Brown County- Nashville (1873-)

The 1873 Brown County Courthouse in Nashville, Indiana.

Nashville’s a hot tourist Mecca for many who want to experience a romantic getaway, unique crafts, and great music while letting go of their suburban inhibitions and seeing what the country life has to offer. That’s Nashville, Indiana, by the way- not the capital of the Volunteer State. Gotcha! 

Or maybe you fell for my cheesy joke and I didn’t getcha- it’s ok! There’s no question that Indiana’s Nashville isn’t scenic, nor is it up for debate that the place seems permanently populated with boutique artists and craftspeople. I wanted to like it when I went there, and I understand its appeal. But ultimately, I simply wound up appreciating the town for what was to me, a stop among other counties on my courthouse project. Artsy, boho tourist villas, no matter how rustic, aren’t really my thing. I’m a contrarian at heart.

I traipsed through Nashville by myself in March of 2016 through all manner of couples and generations off to find what the village has to offer. Legions of people flock to Brown County during the summer and fall, and they certainly can’t all be wrong. Despite my lonely anonymity, I couldn’t help but feel a weird sense of camaraderie with those there along with me. If some of them approached the place from the east on IN-135, they’d all pass through the village of Gnaw Bone. I wonder how many really stop to even think about that name- it’s unusual, to say the least, though I didn’t actually stop there. No one really knows where that bizarre name came from, but prevailing wisdom identifies it as a corruption of the French city Narbonne, though another story says that a pioneer was looking for his contemporary and asked a third fellow where he was. The friend responded that he’d seen him “over at the Hawking’s place a’gnawin’ on a bone1”. We Hoosiers are certainly erudite!

The foundation of the 1850s courthouse was used to construct the current structure after it burned.

Bones and their method of consumption aside, Nashville -just three and a half miles away- was founded in 1836 under the name of Jacksonburg. The story behind its current name isn’t as interesting as its cartilage-chewing neighbor, since the county seat’s title was simply coined from the aforementioned capital of Tennessee2. In 1837 a log, 18 x 24 foot, two-story courthouse was there built for $700 along with a jail per plans by the builder David Weddle. In 1853, the courthouse was moved, its services no longer needed, and it became a horse stable3. A new, brick building was finished by the end of the year at a cost of $7,000, but it only lasted nineteen years before a fire brought it down. Fortunately, its remaining walls and foundation were retained thanks to the frugality of the county commissioners as well as architects McCormack & Sweeney4. They were incorporated the old building’s remaining elements into the current courthouse, which was finished in 1875. 

The building we see today is a hearty reminder of what once was common among counties prior to the days of Indiana’s courthouse boom. Its two stories, roof, and latent Greek Revival elements are apparent through its gable and pilasters, along with a flat-roofed cupola which is now covered in siding. The primary front of the courthouse faces south and is three bays wide. To enter, you’d go through a pair of panel doors topped by a glass transom. Large four-over-four windows frame the main entrance, incorporating sandstone sills and lintels that contrast with the building’s brick walls. Notably, the second floor features an entry all its own, less ornamented via a single-panel door and transom accessed by iron stairs rising from the east and west corners that meet at a balcony, similar to the Ohio County Courthouse in Rising Sun. 

The initial design of the courthouse was enough to support many of Brown County’s offices.

I’ll be honest- the courthouse lags behind greater 1870s contemporaries in other counties-, it’s a throwback in design, both inside and out, but so is Nashville. Originally, the first floor of the courthouse housed county offices for the treasurer, auditor, surveyor, recorder, and clerk. The second floor held the jury room and office of Brown County schools, along with a courtroom and judge’s chambers. Though the courthouse is Geek Revival, it doesn’t have any columns, instead featuring brickwork that suggests pilasters at its corners and between its window bays. The effect sits well with the unassuming courthouse, fitting into its overall design -and surrounding Nashville- nicely. The only ornamentation that the prominent gable features is a round, louvered vent. A simple design for sure, but it works!

You all know I like towers, and though this one is simply a cupola, it does feature two tiers. The first is clapboard-sided and rather plain, yet it’s set up like a birthday cake rendered on a Nintendo 64, with another squared off, smaller tier perched atop that sided foundation holding a rectangular, louvered panel. A flat roof tops the thing, and the overall impression is that of a large one-room schoolhouse or early rural church. That’s perfect here! Like I said, many of our earliest courthouses took this shape, and it lends the Nashville of today some needed authenticity.

Several major additions match the spirit of the original courthouse, if not its scope.

That all being said, the courthouse has been added onto over the years to the north. Overall, the additions are well done, even if they sort of lack the scale of the original building. The first addition was built in 1939, when a single-story extension was added to the north to provide room for health facilities. Soon after, a second story was added to give the judge more space5. A second addition occurred twenty-five years later, adding new wiring and fixtures. An old coal-burning boiler was replaced as well, and by 1983 the structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989, the bell tower was replaced for $10,000- those old clapboard bell towers were hard to keep from leaking and rotting. Today, you’d never notice the difference, such is the simplicity of the original design, as well as with the care taken in replacing it.

From certain angles, the additions don’t amount to much distraction from the courthouse. The building to the rear with the copper roof offers no governmental function- a modern annex sits east of the courthouse.

The second major expansion of the courthouse occurred in 1992, when an elevator, hearing room, and more offices were added, again to the north. Digging the pit for the elevator hydraulics yielded enormous stones buried underground. Hometown project architect Michael Chamblee6  believed that “large rocks were used as foundation material instead of concrete,” which adds more intrigue to the original building’s construction back in the 1850s. How about that! Today, those additions aren’t apparent from Nashville’s main commercial drag, but if you have to fight for parking near the old log jail, you may well see the seams. From the front, well, you won’t notice anything askew.

An old postcard of mine featuring the courthouse and the old log jail located nearby.

Now, about that old log jail. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, its predecessor was built in 1837 for $175. In 1879, it was replaced, and another layer of logs was added to keep its prisoners from escaping through the 54” walls. In 2015, the jail was reconstructed by Bird Snyder, the fourth great grandson of the original builder William Snyder7. I love authenticity and people named after animals, and the story of the jail is a great piece of history that spans several generations. Although my impression of Brown County is that many of its current businesses don’t share a truly historic lineage, many of the buildings house them often do, and new history really starts with every new day.

The entrance steps to the second floor call back courthouses in Rising Sun and Angola.

Change happens! To me, though Brown County seems to cater to our Birkenstock-clad impulses to get out and explore the countryside, the town will continue to build on its own historic infrastructure in a positive way until I won’t be surprised at being an elderly man in Crocs buying up the entire stock of wrought-iron bottle trees at some boutique shop housed in front of an old hotel. I’ve found that same sense of regional wanderlust in going to all of our state’s courthouses, and Nashville’s still serves to present an authentic account of the type of government building our ancestors would have gone to in order to conduct business in a burgeoning county seat.  To me, it’s a legitimate hearken back to days gone by. And at the end of the day, many will love Nashville for its shops, while others will love the county for its scenery. I love the area for its courthouse, and was happy to take some photos of it- as well as finally making it to Gnaw Bone8!

Brown County (pop. 15,023, 79/92)
Nashville (pop. 1,082)
69/92 photographed.
Built: 1873
Cost: $9,000 ($1.79 million in 2016)
Architect: McCormack & Sweeney
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories.
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 3/27/16.

1 Huppke, Rex. “Chew on This: There’s a Town Called Gnaw Bone” The Los Angeles Times. Web. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
2 Tikkanen, Amy. “Nashvile” Encylopedia Brittanica. Web. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
3 Enyart, David. “Brown County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
4 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
5 “Looking Back on Our Courthouse” Our Brown County. Web. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
6 “Welcome to Michael Chamblee- Architect” Michael Chamblee. Web. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
7 “Old Log Jail” Brown County Historical Society. Web. Retrieved December 18, 2019.
8 Baker, Ronald. “From Needmore to Prosperity”. Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. 1995. Print. 

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