Each year in the spring, fourth-graders from around the county visit the Jackson County History Center.

Throughout the year, other groups of people of all ages tour the campus at the corner of Walnut and Sugar streets in Brownstown.

No matter their age, people always are fascinated by all of the history that’s tucked into the campus, said Dorothy Richards, one of the center’s volunteers.

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“Especially the fourth-graders, when they move from one place to the other, one little kid will say, ‘Wait for me. I don’t want to miss out on anything,’” Richards said. “They all just seem so excited and don’t realize this place is here.”

Richards and the other volunteers agree that the center is an important place in Jackson County.

“We just have a touch of everything that has happened in the past,” said Richards, a Grassy Fork Township native. “It’s to show people what it used to be like years ago because some of these people have no idea what it took to live back in those years.”

When groups tour the campus, they could start outside at the John Ketcham Pioneer Village, which includes a meeting house, a pioneer cabin, a trading post, a bridge, a string fort and a veterans memorial. The area is named for the man who sold land he owned in 1816 to establish the town of Brownstown.

Meeting houses were community buildings used for school and church.

“When anybody did anything, everybody came,” center volunteer Shirley Snapp said. “That was their meeting place, and they’d sit around with their lanterns and things. That was a big event.”

Tours, history lessons

During tours, Snapp portrays a school marm. That’s appropriate since she was a teacher at Brownstown Elementary School for 36 years.She has women sit on one side of the classroom and men on the other, and no more than two people can sit on one wooden bench. The lesson starts with blab school, and then they practice multiplication and recite the alphabet and a poem.A history lesson involves talking about the 19-star American flag on the wall in the back of the cabin. The star in the center represents when Indiana became the 19th state on Dec. 11, 1816. The state will be celebrating its 200th birthday on Dec. 11 while Brownstown will be celebrating its 200th birthday on Friday. Jackson County celebrated its bicentennial on Jan. 1.

Snapp also talks about the state’s first governor, Corydon being the first capital and Vallonia once being in the running to be the state capital.

“They listen very carefully. They are very good about behaving,” Snapp said of children visiting the meeting house. “I enjoy doing it. It’s just lots of fun. The kids, they’ll see you, and they’ll remind you of things that you said.”

Pieces of the past

The pioneer cabin came from Kentucky, and then was purchased by people in Madison before Brownstown school officials bought it to place at the elementary school to use as a teaching tool.About three years ago, it was donated to the history center and moved piece by piece. A crane was brought in to remove the roof and take it to the center’s campus, and it was brought back later to put the roof back on when the cabin was reassembled.Volunteers helped dismantle the stone fireplace chimney and put it back together and replaced windows and rotten boards.

“We’ve tried to keep it as authentic as possible,” history center volunteer Nancy Burge said.

During tours, Burge portrays a widow who lives in the cabin by herself in the 1820s. Dressed in period clothing, she takes visitors around the cabin and shows them a rope bed and a table where family meals are conducted.

The bed and pillows are unique because they are stuffed with feathers.

“That was unusual because most people had straw if they had pillows at all,” Burge said.

The Nentrup Trading Post was reconstructed from logs brought north from Driftwood Township, where it was erected about 1840 and then moved to other properties and used for various purposes over the years. The Nentrups were immigrants who sold items settlers could not provide for themselves.

The bridge is constructed of trusses from the Vallonia Canning Factory and iron bars from the old jail that sat across from the courthouse on the south side of East Cross Street.

The string fort or blockhouse is a reduced-scale reproduction similar to isolated frontier defenses. The top overhang, gun ports and sturdy logs allowed defense against attack from any direction.

Names of Revolutionary War fighters who later came to Jackson County for the remainder of their lives are on the veterans memorial. It also is in honor of veterans of other conflicts.

Just over from the village is the two-story Frederick Keach Heller Memorial Museum, which is named for a Brownstown family.

Built in the 1990s, it includes a military room with prehistoric weapons and tools and Vietnam-era items. There also are themed rooms featuring dolls and other toys and vintage clothing.

Behind that museum is the Robertson Livery Barn. It was built in the 1870s and later had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1899.

People used to walk, ride a horse or take a horse and buggy to come to the nearby courthouse, and the horse would stay in the livery barn.

“If you left your horse on the square overnight, he was going to be gone because somebody would just walk off with it,” said history center volunteer Randy Burge.

The Robertson family bought the business in 1895 from LeRoy F. Miller. Through the years, the barn was converted into a feed store, a barn, a machine shop and a garage. The history center redid the building in 2003, and it now houses large items and tools.

Outside the livery barn under a lean-to are a circus wagon, a threshing machine and a Works Progress Administration payroll wagon.

The circus wagon is from the 1970s when the Fisher and Timberlake/Silverlake families of Owen Township traveled to perform a circus.

The threshing machine was manufactured by International Harvester and arrived in Vallonia in the spring of 1932 on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

In the 1930s, people would visit the payroll wagon to receive their wages from the WPA, which built many public buildings and roads in the United States.

Keeping track

Next to the livery barn is a genealogical library. Named in honor of Joe E. Robertson in 2012, it’s among the newest additions to the campus.Center volunteer Martha Killey said the library has more than 350 family histories that have been donated over time. There also are birth, death, census, cemetery and funeral home records; books from surrounding counties and states; and school yearbooks on the shelves.The library also has microfilm and online databases to help people conduct family history research.

“If you are local or from surrounding counties and you want to get started, feel free to come any time, and we’ll get you started,” Killey said.

For the past five years, Nancy Burge has taught genealogy to Brownstown fourth-graders. She visits their classroom once a week for the first three weeks, and the students visit the genealogical library on the fourth and final week.

“They really find it fascinating that they get to come up here and do that,” Killey said of the students.

The final building on the campus is the Ball Museum, named for William “Bock” Ball, who helped revive the Jackson County Historical Society in the 1960s.

Built around 1907, the building housed a blacksmith shop before later serving as a shoe repair shop.

The front room now has a small gift shop along with displays of local artifacts and a setup of old living room furniture. In the middle is a display of wedding dresses from 1890 to 1971, and in the back is a display of old kitchen appliances and furniture.

At a glance

The Jackson County History Center is at the corner of Walnut and Sugar streets in Brownstown.

It is operated by volunteers and supported by donations and fundraising projects.

The office and genealogical library are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.

The Frederick Keach Heller Memorial Museum is open from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Tours can be arranged at other hours by appointment by calling 812-358-2118.

Information also may be found by searching Jackson County History Center of Indiana on Facebook.

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at or 812-523-7080.