As you RV this great state, make sure your Indiana camping adventures make pitstops at these historic sites.

House of the Singing Winds

The T.C. Steele State Historic Site includes the last residence and barn like studio of Indiana artist Theodore Clement Steele (1847-1926) and his second wife Selma Neubacher Steele. The home sits in a tiny burg hardly big enough for a name, but they call it Belmont, in the vicinity of Brown County State Park.

In addition to being a member of the “Hoosier Group” of American Impressionist painters, Steele was an artist of international reputation who built The House of the Singing Winds in 1907 atop a hill in Brown County.

Come autumn, it’s easy to see why artists love this region, as colors blaze across the hills. However, the setting is attractive year round.

Steele painted portraits, but his landscapes of southern Indiana, including his own property, seem to get the most attention.

Other artists from around the country came to visit and paint with Steele. Some stayed and settled to form the Brown County Art Colony. To this day, Brown County is still inspiring artists. The town of Nashville, “up the road a piece” has a number of art galleries.

The House of the Singing Winds was doubled in size in 1908, and eventually two studio buildings were constructed along with a garage, guest cottages and other outbuildings. At least two remote painting shacks were built to accommodate Steele’s love of painting outdoors.

T.C. Steele died at the House of the Singing Winds in 1926, and his widow kept the property open to the public until her death in 1945. Shortly before, Selma Steele donated the property, buildings and many artifacts, including more than 350 Steele paintings, to the state. Her wishes were to make this a place of education as well as a source of enjoyment for future generations.

Writing about War I drove away from the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in a contemplative frame of mind. For seven years Pyle wrote a travel column, finding stories about ordinary people he encountered across America. In my small way, I can relate. Then he moved on to a much more serious topic, World War II.

As a journalist, Ernie Pyle didn’t have to put himself in harm’s way in Europe and the Pacific, but he did and died as a result. Millions mourned when he was killed by Japanese machine gun fire on Le Shima, an island near Okinawa on April 18, 1945.

Pyle had already made a name for himself by the time he donned a military uniform. Unlike other journalists, he preferred to pal around with the common soldiers, many of whom were much younger than he. Average Americans could relate to his down-to-earth writing style.

President Harry S. Truman said, “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as the American fighting man wanted it told.”

The state historic site in Dana includes an Indiana farmhouse, typical of the period when Ernie was growing up. It’s unclear if he was born in the house or if it was situated on the same property where he was born, but the inside is faithfully restored and contains Pyle family mementos. It reminded me of my grandmother’s 1900 farmhouse, even down to the earthly smells.

Two military-style Quonset huts are the real focal point for visitors, filled with war dioramas and details about Ernie Pyle. Personal possessions, samples of his daily columns and video commentary showcase his contributions. From the looks of his garments, he was a small man, though no less mighty with his pen.

The depiction of the death of Captain Henry T. Wascow was an especially moving vignette, bringing the war to a tragic, human level.

I kept the tissues handy and needed them.

In a major motion picture titled The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Burgess Meredith played Ernie Pyle. Some consider this to be the single most realistic war film produced in Hollywood. The huts and their multimedia presentations were completed in 1998, made possible by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation and the efforts of the Friends of Ernie Pyle Development Fund.

Keeping Ernie Pyle’s memory alive can be a challenge. The small town of Dana is well-off the beaten path, north of Terre Haute. As time passes, we move farther away from the war years and their impact.

The site is open seasonally, so call or check online first.

You Go, Girl!

Born Geneva, “Gene” Stratton-Porter is one of Indiana’s most famous authors. She wrote Freckles (1904), A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) and The Harvester (1911). These books were set in and around the “swamp” near her home.

Among other things, Gene was an accomplished naturalist, storyteller and photographer. She was born near Wabash, Ind., in 1863, and lived until 1924. Injuries from a streetcar accident claimed her life in Los Angeles at the height of her movie production career.

Limberlost cabin, constructed in 1895, contains 14 rooms, thus the term cabin is somewhat relative. Historically, cabins often contained only one or two rooms. The archi-tectural style is an unusual “Queen Anne Rustic,” actually Arts & Crafts style. The interior is more indicative of the late Victorian period.

Gene was definitely one of those bigger-than-life individuals, and it isn’t difficult to imagine her in this home. I admire Stratton-Porter for her fierce independence and her ambition. She was not timid about venturing into the swamp.

Setting out with cumbersome glass plates, Gene took photos, sketched, made notes and developed her film. She tinted the photographs with watercolors, wrote books and went head-to-head with the publisher who tried to water down her knowledge. You go, girl!

The original swamp covered 13,000 acres.

The wetlands surrounding it added another 12,000 acres. Life flourishing amid this rugged terrain continued to fascinate Gene for years. The Limberlost was commonly believed to be a “treacherous quagmire, holding every plant, animal and human danger known.” Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Limberlost State Historic Site is one block east of U.S. 27 in Geneva, Ind., in Adams County, the county nearest the Ohio state line. Call first for operating hours.

The Quest for Freedom

Levi Coffin left his mark on Indiana in an entirely different way. While the Coffin house appears unassuming on the outside, the reality was anything but typical. This solid structure held secrets.

Levi and Catharine Coffin were Quakers who opposed slavery. They helped former slaves escape to freedom in the North. Levi has been referred to as the President of the Underground Railroad and their home in Indiana as “Grand Central Station.”

The journey to freedom meant traveling only a few miles at night, using the North Star as a map. Escaped slaves would hide in homes or on the property of anti-slavery supporters. These stops were called Underground Railroad stations since they resembled stops a train would make between destinations.

To the escaped slaves, this eight-room, Federal-style brick home in Newport (Fountain City), Ind., became a safe haven on their journey to Canada. During the 20 years they lived in Newport, the Coffins assisted more than 2,000 slaves on their road to freedom. Some estimates put it closer to 3,000.

The house contains an unusual indoor well, allowing them to store extra water for their short-term guests. A small, hidden room upstairs could be concealed easily by beds and furniture.

So successful was the Coffin sanctuary that, while in Newport, not a single slave failed to reach freedom. The Coffins displayed incredible courage and tenacity in the face of possible arrest. They must have had nerves of steel!

One of the female slaves who hid in the Coffin home was “Eliza,” whose story is told in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The house was restored and then opened to the public in 1970. The site is a registered National Historic Landmark and is operated by the Levi Coffin House Association. As with the others, call first for the operating hours.

Visit the Indiana State Museum website for more information about visiting these historic Hoosier homes.

For More Information:

The Indiana State Museum website has links to each “State Historic Site” below:

Indiana State Museum
650 W. Washington Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204
(317) 232-1637

T. C. Steele Home
4220 T. C. Steele Road
Nashville, IN 47448
(812) 988-2785

Ernie Pyle Home
120 W. Briarwood Avenue
Dana, IN 47847
(765) 665-3633

200 E. 6th Street
Geneva, IN 46740
(260) 368-7428

See Woodall's featured Indiana campgrounds along your route as you visit the historic homes of Indiana.