At Home with Indiana Artist T.C. Steele

I’m standing in a living room, admiring the bold olive green paint, the dark polished woodwork and the shelves lined with books. But it’s the west wall that keeps grabbing my attention. Nearly every available space is covered in paintings, including landscapes and portraits, all skillfully done and breathtakingly beautiful. But, in the home of Hoosier artist T.C. Steele in southern Brown County, staring at his amazing works of art, I shouldn’t expect otherwise.

T.C. Steele's paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

T.C. Steele’s paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

I’m visiting the T.C. Steele State Historic Site just two miles south of Belmont off of State Road 46 west of Nashville and I’m thoroughly enjoying the blissful atmosphere. Any Hoosier who’s ever traveled in Brown County in the fall knows that the leaf peeper traffic can sometimes rival that of I-465 during rush hour, but turning on to T.C. Steele Road – which is NOT well marked, by the way – it’s possible to leave the thundering Harleys behind. This quiet, winding, tree-covered road is, in places, barely big enough for two cars to pass and is gravel in spots. On the Saturday I visited, I saw not a single one as I drove to the 211 acre site.

Coming to the former homestead of Indiana’s foremost landscape artist, one is immediately taken by the beauty of the place. Steele’s former home is an amalgam of towering oak and tulip trees, formal gardens, sweeping lawns, climbing vines and goldfish ponds which once served as emergency water sources for the home in its early years when it lacked running water. Dark red buildings – from the artist’s former outdoor studio to his larger, dream studio, to the home he shared with his second wife, Selma – dot the landscape and, frankly, as an amateur artist, it made me want to grab an easel and paint.

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

The grounds and formal gardens, which Selma Steele created for her husband to do just that, paint, are free for visitors to explore along with several hiking trails scattered about the 211 acre site. I popped into the office/gift shop to inquire about a tour and, discovering I had a 45-minute wait, I gladly spent it exploring and hiking. A slow idle among the gardens to the goldfish pond rewarded me with not one but 21 frogs sunning themselves on lily pads, and I had the pleasure of dodging dozens of falling acorns as I explored the Dewar log cabin which Selma Steele rescued from demolition and had moved to the property in the early 1930s.

After a half mile trek on the aptly named “Trail of Silences” which is not aptly rated as moderate given my desk-job physic, I waited outside the doors of Steele’s large studio for the tour. By this time a handful of other visitors had arrived, but, still, we barely constituted a crowd. After a brief background on Steele, his wife and their home, known as The House of the Singing Winds, Indiana State Interpreter John Moore unlocked the studio door and we were plunged into the world of the artist.

Theodore Clement Steele – T.C. to family and friends – was the most prominent artist of the Hoosier Group, a circle of talented, nationally recognized Indiana artists which also included Otto Stark and William J. Forsyth. Born in Gosport, Indiana in 1847, Steele lived most of his life in Indiana with the exception of five years spent training in portraiture at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. While in Germany, Steele was exposed to the work of landscape painters who embraced en plein air impressionism – a style of painting aimed at catching natural light while painting on site and out of doors – and it would eventually change his own style of painting and lead him to this out-of-the-way hilltop in remote Brown County.

Upon returning to the United States in 1885, Steele began making his fortune as a portrait artist in Indianapolis– this being the pre-selfie days of ever present cameras – and he and his first wife, Libbie, amassed enough money to purchase a summer home in Brookville where he practiced his landscape painting skills. That Steele once called Brookville home was news to me, and it turned out to be just one of the many interesting tidbits I learned during our tour of Steele’s studio and home. To know that one of my favorite artists once lived as close to me as Brookville was surprising to say the least. One can’t help but wonder what may have happened to Franklin County had Steele remained in Brookville, rather than forsaking it for Brown County in 1906.

One of Steele's paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

One of Steele’s paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

But forsake it he did, leaving Brookville in grief after the death of his first wife. Eventually Steele met his second wife, Selma Neubacher – who, at 23 years his junior, was an artist friend of his three children – and, after scouting around Brown County for some time, Steele purchased this hilltop as the site of his next summer home in 1907.

That same year the Steeles built their home, expanding upon it over time and adding other outbuildings as needs arose. During their years at The House of the Singing Winds, the view from the porches – as seen in many of Steele’s paintings – was expansive as the area had been logged and farmed, unlike the rather wooded grounds surrounding the home today. On the day I visited, it was possible to compare an actual view of the home with one Steele had painted decades ago from the same vantage point. The Indiana State Museum manages the site and with over 300 of Steele’s paintings at its disposal, changes the exhibits often, but as the home is featured in many of his paintings, you will most likely have the same opportunity to do so yourself, should you visit.

Outside Steele's dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

Outside Steele’s dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

T.C. Steele died in July, 1926 and is buried alongside Selma on the grounds which proved to be another surprise for me as I hadn’t planned on standing at his grave, but was honored to do so. Selma Steele struggled financially after his death, but remained at The House of the Singing Winds until her death in 1945. Upon her passing, it was discovered that Steele’s last painting – a still life of Selma’s peonies – was still upon his easel.

Selma left the property and paintings to the State of Indiana as a tribute to her husband and his work, but it fell into disrepair until the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Indiana State Museums and Historic Sites took over its care in the 1980s. Extensive repairs, renovations and restorations were undertaken, and Steele’s paintings were restored. Today, it is a testament to T.C. and Selma’s individual talents, his with a paint brush, hers with a garden trowel.

One of T.C. Steele's paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana - The House of the Singing Winds

One of T.C. Steele’s paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana – The House of the Singing Winds

The T.C. Steele State Historic Site is open year round, Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and Sundays from 1 to 5 P.M. The site is closed on Mondays and holidays. With the exception of the Dewar Cabin, the buildings are not open to the public except during the daily guided tours which are frequent and well worth the wait and cost. Parking is free and readily available, and visitors can explore the grounds, gardens and trails for free too, but admission is charged for tours. Prices are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $2 for students and children over the age of three. Children under the age of three are free. Group rates are available too and members of the Indiana State Museum or any one of its other 10 historic sites get free admission.

For more information on the T.C. Steele State Historic Site or to plan your visit, check out the following links.

Friends of T.C. Steele – http://www.tcsteele.org/

Indiana State Museum – http://www.indianamuseum.org/explore/t.c.-steele

Follow my newspaper blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

Me working on a community art project - painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Me working on a community art project – painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News

Sun, Sand and the Kindness of Strangers

Normally the sight of a large man lifting a small child up by the ankles and shaking him vigorously over a black-topped parking lot would send me running for the nearest cop.  But in this instance, I not only smiled, I laughed. 

The brilliant blue waters of Lake Michigan

In Silver Lake, Michigan, with its thousands of acres of rolling, blowing sand dunes, I have a feeling this is a regular occurrence.

The small boy in question, like me, was waiting with his family for his turn to ride over the towering dunes at the Mac Wood’s Dune Rides.  As we sat in the parking lot awaiting our buggy-mobile, we couldn’t help but laugh as the father lifted his giggling son and literally shook the sand off of him.  The growing pile must have come from every possible nook and cranny – from inside ears, between toes, out of hair, cascading from shorts pockets – and his younger brother danced excitedly beside his father’s leg, shouting, “Do me!  Do me!” 

By the end of the afternoon, we would all need a good ankle shaking.

Silver Lake is one of those stunning places which should remind us just how transient geography can be.  Once home to a towering forest, the dunes of

Little Sable Point Lighthouse

Silver Lake hug the eastern shore of Lake Michigan near the point known throughout western Michigan as “The Narrows” just due north of the Little Sable Point lighthouse  These long ago towering forests proved to be too enticing to local lumber barons and they were logged out at the turn of the century.  With the loss of their tree cover and its deeply anchoring roots, the dunes began their northward march, moving steadily across the landscape anywhere from one to three feet per year, depending upon the winds blowing off the lake.  As a result, the actual lake at Silver Lake is half the size it was in the 1960s, and homes along the northern shore, if not physically relocated, are sold with an expiration date for, eventually, the dunes will win out and take over.

Despite the dunes’ voracious appetite for local real estate, the surrounding citizens have a love/love relationship with their sandy neighbors to the north that equates into untold numbers of dollars in tourism revenue.  These much

View from the lighthouse

needed dollars – for Michigan is a state still reeling from the Great Recession – pours in from eager visitors ready to stroll, hike, ride, and/or drive over every significant pile of sand that gets in their way.

Protected and managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the dunes are divided into three sections, with the southern third leased by Mac Wood’s for its thrilling rides and informative introductions to this amazing world, while the middle section is available for public pedestrian use.  The northern third is set aside as a public thrill ride tour de force in the form of off-road vehicular mayhem.  More on that in a minute.

Our adventure started off appropriately enough at Mac Wood’s where a

An itty bitty dune

chummy older woman with a quick wit narrated from behind the wheel of our 20-passenger dune buggy bus.  Pulling off of the public road into the protected area we first passed through forest similar to the now defunct trees that once covered the dunes.

Blasting through the forest, we entered the eerily beautiful transition zone between shade and sun where bleached out stumps from long dead pines pockmarked the landscape like so many abstract sculptures.  While taking pride in my ecological bent, I couldn’t help but imagine what lovely coffee table bases they would make with their butter smooth gray and white exteriors.

With a lead foot squarely planted on the gas pedal, our female Helio Castraneves flew up dune and down, around curves and along valley trails, stopping here and there to describe the forces in action.  As we had managed to pick a day windier than most, we also got a free exfoliation in the process, and by the time we stopped at a huge dune for a hike up, my face too was now butter smooth, though I had to dust my way through a layer of grit to get there.

It was then our turn to climb a dune, only we did so on foot – or rather, on hands and knees – for the behemoth in question quickly claimed knees, thighs and calves in the process.  As our lower extremities screamed for relief, my teenaged children, nieces and I reached the top where we enjoyed an other-worldly view.  Imagine, if you will, picking up a section of the Sahara desert – stark, blindingly bright, and severe – and dropping it in the middle of a green oasis of trees, blue lakes, and quaint suburbs.  Yeah, it’s like that.

Afterwards, the drive out was no less thrilling and we left Mac Woods with souvenirs in hand and sand in ears thinking that would be the highlight of our meeting with the mighty Silver Lake sand dunes.  But no, life has a funny way of saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” and for us, our adventure was only just beginning.

Steffie and Jackie take it to the edge.

Wanting to see more, we drove to the public access area and hiked to the edge between the pedestrian use portion of the dunes and the off-road vehicle (ORV) use area.  Standing there we watched as dirt bikes, sand rails, four-wheelers, SUVs and modified trucks climbed, skidded and flew over the small portion of dune we could see from our viewpoint in a valley of beige.  As the six of us stood there taking it all in, a bright red Jeep with no doors pulled up and a man with a Minnesota accent said, “Wanna take a ride?”

Did we?  Heck, YES we did!

Now normally I don’t climb willingly into the vans of strangers offering candy, but when the van is a tricked out Jeep and the candy comes in the form of towering dunes, I jump head first into the cargo hold.  My niece’s six-foot three inch boyfriend, Michael, climbed in first, along with my teenage son, Jordan, and my niece, Taylor.  As the rest of us watched, they drove off, disappearing in a sea of sand for the next 20 minutes.  When they finally returned, the grins etched on their faces punctuated my son’s cry of, “It was AWESOME!”

Next, I climbed in with my daughter, Jackie, and yet another niece, Stephanie.  St. Paul Tom introduced himself and we were off first on a trail ride

The dunes of Silver Lake

to get a lay of the land.  Hailing from across Lake Michigan, Tom was visiting with sand enthusiasts from all over the United States and Canada, and as a regular visitor to Silver Lake, he frequently offers introductory rides to persons standing on the sidelines.  BTW, if you meet Tom, don’t even try to offer him gas money.  Refusing my initial offer, he quickly scouted out, found and return the $10 spot I shoved in the console.

No, the reward, he said, comes in the form of smiles, laughs and – in our case – screams of joy as he introduces people to the thrills of riding the dunes.  For the first ten minutes, Tom drove us through the tamer portions of the ORV area, pointing out hidden marshes, fast, hard flats, and newbies with rented vehicles who he would no doubt be pulling out later that afternoon with his ever present tow strap.  Passing a giant dune, I commented on its height which elicited from St. Paul Tom a snicker.  “That’s nothing,” he said.  “Wait until you see what we’re going to climb.”  At that point I questioned his sanity and mine, but as I was strapped in with a three-point hitch it was too late to jump out now.  Rounding that dune, we approached the bottom of one that looked to be nearly vertical and Tom turned to us with a smile and asked, “So, do you want to get up it on the first try?”

Stephanie buried her head in her hands, laughed nervously and didn’t answer.  My daughter – ever the adventurer – shouted, “Make it interesting!”  And I replied, “What she said!”

Without so much as a running start, St. Paul Tom stomped on the gas pedal and we were off.  The modified Chevy 350 engine did its magic and it pulled us up, up, up to the crest – amid dozens of ear-piercing screams from front seat

Silhoutted pines on the shore of Lake Michigan

and back – where we seemed to teeter like Wiley Coyote in so many Saturday morning cartoons.  Tom stopped and we sat there, laughing and taking in the view.  Ahead of us lay dune after dune mirroring the rolling waves on Lake Michigan to our right.  It was, as my son had so rightly said, awesome.

St. Paul Tom proceeded to conquer dune after dune before depositing us sandy and spent back where we started.  It was an unplanned adventure that spoke to so many things I love about traveling – beautiful scenery, exciting adventures and proof that the world is filled with good people.  We thanked him over and over and walked away with memories that will last a lifetime.  And as for the sand, it’s still rolling out of my ears.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Be sure to check out my article on Travel Culture Magazine:

http://www.travelculturemag.com/silver-lake-dunes-and-the-kindness-of-strangers/

http://www.travelculturemag.com/

For more information on Silver Lake Dunes, Mac Woods or dune buggy rentals, follow these links below:

http://www.macwoodsdunerides.com/

http://www.silverlakebuggys.com/

http://www.parrotslanding.com/

http://www.thinkdunes.com/member-profile/2/163/

http://www.wildbillsatvs.com/